The Solution

I have a solution to three of the biggest problems facing America today. I’ve shared this idea with several people, and 100% of them agree that it’s an idea.

The three biggest problems I’m talking about:

  1. Obesity
  2. Energy
  3. Unemployment

The solution will require some government spending, but it could be done with private capital as well. Basically, you install stationary bikes all over the place. One on every corner, say. Each bike is connected to the electrical grid. You scan into the bike with a passport or credit card, just like you would at an airport check-in.

I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. You give people–any person–an incentive to exercise. You pay them for their time on the bike, which is producing electricity to help their locality. If you decrease beneath the speed for the break-even point for longer than 5 minutes, you get kicked off the bike. Anyone can do it at any time for as long as they wish.

You need $10 to pay the bills? Don’t make excuses-get on a bike. You need to lose 5 pounds for that new swimsuit? Get on a bike. You could even have healthcare incentives for those who spend a certain time each month on the bikes.

Okay, cynics, tell me why this wouldn’t work. (I can think of a few reasons: Too expensive to install the bikes, the bikes are too easily stolen, and child labor.)

Also see my entry on How to Turn Your Sweat into Electricity

6 thoughts on “The Solution”

  1. In principle, I love this idea. I am a biking enthusiast, I know something about electricity, and I am not fat.

    But ss a thirty year veteran of the electricity industry, I must comment. I’ve heard this proposed several times, although you give some practical business-oriented framework to the idea. I’ve even seen calculations that show how much electricity can be generated this way. One flaw on the capital expense side of the ledger is that, unless the bike is directly coupled to something consuming the electricity, it will be prohibitively expensive to install the power electronics with the bike that will ensure that the electricity fed to the grid (or even a building’s circuit) will be at the right voltage, current, and frequency. People get tired and distracted and won’t peddle at a constant frequency. But let me stick with the social aspects.

    (1) whatever the incentive, it has to be high enough to overcome the “incentives” to get fat in the first place…fast-food marketing, a sedentary social structure that encourages screen-oriented activities (e.g., television, computer, Internet), etc.
    (2) Most people don’t like to exercise alone; it’s a social activity. If anything, hook the bikes up at the gym. Get workout centers and Y’s involved in the business as a natural place where the right people congregate.
    (3) You have to protect the assets. Coincidentally, I just read an article this morning about the “free bike” program in Paris and how 80% of the bikes are stolen or damaged (and they cost $3200 apiece because they had to be well-made to stand up to the leasing market.
    (4) People sweat on a bike and then they will smell and won’t want to. Do you provide showers and clean-up, which reduces the energy benefit?

    But perhaps the biggest reason why this probably won’t work is that there is little sense in the country of contributing to the general well-being of the society. We have an insidious problem generically called the tragedy of the commons. That is, everyone benefits, therefore no one wants to pay. People want electricity but they don’t want all the stuff that comes with it (transmission lines, carbon dioxide, power plants).

    Now if you were biking to power Grandma’s respirator or the CAT scanner for a friend’s physical analysis, maybe you’d get people to do this.

    It’s probably best that people just bike to the store or short work commutes, avoid the fossil-fueled car, and the poor emissions profile associated with short car trips with a cold engine.

    • Great, great comment. I hadn’t considered (1) and (4). (2) I agree with, but at the same time, I was looking for a solution that wouldn’t favor any specific location or demographic. Although, I do think that certain demographics would benefit more from this solution if they actually used the bikes.

      As you say, the biggest reason prohibiting this from happening is the tragedy of the commons. I can say that I’d chip in and pay a few bucks for 1/1000th of a bike, but even then, would I really? Especially given the likelihood of (3)?

      Honestly, although energy and obesity are huge issues, we’ve got smart people like you working on improving the energy of the future and if people eat themselves to death, that’s their problem. The bigger issue for me is poverty. And in truth, my concern about poverty is not in the least altruistic. Crime, especially in St. Louis, stems from poverty, and crime affects me. But how do you change that? Sure, you can fight crime, put more people in jail, more police on the streets, but poverty will continue, and thus crime will too.

      I think perhaps the greatest question of them all is: How do you empower people–especially poor people–to take responsibility for their lives and their situations? And if you cannot, if that simply is not possible on a grand scale, does the government have the right to impose empowerment onto people? Force people to work instead of wait at home for their welfare check? Transplant people–children, even–in environments where the cycle of poverty is neverending to new environments? Mandate birth control for males and females who bring children with AIDS, syphilis, or drug-related issues into the world?

      Sure, all of those measures are extreme and ethically questionable, if not downright wrong. But would they help poverty and crime and thus improve America’s future? Sure they would.

      Of course, this entire comment (which is way more than what you were asking for) is coming from someone who grew up in a middle-class (albeit frugal) home, had two loving parents, studied abroad not once but three times, went to a very expensive private university, and has essentially always had a job when I wanted a job. I had my car stolen once by someone in North St. Louis, but I also had car insurance to cover the damages. It’s very easy for me to sit in my condo at my computer and write a blog comment about what should be done to make sure that the 28-year-old guy two miles north of here doesn’t just sit around and wait for a welfare check, doesn’t raise his child to continue the cycle of poverty, and doesn’t have future children because of mistakes he’s made in the past. It’s not fair for me to say any of that.

      However, I can say this: If lost my job and could not find a new one and had to accept welfare, I’d want to work for it. I know I would. If I had a child out of wedlock and knew I couldn’t raise him/her to have the best life possible, I would give the child up for adoption (it would be the hardest thing ever, but I’m adopted, and I know how much my birthmother’s choice was made out of love, not selfishness). And if I had a disease or a drug addiction that would almost certainly be passed on to future children, I would voluntarily take birth control so I wouldn’t do that to a child, much less America.

      I’d want those options to be there. I wouldn’t want to sit around and accept handouts. So do people who do sit around and accept handouts–and teach others around them that it’s okay to do so–deserve any of the amazing privileges the government gives them? I’m not just talking welfare and food stamps, I’m talking all the other things that my taxes pay for, like roads and water and police and schools. If you don’t pay your taxes, do you lose the right to live in America? (The exception, obviously, are children under the working age.)

      Last, I think part of this whole debate sprung in my mind recently from all this talk about nationalized health care, something that I think I support, but who truly understands a 1,000-page bill? I think people have the basic right to basic health care. But it doesn’t seem right to me that I would pay for the health care of someone who deliberately and consistently hurts their own health by smoking or eating unhealthily to the point of obesity. I think people should deny themselves healthcare if they do either of those two things. If they want to drink or eat unhealthily, they can pay for their own healthcare. Otherwise, you play by the rules and get your handouts.

      This is by far the longest comment I’ve ever written on any blog.

  2. Hi Jamey,

    I know this is a really old post, but I was just scrolling through your website and thought I’d comment on the health care issue, from the point of view of a Canadian who benefits from universal healthcare.

    It has it’s pros and cons, I’m not going to lie. The waiting times for vital things like CAT scans are atrocious, and the reason is because we don’t have the money to run them more often than we do, and the machines sit idle. I’ve heard stories of people driving down to Detroit and dropping $5000 for a CAT scan so they can deliver the results to their family doctor or specialist. Why isn’t this an option in Canada, so we can keep the money within our own healthcare system? The answer is because the government thinks this isn’t fair to people who can’t afford to pay the extra cash.

    The waiting times in the emergency room are ridiculous. My sister sliced the tip off her finger once and was there for 6 hours waiting to get it sewn on again. Granted, it wasn’t life threatening, but a doctor isn’t needed for that, only a nurse (and I don’t mean “only a nurse” because they’re not as valuable, because they are. I only mean it doesn’t take 10 years in medical school to sew a thumb back together.)

    However, I do benefit from knowing that if I (heaven forbid) got appendicitis, myself and my parents are going to have to mortage the house to make ends meet. If I’m mortally wounded, we don’t have to call the insurance company before calling 911 to make sure the ambulance is cleared. That kind of peace-of-mind is priceless.

    Our healthcare system doesn’t cover dental, which is more of a nuisance than anything, but the extra insurance won’t break the bank.

    I totally agree with your comment about smokers and people who make poor lifestyle choices. If you’ve been diagnosed with lung cancer, and have been smoking for years, you should have to quit smoking before the system will spend thousands trying to cure you. If you’re an alcoholic who needs a liver transplant, get sober, or you’re never getting that liver. Why should my taxes be used to help someone who’s just going to need the same treatment again in a few years?

    All that being said, I know a universal healthcare system like Obama is proposing will be expensive. But the people who can afford healthcare are the people who can afford the taxes to increase a bit to make the difference. The people who can’t afford healthcare are the people who’ll benefit the most.

    Ps. Have you seen Michael Moore’s Sicko?

    • Lindsay–Thanks so much for your thoughts on health care. You offer a well-informed, well-balanced perspective. I’ve seen Sicko, and I watch The Daily Show, so my sources of information are a bit skewed…basically, I don’t pretend to know everything about this issue. I think to some extent, if our government provides “free” (tax-funded) parks and roads and libraries, health care should be a part of that mix. To some extent. I think some balance between the current American system and the Canadian system would be ideal, and that’s my perception of what Obama’s plan is. Personal responsibility and accountability is SO important to me too, though–like what you said about heavy smokers and drinkers.

      What’s really interesting to me about what you wrote is regarding the peace of mind. I guess I’ve always had a job that provided health care, but peace of mind has never been an issue for me. However, there are a lot of people for whom I think that’s a big issue, and it could be a much bigger issue for me if I became critically ill.

      Thanks so much for sharing!


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