Fat and unhappy

61% of adults in the United States were overweight or obese (BMI > 25) in 1999. Today it’s much worse. The prevalence of overweight adolescents has nearly tripled in the past 2 decades. The economic cost of obesity in the United States was about $117 billion in 2000 (data from US Surgeon General).

The fat guy to the left, over by the window, he knows all this. He has already tried all kinds of diets, reducing pills, Weight Watcher meetings. Why is he still overweight? Because he has no spine, no willpower to stay away from burgers, barbeques and beer. He longs for a touch of a wizard's wand. He wants to be magically deprived of all excessive alimentation, to be forcibly conjured to exercise – and then one day step forward for all to see as the slender, attractive (albeit middle-aged), gentleman he is in his dreams. For such a spell he is prepared to pay a pretty penny.

OK, maybe not that particular miserly-looking fat slob standing by the window. But a certain fraction of the some hundred million fat slobs are certainly willing to pay. However small this fraction might be, it still comes out as a substantial absolute number of overweight people willing to part with their money, ready to be skinned in order to be skinny.

National remembrance

Let us for a moment turn our attention to a large Eurasian land, Russia. It is much larger that the US. This, together with its population of some 140 million, would make Russia a truly great nation, would it not be for one thing. The thing is that the size of Russia's economy , if you exclude its ephemeral oil-and-gas business, is about the same as that of Holland. Wages and most prices are hence laughably low, while the relatively decent Russian educational system provides ample manpower in all trades and professions.

Russia has a long, unitary political tradition. From the times of Ivan the Terrible in the 1500's to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 it has only known one kind of regime, inhuman despotism. We have all seen pictures of inmates of the Soviet GULAG concentration camps, maybe even read Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich". Remember the scene when Ivan eats his plate of watery soup, where a staring fish eye is floating about? Great literature, and a kindling spark for a great Business Idea.

Because it is now time to marry these two parties together – rich fat US slobs and poor Mother Russia. What fattening McDonald's is for the image of America, weight-reducing GULAG is for the image of Russia. Both nations have had their share of famous writers, composers and scientists, but what they in the end are remembered for is just McDonald's and GULAG (the fact that GULAG camps have long since closed notwithstanding). For our purposes this is fortunate, because GULAG needs no marketing. It's a firmly established trademark in the weight-reducing business. Everybody knows that a stay in a GULAG equals guaranteed weight loss.

The GULAG Spa

Buy yourself a small piece of Russian land in some God-forsaken woods, but at a reasonably convenient busing distance from an international airport. Here you employ a local team of builders and carpenters for astoundingly few dollars and have them erect a fair copy of a GULAG camp. It should be of a type that Westerners all recognize from movies and newsreels, complete with prison barracks, a barbed wire fence and guard towers. Don't overdo the size, space for 70-100 inmates is sufficient as the basis for your first Business Plan.

The next step is to staff the camp with guards. Everybody knows that the only weight-losing method that really works is ELEM -- Eat Less, Exercise More. Trouble is, very few have characters strong enough to hold on to the scheme for extended periods. In the GULAG Spa, which you just have built, they will be forced to. The original GULAG system had a side-effect, highly desirable at the time, but unacceptable for our purposes – an extremely high death rate. To eliminate such side-effects, you will hire Russian doctors and nurses as camp guards. Their wages will be lower than for American janitors, but they will be able to compose nutritionally well-balanced low-calorie diets, screen customers / inmates for health troubles and see to it that no one is over-exerted.

Outwardly the guards should have all the appearance of grim GULAG bullies, armed with wooden Kalashnikovs and wearing Soviet-style uniforms, complete with a red star in front. The inmates will be commanded to perform seemingly pointless duties like carrying logs or stones from a heap in one end of the camp to a heap in the other end of the camp. That these tasks are carefully adapted to each individual inmate's medical status will not be apparent to the inmates, particularly as harsh punishments are meted out to anyone who refuses to obey. In the evenings ideological indoctrination sessions are held, brain-washing inmates into becoming exemplary weight-watchers after their release.

The period of encampment should be sufficiently long to show tangible results. Losing 3 kg a week (quite realistic, given the circumstances) during 6 weeks results in a most noticeable total weight loss of 18 kg (= 40 lbs). Not many can afford to take time off from work for 6 weeks, so the ones who can are certainly able to pay the stiff price that a stretch in the GULAG Spa should be set at. The 100 inmates needed for each GULAG Spa period represent only a one-millionth of all the 100 million overweight people in the US, even without counting all the millions of beer-bellied Germans and other fat Western Europeans. So success seems to be assured. But of course, bear in mind that business is always a risky business, with or without a solid Business Plan.

Not a matter of taste

Isn't this in a despicably poor taste? Of course it is. Making fun at the expense of the GULAGs, where tens of millions of innocents lost their lives is decidedly as good an example as any of astonishingly bad taste. But then business is not made in the taste or morals sector. Business is conducted solely in the money-making sector, as any banker knows.

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