The Magazine Reader

Of Flab and Flimflammery

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 25, 2006

A fat, rich Texan named Irwin Leba has devised an ingenious idea that could solve both the federal deficit and the obesity epidemic: "Balance the budget by taxing the obese." And Leba is spending his millions -- earned in the fast-food business -- to lobby for his "fat tax."

Leba's plan was unveiled in Joshua Foer's article "The More You Weigh, the More You Pay" in the April issue of Esquire. The eccentric millionaire would require all Americans to step on the scales at a federal weigh station so they can be taxed based on their body mass index.

Under his plan, Leba himself would have to pay an extra $70,000 to Uncle Sam -- a stiff penalty for his love of deep-fried Twinkies.

"You ever had a deep-fried Twinkie?" Leba asks. "If you condensed all the goodness of Jesus Christ into one of those plastic wrappers, you'd have something that would be almost -- but not quite -- as divine as a deep-fried Twinkie."

Leba is outspoken, outrageous and very funny. He's also completely fictitious. So is the Esquire article. It's a fake, a fraud, a hoax -- or as Esquire's editor in chief, David Granger, puts it, "a little April Fools' bit of funnery."

"We've been waiting for reporters to pick up on it," says Foer, "and you're the first."

There you have it, folks: another scoop for The Magazine Reader!! That's why we're running this column today instead of Tuesday -- so we don't get beat by other, lesser reporters, if they ever manage to rouse themselves from their torpor and figure this out.

Some Esquire readers recognized that they were being hoaxed, says Brendan Vaughan, the magazine's articles editor. But others were fooled, writing in to praise or attack Leba's plan. Most of the angry e-mails came from weightlifting readers whose buff, muscle-bound physiques give them a body-mass index that would raise their taxes under Leba's plan.

"A lot of these guys clearly did not get the joke," says Vaughan. "They'd write in, saying, 'I appreciate your story and I agree that fat people are costing us money, but I go to the gym five times a week and I have a 32-inch waist and I'd owe $6,000 in fat tax.' "

The hoax was born last year when Foer, the Washington-based 23-year-old brother of novelist Jonathan Safran Foer and New Republic editor Franklin Foer, proposed to Esquire that he write a profile of Alan Abel, America's most famous hoaxer. Abel, 76, is the impish prankster who has appeared on countless TV and radio shows since the 1960s with his bogus crusade against breast feeding and his even-more-ludicrous crusade to clothe naked animals: "A nude horse is a rude horse." In 1980, Abel bamboozled the New York Times into printing his obituary, then held a news conference to gloat about it.

Esquire's editors decided that they didn't want to profile Abel, but they did want to collaborate with him on a hoax.

"We thought it would be nice to do something with Abel," says Vaughan, "and he came up with the idea for the fat tax."

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