Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Enforcing Moderation

H/T Joseph C. Phillips. The LA Times health blog today suggests that it is time for "tough love" when it comes to America’s obesity "epidemic" and argues that the methods employed by the war on tobacco could be successful in a new war on America’s ever expanding waistline. Simply tax, at confiscatory and outrageous rates, all the "bad" food and beverages. The wise and all knowing bureaucrats who will be in charge of our government-healthcare-industrial complex, in their infinite wisdom and genuine concern for nothing more than our well-being (because I’m sure there won’t be any food or restaurant industry lobbying affecting this), will be able to determine which substances deserve our scorn and high taxes and which foods probably ought to be subsidized and (possibly?) force-fed to all of us poor, ignorant, fat asses masses.

I have no doubt that such a determined effort led by determined do-gooders would, indeed, have the desired effect of reducing the numbers of super-sized Americans. But at what cost? Liberals love to throw out the red-herring that they don’t want government interference with what goes on "in their bedrooms." Fine. Pretend that actually means what it appears to mean on the surface. I agree. But why would a person who understands the evils of a government enforced panty raid suddenly find himself passive in the face of a pantry raid?

Discussions - 12 Comments

Currently, America's corporations dominate that country's - and beyond - food system, and wield enormous influence, if not outright control over many aspects of consumer choice, so much so that the very concept of "consumer choice" is really laughably naive at this point. Every time I cross from Canada to the U.S. the obvious difference in average girth and fitness of citizens of the two places, which didn't noticeably exist 30 years ago, bites me in the nose. Corporate control over the food system and the healthcare system hasn't done you any great favors, so handing one or both of them over, at least to some extent, to a more (democratically-elected) government oversight seems like a reasonable next step.

VHC has a point. The agricultural system is lousy with corporate subsidies. It is a very inefficient system for delivering peoples right to food. I suggest the abolition of corporate and all other private agriculture. We should replace it with a single-payer government plan in which food is produced at government owned and operated collective farms and (for fairness) distributed according to procedures designed by government experts. Then we won't have to worry about mass obesity.

"Consumer choice" became laughable as soon as marketing became an integral part of capitalism. When your company hires a psychologist to help determine what smell and what music will best encourage mall shoppers to make purchases, consumer agency begins drifting toward the wayside.

I think a tax on bad food would be a regressive tax. The most impoverished Americans are the ones most likely to run to the McDonald's dollar menu and buy poor quality groceries. I think it would be a much better idea for the government to just subsidize particular foods deemed "healthy" so people with a tight budget could afford to make better choices about what they eat.

My fiance works at a daycare that services a lot of people who use government vouchers and everyday she has to feed 1 year-olds the gas station microwavable burgers their parents bring in for them to eat. It's cheaper and less time consuming than healthier options, but it's also setting up their children for obesity. I'm sure when that child grows up, he or she will be very interested to hear abstract arguments about individual liberties. The problem is that they never had a choice in the matter to begin with.

Matt I want to keep my snark instinct down but it isn't easy. Does "political choice" become laughable because of demagoguery - which long predates modern capitalism? I wonder if the people of North Korea think we lack consumer choice? Your point seems to indicate a preference for technocratic government that will impose its own view of the good (and the real good because they are unswayed by marketing in all its forms) upon an ignorant and brainwashed public that is unable to make its own choices (other than maybe for an abortion). Your actual policy proposal is much more moderate, but your broader perspective seems problematic.

Well, if none of this works, Pete, we could always look to North Korea for advice about how to keep girth within bounds. Of course, there are also the side effects of starvation and shrinking national height averages. But hey . . . I'm sure we can trust all the psychologists and pollsters and spin doctors hired by our political betters who tell us that kind of thing can't happen here. Matt rightly counsels healthy skepticism in the face of marketing efforts that are in the service of capitalists . . . but we are to suspend all inclination to disbelief when the One and his minions counsel us to trust their judgment over our own.

I have family in the advertising business and I grew up around it. I have always been struck by the incredible similarities between it and politics. But I think that if either one predates, you are correct to suggest that the crass politician hatched the marketing guru. But rightly understood, there are no better engines for the cause of liberty than the politician and the marketer . . . except, perhaps, a wise and good population. Don't know the answer to that particular chicken and egg drama.

Matt I want to keep my snark instinct down but it isn't easy.

I'll try to return the favor.

Political choice is, as you suggest, also laughable. I would argue, though, that "demagoguery" hasn't destroyed political agency nearly as much as the entertainment industry. I would be interested in hearing a defense of politics as anything but entertainment in our contemporary era (especially on a national level).

My criticism of consumer agency doesn't necessarily end in a complete brainwashed public. Relative to North Korea, of course we have more options. But I don't think we should pretend that that means consumers can make "objective" choices about what they purchase. When more children can identify Ronald McDonald than the President of the United States, I call that indoctrination by way of televisual late-capitalism. If we need the government to compete with that, more power to them (literally?).

While I am we should not overstate the power of either political or commericial marketing. They could save neither New Coke nor the John Edwards presidential campaign. I would not call political laughable, especially when there are so many places where political choice is truly an illusion. James Burnham famously offered a trip to Bulgaria for conservatives who thought they could not see the difference between the American welfare state and communism. Perhaps a stint as the media director for the electoral opposition in Cuba would do the same for those who can't see political choice in the US.

Some great health effects from a 2-cent an ounce excise tax on soda. Doing it this way will discourage bulk buying, will probably ruin the soda fountain 69 cent 44 ounce deals at gas stations that I really like. It would also bring to an end a great deal of enjoyment I get from free refills...but this essentially is what is meant by internalizing the externality. One problem is that sugar and nicotine alcohol and a lot of other cheap and fun chemicals, essentially provide the greatest bang for the buck in terms of pleasure(dopamine production). If the old economists talked about corn and potatoes being staple crops assumeing that the lower classes depended upon food...I wonder if certain unhealthy foods aren't giffin goods in that an increase in price of these goods will actually lead to more being purchased because these are still cheaper/addicted inputs for dopamine, that crowd out more expensive substitutes that are less efficient. Contra VCH, Coke actually sold more coke in Canada and Europe where the price was already artificially high, and they drastically increased the price in the U.S. and saw very minimal drop in volume in bottled(and actually increased volume of syrup/gas station/fountain). Coke is obviously a good depression stock, as are cigarettes. It seems to me that it might be hard to quantify exactly how much demand for coke would fall with an increased price, as coke suprised to the upside indicating that it became much more inelastic during this recession. So it will be hard to quantify what the health gain would be, but generally speaking there should be some, and as the health bennefit increases the revenue from the tax would decrease. So if critics argue that it wouldn't raise as much money they can't also dismiss its health impact.

In order to tax soda you would have to specify a calorie level, and it is likely that coke might respond by creating a sort of hybrid coke thus decreasing tax revenue, but should this occur this should in general be a health positive.

Of course one might argue that regressive taxes on the poor actually do decrease overall utility a lot more rapidly than similar funds raised impact the rich due to diminishing marginal utility. If one uses dopamine as a chemical measure of utils, then on a utilitarian basis a tax to make folks healtier may in fact depress them, but certainly more enlightned folks like Matt will argue that there is more to happiness than sugar highs. Howhever it is not altogether clear that at a certain income level an ethic can be sustained as a way of life that isn't foundationally built on cheaper inputs. Certainly Aristotle is right that reading is an easily sustained pleasure, and that a life of contemplation is cheapest or more inalienable if not greatest. Marx says that religion is the opiate of the masses, and he is probably right in so far as either opiates/chemicals like tobacco+sugar+alcohol or religion are most needed at lower income levels. It is doubtfull howhever that a sugar tax will make folks more religious, but sex is certainly a substitute and it isn't accidental that lower income groups are already having more children. If the poor slim down as a result of not drinking soda they might find themselves more attractive and engage in even more sex.

Of course one could wonder if the habit of deffered gratification that rules those who do not derive considerable happiness from eating food, also spills over into sex, and that education/working out itself provides the opiate that religion is.

In many ways then concern over privacy becomes abstract when in many ways most of the liberals I know are actually probably among the most conservative/chaste and moderate in behavior.

The abstract argument over government involvement in bedrooms, and the general phenomenon of political blogging and policy itself is a form of entertainment or opiate or civic religion as Matt points out, that in many ways probably takes the place of anything interesting/shamefull/perverse that could be tantalizing in the bedroom.

Of course I just enjoy testing the thesis that ethical systems have income elasticity, which isn't that different from the challenge posed by Satan to Job. In other words the question of free will and virtue is quite interesting, and potentially a substitute itself.

The marketing guy was essentially the first guy who convinced a woman to sleep with him.

If the poor slim down as a result of not drinking soda they might find themselves more attractive and engage in even more sex.

JL . . . In the grand scheme of things, I am not always sure about what everything you say means. But every once in awhile you sure do entertain me. Thanks.

Well since health care is a right, or since in many ways if someone doesn't have insurance we won't refuse them medical care then it seems only right that government make use of tax policy to nudge consumers in a direction that reduces cost. Typically conservatives will focus on such areas as tort reform and this seems reasonable, but insufficient. A host of steps should probably be taken, but the idea that a tax on the rich should be used to pay for it seems unreasonable and beyond a certain level flat out harmfull to the economy.

While the idea of a flat tax is sometimes put foward on the right, it hasn't seen much light since Forbes. One selling point on a flat tax is simplification, howhever the major charge against it is that sometimes fiscal policy can impact and nudge consumer behavior in the most efficient manner without overt "pantry raid" violations of privacy.

Today on CNBC the pride of Atlanta CEO of KO(Coca-Cola)was puting foward glowing remarks and was a ray of sunshine on a day of disapointing results. KO mannaged to both increase its volume in Europe and increase its cost in the United States while bennefiting from lower commodity costs, as a result they beat expectations and gave positive guidance and announced a dividend raise in the teeth of this recession. Now certainly some conservatives might point to liberals and jeer that these always seem to tax green shoots when they find them, but the idea of a tax on sugar and other empty calorie commodities seems a good idea. It is insane that Orange Juice farmers in Florida are suffering and the happy cows in California are loosing money, that valuable milk cows are being turned into second grade steaks(the only way to reduce inventory). Then again I understand that this is how capitalism works, milk farmers will go out of business, folks will stop planting orange groves(and put up a parking lot) and the price of these commodities will go up...

Naturally the CEO of coke was quite interesting on all the commodity issues and was quick to point to data showing that a tax on sugar would be among one of the most regressive with the most impact upon the middle and lower classes...also a tax on sugar would seriously harm KO which is a great american company and really would encourage them to move overseas...If it were not for the fact that Pepsi and Ko are important symbols of american greatness in the world and great employers and corporate citizens...I would be very interested in a tax on sugar, which could be easily levied. That such a tax would be regressive seems to bring us towards a flat tax, which I still think is an admirable idea.

Of course part of the problem with California milk farmers is the increased cost imputs/water/land there in conjunction with previous farm bills that inflated supply artificially.

A tax on sugar/corn would certainly see considerable lobying/opposition from Ko just for starters and probably a compromise involving greater "green" ethanol(which is a joke). In fact half the suggestions are probably designed to milk lobbying costs from productive corporations to the legal/washington DC complex.

Still a host of regressive taxes as a means of forcing producers of drugs/food(sugar)to internalize the externalities associated with the products they make would go a long ways to reducing costs increasing overall health, and bring us closer to a flat tax.

Also I think a mandatory excercise program should be instituted as a precondition for collecting full unemployment payments. Five workouts a day, for one hour(gives the person an unemployment check bonus) You come in drop off your resume, and employers would know where to find you. Also unemployment should still be paid in full to anyone who shows up even if they are temporarily hired. In fact Employers and non-profits could come by and ask for volunteers, for every volunteer they receive they could agree to donate to the state unemployment fund, and workers who excercise and volunteer would receive higher(livable) payments(not to mention develop contacts for finding work).

I also disagree with Julie, the marketing guy predates and is essentially not altogether different from the politician. The marketing guy was essentially the first guy who convinced a woman to sleep with him. The first politician was the woman who convinced him that as a result that she should spend his money for the greater good. The reason business is less noxious than government is that the marketing guru convinces you to part with your money for a good, the politician only convinces you to part with collective money(usually someone elses) for a collective good. The marketing guy no matter how good, suckers or convinces by virtue of a superior product. The politician need not really persuade any given individual.

I can technically more or less agree with Matt about "objective" choices but the difference is that at least the marketeer has to sucker me...a politician just has to sucker a majority via a sort of at least I am not hitler(Bush/Obama) comparative game whereby those not in power look better.

While I appreciate the focus on corporate food lobbies, there is a more significant point that you are missing. The onset in the huge rise in Obesity in America corresponds very nicely with the release of the "Dietary Goals for the United States" report from the US Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs in 1977 (chaired by then-Senator George McGovern). This was a very highly politicized report that declared A) that we understood everything important about nutrition and B) that dietary fat (full stop) was essentially the cause of all our problems (cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity). We now know that much of this isn't true or is highly conditional. However, there remain very powerful forces in the government and the medical community that continue to push this view with little recognition of newer (or even older but conflicting) science. Imagine that they are given the levers of power needed to dictate diet in America through confiscatory taxation.

*That* is the problem with the proposal that we force people to eat "good" food through confiscatory taxation.

Wildmonk, I think you make another excellent point. How many things have we been told were the true and final word about what is considered to be "bad" for you . . . and how many revisions have there been on these points in your lifetime?

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