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Want social engineering of your diet with that meal? The New York Times' Mark Bittman does

In today's New York Times, food writer Mark Bittman continues his call for regulation of food choices through a comprehensive scheme of taxes and subsidies. While he takes pains to point out the savings in health care costs this would bring forth, he does not hide his desire to engage in social engineering, reorienting the eating habits of an entire nation toward his preferred vision, whether we like it or not.

Though experts increasingly recommend a diet high in plants and low in animal products and processed foods, ours is quite the opposite, and there’s little disagreement that changing it could improve our health and save tens of millions of lives.

And — not inconsequential during the current struggle over deficits and spending — a sane diet could save tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars in health care costs.

Yet the food industry appears incapable of marketing healthier foods. And whether its leaders are confused or just stalling doesn’t matter, because the fixes are not really their problem. Their mission is not public health but profit, so they’ll continue to sell the health-damaging food that’s most profitable, until the market or another force skews things otherwise. That “other force” should be the federal government, fulfilling its role as an agent of the public good and establishing a bold national fix.

And why are the products that the food industry sells profitable? Because people like them and judge them to be a good value for the price. Are a lot of these products crap? Of course they are. Should free persons be able to put crap in their bodies if they choose? Of course they should--and they should bear the consequences, i.e., the resulting costs to their health.

I'll set aside the enormous political philosophy issues raised by his statement that the role of government is to be "an agent of the public good" (although I am slightly encouraged that he did not say "the agent"), and focus instead on the low-hanging fruit. Simply put, eating crap is not a public health problem; it only becomes one if and when the goverment assumes responsibility for health care costs. But this policy choices should not be used as political cover for essentially paternalistic regulations.

And it should come as no surprise what Bittman's policy recommendations are:

Rather than subsidizing the production of unhealthful foods, we should turn the tables and tax things like soda, French fries, doughnuts and hyperprocessed snacks. The resulting income should be earmarked for a program that encourages a sound diet for Americans by making healthy food more affordable and widely available.

He even says that "we have experts who can figure out how 'bad' a food should be to qualify, and what the rate should be." Sure, that should be easy; after all, it worked for centrally planned economies for years. Oh, wait...

That said, I have no doubt there are plenty of eager regulators salivating about this right now--Bittman even says that "it’s fun — inspiring, even — to think about implementing a program like this" (emphasis mine). Let's imagine what they're saying: "Hey, I know--we could come up with a formula based on the fat, carbohydrates, protein and salt content on foods to arrive at exactly the right taxes or subsidies to manipulate diets perfectly! That should be easy--and people will thank us for it--it's for their own good, after all."

And even better, these taxes and subsidies would be applied to producers rather than consumers--the effect on prices will be the same, but consumer won't notice them ("mwa-ha-ha"):

“Excise taxes have the benefit of being incorporated into the shelf price, and that’s where consumers make their purchasing decisions,” says Lisa Powell, a senior research scientist at the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “And, as per-unit taxes, they avoid volume discounts and are ultimately more effective in raising prices, so they have greater impact.”

Nudge nudge, wink wink... we get it, believe me, we get it.

To be fair, I do agree with Mr. Bittman that corporate welfare to the food industry should stop, but on philosophical grounds more than practical or nutritional ones:

Currently, instead of taxing sodas and other unhealthful food, we subsidize them (with, I might note, tax dollars!). Direct subsidies to farmers for crops like corn (used, for example, to make now-ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup) and soybeans (vegetable oil) keep the prices of many unhealthful foods and beverages artificially low. There are indirect subsidies as well, because prices of junk foods don’t reflect the costs of repairing our health and the environment.

He goes too far with the last point, though: the absence of an externality-reducing tax is not (qualitatively speaking) the same as a subsidy; and again, there is no such thing as "our health," bur rather each person's health, especially since "social contagion" theories of obesity have been widely discredited of late.

Trust me, I would like it if people would make better food choices--but it doesn't matter what I like, except insofar as it regards my own food choices. It's not up to me what people eat, it's not up to Mr. Bittman, and (ideally) it's not up to the government. If you want to stuff another deep-fried Ding Dong down your gullet, more power to you--but you should have to pay the bill when it comes too.


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This post seems to rest on an assumption that any government activity must be "social engineering" whereas corporations and industry are expressions of free choice.

Two ironies: First, there is already a lot of "social engineering" going on with the food supply, it's just being done by the mega-corporations controlling the food industry, subsidized by current government policies.

Second, Bittman's proposal is actually meant to increase the real food choices Americans would have, as the money would be aimed at those places where the choice is between "another deep-fried Ding Dong" and some-other-fried-McMeal. Do choices only count if they come from corporations, or can governments intervene to promote more real choice?

If readers want a different perspective, I've written a bit more on the issue at my blog-post on "Anthropology and government planning":


Interesting reply, Jason, and much to think about; but to answer your question, yes, I do maintain that, because the state enjoys exclusive power of legal coercion, it alone can engage in social engineering, while interactions among producers and consumers are essentially voluntary. (And I wholeheartedly agree that the state is already tightly entwined with the food industry--as I said above, I disagree with that as well.)

Hi Mark,
Thank you for the reply. Although I will continue to disagree that only states can do social engineering, I imagine you, me, and even Mark Bittman can agree about the need to end government subsidies for current food industry practices.

Amen! :)

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