Birther Blather
Bad Legislation and Bad Science

Mayor Bloomberg nudges New Yorkers away from the Big Gulp--and towards two Little Gulps instead

BloombergOh, Mayor Bloomberg--you make writing a book about libertarian paternalism and nudges too easy. (Thanks!) But seriously, you help show why it's important to write this book, that's it's not just some pie-in-the-sky idea that lives only in the ivory tower, but one that affects the real world.

Yesterday The New York Times reported that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, through his Board of Health, is planning to limit sizes of sugary drinks like soda (other than diet), energy drinks, and sweetened coffee drinks, to 16 ounces. (One person on Twitter remarked that this is still 13 ounces more generous than the TSA.) This applies to prepackaged bottles of beverages sold in bodegas or delis (but not grocery stores or convenience stores) as well as drinks poured by an employee or customer, such as fountain soda sold at fast food restaurants, sports games, and movie theaters.

According to the article,

The mayor, who said he occasionally drank a diet soda “on a hot day,” contested the idea that the plan would limit consumers’ choices, saying the option to buy more soda would always be available.

“Your argument, I guess, could be that it’s a little less convenient to have to carry two 16-ounce drinks to your seat in the movie theater rather than one 32 ounce,” Mr. Bloomberg said in a sarcastic tone. “I don’t think you can make the case that we’re taking things away.”

No, he's not taking away people's soda or limit consumer choices--people are free to buy more, smaller drinks or take advantage of free refills--but he is hoping to affect their choices, or he wouldn't be doing this in the first place. This element of cynical manipulation lies behind all nudges, the idea that regulators can leave your options unchanged substantively but still change your behavior for the better.

This leads to another offensive aspect of nudges: to change behavior without curtailing options, they rely on the same cognitive biases and dysfunctions that its proponents use to justify their imposition. I assume that Bloomberg blames short-sightedness or lack of willpower for New Yorkers' heavy consumption of sugary drinks, but his plan will only work if people were too lazy, hurried, or absent-minded to consider other options for getting more soda. (His sarcasm about the inconvenience of buying two sodas is ironic, since that inconvenience is one thing that he's counting on to drive the success of his plan.)

What do I see coming from this? A lot of delis and bodegas working to reclassify themselves as grocery stores instead of "food service establishments" (a health department classification) and a lot more restaurants that serve fountain sodas offering free refills or "buy one cup get one free" deals. Consumers won't have to "seek out" ways to get their fix; business will be more than happy to provide them. Like most poorly crafted regulation, this ban on large sugary drinks will certainly shift some behavior, but in efforts to circumvent the ban, not to conform to it.

New Yorkers are smarter than you give them credit for, Mayor Bloomberg. Maybe it's all that sugar.


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Uggghhgrrrrr. Well said, Mark. What a crazy idea.

If sugar drinks are causing obesity and if this is linked to public health concerns that impact the deficit, then help the price system to work: add a tax on "bads" (sodas) to discourage them.

Also get rid of the nefarious sweet deals between the soda companies and elementary schools--the companies provide cash bribes to put their monopoly dispensers in schools. Just say no!

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