DRI-424: The War on Big Soda

Some moments in the course of human events bear the imprint of destiny, as plain as if stamped by the USDA. Such a moment was last week’s announcement by New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg of a ban on commercial sales of high-calorie beverage servings in excess of 16 ounces.

Every public-policy proposal has virtues and drawbacks. But historic significance is often gauged more by reaction to the proposal than by its intrinsic worth. This applies to Mayor Bloomberg’s so-called “Big Soda Ban” (hereinafter, BSB) – a reference to the oversized servings at which the measure is targeted.

While the measure itself has attracted widespread reaction, it has mostly been visceral and superficial. Yet it is the BSB’s implications, rather than its literal impact, that should concern us most. They tell us how far down the road to serfdom we have come.

BSB and its Effects

On May 31, 2012, Mayor Bloomberg announced that he would propose a ban on 16-ounce or larger servings of beverages containing 25 or more calories per 8 ounces of volume in restaurants, delicatessens, arenas and by street vendors. Curiously, convenience and grocery stores are exempted from the proposal. Calorie content in beverages results from adding carbohydrates in the form of various sugars, so the incidence of the ban falls on large servings of sugared drinks. Violators of the ban would face $200 fines.

The ostensible intent of the ban is to reduce the incidence of obesity among New Yorkers. The rationale apparently runs as follows: carbohydrates contain calories and large amounts of sugared drinks contain large amounts of calories – therefore, banning large servings will reduce consumption of sugared drinks, thereby lowering total calorie consumption, resulting in weight loss.

If only life were that simple. But then, if life were that simple, totalitarian countries would be the happiest and most prosperous nations.

Opposition to the Mayor’s proposal was full-throated and immediate. One vocal contingent highlighted the futility of the BSB by listing its omissions. For example, the proposal left untouched sugared beverages like fruit juices, which contain naturally occurring fructose as well as added sucrose. Milk shakes and malts were unmentioned; these contain not only sugar but high concentrations of fat, and are offered in large servings. Alcoholic drinks, which contain very high concentrations of nutritionally dubious sugars like maltose, were ignored.

Another common reaction noted the ease with which BSB could be evaded. The proposal does not prevent consumers from buying multiple smaller servings, either simultaneously or in succession. Indeed, the Mayor’s focus on restaurants and delis seems especially quixotic since the custom is to provide (one or more) free refills, thereby vitiating the need to order the larger serving in the first place. Meanwhile, convenience stores – where marketing gimmicks like Quik Trip’s “Big Gulp” were devised precisely to counter competition from fast-food and sit-down restaurants – can blithely continue supersizing their beverage offerings as before.

Recognition of BSB’s clumsiness and incompetence seems to have dulled appreciation of the pain it would inflict. One potential advantage of larger orders is economy; for example, you might well pay a lower price for one 16-ounce soda than the combined price for two 8-ounce drinks. Not any more! It is easier to make one visit to a concession stand than two – oops, too bad. The fact that some types of businesses are harmed (arenas, street vendors) relative to others (convenience stores) is more evidence of the gains and losses randomly distributed by the BSB.

Opposition to the BSB is miles wide but only inches deep. The unspoken consensus seems to be, “This plan is so confused and contradictory that it will never work.” This holds open the possibility that a better plan – perhaps more comprehensive and coercive in nature – would succeed. Few people are willing to come right out and say that Mayor Bloomberg had no right to act as he did – either because he trespassed on the sacred domain of individual choice or because he exceeded the constitutional powers granted a municipal executive.

Government as All-Purpose Problem Solver

The BSB further cements a widely shared perception of government as all-purpose problem solver, the Mr. Fix-It of First Resort. We associate this attitude with the Left. The plain truth is, however, that liberals and socialists are an underwhelming minority. Our current complacency with government intervention of all sorts could never have developed without tacit acceptance by conservatives.

The latent disposition was always there. From its earliest days, modern conservatism often deserted free trade in favor of tariffs and quotas. Anti-communism resigned the movement to the permanence of a lavish, wasteful Pentagon, fighting its way through red tape. The drug war and consequent evolution of local police toward paramilitarism were tolerated as part of a cultural pushback against the permissive Left.

Gradually, the Right discovered that big government came in downright handy in enforcing its own prejudices. That attitude emerges in support for Bloomberg, as evinced in comments like “It’s about time somebody did something about those people – I’m tired of paying high health-insurance premiums and taxes to subsidize their overeating.” A subset of the Right has given up on getting government out of health care and settled for co-opting it as their proxy nanny.

Bloomberg on Bloomberg: Grasping the Enormity of His Action

Rather than comparing Mayor Bloomberg to Huey Long, commentators have been more likely to liken him to Huey of Huey, Dewey and Louie. Reading the Mayor’s own comments on his soda ban is the surest antidote to this complacency.

“We’re not taking away anyone’s freedoms.” Exactly how does a head of government ban the sale of a popular consumption item without taking away somebody’s freedom? One suspects Mayor Bloomberg is trying to suggest that, after all, the whole issue of soft drinks is pretty trivial. But he can’t have it both ways. Elsewhere, he refers to studies showing the calorie consumption from soft drinks is a leading contributor to obesity. Now he’s trying to defuse criticism by undercutting his big point.

“It’s not something the Founding Fathers fought for.” They didn’t “fight for” soft drinks, but their writings referred specifically to the niggling, unwarranted intrusions of the British into their commerce and affairs.

“In moderation [soft drink consumption] is fine… You tend to eat all of the food in the container. If somebody put a smaller glass or plate or container in front of you, you would eat less.” By his own logic, Mayor Bloomberg would be fully justified in next limiting the physical volume of food served in restaurants, delicatessens, arenas and on street carts. Indeed, we should expect the delivery of just such limitations as soon as the BSB fails to relieve the nutritional emergency invoked to justify it. Can’t you already hear the Mayor at his press conference? “Well, the soda ban didn’t work the way we wanted to, so we had to try something stronger. When somebody puts less food in front of you, you eat less, right?”

“We’re just forcing you to think about what you’re buying.” Aside from the fact that government has no warrant or authority to force its citizens to “buy twice so they’ll think twice,” there is the implicit premise behind this claim to consider. Mayor Bloomberg’s theory of consumption – if one may so dignify his megalomaniac diktats – is that we buy and eat on impulse, so government regulators have no choice but to interdict our impulsive actions. But what makes Mayor Bloomberg – or the regulators or academicians who support him – a superior breed of human who is somehow immune to the irresistible impulses that cripple the rest of us? Come to think of it, how do we know that it isn’t Bloomberg himself who is irrationally acting on impulse? Given these comments and the surrounding analysis, that conclusion is surely indicated.

The Roots of the “Obesity Epidemic”

Mayor Bloomberg clearly understood his own action to be extreme. When the time came to justify his actions, he played the post-9/11 trump card: emergency measure. After all, we can’t just stand here and do nothing in the face of this obesity epidemic, can we?

Our reflexive deference to government has blinded us to the fact that obesity is not an epidemic. Obesity is not transmitted contagiously between individuals; it is not even an illness. It is the result of over-nutrition – too much of a good thing. Stopping an epidemic may require government coercion in order to stop the spread of contagion and administer vaccine. In contrast, government intervention in the area of obesity is not only unnecessary, it is counterproductive.

A recent Wall Street Journal editorial claimed that most obesity is caused by excess caloric intake. This would make BSB a trivial exercise since a 16-ounce soda contains fewer than 300 calories. The Journal is doubly wrong. The evidence continues to accumulate that the dominant cause of obesity is blood-sugar irregularity, not caloric excess per se. Consumption of carbohydrates that are absorbed too rapidly into the bloodstream triggers the release of insulin into the bloodstream, which in turn signals the body to store fat rather than consuming it as energy. This is the condition known as Type II diabetes. Sugared sodas can be a key contributor to this disease – if you happen to suffer from it or be predisposed to it. Carbohydrates that do not contain fiber – ranging from simple sugars to white potatoes to processed breads – are culprits. Fiber, fat and protein play the beneficial role of slowing down the conversion of carbohydrates to glucose in the bloodstream.

We know all this thanks to the pioneering efforts of Robert Atkins, whose low-carbohydrate diet was introduced almost forth years ago. Atkins was demonized by the nutrition establishment and his diet was panned as unsafe. Meanwhile, the authorities – including the federal government – promoted carbohydrates as the staple of a healthy diet and our primary source of energy. But so many people lost so much weight on the Atkins diet that private researchers were forced to study it. Atkins’ grasp of the underlying science may have been uncertain, but his central principle – that it was not dietary fat consumption but rather carbohydrates that promoted obesity – was vindicated by time and testing.

The devaluation of carbohydrates has been accompanied by a revaluation of fat and protein. We now strongly suspect that low-fat diets may actually be dangerous for those who overproduce a certain type of LDL cholesterol. Protein is once again assuming its rightful place as energy source and building block of muscle. One corollary to this is that meat is no longer verboten.

Hayek on the Rule of Experts

Decades ago, Nobel laureate F. A. Hayek insisted that central governments could not successfully plan an economy, even with the aid of experts in the various industries and professions. The information necessary to coordinate supply and demand was not centralized in the hands of government or a few experts, but rather decentralized in the minds of billions of individual producers and consumers. Only a free market process could unlock it and render it effective.

The new learning on diabetes and obesity is one locus classicus of a Hayekian market process at work. An entrepreneur like Atkins refuses to swallow the conventional thinking of government nutritionists. He puts forward a new hypothesis. The establishment experts loathe it, but consumers love it. It receives the truest of all tests – the market test – and the clamor of consumers forces the reevaluation of the product by researchers.

Milton Friedman once compared the actions of government bureaucrats to that of leader ducks who fly at the head of a V-formation until they look back and notice that their followers have deserted them. Then they scramble to catch up to the formation and resume their place at the head. That is what establishment nutritionists have done. The ones outside government have adopted Atkins’ ideas, or variants of them, without giving Atkins credit for them. The ones inside government or academia are calling for government regulation of consumers’ nutritional choices before everybody becomes aware that government regulation is superfluous at best and deleterious at worst.

Another illustrative case is cancer research. For decades progress was painfully slow. Scientists began to make headway when they tumbled to the fact that cancer is not one disease but many. Even more illuminating is the fact that individuals react to the disease and respond to treatments differently. The best way to proceed is to allow each of us to craft our own therapy in partnership with our personal physician and oncologist. Instead, the federal government and FDA have persisted in imposing a “one-size-fits-all” approach on cancer patients, using tests of statistical significance to gauge the success of cancer drugs and condition their approval. The pretense that doctors treat statistical populations rather than individual patients has killed many thousands of patients prematurely. Now that effective treatments are on the horizon, the prospect of a rising death toll is triggering a veritable mutiny among the community of cancer patients and physicians.

It is not coercion and control by central governments that will overcome obesity and diabetes. Government was a principal stumbling block to enlightenment in these areas. The free market is now succeeding where government failed.

Politics vs. Markets

Mayor Bloomberg is not guided by science or free markets. Instead, he heeds the dictates of politics. In markets, individual patients and their doctors have the strongest possible incentives to find out what actually works and act upon it – patients because their happiness depends on it and doctors because their livelihood depends on it.

But incentives in politics do not lie with uncovering the truth about obesity and diabetes. Millions of Americans are losing weight and controlling their diabetes, but the measure of this success will be taken only gradually over a period of years in the medical journals and epidemiology data. By then, Mayor Bloomberg will be dead or out of politics. The truth will do him no good. He is interested only in what will win him votes in the short-term present – which means looking as busy as possible and pressing the emotional hot buttons of the electorate. And he has succeeded, judging from the numbers of people pounding their fists and yelling, “Somebody is finally DOING something about those gluttons who are getting fat on my dime!”

The Philosophy of Freedom

Commentators on BSB sometimes allude to our “freedom to choose” before dropping the subject in favor of wisecracks about “nanny Bloomberg” or diatribes against the overweight. Yet freedom should be at the heart of the debate.

Philosophers and political scientists have long argued whether freedom is a good thing for its own sake or strictly because its consequences are favorable. Or, rearranging the argument, would we value freedom so much if it did not lead to more material wealth and happiness than the alternative?

However interesting the question may be in the abstract, it is moot in the practical sense. Freedom is preferable both morally and practically. The doctrine of free will allows us to make incorrect moral choices – that is what gives morality its meaning. It surely allows us to err where only our own welfare is at stake. We are not obligated to bail out our fellow human beings out of their personal difficulties, because they would then lack the incentive necessary to pursue the good life. But we are encouraged to help those who fail through bad luck or who express sincere repentance for past misdeeds. Our voluntary choice to help others gives our decision its moral dimension.

The history of the 19th and 20th centuries is a triumph of freedom over totalitarianism, of capitalism over socialism. The positive proof lies in the victories of free trade and anti-slavery in 19th century Great Britain, the rise of U.S. capitalism, the German and Japanese economic miracles after World War II, the resurgence of the U.S. and Great Britain under Reagan and Thatcher, the rise of the Southeast Asian Tigers and the birth of economic development in India and China. The negative proof was provided by the end of communism in Soviet Russia and China, the death of fascism in German, Italy and Japan, the fall of British Socialism after World War II and the suffocation of one-party cronyism and dictatorship in Africa and South America.

In light of all this, government’s place as the default option for every choice is astonishing. Despite being wrong in theory and practice, despite an unbroken record of failure, government nevertheless continues to be tapped to handle whatever comes up. To hear Mayor Bloomberg talk, you’d swear that freedom was hopelessly incapable and government was infallible. Actually, it’s the other way round.

Steppingstones to Serfdom

As noted above, BSB seems so comically inept that it has lulled many into not taking it seriously. That is a grievous mistake, one not made by Mayor Bloomberg himself, who treats the issue with the utmost gravity. He is knowingly engaged in a step-by-step process of reducing our freedom. It began with his ban on trans fats. When nobody thought it worth their while to stop him – probably because nobody wanted to be stigmatized as being in favor of consuming a substance known to be harmful – this established a precedent that set the stage for the nextintervention, and the next and the next. As so it goes. Each new intervention sets the precedent for the next one. That is why it is always worthwhile to defend freedom, no matter how trivial the freedom being defended may seem.

Now Mayor Bloomberg is trying to stop New Yorkers from consuming soft drinks. Few consumer goods are as thoroughly American in their essence. Around the world, Coca Cola is an instantly recognizable symbol of American culture. The amount of happiness we derive from soda pop is incalculable, but palpably enormous. Arbitrarily, on the phony pretext of an epidemic, with no hope or pretense of distinguishing between those actually hurt by soft drinks and the rest, Mayor Bloomberg proposes to establish the precedent of directly meddling in his constituents’ diets.

If, as expected, the New York City Board of Health rubber-stamps the Mayor’s proposal, is there any limit to what he can do? If a city mayor can casually reduce consumer choices without any warrant or medical justification, is there any limit on what any government can do to anybody, anywhere, anytime?

The late Keynesian economist and Nobel Laureate, Paul Samuelson, of economic textbook fame, once lamented the respect accorded colleague F. A. Hayek’s cautionary polemic, The Road to Serfdom. Hayek pointedly exposed the threat to freedom posed by central economic planning and the welfare state. Where are the barbed-wire fences and concentration camps? Samuelson demanded. The West has embraced the welfare state, he maintained, but we have not lost our freedom as Hayek foresaw.

Of course, history does not repeat itself verbatim, but its great themes do recur. Samuelson died in 2009, just in time to miss seeing Mayor Bloomberg at work. From here on, Bloomberg will serve as walking rebuttal to those who doubt Hayek’s thesis.

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