NYC’s noble experiment

It’s part of a journalist’s job description to be an unflinching, rational observer in the face of phenomena that tempt one to recoil or spew: a crime scene, a mass grave… in this spirit, and in the spirit of Bryan Caplan’s Ideological Turing Test, I asked myself, “What’s the best possible defence one could make of New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed Big Gulp Ban*?” Bloomberg, as you may have heard, intends to outlaw the serving of sugary beverages in bottles or cups larger than 16 ounces at city-regulated food establishments.

Imagining the best defence of this measure is not the same thing as looking for the best defence that has actually been made. The mayor’s own pretext for the program had logical holes that Reason‘s Jacob Sullum quickly drove five tanker trucks of frappuccino through. Other defenders seem to have chosen one of two stances: the semi-cynical (“It will be popular, and while it is certain not to work, it might make future plans, ones that are actually effective in fighting obesity, easier to introduce”) and the fatuous (“As the biggest organic-kohlrabi consumer in Park Slope, I don’t drink sugary beverages, and I look down on those who do: therefore I support Bloomberg”).

The best full defence of an infringement on commercial freedom of the sort Bloomberg is proposing (with his “deputy mayor for health” along for the ride) would begin with an open acknowledgment that it is an infringement. Why pussyfoot when the subject is public health? The ban is only technically feasible because the city of New York, like most cities, already has the power to regulate food-service establishments. As the mayor points out, he—even He—cannot stop people from drinking as much Coke as they like.

His proposed interference, at the nexus between the vendor and the consumer, is comparatively minimal: the City insists only that if you want to drink 32 ounces of Coke on the spot without going to a grocery store, ye shall buy it in two 16-ounce containers. It’s significantly less obtrusive, really, than a simple tax on soft drinks would be. One senses the influence of Cass Sunstein’s hip “libertarian paternalism”, which favours subtle massaging of incentives and information—what Sunstein refers to as “nudges”—over the application of brute “thou shalt not” controls on behaviour and markets.

This, then, is the best defence of Bloomberg’s new regulation that an intelligent liberal could give. No, it is not, as it appears to be on its face, a grotesquely un-American act of obtrusive social engineering; no behaviour is being forbidden (or even necessarily being made more expensive) except the sale of a beverage in a cup of particular size. From a liberty standpoint, this jihad against the venti is quite evolved and respectful, and should scarcely bestir outrage in the land of the Whiskey Rebellion and the Eighteenth Amendment. Given the ominous dimensions of the obesity crisis, a law against big cups is quite analogous to the laws which ushered out unsafe glass pop bottles that were harming kids in the ’70s. Really, it is a matter of making the adult customer pause and perhaps reflect before he makes the kind of bad health choice he is—as the Mayor concedes—entitled to make.

I think that’s an account that could pass the Caplan-Turing Test—could perhaps pass it, as I say, better than any actually existing one. So what critiques are left to make of the War on Sugar?

Well, you can always cherry-pick history, even in the most liberty-loving countries, to find pretexts for social engineering by the state. That doesn’t mean such programs aren’t typically harmful in principle—and indeed inherently harmful, to the degree that property rights, economic freedoms, and free exchange are ends in themselves. That’s just what the individualist premise of our civilization means: that people get to eat what they want and smoke what they want and sleep with whom they want, and their preferences will be in some way respected, even at the expense of some monolithic social ideal of good citizenship or good health or good sense.

Stopping people from exercising preferences is harm. You say Internet Commentator X doesn’t think having a Big Gulp is an important freedom? Does he not see Commentators Y through Upsilon standing right behind him, making the same case against marijuana and hijabs and labour unions and skiing?

This innate prejudice against social engineering for its own sake, which ought to be strong in liberals but is utterly absent in Bloomberg, is paired with an empirical prejudice against social engineering because of the near-inevitable consequences—chief among them being that the institutions created to enforce a for-your-own-good law wander very quickly from anyone’s good but that of the enforcers. I stacked the deck a little by mentioning the Eighteenth Amendment, because it shouldn’t form part of the justification for anything: it took literally six years to go from the U.S.A. to go from “Let’s roust these poor addicted creatures out of the saloon” to “Let’s deliberately poison thousands of Americans to death, that the majesty of the law may be respected”. But the Eighteenth Amendment is worth mentioning, because modern-day prohibitionists never feel the need to accept its lessons or even acknowledge its existence.

When Bloomberg and his deputy mayor for health are ridiculed and their volumetric crusade is ignored, whom do you suppose will end up crucified by bureaucrats in defence of their “nudge’? The logic requires it. If soft drinks really are prematurely killing thousands, and a ban on large containers is the magic answer, how far will be too far when it comes to encouraging compliance? When it comes to “nudges”, we have to recognize a distinction between what is being enforced and the means of enforcement; the mildness and restraint of the former does not guarantee that of the latter.

But of course, soft drinks by themselves aren’t the problem. (It is only by ignoring historical context that we can see a plenitude of cheap, nutritious food, along with the lifespans of even the fattest among us, as a problem at all. Our collective condition must resemble a literal picture of Heaven to anyone alive before 1950.) Researchers have been seeking a smoking gun for the obesity epidemic for a long time, and corn syrup looks like an attractive candidate to some dietitians and doctors, but epidemiologists, a more rigorous lot, remain reluctant to move from “Obesity is a calorie problem” to “Obesity is a fructose problem”. Again, Bloomberg all but concedes that one law is not likely to have a discernible effect on the incidence of obesity—

—which, of course, isn’t truly a public health problem in the way that infectious diseases and second-hand smoke are anyway. Nobody literally gains weight because his neighbour likes Big Macs. And despite speculative discussion of inner-city “food deserts”, it’s impossible to imagine that very many people in the industrialized world gain weight uncontrollably because they would love some broccoli but can only find potato chips. (This is another idea that the epidemiologists like less than the dietitians; the latest high-quality evidence goes against the “desert” metaphor.) The soda war is one more step toward the transformation of “public health” into health regimentation—and ultimately behavioral regimentation.

21st-century obesity probably isn’t something that will be clubbed out of existence by public policy. My suspicion is that the ultimate “solution” will involve progress on two fronts: (a) a gradual stigma-driven shifting of harmful foods to the category of hazardous occasional adult pleasures, along with drugs and alcohol, and (b) future iterations of some of the technological fixes for fat and carbohydrate addiction that have already been tried. Olestra and fen-phen, to take two examples, came pretty close to working, and might have helped if they had been safe. (Actually, olestra is safe, but it, uh, kind of got a bum rap in the market.) There are always people who think it somehow unrealistic or deranged to imagine that technology can solve problems that arise when cultural evolution outpaces biological evolution; but that’s what civilization is, from the invention of plumbing to the soft contact lens.

Indeed, if soda pop is a unique problem, it is instantly solved the minute someone comes up with a truly convincing, totally innocuous zero-calorie sugar substitute. Granted, there is probably no hope left that conventional chemistry alone can accomplish this. Very clever people have been at it for too long, and the best fake sugars are still pretty crummy. Neutralizing the cola menace for good will require some sophisticated multiple attack on taste receptors, metabolism, and even neurology. Or maybe we just need to legalize the miracle fruit.

*[UPDATE, June 6: The "Big Gulp Ban", as Colleague Wells noticed yesterday afternoon, doesn't actually apply to Big Gulps, which are a trademark of the 7-Eleven chain of convenience stores. Mayor Bloomberg's proposed serving-size limits on soft drinks apply only to "food service establishments". In the New York City bylaws, retail stores, even those which serve hot food indistinguishable from what you'd get from a food cart, are specifically excluded from the definition of an "FSE". I regret the error.]

NYC’s noble experiment

  1. Good article, Colby.

    Just an observation on the “[high-]fructose[ corn syrup] causes obesity” hypothesis.

    I understand that U.S. consumption of HFCS is pretty much in lockstep with increasing obesity – but HFCS is almost uniquely American – and other countries with increasing obesity do not have high HFCS consumption.

    The use of HFCS in sweet foods in the U.S. is a consequence of trade restrictions on imported cane sugar, in support of sugar beet farmers. This has priced “real” sugar out of the market for industrial-scale sweeteners, so makers of colas and other demons of the obesity epidemic use HFCS – in the U.S. (We in Canada get HFCS because of our proximity, and open trading, with the U.S.)

  2. To care enough to be angry about a restriction on enormous size soft-drink containers, you’d have to be so ideologically minded the real world would be virtually unrecognizable.

    • Only deluded maniacs have principles, after all.

    • And what does that say about someone who cares enough about what other people write that he/she will read an article they think is trivial and then write a comment complaining about it?

  3. Actually there have been studies done showing that calories you drink are more “problematic” than calories you eat in so far as contributing to weight gain. It isn’t just about fructose though. all of those lattes (a large one can be 550 calories) really lay on the pounds.
    As for a way for fight obesity what they should look at is changing the way tv & computers are powered. If you had to store power by to run them by riding an exercise bike, we all would be in better shape.

  4. I am drafting Hizzonner’s next steps:

    No restriction on eating as much as you want. But if you fail to put your fork down during each mouthful, and-or fail to chew each bite a minimum of 32 times, you will be cited with a $50 ticket for the first infraction, up to $200 for repeat offenses.

    No legislated limit on how much sushi you can scarf down. But you may only use one chopstick at a time.

    Absolute freedom to eat as many hot dogs as you like. But you may only buy one at a time, and every hot dog sold within Manhattan, Harlem, Queens and the Bronx must be a cocktail wiener between two Ritz crackers.

    Spare a thought for Lady Liberty looking over Bloombergian freedom in her adopted city.

  5. I think the problem is less about “inner-city food deserts” and more about “inner-city food desserts”.

  6. Bloomberg’s actions are pointless and will be ineffective.

    How I thought about obesity was completely changed after I read Jane Galt’s blog post Thining Thin at The Atlantic a few years ago. Weight is inherited and there is no successful way for obese to lose significant amounts of kilograms, we control what food we eat but not our appetites.

    ——–

    “Gina Kolata’s Rethinking Thin describes it thus: Every time the result was the same. The weight, so painstakingly lost, came right back. But since this was a research study, the scientists looked at more than just weight loss . . . they measured metabolic changes and psychiatric conditions and body temperature and pulse. And that led them to a surprising conclusion: fat people who lose large amounts of weight may look like someone who was never fat, but they are very different. In fact, by every measurement they seemed like people who were starving.”
    ——
    “Gina Kolata’s Rethinking Thin makes a pretty compelling case that almost everyone’s weight fluctuates within a band of 20-30 pounds. Some peoples’ band is higher than others, (and perhaps, slowly increasing over time). When you get nearer to the bottom of your body’s weight tolerance, your hunger increases; drop below it, and your body reacts as if you’re starving, slowing your metabolism and focusing more and more of your mental attention on food. ”

    • Well Tony, 20 to 30 pounds gained doesn’t usually make someone obese unless they are very petite. We are talking about people who are likely 100 pounds or more overweight.
      As for Gina Kolata’s insight into the mindset of a formerly overweight person who loses weight and their apparent “fixation” on food, what do you think happens to a sober alcoholic or a straight drug addict? Why do you think so many continue to attend AA or NA meetings? Could it be that despite not imbibing, they continue to fixate and crave (even physically, drugs and alcohol. Why would this be at all suprising? Anyone with any sort of addiction, be it to food or substances, has an obsession with “feeding” their addiction. Just because they are denying themselves doesn’t mean that obsession disappears. Further, just because they are obsessed and have an addiction doesn’t mean it is a good idea to keep feeding it or that it is useless to try to control the cravings as you so often seem to suggest with obesity.

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