The Fat Tax? The Stupid Tax?
BIG THINKER Daniel Honan reminds us that Mayor Bloomberg is not in any obvious sense an ideologue. He's just about using the power of government to curtail behavior that costs the government—and so the good people of NYC—money.
Epidemic obesity is expensive in terms of health care and lost productivity.
Eating too much sugar (sucrose and fructose) is a big cause of obesity. But it's not the only cause.
Portions of everything in the world of comparatively fast food have ballooned. Even the average bagel is much bigger. That's an important reason, no doubt, why consumers of fast food have ballooned too. Most Americans who regularly consume fast food are relatively poor and uneducated. They, someone has to add truthfully, often have to struggle to survive. Fast food has two undeniable virtues: It's cheap and it's fast. Lots of calories per buck might actually be considered a good thing for members of the working poor—especially those with many mouths to feed.
So the same logic that causes the mayor to go after big sodas, it seems to me, would lead to a war against every form of supersizing servings of unrefined carbs.
There ought to be a law against pounds of pizza for ten bucks, against especially all-you-can-eat pizza buffets such as CiCi's, and against massive servings of fries. Whoppers and other gigantic burgers can't be exempted: The mixture of greasy meat and white buns kills far more readily than either part eaten alone.
The mayor has now expressed the explicitly paternalistic view that the poor and uneducated may just not be aware of the nutritional issues involved here. So they need government's help.
I'd be for that help in terms of public education. But prohibition is too promiscuous a remedy. It affects the clinically insignificant indulgence of those who get ridiculously-sized popcorns and soda and candy during their monthly trip to the movies. What's the harm in the convenience of a serving that lasts the whole show? Or that can be shared with your kids or significant other?
And what about the godsend the various forms of cheap supersizing are to the poor who have the sense to save by splitting the pizzas or the foot-longs or whatever?
Because large portions don't necessarily lead to personal fatness, Daniel talks up the more direct and seemingly just solution of taxing the fat directly as burdens to society.
Let me just raise a couple of obvious objections.
The tax on the FAT would be regressive. There's an increasingly close correlation between obesity and economic class.
The tax absolves the rich of any responsibility for the unfortunate. It's a lot harder for the poor and struggling to choose not to be fat. The tax is lacking in charity or even empathy.
The tax on the fat stems from the hyper-moralism about obesity I find among prosperous professors. Their easy and unstressful jobs give them plenty of time to exercise. Almost every college is equipped with a gym worthy of a resort. Professors also have the time and money to eat in good restaurants and shop and plan for healthy meals. They also think smoking marijuana is a victimless crime.
Bloomberg connects obesity more to stupidity than socioeconomic struggle. So why not tax those who are more stupid than they need be? These people are more unproductive and a general burden on the economy than the fat considered as a class. Tax high-school dropouts!
There are all sorts of things government can do, beginning with public education and perhaps going on to removing subsidies for sugar and corn. There should also be a lot more public attention to the causes of the growing economic inequality in America and to the cultural division of the country into two or more increasingly distant and irresponsible (in different ways) classes.
Heck, let me add one more: Being ugly is also amazingly closely correlated to lack of productivity. Ugliness is not simply a personal choice, of course. But surely we can tax those who display TATTOOS—an epidemic that disturbs me a lot more than obesity. That Henna on GIRLS just doesn't get how self-indulgent that thing on her shoulder is.
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