While all the Republicans and Democrats in Washington are spending all these fine summer weekends fighting over the debt ceiling, and so far have absolutely nothing to show for it, the smart people at the New York Times have gone ahead and solved the whole debt problem for us.
Blaring at us from the front page of today’s Sunday Review, in huge, bright red print, we see the following chain of logic: A 20% tax on soft drinks will produce a 20% reduction in consumption, which will prevent 1.5 million people from becoming obese, which will prevent 400,000 cases of diabetes – yielding $30 billion in health savings.
This revelation leaves DrRich slapping his forehead and wondering, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Simply use the tax code and the regulatory muscle of the Central Authority to change human behavior in the proper manner, and everything will fall into place.
It takes a special kind of person to believe that human behavior is so predictable, and so controllable, that one can actually titrate in such a manner the amount of obesity that exists in a society, and therefore, titrate the cost of healthcare. It takes a special kind of person to believe that, simply by tweaking a specific tax here, or adding a specific regulation there, one’s actions will yield precisely the response predicted by the “experts,” and that this response will translate precisely down a complex chain of assumptions (based on selective analysis, conjecture and wishful thinking) to yield cost savings anything similar to those predicted, and that the cascade of results (not being subject to any vagaries of human nature) will not have all manner of unintended consequences. That special kind of person is called a Progressive.
Let’s say that some really smart operative in the Obama administration, reading today’s Times, takes it into his head to solve the obesity crisis, the healthcare crisis, and the debt crisis all in one brilliant stroke, and accordingly, gets the President to appoint the entire New York Times Editorial Staff as the country’s new Czar of Food. These fine folks, sensing a once in a lifetime opportunity and not wanting to squander it on such small potatoes as a softdrink tax, decide to go all out. They institute large, prohibitive taxes on ALL the foods consumed by our society that contribute to our obesity. As a result, the only foodstuffs that remain untaxed are fresh fruits, vegetables, and fish. (And, considering the possibility that one or more of the NYT editorial staffers may very well be vegans, DrRich is not sure about the fish.)
According to the Times’ variety of calculus, this action will have remarkably positive consequences. The consumption of unhealthy, obesity-producing foods will drop by some very large amount – probably 90% if the taxes are high enough – and American obesity will nearly disappear. Diabetes will go the way of tuberculosis and leprosy, all the other medical disorders made worse by obesity will greatly diminish, and we will save trillions of dollars in healthcare expenditures.
What would actually happen, of course, is quite different.
If all sugary foods and fatty foods and processed foods were heavily taxed, the demand on the untaxed foods (the fruits, vegetables and fish) would skyrocket, and prices would go through the roof. Only the very wealthy could get all the healthy food they wanted. The merely wealthy would get some of the healthy food, and would supplement their diets with the unhealthy stuff, grudgingly paying the excessive taxes to do so. DrRich does not know what the poor would do for food, but he bets they would be pissed.
A lot of other unpleasant things would happen as well. The companies that process foods and soft drinks – and most American restaurants – would suffer badly, and would probably go out of business. Robust black markets would establish themselves, trafficking in inexpensive, calorie-dense (and possibly even tasty) foodstuffs, which would now be produced in Mexico, Canada and China instead of in the US. Junk food cartels would murder each other along our borders. Americans would find themselves envying, rather than pitying, that occasional old fart who is discovered dining on a can of Fancy Feast Cat Food.
And furthermore, Americans will learn something about one’s ideal body weight that we don’t hear too much about today, because it does not fit into the “overweight is bad” narrative. Namely, while severe obesity is very bad for your health, being a little overweight is probably not so bad. Statistically speaking, it is more threatening to one’s longevity to be too thin than to be a little overweight.
DrRich does not have the solution to the obesity problem we have in America. If there is a solution, DrRich thinks it is likely to be some combination of science (since there is a large genetic component to true obesity), encouraging a sense of personal responsibility for living one’s own life, and yes, even public policy. But he finds the kind of linear thinking displayed in today’s Times – relying on assumption piled upon assumption, ignoring the obvious human and economic reactions that will knock those assumptions off their straight-line path – to be silly. And if they actually encourage public policy experts to behave in such a manner, they can be dangerous.