Wednesday, September 30, 2009

NYT: An Anti-Tax Argument That's Hard to Swallow

Randy Cohen, writing on the Ethicist blog at the New York Times, debunks the argument that taxing sugary soft drinks is unethical (he makes no arguments about whether it's good tax or health policy).

The Issue

Proposals to tax sugary drinks as a way to fight obesity and finance health care reform have found support from medical experts and some interest from President Obama while meeting resistance from the beverage industry in general and the Coca-Cola C.E.O. Muhtar Kent in particular. “I have never seen it work where a government tells people what to eat and what to drink,” he told the Rotary Club of Atlanta last month. “If it worked, the Soviet Union would still be around.” Is this sort of argument so dubious, and does it come from the maker of products so damaging, that Muhtar Kent should be dragged off in handcuffs — or worse?

The Argument

I am an expert on neither tax policy nor nutrition, but it is worth examining a few of the arguments against taxing sugary drinks as examples of the reasoning all of us can encounter when making moral choices or weighing the issues of the day or confronting a bumptious uncle at Thanksgiving.

Muhtar Kent’s assertion is fishy because it confuses a positive and a negative. The various plans under consideration do not tell us what we should drink; they are concerned with what we should not drink — sugary beverages, what critics call “liquid candy.” Urging people not to drive short distances is different from saying they should reach the corner store by hopping. Urging people not to drink cola is different from pressuring them to drink cat pee.

And of course our government does tell people what to eat and has for years. Perhaps “tell” is too coercive a term — no federal food police pound on your door at dinnertime demanding to see your broccoli. But “strongly recommend” is apt. Kent should check out the Department of Agriculture’s food pyramid at the delightfully titled or visit where jackbooted thugs engage in tyrannical meal planning — O.K., there are no jackboots and no thuggery, but there are some tasty menus. (The recipe for cranberry-nut muffins looks delish.)

Our government, as many a nation does, also tells people what to eat in other ways, both directly, by creating menus for public-school cafeterias and military mess halls, and indirectly, influencing our diets through farm policies, tariffs, trade agreements and food regulation.

(Kent’s further assertion, his evocation of the Soviets, is entirely meretricious, deploying the familiar debater’s tactic of deprecating something by linking it to what is widely reviled. The Beatles are bad because Pol Pot liked “Hey, Jude.” Bowling is evil because Satan plays — he’s on a team with John and George.)

It is commonplace for a democracy to concern itself with the nutrition of its citizens. What is rightly and vigorously debated — by, for example, the writer Michael Pollan, the documentary film “Food, Inc.,” the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association or the American Academy Of Pediatrics — is not if government should involve itself in such things, but how. That’s politics in the best sense.

Kevin W. Keane, senior vice president for public affairs of the American Beverage Association, says it is wrongheaded to single out soda: “When it comes to losing weight, all calories count, regardless of the food source.” This is specious, akin to saying that when I have only partial responsibility, I have no responsibility. If I was the triggerman on that bank job, I couldn’t beg for a break because I wasn’t also the lookout and the getaway driver and the caterer. (Are bank robberies catered? Must you pack a lunch? A very healthful lunch?)

Assuredly, many factors affect our weight. But it doesn’t follow that because a policy fails to address all of them, it should not address any. That the feds devote few resources to going after counterfeiters who mint fake quarters doesn’t mean they should decline to pursue those who run off $20 bills.

What’s more, the multiple causes of a problem need not share equal significance. Studies suggest that sugary beverages are a key contributor to obesity. In its analysis, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes that “Americans consume about 250-300 more daily calories today than they did several decades ago, and nearly half of this increase reflects greater consumption of high-sugar soft drinks.” So there’s a case to be made for giving serious consideration to a soda tax even if other steps are not taken.

Such errors of reasoning might be seen as intellectual, not moral, failings, but it is difficult to extend that benefit of the doubt to Americans Against Food Taxes, which describes itself as “a coalition of concerned citizens — responsible individuals, financially strapped families, small and large businesses in communities across the country.” As was reported in The Times, A.A.F.T. looks like a veiled industry organization; calls to a media contact listed on the group’s Web site go to the American Beverage Association. This smells like Astroturf, or corporate lobbyists posing as a grass-roots organization. It is entirely suitable for interested parties to participate in public debate; it is not suitable to conceal who’s doing the debating.

Now, I, too, engaged in some forensic high jinks, I’ll admit. There are no actual proposals out there that call for a guillotine to be erected on the Washington Mall and for Muhtar Kent’s head to be separated from his. But to pose the question as I did is not deceit but a rhetorical device: I assume that readers recognize hyperbole. Of course Kent should not be executed. Most moralists agree that a punishment must be proportional to the transgression (although it’s often hard to agree on the terms). Nor should Kent even be imprisoned. I’d reserve that penalty for those who produce inarguably toxic products — the senior executives of tobacco companies, for instance. But it would be a fine thing if Kent and his cohort were ordered into a class on critical thinking, much as a traffic-court judge can send recalcitrant speeders to driver-improvement school.

Editor: I will note that imposing a federal tax on sugary soft drinks (i.e. non-diet sodas and fruit juices to which sugar or high-fructose corn lobby syrup has been added) will mean that food stamp recipients will no longer be able to buy them with food stamp dollars. This seems reasonable. However, one would need to be cautious in expanding a tax to all unhealthy foods. One should not presume that the poor don't know how to eat well; many of the poor work long hours, which may mean they lack time to prepare meals from scratch. At minimum one would need to modify the food stamp regulations.

For non-US readers, food stamps are a supplemental nutrition assistance program (actually, the program is now called SNAP). The benefits are funded solely by the Federal government. It is administered by the individual states; theoretically, the states don't have any incentive to impose barriers to people getting benefits, since it does end up being free money for the state and its residents.

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