Weighing in on the soda ban

I’ve been only nominally present on the internet lately due to family stuff I won’t bore you with, but the last few days have seemed especially filled with vitriol towards Bloomberg’s soda ban.

I understand the detractors to be of a particular political bent, but I’ve been surprised by both the magnitude of the response and the apparent blinding nature of the issue. People I generally consider intelligent and levelheaded have, in my mind, totally missed the boat to have a larger conversation on policy.

Will Wilkinson, in the Economist, provides an account (invoking Jonathan Swift a bit) for his stance against paternalism, but sets up false dichotomies.

GIGANTIC sugared soft drinks are disgusting. Let’s just get that out of the way. Can we also agree that the high-calorie drinks rich people like to consume—red wine, artisanal beer, caramel frappuccinos, mango smoothies with wheatgrass and a protein boost—aren’t at all disgusting? At any rate, we yuppie pinot-drinkers know how to look after ourselves. In contrast, the wretched classless hordes, many of them being of dubious heritage, lack the refinement of taste necessary to make autonomy unobjectionable. Those who abuse their liberty, filling the sidewalks of our great cities with repulsive shuffling blimps, can’t expect to keep it, can they?

All those high-calorie drinks that rich people consume are consumed by rich people for a reason. Well, several, probably. They taste good (except wheatgrass, yuck), they confer some sort of status on the drinker (conspicuous consumption), and they’re expensive. Have you seen the price of Bordeaux lately? 2010 Chateau LaTour is $1500 a bottle. Why, you ask, despite there being a glut of many other wines on the market? It’s likely because Bordeaux is one of the few foreign wines that has been introduced to China. And the Chinese love their red wine. But we (the US government) don’t intervene and say we have to make sure that wine grapes are affordable and vintners stay in business, so let’s incentivize more wine grape growing in France or prevent the Chinese from demanding wine.

But I digress. These drinks are expensive because the market recognizes both their inherent qualities and conspicuous consumption qualities, identifies demand and supply, and provides at the equilibrium price. Every one of my principles students could show you a graph to that effect.

The difference is that we do intervene with corn, a primary ingredient in sugary sodas, which artificially holds down the price. Sugary sodas are not just cheap because of supply and demand; they’re cheap because government intervention, particularly subsidies for growing corn, keeps corn abundant and cheap.

Again, my principles students could all give you a list of reasons why those subsidies are in place: we care about food security and being able to provide our own food in case of a crisis; we want to preserve a rural way of life; we want to make sure farmland is used for farming and not housing developments. But also, subsidies become entrenched, often far beyond their usefulness. Farmers are used to the guaranteed income and don’t want to give them up. Companies who buy corn want corn cheap, so they lobby to keep the subsidies in place. Pop includes high fructose corn syrup as an ingredient, a cheap alternative to sugar. They want to keep the price of corn low so they keep their profit margins while keeping their product cheap.

Subsidies are hard to get rid of because they have the property of concentrated benefits/diffuse costs. A few people benefit a lot from subsidized corn (and indeed we all benefit a little from low prices on foodstuffs that have subsidized corn as an ingredient), and we all pay a little through our taxes to keep those prices low. Subsidies, in theory, should stay in place as long as the benefits to society outweigh the costs. And perhaps the soda ban shows that the costs (increased obesity as a result of soda consumption–though perhaps a tenuous link) are greater than the benefits to society as outlined above. Or Bloomberg’s just a paternalistic whack.

Is banning pop in larger than 16-oz bottles the right answer? Probably not. Can Bloomberg single-handedly change US farm policy? Absolutely not. So he does what is within his control. Is it paternalist? Yes, totally. But if we were really worried about paternalism, why didn’t I hear all of these people crowing about laws that seek to limit abortion rights and intimidate mothers and prevent access to birth control? Make a distressed rape victim listen to a lecture about her child’s beating heart, allow her doctor to withhold information from her, and make her wait three more days before having an abortion? Sure! But increase the cost of consuming something whose cost is artificially low and presents potentially harmful negative externalities? The nerve.


Claire Potter makes a similar argument in the Chronicle of Higher Education.


4 thoughts on “Weighing in on the soda ban

  1. Erin,

    I would bet you $100 that removing corn subsidies would not have stopped Bloomberg or his allies in pushing for this, so I don’t think this subsidy is so much a justification as it is a rationalization. And given that so many proponents seem to ready concede this probably won’t work but they support it anyway, I don’t think most envision countering that subsidy as a constituting much of a benefit, since it probably won’t counter it. It’s more about symbolism and the hope that this will lead to more future paternalism.

    Also, I think there are some pretty different ethical issues at stake when it comes to abortion, and I don’t think you can call it *just* more onerous paternalism. It is many other things as well.

    • Adam,
      I think we’re talking at each other sideways bit. I think we agree that the soda ban is a waste of time and energy. However, I maintain that the reaction to the soda ban was outsized, logically inconsistent, and not very useful. I agree that the soda ban wouldn’t change much, except symbolically, but if the symbolism is relevant–as justification or rationalization–, those with an established platform missed an opportunity to have a larger conversation about policy. The soda ban affects a rather small number of people, and inasmuch as democracy works, those affected voted for him, and can vote him out. Farm policy, on the other hand, affects everyone, all over the world, right now, before any descent of a slippery slope.

      As for abortion, I’m quite aware of the arguments against legalized abortion, but I have never understood the alliance between libertarians and anti-choice activists on this front. It’s an attempt to have it both ways in a manner that specifically disempowers a large subset of the population–women–on the grounds that they can’t make rational, “moral” decisions, while requiring everyone else to make rational and “moral” decisions even in the presence of clear asymmetries of information and the presence of negative externalities.

      • Erin,

        You said:

        “I agree that the soda ban wouldn’t change much, except symbolically, but if the symbolism is relevant–as justification or rationalization–, those with an established platform missed an opportunity to have a larger conversation about policy”

        I think many did try to have a larger conversation about policy, but that the most relevant larger policy conversation is about paternalism policy. In general when new paternalism is proposed there are two groups that wish to talk about this larger debate and symbolism: paternalism critics, and those paternalists who are up front about how extreme they are willing to go. The latter group, which consists of people like Mark Bittman and Marion Nestle are quite willing to discuss how they hope this will lead by example to more stringent laws. Critics worry that this is the case. Defenders who aren’t extreme, on the other hand, simply insist that 1) critics are blowing it out of proportion, and 2) there is no slippery slope. I think that when people try to minimize these policies they are the ones ignoring the most relevant important larger debate, and they are ignoring powerful advocates on their own side who are using this policy to push for a much more paternalistic future.

        As far as farm policy goes, I think libertarians are second to nobody in complaining about the status quo and advocating for positive changes. But again I don’t think it’s very related to the issue at hand, because I don’t think bad farm policies are a necessary condition for paternalists to push for things like big soda bans.

        I don’t think libertarians are as anti-choice as you do, and I think there is a fair diversity of opinion. But more importantly, I don’t think the logical inconsistency is as strong as you do. I *do* agree there are tensions, for sure. But I think there are important differences in a debate about who counts as a person, and other debates about economic freedom and choice.

      • Let me try to boil my abortion point down more succinctly: if I think that life begins near conception (FYI, I don’t) and you think it doesn’t, than the whether we differ on people’s ability to “make rational, ‘moral’ decisions” can be a fairly minor factor in determining how our policy beliefs differ. Also, I don’t see any reason why the former belief should be correlated with the latter.

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