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.