a case study in “statism”

(Image from blogs.bioethics.net)

(The recent exploration of my “statist” beliefs follows a thread over at the Daily Dish from a few weeks ago. See the discussion here, here, here, and here.)

Over the holiday weekend, I got a call from Opinion Access, a telephone polling firm doing a public opinion survey on San Francisco’s proposal to ban toys in meals at fast food restaurants unless they meet certain nutritional requirements. I was initially reluctant to participate, as it sounded like I was being guided to the answer the caller was looking for (as the call went on, I think he did that less). But as I talked to this pollster on the phone and decided on the fly whether I was in favor of or opposed to this measure, I found myself confronting some of the exact same issues that I had written about in my post about Ayn Rand last week.

Before taking this poll, I had heard about the proposed legislation, but nothing more than “San Francisco is proposing to ban toys in happy meals.” So when initially asked if I favored or opposed the proposed ban, I answered “opposed”, as I was unaware of the nutritional requirements aspect of it, and I think that a total ban on toys in kids’ meals is too heavy-handed to be justified. As the call went on, I learned that this would only apply to meals that failed to meet requirements governing the amount and types of fat, calories, and sodium in each meal. This caused me to rethink my position, and look at the issue a little more carefully.

(A little background: Given my dad’s work as a Pediatric Endocrinologist and specifically his work in Madison with obese kids, I would say I am more familiar with this issue than the average American. But it also means that I’m influenced by a man who is actively involved in the Madison government’s efforts to reduce childhood obesity and recently led a panel discussion called “Preventing Obesity, It Takes A Village…“. As with anything, I’ve tried to allow for but not rely on his point of view in developing mine.)

As I explained in the Ayn Rand post, I am a statist only inasmuch as I see the state as the proper actor for improving market efficiency and correcting externalities. In a system where childhood obesity was only a problem for the parents and the child making decisions about what to eat, I would say that the government has no place in this decision, and if a parent wants to let their kid eat awful food and get fat, that’s up to them. But that’s not the world we live in. Instead we live in a world where fast food restaurants are disproportionately located in low-income areas (see here and here), low-income areas have a lower availability of healthy foods, and low-income kids are eligible for Medicaid.  The fact that childhood obesity is not just a private, within-family problem, but rather has an effect on public healthcare expenditures makes this, in my eyes, a situation in which the government can correct a market failure.

A pure objectivist would argue that the solution to this problem would be to eliminate Medicaid, internalizing the costs of healthcare for the family making the fast-food decisions. I disagree with that, for a variety of reasons that are worthy of a whole other post on health care, but it’s probably not politically viable anyway (at least I would hope), so that’s not the solution. So then what is the proper way to address this market failure? I don’t have a solution, but I can see the reasoning behind SF’s proposed toy ban. The toy ban is, in my eyes, an attempt to encourage the restaurants to offer less “societally harmful” food options and to encourage kids to select those options over other less healthy options. Whether I end up supporting this particular attempt to correct this market failure will depend on the nutritional requirements that the City would set and how much of a burden it would impose upon restaurants. But regardless of my support for this one measure, I think that this is an area in which a strong argument can be made for a stronger governmental role, whether that take the form of a toy ban, more education of parents, or something else.

In the larger context of my political beliefs, I thought that this issue was an interesting thought experiment in building up my support for or opposition to a given policy. Though I favor a more “interventionist” approach from the state in this case, it is not a push for bigger government for bigger government’s sake, but an attempt to align personal incentives with societal costs.

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4 Responses to a case study in “statism”

  1. David says:

    I, too, am ambivalent about trying to “legislate” responsible parental behavior when it comes to food choices. But the other key principle at play here is that children are not simply small adults. They are a special group of citizens that merit extra protection because they are (often) unable to protect themselves against, among other things, poor choices of parents or guardians. Thus, the interesting question arises, when, if ever, does the provision (and tempting advertisement) of an obesity-promoting diet represent a sufficient risk to a child to warrant regulation? Of course, we would like to rely on educated parents to resist the temptation of the happy meal in favor of a more healthy option. Unfortunately, the last ten years of concerted “education” of the public has not blunted the rise in childhood obesity at all. This has led me to become more convinced that, on a larger scale, given the inexorably expanding obesity epidemic in this relatively sedentary and cheap-calorie-laden world, reversal of this obesity trend will not occur without some policy mechanisms that, while not eliminating choice, at least serve to either restrict choices to more healthy options, or economically reward healthier choices for food and activity for children. As long as it’s both cheaper and more fun to buy a happy meal than a healthy meal, the obesity wave will continue to crash over those susceptible to it. And since a child who is allowed to (?encouraged to) become obese is likely to struggle with obesity and its complications throughout life, complications (diabetes, heart disease, joint failure, depression) that we all have to pay for to address, it should not be far-fetched to imagine the extension of other state mandatory protections for children (e.g, immunizations, seat belts) to obesity-curbing policies, as a sensible and necessary step to at least give children a decent shot at avoiding obesity.

  2. Nicholas Kramer says:

    The market failure you refer to is the ability of fast food restaurants to externalize their costs in terms of both production and distribution. Fixing this problem doesn’t require eliminating Medicaid, but rather forcing the fast food company to internalize the costs of (for instance) their contribution to all those children becoming obese and getting diabetes and whatever other long-term health care costs and conditions might arise. The reality is that the fast food industry would be grossly unprofitable (because it would have to charge hundreds of dollars per meal to account for these costs, which no one would buy) – and thus would not exist. Problem solved.

    Banning toys in fast food meals is another nonsense issue that does not address anything even resembling the real problem, just as affirmative action policies are nothing more than a way to make us feel better while not addressing the systemic racism in our society. “Rearranging deck chairs on the titanic,” in other words.

    Check out the video at http://www.storyofstuff.com/ or even better, the “Story of Stuff” book at ( http://www.amazon.com/Story-Stuff-Obsession-Communities-Health/dp/143912566X )

    • frouglas says:

      Clearly, in an idealized sense, this would be the ideal policy tool: internalize the externalities. But, as I discussed in my piece on Objectivism, it’s really not that simple. Using the current example for a thought experiment: to what extent should the rise in childhood obesity be blamed on the parents versus the prevalence of fatty foods? Maybe if parents were better at encouraging their kids to exercise, this wouldn’t be a problem. Clearly there are a lot of externalities to the production and distribution of fast food, but is it even possible to quantify these, much less make any real progress towards resolving them?

      That’s where the state comes in. Given the present reality, I don’t think that you’d ever find the political clout to even start to internalize the costs of fast food through taxes or something like that. So politicians are forced to resort to second-order approximations, which is how I see this toy ban. Do I think it’s the best politically-feasible situation? Not really, but I can see the arguments for it and I think that it might be a Pareto improvement relative to the status quo. So am I willing to entertain the idea? Yes. Is it “rearranging deck chairs on the titanic”? Quite possibly, but I don’t think that small steps now, in the right direction, should necessarily be dismissed because they don’t provide a fully sustainable long-term solution.

  3. Nicholas Kramer says:

    Makes sense. For me, however, the value of incremental improvements in a way of life so far removed from what you term as a “fully sustainable long-term solution” is where I part ways from you and the vast majority of people I’ve ever spoken with on these types of issues. For instance, I make a point of not recycling, precisely because I feel recycling does nothing to address the completely unsustainable level of consumption in our society and in fact encourages it by giving people the idea that we can continue to live the way we do if only we recycle enough (or use the right kind of light bulbs, or buy the right kind of product, or drive hybrid cars, etc.). In other words, the idea that we can consume our way out of the perils of a consumption-based society.

    But more to the point of your post above, I am reminded of an idea I was first exposed to in reading one of Daniel Quinn’s books (I forget which one). Quinn argued (as I interpreted it) that we have developed a way of life that relies on a completely ridiculous system of laws to control people, and that those laws are designed with the full knowledge that people will break them. For example, we make laws that declare “No one is allowed to drive their vehicle faster than 35 MPH on this particular road” even though almost everyone will do so. This signals a fundamental disconnect between the way our society functions and “human nature” (or however you want to phrase it). In contrast, tribal societies, over hundreds or thousands of years, developed cultures that were intimately based on human nature with all its flaws. For instance, consider adultery. Without any formal laws or governmental system, a tribe dealt with adulterers in a way that recognized that adultery is bound to happen and allowed for a solution that benefited the tribe as a whole and the persons directly involved in the adultery. Basically the adulterers were given the choice of being exiled from the community together, so as to preserve harmony and allow them to be together if they truly had fallen in love, or ceasing their behavior altogether and rebuilding their respective families. In our society, we basically have declared that “Thou shalt not commit adultery” even though we know how common it is, and we do nothing to reduce the negative impact adultery has on society (adulterers often “get away” with their indiscretions, leading to a lifetime of negative feelings at home, or adultery may lead to divorce, leading again to a lifetime of negative feelings and detrimental social impacts – this time enforced by the State).

    My point is that we know children (and adults) will eat fatty foods because we are biologically incentivized to do so (our bodies crave fat because of how rare it was when we evolved as hunter/gatherers, and we never knew how long it would be between meals). We can make all the laws we want telling people not to eat fatty foods, or in other ways trying to discourage it, but as long as fatty foods are widely and cheaply available, people will eat them. The problem is that we live in a way of life that is fundamentally at odds with our health and happiness as determined by thousands and millions of years of evolution.

    More to the point of toys in happy meals… can you honestly tell me that removing toys from fast food purchases will make enough of a “Pareto improvement” to justify all of the effort that would be required to pass such a ridiculous law? (Especially when that effort could be better utilized at making a real improvement). Yes, fast food companies do aggressively market to children, and toys in meals are a part of that effort, and yes they have done enough research and market studies into the behaviorial sciences to know how effective it is (thus making them a “bad actor” in terms of children’s health). But look at the reality of obesity and diabetes, etc. in our society – the hardest hit populations are overwhelmingly poor and racial/ethnic minorities. The reason for this isn’t that poor minority children are just that much more attracted to toys in fast food meals – it is that fast food is cheap (both in terms of its monetary cost to the consumer and the time saved relative to more time consuming food preparation activities, which, in a poor family is more productively put to low-paying work activities). Or, more accurately, fast food appears to be cheap because it does not include the cost of its externalities. Removing toys won’t change any of that.

    The worst part is, the reason fast food is so “cheap” isn’t just because of market failures which allow for companies to get away with externalizing their costs – current government policies actually make it easier and more efficient for them to do so. The first step isn’t to impose all kinds of taxes, but to reduce or eliminate the government agricultural subsidies which allow fast food to be made as cheaply as it is. Is it politically impossible to change any of this? Probably. But I would rather we expend our efforts on things that Matter rather than things that don’t.

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