There has been a lot in the news lately about NYC’s attempted soda ban, which was blocked by a state judge on the eve of its implementation earlier this week. This ban has been skillfully criticized elsewhere, and anyone with libertarian urges as strong as mine probably won’t surprise anyone by declaring the ban absurd and immoral. However, one needn’t be committed to political beliefs as broadly unpopular and awesome as mine to agree with me about this particular policy. One need only believe that government policy should at least have to pass the smell test before trampling freedom to find this ban offensive. A CNN opinion piece I stumbled across the other day highlights just how flimsy Führer Bloom-turd’s reasoning for the ban is.
The author, Lawrence O. Gostin, starts out by setting the bar for his arguments quite low
Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal was met with fierce opposition by the industry and public outrage at the loss of “liberty,” the so-called “nanny state” run amok. Beyond all the hype, the industry’s vociferous arguments, now adopted by a trial court, are badly flawed.
Ah yes, there are few better indications that the coming arguments will suck than purely pejorative scare quotes! What’s that, boy? Well, we don’t take too kindly to you and your “liberty” around here! Have patience, though. Once the author is done deploying the rhetorical equivalent of I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I, we get to his actual “arguments” (see, I did it, too!). He starts off with an equivocation large enough to enjoy any of the rides at your local amusement park:
Nearly six out of 10 New York City residents are overweight or obese, as are nearly four out of 10 schoolchildren. This cannot be acceptable to our society, knowing that obesity is such a powerful risk factor for diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
Here, Gostin rides roughshod over the distinction between being overweight and being obese. The overweight-or-obese classification is much more populous than the obese classification, but it’s not at all clear that merely being overweight is a powerful risk factor for diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. I don’t know if Gostin is just a tremendously sloppy thinker or is willing to commit whatever dishonesty is necessary to satisfy his statist urges, but either way his remarks here are anything but those of a careful thinker or scientist.
Next stop, Question Begging Town! Toot-toot.
No one would disagree that government should act…
Yeah, nobody. Except for, apparently, the majority of the country. And a state judge. And most anyone whose career isn’t in a field directly empowered by widespread health hysteria. Well, now that we all agree that the government must do something, let’s figure out what that should be!
One of those solutions is to control portion size and sugar consumption. Why?
First, the ever-expanding portions (think “supersized”) are one of the major causes of obesity. When portion sizes are smaller, individuals eat less but feel full. This works, even if a person can take an additional portion. (Most won’t because they are satiated, and it at least makes them think about what they are consuming.) Second, sugar is high in calories, promotes fat storage in the body and is addictive, so people want more. The so-called “war on sugar” is not a culture war, it is a public health imperative backed by science.
So, there is good reason to believe New York’s portion control would work.
Oh my god! How in the name of Ben Franklin’s gilded bifocals did he do it?! Despite rampant debate among experts about the causes and implications of obesity in modern society, Wunderkind Gostin has cleared it all up in a few sentences! Turn him to any cause of policy, The Gordian Knot of it he will unloose! The leaps Gostin makes here are embarrassing, and he provides no good reason to think that the soda ban will have any effect whatsoever on the city’s waistlines.
What does he mean when he claims that increased portion sizes are one of the causes of obesity? Taken one way, his claim is almost tautologically vacuous. If “portion size” just means how much you eat, then he’s claiming that increased food consumption is a major cause of obesity. Way to shake up the dominant paradigm there, professor. If he is claiming that the increased size of “units” of food offered by retailers is a major cause of obesity, he’s just reciting an article of faith. The studies that have examined the relationship between calorie consumption and presented portion sizes are less than dazzling in any regard, but it’s especially ridiculous to assume that any behavior exhibited during a controlled, artificial, and short-term experimental environment justifies any particular conclusion about behavior in the real world. (I was originally planning on including a critique of one such portion-control study, but I’ll save that for a later post.)
Imagine a study where we locked subjects in a room with a roll of piano wire and a hammer and told them that they needed to pick one or the other in order to kill a person in a few minutes. Would a statistically significant preference for hammers in any way indicate that a hammer ban would make us less violent? Of course not. Only a little less ridiculous is the notion that just because people eat a little bit more over a three-week period when provided (at no cost and with no other alternatives) with the larger of two pre-packaged meals that differ wildly in calorie content means that forcing some retailers to downsize some of their drinks will have any net effect whatsoever amidst the wildly complex web of decisions a person makes every day about when, how, and where to eat and exercise. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Also, it’s more than a little odd to think that the arrow of causality points in the direction Gostin implies. Are we to believe that everyone was walking around with washboard abs (like mine) until one day a retailer arbitrarily increased his portion sizes, after which consumers began blindly consuming whatever was in front of them? Or is it more likely that sound-minded adults demanded larger portions because, I don’t know, they freakin’ like eating because food is delicious? And if so, isn’t it reasonable to assume that those same consumers, barring any change in their actual preferences, will quickly and easily circumvent any lame-ass attempts to come between them and their delicious calories? Dorks like Gostin would have us believe both that our urge to over-consume is so powerful that citizens are helpless to resist and also that these same voracious appetites will disappear in face of the inconvenience of having to buy two drinks!
You would think that the “establishment” would be a little less arrogant in their claims about the kinds of diets should be forced upon citizens. It hasn’t been that long since the public health experts urged everyone to give up butter and instead consume copious trans fat, which everyone now agrees is perhaps one of the more damaging substances in the modern diet. It also hasn’t been that long since they scoffed at low-carb diets and called them dangerous, another prescription that looks more wrong every day. Of course, I’m not claiming that 64oz of sugary liquid is good for you by any means. (I myself make it a point to avoid most any calorie-containing beverage and am currently fueling this expert skewering with a hot cup of healthy matcha.) However, it’s foolish superstition to think that the ban in question would have any non-trivial effect on the health of New York’s citizens.
Gostin keeps whining…
But why does the city have to prove that it works beyond any doubt? Those who cry “nanny state” in response to almost any modern public health measure (think food, alcohol, firearms, distracted driving) demand a standard of proof that lawmakers don’t have to meet in any other field. When a law is passed to increase jobs, spur the economy or subsidize a corporate sector (oil, for example), we don’t insist that lawmakers prove it works.
You see, because we already make crappy policy decisions elsewhere, it’s important that we continue such bad practices in all realms of governance. And look at how he bravely and diplomatically crosses the political divide! He subtly throws his support behind horrible policies frequently backed by Republicans (corporate welfare) so that he can similarly enjoy the bad policies that liberal Democrats clamor for. He also deftly manufactures a straw man here by claiming that opponents are demanding proof “beyond any doubt”? Well, even granting that my diet is any of your business at all, how about before we get all worked up over “absolute proof”, you give us even a single, well-formed argument in favor of even maybe suspecting that this ban might make any kind of positive difference?
There are only so many hours in the day to inspect all of Gostin’s turds, so let’s skip ahead. Can he still surprise me with stupid? Yup.
Admittedly, the soda ban would have been better coming from the city’s elected legislature, the City Council. But the Board of Health has authority to act in cases where there is an imminent threat to health. Doesn’t the epidemic of obesity count as an imminent threat, with its devastating impact on health, quality of life and mortality?
Imminent? Freakin’ imminent?! Apparently, he’s in a competition with Barack and GW to see who can more laughably distort the meaning of one simple word in support of heinous policies. Yes, we most enact this ban now or tomorrow the city will be littered with immobile fatties heaving up and down from their final death rattles. How will Timmy’s mommy navigate her Prius through these lipid-laden streets to get to his dialysis appointment! There’s no time for your so-called rule of law, boy, not with man-boobs on the loose! Perhaps we should just corral these tubby timebombs into the Superdome?
That the government should take seriously and think soberly about further depriving its citizens any freedom, no matter how small it may seem in the mind of any one person, is not a principle that libertarians hold a monopoly on. It’s common-sense morality that you should at least have a prima facie good reason before forcefully controlling another person. Gostin’s opinion piece laughably fails to meet this minimal burden, as would any attempted defense of this prohibition. However, politicians and bureaucrats rarely let morality or reason get in their way. As Chicago’s own top power-hungry twit famously advised “You never let a serious crisis go to waste”. This apparently includes manufactured ones.
(Think about it…have you ever seen them together?)