Friday, May 04, 2007

America needs a Fat Tax

After reading Kristen's blog today, I couldn't help but repost my reply to it; the topic is simply too important.

Our country is out of control, eating itself into oblivion, cutting physical education classes, offering sub-standard school lunches. It's embarrassing. I mean, seriously.

About ten years ago, I got a ticket for running a red light—on my bicycle. I remember pleading to the cop's sense of the absurd: "Come on, man... I'm on a bicycle. Do you think I really need a ticket for this?"

He smiled. "I'll tell you the same thing a cop told me when he caught me speeding years ago—the only way I know you'll change your behavior is if I hit you in the pocketbook." That was a $275 lesson and I've never run a red light on my bike again. Lesson learned.

Anyone can learn new behavior if the stick is painful enough. If there's a tastier carrot, even better, but the stick has to hurt, too.

We need to make fat food unpopular. We need to make it expensive. I know that might have massive implications for the fast food industry and my response can be summed up in two words:

Sod off!

KFC, McDonald's, Taco Bell... all you guys can blow me. You're giving Americans loaded guns and saying we're pulling the trigger ourselves. Okay, I'll give you that... so let's price the guns at $1000 instead of $100 and see how that affects the equation.

My idea is a fat tax. I explained it in Kristen's blog today:

The pendulum has reached its apogee for our adoration of fat food and the trend is ever so slowly coming back. It may take a generation of people getting diabetes and gastric bypass before we start to realize that our health care system carries the greatest financial burden of bad dieting, which means we all pay for everyone's bad choices.

My wife thinks I'm crazy, but I have the solution to this fast food mess—a fat tax.

Here's my theory: you tax the restaurants for using all the stuff that makes people fat, like all the saturated fats. The more customers buy the food, the more tax they pay. The goal of a fat tax is to make fast food expensive and unpopular... and then use that new tax revenue to subsidize healthy food alternatives which are more expensive than fast food. That eliminates the "but you're taxing the poor" argument because you'd be driving poor people to buy a 99¢ smoked turkey sandwich on wheat, rather than a chewy fat pill like a double-bacon cheeseburger.

Of course, a fat tax would be incredibly unfair for big businesses and their profit margins, but you have to ask yourself when enough fat American is enough; government is meant to represent the people's interests—NOT big business' interests—and (sadly) the only way the average citizen permanently modifies their behavior is when it hits them in the pocketbook.


Christopher said...

Ahh, the benevolent dictatorship rears it's ugly head...

Seriously, what business is it of yours? Are you willing to force your preferences on people at the point of a gun? Because that's exactly what you're proposing.

Ross Pruden said...

It becomes my business when obesity-related illnesses like diabetes and gastric bypass surgery overburden the healthcare sector... because those costs get pushed onto taxpayers.

Setting aside the financial repercussions to taxpayers (which amounts to an imfringement of personal liberty), there is intrinsic value in social programs that improve the general health of the nation. For instance, Social Security offers at least some retirement by forcing many to surrender part of their paycheck; this policy targets those who don't look after their own welfare (much like obese people). Thus, Social security also forces a preference on people at the point of a gun... but nobody ever complains about that.

If people grew fat and their health never affected the healthcare system, I wouldn't feel so strongly about it—if people want to eat themselves into a piano crate coffin, I am saddened, but that's their personal choice. Still, when someone takes money out of my pocket to pay for their poor lifestyle choices, I have a lot to say about it.

A fat tax encouraging Americans to eat more healthily would make its citizens live longer lives, be more productive, and decrease health care costs over the long term. I struggle to see how those results can be seen as a bad thing.

Christopher said...

Sorry it's taken me so long to respond; life has been pretty interesting lately! Anyway, here goes:
First, the costs of obesity to the health care system have been vastly overstated, largely by groups who support various social engineering schemes. Those costs that do exist could be cut by reducing the heroic end-of-life care that most Americans receive. The last couple of weeks of life are more expensive than all the years that came before.
Second, the reason that these health care costs may indirectly affect you as a taxpayer is precisely because of the social policy interventions that you're advocating, particularly blanket mandates for insurance coverage. If insurance companies were allowed to offer consumers actual choices, then these costs could be adequately priced in. For example, at my employer, there is a surcharge for health plan participants who are overweight.
Most importantly, due to inefficient tort laws, health care insurance is one of the largest components of the rise in health care costs over the last twenty years.
The infringement of personal liberty that you refer to is not due to people doing what they choose with their own bodies. The infringement comes from the state deciding that I should have to pay for their choices. Further coercion doesn't fix this just as two wrongs don't make a right.
To continue with the outcome-based portion of the argument, it's useful to remember that these kinds of social "fixes" only lead to more problems -- the Law of Unintended Consequences. A problem we're avoiding talking about now in the Social Security system (by the way -- WTF? -- "nobody ever complains" about the Social Security system? C'mon). A better analogy would have been the tobacco industry...
Another point to consider is that a fat tax would almost certainly amount to a regressive tax on the poor. The relatively wealthy people shopping at Trader Joe's probably wouldn't pay much at all, while the day laborers, truck drivers, and fast food workers themselves who eat fast food at lunch would pay the most. It seems a little callous to demand that the poorest and least educated people should pay an ignorance tax, but since the state does the same thing with tobacco I suppose it's not an entirely inconsistent position. At least the lottery they run gives you a choice to not play.
Anyway, leaving costs aside as you tried to do (but came right back to in the very next paragraph of your response), even if the outcome-based arguments were against me I would still be against your proposal. The government's job is not to maximize the public's health, but to maximize liberty.
I find it ironic that the person who was the subject of your original post is decidedly NOT obese, and hence not a part of the "problem", and yet she would be obligated to pay your fat tax for her indulgence along with the porkers you are targeting. How is this tax in any way fair to her or the other millions of people who don't eat too much?
If you want to "encourage" people to lead healthier lives, I can think of many non-coercive ways to do so. To demand it from them by using the force of the state is the very definition of the nanny state. It is right of you to recognize that fast food is bad for your body and, if eaten to excess, will make you fat; that is exercising your reason. And it is right that you rant about it on your blog and encourage others to see the truth you've discovered. That is exercising your liberty. But using the state to coerce virtue takes the exercise of reason and liberty away from those you're coercing, whether you want to make them eat better, follow the teachings of the Holy Book, or enslave them to build the Worker's Paradise. The point is that you are not persuading people or educating them or removing obstacles for them to change themselves. You are forcing them, with the power of the state, to follow your dictates instead of using their own reason. That's what I'm against.