Art Carden  

A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Nanny State Get Fat

PRINT
Les Miserables... Four Big Facts About Hiring an...

In today's post on AL.com, Scott Beaulier of the Johnson Center at Troy University explains how the River Region Obesity Task Force is looking to measure students' BMIs. A few thoughts:

1. First they came for the beer, but I didn't speak up because I don't drink. Then they came for the tobacco, but I didn't speak up because I don't smoke. Now they're coming for the sugar. What's next? Here are a few articles I've written on behavioral economics generally and sugar specifically:

Who Nudges the Nudgers?

Should we Regulate Sugar Like Alcohol or Tobacco? (actually, we should regulate alcohol and tobacco like sugar)

Taxing Sugar Will Do More Harm Than Good

An NPR Appearance in which I talk about the aforementioned sugar/alcohol/tobacco article

And here's a paper by Scott and co-blogger Bryan Caplan titled "Behavioral Economics and Perverse Effects of the Welfare State" (ungated here)

2. What are the odds that Mary Poppins--which I'm watching with my kids tonight before I leave for a trip tomorrow--becomes controversial because of the song "A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down?" What are the odds that it already is? I could find out with Google, but I'm afraid to look. But I couldn't turn away. Fortunately, there's not much in a couple of quick Googles.


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (12 to date)
Scott Burgess writes:

Why would you think they'll even hesitate? I ranted a little about it back in March of 2012.

http://fretion.blogspot.com/2012/03/beware-big-brother-in-nurse-clothing.html

The nanny state continues to expand their powers, all in the name of health. Alcohol, tobacco, cannabis and other drugs. Heck, they even warn us against eating fat (mistakenly I might add), and ban unpasteurized milk for crying in the night.

The list goes on and on, all in the name of protecting us poor ignorant savages from ourselves.

MingoV writes:

More thoughts:

The Body Mass Index is a poor tool for classifying people as obese or underweight. The BMI was created because it was a better tool than weight to calculate dosages of certain drugs.

The BMI is markedly inaccurate at assessing body habitus in children and teenagers.

BMI first was misused by government agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. The NIH and CDC changed the categorization cutoffs (around 2000) and caused an instant 30% increase in obesity. People with muscular physiques now are classified as overweight or even obese. Elderly persons with muscle mass replaced by fat get categorized as normal.


Sugar, in and of itself, is not a dietary problem (for non-diabetics). Total carbohydrate (starches and sugars) intake is what most people should regulate to avoid or reverse obesity. (Regulating fat intake is unimportant for most people.)

Sugar scares seem to occur at twenty years intervals. The previous scare was that sugar was causing hyperactivity in children. That sugar scare ended when incompetent or greedy clinicians and incompetent teachers joined forces to diagnose every child unable to sit still for three hours with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. They are the largest group of amphetamine users. (Ritalin and its cousins are amphetamines.)

The current sugar causes obesity scare will end after the federal government, via ObamaCare, spends billions of dollars paying for clinicians and nutritionists to emphasize reduced sugar intake. Their won't be any weight loss from those efforts, so they'll probably revert to a fat scare.

Mark V Anderson writes:

I certainly don't like it when the government bans or regulates any substance. I am against all drug laws and prescription requirements.

However, I don't see the problem with "sin" taxes, including proposals for taxing sugar. As long as we have to have taxes, why not tax the things that society would be better off with less of? My argument isn't that these are externalities. They are just over-used.

It's an economic truism that taxing something reduces demand. Why not reduce demand of stuff that is bad for people and reduce somewhat the taxes on things that are good, such as creating income?

Tracy W writes:

Mark, how do you know they are over-used? How do you know they are bad for people?

The items in question might, when consumed above a certain amount per year, lower people's health, but we can't conclude from that that the items in question are bad for people. People regularly knowingly risk their lives, for example cars kill hundreds of thousands of people around the world every single year, but few people propose banning cars. Mountaineers know they risk their lives, but still chose to climb mountains. I know mountaineers who have volunteered for Search and Rescue for many years, and gone out on SAR efforts that brought back dead bodies, and still go mountaineering themselves.

In the end, we're all going to die anyway, what matters is the quality of life in between.

Mark V Anderson writes:
The items in question might, when consumed above a certain amount per year, lower people's health, but we can't conclude from that that the items in question are bad for people.

I find it hard to believe that anyone would question whether over-use of sugar is common or is bad for you. Clearly both are true. Yes, a small amount of sugar is not bad for people, but of course a tax on sugar would not unduly affect such consumption. A tax would only affect those who buy a lot of it.

As I said above, I don't think bad behavior should be banned. But I haven't seen an argument that explains why we shouldn't have more taxes on those purchases most see as bad, instead of taxing what most see as good.

Daublin writes:

This is just another subsidy for corn.

I'd be somewhat symathetic to the sin-tax idea if there was actually a coherent policy about taxing access to unhealthy food. I see nothing of the sort, though. There are all manner of less healthy foods than sugar that are left completely untouched.

The corn lobby knows that if Americans consume more sugar, we'll consume less high-fructose corn syrup. As such, U.S. federal policy is to squeeze a little more no sugar each year.

Another example is the use of corn to make ethanol for fuel. Sugar would make more sense, but guess which one the feds have mandated? You can't buy gas anymore without making a donation to corn.

ZC writes:

Well, judging by @MarkAnderson's posts, it would see that the nanny state has already succeeded in lulling the minds of the otherwise intelligent to sleep such that they can go about their control the populace unfettered.

"I find it hard to believe that anyone would question whether over-use of sugar is common or is bad for you."
-- Well, first off, we've got a couple of problems of definition here. What do you mean by 'sugar'? You see, there's all kinds of sugar. Presumably you're referring to that great bogey-man high fructose corn syrup.

-- What do you mean by 'over-use'? Are you thinking of setting a calorie per day limit? That's not a great way to go about things, because a high-level athlete in training or a hard-working laborer working a full day could easily consume 5000 calories and still be at a calorie deficit for the day, while Bob, sitting on his couch watching TV, would be starting to pack on the pounds. Maybe you think the proof is in the pudding and it's the weight gain that's bad. If so, why don't we just tax fat and skip this sugar middle-man. We could have weigh stations set up at local IRS offices and proceed accordingly if your goal is to discourage people from living unhealthy lives.

"Yes, a small amount of sugar is not bad for people, but of course a tax on sugar would not unduly affect such consumption."
-- Well, if it wouldn't affect the consumption of sugar, why institute it at all?

"A tax would only affect those who buy a lot of it."
-- No, it would affect everyone subject to the tax. Of course, you haven't state what convoluted mechanism you'll use to determine and collect this great tax, but suffice it to say it will undoubtedly be overly broad and full of holes. And now we get to the fun part of unintended consequences. As above, athletes in training, hard working laborers, and other active people need to consume more calories in a day to go about their activities, so they'll be disproportionately impacted by such a tax, which by your own logic, would discourage those activities. Counterproductive, no?

"But I haven't seen an argument that explains why we shouldn't have more taxes on those purchases most see as bad, instead of taxing what most see as good."
-- You haven't seen such an argument? Well, here you go...
Ochlocracy (look that one up if you need to, Mark), is a terrible way of deciding who should be allowed to do what. The will of the majority isn't always wise, prudent, or responsible (reference: innumerable events in the course of human history). And yet another definitional problem, who is this 'Most' you speak of? Is it most voters, most people who are not fat, most people who still have a landline and respond to phone surveys? And what sort of level are we breaking down this 'most' into? Neighborhood, city, state, national? You see, 'most' people in certain areas may not view certain things as 'bad' or 'good' the same way you, or some bureaucrat in some distant ivory tower (who gets contributions from the maker of thing the 'goodness' or 'badness' of which is up for debate). For example, pertinent to your sugar interest, is lactose good or bad? Well, that depends on your genes.

And again, definitional problem, 'good' and 'bad' imply a level of decisive precision which any such debate lacks. Good or bad at what levels, to whom, in what circumstance? The world of nutrition, and the world at large, are much more gray than this binary classification you've offered.

You'll undoubtedly disagree with me, but if after reading this you're a little more skeptical of the unquestioned 'wisdom' of the ever growing nanny state, I'll take it. (WARNING: This post contains ideas known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.)

Tracy W writes:

Mark:

I find it hard to believe that anyone would question whether over-use of sugar is common or is bad for you.

I found it hard to believe that physicists would measure impedance in henries. That doesn't mean it isn't true.

Clearly both are true

If it is indeed clear, then you should be able to give a solid argument in favour of it. You haven't yet. You have so far:
1. Expressed your surprise that anyone could even question your statement, apparently this is the first time you have ever even encountered a skeptical viewpoint.
2. Asserted that "a small amount of sugar is not bad for people", but did not attempt to draw any sort of connection between this assertion and your claim that over-use of sugar is common and bad for you.
3. Completely ignored the argument I actually made in my previous comment, that something might make someone's health worse, but still be worthwhile overall because of the pleasure it brings.

My own experience of teaching and debate is that quite often an argument that I think is clear turns out not to be so, but I only find that out when I engage with someone who is a genuine skeptic, or at least rather ignorant on the topic. The fact that you started your response to me by expressing surprise that anyone would question this really makes me doubt your claim that there's a clear argument for your position, you sound quite naive and unacquainted with the topic to me.

A tax would only affect those who buy a lot of it.

And that would be bad for people who get a lot of pleasure from using a lot of sugar.

But I haven't seen an argument that explains why we shouldn't have more taxes on those purchases most see as bad, instead of taxing what most see as good.

Hmm, this gets into serious philosophical matters, so I need to spend some time figuring out a set of common ground, before I have any hopes of coming up with an argument that might explain this to you. What is your general basis for government? Do you tend more to the libertarian side, thinking that people should tend to have the freedom to stuff up their lives, or do you tend more to the paternalistic, thinking that the government should intervene to make people's lives better? (This is a rather vague questions, I admit, I'm hoping to grope my way towards an argument that can explain this to you).

Floccina writes:

The following is sarcasm:

We are getting beat badly by other nations in life expectancy, we must move to reduce obesity and that means less sugar. We cannot be beat we must be the best in everything. While we are on it, we must also put more effort into schooling so that we can do better on PISA, regardless of whether PISA measures anything important or not.

What you people do not understand it that these are matters of national pride. No one wants to be part a nation with the lowest life expectancy or PISA scores of the industrialized world!

Mark V Anderson writes:

Geez. I'll try this one more time. I did not make an argument to prove that sugar is greatly over-used because I certainly thought any intelligent person would see that getting fat is not good for anyone. Since this site generally has intelligent comments I will make another try. Yes too much sugar is bad:

http://www.organicnutrition.co.uk/articles/too-much-sugar.htm

Yes, Americans eat lots of sugar:

http://www.businessinsider.com/chart-american-sugar-consumption-2012-2

What no one has responded to is why one would want to tax what is good for you instead of what is bad for you. Yes, of course it is subjective what is good and what is bad, but there is some general agreement. Libertarians often disagree with the general public about many issues, but we do generally agree that income is good and poor health is bad. So I ask, when we have a choice of taxes, should we tax income or should we tax consumption of sugar? Do you really think that one tax is no better than another?

Julien Couvreur writes:

I am glad that you made an appearance on the NPR program. I know it tough but I felt you came across a bit undone after a good start.

I was thinking of some talking points on my way home. Here are some thoughts. You will recognize your "how do you know" challenge.

1) You (paternalist) claim there is an externality which means a bad equilibrium in society. Tell me how you know when you've reached the right (optimum) level of obesity?

2) If most people enjoy sugars and that is what you deplore. Under what right do you impose your tax on all, in a democracy. Only to the extent that the democratic process is coarse or insensitive would such a paternalistic tax pass. If people were ready for changing their consumption or that of their children, a system of credit card where sugary product send money to a charity would be a possible voluntary solution. Also healthy brands and labels would have a great opportunity.

3) To the extent that unhealthy people bring a cost on all taxpayers via healthcare, that is not a reason to bring a cost to healthy people who consume responsibly. The underlying fallacy is that of cost and benefit analysis in terms of dollars (trading off some healthcare and productivity costs for some tax pain) when value is subjective and immeasurable. Instead, address the root cause and repeal the system designed to create the externality.

4) Possible solutions: repeal subsidies and other relevant policies (including government schools which contribute to the problem via cafeterias and dispensers), repeal healthcare subsidies (health insurances will have better incentives to educate and monitor people to save costs, consumers will also have better incentives), persuade people of health benefits of eating less sugar and provide them with substitutes (sugarless brand/store/label, healthy cookbooks and cooking shows, phone app to get sugar review on products).
That said, the price of sugary products may still be relatively too low for the paternalist. Which brings us back to the question, how do you know the optimal price and obesity level?

Tracy W writes:

Mark:

I did not make an argument to prove that sugar is greatly over-used because I certainly thought any intelligent person would see that getting fat is not good for anyone.

Hmm, I don't follow your logic. Even taking your starting point that you believed that no intelligent person would disagree with you, surely my first response to you made it obvious that someone did disagree with you, however low my intelligence is. Given that, why didn't you actually state your "clear" explanation? A really good test of whether an explanation is clear is whether it can be grasped by someone who isn't that intelligent.

Yes too much sugar is bad

The link you pointed to does not even mention that people may well chose to balance their health against other pleasures, as I argued before, let alone present a convincing counter-argument against it.
This is the second time you've totally ignored my counter-argument that I presented. I conclude you're ignoring it because you have no answer to it, (which seems quite likely, given that you earlier admitted that you'd never encountered a skeptical viewpoint before).

Americans eat lots of sugar

Which is not the same as "Americans over-use sugar", which was your initial claim.

Libertarians often disagree with the general public about many issues, but we do generally agree that income is good and poor health is bad.

And yet, as I said, people risk their health regularly, in pursuit of other factors, such as the benefits that come from driving cars.

What no one has responded to is why one would want to tax what is good for you instead of what is bad for you.

Well that's because I currently have little idea how to respond to this in a way that would make sense to you. That's why I asked you what your general basis for government is, a question that you haven't responded to.
As I said, I was trying to find common ground in our thinking. I've worked on tax issues a bit in the past, and my experience of them is that there's no single, clear taxing rationale that any rational person must subscribe to (in the sense that any rational person must subscribe to, say, Pythagoras's theorem). I don't see any good way of trying to explain this to you until at least I get a better idea of where your thinking on tax is coming from. This may be a reflection of my lack of intelligence, I agree, but hey, if you cooperate with me on this point, and answer my questions, perhaps you'll learn something too, along with me.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top