New York Times food critic/opinion columnist Mark Bittman drops a creepy piece in the Sunday edition, entitled, “Bad Food? Tax It, and Subsidize Vegetables.” It seems like an almost-satirical attempt to implement the old, “If it moves, tax it. If it stops moving, subsidize it” line. But since it’s in the New York Times, it is apparently a real proposal. And Bittman drops a C-Bomb in the first ‘graph, which sends it into my domain:
What will it take to get Americans to change our eating habits? The need is indisputable, since heart disease, diabetes and cancer are all in large part caused by the Standard American Diet.
I didn’t make it much beyond that. The rest of the piece is your typical conglomeration of conclusory statements (“But public health is the role of the government, and our diet is right up there with any other public responsibility you can name, from water treatment to mass transit"), homages to Really Smart People (“We have experts who can figure out how ‘bad’ a food should be to qualify, and what the rate should be”), hosannahs to the government ("That “other force” should be the federal government, fulfilling its role as an agent of the public good and establishing a bold national fix."), and directives typically handed down from parent to a child (“You don’t need sugary beverages (or the associated fries).” Oh, and the contractually-obligated jab at big business (“Their mission is not public health but profit.”)
I don’t know Mark Bittman. But his writing has all the telltale signs of an individual who has never had his beliefs seriously challenged in any way, shape, or form. Which is why he deals with counterarguments like this:
Forcing sales of junk food down through taxes isn’t ideal. First off, we’ll have to listen to nanny-state arguments, which can be countered by the acceptance of the anti-tobacco movement as well as a dozen other successful public health measures.
That makes no sense whatsoever. It essentially says “counterarguments can be countered by accepting my argument.” This can only be the writing of a man whose incredible hubris – this is an article about severely regulating the diet of every American citizen – has been acquired by painstaking avoidance of anybody who might disagree with him.
The amount of government coercion that would have to occur to implement these “suggestions” remind me of things I studied in Chinese history courses in college. It is a level of force that isn’t just intolerant of dissent, but actively assumes that no rational dissent can possibly exist. I see no other way that a human being could write the words, “It’s fun — inspiring, even — to think about implementing a program like this” in a column advocating a proposal that would significantly impact hundreds of millions of Americans. But alas, this is deemed worthy of a spot in the Sunday paper. And the most popular comment calls the piece, “Incredibly inspiring and creative.”
Of course, such dietary dominance is deemed necessary under the two catch-all provisions: “public health” and health care costs:
Though experts increasingly recommend a diet high in plants and low in animal products and processed foods, ours is quite the opposite, and there’s little disagreement that changing it could improve our health and save tens of millions of lives.
And — not inconsequential during the current struggle over deficits and spending — a sane diet could save tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars in health care costs.
Look, under this reasoning, everything is regulate-able. There’s no end. I can think of a million things that affect “health” in general, and health care costs in the long run. That’s a million things that are now up for regulation by Really Smart People like Mark Bittman. I’d have more respect for these people if they just stopped tapdancing around and argued that we should flat out ban unhealthy foods or mandate physical activity. Why half-ass it?
But if you accept this line of reasoning, and all of its assumptions – that this is a proper function of government, that “public health” includes individual decisions that affect individual health, and that the government can regulate such things – then where does it end? If the government can regulate your individual decisions before you get cancer, why can’t they regulate your individual decisions after you get cancer?
These are serious questions. Why can’t the government tell my doctor that he cannot prescribe me prophylactic Bactrim because antibiotic resistance is a public health issue? Why can’t a panel of experts prohibit me from undergoing radiation treatment because my tumor was under 10cm, and my added demand would increase health care costs? Why couldn’t the difficult decision over how to treat my lymphoma be made by some Really Smart People – trust us, they’re really smart – instead of my doctors and me? What principle allows the government to regulate my consumption of 50 cents worth of Cheetos in the name of “health care costs”, but not $70,000 worth of Rituxan?
I’m sure these questions never crossed Mark Bittman’s mind. I hope they never have to. But if you’re going to suggest things like this, these are things you should probably consider first.