Mark Bittman, who for years wrote "The Minimalist," a useful and entertaining recipe column in the food section of The New York Times, is now an op-ed columnist for the paper. That's too bad, because he was much better at the former job. In an essay that ran in the Sunday edition of the Times, Bittman gets excited about the "fun" and "inspiring" project of taxing Americans into better eating habits. Like Kelly Brownell, who runs the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, Bittman wants to "tax things like soda, French fries, doughnuts and hyperprocessed snacks" while subsidizing "the purchase of staple foods like seasonal greens, vegetables, whole grains, dried legumes and fruit."
The first problem with this proposal is the notion that people eschew "seasonal greens, vegetables, whole grains, dried legumes and fruit" because they're so expensive. Have you priced a bag of dried legumes lately? Bittman clearly has not, but they typically sell for 50 cents to $1 for a one-pound bag, which according to the label amounts to 13 servings. One would be hard pressed to find a less expensive source of protein. My local Walmart (in Dallas) has fresh mustard greens or collard greens for $1 or so a bunch. Summer fruits (peaches, nectarines, and plums) are going for $1.25 a pound, or less than a quarter per plum. Carrots are 74 cents a pound. Whole wheat tortillas cost $2.50 for 11. But customers are not necessarily filling their carts with these nutritious bargains; many of them are still buying "things like soda, French fries, doughnuts and hyperprocessed snacks"—perhaps because relative price is only one of the factors they consider is deciding what to eat. Although it is much cheaper per serving to buy a bag of potatoes and bake them at home than it is to buy French fries at a fast food restaurant or precut, precooked potatoes for home frying, a lot of people still prefer the fries. Clearly they are willing to pay more for taste and convenience. Yet Bittman complains that "the food industry appears incapable of marketing healthier foods," as if consumer preferences have nothing to do with what companies decide to sell.
That does not mean slapping a tax on politically incorrect foods would have no impact on consumption. But the tax would have to be pretty hefty to steer people away from the products they like, and it would be highly regressive. Bittman says that's not a problem, "since poor people suffer disproportionately from the cost of high-quality, fresh foods," and "subsidizing those foods would be particularly beneficial to them." In other words, forcing people to pay more for the food they want is OK, as long as they can pay less for the food they don't want.
Who will determine what counts as "junk food" and what the appropriate tax rate is? How will the government make sure people are not evading the tax by making their own junk food at home or buying it in the black market? Is it fair or efficient to make lean, healthy people pay a premium for cookies, ice cream, and potato chips because other consumers do not exercise enough to burn off the calories they ingest? Don't worry, Bittman says: "We have experts who can figure out how 'bad' a food should be to qualify, and what the rate should be."
But the weakest part of Bittman's argument, since paying the taxes he proposes won't be optional, is his justification for using force to change people's diets. The government simply would be "fulfilling its role as an agent of the public good," he says. Treating diet-related diseases costs money, he adds. "The need is indisputable," he avers, "since heart disease, diabetes and cancer are all in large part caused by the Standard American Diet." Furthermore, "look at the action government took in the case of tobacco." In short, "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." So many assumptions, both fiscal and moral, packed into so little space. Bittman does not pause for a moment to consider the vast expanse of human behavior that is subject to government manipulation under his theory of public health.
At her Supreme Court confirmation hearings last year, Elena Kagan dodged the question of whether the Commerce Clause authorizes a law commanding Americans to eat their vegetables. But at least she allowed that it "sounds like a dumb law." Using taxes to achieve the same end is not any smarter; it just sounds that way.
Addendum: In a recent report (PDF) based on 2008 Nielsen Homescan data, the USDA's Economic Research Service calculates the cost of a diet that meets the federal government's nutritional guidelines. It finds that "an adult on a 2,000-calorie diet could satisfy recommendations for vegetable and fruit consumption in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (amounts and variety) at an average price of $2 to $2.50 per day, or approximately 50 cents per edible cup equivalent." Contrary to what Bittman seems to think, price is not the issue.