WHO Wants to Tax Your Cheeseburger?

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Here is the headline on anti-fat activist John Banzhaf's press release about the "Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health" adopted by the World Health Organization on Saturday: "W.H.O. Formally Recommends Taxing Fattening Foods."

Here is what WHO has to say:

Is WHO advocating "fat taxes" or more subsidies?

No. The strategy does not prescribe any specific tax or subsidy, but it notes that several countries have adopted fiscal measures to promote availability of and access to various foods, and to increase or decrease consumption of certain types of food. The strategy notes that public policies can influence prices through several measures including tax policies and subsidies. The text of the Strategy acknowledges that decisions on such policy options are the responsibility of individual Member States, depending upon their particular circumstances.

I'd check the actual text of the WHO resolution, but the link isn't working.

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  1. And it isn’t the Atkins “movement” that I’m referring to, so much as the anti-fast food/anti-obesity movement as a whole.

    True, but my understanding is that a lot of farm subsidies go toward high-carb foods. If high-carb foods are indeed the culprit for America’s obesity problem then it makes perfect sense to make an end to farm subsidies part of the anti-obesity agenda. But not too long ago we were told that pasta and other carbs are the solution to our expanding waistlines, and back then it would have made much less sense to argue that repealing subsidies on high-carb foods is good for our health.

    So any linkage of farm subsidies to obesity is contingent on a certain theory of which foods are healthier. And right now Atkins is the popular theory. If Atkins stands the test of time then great. But if Atkins goes the way of countless other diets then efforts to link farm subsidies (for high carb foods) to obesity will look like desperate libertarians latching on to any claim that suits their biases.

  2. Joe & Thoreau,

    Had to work a little so you guys got way ahead of me!

    The thing is Joe, is if you hitch your advocacy of subsidy elmination to socially engineering a healthier diet, you set yourself up for being hypocritical on two accounts. One, as I think Thoreau is getting at, is that eliminating subsidies may not really result in a healthier diet. The other is that the logical conclusion of such an arguement is to advocate a proactive policy towards such social engineering, which of course we won’t do. Why do you want us to be dishonest about our motives? Oh, so you can accuse libertarians of being too pure to form an alliance with liberals. Well, maybe you’re right that some libertarians’ shit stinks as good as anyone else’s. But let’s find out what the facts are and then we can talk.

  3. Fyodor-

    If it turns out that a free market for food does NOT lead to healthier diets, then anybody who cites healthier diets as an advantage will look like some sort of pie-in-the-sky utopian. I’d rather stick to what I do know, and what I do know is that no ADM executive deserves any welfare from Uncle Sam.

  4. Thoreau is right.

    Furthermore, Joe, I am perfectly willing to ally with leftists (like those at the indispensible KickAAS) who want to eliminate farm subsidies in rich countries in order to help third world farmers. But I am NOT willing to ally myself with those on the left who see obesity as yet another opportunity to take a bite out of some Evil Corporations.

  5. thoreau,

    Here in Vermont, they love the Atkin’s Diet. 🙂

  6. thoreau,

    Domestic sugar is also heavily subsidized; so is domestic honey of all things.

  7. Gary-

    Domestic sugar is heavily subsidized, but corn syrup remains the sweetener of choice for soda and some other processed foods. Without sugar tarriffs and corn subsidies, cane sugar would be the sweetener of choice for many of those products. I don’t know that our consumption habits would be any healthier in that case.

    Also, I’ve heard that for at least certain foods our agricultural policies actually produce higher prices by fiat. I’m 99% sure that dairy prices are kept high by fiat (at least in certain states), and I wouldn’t be surprised if other foods are in similar situations. I don’t know that cheaper milk would lead to a healthier America. It would be good for our bones and teeth, but ice cream and other dairy treats would also be cheaper. The effects on our national waist-line would be uncertain.

    Yet another reason that I am reluctant to link insane agricultural policy to the obesity situation. It’s not that I don’t care about obesity, I just don’t know if such a linkage would be honest.

    But if Joe wants to talk to libertarians who are willing to say anything to make a policy sound good, no doubt some think-tank out there could do it. One day they could release a position paper claiming that public policy has made food cheaper. The next day the same analyst could release a position paper claiming that public policy has upped the average family’s grocery bill.

    If the gov’t is big enough you can blame it for anything.

  8. Left/Right/Libertarian/Green, who cares?

    Social engineering is a game our government just should not be playing. Folks can make up their own mind about what is good for them & what is not. If there are those that cannot handle this freedom, I’m sure Darwin will be out there somewhere -smiling.

    It’s time to call a spade, a spade.

    Agricultural subsidies simply should not exist. The very idea that the tax code can be used to play favorites should have folks up in arms.

    Show me a flat tax with no allowed write-off’s or subsidies in our democratic system and I’ll show you a government that’s working for the people instead of around the people. When taxation favors are taken away, so goes a politicians favorite tool to make all the issues go cloudy.

    Of course, I could be reading too much Ayn Rand lately…

    But as for costs playing a roll in nutrition, I don’t think this is a major factor… Fat or No fat. Carbs or No Carbs. C’mon folks, basic nutrition is not very tough and not very expensive. We all learned most of this in grammar school… Remember the food pyramid?

    Even on a modest budget, one can keep a very healthy, balanced diet. 150lbs. of Whey Protein at about $1/lb. will last you months -and a good colloidal mineral/vitamin mix won’t add much more to that dollar total. Add a bottle of super-greens and you’re really on your horse. And maybe a nice loaf of that Ezekiel 4:9 bread. A diet of those alone will make you the healthiest eater on your block.

    Anyways, I like what most of you all have to say. Feel free to drop in and give us a peace of your mind sometime at
    NationWatch.com

  9. Banzhaf’s been accused of many things, but honesty has never been one of them. Why start telling the truth now?

  10. There are existing taxes and subsidies that influence the decisions of food producers, sellers, and consumers. The recommendation can just as plausibly be read as calling for the repeal of those that incent (is that word yet?) unhealthy diets.

    Which would be a very libertarian position, influencing everything from corn sugar to carbs. Yet rather than put forth its own take on these matters, Reason (and libertarian/small government types generally) have limited their commentary on these mattes to arguing for the status quo. It’s curious that this hanging curveball is just sitting there over the plate, and none of you are swinging at it. What gives?

  11. Joe,

    For some of the same reasons I oppose giving tax and regulatory breaks to specific corporations such as Wal-Mart to entice them into an area even though I think taxes are generally a bad thing, I’m queasy at best at the idea of adjusting taxes to effect a specific social outcome, even if that includes some lowering of taxes. Basically, I’m against using the tax code to play favorites.

    That said, I’d be all for anything that eliminates outright subsidies of any kind and anything in the tax code that overtly plays favorites of any kind. Of course, no one has brought up specific examples of such, so until you or WHO do that, it’s difficult to say what we’re actually debating.

  12. Related but slightly off-topic, I saw Super-Size Me last week, and there’s a classic scene with the lawyer for the two fat girls in NYC who sued McDonald’s. When asked for his reason for pursuing this lawsuit, he said (paraphrasing):

    “You mean besides the monetary reasons? You’re looking for some big moral justification? Hmmm….” (blank stare for 1-2 seconds, then cut to next scene)

    I’m sure the editing made it look worse than it perhaps really was, but jeez…

  13. Joe-

    I’ve frequently argued against farm subsidies in this forum. I’ve also argued for revenue-neutral tax simplification.

  14. I thought there was good fat and bad fat. If I can show the proper receipts for good fat, can I get a refund?

  15. fyodor,

    But with the gestalt where it is right now, this would be a terrific hook on which to hand an anti-ag subsidies movement (dairy, corn syrup, grains being primary recipients). You could redefine the dicourse around the issue, changing it from a liberal/left, anti-corporate movement to a broad front movement, which would make the areas of common interests (government distortions of the food market that promote unhealthy diets) the central plank.

    And frankly, the finickiness preventing libertarians from joining with liberals and redefining the movement doesn’t seem to have an analogue in libertarians’ behavior toward the right on this issue – you keep falling all over yourselves to defend those who benefit from the distortions. You say, fy, that you don’t want to “use the tax codes to play favorites.” Are you any less opposed to using ag subsidies to play favorites? If so, your opposition hasn’t stopped you from joining up with THAT team.

  16. What a load of gibberish and double-speak from WHO. They are in favor of state-imposed “influencing” of “prices” through tax “policies.” Now, removal of existing taxes doesn’t really strike me as the influencing of prices through tax policy, more like the opposite.

    In short, when you parse the burble, he is saying they want to tax the bad food and subsidize the good. The fact that he doesn’t have the fat-free balls to say it shows you that WHO knows how popular this proposal would be if people knew what it was.

  17. Joe-

    As much as I oppose farm subsidies, I don’t know that hitching the anti-farm-subsidies wagon to the low-carb horse is a smart move. Hot diets come and go. It could, of course, turn out that Dr. Atkins uncovered a timeless truth about human metabolism. Or it could turn out that in a few years some other diet will be hot. If the Atkins bandwagon could get farm subsidies repealed before the dietary fad changes, great. But if this is going to be (as I suspect) a long and difficult fight, then the “coalition of the fasting” might fall apart as soon as the next diet fad comes along.

    On a related note, I heard the other day that dairy prices are rising because of Atkins. Dairy farmers are switching over to beef cattle, resulting in lower dairy supply. This despite dairy subsidies. Make of it what you will, I just think it’s interesting to see market forces prevail in a heavily subsidized industry.

  18. “I’ve frequently argued against farm subsidies in this forum.”

    Yes, you have. A lot of libertarians have. But I recall seeing you, or any libertarian, use the current interest in the unhealthy American diet to trumpet that position. Not only is this passing up a great opportunity to advance what I understand to be a core libertarian belief, but it’s also passing up an opportunity to redefine and redirect a substantial movement from going in a way you don’t like, towards a libertarian end.

    It’s almost as if the leftish ancestry of this movement causes libertarians to ignore its practical potential in favor of poorly thought out, ultra-purist rejectionism, and in doing so, sabotage their ability to advance their own agenda. But of course, that would never happen…

  19. “…I DON’T recall seeing you…”

    And it isn’t the Atkins “movement” that I’m referring to, so much as the anti-fast food/anti-obesity movement as a whole.

  20. Joe-

    First, I suspect that you wrote your 12:49pm post while I was writing my 12:46 pm post. In there I answer one objection to hitching the anti-subsidies cart to the diet horse.

    Another problem: Corn syrup is the sweetener of choice for many foods instead of cane sugar because corn is subsidized while sugar imports face heavy tarriffs. If we went to a free market in food, the result might be more use of cane sugar. I don’t know that the outcome would be any healthier. The only thing I can say is that whatever choices consumers made, those choices would cost them less money. Similar things could probably be said about other products, where one unhealthy food is subsidized while another is taxed, based on which swing state produces which food and whatnot.

    In other words, I’m not convinced that a free market for food will make us healthier, so I can’t really tout health benefits from a policy proposal. If I was convinced that a free market for food would make us healthier I’d shout it from the rooftops. But I’m not convinced, so I can’t.

  21. They will take away my cheeseburger when they pry it from my cold dead, slightly obese, fingers.

    Hopefully this anti-taste die-thin initiative from the mommy culture will be what finally causes the unleashing of the backlash which has been building up for so long.

    Then I can have my automatic weapons, explosives, drugs, and cheap liquor back! That’ll be living!

  22. But there are very good arguments that many of the feds’ ag policies DO lead to unhappy consequences, by subsidizing and promoting less healthy foods.

    Peter Jennings made this point repeately in the special that aired a couple months ago. Yet for some reason, these points were never acknowledged in this space, and he was denounced for even mentioning the existence of these unhappy, government-induced outcomes.

  23. joe-

    OK, to put a little more nuance in it, I have absolutely zero doubt that corn subsidies lead to cheaper corn syrup, which taken in isolation would make junk food cheaper.

    But the feds also have tarriffs on imported sugar. One of the main (fiscal) reasons for using corn syrup instead of cane sugar (leaving aside reasons of taste, for a moment) is the combo of sugar tarriffs and corn subsidies. If we also remove the sugar tarriffs (i.e. go to a truly free market for food) then cane sugar may be available at prices comparable to an equivalent amount of corn syrup. End result? Indeterminate without more data.

    Or take dairy: My understanding is that in some part of the country state and federal law actually mandates minimum milk prices. If we remove dairy farm subsidies and also remove price supports, on the one hand some farmers will go bankrupt, but on the other hand a price floor will be removed. I honestly don’t know if the pizza with cheese-stuffed crust will be cheaper after this.

    And in addition to junk food being subsidized via cheaper corn syrup and whatnot, removal of grain subsidies might also affect the price of the pasta-and-rice diets that we were told are healthiest back in the 1990’s. Then again, the price of cattle feed would also go down. So when you look beyond junk food at the broader spectrum of food products, the whole thing becomes more complicated and it’s harder to make predictions.

    I have no doubt that selective removal of certain subsidies could achieve certain dietary outcomes. But if you truly try to untangle the mess of agricultural policy, the outcomes are less clear.

    But lest you think I’m a food industry shill, let me mention another policy that I support: I support efforts to stop public schools from selling junk food. If kids want junk food, let them bring it themselves. There’s no reason why the school should provide an avenue for purchasing it.

    (Yes, yes, I know, public schools shouldn’t exist at all. But until hell freezes over, what’s wrong with discussing a way to keep the public schools from encouraging unhealthy choices?)

    Finally, let me observe that if I were a more partisan libertarian I’d simply say “Why yes, of course, obesity is the fault of public policy! Getting rid of farm subsidies will help prevent obesity!” But I don’t simply latch on every time somebody insists that repealing a gov’t program will lead to a particular positive outcome. I look at the tangled mess of gov’t agriculture policies, and it’s not entirely clear to me what the end result would be if those policies were repealed.

    Anyway, Joe, that’s all I have to say.

  24. I can see a black market of fast food springing up.

  25. So Joe, you think that Reason writers will abandon their principles rather than agree with Liberals, is that your point? If what you say is true, then they shouldn’t be that way, okay? But meanwhile, the hawks and right-leaners here all go on about how Reason has deserted them for the Left. Whatever. I’ll stick to real issues myself. Well, MOST of the time……… 🙂

  26. “C’mon folks, basic nutrition is not very tough and not very expensive. We all learned most of this in grammar school… Remember the food pyramid?”

    Yes, but the issue here is incentives. Does government ag/trade policy incent certain types of diets and deincent (TM) others?

  27. “disincent,” of course. “deincent” isn’t a word.

    heh

  28. Anyway, given the promiscuity with which libertarians attribute every bad outcome to government intervention distorting markets, I find it odd that you all are so quick to dismiss the possibility that intervention in the food market can produce unhappy nutritional outcomes.

    Like the remarkably absense of libertarian denunciation of snob zoning, the biggest distortion facing the housing market, this looks for all the world like you’re siding with recipients of state granted privilige, just because their opposition are liberals.

  29. Joe-

    I’ve looked at the evidence and I simply cannot draw a conclusion on the nutritional outcomes of farm subsidies. I’ve already articulated my reasons. That doesn’t mean I support the farm subsidies that you oppose; indeed I strongly oppose them. But I’m not comfortable making the argument in the presence of conflicting evidence. There are some libertarians who are dishonest enough to cheerfully agree with any positive predictions for what might happen if farm subsidies are repealed. I’m not one of them.

    If you can show me evidence that addresses the arguments I raised then I will join you in predicting better nutritional outcomes from repealing farm subsidies. However, you didn’t try to refute any of my arguments, you simply concluded that I must be tailoring my arguments to suit my prejudices.

    As for snob zoning, I live in Santa Barbara, a place where anti-growth and snob-zoning regulations have led to a horrendous inflation of housing prices. Nobody is more opposed to snob zoning than me.

  30. (I’m posting this because there was a problem with my original response to Joe and it apparently didn’t post. By Murphy’s Law, that original response will appear as soon as I post this.)

    Joe-

    I already explained above why I am not sure that a link exists between farm subsidies and obesity. Undoubtedly there are some libertarians (paging all think tanks! paging all think tanks!) who would be glad to attribute obesity to farm subsidies simply because it suits their belief that all problems in the world stem from gov’t intervention. I’m simply not convinced, however.

    You didn’t offer any alternative reasoning, you simply asserted that I am adjusting my outrage to suit my anti-left biases. If you can produce arguments and evidence that refutes my arguments, I would be more than happy to blame obesity on farm subsidies.

    And please remember that on this forum I’m considered something of a leftist, so it’s kind of gratifying to be accused of anti-left prejudice. See, folks, Joe disagrees with me! Can I please be called a real libertarian now? 🙂

  31. “you all are so quick to dismiss the possibility that intervention in the food market can produce unhappy nutritional outcomes.”

    Sigh. Of course no one here has actually said that. All Thoreau and I have said is that we don’t know that intervention in the food market does produces unhappy nutritional outcomes. It might, and it might not. Got it? And the larger point that Thoreau and I keep making is that we’re against that intervention period, and we don’t wanna pretend that we’re against it based on nutritional improvement because we have no confidence it would produce such improvement.

    Really Joe, sometimes you’re quite smart and a real challenge to debate (or a joy to agree with), and other times it seems your only goal to snipe at libertarians and you’ll stick any words in our mouths you can to justify it. And then I wonder why I even bother to engage you.

  32. And sure enough my original response finally did surface.

  33. Joe,

    FWIW, allow me to explain that libertarians do not embrace some sort of principle that government intervention leads to bad consumer choices or that everything bad in the world derives from government or whatever it is you’re attributing to us. Maybe some libertarians seem to act like that, but that’s another matter. The principles that matter are (1) that government intervention is based on coercion and is therefore contrary to freedom (when not justified by a previous act contrary to freedom) and (2) it distorts the market such that it diminishes efficiency and therefore overall wealth. Neither of these principles suggests that govt intervention in the food market would necessarily lead to obesity. Again, in the hopes you don’t misrepresent me once more, it could lead to that, just not necessarily! But it does lead to diminished freedom and wealth. I should add that when govt intervention is extreme enough, it often leads to unhappy unintended consequences, but that doesn’t mean that all unhappy consequences associated with a non-free market are necessarily due to the govt’s interference.

    Okay?? Whew!!!

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