This Is a Job for ... Another Branch of the Same Discipline
Tom Laskawy isn't convinced by the RAND study showing that a modest tax on calories isn't likely to do much to curb the obesity crisis (or, I presume, the other studies with similar results that are mentioned elsewhere in the paper). But the most compelling of his objections is simple enough: Perhaps a modest tax is, well, too modest. "Maybe it's true that a 10% tax isn't enough," he writes. "Ten cents on a dollar bag of chips doesn't strike me as quite the policy innovation we're looking for."
It's true, of course, that you could eventually jack taxes high enough that many foods would become unaffordable and consumption would plummet. (This is sort of what we've done with our tariff on Brazilian sugar cane.) But I think it unlikely that you'll get there. Hell, I think it unlikely that you'll get to 10 cents on much beyond soda. Which makes me wonder if junk food taxes are the most productive policy for public health advocates to focus on. I worry that this is one of those cases where when all the government has is the tax code, every problem starts to look like an unpriced externality.
But every problem isn't an unpriced externality. What we eat is, as the wonks say, a multidimensional decision. It's not just price. It's culture. It's advertising. It's preference. It's convenience. It's location. It's social norms. It's the taste for salt and sugar and fat and excess that was hardwired into our mental circuitry thousands of years ago.
I'm not against junk food taxes. But my hunch is that they'll prove a lot better for raising revenue than blunting the obesity crisis. Food is too personal for the government to mount effective interventions, particularly on the consumer side of things. Changing our eating habits will, I think, end up being more a matter of behavioral economics than economics. It'll be about changing the choices we make more than the choices we are financially able to make. For that reason, I'm actually much more interested in calorie labeling efforts than I am in junk food taxes. But now I'm getting ahead of a coming article ...
Photo credit: Mark Finkenstaedt - For The Washington Post.
July 8, 2009; 8:01 AM ET
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