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Hedge fun

By Tom Toles


Garbage in

Last week Ezra Klein discussed Marc Ambinder's article on obesity. The underlying discussion is about the devilishly complex nature of the obesity crisis. Complex to the point of solution-defying. I don't think it is at all.

The reason the issue appears to be without solution is that the political conversation in this country has skewed so far to the right that the blindingly obvious first path is ruled of the table. Apparently the ONLY thing that's off America's table. I recently quoted Jack Kemp, of all people, and let me quote him again. (I may henceforth attribute ALL apocryphal thoughts to Jack Kemp): "If you want less of something, tax it." We know perfectly well what foods are the biggest part of the problem, and, no, it would not be impossible to figure out a system to tax them.

Do I want to INTERFERE with the FREE MARKET? Yes, yes, yes I DO! Runaway obesity represents a market FAILURE. The market does NOT always get it right. Air pollution: market FAILURE. Financial crisis: market FAILURE. Wiping out fish stocks: market FAILURE. Taxing known junk food and beverages into submission is what a sane, orderly, grown-up society would do. But we instead are paralyzed by what has become unquestioned free-market fundamentalism. And what do I recommend we do about THAT? Tax it. --Tom Toles




By Tom Toles  | April 20, 2010; 12:00 AM ET
Categories:  Economy and jobs, Federal government, Scandals  
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I am so (A) pleased that I don’t live where these other commenters live. We have free markets all over the place around here where I live. There is ABSOLUTELY NO admission price; it’s all free. You just walk up to the door, it opens automatically, you grab a cart, and off you go. I tend to head first to the produce section for the healthy stuff. I’ll bet if the government taxed the healthy stuff people would eat more of it – because it would be cool to eat expensive stuff. That’s why fancy restaurants do well. People like pricy stuff. Look at all the Hummers and Bee-mers on the road these days, and believe me: they are expensive. Don’t get me wrong; you still have to pay at the check-out counter – that part is not “free market.” And how could it be? They have to make payroll, pay utilities, and all of that stuff. I’ve noticed at the deli counter that it looks like there are too many employees back there; in fact they actually bump into each other. And those silly hats they wear! Talk about a free market. They should be made to pay for those silly hats. Then maybe – just maybe – they wouldn’t wear them to work at all. Besides that, they get in the way of the employees’ hearing: whenever I order something from one of our free market deli’s, the person behind the counter will be slicing away, and she’ll shout: “Did you say half a pound?” Obviously, they’re not hearing what I said the first time. (B) I say get rid of the darn hedges once and for all. Way back in the day over there in Ireland, kids were not allowed to go to school; the English would not let them go because they thought the Irish were ignorant -- permanently I guess. Well Hello – how else do ignorant people get as smart as we are if they don’t go to school? I mean these kids were not even allowed to get their GED's. That stuff’s just simple comical sense anyway. So what the Irish did was for some guy (I’m going to guess it was the village kuku head, or maybe one of those “bad touch” priests we’re hearing about lately) to take a group of kids, hide behind a hedge, and teach them to read and write and balance a check book. The priests of course called it “hedge fun,” while the kids just called it “school.” One of the differences, I suppose, between kids and priests. The other thing I wanted to point out about hedges is how they block your view when you try to back out of your driveway. Granted, the tall ones are worse than the short ones, but when you’re going to tax something like a hedge there’s a tough time going to be had ahead differentiating one hedge from another. So, I say, tax them all and be done with it.

Posted by: dudeupnorth | April 22, 2010 10:10 AM | Report abuse

Reading Tom Toles: Market Failure.

Posted by: whisperonthewind | April 21, 2010 9:02 AM | Report abuse

How about we educate you people how to prepare, cook and serve decent, healthy, low fat (in all its forms both natural and the man made cardiac arrest specials) natural and above all environmentally sustainably grown food?

No? Oh well in that case if you won't learn freely expect to get taxed legally.

Its your choice. Either change your bad habits or pay for them both financially and health wise.

Posted by: KevinColeman | April 21, 2010 8:35 AM | Report abuse

Regarding Free Markets: They really do work just fine (... we just don't live in one), but require 1) perfect and timely information (... see Truth in Advertising?), 2) all costs are included in the decision process (... people need to actually think about what they are doing), and 3) that people are making decisions In Their Best Interests (... not suicidal). For your consideration :)

Posted by: BuffaloBreath | April 20, 2010 4:10 PM | Report abuse

Taxing something decreases its demand. Sure. And you can argue about whether it's right to tax bad foods. But you're overlooking something equally important...

Providing subsidies for something increases the demand. The presence of high fructose corn syrup in virtually every food product in the U.S. is a direct result of corn subsidies. The debate really needs to be whether the government should be actively encouraging the use of high fructose corn syrup by subsidizing the corn farmers as much as we are.

Posted by: Gurduloo | April 20, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

A cartoon idea:


Posted by: spencer1 | April 20, 2010 11:14 AM | Report abuse

If the government taxes something in order to decrease demand, then you are taking away choices from only poor people. It seems a little discriminatory.

Posted by: tonyprzy | April 20, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

Good food, bad food or just food?

"The worst foods are the cheapest and the most convenient."

One can take this idea too far and perhaps there are interest in our country that wants us to see food as "good" or "bad." Now some food is best taken in smaller quantities. A burger meal can be most of the calories a person needs in a day. So do they eat less the rest of the day and consider the food a bargain. Or do they eat more and get fat.

A wise consumer can take what they need and will benefit from fast food that is inexpensive. An uneducated consumer will make some wrong choices. And since food can be a habit, many do over eat.

However it is not good food and bad food - that is too easy and liable to distortion. It is smart eaters and less educated consumers.

Fix the real problem and let off the blame - unless there really is a conspiracy to put fast food out of business.

Posted by: GaryEMasters | April 20, 2010 10:28 AM | Report abuse

You say, "The reason the issue appears to be without solution is that the political conversation in this country has skewed so far to the right that the blindingly obvious first path is ruled of the table."

That should be "off the table" and not "of the table", but leaving that aside, I think we need fewer fights between conservatives and liberals, more pragmatism, and more of "listening to the other side."

Also, it is not clear to me what "right wing" means. Are right wingers the people who oppose taxes on the rich or are they the people who oppose abortion after 20 weeks?

Or are these people the same? I would love to understand the logic whereby opposition to late abortions seamlessly turns into opposition to taxes on the rich (or on fatty foods).

If some liberals would explain to me their use of the expression "right wing" I would be immensely grateful! :)

Otherwise, how about dropping that silly phrase and tackling the actual problems?

The way in which many liberals equate "conservative" with "right wing" is a bit like the way some people equate "Arab" and "terrorist."

Such ways of talking create antagonisms and do not help to solve problems.

Posted by: rohitcuny | April 20, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Since the basis for most of the problems you list...pollution, fish stocks and all other environmental problems is the number of people crowding our planet, let's tax people. Instead of encouraging population growth let's inhibit it. No environmentalist talks about slowing population growth...why?

Posted by: CAservative | April 20, 2010 10:11 AM | Report abuse

Even better than taxing "bad" food would be removing the subsidies from the commodity crops that go into making them. The worst foods are the cheapest and the most convenient. Whether by taxes or removal of subsidies or both, we need to fix that.

Posted by: CynicalC | April 20, 2010 9:44 AM | Report abuse

Operant conditioning from basic psychology 101: decrease undesired behavior by taking a way something desirable (aka "negative punishment) -- in this case money.

Of course, the authors' position that the problem is not quite that simple I think is correct, but sometimes a simple solution can make a good dent a complicated one.

Posted by: DavidNeale-Lorello | April 20, 2010 7:38 AM | Report abuse

I actually never thought (nor heard) of this idea. I have to say, instantly, I was like, "WTF is Tom Toles tryna do? Get the Gun Nuts in an uproar?" But then, as I thought about it, I think, "Why not?"

There's a huge tax on cigarettes, why not on candy bars? Soda (that's a BIG one).

The problem is mainly this:
for $5 and change I can get 5 double cheeseburgers at McDonalds. OR... I could spend $7 on a decent sized salad, which will also take longer than I have for my lunch break to assemble it.

Fast + Cheap = Fat.

And I agree with ManUnitdFan:
End the subsidies (our tax dollars at work).

Then, there's the issue of video games. Kids just don't "go outside and play" like they used to. Plus, it's unsafe to just "go outside and play."

Talk about a Big Fat Mess!

Posted by: Thinker_ | April 20, 2010 7:28 AM | Report abuse

" We know perfectly well what foods are the biggest part of the problem,.."

But that is so wrong. It is now what we eat, it is how much.

My wife is very thin, yet she enjoys ice cream every evening. But her portions for the meal are very small and she walks a mile twice a day. She is fit and trim.

All our prejudices come out when we discuss what to eat. High fructose is not bad. When I was a child, I was told fructose was better for us than sucrose. But now I see both as much the same.

Do everything in moderation, and you will never be heavy and never worry about what you eat. Just how much.

Look at the French diet - heavy creams and fat and wine. But they are moderate and healthy.

Me? I am a retired medical librarian from the FDA. I do know what I write about. I have an earned PhD.

Posted by: GaryEMasters | April 20, 2010 5:37 AM | Report abuse

How about we tax people with a totalitarian instinct? Less of them would be a huge benefit to society.

Posted by: skinnynomore | April 20, 2010 2:55 AM | Report abuse

So that eventually Governments primary source of income is taxation from wrong living. But isn't your ideal Government one that fixes wrong living Mr. Toles? And what if the Government succeeded in fixing wrong living. Where would you get the money from then? I would guess that your form of Government would label more things as wrong. Your Government penalizes and rewards. That is totalitarian government Mr. Toles. No thanks.

Posted by: bobbo2 | April 20, 2010 1:44 AM | Report abuse

I agree with comments to remove many farm subsidies. However, the connection to obesity is debatable.

On Toles' slant, what are the unforeseen consequences of taxing high caloric foods? Would the obese find alternatives? Probably.

Could the government create a black market for Snickers (tm) bars by limiting a source of goods via taxation? What about the jobs that will be lost when demand for specific products drop?

Obesity is a moving target of behavior, mostly. Simply controlling the source of satisfying a behavior doesn't guarantee abstinence. (Ref. Prohibition)

Posted by: brent6 | April 19, 2010 11:10 PM | Report abuse

Please, please, please can we have some junk food taxes? And maybe use some of that revenue to give money to produce farmers (NOT corn, soy, wheat farmers)? Or not, I'm happy with the Fritos being taxed only.

BTW, if you make the apple pie at home it wouldn't be taxed!

Posted by: jhkimball | April 19, 2010 11:05 PM | Report abuse

nothing 'free market' bout corn subsidies.

Posted by: millionea7 | April 19, 2010 9:48 PM | Report abuse

My favorite part is that all those corn subsidies we pay for go to make high fructose corn syrup extra cheap and omnipresent. And the HFCS then goes on to make us fat. It's like we're paying to make ourselves fatter.

Posted by: ManUnitdFan | April 19, 2010 9:17 PM | Report abuse

Oh man, you want to tax Coca-Cola and apple pie!

Posted by: Gurduloo | April 19, 2010 5:34 PM | Report abuse

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