Monday, May 18, 2009

Be Careful What You Wish For

A funny thing happened on the way to our end zone dance for the departure of NYC's health commissioner, Mother Tom Frieden-it looks as if Mike Bloomberg has found, in Dr. Tom Farley, a replacement for the good doctor who is even more extreme in his desire to regulate our lives, and force us to be healthier. As the NY Times reported yesterday: "Dr. Farley, these people said, has a strong background in public health management and shares with Mr. Bloomberg an unbridled — and at times contentious — enthusiasm for using government to curb salt, high fat content and sugar in food, and to promote pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly endeavors."

And, as the paper went on to point out: “Tom Farley is a really top-notch epidemiologist and a really, really well-respected public health official,” said a former New York City health official who had been told about the selection, but spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to upstage the announcement. “He has a lot of interest in addressing the issues that are causing people to have poor health.”

Or, as Sarah Palin would say; "You betcha!" My God, even his initials are the same as Frieden's; and Farley has laid out his views pretty comprehensively: "In 2005, Dr. Farley, who is chairman of Tulane’s community health sciences department, and Dr. Deborah A. Cohen, a senior natural scientist at the Rand Corporation, wrote “Prescription for a Healthy Nation,” a book that provoked the kind of polarizing reaction that Dr. Frieden and Mr. Bloomberg are accustomed to."

What are these views exactly? "Since it is, in Farley and Cohen’s view, our ‘physical and social environment’ that’s making us sick, we should make small changes in that environment to encourage health, such as lowering the price of healthy foods and enforcing such rules as a workplace ban on snack food in cubicles,” Publishers Weekly said in a review. “Unfortunately, throughout this litany of human foibles and social and governmental failures, there’s a pervasive tone of puritanical disapproval, and Americans are unlikely to pay attention to this pair of scolds.”

But wait a second. It's one thing when a public health scold publishes a book that no one but the fellow travellers read; it's quite another when the Scold-in-Chief is running the largest municipal health department in the country. And if you peruse his book, you get the idea pretty quick that Farley wants to regulate us to health-no matter what folks may currently feel about their own habits and behaviors.

In fact, it isn't hard to see that Frieden himself may have cribbed his silly field of dreams produce peddler idea from the perscriptions that Farley lays out in a chapter of his book titled, "More is More: Accessibility." Farley wants to micromanage what grocers can put on their shelves-and where they can place the products; even calling for a mandate that places vegetables right at check out. He also makes any number of ill informed observations about the disparity between supermarkets in lower income areas versus those in middle class areas (Where he found that the black area market had less shelf space for healthier foods, leading to this speculation: "It makes you wonder how much store displays contribute to the high obesity rates in poor black people." p.76)

So it's no wonder that Farley sees the doubling of the shelf space for fruit and vegetables as just the ingredient for increasing consumption-just as Frieden thought that green carts would lead to similar higher levels. And the next step beyond where you can put the stuff you sell, is how much you can charge for it. Taxes and regulatory mandates from the commissars can't be far behind.

Similar observations about the higher rates of liquor stores in poor neighborhoods also confuse correlation with causation; but the health meddlers see all of this as a clarion call to action. And of course the Twinkie tax is seen as a marvelous idea: "The idea of a "Twinkie" tax has been met with outrage in some parts...but not only would it be effective, it also isn't that different from where we are right now. Many states and cities have sales taxesthat apply differently to different items, and many already tax sodas and candy." (p.81)

So, brace yourselves New Yorkers. Farley in for Frieden is about to take place and it underscores the Chinese proverb about being careful what you wish for. What it means, however, is that Mike Bloomberg has chosen another health czar who has no clue about how markets function. Just what we need when we're trying to encourage more supermarkets to come into the city.