Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Fizzling Out

Crain's is reporting that Governor Paterson's idea to tax soda may be fizzling out: "Eleven state senators, including nine Democrats, moved to crush Gov. David Paterson's proposal to tax the high-calorie syrup used to sweeten many soft drinks. The senators' opposition further jeopardizes the increasingly unpopular governor's effort to close the state's $9 billion deficit."

But the budget gap is still real-and as the need to close it gets closer the pressure here will mount. So, those of us in opposition can't simply rest on our laurels here because this could go south pretty fast. That being said, it is also important to continue to highlight just what a bad idea this tax really is.

That's exactly what Ira Stoll does in today's NY Daily News: "From the standpoint of pure self-interest, I should support Gov. Paterson's proposed penny-an-ounce tax on sugary sodas and other sweetened drinks, which is now being backed by Mayor Bloomberg. I'm one of the few Americans who doesn't drink any of the stuff, so any taxes paid by soda drinkers are dollars that government doesn't have to extract from my pocket. But the more I think about the tax, the angrier I get. I've been trying to figure out why, and have come up with five reasons."

Of the five reasons Stoll singles out, the best is the one that is designed to "help" poor people: " There's an air of classist, condescending paternalism about the whole thing. The New York Times editorialized in favor of the tax: "Poorer people, who lack healthy food choices, too often overload on sugar-laden soft drinks." The same folks who think poor people can't be trusted to know what health insurance to buy or whether to buy it, or what mortgage or credit card to use, also want to tell poor people what they should or shouldn't drink."

The reality is that poor folks don't lack healthy food choices-they simply often can't afford to eat the way that their more affluent city neighbors can because it costs more to do so. But there's also a self-medicating aspect of the way lower income people eat-and fast food and soda make people feel better. It is the conditions that they live under that provide the underlying causes of their behavior. Better to address these conditions, and nurturing-not taxing-neighborhood businesses is the right approach.

Which brings us to Stoll's observation about people's sedentary lifestyles: "The link between the tax and the behavioral outcome it is trying to discourage is tenuous. If Paterson and Bloomberg wanted to discourage obesity by imposing taxes, they could raise the tax on televisions, or on cable television service. All kinds of studies have shown links between sedentary behavior like television watching and obesity. But the television industry is based in New York City, so that's unlikely to happen. Or create a new tax incentive for people to go to the gym."

The point here is that once you start to try to regulate behavior, there's no end to the slippery slope you ride-and that's why we'll give Stoll the last gulp of this fizzling out initiative: "This idea for squeezing more change out of our pockets deserves to be poured down the drain faster than a half-empty can of warm, flat and heavily sweetened day-old soda."