Monday, October 18, 2010

A Stamp of Disdain

The unusual coalition of opposition to Mike Bloomberg's human food stamp experiment is explored in Sunday's NY Times-with Ellen Vollinger's Food Research and Action Center right in the middle of the fight: "Seventeen years ago, Ann Landers got a letter from “Upset in Texas,” a checker at a grocery store, complaining about customers on food stamps. One woman bought a “fancy birthday cake” for $17. Another bought a “luxury” bag of shrimp for $32.12, and so forth. “Can’t something be done about the freeloaders who are costing us taxpayers millions?” Upset complained. Ellen Vollinger, legal director for the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center, thought of that letter with a pang a few days ago, when Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg asked the federal government for permission to bar New York City’s food stamp users from buying sodas and other sugary drinks with their benefits."

For Vollinger it is all about elites dictating to the poor and controlling their lives: "Mr. Bloomberg cast his proposal as a kind of social and scientific experiment in fighting the national epidemic of obesity and diabetes. He promised that over the two-year life of the project, New York would collect data on whether food stamp users spent their taxpayer-funded benefits on more healthful choices, like fruits and vegetables. Ms. Vollinger’s group, which is dedicated to fighting hunger, promptly came out against the idea, suggesting that, among other things, it would “perpetuate the myth” encompassed in that letter to Ann Landers, that people who need government assistance make bad choices at the supermarket."

In our view, however, it's more than just about the poor-and in some senses, the poor are simply the canary in the mine shaft when it comes to the issue of control over the lives of ordinary Americans. That is because, as we have pointed out, the food stamp effort can be seen as an opening salvo of a more generalized war for control over the behavior and lifestyles of all Americans. With the looming likelihood that  more and more health care expenditures will be subject to federal mandates, we are rapidly approaching the point where the old maxim, "He who pays the piper calls the tune," will become fully operational.

So the poor are on the front lines in the war for the bodies and souls of the American people-and the ability to dictate to them what they should eat is simply a harbinger of what the Bloomberg cohort has on its health agenda for us all. Which it what brings Ms. Vollinger together  with some unusual allies in the current fight: "She found allies in what some might consider unlikely quarters, at least when it comes to bleeding hearts: Big Food and Big Beverage. Traditional, old-line liberals in the shaggy, idealistic, antihunger, antipoverty sector are joining with the nation’s food industry, which represents some of the most sophisticated, powerful corporate interests in the world, to fight the mayor’s plan. Together, they are taking on the nation’s health czars, including groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest and New York City’s influential health commissioner, Dr. Thomas A. Farley."

It should also be pointed out that historically food stamps were designed to enlarge the choices poor folks had-and the mayor wants to reverse the trend: "Food stamps were designed to enlarge the choices of poor and hungry people, rather than to limit them to the most nutritious items. Alcoholic beverages and tobacco were banned. But otherwise, the stamps were to be used to buy “almost any ordinary food,” according to news accounts at the time. Now Mayor Bloomberg and the health lobby are arguing that the diets afforded by food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, have become rather too appetizing."

Whenever an issue devolves to a question of control-particularly when it involves the poor-Bloomberg can be counted on to appear righteously on the side of the French radical philosopher Rousseau who once famously argued that, "sometimes you have to force people to be free." In Rousseau's world view, this made sense because you are only truly free when you are toeing the proper line of the General Will (freedom is doing the right thing as construed by the philosopher king; which is why Bloomberg is so comfortable in this construction of freedom).

But the most disengenuous partisan in this debate is Bloomberg's health commissioner, Tom Farley. Parse the following misdirection: "Dr. Farley, the city’s health commissioner, argues that the city’s proposal, which would have to be approved by the federal Department of Agriculture, would save lives. Health advocates make it clear that they would like to improve everybody’s diet, not just that of food stamp recipients, through measures like a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. “I don’t think it’s an example of government controlling people’s diets,” Dr. Farley said. “This is an example of the government removing an incentive for people to do something which is unhealthy for them.” People on food stamps can still buy soft drinks with their own cash, he adds."

All of these kinds of efforts-from soda taxes and menu labeling, to the current so-called food stamp experiment-are about control (as if the power to dictate and tax wasn't coercive). It is the classic strategy of gradually weakening defenses through a policy of attrition-and no one believes that the Bloombergistas' search for health lebensraum will stop here.

And kudos to the Times for pointing out the difference between causality and correlation: "Turning to the science hardly solves the dispute. Much of the research on the link between obesity and soda, and food stamps and food choices, is like a Rorschach test, interpreted completely differently by each side. As Mr. Bloomberg said in announcing his proposal, there is a strong correlation between rising soft-drink consumption and rising obesity over the last 30 years. Research indicates that women and boys on food stamps are more likely to be overweight than their higher-income peers. But in science, a correlation does not prove causality."

Bloomberg's current health nosiness is just another indication that those who think he is well positioned for any kind of national campaign may be addled. In an era of concern about government over reach, Mike Bloomberg is the poster boy for exactly the kind of government that people are rejecting in this election cycle. Clearly, it is no time for Mother Knows Best.