First a disclaimer – this commentary site is run on generic diet root beer – you know, the store brand, which is probably what didn’t quite pass the quality standards of some major manufacturer and was shipped off to Cincinnati in tanker cars that then sat on a siding in the sun for far too long. But it will do. You really can’t taste the difference from the good stuff, and it’s always hot and dry in Los Angeles, so it really is quantity, not quality, that counts. And it’s not the sugary stuff. You do know that stuff sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup can turn you into Chris Christie pretty quickly. Avoid it. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg would approve. In late May he announced that the city would impose a sixteen-ounce limit on single servings of “sugary drinks” – that includes sodas and sports and energy drinks, and sweetened tea or coffee, and any artificially sweetened fruit drinks. In the City that Never Sleeps no one will be bouncing off the walls on a sugar high.
But that wasn’t the point. New Yorkers are hyped-up in all sorts of ways – think of Woody Allen’s nervous charm, such as it is, or all those kids on Saturday Night Live. Hang around Washington Square Park any afternoon, or work your way through Times Square – it’s not just New Year’s Eve that’s crazy there. No, this was about public health – all this sugary crap contributes to what they call our nation’s obesity epidemic – everyone seems to be turning spherical – and these drinks do play a part in the incidence of diabetes and all sorts of other diseases too. Bloomberg did what was right – public officials are charged with keeping the public safe. This is one way to do that, and Bloomberg had already banned smoking – because smoking causes cancer and heart disease, as everyone knows, and it increases the cancer risk for nonsmokers who inhale secondhand smoke – dubious to some but probably true. So in the city there’s no smoking in restaurants and bars, or in any indoor gathering spaces, and then he banned smoking in outdoor public spaces – parks and beaches. There’s nowhere to hide and light up. Rental units and co-ops and condominiums may be next.
Bloomberg also banned artificial trans-fats from restaurants – those raise your cholesterol – and he required restaurant chains to include calorie counts on their menus – as if you know the number of calories in that Reuben you might think twice. Maybe that’s basic epidemiology. He’s also on a crusade against salt – he’s urging restaurants and food processors to reduce the amount of salt in food products by up to forty percent. Salt raises your blood pressure, you know. He’s just trying to help – to keep you safe. That’s his job.
Now New York is no more fun at all anymore – or it’s a much better city than it’s ever been. Either way it’s just not what it once was – but then never ever is. It’s a muddle to think about, which Timothy Noah does in this item in the New Republic – noting first that restaurants and food companies, and most everyone on the right, is pretty ticked off with Bloomberg. Noah cites Fox News’ resident pure-libertarian, John Stossel – “In a free society, I should be able to determine my own diet.” But the left isn’t pleased either. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a Democrat, wasn’t all that pleased with that sixteen-ounce drink limit thing – “It seems to be more on the punitive side of things.” Ah yes, you encourage people, you don’t punish them. And Noah cites Jon Stewart – “I am all for promoting public health. But Mr. Mayor, this plan makes your asinine look big.”
Well, Michael Bloomberg is a strange little man – successful and rich beyond imagining, but strange, and Noah sees the problem with his sincere but severe fiats:
Bloomberg’s health policies are straightforwardly paternalistic, and paternalism is an idea nobody feels comfortable with. Indeed, it was loathed by the left before it was loathed by the right. Colonialism was essentially paternalism on a global scale. The 1960s counterculture brought an end to college parietals – the prohibition against a girl spending the night in a boy’s dorm room or vice versa – and never took government prohibitions on recreational drug use very seriously.
But it was more than that:
The left’s aversion applied to all sources of paternalistic authority: government, corporations, priests, university administrators, and, of course, parents. When the virus jumped to the right it mutated into an aversion only to government authority (with exemptions for the military and police) and granted blanket amnesty to private businesses, religious authorities, mom, and dad.
Each side knows what’s good for you, and they disagree about what that is, and both sides hate the idea of government paternalism, and both love it:
Liberals support restrictions on harmful things individuals do to their bodies, like smoking, driving without a seat belt, and riding a motorcycle without a helmet. Conservatives support restrictions on actions they deem harmful to the soul, like having abortions, using contraception, and marrying a person of the same sex. Restrictions on any of these activities amount to the government saying: Don’t do this; it’s bad for you.
And Noah cites Christopher Hitchens, who recently died of smoking-related cancer, calling Bloomberg “a baby authoritarian who knows what’s good for you.” Hitchens calls that the worst kind of tyranny, but Noah isn’t so sure:
The truth is that there’s nothing inherently wrong with paternalistic government or, in the harsher, feminized shorthand of its detractors, the “nanny state.” Parents and nannies can be good or bad. No adult likes to be told how to live his life, but most of us benefit from baby authoritarianism far more than we’d like to admit.
The government doesn’t want me talking on the phone while I drive? I can’t say I’ve given that vice up completely, but fear of getting ticketed makes me do it a lot less than I used to, and I may live longer as a result. The government wants me eating less salt? I don’t live in New York, but, when I heard Bloomberg was tightening the noose, I reexamined my attachment to sodium chloride and found it to be fairly weak. Bloomberg didn’t want Hitchens to smoke? Hitchens, who died this past December of throat cancer, went to his grave believing his vices remained none of Bloomberg’s business. But after being diagnosed in 2010, he conceded unsentimentally that he had long “been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction.” If New York City regulations persuade some of his acolytes to give up cigarettes and thereby avoid his fate, don’t let’s consider his legacy tarnished.
A second disclaimer – this commentary site also runs on Danish pipe tobacco. Sorry – but Sherlock Holmes had his shag, in the Persian slipper on the mantle as you recall. Holmes said it helped him think – he said it helped solved more than a few cases:
“Mr. Holmes, that we are very much indebted to you for having cleared the matter up. I wish I knew how you reach your results.”
“I reached this one,” said my friend, “by sitting upon five pillows and consuming an ounce of shag. I think, Watson, that if we drive to Baker Street, we shall just be in time for breakfast.”
Watson didn’t die of the secondhand smoke either. Victorian London isn’t Bloomberg’s Manhattan of course, and Noah gets to the real issue here:
What about when the nanny state instructs us to behave in accordance with its views of morality? I disagree with conservative aspirations to install the nanny state in my bedroom, but I wouldn’t necessarily begrudge the state its power to play moral cop elsewhere. I approve of the government prohibition against the selling of organs, and I would never want the government to stop discouraging illicit drug use and prostitution (though I might quibble with its methods). These prohibitions all constitute the government helping to define the nation’s collective values, which is entirely legitimate.
That puts government in the business of enforcing morality, and in the Economist, Will Wilkinson doesn’t like that notion at all:
I take it that Mr Noah disagrees with conservative moral paternalism not because it is paternalistic, but because it is based on a false picture of moral welfare, and is therefore unlikely actually to do us good. Having noted this disagreement, Mr Noah should have paused. If there is widespread disagreement about the human good, about what counts as a benefit or a harm, then paternalistic policies, even when they work as intended, inevitably restrict the liberty of some citizens in the service of conceptions of the good they reject. How is a paternalistic measure justified to us if we reasonably reject the idea of welfare on which it is based?
If Mr Noah wants to say, “Well, that’s okay, because it does make you better off according to the true theory of the good”, we’ll want to know by what authority his conception of the good, and not ours, is established as the public standard for justified coercion. “Because I’m right and you’re wrong” is a vacuous, universal reply.
Wilkinson is not impressed with this mock-liberalism:
It’s worth remembering that liberalism is, at its roots, a philosophy of mutual disarmament in the face of intractable disagreement, and that its most fundamental principle is the presumption of liberty. According to J. S. Mill, “the burden of proof is supposed to be with those who are against liberty; who contend for any restriction or prohibition… The a priori assumption is in favour of freedom.”
I’m afraid Mr Noah’s casual embrace of “baby authoritarianism” illustrates just how thoroughly the technocratic paternalism of American progressivism extinguished the liberal instincts of the left.
We do want to be free, and Ryan Cooper jumps in:
In short, any paternalistic measure should pass a high bar of evidence, and policies like a soda ban which are plainly elitist should inspire extra skepticism. As it turns out, the evidence with regard to soft drinks and obesity is not at all clear, and the same goes for salt, Bloomberg’s other fixation.
Cooper has links if you want to look that up, and the soda ban may be plainly elitist – the lower class loves those Big Gulps and doesn’t know what’s good for them, so Cooper offers this for all the liberals out there:
If liberals want to promote public health, we should focus on areas where the government is already leaning on the scale in favor of certain behaviors. For example, the new transportation bill gutted subsidies for public transportation, walking, and biking in favor of more new highways. This is part of a half-century government project of stupendous spending on car-centered development. (Notable also how the conservative belief in the free market goes right out the window when it comes to valorizing white suburban dwellers against those sneering bike-riding, subway-taking liberals.)
Cooper suggests that walking has kind of been engineered out of existence, by policy choices, and you can make other choices, since you’re making choices anyway. And Cooper concludes with this:
Liberals would stand on much firmer ground if we confined our public health initiatives to reversing these sorts of trends (while carrying on with usual cleanup of lead, mercury, and their ilk, of course), instead of mandating class-coded restrictions on what you can eat and drink.
But everyone knows what’s good for the country. Growth is good, and inflation is bad. But of course those two goals, high growth and low inflation, are structurally in conflict, as Kevin Drum explains:
In a recession, you’d expect average pay to adjust to a lower level. As unemployment rises, workers should be willing to accept lower wages, and as wages drop employers should become more willing to hire new workers. If this doesn’t happen, the recession is likely to persist. One of the current problems in Greece and Spain, for example, is that their workers became increasingly uncompetitive over the past decade. One way to correct this is by devaluing their currency, which would effectively reduce wages countrywide compared to the rest of Europe, but because they’re both on the euro they can’t do this.
Another way to effectively reduce wages countrywide is keep compensation constant but to allow a higher inflation rate. If inflation is running at, say, 4%, and you get no pay increase this year, your wages have effectively gone down 4%.
But what if inflation is low? Then the only way to reduce wages is to actually reduce wages. For a variety of reasons, however, employers generally aren’t willing to do that. It just pisses off their workers too much. At least, that’s the theory.
And he goes on to cite evidence from the Federal Reserve, with charts and all, indicating that the Federal Reserve, with the duel mandate of curbing inflation and promoting job growth, and growth in general, has decided that they’ll worry about the inflation part and let congress worry about the growth part:
The moral of this story is that tolerating high inflation during a recession is a helpful thing. The faster wages adjust, the faster the recession will be over, and a high inflation rate allows wages to adjust downward even if employers simply keep nominal pay flat. It’s probably too late for this to make much of a difference anymore, but an inflation target of 4% starting back in 2008 probably would have produced a stronger and faster recovery than the one we’re finally getting now.
Why would the Federal Reserve kill growth in the name of taming inflation, which just isn’t out there at all these days? Here Ryan Cooper argues we have another case of people deciding what’s good for everybody, based on what they’re trying to protect:
I’m a young person. Through Medicare and Social Security, the old have claims on my future wealth, and it would extremely easy to believe a narrative where they’ve turned into a bunch of extractive parasites like the financial sector, and they’re going to take as much of my generation’s output as they possibly can. Simultaneously, they will protect their own savings by screaming bloody murder every time inflation touches two percent, and thereby prevent reflation and economic recovery, and cripple our job prospects:
This is more than making sure the poor don’t drink thirty-six ounce Big Gulp Mountain Dews. This is generational warfare, explained by S. R. Waldman:
Price stabilization is social insurance we provide to the most secure members of our society, while the bill is paid in lost purchasing power and increased risk by the least secure. Further, the benefits of price stabilization accrue disproportionately to the largest creditors and to holders of high-salary secure jobs. Preserving the purchasing power of a billion dollar stash is a lot more valuable than preserving the value of fifty bucks in a bank account. Price stabilization is an incredibly regressive form of social insurance, a program whose distributional ghastliness would be abhorrent to most people if it were not conveniently submerged.
Price stabilization as social insurance in an odd concept, especially since it insures those who have all the goodies, with the funds if those who don’t, who thus get hammered down even further.
Cooper sees that this could be so:
So in this story, the young are being deliberately squeezed from both sides. The cost of the future welfare state for the elderly is staggeringly huge, which we’ll be expected to pay (and if Paul Ryan gets his way, will then be dismantled as we reach retirement age), and we’re graduating into the worst job market in eighty years, which the mostly older elite won’t fix. Perhaps it’s time for us young people to drink from the cup of bitterness and hatred, arm up, and start agitating for the end of Medicare, or maybe forced euthanasia.
I can’t quite believe this, though.
Cooper suggests it might be better to factor in ignorance and fear:
Opposition to inflation and recovery are driven not so much by a lucid calculation of economic interest than by fear of anything new and, more importantly, total ignorance as to how the economy works. A couple years of 3-4% inflation would not actually mean Grandma would starve (those are, by the way, the rates we saw under Reagan). In the end, this is still one country. The old and young aren’t enemy countries. We’re all part of the same family.
So to my younger brethren, understand that being old is tough, especially in this country. Lots of people are getting old in the suburbs and finding out that is a terrible place to do it. Even with Medicare and Social Security, the elderly often go bankrupt from medical bills. And perhaps most importantly, dying is an increasingly gruesome and terrible process. Have some sympathy.
And to my parents’ generation and on: grow up. I am sick to death about hearing how hard you worked back when you were young. Maybe you did, but you had some terrific advantages, namely that you happened to come of age in what will probably stand as the greatest economic boom in the history of civilization. But when you got power, you handed us a mini-Great Depression, and it’s our fault we can’t find jobs? Have some perspective.
That is nicely put, but it’s not going to happen. David Frum writes that the Great Recession has hit the young the hardest but that older Americans don’t care. They just want to protect their own lifestyles, and they’ll get their way by ruthlessly voting in their narrow self-interest:
We could jump-start the economy with a massive jolt of monetary and fiscal stimulus, but such a policy would risk inflation and pose a threat to retirement savings. So we don’t do it. We could borrow money to finance infrastructure programs that would set people to work now and enrich society over the long haul – but that borrowing would have to be serviced by taxes to which older Americans fiercely object. So we don’t do that either.
Each side knows what’s good for us all, and they disagree about what that is. It sort of depends on where you stand, like a pipe smoker in Manhattan, or the kid who longs for that Big Gulp, because all that sugar, in ice-cold liquid suspension, will keep him going for another few hours – he’s hot and tired, and Mike Bloomberg isn’t. And inflation is bad for those with fixed funds, because that would make their wealth simply evaporate, while even just a little inflation would get the economy moving, and rescue those with nothing, and even less hope. We seem to recoil at the idea that government is in the business of enforcing morality at all, but these seem to be moral choices too. Pick your poison.
Here in Hollywood it’s diet root beer. Bloomberg will no doubt soon say that diet root beer is very, very bad for you, and there will be none available during the next trip to Manhattan – time to light another pipe and think about that. As for the rest, when someone tells you that something is bad for you, and thus bad for everyone, nod politely and do what seems best – and stay quiet about it. There are too many baby authoritarians out there already.