Friday, June 1, 2012

Bloomberg's War on Big Soda

For those whose hold on reality is tenuous stories provide comfort and solace.

Politicians and pundits who want to side with the little guy often declare war against the big guys.

You see, big guys always repress little guys. If you want to exercise political power in a democratic country you side with the little guys. They have more votes.

Demagogic politicians like to see the world in David and Goliath terms. Like David, they stand up to fight against Goliaths like Big Tobacco, Big Pharma, Big Transfats, Big Salt, and now, thanks to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Big Soda.

In the past day or so the Bloomberg’s proposed ban has sucked up massive amounts of media oxygen.

The richest man in New York, a Liberal turned Republican turned Independent, is eighteen months away from a return to the private sector. Thus, he wants to define his legacy.

And he has chosen his battleground. Yesterday he declared war on the Goliath of Goliaths, Big Soda.

Using the powers conferred by the City Charter Mayor Bloomberg is going to bully the Board of Health into making it illegal for some businesses in some places to serve sugared sodas that exceed 16 ounces.

Bye, bye Big Gulp. Welcome to a new era where we can all sip sodas daintily.

If people decide to circumvent the ban by drinking multiple small sodas, they will, of course, be contributing to the nation’s toll of plastic waste.

When you are crusading against Big Soda you never let facts get in the way.

And, what makes anyone think that Diet Soda is such a boon to your health. A year ago a study suggested that drinking more Diet Soda might be increasing your risk of heart attack and stroke.

But then again, others suggested that the connection was not so sure.

How long before we all discover that the artificial, inorganic chemicals that sweeten Diet Soda are very, very bad for our health? Isn't sugar organic?

Anyway, Mayor Bloomberg is fearless. He has no fear of looking ridiculous. And he has no fear of being called the ultimate Nanny.

He has studied up on his behavioral economics and has discovered that you can change human behavior for the better by giving people a nudge in the right direction.

But, he did not study enough philosophy to learn that a nudge and a ban are not the same thing.

Speaking of nudges, in an earlier campaign in his war against obesity Bloomberg forced restaurant chains to post the calorie count of their whoppers and Big Macs. The result: now people who go to these restaurants consume more calories.

Who knew? Whoever imagined that the people would nudge back.

Mayor Bloomberg discerned that America is suffering from an obesity problem. He believes that the epidemic can be cured by making it more inconvenient to drink large quantities of sugar-laden soda.

We would be far more sympathetic to his cause if he had recommended that children be given more physical education at school.

The rationale for Bloomberg’s war on Big Soda is simple. If people become obese they develop more serious health problems. Since we the people are going to pick up the tab for their medical care we have a right to nudge people toward a healthy diet.

But, why not levy a special weight tax on people whose body mass index exceeds some medically defined norm? That would certainly do more to reduce obesity in America than Mayor Bloomberg’s war on Big Soda.

Maybe you are not thrilled with the idea of having a new weight tax. You do not want to give the IRS that much more power.

Why not do what Safeway Stores did: lower the insurance premium of anyone who loses weight and gains cardiac fitness.

Rewarding people for good behavior is a far more effective incentive than banning bad behavior. Maybe you don’t remember Prohibition, but it was not a rousing success.

In a larger sense Bloomberg’s war on Big Soda is a mirage designed to distract the media from his failed political leadership.

It is not the mayor’s job to meddle in the private lives of the citizens. Mayors have a primary responsibility for creating the conditions where businesses create jobs for the citizenry.

In a city where youth unemployment is excessive by anyone’s standards the mayor should find better ways to spend his time and his political capital.

You see, Bloomberg’s war on Big Soda has drowned a very important political story, one that directly affects job growth in the city.

Wednesday Mayor Bloomberg vetoed a City Council bill raising the minimum wage for companies that were doing business with the city.

As you might imagine, the labor unions have been promoting this law. As has happened in the past—see the case of the Kingsbridge Armoryredevelopment project—unions own the City Council and therefore impose conditions on local businesses that kill jobs—see the case of the Kingsbridge Armory redevelopment project.

In the case of the Kingsbridge Armory Bloomberg vetoed the City Council bill. The veto was immediately overridden. The same is going to happen with yesterday’s “living wage” bill.

Thereby, he has presented a textbook example of failed political leadership. The City Council’s war on Jobs is a major scandal. Yet, the world is talking about Bloomberg’s war on Big Soda.

Of course, Bloomberg has stood up and vetoed the bills.

And yet, a veto is grossly insufficient. It is like paying lip service to a problem while distracting the public’s attention from it.

Acting like an amateur in the ring against professionals Bloomberg has failed to do what Chris Christie did in New Jersey. He has not taken the case to the people. He has not used his bully pulpit to fight the unions and their political enablers. How many New Yorkers are really aware of the City Council's war on jobs?

Fighting the unions would take political skill and political courage. Bloomberg seems to have neither. While he is off fighting mythic wars against phantom enemies the labor unions and their allies on the City Council roll merrily on, killing jobs.

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