Unhealthful News 192 – "Public health" oligarchs trying to hijack anti-oligarchy movement

A recent commentary by my friend Jeff Stier inadvertently called my attention to a disturbing behavior by some nanny state types, trying to imply they are akin to the Occupy movement, and how the media (including Jeff!) seem to be letting them get away with it.

In the commentary Jeff heaps justified ridicule on the “Food Police” who sought to ban Happy Meals in San Francisco by banning the giving away of toys with food.  This rule affected only McDonald’s, as far as anyone could tell, but in a bit of dishonest policy making was written to try to hide its targeting.  So, since there was no actual ban on Happy Meals, McDonald’s responded to the ban on free toys by charging a dime for the toys and donating that money to their own children’s charity.  This caused the law’s proponents to go berserk about McDonald’s subverting or skirting the law, which is to say, about McDonald’s obeying the law.  Personally, I think that it is a bad thing that people eat at McDonald’s, but it is quite funny to see dangerous and destructive policy initiatives fall on their face.  (Chris Snowdon also wrote about this humorous incident.)

Elsewhere in the editorial, Jeff stakes out a stance against regulations that require chain restaurants to post the calorie counts of their menu items, a rule that I think is pretty much a perfect public health intervention (information for better decisions; no coercion for those who do not want to change their decisions).  But that is a story for another day.  But the most striking bit was that the Food Police are trying to claim that their cause is somehow akin to Occupy, declaring their efforts to be #OccupyBigFood.  It is easy to see why the Food Police might want to try to steal some of the legitimate cache of Occupy.  It is not so obvious why the press and other commentators let them get away with it.

As far as I can tell, the only thing the Food Police have in common with Occupy is that they do not like something that is being done by some large institutions.  Occupy is about protecting the 99% from the confiscation of the commonwealth by a growing oligarchy of barely-regulated financiers, the corrupt or otherwise mis-aimed government, and a few tens of thousands of other masters of the universe types.  While it certainly attracts people who have various political views and plenty of radicals, the Occupy message itself is not opposed to the free market or supportive of particular regulations.

The nanny state wing of public health is mostly orthogonal to Occupy, but to the extent it runs parallel, it seems to run in the opposite direction.  The nanny staters want to be masters of a tiny little universe and deny opportunities to the rest of us — i.e., they are like those that Occupy is fighting.  To put it most charitably, they want to “protect” the 99% from our own propensity to make “bad” decisions.  The financial oligarchs and associated politicos inflict harm on people and our society that individually we can do nothing about, so muscular collective action is needed.  No such action is needed for someone to avoid any harm that might be inflicted upon them or their Happy Meal-aged children by McDonald’s food.  Rather, those who would restrict choices are trying to exercise power, and some popular action is needed to keep them from banning salt and otherwise lowering people’s welfare.

(Note that this analysis does not address arguments that particular foodways contribute to environmental damage, cruelty to animals, and other external costs, and should be regulated based on that.  The “Food Police” activism is based on trying to enforce particular behaviors based on the health effects on those making the decisions, a restriction of freedom not an attempt to correct for external costs.)

A randomly related note is this news story about how some of those “just pour in boiling water” instant soup cups have a propensity to tip over, and how reported research shows that products on the market with other perfectly functional package shapes are much safer.  Given the surprisingly large number of serious burns caused by spilling these cups, as reported in the story, this seems like a great candidate for regulation.  Unlike unhealthy food, which someone might rationally choose because of other benefits (price, yumminess), no one wants a cup of soup that is more dangerous than it needs to be because of its shape, but few people are aware of the hazard so the market does not solve the problem.

So can we agree to intervene to solve an obvious simple problem?  Probably not, because of how rare the clear thinking of the core message of the story is.

The comments posted on the story quickly degenerated into bickering about the healthfulness and naturalness of the instant soup itself.  Given that inability to focus on the remarkable simple observation that is the story, I suppose it is little wonder that the press cannot tell the difference between activism that is about collective action to protect us from avoidable external threats and activism that is designed to prevent us from exercising our preferences.  Meanwhile, it is probably a safe bet that if someone does propose a regulation on cup-of-soup container shapes, the usual suspects will start screaming about the oppression inflicted by Big Government, taking away our right to decide to needlessly risk severe burns.  And when this hypothetical story is reported, you can bet they, along with those who want to ban instant soup entirely because it is salty, will be given as much ink as the sensible analysis about the tipsiness of containers.

I guess there is one thing that Occupy’s calls for economic action and regulation and discussions of product regulation have in common:  Both of them suffer from the widespread popular ignorance that is caused by the media reporting scientific information as if was a sporting match or a celebrity scandal.

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