Today’s Courier Herald Column:
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided to fix his city’s obesity problem yesterday and by many media accounts he has succeeded. No longer will 58% of New Yorkers be overweight. Residents of the Big Apple will be melting off their pounds in the coming days. Who knew solving such problems of public health was as simple as limiting the size of the cups from which we drink?
Bloomberg has long been the mayor that has decided that he knows best what New Yorkers should eat. He’s declared war on trans fats and salt. He now has Atlanta’s Coca Cola Company squarely in his sights. His current obsession to limit caloric intake is to ban restaurants from selling non-diet soft drinks larger than 16 ounces. His arbitrary limit will not apply to grocery and convenience stores. It will not preclude free refills. Customers will be allowed to buy multiple drinks.
Also exempt: Milk shakes. Only a bureaucrat can give an 800 calorie alternative to someone that wants a larger beverage than a 180 calorie soft drink and think he is part of solving a problem.
Bloomberg’s action demonstrates much that is wrong with modern public policy. By his own statements, he mocked the rest of the country for wringing their hands over the obesity problem and proudly trumpeted that New York is “doing something”.
Anytime a government official justifies a program by “doing something”, you should quickly and swiftly understand that the person is telling you he is about to dazzle you with a demonstration of his awesome power. He is about to control your life without regard for, or any expectation of, actual results toward solving an underlying problem.
In Bloomberg’s case, he has been pushing for policy at his state legislature for years to tax sugary soft drinks and other items he deems unhealthy. In the true spirit of representative government, the legislature and governor have not deemed that a proper solution to the obesity problem is not within Bloomberg’s proposal. Bloomberg is now exercising government by autocracy to impose his personal will through using the city’s public health board to enforce his edict.
The result will be new rules and regulations that are easily circumvented, with people now applauding that we have done something about a problem without doing anything. The truth of the matter is that we all understand that the solution to the nations’ obesity problem lies in the individual taking responsibility for their own well being. Fly-by ineffective regulation makes us feel as if we’ve done something to encourage others to do better without investing any energy to actually figure out what a solution would need to look like, or more importantly, what government’s proper role in that solution would be, if any.
To be clear, obesity and the related Type II diabetes epidemic is a real problem. The costs of obesity to public health do invite consideration of additional government scrutiny. The Bloomberg policy to limit cup sizes is an insult to public health and to public policy.
My father lost his battle with diabetes at age 62. He drank diet soft drinks or water, never a full sugar beverage. The Bloomberg policy wouldn’t have helped him or most others, regardless if they followed rules or not. And it’s frankly difficult to think of a government program or new regulations that would have affected his behavior much if any.
“Doing Something” may make Bloomberg and those who wish government would intrude more into our everyday lives feel good for a moment. But doing nothing will have the same result as his proposed policy. And in a few years, when New York still have the same obesity rate, he or someone else is likely to do something else, but leave the new ineffective rule in place.
That’s how government works, or more specifically doesn’t, as it continues to creep into our lives. If only we could find a government policy to save us from people who feel the need to “do something”.