The Tax Man Cometh…For Your Fridge?

Freedom fries” might be making a comeback—and this time, it’s not because of the French. Writing in The New York Times this weekend, foodie pundit Mark Bittman declares that the federal government should crack down on consumption of fries, chips, soda, and other snack foods while promoting healthier fare like vegetables. And he argues the feds should do this by using the tax code to make you pay for buying food that’s not government-approved.

We certainly have to hat-tip Bittman for his ambition. (Though “delusion” might be a more appropriate word.) Under his plan, federal bean counters will go through each one of the 38,718 items (on average) in a supermarket and assign a tax or subsidy value to them. They’d then have to monitor the market for new food products. And there’s more, writes Bittman:

We could sell those [healthier] staples cheap — let’s say for 50 cents a pound — and almost everywhere: drugstores, street corners, convenience stores, bodegas, supermarkets, liquor stores, even schools, libraries and other community centers.

It’s unclear who Bittman is referring to when he writes “we.” Presumably, “we” is a nicer way of saying “the federal government that will require everybody to follow my scheme.” But does he really think people will make sure to pick up a pound of spinach when buying a bottle of vodka or that farmers market produce would flourish at a drugstore?

Putting aside the impracticality of what Bittman supposes to impose, his assumptions themselves require logical leaps and bounds.

The idea that federal farm subsidies are leading to obesity is an oft-repeated myth. But University of California-Davis researchers concluded in 2008 that “even entirely eliminating the current [federal farm-support] programs could not be expected to have a significant influence on obesity rates.” (Raw-material costs and finished-goods costs are two entirely separate things.)

And the notion that simply decreasing the amount of soft drinks consumed will improve health remains unproven. There’s no credible scientific evidence that sugar-sweetened drinks are especially fattening to begin with since their calories are counted like any other food. And one study from December found a tax targeting soft drinks would lead to people switching to equally caloric untaxed drinks.

Even Kelly Brownell of Yale’s food-cop-harboring Rudd Center (which Bittman cites approvingly) admits about soda taxes that “nobody has been able to see how people will really respond under these conditions.”

Quickly, then, Bittman’s federal framework for reducing obesity would have to involve taxing the amount of calories people consume—taxing how much people weigh, really. That doesn’t seem too appetizing.

We could go on about the flaws in Bittman’s reasoning, but the heart of the to-tax-or-not-to-tax matter can be seen in his own arrogance. “It’s true that you don’t need to smoke and you do need to eat,” he writes. “But you don’t need sugary beverages (or the associated fries).”

Well, it’s comforting to know that humanity has omniscient Supreme Emperor Bittman to declare what each peasant needs and doesn’t need. But frankly, we’re confident that we can manage what’s on our plate better than a smug Times pundit whose claim to fame is cooking, not policymaking.

To Bittman his like-minded ilk: Give us potato chips, or give us death.

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