Today’s (11/04/10) Joplin Globe is right about San Francisco and Happy Meals. The junk food is outrageously fattening and bad for kids, but I have to agree that making government (San Francisco) tell a company (McDonald’s) what not to market and how to market is over-reaching. That puts the government in the parents’ role. In a perfect world of course parents would resist their children’s pleas and make them eat their veggies before getting limited treats.
But as we all know we have a society that has grown progressively more permissive towards children and America is on the cusp of a health crisis that threatens us financially, functionally and esthetically. I submit therefore that government does have a role in trying to influence behavior that affects citizens, either directly, as in second-hand smoke, or indirectly, as in rising health-care costs that are tax-subsidized. The vast majority of bikers who crash without a helmet and end up in ICU land there on the taxpayer’s dime.
The prominent warning labels on cigarettes appear to have, along with educational efforts, reduced the number of people who smoke. When I was young, not smoking was rare. Now only about 25% of the population smoke.
Webb City recently passed restrictions on smoking and Joplin is struggling with the issue. Rather than trying to dictate behavior on specific products through laws wouldn’t it be better to simply require businesses such as bars and restaurants who want to allow smoking to post a prominent sign (with “prominent” specifically defined) near their front entrance saying that their’s IS a smoking establishment? (Unless they have a separate ventilation system for non-smokers, it should be IS.)
People harm themselves in numerous other ways as well, both through behavior or neglect. Pregnant women drink (and smoke), parents let kids ride ATV’s without helmets, drivers decline to buckle up, and on and on. Personally I would like to
see government approach all such issues in such a way as to minimize cost to the taxpayer while making the individual, having been duly warned, responsible for his or her behavior. There should be an extra penalty or fine if cell-phone use contributed to a vehicle accident, widely publicized after the accident. (Open the phone records for this! Surely blood trumps privacy!) Or how about this as an example: an extra tax on ATV’s designed for kids, proportionate to the estimated additional medical costs? (Yes, Tax. Dammit, nothing is free.)
I would like to see legislators address (where appropriate) for the press and constituents these three questions before approving human-behavior legislation:
- Does this law discourage bad behavior?
- Does this law incentivize good behavior?
- Does this law minimize the cost to the taxpayer?
An example of incentivizing behavior is a program in one of our local hospitals that offers financial incentives to employees who quit smoking and control their weight. It doesn’t take much and from what I hear, it’s working.
It seems to me that all laws about personal behavior should entail some penalty for bad behavior. If we had a health-care system, heavily subsidized of course, in which the patient had some of her own money at risk, such that she needed to shop for it, the whole system would function better and there would be many fewer unnecessary tests.
In the case of welfare, basic needs should be met but only to the extent of humane survival (but with due consideration for children, perhaps support-in-kind). Minimal unemployment benefits are essential, as the Great Recession even now demonstrates. Welfare will never be perfect because money is fungible and children are often involved. It is the price of a civilized society.
Other examples. What about polluting industries? Could an efficiency score be required prominently on utility bills for example? What about judges? Yes, judges. I am aware that there are systems that rate judges on their performance and apparently do so well. Couldn’t those be better publicized?
I am aware that trying to control bad human behavior is no simple problem, but I’m agreeing with the Globe here that there are better ways to do it than sending the Behavior Police to every McDonald’s in the country. Build in the incentives and the penalties and people will figure it out.