Please, Stop Me Before I Do It Again!

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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.

Laura & Margie - biker chicks

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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.

Common adverse effects of tobacco smoking (See...

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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

Offroad-Days in Landsberg 2010 [Quad in mudsli...

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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:

  1. Does this law discourage bad behavior?
  2. Does this law incentivize good behavior?
  3. 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.

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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.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
This entry was posted in Fiscal Policy, Government waste, Local government, Medicine, Taxes and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Please, Stop Me Before I Do It Again!

  1. Rawhead says:

    Well I pretty much agree with you. People are going to be self-destructive no matter what the law is. If your enjoyment of life shortens your life, so what!? It’s your life to live as you see fit. I can’t agree that Happy Meals are any more ‘junky’ than many home-cooked meals though. It’s a chunk of tasty cow in a roll with some tomato sauce and cheese… and a fried potato! Prepared and arranged differently, looks just like something mom would throw together and call a ‘good meal’. Now I can’t be so sure about ‘chicken’ nuggets…


  2. Jim Wheeler says:

    Well, Rawhead, you are ignoring my main point here. Until the Libertarians take over, my life is financially connected to yours through the tax system, as in the case of the moribund biker. If it weren’t for that, AND for the fact that I might be the driver he smashes into, I would completely agree with you: to each his own. Too bad the world’s not that simple.

    Another symptom of the problem I recently read about: Morons racing up and down Main Street, Joplin, keeping one of the loft apartment people awake until 4 a.m. on Friday or Saturday night. Why don’t they do that out in the country somewhere? Answer: they wouldn’t get attention out there. Moral: people want more than “personal freedom”. They want the freedom to mess with other people’s freedom.

    As for your take on junk food versus home-cooked meals, you are right ONLY if you use “prepared foods” at home. IMO, it is all the added stuff in prepared foods that makes the difference, stuff like salt, MSG, sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, different kinds of fat, wheat gluten, and glyceryl monosterate, and god knows what else. That’s a lot different from preparing fresh produce and meats with just spices. The old grocery store ain’t what it used to be and people being people, they are going to buy the pre-prepared stuff and just nuke it instead of going to all that trouble. Q.E.D., like it or not we are all joined at the financial hip.



  3. Duane Graham says:


    Unlike you, I haven’t completely made up my mind on this one. I am susceptible to the libertarian argument here, but we are talking about protecting children, not just controlling adult behavior.

    Obviously, you and I would agree that if McDonald’s Happy Meals were laced with poison, the government necessarily has a role in stopping them from marketing them to anyone, much less children. But the issue here, of course, isn’t prohibiting the marketing of Happy Meals (which in their high-calorie, low-nutrition state can be seen as a long-term “poison,”), just marketing them with toys that attract the attention of children. And given what we know about the dynamics of parenting these days, it is not unreasonable for a government entity to insist that crass marketing techniques be curbed in the name of doing something about childhood obesity.

    In the case of cigarette smoking, we have much more drastic laws than the ones proposed in SF. Adults have the right to smoke, and cigarette manufacturers have the right to sell to adults. But they don’t have the right to sell cigarettes to children, nor can they entice children with “gifts” in order to get them to smoke. Why not? What’s wrong with parents allowing their children to smoke once in a while? Well, obviously, I know you wouldn’t advocate such a thing, but what really makes the issue with cigarettes all that much different from fatty foods and the enticement from marketers to get children to develop a life-long habit of consuming them?

    (For the record, my support of banning smoking in indoor public places—I’m a reluctant convert, even though I love to smoke cigars in bars—is because I see it as a health issue for the workers involved. It really is something of an occupational hazard, with possible long-term effects. I do, however, think it is possible in this age to adequately ventilate a separate space to make the hazard negligible.)

    Let me try this: If parents allowed their children to miss too much school, or not force them to go at all, should the government schools just ignore the fact that the parents were hurting the long-term interests of their children, not to mention society at large? Doesn’t the public have an interest in seeing to it that folks make sure their kids go to school?

    These kinds of things are examples of the divide that runs through America’s soul. On the one hand, we are a fiercely independent people, who don’t want to be told what to do. On the other hand, we can see the dangers of that spirit in the modern world, a world in which education is important for our national economic health and in which obesity is a problem not just for the individuals involved, but also has an effect on our economic health, just for the reasons you cite.

    Finally, I disagree with your characterization at the end: the “Behavior Police.” I don’t think in this case it is anything more than trying to prohibit corporations, who have an interest in cultivating a life-long commitment to purchasing its somewhat addictive products, from marketing those products in such a way as to appeal to those least able to make rational decisions: the children. And although you might rightly say that their parents should be responsible for them, I would argue that just like the need for truancy laws to make sure people do the right thing with regard to education, we may need laws to assist parents in doing the right thing in terms of childhood nutrition.



    • Jim Wheeler says:


      You said,
      I don’t think in this case it is anything more than trying to prohibit corporations, who have an interest in cultivating a life-long commitment to purchasing its somewhat addictive products, from marketing those products in such a way as to appeal to those least able to make rational decisions: the children.

      I sure get where you are coming from. The obesity epidemic is serious and has enormous implications for the nation’s quality of life and health-care expenses. The problem of course is that it’s a long-term problem. But regulating McD0nald’s marketing opens a huge can of worms, culturally speaking, i.e., advertising, a subject I have thought of posting on but refrained because it is so deeply imbedded.

      I marvel at how outrageous the ad industry is, and it must be successful or they wouldn’t be able to afford to do it. Just look at the stuff they peddle: quack cures, prescription drugs for conditions you never heard of, gadgets of all kinds, electric heaters that put out more energy than the current they draw (always cracks me up!), collectors’ items that are sure to be worth a fortune someday, free (yes, free) safes containing rare (yes, rare) currency (but you have to pay S&H). And on and on. Hasn’t changed since P.T. Barnum and before, as many of us know.

      So, If we prohibit McDonald’s from marketing to kids, which is surely effective, do we next tackle the toy industry? There are way too many toys that require batteries when they might be just as happy with yo-yo’s, kites and rubber-band shooters like we used to have. And the discarded batteries are a significant environmental problem.

      It’s the same thing for ads in general. The bulk of it is for stuff people don’t really need and probably didn’t know they even wanted until they saw the ad, but it is a societal meme that is solidly locked in. I guess my point is that in tackling it there is no stopping point, hence my reference to the Behavior Police. And as you so correctly point out, we Americans are “. . . a fiercely independent people, who don’t want to be told what to do.” So I’m thinking, wouldn’t it be a lot better to try to change behavior by education and jawboning, and by assigning realistic costs to unwanted behaviors (yes, sin taxes)?

      The reason I think this might actually work is what I saw when gasoline went up to $4 a gallon. Amid all the cries of “ain’t it awful!”, and, “the world as we knew it has ended,” behavior turned almost on a dime. Out with the behemoth gas guzzlers and in with smaller vehicles. All of a sudden m.p.g. meant something again. Inventions to save energy began popping up and became interesting to write and read about. The price change did more to change behavior than decades of C.A.F.E. standards.

      Your point about school truancy is an interesting one. Instead of sending notes to parents how about sending the offenders a bill for absences after the first one? Not too big, just enough to get their attention. I bet it wouldn’t take much. Start with a dollar and increase the amount in proportion to repeated absences. (I have seen people get their shorts in a know over a library fine!)

      IMHO, big O and all his predecessors have underperformed by not jawboning the public more about the root causes of our long-term troubles, at the top of which list is our on Arab oil. Europe taxes fuel heavily, but we haven’t had the guts. So what I’m saying is, fight bad behavior by pricing it appropriately. If helmet-less biker accidents cost the system $10 million a year, raise biker’s insurance by that amount through taxes and publicize why we’re doing it. If McDonald’s is contributing to childhood obesity, tax they toys to offset the cost of education programs.

      Yes, I know “tax” is a bad word, one which the GOP delights in exploiting as a boogyman. It resonates with the body politic. We need to think of a good alternative for “sin tax”. How about “remediation cost”? Kinda pedantic. Maybe someone else can suggest something better.



      • Duane Graham says:


        The “huge can of worms” you reference is exactly why I am not convinced the action we are discussing is appropriate. Unintended consequences and all that.

        But I do think that it’s possible to “go this far and not further” when it comes to doing certain things like regulating the marketing of certain products. We don’t have to slide down the slippery slope just because we take a few steps in that direction. I don’t have to remind you that the slippery slope argument is a logical fallacy.

        In some cases, advertisers regulate themselves, as in the case of alcohol marketing (according to Wikipedia, “the standard is that alcohol advertisements can only be placed in media where 70% of the audience is over the legal drinking age.”) In other cases, the government steps in, as in the case of advertising tobacco, and says it shouldn’t be advertised on television at all.

        I do like your idea of massive education and a sin tax, although it would inevitably be called a “fat tax” or some such thing. But there’s no chance of that tax passing, no matter how much our collective bad behavior costs us. So, that’s why I lean toward certain kinds of measures that are designed to do something about the next generation’s addictions, including both massive education and targeted attempts to control advertising to children.

        We have successfully changed many of the attitudes and behavior of our young people toward things like racism and sexism and homophobia through both law and education. We outlawed discrimination and we invested in teaching our children to respect others. And we did so without becoming a totalitarian society. In fact, we bettered ourselves.

        So, I will have to ponder this matter further, but I tend to side with those who want to act, even if it is unpopular. (But, I might add, not nearly as unpopular as your gas tax would be!)



  4. ansonburlingame says:

    To both,

    Summing up Duane’s comment above, it seems to me that he first says that people make lousy choices for both themselves and those under their care (old or young) and responsibility. Given such bad choices it thus falls to government to make them do “better” things, again, to or for themselves and/or those for whom they are responsible. Is that a fair perspective without putting words in anyone’s mouth?

    Now for sure murder or rape is a bad thing and I will not argue that government making laws to punish those actting as such are needed.

    But let’s take the other extreme. Why do we have laws for bicycle helments?? And what pray tell is different between happy meal toys to entice buying them and the toys in cracker jack boxes when I was a kid??? God those greedy corporations simple do it all the time and MUST be stopped, right???

    Now we expect (at least some do) laws to control obesity. At least fat people don’t polute the air like smokers. Well most of the time at least!!! And of course now when smokers and fat people get sick as a result of bad choices it is absolutely NOW a responsibility of government to care for them, right???

    I can only say that for those that want more control from government look first at the Constitution to see if such federal government controls are authorized therein. If not and the controls are really necessary then change the Constitution. That will sure put a brake on all those good intentions unless they are REALLY necessary for the well being of ALL Americans.

    But, but, but changing the Constitution is just too hard and too whatever. My response to that one is THANK GOD SUCH IS THE CASE!!! God bless those Founders to make damn sure we did not expand the controls of the federal government based on year to year political whims.




    • Jim Wheeler says:


      Your comment came in while I was working on my latest, so they crossed. I do agree with your viewpoint except for two things. 1. The fact that Americans are firmly committed financially to taking care of people who abuse their own health and welfare. (I figure that makes THEIR behavior MY business.) 2. I don’t want to live in a society that tolerates abusive behavior, especially as Duane points out, regarding children.

      Please let me know what you think of my latest comment on this (10 minutes after yours), and, thanks for yours.



    • Duane Graham says:


      I tend to side with allowing adults to do as they please (with, of course, important exceptions), but I don’t agree with allowing folks to raise their children in any way they choose. Obvious examples (besides not beating the hell out of them or abusing them) would be to make sure parents were educating their children in acceptable ways and providing them nourishment.

      That parents simply don’t have the moral right to feed their children poison, we can all agree. Then, we can proceed to define “poison.” Happy Meals don’t contain poison per se, but abuse of them over time will lead to all kinds of diseases. Thus, the problem. What to do about it.

      Look, I don’t say there is an absolute right to pass any kind of law we want and ignore the constitution. But there is no doubt such a law as we have been discussing would pass constitutional scrutiny. You may not like that fact, but it is settled constitutional law, as far as I understand it.

      Having said that, I’m also aware that there are good arguments on both sides of this debate and that neither side has a right to claim the high ground. I am merely suggesting that it is not unreasonable for people to try to find legal ways to fight a growing problem we have with obesity, especially among our youth.

      And your Cracker Jack versus Happy Meal argument is a little fallacious. Just because it was okay to do something when you were a kid is not an argument for continuing to do it today, especially if you believe that we are able to better judge the effects of such behavior these days. Jim Crow laws existed all over the South when you were growing up, and I don’t think you would say that it did us any harm to do away with them (but maybe I’m wrong about that).



  5. Jim Wheeler says:

    @ Both,

    As I was waiting for Mollie to finish grocery shopping at Walmart today, watching the shoppers waddle by, some thoughts about this blog occurred to me.

    The last 65 years, since WWII, represents the first era in history, for first-world countries, in which food is so cheap that prepared and processed foods, along with the flavorings, additives, starches and fats that make them so appetizing, are available to virtually everyone. This is unprecedented. That 65 years, during which Big Ag has been highly subsidized by federal taxes, represents (65 years)/(190,000 years) = 0.0003 =0.03% of the time during which our species has existed.

    How much is Big Ag subsidized? It is HUGE, and the majority of the money goes to farms with incomes over $250,000. Here is a link to the gory details:

    I get Anson’s outrage. His gut tells him that government should smaller and less intrusive, and how dare they tell us what to eat or how to raise out kids? But let’s think this through. Hasn’t government intruded into our lives even more by providing these subsidies? When America was founded and the Constitution written, most citizens were (inefficient) farmers. Thanks to subsidies and modern equipment we now have Big Ag and even the poor can pig out. Only problem is, our metabolisms did not evolve to accommodate a diet so high in fat, starch and endless chemical additives. We are the first few generations in human existence to eat this way and the result is not pretty!

    So, correct me if I’m getting the logic wrong here, Anson. If government should refrain from putting a sin tax on what’s bad for us, should it also refrain from its massivesubsidization of the product?



  6. ansonburlingame says:

    To both,

    And all of this gets to the basics of the argument, pro and con, for limited government.

    So let’s talk about bad habits like food, booze, smoking. Let’s keep it to bad habits concerning only that which we put into our bodies or the bodies of those for whom we are responsible (I include the aged as well as children).

    Let’s first talk only about that which we ingest ourselves, again food, booze, smoking and drugs of the for illegal sort. I am all in favor of government warnings, research to determine ill effects (like the FDA), or any other INFORMATIVE means of warning or disuading ingestion of harmful “stuff”. But when it comes down to government force to control ingestion through laws, NO, I say for me as an adult. Within that argument I come down for legalization of all habit forming drugs like marijuana, cocain, even heroin. I am also all in favor of as much sin tax levied on booze, drugs and smokes as possible within legislative constrains from voters.

    Now for kids and others for whom adults have responsibilities. We seem to have it right for booze. Give it to a kid and you are in violation of the law. We should do the same for smokes and legal drugs. They must be adults (18 or over) to even use such things, much less buy it (OK raise cigs and drugs to age 21 just like booze just to be safe). A kid walking down the street with a smoke in his mouth gets treated just as if he was drinking beer. The kid is in violation of the law and appropriate action is taken within juvenile courts. I also agree parents or guardians should be held accountable under the law as well for the actions of those for whom they are responsible.

    BUT that is it. Set the right age limit for purchasing AND using “stuff” then enforce the law against the young AND those who hold responsibility for their behavior, including the single Mom in a welfare environment. Go after the natural father as well if he can be found. Remember my old Rickover quote that establishes responsibility regardless of whether it is “accepted” or not by an individual. Create a child and responsibility itself is created, whether one likes it or not.

    Now let’s talk about legal stuff with no age controls under law like “bad” food. As far as I can see that becomes a personal choice for adults as well as for those for whom they are responsible. Now if I am responsibile for say an aged parent and they are starving to death, I can be prosecuted for ABUSE. Why not the same prosecution for ABUSE, legally and carefully defined, for those kids that live on pop tarts only? If the food kids ingest becomes a real danger, defined under law, allow and enforce prosecution of the adult, not the child.

    Such laws will of course be tough to legislate and I doubt that “life on Big Macs” would pass legislative muster. But I would rather see government thru legislation for such prosecution have the bar set too high rather than too low, hard to prosecute but not impossible.

    Is not the front page story of the adoption case today in the same vein as well when a mother mistreats a child. The bar is high to rip the child away from the natural mother but it is still possible to do so as the case seems to be arguing before the MO Supreme Court.

    Much more could be said along these lines. Perhaps a blog along the way is generating.



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