Fat Tax? Fat Chance!
by Byrne Hobart
New Yorkers collectively groaned in outrage when the proposed ‘fat tax’ got closer to passing with the help of a survey of health care experts. But is it really such a great plan? And are the experts really experts?
The argument behind the ‘fat tax’ is pretty simple: people who drink non-diet soda (for example) weigh more, are less healthy, and thus end up costing more taxpayer money in medical expenses and lost tax revenue. Simple dollars and cents — and yet common sense seems to be absent from the debate.
Why not look into what actually happens when you substitute diet drinks for the regular kind? The results aren’t pretty: if one study is any guide, New Yorkers choosing diet drinks face an elevated risk of cancer — or worse, weight gain. That’s right: when your body realizes that the sugar-taste doesn’t mean you’re getting any sugar, it gets confused, and tries to stock up on more fat to be on the safe side.
Oddly enough, many of these laws have the same effect on human behavior. The mortgage-interest tax deduction was supposed to make houses cheap, but everyone realized that this would make people want to buy houses, which made other people want to buy those houses first, which ended up making housing unsustainably expensive.
Overreacting to easy shortcuts is something healthy people — and healthy economies — naturally do. If the average New Yorker is going to lose weight, it’s going to be harder than picking diet over regular; and if the state wants New Yorkers to lose weight, it’s going to have to do better than paying them to try it the easy way.
And finally, it’s important to ask just who is claiming that this is a good idea. The press release suggests that the “Healthcare Education Project” consists of “New York?s healthcare workers and providers” — and that’s true. But it doesn’t represent healthcare workers and providers in the sense that it gives their best diagnosis: it’s a lobbying organization designed to give them maximum funding and clout. You can be assured that whatever the effect of this law, they’ll be there to take the credit (“Healthcare Education Project helped New Yorkers lose weight in 2009!”) or shirk the blame (“New Yorkers’ weight gain in 2009 proves that the Healthcare Education Project is essential.”)
Nobody works hard so their taxes can be spent on badly-executive bad ideas pushed by thinly-disguised interest groups.