The sugar tax tightens Britian’s social straightjacket – CapX

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Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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  1. Avatar greginak says:

    Interesting. A sugar tax might be a bad idea but after reading the piece i felt a bile tax might be more appropriate.
    This “But why should the Government prevent every ‘preventable death’? The phrase so often means merely that a life could be coercively prolonged.” Boy i can’t see how that could mean screw any safety or enviro regs. Nope can’t see how that could happen. I’m not sure who is being coercively kept alive in his mind. He really might have a point and does touch on some good stuff, but mixed it heavily with hyperbole and the sky is falling.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      I only really object to the sugar tax in its particulars (the inclusions and exclusions). However, the pattern by which the particulars seem to emerge end up making me suspicious of the whole project, and the motives behind it, which leads me to agree with most (but not all!) of pieces like this on theaters of virtue.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        I’m not really fond of sin taxes. Gambling is a solid case i think. Alcohol=meh. Cigs yeah i guess so. I don’t’ think he doesn’t’ have a point, just they he buried it under so much other stuff. I don’t know anything about their sugar tax to know how it is being implemented so there is that.

        But the quote of his i stuck in made me think it could have easily be said by some english lord during the irish potato famine. That actually was my instant reaction.Report

  2. Avatar Chip Daniels says:

    The author has a point, in that sin taxes are straightforwardly an enforcement of the mores of the majority against the minority, and the minority is most often the people least engaged in the public discussion, i.e., the underclass.

    Then again, I am not equipped with enough information about how sugar is handled in the UK.
    Does it receive massive subsidy like here? Can the sin tax plausibly be defended as a fair cost for the damage sugar wreaks on the public health?

    Yet again, an argument is being mounted in the name of The Poors- (What about The Poors? Will no one think of The Poors?) without the poor themselves being invited to weigh in.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      As I say to Greg above, I’m not universally against sugar taxes. They can be justified along some of the lines you mention and even the actual reason they gave.

      That’s a sugar tax, though, (or a sugar-added tax, which may be okay too) not a “taxing a specific low-class type of consumer product that has sugar in it” tax. This is more along those lines, as such things often happen to be. This isn’t quite “No cigarette-smoking in cigar bars” level bad, but it comes across to me along similar lines.Report

      • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

        I also don’t have any strong opinions one way or another about the specific tax.

        I think an interesting point is how easy it is to see the argument against enforcement of moral norms be made depending on whose norms are being discussed.

        Moral norms are intrusive and painful and messy- a quick glance at history shows that.

        But both conservatives and liberals (of both the big and little “c” and “l” variety) rely on them pretty heavily. I can’t think of a magic brilliant way to resolve whose get enforced and whose don’t.Report

        • Avatar Will Truman says:

          It’s a democratic question, mostly. It depends on the degree to which (a) the norm is widely believed in and by whom (if you don’t have wide support, you want influential support), (b) enforcement of the norm represents serious problems (such as laws against the norm of marital infidelity, for example), and (c) how the norm can be justified apart from simply being a norm (negative externalities, for example, or when there are kids involved).

          But no, no clear and firm bright line. I do think we have a reluctance to enforce norms simply as norms, which is why a big part of the arguments hinge around (b) and (c).Report

  3. Avatar Will H. says:

    I think too much attention is given to sugar rather than unnecessary dietary salt.
    I say that because it occurred to me that I would probably feel very different about this were it a matter of taxing unnecessary dietary salt as a means of coercing manufacturers to discontinue the practice.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      I suspect they will go after salt at some point. Many of the same dynamics are in play.

      I’ve been waiting for it to happen for a while.

      On the other hand, there has been a wave of thought that the dangers of salt may be overstated. There is no such debate when it comes to refined, processed sugar.Report

      • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

        Which would be more controversial in America, taxing sugar, or ending the subsidies?

        Who would line up on which battlelines?Report

        • Avatar Will Truman says:

          Controversial with whom? I doubt sugar subsidies have particularly wide support, but it’s going to have very passionate support where it exists, for the most part. Taxes, you’d have the same opposition from a lot of the same people/interests, but since it would apply to imports as well as domestic production, you might have less passionate opposition. You’d have added opposition from libertarian-types who also oppose subsidies, but… that’s not a huge portion of the population.Report

          • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

            I mention it only because agricultural subsidies are the invisible status quo, observable to only political nerds and vested interests.

            Yet they represent a thumb on the scale tilting us towards consumption of sugar. When people make the “freedom of choice” argument against sin taxes, they often ignore that thumb, and pretend that a level playing field of choice exists.Report

            • Avatar Damon says:

              Actually the sugar subsidies have driven manufacturers to switch to high fructose corn syrup and / or move off shore. This is one reason why you don’t find sugar is much soda anymore.

              The larger issue is that if you take someone else’s money, like the gov’ts, sooner or later, those giving you that money are going to want something in return.

              Best line: “Many public health figures claim to want an informed consumerate .. But that is only so long as it produces ‘correct’ choices” Yep, you’re free to do what you want and think what you want as long as you agree with us. Failure will result in punishment.Report

        • Avatar KatherineMW says:

          Heh, that’s what I think whenever I see the “ban high fructose corn syrup!” arguments. Instead, end the subsidies to the corn farmers that lead to HFCS being used in everything (ditto corn ethanol for biofuel – it’s pretty much the worst biofuel crop there is). Stop creating the problem.

          But taxing sugar has the shadow of a chance of getting support from the Democrats, whereas the ag lobby has a pretty strong hold on both parties.Report

          • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

            As little as I like farm subsidies, I’m deeply skeptical that this is a meaningful factor. Crop subsidies are about 2% of total spending on food. I realize that this disproportionately affects the price of some kinds of food, but even taking that into account, I really doubt it has much of an effect on sugar consumption.Report

            • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

              Here’s an article describing and linking to a study finding that it’s not a significant factor.Report

              • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

                I was unable to get the actual study to load earlier. Reading it now, it looks like they try to walk it back in the conclusion for some reason:

                CARD researchers, for their part, are correct to point out the overstatement; HFCS just isn’t a large enough share of consumer prices to be the primary cause of overconsumption. But their study in no way undercuts the argument that cheap corn – and U.S. agricultural policies – have contributed to bad diets.

                After pointing out that HFCS is only 3.5% of the cost of soda and that without corn subsidies HFCS would cost about 8% more, raising the cost of soda by about a quarter of a percent, I’m not sure how they can say this doesn’t undercut the argument that cheap corn contributes to bad diets. Even if we accept the dubious claims that HFCS is much worse than sucrose, then the real problem is the sucrose tariffs, not the corn subsidies.Report

              • Avatar Alan Scott says:

                I’m guessing that, if the corn subsidy has a real effect on nutrition, it’s not about the HFCS in soda or candy. It’s about the HFCS in bread or spaghetti sauce or lunch meat. Candy needs sugar either way. Other things get sugar because it’s really cheap way to mask the poor quality of other ingredients. Make sugar expensive and it becomes useful to either improve the quality of those other ingredients or at least find some way of tricking our taste-buds that doesn’t mess with our blood sugar quite so much.Report

              • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

                Alan Scott: I’m guessing that, if the corn subsidy has a real effect on nutrition, it’s not about the HFCS in soda or candy. It’s about the HFCS in bread or spaghetti sauce or lunch meat.

                That makes even less sense, though. Those foods contain very small amounts of HFCS, which means that the subsidy has even less of an effect on their costs.Report

            • Avatar Francis says:

              Ag subsidies have distortionary effects far beyond food prices. One that I’m aware of is how fields are planted — both within the lot and year to year. I’ve read some strong arguments that the current subsidy system encourages practices that have significant adverse impacts.

              Another effect of the subsidy system (so I’ve heard) is to encourage the formation of large corporate entities as landowners, putting pressure on the historic family-farm format.Report

        • Avatar aaron david says:

          Out of curiosity, as I don’t know, are the subsidies specifically for sugar, or are they for crops that often get turned into sugar? Like corn, it can be HFCS, but it can also be silage or E-85 or any of a dozen other things.Report

          • Avatar North says:

            It comes both ways. The us has tarriffs and import quotas that restrict old fashioned sugar cane imports favoring domestically grown sugar substitutes (corn syrup, beet sugar). It also has subsidies encouraging the growth of both corn and domestic sugar providing price supports and the like. So sugar is distorted all to hell both coming and going.Report

      • On the other hand, there has been a wave of thought that the dangers of salt may be overstated.

        Very unsurprising that it’s going to be discussed at length. There’s a tradition of drawn-out salt talks.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Salt’s not the problem, actually. What they’re looking at as the actual issue is Potassium/Sodium imbalance. Doesn’t help when everyone adds purely NACL to everything, of course.Report

  4. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    I am pretty torn on this.

    On the one hand, I think that you are punishing the poor for being poor with a sugar tax and do think that this is one of the most persistent and true quotations from Orwell on being poor and choices made:

    “And the peculiar evil is this, that the less
    money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A
    millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an
    unemployed man doesn’t. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of
    the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say
    when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to
    eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is
    always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth
    of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and
    we’ll all have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are
    at the P.A.C. level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you
    to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than
    brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery
    that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the
    English-man’s opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a
    temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread.”

    Yet obesity is a serious health crisis in the United States and the United Kingdom and this goes beyond the unemployed or even the working class. Lots of people, including very well employed and well paid people, are seriously overweight. This leads to higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, and other issues. Obesity is a serious drain on resources in countries like the United States as well and we don’t have the NHS!!!

    What is the balance between cruelty (allowing insurance companies to drop people for obesity or other pre-exisiting conditions and allowing hospitals/doctors to refuse to treat the obese) vs. nudging people to lose weight and make better eating choices? As a liberal, I am not fond of the world where insurance companies were allowed to deny coverage based on any pre-existing condition. I find it perplexing that libertarians and conservatives consider the denial of coverage a better solution to nudging people to better choices.

    Libertarians and conservatives express a love of economics uber allies. Any economist will tell you that you tax what you want less of. So if you want people to eat less sugary and processed foods, you tax them. But these raises the objections of “nanny state paternalism! nanny state paternalism!!” What do libertarians and conservatives suggest we do instead?Report

    • Avatar greginak says:

      One of the several problems with the sugar tax idea is that it will likely have absolutely no effect on obesity. Just making one ingredient, albeit a one with problems, more expensive doesn’t’ make sense. People can still choose to spend a bit more to get more sugar. Or they will compensate with other high calorie options or add a high fat option. Just making sugar a bit more expensive doesn’t mean anybody eats healthier.Report

    • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

      Libertarians get one thing right, that nanny statism is the flip side of “improving” society.
      They just don’t get that improving society is one of the deepest impulses of both liberals and conservatives, one that we just can’t ignore.

      So we are all torn. We want to embrace our fellow citizens and respect their agency and choices.
      But we also want them to make good choices.Report

      • Avatar James K says:

        @chip-daniels

        The difficulty is in defining “improve”. While I disagree with liberals on minimum wages, I respect what they are trying to do – increase the scope of options available to people with fewer options than average. The goal is to give people the tools to make their lives better by their own standards.

        Things like sugar taxes are a different matter entirely. They start by defining “the good” and then come up with ways to impose that good on society. Whether that idea of the good aligns with that of the people they are trying to “help” is seemingly not important. This is part of the legacy of the Progressive movement of the early 20th Century that sticks with liberals in places.Report

        • Avatar Kim says:

          James,
          Can we please hold up a second?
          I think the good — “losing weight, not being obese,not being sick with diabetes”
          is a very much valued ideal for the poor. Many poor people would lose weight if they could — besides, if they get diabetes, they may not be able to afford their house.Report

    • Avatar North says:

      Saul, the idea of subsidizing sugar production, especially unhealthy sugar production, penalizing marginally more healthy sugar importation and then larding, on top of those policies, a new policy to discourage people from consuming the unhealthy sugar is absolutely insane. If anyone, especially liberals, have a problem with unhealthy sugars then step #1 should be eliminating the unhealthy sugar subsidies and the unhealthy sugar protecting trade barriers.

      So if liberals have any business chasing poor people (and let’s be clear here that the policies we’re talking about would ONLY conceivably effect poor people because no matter how much your “sugar tax” is the middle class and up will basically ignore it) around trying to control what they eat then step #1 is stop subsidizing the unhealthy food ingredient. NOT subsidize the unhealthy food then penalizing the use of the subsidized ingredient.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        @north

        I am all for ending agricultural subsidies. I think the chances of this happening are roughly equivalent to snow in August but that is another story.Report

        • Avatar North says:

          So if rolling back the core problem is hard instead let’s divert our political energy away from that cause and instead work to lard an ineffective and counterproductive policy in over top of it?

          I mean I understand the whole ‘something must be done this is something’ but this reads like something conservatives would invent to accuse liberals of doing rather than something liberals should want to actually do.Report

          • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

            @north

            I don’t think there is going to be a sugar tax anytime soon in the United States either. I am just talking about the core issue. This is from a UK article. I have no idea whether the UK has agricultural subsidies. I was just addressing the streak in libertarians that bristles against any attempt at getting people to make different choices because “coercion.”

            I find libertarian concepts of coercion to be strange. Apparently Obamacare is bad because it requires people to pay for insurance that they might not want and this is “coercive.” I have no idea why libertarians concentrate on that instead of the people who wanted insurance but were denied it for various reasons by insurance companies. Are all libertarians Bartleby the Scrivner?Report

            • Avatar North says:

              Okay all that granted when we look at liberals proposing not to cut away a bad government policy but instead cake a second bad government policy over top of the first on in some vain hope that the two bad policies will ameliorate each other does that make libertarians arguments against government liberalism weaker or stronger?

              I am not a libertarian, I believe there’s a lot of areas where government should act and can act constructively. Bad policy makes liberalism look bad and weakens our ability to act in areas where our action is useful. Thus it should be opposed.Report

              • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

                @north

                My interaction with Iron Turn below is a good example of why I have trouble. I feel like we are living in different universes and I am not sure what bridges the gap. Iron Turn lives in a world where people who were denied insurance coverage because of a breakdown in negotiation. I see insurance companies saying “we won’t cover if you already had conditions x, y, and z.” I think the person who figures out how to bridge these perceptions of reality deserves the noble prize in something or other.

                On a more personal note, I really dislike Matt Y. I think he can be right about many things but he also enjoys being a contrarian asshole and has been rewarded too much for this.* He has admitted his asshole nature himself. I don’t think Matt Y realizes that he can advocate for certain positions and policies because he will never face the negative externality of said policy because he is a Dalton-Harvard boy. So sometimes, I take a stance because I know Matt Y would be on the other side and I don’t want to reward his smug asshole side or be associated with it. Not a great way to be but a human one.

                *i would use a genie wish to ban the Slatepitch. I don’t think Matt Y ever received substantial pushback on his views from anyone that mattered and now he publishes alt-right think pieces to troll his readers and seem “edgy.” A racist, homophobic, sexist, anti-Semitic, anti-democracy scumbag is still a racist, homophobic, sexist, anti-Semitic, anti-democracy scumbag with or without being a PhD student. I don’t care if someone uses twenty dollar words to justify abhorrent policies and views. Vocab is not a justification.Report

              • Avatar North says:

                I don’t follow Matt Y closely so I’m not sure what he’s written that’s set you off. I’m a touch perplexed as to what this has to do with the price of sugar in Britain. All I can offer is that if an line of reasoning must be discarded because someone who subscribes to it is a douche then you should resign yourself to sitting in a corner and thinking nothing because every line of reasoning has douche subscribers.Report

            • Avatar Iron Tum says:

              I have no idea why libertarians concentrate on that instead of the people who wanted insurance but were denied it for various reasons by insurance companies.

              Because the thing you described is not a thing that ever actually happened?

              What did happen is that insurance companies and the potential customer could not come to an agreement as to what the policy would cover and how much it would cost. This situation was further exacerbated by Big Daddy Guys-With-Guns artificially limiting the types of policies that could be offered and the prices that could be charged.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                There is a bit of a tendency that I’ve seen over and over again among the folks who blame libertarians on things to desire things exactly as they are now, merely cost less.

                The problem isn’t that schools offer too much, it’s that they cost too much. A guy quits his job and gets a master’s degree in the Marionette Arts and is in debt up to his eyeballs. When someone says “that was dumb of him”, the response from this group is something more like “it shouldn’t have cost him $40k to get the degree!” instead of “yep, if he didn’t want to be $40k in debt, he shouldn’t have spent $40k.”

                Same too with medical care/insurance. The issue is never “people should be prepared to get less if they pay less”, it’s that “gold level service is so expensive. People should get the exact same level of service for less money. Or free*.”Report

              • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

                @iron-tum @jaybird

                I think you are really, really wrong here. There is no negotiation between insurance companies and individual consumers. I think tw of the things that libertarians hand wave away are the concepts of disparate bargaining power and contracts of adhesion. The insurance companies decided not to provide coverage to people with x, y, and z. Or whatever. There were no negotiations in a meaningful sense of the word.Report

              • Avatar Iron Tum says:

                Sorry to break threading, but I liked the way you phrased it above better

                . I see insurance companies saying “we won’t cover if you already had conditions x, y, and z.

                That’s an oversimplification. What they were actually saying is “we won’t cover if you already had conditions x, y, and z, because we are unable to formulate a plan under the current regulatory regime which will allow us the possibility of staying in business.”

                You are correct that there is little direct negotiation between health insurance providers and customers. But consider an insurance market that is much less regulated and in which the companies have a lot more freedom to craft policies: auto insurance. In that market, there IS direct negotiation, vastly more choices among providers and vastly more (and individually customizable) policies with any given provider. It also helps that auto insurance is actual, you know, insurance. When many (most?) people talk about health insurance, what they mean is a health care prepayment and discount club. Of course, the fact that discount clubs (like any other subsidy) raise the price for the thing “discounted” is never considered.Report

    • Avatar Damon says:

      Some people like me would suggest that “we” do nothing. It’s less about markets but more about individual choice. The counter is always “but they make bad choices and we have to pay for it”. Then stop paying for it. Or stop worrying about it. Give them the info needed to make healthy choices. If they choose not to, so be it.Report

  5. Avatar Kazzy says:

    Skimming the comments, I see much conversation about how this tax will target poorer people.

    To see confirmation of this, look no further than the proposed NY restrictions on sugary drinks. There was a clause in the law that excluded drinks made with 50% milk, essentially allowing Starbucks to sell their oversugared coffee-and-milk based drinks in giant sizes because of who tends to drink those.

    See also laws that targeted 4Loco and similar energy drink/booze hybrids but took no aim at Red Bull vodkas.

    ETA: The milk rule is by volume. Which means that a half cup of milk foam on top of four ounces of sugar-coffee-water is good to go!Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      Right, this “sugar tax” is really just a sugary drink tax, but with some sugary drinks like fruit juice and chocolate milk excluded. Sugar foods also excluded.

      Virtuous people like chocolate eclaire cake, but virtuous people don’t like soft drinks.

      I attribute this more to social class than economic, though the result is the same in this case.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        I meant to link to it because it dovetails with a talk Oscar and I were having, but did you catch the Cracked.com podcast last week on the difference between social and economic class and our unique American refusal to acknowledge that they aren’t the same thing? A good lesson (as are most of their podcasts), though it meanders onto (also interesting) tangents for a while before getting back to the point (as do most of their podcasts).Report

        • Avatar Will Truman says:

          I’ll have to check it out. Social class as a distinct spectrum apart from economic class is an area of interest. I go back and forth on whether our general resistance to publicly talking about it is a good thing or a bad one.Report

          • Avatar Kazzy says:

            They make a pretty strong case for it being a bad thing. My general take is that it is bad insofar as it makes it impossible to appropriately talk about things because we are conflating two metrics that do not have a causative relationship. The term “socio-economic status” is nonsense.

            Of course, talking about social class as a distinct thing creates its own tripping points, but that can largely be alleviated by thoughtfulness and empathy.Report

            • Avatar aaron david says:

              @kazzy, this has been the locus of much of my online reading lately also, as I think it helps explain much of our recent political issues in this country. And I think you and @will-truman are spot on with this. I think I linked this lately for you, but if not…Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                I think that is the blog post they refer to extensively in the podcast (they refer to a SlateStarCodex one so I assume that is it).

                @aaron-davidReport

    • Avatar j r says:

      Good point, @kazzy. And it’s worth pointing out that no one before this comment bothered to question the assumption that it is poor people who consume the most sugar.Report

  6. Avatar notme says:

    The Philly mayor now wants to tax sugary drinks at 3 cents per ounce, not for the health benefits but to provide to pay for pre-k. How clever is that? Who can object if it’s for the children?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/04/upshot/making-a-soda-tax-more-politically-palatable.html?_r=0Report