Nanny state watch: Scottish edition

I generally take a dim view of laws and regulations intended to protect people from themselves. I believe that responsibility for a person’s health and well-being ultimately resides with that person; a person who engages in risky or dangerous behavior must accept the consequences of his actions. Society should not take that responsibility and allow the misdoer to derive advantage without concomitant disadvantage. That way lies moral hazard, a phenomenon with which all discerning members of society should be familiar (and of which they should be justifiably wary) through the economic news and events of the last year or so.

In that vein I direct your attention to the latest attempt to extend the nanny state: a Scottish tax on chocolate in a proposal defeated by only two votes in a meeting of the British Medical Association. Dr. David Walker, its chief proponent, says:

“Chocolate has lost its status as a special treat and I think that if we charged a tax on it then, over a number of years, we could restore that status.”

He had earlier told the BBC news website that obesity was a “mushrooming” problem, and Scotland risked heading the same way as the United States.

He added: “There is an explosion of obesity and the related medical conditions, like type 2 diabetes. I see chocolate as a major player in this, and I think a tax on products containing chocolate could make a real difference.”

There is much that is wrong with this from economic and personal freedom standpoints. However, in the interests of concision and minimal scope, I will limit myself to taking issue with these later lines in the story, also from Dr. Walker:

“After eating a bag of chocolate sweets you would have to walk continuously for three hours to burn off the calories consumed.

“It is simply not enough to say people should get more exercise.

The regular reader will know that last year I completed a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Backpacking requires a tremendous amount of energy (moreso for a trip of that length and duration), and I fueled myself using a variety of methods: gorp, granola bars, beef jerky, and candy, among others. For roughly the last 1300 miles of my hike, my primary fuel between meals was the large or king-size candy bar — usually Snickers for its high calorie-to-weight ratio but often Milky Way or 3 Musketeers for an attempt at variety. A large Snickers bar contains 280 calories, while a king-size bar contains 510 calories; Milky Way clocks in at 260 and 460 calories respectively.

Each day while thru-hiking I typically would eat the equivalent of five, six, or more large-size bars (ten is the maximum count I can remember, although I probably exceeded this when completing the Four State Challenge) while hiking twenty to thirty miles daily. (NB: my chocolate bar rate of intake effectively dropped to zero when I finished the hike.) Dr. Walker would likely agree that this rate of intake in this exceedingly unusual situation is much less likely to be harmful than it would be for an average person and situation, but if he did not, I could assure him with absolute certainty that while I was hiking this prodigious consumption of chocolate was in no way calorically harmful. Further, in the four months since I completed the thru-hike I have noticed no other lasting ill effects. Indeed, it was necessary to travel those distances without courting malnourishment and unhealthy weight loss; I have heard of thru-hikers who could not carry enough food to avoid losing weight in the final stages of their thru-hikes (at which point all discretionary weight would have long since disappeared). Would Dr. Walker punish me for what it was necessary for me to consume while hiking? A chocolate tax across the few hundred bars I likely consumed would have summed to a meaningful value — perhaps a couple handfuls more candy bars or a small meal in a town I passed through.

Dr. Walker may be right that for most people more exercise cannot adequately combat excessive chocolate intake. However, that his assertion is only usually right means that sometimes it is wrong; it is a clear example of the folly of not recognizing personal responsibility to avoid harmful choices. If this tax were real, the people who consume chocolate in moderation with respect to their situations (I include myself in this group) would only be harmed, while the ones who consume to excess, perversely, have an incentive to consume even more as they can take advantage of the newly-funded programs “used by the NHS to deal with the health problems caused by obesity” without paying the full costs to use them.

If Dr. Walker wishes to see more healthy intakes of chocolate, he would do better from a personal freedom standpoint to improve educational efforts that warn of the dangers of excessive sweets, which would neither inhibit individual responsibility nor tax the responsible chocolate lovers to pay for care for the gluttonous ones.


An update on government transparency

Tags: , , , , , — Jeff @ 11:02

I commented earlier about governmental transparency and cited the proposed stimulus bill as an instance where transparency had not yet been achieved. Since the final iteration of the stimulus (more accurately, a conference report resolving differences between the House and Senate bills previously approved) is coming to final votes in both houses today assuming all goes according to plan, I think a brief update on the situation is in order.

As far as I understand it, the final version of the stimulus was first sent to lobbyists on Washington, D.C.’s K Street late Wednesday or early yesterday. Sometime strictly after that, congressmen received final copies. Finally, last night at 23:32 EST, Speaker Pelosi (more precisely, a staff member) announced the final conference report and joint bill text; the two are split across multiple government sites, so they may have been available earlier given extra diligence in searching for them, but it’s impossible to say. One news source says the House vote may come around 13:00 or 14:00 EST today (so about as I make this post), or about 13-14 hours after the initial public posting; the Senate vote may come sometime later in the evening, or perhaps around 22 hours later at most. It’s not quite the 48 hours unanimously agreed to by the House around, roughly, H1096 in the congressional records of the House from February 10 (readthestimulus.org has better details, but they don’t also have good permalinks, so search for “48” in the page), but 13-14 hours (or some unspecified amount of time more, if the text was released earlier in private) should be close enough for everyone, right?

The Speaker really could have done a better job of making the process a bit more transparent, but I suppose she thinks in an emergency the agreed-upon rules can’t be accorded muchany importance if they get in the way of “necessary” legislation. To be clear, this isn’t President Obama’s bailiwick, so he can’t be faulted for this lack of transparency; it would have been nice, however, if he had publicly noted it and requested the process be modified. It’s understandable that President Obama isn’t bringing this short-circuited process to greater light given that it’s a bill drafted by his own party, but it’s not exactly commendable, either.


Re: Watching history in the making…

Tags: , , , , — Jeff @ 23:28

I agree with John that it’s good to see enacted legislation made more accessible to the public. (The referenced bill was available as always through the Library of Congress’s Thomas system, of course, but if you’ve ever attempted to use the system it’s, well, horrible. Permanent links are difficult if not impossible to find [I’m pretty sure the given URL isn’t permanent, given the “temp” within it; I found it by searching for “ledbetter”], bill text is “splashed” into the page with no containing box to draw the eye or limit line length, search navigation text is preformatted [why?!?!], the “XML display” of a bill isn’t even sent as XML, and overall the site’s just ugly.) Engagement in the political process first and foremost requires knowledge: of the issues, of the bills under consideration, of the enacted laws, and of the people in the government.

(On a mostly tangential note, I commend the White House for linking to Cornell/LII’s Supreme Court collection archives for the Ledbetter decision in their Now Comes Lilly Ledbetter post [although I’m a bit mystified by their use of a visiting-third-party-site splash dialog]. I’ve found the LII collection to be an invaluable reference for reading Supreme Court syllabi, opinions, and dissents as I’ve grown more interested in the the Supreme Court and its legal processes. Compare the formatting of opinions at LII with that of Thomas, and it should be clear exactly how bad Thomas really is; the LII could really teach them a thing or two about designing a pleasant reading experience. And, of course, what kind of shill would I be if I didn’t include a donation link? 🙂 )

All that said, as I look at the White House blog, it seems like something’s, well, missing. Reviewing laws after they’ve been enacted is all well and good, but…isn’t that strikingly non-participatory? Once a bill’s passed and signed, it’s law — and the participation phase is over. It seems unlikely the issues in the Ledbetter act will return to legislative prominence for, at an absolute minimum, another two years. Are slight tweaks really likely to be made riders on other bills in the meantime? It seems unlikely. The time for true participation in a bill’s legislative process is prior to its enactment, yet I don’t see much on the White House blog regarding in-progress legislation that hasn’t been enacted (at least not in the way of links to the bills themselves; there’s a reasonable amount of advocacy).

Consider, for example, what is probably the most far-reaching and important bill under consideration right now: the $850 billion stimulus package. Why wasn’t the House version of the stimulus posted (before or after its approval, in intermediate or final form) on the White House blog? Why isn’t the Senate version posted now? (I had to track down both texts via readthestimulus.org.) This isn’t President Obama’s responsibility (rather, it belongs with the House and Senate as the overseers of the legislative process), but, particularly given his rhetoric on government transparency, it is certainly his duty. This simply goes to show that despite any politician’s rhetoric about transparency, we will always need thirdparty efforts to make the workings of government more transparent.

Some last food for thought: does a smaller government have less to hide (and thus require less overall effort to provide transparency)?


The twelve days of Christmas

An amusing video via my favorite economist, even if it’s obviously not true to real life:

As a computer scientist my first thought is that it’s a very good thing there are only twelve days; imagine the cost if it were O(n2) rather than O(1)! (There’s a very large constant in this video’s case, of course, but as it’s not intended to accurately reflect reality there’s no reason to optimize. 😀 )

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