Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Why I'm Okay With A Pop Tax

One of the ideas that's been bandied around plenty lately, what with all this health care talk and such, is the proposal that we help pay for health care with a tax on unhealthy things, such as pop (and yes, it's "pop", not "soda". "Soda" is an adjective, "pop" is (in this context) a noun).

Now there are plenty of y'all out there who know me, and what I'm a boutta tell ya 'ill come as no surprise, but fer them folk that don't know me so well, well, this is for their edification: Imma big pop drinker. (Oh yeah, since it's my last week in Virginia, I figer'd I'd work on my Southern Lawya drawl. How's it doin'?)

Now you might think as a pop drinker I'd be apposed to a tax on pop, and normally you'd be right. But them Duke boys had something else up their sleeve all tagether. [Sorry. Slipped too far into the voice...]

Seriously though, I've done some real thinking about this. I drink a lot of pop. It's one of my vices. It helps me relax, it can help me focus, it can help me stay alert. So yeah, I end up drinking plenty of pop, and a tax on pop would certainly hit me. And part of me thinks "well that's unfair, why not tax some one else's unhealthy food? I don't eat foie gras. Let's tax that instead." After all, a calorie is a calorie, no matter where it comes from, right? Why tax some, and not others?

Well, that's wrong of course. There are better and worse calories. But setting that aside, and getting down to an honest assessment of myself, I know that I drink too much pop. It's bad for me. I'm not an entirely unhealthy person, but drinking less pop would improve my physical condition. And of course there's my teeth to think of... pop has not done me any favors there.

So a tax on pop... what's the end result? First, it's probably going to mean I'm paying more. But I've only got so much money, and each can of pop gives me marginally less utility, right? So an increase in price is going to, at some point, reduce the amount of pop I'm drinking. And I know it will, because as pop prices have risen over the past decade or so, I've certainly decreased my pop drinking from it's peak in college. Sure, there are weeks when I might have more, but overall the increase in price has helped me decrease my consumption (and there have even been periods when I've essentially cut pop out almost entirely). And a further increase from taxes will give me more incentive to avoid this unhealthy lifestyle.

And that's a good thing. In fact, it's exactly the kind of thing that government should be doing. I would be a better, healthier person if the government were to increase taxes on pop. Long time readers of this blog will of course know that I subscribe to the Aristotelian view that the role of government is to make good citizens (and that obviously includes health), and so on both a personal and philosophical level, I think this is a great way for government to further its ends.

[And disincentivizing bad behavior is, in this case, superior to outlawing it. There are those who frequently criticize government bans and then extend criticism of ineffective bans into criticism of government itself. This is a prime example of the why conflating those two criticism is problematic; government has many different tools, and when it uses the right ones government itself is one of the greatest tools for improving our lives.]

Of course, I'd still feel better about it if they also taxed some of the unhealthy vices that rich people more frequently consume.

Senora's dance has no title
You jump in the saddle
Hold on to de bridle!


aaron said...

Let me get this straight, you would like the government to tax your soda, so that you drink less??? Do you have no self control? Can you not limit yourself to one or 2 drinks a day, or do you really need the government to do this for you?
I disagree 100%, I think that it is a pour way to raise income. (did you catch the wordage there?) Just as taxing tobacco was/is a bad idea. If you are taxing these items to help raise revenue, but at the same time hoping that people with consume/use less, then you are simultaneously lessing the money in which you are taking in, in turn causing a spending deficit.
I am not sure why anyone thinks that it is the governments job to regulate my health and consumptions. If drinking pop is such a huge health concern, then insurance companies should base my premiums on that.
This is just one small step in tax hikes that are coming our way to help pay for the government healthcare. A.K.A. Nanny state.

First it is tobacco and alcohol, because the are "unhealthy". Now it is sugar drinks because they may be "unhealthy." What next? is my cheeseburger going to get taxed because it grows my waistline? How about ice cream? steak? all red meat? where will it end?

AGJ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AGJ said...

I feel that me posting something on this would be more along the lines of throwing vast quantities of shit at a wall just to see if any sticks.

I've thrown enough shit at this wall... and none has stuck yet.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Aaron -

First off, your question about self control reveals a misunderstanding about human nature. Self control isn't something a person has or lacks, it's something that a person exercises or doesn't exercise. And every person routinely exercises that control at times, and fails to exercise it at others. So yes, I can limit myself. But I don't always. That's just human nature.

The second part of your question reveals an even more disturbing misunderstanding. The government isn't "doing anything for me". It's a simple question of incentivizing. The more expensive something is, the less incentive there is to consume it. The cheaper something is, the more incentive. Our tax policy is routinely used to reflect the way we want things to be incentivized. I'd guess that you've taxen some tax credits in the past, right? Maybe for putting in more efficient windows? Maybe the credits you get for having dependents? You wouldn't ever say the government was deciding how to build your home or your family structure for you, would you? Of course not. This was exactly the point I was making at the bottom of my post, when I observed that there the government has lots of ways of acting, one of which is using taxes as an incentive tool. You're acting like creating incentives is the same as a ban. It's not even close.

As for the "revenue raise to decrease usage" part goes... that's only a problem if you spend too much. A control on spending prevents your hypothetical deficit. Heck, I could posit a hypothetical surplus, by suggesting that people won't reduce their consumption all that much... see, you can't play these little hypothetical projection games, because they cut both ways.

As for why anyone thinks government should regulate health... well, the reason is that promotion of health is, and has always been, one of the primary functions of government. Now we can discuss the best ways to do that (for example, whether there should be a public health care option, whether there should be taxes on unhealthy things, etc.), but for you to suggest that government should stay out of health and consumption all together... it just doesn't even make sense. What is government for, if not to protect our lives and health?

I think a lot of your hostitlity is born out of a rather skewed and, frankly, non-sensical view of government. I don't mean to be rude, and don't get mad at me for saying so, but it seems like you need to develop a better picture of what the government is and does. Because right now I really feel like your conception of government is as some sort of boogey man, this seperate entity set-apart from people that desires nothing but to make mindless drones out of everyone. That's honestly how you come off.

You're throwing around phrases like "Nanny state" (a typical libertarian buzz word) without any context. You just wrote that government providing health care will lead to the "nanny state". You might as well have written that government building roads or running the military are signs of a nanny state. You're just fear mongering, without content or context.

... (continued)

Matthew B. Novak said...

(Continued) ...

Finally, you raise the question, "where will it end". And the answer to that is the easiest one to give: it will end where it is reasonable. You seem to forget that we get to participate in our government. So where the majority deems a reasonable line, there that line will be drawn. And if you don't like that line, you get to try to change it. So right now the line is set at "pop isn't taxed" (although lots of states tax it, including the state you live in), and we're debating, as a society, whether or not it's reasonable to move that line to "pop is taxed." Once again, your fear mongering is misplaced.

Finally, since the odds are good I've managed to tick you off already, I'm just gonna throw this out there:

My guess is your biggest concern isn't some boogey man government or nanny state, it's that you will have to pay more in taxes than you want to and will therefore have less take-home pay. My guess is also that you have no idea how much your employer pays for your health care, and how much your take-home pay has been reduced as a result of that fact. Trust me, it's a lot. I would bet, without hesitation, that you are currently making at least $3,000 less a year in take-home pay because your employer is providing your health insurance. Probably even more.

Odds are good that, with a government health care system, even though you might pay "more" in taxes, you'd see an at-least equal, and probably better-than-equal increase in your salary, thus, a net gain in take-home pay.

Government health care is cheaper, than private insurance.

Your fears are unfounded, and they're doing you significant harm.

Now hopefully I didn't tick you off too much... but I really think it's important for you to reevaluate your philosohpical underpinnings on government. I'm not saying you'll end up agreeing with my view. Heck, you might be even more libertarian in the end. But right now you're coming across not as someone who has a cohesive, developed view of government, but as someone who's been turned into a mindless drone of right-wing fear mongers. Ironically.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Alex -

Yeah. Well, there's a reason it isn't sticking... One of these days we'll have to see if I can tear down your wall and build you up something with a solid philosophical foundation. How's December looking?

aaron said...

Oh Matt,
If only you knew, or could see the larger picture. It seems that you think government should be in our lives, I actually think the less, the better. In fact, if they would stick to laws and military I would be quite pleased.
As for know ing what my employer pays for my health insurance, you could not be more wrong. In fact, I am not certain that you could find someone more educated on the cost of employee health insurance. You see, I have have been an insurance advocate for 9 years, and am currently in my 3 contract negotiations. So your guess is way off. My employer pays $5950/employee. However, since I opted out of the plan...they give me $2500 to put into my HRA.
I guess this just shows how little you know or think about what I know. I agree with Alex on this one. It's like throw shit on wall and watching to see if it sticks.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Aaron -

Yup, I was way off on the part about you knowing how much your employer pays for insurance. You're certainly the exception to the rule on that though. Glad to hear it. I'm happy to give you more credit on that one than I did. Sorry.

As far as "the larger picture" goes... it isn't that I think government should be in our lives, it's that government is a product of our lives. Humans are social animals, by our very nature. We form societies, and therefore we form governments. People cannot exist without, on some level or another, creating a government. Government is a tool by which we interact with those around us, and thereby improve our lives (and the lives of those in our society). I think we should use government to improve our lives where it can (like building roads, running the military, educate our children, and providing low-cost health care), and use other tactics in those instances when it can't. You're advocating that we simply not use a tool that's available to us. That's like me saying "let's use medicine and diet and bypass surgery to improve the life of a heart attack victim" and you saying "let's just use the surgery and keep the rest out of it".

Oh, I see the larger picture when it comes to government.

AGJ said...

Or do you see larger government when it comes to the picture?

Matthew B. Novak said...

That's funny.

Though actually, it does bring to mind a relevant point... I don't necessarily advocate big government. It's not an issue of size. It's an issue of efficacy. Government has lots of potential ways of acting, and we should use the best one, whether that means big or small government. So something like a tax disincentivizing pop is a relatively small government way of acting to improve health, whereas an outright ban on pop or rules saying all pop has to be diet, or something like that would be a big government way of addressing the issue.

And usually I advocate government action through incentive and education, not bans or such.

AGJ said...

I think its more of an issue of deficacy.

aaron said...

I agree that it is an issue efficiency, and I think that the current government, as well as the past few have been far from efficient.
If we can agree that efficient means being productive with little or no waste, then one could also agree that this does not describe our government.
We are currently swimming in the largest economic down turn of our lives, and the highest unemployment rate of recent history. Not to mention the wasted money on stimulus packages, CARS and the works.
So Matt, when you say that I am worried about the "boogey ma" you could not be more off. I am, in fact smart enough to learn from experience. My beliefs and concerns are not rooted in fear, but in reality and history.

As for your statement "the reason is that promotion of health is, and has always been, one of the primary functions of government" I am not sure where you get this info. Nowhere in the constitution does it mention health. It does however, mention general welfare of the people, which is a far cry from health. Which, I believe is geared more at the population as a whole, and not individuals.

When I mention "nanny state" it is not just throwing around a phrase. It is the very belief that the government knows better than me what is good for me is what irks me. How is it that some guys sitting on thick, expensive leather chairs, sipping chardonnay and smoking Behike cigars in a building 1200 miles away know what is best for me?

If I work 10-12 hours a week doing manual labor and use soda as a source of calorie and energy to keep me going, so be it. Who are they to say that it is bad or unhealthy for me. If my Dr. does not have an issue with it, and in fact has never mentioned a concern in 10+ years, why would it suddenly be a "health" issue?

No Matt, when I mention Nanny state, it is the very premise of the words that I am getting at. I do not believe that any group of people can make personal choices for individuals on how they want to affect there personal lives.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Aaron -

You reveal your misconceptions when you write, " How is it that some guys sitting on thick, expensive leather chairs, sipping chardonnay and smoking Behike cigars in a building 1200 miles away know what is best for me?"

Where does this idea come from? Because it couldn't be further from the truth.

We are our own government.
We elected the people who are making laws.
They are just reflecting our will.
When they pass a law it is because we want it.
Government is us telling ourselves how to act.

Government isn't a seperate group of people deciding what is best for us, like you posit. It is you and me helping each other know what is best for us.

I'd also point out that the economic downturn is more closely related to a lack of regulation. The government - you and I - weren't watching what wall street was doing, and we let them make all sorts of bad loans, take advantage of people, lie about the value of things they were selling, etc. I'll agree that the government - we - haven't always taken the best steps to get us out of recession, but some of the steps were good (homebuyer credit and cash for clunkers were both good incentive programs that stimulated spending). Like we've talked about before... government can be more and less effective. So it's inappropriate to rail against government. Because government can be good, and efficient. Your calls for smaller government are self-limiting. It's like the heart attack scenario I said before.

We're going to get better with smart government, not small government.

aaron said...

In philosophy you are correct, it is WE as the government. However, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you are not in touch with the reality of what is going on in America at the moment. For, our government is not listening to their constituents, at least, not the majority.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Sure they are. The majority elected Obama, the majority in each state put those representatives and senators in office, etc.

Heck, right now, the majority favor government health care.

But even more important, we have an opportunity to affect our government in ways other than voting. We can call our representatives to let them know how we feel. And we can try to convince others to see our views too. That's why I put up this whole post. Because I'm trying to convince people.

You made a good point when you talked about working all day and having a pop to get some calories. That's a decent argument against such a tax - it will affect the working class more significantly.

But you didn't start with that. You just started complaining about the government getting involved in our lives. That's not responsible citizenship, and actually contributes to the decline of government. If you have an opinion it's your duty to get engaged. Try to convince people of your view and let yourself be convinced when it's appropriate. You've got to engage each issue itself, not snipe at the concept of government itself.

Government works best when citizens get involved, both directly with their representatives and indirectly with the marketplace of ideas. It isn't just philosophy, it's reality.

aaron said...

Again, in theory, it all sounds great. I know how our government is suppose to work, but thanks for the quick lesson.

However, just because people are elected into office, does not mean that they get to do what ever they want when they are there. They still need to listen to the people.

If the majority of the people want the healthcare, then why is it going to take the "nuclear option" to get it to pass?

Again, in theory our government is a great tool. In reality, it is becoming a monster.

Matt, when is the last time that you talked to representative? Have you ever made that phone call?? Ever get an answer, or a reply?

Matthew B. Novak said...

The last time regarded the stimulus package. Yes, I believe I got an e-mail back. Maybe not that time, but certainly I have other times. I've found Reps and Senators to be very receptive to constituents.

The reason it's going to take the "nuclear option" is because Republicans are fighting Obama regardless of the issue. He could by trying to pass a resolution that puppies are cute and they'd still fight him on it. Too few constituents are calling their republican representatives and telling them to support health care reform (all of my reps right now are democrat... otherwise I'd have called/mailed).

And as for the "in reality it's becoming a monster"... I blame exactly that attitude. It is people standing on the sidelines saying "the government doesn't work in practice" that keeps it from working, because in order for government to work citizens need to be more actively involved. You want to slay the monster and get things working like they should "in theory"? Then do something about it. Your complaints only feed the beast you're complaining about.

aaron said...

I have voiced my opinion and tried to be heard. However, I have been told that I am a "racist" because I disagree with the current admin.

I wish that I could say that I have been so lucky when contacting my reps. Either, their phone bank is full, and I have to call back at another time. Or, I get a generic email response thanking me for for my words or concerns.

So, you can quite telling me that it is my very attitude that causes the poor government, because I have been doing my part. Which, is not always easy when one is expected to "vote" a certain way due to there profession.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Hey, I'm not just telling you to vote and contact your reps. I'm saying you should get involved in changing people's minds.

Or at very least, don't attack "government" in principle. Because that's where the problem comes in. Even if you don't feel you're getting through, criticizing government generally sabotages it for the rest of us.

AGJ said...

I like Pop!

Jeff said...

Please don't hop on pop.