Limiting Fast Food

by Belle Waring on September 25, 2006

New York City Councilman Joel Rivera (representing the Bronx) wants to change the zoning laws to restrict the number of fast food restaurants. The Times notes that Calistoga, CA has a similar law on the books banning chain restaurants from its historic downtown, for aesthetic reasons. Mr. Rivera’s reasoning may be aesthetic as well, though he would surely defend it as hygenic: he thinks New Yorkers are too fat. He’s probably right about that, but his proposed solution seems of dubious utility, in addition to being a gratuitous restriction of his constituents’ right to do what they please. And now let’s hear one of the least compelling defenses of the nanny state ever offered by a well-intentioned politician:

“We have 8 million people, and 8 million people should have options,” said Mr. Rivera, 27, who at age 22 became the youngest elected official in city history. “Right now, there’s a lack of options in a lot of communities.”

So, by restricting their options, we’ll deal with that pesky lack of options that—what now? All right, it’s easy to laugh at this, but…but…hmm, my powers of higher Broderism are fading in and out. (I hope John didn’t bring that damn red kryptonite paperweight home again, because it puts a real cramp in my otherwise nigh-invincible Silver Age blogging powers.) No, here we are, an actual question: are restaurants that offer healthy alternatives undercut pricewise by fast food restaurants, in reality? (I am setting aside the question of whether it’s a good idea to force poor people to pay more for food; the answer is “no”, by the way.) I could imagine that they are, as the economies of scale available to McDonald’s enable them to offer food very cheaply. Additionally, fresh vegetables are perishable in a way that the fixings of a Big Mac are not.

The most obvious response to this type of dietary do-goodery is to say that people just don’t want to buy these purported healthy alternatives, because if they did, there’d be somebody selling them to them already. The fact that mom-and-pop restaurants in many poor neighborhoods run overwhelmingly to the “Chinese food, wings and pizza” type confirms this notion. The only reason I have any sympathy at all for the impulse behind this (obviously stupid and illiberal) idea is that people in poor neighborhoods are subjected to paying more money for worse produce than people in richer ones. Crappy supermarkets with sad carrots and iceberg lettuce, or expensive bodegas with limited selection: these are not good choices, and do seem like a market failure. To this end, the attempt to move farmer’s markets into poorer neighborhoods seems good, as does the idea that opposition to big grocery stores in urban neighborhoods should be dropped.

It isn’t healthy to eat fast food all the time, but it’s not the government’s job to tell people what to eat. Them’s the breaks. Also, America, those jeans make you look fat.

{ 64 comments }

1

Steve 09.25.06 at 9:49 am

Yep-
This isn’t Belle, either.

Steve

2

JR 09.25.06 at 9:54 am

Many communities restrict the number of liquor outlets in certain communities through licensing. Does your libertarian opposition to government regulation of what we ingest extend to opposition to liquor store licensing? If not, why not?

3

Belle Waring 09.25.06 at 9:58 am

whaa? but steve, I went back and re-edited to up the stream-of-consciousness quotient just for you. [pouts girlishly.]

4

Eric 09.25.06 at 10:15 am

By repeating the standard line about “choice” you manage to avoid any serious consideration of issues such as: (1) endogenous preferences, (2) the role that, say, advertising has on preferences, (3) the possibility of second order desires/preferences (harry frankfort), and (4) if the number of fast food outlets was restricted this does not necessarily imply a restriction of choice but, merely, an increase in the cost of buying such fast food (having to walk further, having to wait longer, etc).

And so on.

You might be able to generate a thoughtful reaction to the policy but you’d have to drop your knee-jerk response based on simplistic (neoclassical economics?) theory of choice.

5

soru 09.25.06 at 10:31 am

the guardian

The American burger restaurant Wendy’s added a fresh-fruit bowl to its menu; at the end of last year, the company quietly killed it, blaming a lack of demand. “We listened to consumers who said they wanted to eat fresh fruit,” a disarmingly honest spokesman told the New York Times, “but apparently they lied.”

I guess the queston is do people have the right to over-ride their own freedom of choice – expressed preference versus implicit preference.

Maybe the solution is to set up a ‘do-not-serve-me’ list to which people can add themselves, and which all the fast food joints would be obliged to obey.

6

bi 09.25.06 at 11:18 am

“Additionally, fresh vegetables are perishable in a way that the fixings of a Big Mac are not.” Then perhaps this, rather than (or in addition to) customers’ preferences, is the reason that restaurants tend not to offer healthy food? Doesn’t that undermine the rest of the argument?

7

JRoth 09.25.06 at 11:20 am

I am setting aside the question of whether it’s a good idea to force poor people to pay more for food; the answer is “no”, by the way.

OK, I know you set it aside, but I’m trying to figure out why it’s a bad idea to force fat, unhealthy people (an overwhlemingly accurate description of the population in question) to pay more for fattening, unhealthy food. Is it because it’s mean to force poor people to pay more for stuff they don’t need? Is it because you can’t actually “force” people to pay more money for prepared food (last I checked, Big Macs are not actually necessities)?

The problem faced by the urban poor in America is poor diet, to the point of malnutrition, accompanied by obesity. Subsidising McDonalds – giving it away free – would surely exacerbate this problem, no? So raising its cost would, logically, alleviate the problem, right?

Look, your basic libertarian stance is probably about right (although the liquor store comparison above is worth thinking about). But your contention that allowing a Big Mac meal – with 85% of your daily fat needs in one sitting – to be the most economically rational choice for poor people is somehow for their own good is somewhere between callous and dumb.

8

lemuel pitkin 09.25.06 at 11:51 am

NYC has done a really good job reducing smoking rates — by raising the cost of cigarettes (a tax on the poor!) and by prohibiting smoking in bars and other public places (a restriction on choice! if patrons/employees really valued smoke-free air, they would drink/work somewhere else!) It’s also made available various programs to help people quit, despite the obvious response to this kind of pulmonary do-goodery that people just don’t want to quit, because if they did there’d be somebody selling effective quit-smoking programs to them already.

Right?

9

The New York City Math Teacher 09.25.06 at 11:52 am

Belle, you’re an old New Yorker, and know as well as I that the local owned bodegas and packaged goods retailers don’t sell a decent product. Hell, Wendy’s and Burger King et al are probably healthier, from a food-bourne illness perspective, than 90 percent of the locally owned and managed foodsellers in poor neighborhoods. They also employ locally.

But I disagree with you about the zoning change idea being a bad idea. It’s half of a good idea:
Make healthy options available, make unhealthy options undesirable and scarce.

Making healthy options available:

1) Decent school based nutrition program. The food in our cafeterias is beyond awful. Students resort to outside retailers to avoid eating the dreck in the cafeteria.

2) Nutrition and health education – bring back home ec – call it, oh, I don’t know “Analyzing Daily Life” – and make it a math and skills based multidisciplinary public health/basic statistics/home skills course.

3) Zone for supermarkets, and support the supermarkets with indirect subsidies.

There is way too much diabetes and obesity in my classes – ~40 per cent going either way last year.

More on making unhealthy options undesirable and scarce later.

10

lemuel pitkin 09.25.06 at 11:57 am

Math teacher is right. The use of the term “nanny state” is almost an announcement that one hasn’t thought seriously about this. (“Almost” only because one must leave room for irony.)

11

etat 09.25.06 at 12:00 pm

1. here we are, an actual question: are restaurants that offer healthy alternatives undercut pricewise by fast food restaurants, in reality?

Not necessarily. Some chicken and kebab shops are quite pricey, relatively. On the other hand, my local chippie offers grilled chicken in a pita with salad more cheaply than a full-fledged burger/banger/kebab.

2. Additionally, fresh vegetables are perishable in a way that the fixings of a Big Mac are not.

Doesn’t really matter when the throughput is high. Veg can be quite cheap, BTW. Moreso than flesh.

3. people just don’t want to buy these purported healthy alternatives, because if they did, there’d be somebody selling them to them already.

So why is it that when an independent retailer – with significantly higher prices – opens a shop selling Caribbean vegetables, or organic vegetables, or whole grain breads, or domestic meats and cheeses, they do a great business, yet none of the dominant high street retailers can manage to pick up on the trend? People clearly want things that dominant distributors are loathe to handle. The consumer only wins when someone sets up an alternative distribution network.

4. The fact that mom-and-pop restaurants in many poor neighborhoods run overwhelmingly to the “Chinese food, wings and pizza” type confirms this notion

Try again. Clues available above.

5. To this end, the attempt to move farmer’s markets into poorer neighborhoods seems good, as does the idea that opposition to big grocery stores in urban neighborhoods should be dropped.

See my response to No. 3. Big markets are good for local high streets – but not because of the choices they offer.

I think I agree with Steve in comment No. 1

12

felix 09.25.06 at 12:12 pm

Given that, to a first approximation, the increase in obesity in the US over the last half century can be explained by command-economy decisions about transportation, it’s interesting to see someone argue that government shouldn’t take a role in fixing the problems it created.

Interesting in the sense that it is “interesting” to hear someone claim that they are Napoleon.

13

neil 09.25.06 at 12:22 pm

My impression is that this is mostly an issue of expressed preferences on the part of consumers, unfortunately. The heart of the problem, I suspect, is that there is simply no overlap between ‘healthy food’ and ‘typical American food.’ There are probably a lot of reasons for this.

Imagine: You’re in AnyTown, USA. What are you sure to be able to get for lunch, at a reasonable level of quality, without too much trouble or any knowledge of what’s available? Hamburgers, Chinese, or pizza, for sure. Anything good for you is more difficult.

In other countries this is decidedly not the case. It seems like it wasn’t the case in the U.S. fifty years ago, from what I have read about American dining habits.

14

The New York City Math Teacher 09.25.06 at 12:39 pm

By and by, we’ve had public health scares about the poor and their nutritional options before. Check out Harvey Levenstein’s _Revolution at the Table_.

15

example 09.25.06 at 2:09 pm

Libertarians be damned. Nanny’s don’t pay for your healthcare. Nanny’s don’t pay for the healthcare of illegals living in your house. When you have the guts to require proof of health insurance at the door of a hospital (and refuse healthcare to the chronically fat), then we can talk about loosening things up.

WTF is wrong with you people?

16

Western Dave 09.25.06 at 2:39 pm

Interesting side note: I know of at least one person – a member of an ethnic minority here in the US – that only patronizes fast food joints when he travels because the service is always the same everywhere. No anoying – “you speak
English so well, how long have you been here comments” etc. (The guy is 3rd or 4th generation US citizen so those really irk him).

17

Maynard Handley 09.25.06 at 3:13 pm

Here in LA both Quiznos and El Pollo Loco sell salads that taste very good and appear to be popular. (Quiznos is expensive, but still counts as fast food.) More generally, mexican food above the level of Taco Bell would appear to be reasonably healthy, eg Rubio’s or Baja Fresh.
Do they not have Quiznos, El Pollo Loco, Rubio’s or Baja Fresh in NYC?
The problem seems to be a blanket condemnation that fast food = hamburgers and french fries which is far from true in California.

18

abb1 09.25.06 at 3:42 pm

Bastards. Get your dirty hands off my fries! Go bomb someone somewhere or something.

19

jet 09.25.06 at 5:20 pm

Many of the responses to Belle’s post are as humorous as they are ill-informed. Fast food restaurants have been adding healthy items to their menus for several years now. But guess what, nobody wants them.

The responses have ranged from the simply obtuse to the ridiculous. Has anyone even realized that there are fast food restaurants that specialize in healthy foods? If people truly wanted healthy food, then healthy franchises would be worth millions, while the fatty food franchises eeked out a living.

But no, tell us how it is the fault of advertising forcing the sheeple to eat fat. Tell us how the government made us all fat by creating the interstate system and is thus responsible for resolving the issue. Come up with reason why the government should intervene because you know in your heart-of-hearts that people really don’t want to eat giant greasy hamburgers and would prefer tofu and rice.

20

etat 09.25.06 at 6:37 pm

Would you like extra cheese with that?

21

luc 09.25.06 at 7:08 pm

While Jet is feeding his obtuse straw men, and wondering why the hell they don’t get obese, i’m still wondering what’s wrong with this kind of market regulation?

You all happy with this obesity thing? Supersizing is freedom, choice and happiness for the hoi polloi? And what’s the elite, the elected official, the government to do about it? Let them die? Or as Marie Antionette used to used to say “let them eat burgers”?

The dude Joel might have skipped the smoking when he went into politics at 22, but at least he’s got some sense left in his bureaucratic brain. Silly rules with good intentions are way better than disgusting libertarian market tropes about choice.

Especially the trope that that regulating commercial activity through zoning laws would automatically lead to less options for consumers.

22

Eric 09.25.06 at 9:29 pm

A case might be made against doing anything about the fast food industry, but the simplistic “they could buy it, they did not buy it, therefore they don’t want it” logic misses so many important issues and fails to provide a good argument.

This blog was supposed to be philsophically informed so the lack of depth in the above logic (sic) is surprising.

23

Tom T. 09.25.06 at 10:00 pm

I’m not sure it’s correct to say that healthy alternatives ar generally rejected. There are, according to the company’s website, over 40 Subway outlets in the Bronx. These fast-food restaurants offer a lot of tasty cholesterol-laden selections but also an array of inexpensive lowfat choices, as well as a selection of fresh vegetables. Nutrition information for the lowfat sandwiches is prominently displayed, and of course Jared lost quite a bit of weight there. To be sure, it’s not Chez Panisse, but it’s much better than KFC.

24

belle waring 09.25.06 at 10:14 pm

people, I support legal heroin sales; what are the odds I want to stop people from being able to go to McDonald’s? I also want to know why it is always poor people who have to have the government making these choices for them? educating people about healthy food choices: good. changing school meals so they are healthier: excellent (alice waters of chez panisse has a great program doing this in the berkeley schools, and I think it ought to be widely adopted). denying people the chance to buy what they want, just because they’re poor and we think they’re too fat: bad. if the government is so keen on there being healthy alternatives, the solution is not just to limit fast food outlets and hope for the best, but to subsidize locally owned restaurants so that their healthy offerings are as cheap as McD’s disgusting ones. IRL, however, many locally owned restarants are greasy spoon diners. my local diner in NYC used to have “bowl of sour cream” as a menu item; I can’t think that’s making it past the food police. really, it’s important to consider what the practical effects of limiting such restaurants would be. it might well create a business opportunity for locally owned hamburger joints and slice pizza places, but is this outcome so desireable that we ought to restrict people’s liberty to bring it about? um, no. some targetted policy of bringing healthy food choices to the neighborhoods involved would be a million times more defensible than this. there’s no reason to think that just forcing hardee’s to close down a few stores will cause anything other than inconvenience for the people who used to buy things at hardee’s. the term nanny state is appropriate here because the government would be saying: broke people, you’re too stupid to know what you want to eat, so we’re filling your plate with veggies instead. except, in this case, the actual filling in with veggies step is left to the vagaries of the newly restricted market. stupid. plan.

25

sara 09.25.06 at 10:21 pm

The problem of rampant obesity and attendant illnesses in a society with a market-driven health-care system, no doubt approved of by libertarians, is that the cost of health care goes up for everyone.

Against American-bashing, I recall anecdotes that the food preferences / availability and poor health are similar in working-class Scotland, where deep-fried candy bars were invented.

26

Eric 09.25.06 at 10:51 pm

belle,

>…why it is always poor people who have to have the government making these choices for them?

The “poor” are not the only ones eating fast food. You seem to be trying to imply that those who don’t accept your position are anti-poor. That seems like a dodge to me and, in fact, a somewhat bogus rhetorical move, no?

>… we ought to restrict people’s liberty to bring it about?

Having used the “you hate the poor” dodge you move to throwing out the “you hate liberty” dodge.

If you want to narrowly define liberty as including (and only including) marketplace decisions then you have a bad definition of liberty in my mind.

But, in any case, let’s say that a tax is applied to fastfood. Let’s say the tax is high enough so that no one buys fastfood. By your logic, this would be consistent with liberty as people are able to make the choice they wanted (not buy fastfood as the price is too high).

Folks are FREE to pay $27 for a McD burger but they chose not to. You’d be fine with that, right? People would still have “liberty” according to your perspective.

>there’s no reason to think that just forcing hardee’s to close down a few stores will cause anything other than inconvenience for the people who used to buy things at hardee’s.

But this still would not be a violation of liberty if you define liberty as you want to. The “price” of a burger is higher but people can still make the choice of buying a burger.

So, in short, drop the “you hate the poor” and “you hate liberty” arguments and move to a ground that would be more fruitful.

27

Laura 09.25.06 at 11:02 pm

I honestly can’t see how this is a such an offensive suggestion.

Don’t the real pressing toxicity issues with the type of stuff served up by big fast-food chains have to do with portion size and the types of ingredients used to make the foods more processable on vast scales, transfats and suchlike?

28

Laura 09.25.06 at 11:07 pm

the economies of scale available to McDonald’s enable them to offer food very cheaply.

But if McDonald’s sell a pound of fried potatoes for a dollar and someone else sells falafel but can only offer a quarter pound for a dollar, is there a problem? Serving sizes are too big and that’s what makes people fat. There would be if people were feeding a family of five on one serving of fries but I don’t think they are. Or are they? It would help to know.

29

Brandon Berg 09.25.06 at 11:47 pm

The problem of rampant obesity and attendant illnesses in a society with a market-driven health-care system, no doubt approved of by libertarians, is that the cost of health care goes up for everyone.

In a market-driven health care system (a phrase which emphatically does not describe the system we have in the US), insurers would charge different rates to different people based on perceived cost of providing care, so the medical costs of obesity would be shifted to the obese themselves.

It’s under a single-payer system in which there’s no real connection between what you have to pay and what it costs to provide you with care that people can most easily externalize the costs of unhealthful behavior. To the extent that obesity imposes costs on the rest of us, this is a result of too much government interference in the health care system, not too little.

30

Harald Korneliussen 09.26.06 at 2:28 am

I’d wondered if libertarians opposed zoning laws. I’ve met some that did, some that didn’t. Now it seems that even decent liberals like Belle Waring opposes them?!

What’s wrong with zoning laws? If I live in a place, what people do there affects me, so it isn’t solely their own business anymore. I wouldn’t dream of telling the New Yorkers what to do, but here in Sula, Norway I vote against letting stores sell beer with a perfectly clean conscience. I demand more from my neighbours, and let them demand more from me in return. It’s just local democracy in action.

31

Belle Waring 09.26.06 at 7:36 am

I’m not opposed to all zoning laws, but this is a stupid zoning law. it’s stupid because it’s not going to actually do the thing that is its ostensible purpose: get people to eat more vegetables and fewer hamburgers. along with not accomplishing this goal, it will also inconvenience whoever it is who would have been buying food at the fast food restaurant. my question as to why its always poor people whose choices are being restricted is not a rhetorical dodge. this law might end up covering all of NYC, but I assure you that people on the upper east side are not the target here. no one is going to complain about how fattening the dean and deluca potato salad is, not even if it’s topped with crispy-fried foie gras. there is a genuine problem with available food choices in poor neighborhoods, a problem you don’t see in rich neighborhoods. that doesn’t mean that just any old policy proposal that purports to address the problem is a good one.

32

Yan 09.26.06 at 8:11 am

Rivera’s plan is, indeed, a foolish one. But surely we’re not supposed to buy the old “we only sell it because they demand it” line? Given the fact there’s a fast food place on every corner, a fast food ad every 3 minutes on television, and large segments of the population working 80 hours a week with 30 minute lunch breaks for barely living wages, the predominance of fast food is not a mysterious, arbitrary product of free human volition.

But no, that would be a silly explanation. It must be Mr. Market’s big, strong, invisible hands.

There’s no getting around the fact that this kind of political move is a restriction on individual “liberty” in the most mundane and unglamorous sense, but really, isn’t this really a debate about the rights of corporations? I don’t expect to see crowds in the streets protesting on behalf of their right to have 31 McDonalds rather than 30 McDonalds in town.

33

eddie 09.26.06 at 8:31 am

Fast food doesn’t make you fat.

Eating too much food makes you fat. You can get fat on grilled chicken salad pitas, Caribbean vegetables, whole grain breads, and domestic meats and cheeses as easily as you can on burgers and pizza.

Fat content doesn’t matter. Carb content doesn’t matter. Protein content doesn’t matter. Organic doesn’t matter. Locally produced doesn’t matter. Fashionable doesn’t matter. Approved by the food nazis doesn’t matter. Made by hand doesn’t matter. Processed or mass produced doesn’t matter.

Calories matter. It doesn’t matter how you get them – if you eat more calories than your metabolism uses, you gain weight.

You people don’t care about nutrition, you care about forcing your popular delusions about nutrition on people who don’t want, don’t need, and won’t benefit from your misguided intentions and your need to feel good about yourself.

34

luc 09.26.06 at 9:52 am

Fast food is defined as high calorie low nutricient food, so it does make you fat.

And how does pointing out statistical abberations as people getting fat on foie gras defy the simple logic of this action?

Taking out the most popular choice for bad food will make people choose alternatives. The chances are that on average this will be a better choice, since the choice foregone was one of the worst.

There’s few people who’d treat their family to a foie gras dinner when noticing that the McDonalds at the street corner is closed.

And besides, this zoning was to prevent the seven in a row fast food situation, not to ban McDonalds from the whole of NYC, so the freedom to eat fast food issue is a bit far fetched. And many people are so attached to their fast food that even a short queue is enough to turn them away. Ask your favourite fast food marketeer.

This policy can be a useful addition to other policies, like public education, and stimulating alternatives.

35

Peter 09.26.06 at 9:59 am

Do they not have Quiznos, El Pollo Loco, Rubio’s or Baja Fresh in NYC?

Only Quiznos, and they’re not too common.

The problem seems to be a blanket condemnation that fast food = hamburgers and french fries which is far from true in California.

The fast food in California seems to be much better than what’s available on the East Coast.

36

nick s 09.26.06 at 10:00 am

Street food in large, diverse cities like NYC is invariably better than what’s on offer in less built-up areas for a few reasons. First of all, there’s more choice; secondly, no drive-thru windows.

My guess is that the patrons of Micky Ds or whatever in Manhattan (though not necessarily the Bronx) are more likely to be tourists than locals, for fairly obvious reasons: they represent orientation points in a strange environment. (Ever seen the Champs-Elysées McD’s?) Meaning that any ordinance isn’t going to make Noo Yawkers more likely to grab a banh mi or Cuban sandwich or Chinese dumplings: it’s going to make visitors seek out those places instead. Which makes me wonder whether the real purpose is to bankroll local business, not reduce waistlines.

It’s not just about the food. It’s about the familiarity, even though the menu forms part of that.

37

eddie 09.26.06 at 10:43 am

Fast food is defined as high calorie low nutricient food, so it does make you fat.

Bullpuckey. Fast food is food served in a restaurant where you can order and receive your food, you know, fast. The stalwart of the fast food industry is the burger joint, where the typical meal consists of beef, bread, and potatoes… but thanks to consumer choice and entrepreneurship, the fast food industry has expanded to offer food of an amazing variety, including such exotic fare as grilled chicken, falafel, and vegetable stir-fry. Note that the Honorable Mr. Rivera isn’t proposing to regulate the kind of food offered by restaurants, he just wants to kick out those that have “standardized menus and a name, appearance and logo identical to another restaurant located elsewhere”, assuming he views the Calistoga legislation as the model to use in New York.

“High calorie” is a meaningless term. Food is measured in calories. A small order of fries is low-calorie (250). Twenty carrots is high-calorie (600). The only way to distinguish high-calorie versus low-calorie for various types of food is to compare calories per weight or calories per volume. When you do that, the foods that are low-calorie are those that have higher water content and/or higher fiber content. But people don’t eat a certain amount of weight or volume of food, they eat a certain amount of calories.

As for “low nutricient food” – what nutrients are you talking about? Vitamins? Minerals? Nobody in America suffers from nutrient-deficiency diseases… or are you worrying about a rampant outbreak of scurvy? Anyone eating 1200 KCal/day or more is going to get all the nutrients they need, whether they get their calories from Big Macs or from home-cooked meals.

Just out of curiosity, what dietary regimen do you think the government should encourage everyone to eat by way of financially penalizing restaurants that serve other kinds of food? And are you really comfortable with the government making that kind of decision on your behalf? What if the government gets it wrong, and chooses something other than what you think it should be? If you’re an Atkins geek, what if the government decides to push low-fat? If you’re vegan, what if the government decides to push low-carb? If you think you’ve got the One True Way, what makes you think the government is going to follow that way – and even if they do today, what makes you think they won’t pick up the next Great Nutritional Truth a few years from now?

38

CFisher 09.26.06 at 10:47 am

First, I think the government would be better serving the poor and middle class by further reducing their tax burden, by allowing big box stores to build in lower income (thereby providing an option for low cost groceries and produce), and by doing its best to try and reverse inflationary monetary policies that has seen the value of our dollar decline significantly over the last 50 years and forced more parents into the workplace for longer hours to make ends meet. If more parents had the option to stay at home or work fewer hours, they might have the time to plan out and cook family meals accordingly rather than opt for pizza.

Second, freedom means giving people the option to make choices you do not necessarily agree with. You have to be extremely careful about letting the government try to legislature your morality, otherwise, when the administration changes hands, you could very well find the government coming after your favorite vice.

Because why should the government stop with regulating your diet? Other behaviors that people choose lead to negative consequences. Having a child is a significant financial burden on a poor family. Why not force poor families or single moms to have abortions after the first kid? Smoking and drinking have negative health consequences, why not extend prohibition to them? Even living in crowded urban areas with heavy traffic and smog can lower life spans, so why not forcibly reassign inner city residents to various suburban communities or rural areas where there is no pollution? Education and career choices can affect the quality of your life. Perhaps the government should assign you an education track and a career path as well?

Granted, I am engaging in a bit of hyperbole, but essentially, once you yield the right of ownership over your own body to government interference, it’s not that much of a stretch to see the government pushing for even more control over you for the public good.

39

Fatmouse 09.26.06 at 11:15 am

Why do the nanny-state bleaters only focus on one half of the lardass equation? It’s always about controlling our food, never exercize. If you really cared about the health of the poor, you’d have the Health Police rounding them up for a mandatory two hours on the treadmill every day! After all, it’s for their own good…

40

luc 09.26.06 at 11:39 am

Bullpuckey.

Hey, the “is” is an exaggeration, but this is in the context of those zoning laws.

To quote the NYT article:

“Mr. Rivera, the Council’s majority leader, and his senior adviser, Michael D. Nieves, said that they are not seeking to restrict pizza parlors or street vendors and are trying to come up with language that defines fast food in such a way that excludes low-calorie and medium-calorie foods but includes high-calorie ones, like Big Macs and Whoppers.”

So the fast food to be zoned will de defined as the bad kind.

Follow the links and you’ll get to this, 90 pages more of this “boneheaded stupidity”.

They make the case pretty convincing to me.

41

etat 09.26.06 at 12:14 pm

Just as there’s more than one sort of poor person, and more than one ‘source’ of fatness, there is also more than one source of coercing people into better behaviour, whether it’s making them get out of their cars, off their arses, or off their nicotine, sugar and lard addictions. Put another way, an array of tactics are necessary to produce the desired result in any area of top-down social change. Making smokers pay higher health care premiums, prioritising health care for those who make positive efforts, developing mass transit systems, supporting local and traditional agriculture, promoting allotments, making recycling mandatory, providing incentives for more sustainable practices. On its own, Rivera’s approach is madness. But if it were part of a coordinated and much more diffuse program, it would help to push people toward the broader goal.

42

Brandon Berg 09.26.06 at 12:36 pm

Yan:
…And large segments of the population working 80 hours a week with 30 minute lunch breaks for barely living wages…

I’ve begun to suspect that this is one of those things that everyone “knows” that just isn’t so. Do you have any evidence at all that there’s a large segment of the population working 80 hours per week and still living in or near poverty?

…the predominance of fast food is not a mysterious, arbitrary product of free human volition.

Supposing you’re right, you seem to be saying that it’s the best option available to them given their circumstances. So why take that option away?

43

TJIT 09.26.06 at 12:57 pm

etat said

“Just as there’s more than one sort of poor person, and more than one ‘source’ of fatness, there is also more than one source of coercing people into better behaviour”

I for one welcome etat and our new dietary and exercise overlords, all hail etat!

44

scottp 09.26.06 at 1:12 pm

Harald Korneliussen: here in Sula, Norway I vote against letting stores sell beer with a perfectly clean conscience.

You, sir, are an insufferable wretch. And I am indeed glad I do not live anywhere near you.

45

trundle 09.26.06 at 2:10 pm

But people don’t eat a certain amount of weight or volume of food, they eat a certain amount of calories.

Are you for real?

Of course people eat a certain amount of both weight and volume of food. I suspect that most Americans are much more apt to measure their food by volume than by calorie count. Do you think many McDonald’s consumers view a cheeseburger as more filling than a hamburger? Or fried potatoes as more filling than the same volume of baked ones?

46

Jerry 09.26.06 at 3:12 pm

Coercing people to make better habits, gotta love the Nanny Statists in this country. Everyone knows what’s better for everyone else, makes me want to vomit.

Food for thought:
When did the obesity epidemic take place? When did low-fat and no-fat food hit the market in droves, and when did the big downturn in smoking occur. Oddly enough, around the same time, coincidence.

Advertisements don’t make people buy anything, at least it doesn’t for me. Advertisements are to get folks to change brands or keep brand loyalty. I don’t one day see a Miller Lite commercial and go buy beer if I’m not a beer drinker. And it’s not going to make me go buy a 30 pack instead of a 12-pack.

I happen to like 5 Guys Burgers and Fries (can’t stand Mikey D’s), so no matter what they do, I’m not going there. And 5 guys doesn’t even do ads and the place is packed.

If you want to lose weight, get up off your fat duff, and work out, do some walking, anything. What we don’t need is the government to tell us what to do.

47

eddie 09.26.06 at 3:33 pm

luc: From the boneheadedly stupid document:

“Fast food is defined generally here as inexpensive food that is prepared and served quickly, often by drivethrough service, and tends to be high in fat and low in nutritional value.”

So they are against food that is cheap, food that is prepared quickly, food that you can order without leaving your car, food that is high in fat, and food that is low in nutritional value.

They don’t explain what “low in nutritional value” means. They can’t – there isn’t a consensus on what that means. It’s shorthand for “food that the speaker thinks is bad for you”; the problem is that what is “bad” for you varies from reseacher to researcher, from study to study, and from year to year. Even something that everyone thinks they know is bad for you – high-fat foods – turns out not to be bad for you after all, depending on which studies you pay attention to.

In their attempts to link fast food to obesity, they show that fast food tends to be more energy dense and that portions tend to be large. That doesn’t mean that eating fast food will make you fat, that means eating too much fast food will make you fat – which is unsurprising, since eating too much of any food will make you fat. Someone who eats nothing but fast food can be any weight they choose simply by eating less of it (they do sell sizes other than the largest, you know); someone who sometimes eats fast food can keep from gaining weight by eating less other food when they eat more fast food. The same can be said of any food, though. It’s not the kind of food, it’s the quantity.

They have a section where they quote some studies suggesting links between eating fast food and obesity. I’d point out that the studies are merely suggestive, few in number, and don’t establish causation. But let’s not that stand in our way. Let’s assume that in fact fast food causes obesity. What should we do about it?

Well, what is it about fast food that causes obesity? Is it that the food is too cheap? Is it that it’s too fast and convenient? It is that the portions are too large? Is it that the food is too energy dense or too high in fat?

Nobody knows. And the authors of this document don’t seem to care, either. But they should, because how can you fix the problem if you don’t know what causes it? “Ban fast food” using zoning regulations… but what if the food served by whatever’s left is just as cheap, or convenient, or energy-dense? The Calistoga laws ban restaurants based on their relationship to other businesses – will locally-owned restaurants somehow not have whatever foul magic is causing Wendy’s customers to get obese? Elmwood restricts restaurants based on whether or not someone brings your food to you – is that the magic obesity antidote? Bainbridge Island controls those that use disposable containers… wow, who knew that obesity was caused by the kind of container the food comes in.

Fast food chains have figured out how to efficiently provide food that consumers like, to do it at low cost, and to make it convenient for them to get food. What the hell is wrong with that? What they can’t control is how much people eat – and unless you do that, you’re not going to control how much people weigh, because that’s the only thing that matters – calorie intake. Saying that we have to get rid of fast food restaurants because people are getting fat means that we need to make people have less money and less time to spend on things other than food because we’re worried that they’re eating too much of it and we hope that if it’s more expensive and less convenient maybe they won’t eat as much.

I’ll take freedom and personal responsibility instead, thanks.

48

Perry de Havilland 09.26.06 at 7:04 pm

It is simply unthinkable that anyone but these crazy libertarian types could oppose the idea that people must be forced to do what is good for them. If people will not eat properly, they must be forced to or the long term health-care costs will bankrupt the welfare system.

And what about the children? It is about time that all parents were given a legal requirement to feed their children according to whatever best practice is determined by nutritional experts. Pussy footing around with ‘incentives’ and ‘taxes’ to make people do what it best is absurd: if you are justified in doing that, why are you not justified in just *forcing* people to do the right thing? To just make ‘bad’ choices more expensive by taxing them only forces poor people to do the right thing, which means the more money you have, the more bad choices you can make. That seems inequitable.

And after food, the logical next step should be mandatory exercise, for the same reasons. We have to do something about all those fatsos, right? In China we see pictures of factory workers doing exercise together before work, so why not force employers to require their employees to do that in America too? How many fat Chinese have you ever seen? If people will not exercise, the welfare state will have to pay for their heart diseases and that cannot be fair!

Obviously people do not know what is best for themselves or they would not keep voting for either of the two more or less identical political parties in the USA (or UK, take your pick). So why not just get rid of the idea there is such a thing as ‘society’ (an emergent property of many individual choices) and just go with a fully regulated system in which all human interactions are replaced with politically mediated regulations, informed by experts and passed by democratically sanctified and benevolent politicans? Sure that is preferable to greedy capitalists and ignorants ‘consumers’ brainwashed by advertisements, driving their Edsels and drinking unhealthy New Coke.

The experts know best and we must have more ‘evidence based’ law making so that people do not even have to worry about what might be in their interests because they need to have less choices. I seem to recall a Devo song along these lines.

49

Walt 09.26.06 at 7:28 pm

Seriously, do libertarians go to a special school to learn how to be unpersuasive? My initial reaction was that Belle was right and the pro-zoning side was wrong, but after reading Eddie, and that oh-so-witty comment by Perry de Havilland, I’m having second thoughts…

50

Eric 09.26.06 at 7:31 pm

I feel like I’ve walked into a winger gathering given the sort of arguments (sic) being offered.

It is now being claimed that we have a choice between: (1) do NOTHING at all or (2) permit the government to tell us what to eat.

Somehow I think that the policy options go beyond these two options, no?

51

astrongmaybe 09.26.06 at 8:58 pm

Nick S. #36 – nice theory on ‘the familiarity not the food’, but it’s off the mark for NY. There is a stretch of midtown Manhattan where you see the visitors tucking into cheapish food in comfortingly familiar surroundings. But these tend to be the brands a step or two up the restaurant ladder – Olive Garden, Applebees etc. They’re there obviously to get the sick-of-the-strange market, since they don’t tend to have franchises elsewhere in New York. McDos, KFC, BK are very much for the locals, and overwhelmingly for the poor and minorities, same as everywhere else.

52

Ragout 09.27.06 at 12:25 am

As far as class bias goes, I wonder why nobody is criticizing ice cream places, or soda, or high-end french restaurants? Are you aware that there’s a restaurant in DC that serves fois gras wrapped in cotton candy?

So let me be the first: I call for high taxes on soda!

53

Michael Sullivan 09.27.06 at 12:26 am

I will attempt to avoid buzzwords in this post.

Some practical objections to this scheme:

1. Is It Well-Conceived?

Do we know that this law will have its intended effect? Will it in fact reduce (at the margin) obesity/poor eating? Will it give rise to other negative behaviors which will counter-act its benefits?

Is there a compelling reason to believe that if you make Whopper Jr.’s unavailable, that those who formerly ate fast-food will now turn to healthy food, and not, for example, microwaveable junk food like Hot Pockets or whatnot from the supermarket? If I may cite Fast Food Nation, I seem to recall that one of the attractive things about fast food for the working poor was that it was, well, fast and conveniant… Which suggests to me that replacing fast food with sit-down restaurants may simply mean empty sit-down restaurants.

Fast food restaurants are also a regular source for jobs (yes, yes, I know — very low paying jobs) and regularly employee teenagers. Will whatever replaces the fast food restaurants also employee people? Will anything replace the fast food restaurants? Could we agree that teenagers earning some cash at jobs they by and large like (again, my source for this claim is Fast Food Nation) are more in society’s benefit than idle, non-working teenagers? Can we also agree that vacant buildings in urban areas do not have a great track record for breeding perfect societies?

I am not stating with any certainty that the zoning laws would produce no skinnier people living in a less safe environment, mind. I’m simply asking if anyone has actually researched these possibilities at all.

2. Will It Be Subverted?

What defines a fast-food restaurant? Is it possible that the definition will end up being favorable to large chains (which have the resources to lobby politicians or pay lawyers) and unfavorable to their smaller competitors (who don’t)? How will the zones of “no-fast-food” be defined? Again, if McDonald’s lobbies, will the zone end at their doorstep, making the local government their cat’s paw in removing their small competitors without noticeably inconveniancing the larger businesses?

If I may bring a personal anecdote to the table, my friend is an urban planner in a town in the silicon valley. There, at least, zoning rules are bent or frankly excepted all the time — often over the protests of the civil servants — by politicians acting at the behest of developers. Almost invariably, it is the larger developers, who can argue effectively that they will be a tax asset to the city.

Even if the laws will not be immediately subverted, will they quietly be co-opted into instruments attacking their original purpose a few years down the line, once the public’s eyes are off this matter?

And now, the philosophical objections to zoning for obesity. Those constitutionally opposed to libertarian arguments may wish to avert their eyes.

Here’s the scare argument for the liberals: Gay bars are unhealthy. Frequenting bars with a largely homosexual male clientele is correlated — strongly and very likely causally — with an increased incidence in a variety of health complaints, most notably a number of “social diseases,” including, of course, HIV.

I believe it would be uncontroversial here to say that the government should not attempt to deter gay men from meeting, congregating, and ultimately deciding on their own whether they would like to accept into certain orifices objects which have attendent health risks.

How then could I claim it is an appropriate function of government to attempt to deter fast food patrons from deciding on their own whether they would like to accept into certain other orifices objects which have far smaller health risks?

The less glib version of this same argument concerns boundaries. The right to eat fast food may not be an important right to you or me (personally, I eat fast food about once every two or three months). But the arguments that suggest that the government should insert itself into your decision as to whether or not to eat fast food — even if it does so gently and unobtrusively — apply equally well to every aspect of your life. Are people coerced to eat fast food via advertising and social conditioning? Of course they are. Similarly, people are coerced into decisions about their clothes, their sub-culture identification, how they raise their children, how they vote, where they travel, and a million other things via advertising and social conditioning.

Does fast food affect your health, and do other taxpayers often pay for your poor health decisions? Of course it does, and of course they do. But again, everything in your life affects your health.

If you don’t draw the line here, where do you draw it?

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Harald Korneliussen 09.27.06 at 1:58 am

Scottp, you’re welcome. Let’s live out our ideas of a good and happy life without getting in each other’s way. My neighbours suffer me quite gladly, apparently, I haven’t recieved any negative feedback, even though my position on the issue is public knowledge.

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Eric 09.27.06 at 10:16 am

>”But the arguments that suggest that the government should insert itself into your decision as to whether or not to eat fast food—even if it does so gently and unobtrusively—apply equally well to every aspect of your life.”

I agree: once they outlaw child labor next they’ll tell you women can’t work.

That’s why I stand up proud when I say “Let all 5 year old kids work in factories if they want!”

Slippery slopes; they are everywhere.

56

asg 09.27.06 at 11:05 am

49: Sorry, comments like “Silly rules with good intentions are way better than disgusting libertarian market tropes about choice” (see #21) tend to bring out the worst in us.

57

Michael Sullivan 09.27.06 at 11:12 am

Eric: I think that an incredibly pernicious notion which has somehow slipped into the modern discourse is the idea that the slippery slope is a prima facia fallacy. Any casual observation of everday life should show you that this is not true — I can’t count the number of times I have seen people incrementally talk themselves into positions that they could never take in one jump.

Not every slope is slippery, of course. Your example of “outlaw child labor leads to outlawing women’s labor” does not follow precisely because it leaps across several lines: I can draw the distinction that children are presumeably incapable of making good decisions on their own, while women are not, and also that it is to the good of society for children to go to school, while adult women do not have something that is incompatible with work that they must do for society to function (well, actually, they do to a certain extent, and that’s why we demand that they be given maternity leave).

So there’s a line — the break in the slippery slope, if you will. If you give me some situation which is about “should we outlaw this kind of labor,” I can use these distinctions to decide, in a coherent manner, where I stand on it. If you come to me and say, “Mike, I want to outlaw labor by furry green aliens,” I can say, “Well, can furry green aliens make responsible decisions on their own behalf?” And “Is there something that it is critically important for furry green aliens to do that is incompatible with working, in order for society to function?” And then I can come up with a position on whether or not I agree with you that we should outlaw furry green alien labor.

So, I ask you, what are the lines you’re drawing? How are we supposed to generally distinguish between “good” incentives meant to save us from our own poor decisions about our health and our susceptibility to media, and “bad” incentives meant to save us from our own poor decisions about our health and our media? This is a serious question: I’ve never heard anyone be able to articulate anything better than, “Pshaw, we’ll just know!”

58

CFisher 09.27.06 at 2:29 pm

It’s precisely because the matter is subjective and the idea of ‘good’ is different to different people that we should approach the matter in a ‘hands-off’ fashion. As someone said, there is a diversity of ideas about diet that exist in today’s world, some of which are competing medical views, some lifestyle views, and some choices influenced by a person’s ethics.

Which diet should the government force on everyone?

59

Eric 09.27.06 at 3:29 pm

>I think that an incredibly pernicious notion which has somehow slipped into the modern discourse is the idea that the slippery slope is a prima facia fallacy.

Slippery slopes do exist. But it is a logical fallacy to argue that once you’ve identified a POSSIBLE slippery slope that you’ve shown that the first step should not be taken. The key difference here is between possibility and probability. Asserting that A could lead to B does not in any way show that A will actually lead to B.

What is the probability that restricting fastfood establishments will lead to a wholesale restriction of other choices? I’d say about 0.001%. You seem to be implying that the probability is high enough (5%?, 40%?, 90%?) that we should not take that first step.

I won’t pursue you unintended bad consequence argument as it also assumes that possibility implies a high probability. It doesn’t.

60

Michael Sullivan 09.27.06 at 4:30 pm

On what do you base your estimation of the likelihood of further “slipping” at .001%? I’m gathering that it’s a number that you simply made up? Is there a reason that we should take your guesses seriously?

You also seem to feel that others have the burden of proof. For example, the unintended consequences thing. Okay, there’s a possibility of it out there. I don’t know what the probability is. I don’t think that you do, either. Whose job is it to get some actual data? It may not be yours, but I don’t see any reason to believe that it must be mine.

I also think that you’re obfuscating the point. The notion that there is a single probability that this law will lead to others may be true on some sociological level, but it creates the impression that it’s some mysterious constant, set by god-knows-what. I think that the probability is a function of how well this behaviour that we’re discussing generalizes to the next situation. “We should outlaw labor by children” generalizes to “We should outlaw labor by women” rather poorly, for reasons I have already discussed. I submit that “We should disincent unhealthy eating” generalizes very well to “We should disincent unhealthy sex,” or “We should disincent unhealthy purchase decisions,” or “We should disincent unhealthy travel decisions.”

If you are 99.999% confident (which is pretty impressively confident) that the majority of people who find the argument that we should disincent unhealthy/heavily advertised eating decisions compelling will never find compelling the argument that we should disincent unhealthy/heavily advertised decisions about entertainment or childrearing or travel or who to associate with, then surely you can articulate some actual reason to support your certainty?

61

Jennifer 09.27.06 at 4:39 pm

I’m amazed by the number of people here who are seriously arguing that government should treat its adult citizens the same way parents treat their five-year-old children: deciding what can and cannot be eaten, and making people do things “for their own good.”

62

Eric 09.27.06 at 6:21 pm

“I’m amazed by the number of people here who are seriously arguing that government should treat its adult citizens the same way parents treat their five-year-old children”
I agree. I’m going out to shoot up some heroin right now.

63

luc 09.27.06 at 10:39 pm

They’re tough in NYC! No trans fats anymore.

I like an assertive government on public health issues.

64

trundle 09.29.06 at 5:37 am

I’m amazed by the number of people here who are seriously arguing that government should treat its adult citizens the same way parents treat their five-year-old children: deciding what can and cannot be eaten, and making people do things “for their own good.”

We already have such a government, and I think most consumers are glad for it. How do you feel about e.coli tainted spinach? Personally, I’m pretty happy that I don’t have the “liberty” to buy it.

The question at hand isn’t whether or not the government should regulate food; it’s already done that for decades. The question is whether fast food (or trans fats, re: the recent NYC legislation) is sufficiently dangerous to warrant restriction.

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