Monday, June 7, 2010

The Government's Going To Take Away Your Right To Watch "The Biggest Loser"

One of the peculiar things I’ve noticed about conservatives is that they tend to think the government – any government, federal, state, or local – has much more political power than it actually does. Yesterday’s New York Times column by former George W. Bush adviser N. Gregory Mankiw provides an excellent example of this phenomenon.

The purpose of Mankiw’s column is to analyze recent attempts by multiple governments across the United States to enact, or at least study, imposing new taxes on soda and other ultra-sugary drinks. Whatever your stance on this issue – and I recognize that it is more complex than a simple left-versus-right, tax-versus-no-tax, government-versus-market debate – Mankiw’s culminating argument is nothing short of absurd:

Taxing soda may encourage better nutrition and benefit our future selves. But so could taxing candy, ice cream and fried foods. Subsidizing broccoli, gym memberships and dental floss comes next. Taxing mindless television shows and subsidizing serious literature cannot be far behind.

Setting aside the fact that taxes on junk and fast food, or subsidies for healthy diets and activities, are both legitimate ideas worth debating, Mankiw’s paranoid idea that a soda tax would somehow lead to the federal government taxing crap TV like Jersey Shore and subsidizing, say, the works of Philip Roth is one of the most egregious uses of the slippery slope fallacy I’ve ever seen. The main reason this is so beyond the pale is that, as Mr. Mankiw and so many other libertarian/free-market devotees seem to forget, we elect the government.

In order for the federal government to enact something so obscene as a tax on awful television shows, Americans would have to vote into office, in separate and distinct electoral contests, at least 218 members of the House of Representatives (a majority of the total 435), 60 members of the Senate (a three-fifths majority of the 100 Senators, since just about everything controversial is filibustered these days), and a President willing to sign such a policy into law. All of these elected officials – except for the ones who retire, who usually represent a small fraction of the total – would have to be held accountable by the voters at the next election. This is how public policy works in a democracy.

Of course, any such policy as Mankiw ominously hints “cannot be far behind” a soda tax would be challenged in court, and given that the Supreme Court under John Roberts has become such a hotbed of right-wing judicial activism, there’s a good chance that a Real Housewives of Wherever tax or a Michael Chabon subsidy would be struck down as unconstitutional.

What I’m getting at with my poor attempts to make pop culture quips is that there exist democratic safeguards against Mankiw’s ridiculous notion that the government is going to suddenly tax shows like Survivor or American Idol, the most important being that there is zero public support for such an idea, and it is the public that chooses the government.

This paranoia is among the most prominent fears of right-wing economists like Mankiw – the idea that “the government” or “the state” is going to enact some horrible, oppressive policy that will rob of us of all of the freedoms that we hold dear, and that there is absolutely nothing we will be able to do about it. Never mind that one-third of the Senate and 100 percent of the House of Representatives is chosen by the people in free and fair elections every two years, or that the President is elected once every four years, and limited to two terms. That policy is always coming. It's always just around the corner.

(P.S. Times blogger David Leonhardt has posted an excellent rebuttal to Mankiw. He doesn’t address the silly “the big bad government is gonna tax TV shows it doesn’t like” argument, but he does make a solid argument for some kind of public policy to reduce Americans’ intake of ultra-caloric beverages. Did you know that the annual national cost of obesity in the U.S. comes to $147 billion? That’s $1,250 per household. To paraphrase one of my favorite movies, Clerks, would you be willing to pay someone that much money to kill you every year?)


  1. I was having a thought today along somewhat similar lines- it seems as though there are a lot of people out there, many of them conservative I believe though by no means all, who just have this concept of 'the govenment' as a whole, instead of all the individuals and forces which go into each bit of policy and law.

    Therefor when they run into a law which was passed by a different administration and/or party many years ago ( I was thinking about OPA this morning, but I believe it goes for many other examples), they dont see it as the result of particular individuals and circumstances at the time (some of which may truly have been acting as they considered reasonable), they just blame 'the government', ie whoever is in power at the time, though they had nothing to do with whatever it is and may in fact be actively trying to change and improve the situation.

  2. Well, Mankiw is being misleading for two reasons. The first is that the taxes he's referring to (called "Pigouvian taxes," after the great A.C. Pigou) are meant to eliminate externalities and bring markets back into equilibrium. The presence of externalities and the need to re-equilibrate means, by definition, that there is a market failure going on. In other words, Mankiw is talking about situations where the market delivers a sub-optimal social outcome, and where the market is powerless to resolve that outcome. Those are textbook cases in which government action is needed, and every thinking person agrees with this. Obesity generates externalities. Watching television does not. It is not a matter of "appointing the government" as our "guardian." Governments correct market failures. That is what they do. The answer to "where do we stop?" is quite obviously "where there aren't any more market failures."

    Second, a Pigouvian tax for revenue purposes (the point of his article, which he seems to forget when he starts frothing towards the end) only really works with products which have relatively inelastic demand. Like cigarettes or gasoline. Tax the hell out of them, but people will still buy them, and you'll have a terrific source of revenue. Tax television (how?) and people will just watch old episodes of Family Guy online for free. Trying to use this as a scare tactic is just pointless.

    Also, we DO subsidize a lot of serious literature, as anyone who teaches at Harvard, home to several writer-in-residence programs, ought to be aware. This is basic stuff.

  3. I thought of another thing. Here we are in the middle of an enormous and unpredictable global recession which seems to be transforming from a private debt crisis into a public debt crisis and may spell the end of the European currency union, a wave of first-world government defaults, decades of brutal fiscal austerity, and the possibility of a lost decade of US growth, and when an award-winning economist in a position of political and academic influence writes a column for the New York Times, what does he say? Soda taxes might lead to TV taxes. Is that seriously his contribution to the public debate? Is that poorly-reasoned, intellectually misleading effusion really the best, most timely intervention he can make into the public discourse?