October 7, 2003

Sugar Stamps

I may not have mentioned it before, but I feel no shame in admitting when I don't have an idea for what I will post to my blog until I go over and read someone else's. If you read my blog frequently, then you know what blogs I check every day. I hope those folks take it as complimentary rather than consider me a blog-stalker or blog-troll of some kind. I generally ignore blogs I don't think are worth it. And lately I've found a number of underrated blogs. Thus, we have another response to Absit Invidia.

Over there today, Stephen has got what is familiar complaint anecdote relating a purchase someone has made on food stamps. And he's wondering aloud about liberals (actually, his liberal friends) take on the situation. I feel friendly enough toward Stephen, though I've never met him IRL, so I'l oblige.

My parents (conservative Catholic BTW) always taught me that allowing people some dignity is important, and that that adage applies to public assistance. Im not sure what, exactly, their thoughts are on welfare because I haven't asked them lately. However, they are compassionate people and that has rubbed off on me.

Stephen sees someone on food stamps buying a lot of soda. Let's ignore the possibility that we are judging someone who might have been planning a birthday party of something like that. Let's further ignore the fact that she was overweight, since we don't know anything about her metabolism.

The heart of the matter is, it's not healthy for her to be drinking a bunch of soda, and we're supporting that habit with tax money.

Stephen's question, specifically, was:

I wonder if my liberal friends would agree that government food handouts should be limited to substantial and nutrional foods? Or do you support taking money out of your neighbors' pockets to support a snack food jones?
So, let me consider limiting the use of the food stamps to "nutritious" foods.

There are a number of reasons I don't think I would support it off the cuff.

There is sure to be a debate about the definition of nutritious food (a little more on that later). If food stamps have significant economic impact, some food manufacturers are going to feel a sting when their products are no longer approved food stamp purchases. Capitalists believe in the marketplace. In the supermarketplace, foods compete with each other based on flavor, nutrition, appearance, marketing, texture, packaging... Tinkering with food stamps is an admission that the marketplace is not serving the nation's health needs well. If that is the case and it's OK to muck with the marketplace, why not impose a tax on non-nutritious food and make everyone healthy? This is not a slippery slope -- the arguments are extremely close.

Limiting what food stamp holders can purchase (beyond things that are already fairly regulated and restricted products like cigarettes and alcohol) complicates the food purchasing process. It puts a burden on the supermarkets to enforce the policy.

So far this is not looking like a very libertarian idea.

How about compassion-wise? People going on public assistance are already in a bad situation. This may not be the best time to try to get them to change their food-purchasing habits.

From a practical standpoint, will the idea work to make people more healthy? I don't think so. I don't think you can legislate health in this way. Eating is only a small part of the health equation. Restricting their diets alone doesn't necessarily make people healthy.

What's a nutritious food? Lets say they can't buy Ring Dings. OK. Well, they could buy a devils food cake mix, milk and eggs, can't they? Whose to say that they won't cook up 5 cakes and eat them. Sure, it's not as convenient, but they have ones you can just pop into the oven. You don't even need a pan. So, say you ban those. Is it worth the price of making it more difficult for this welfare mom to somehow get her son his birthday cake?

And this is really what it comes down to. Perception of the harshness of society.

Just so you know, Stephen, I am not attributing the following analysis to you personally. I don't know your motivations. In aggregate, however, I see some ideas coming to bear in this issue. You're not the first person to relate such a story, and many people who have expressed negative views on welfare to me have done so much more strongly, some with ridiculous vehemence that exceeds Scrooge's "let them die and decrease the surplus population." So, though you triggered this response, it is not a response to you.

I don't know exactly what a liberal is, but I figure that people think liberals want to be too nice to the poor. People should be punished for being poor. That way, they won't want to be poor anymore, as if poverty isn't enough of a motivational factor for those who can be motivated. In many ways, we're a nation obsessed with punishment. The unconscious reasoning goes something like this: That person is using my money (tax money, even though it is not yours, is often viewed in this country as being yours) to enjoy a luxury they don't deserve. I don't like to pay taxes, so they should be punished, and the most handy justification is that their purchase is contributing to ill health.

Yes, I am assuming the motivation has very little to do with health, and everything to do with the way we think about tax-funded programs, our own taxes, punishment, and what you deserve vs. what I deserve. Penalizing the regular citizen for buying a candy bar (sin tax) is seen as a ridiculous, liberal idea. Penalizing the person on public assistance is a more acceptable idea because she's spending your money.

She's not spending your money. We necessarily pool our resources to some extent to maintain our society. Funding programs requires collecting taxes. Those taxes are the price of a stable society. This system works. But, once you pay your taxes the money is no more yours than the $9 you gave to the movie theatre is yours when you went to see Lord of the Rings. You paid for it. But do we hear much about what the studio is doing with our money? Can you vote for where Miramax decides to spend the income from their latest release?

I was recently talking to a citizen of Canada who was telling me he's starting to hear "it's your money" applying to taxes there. It was the first time his friends had heard such an argument. He told this to me and knew I would be amazed, because around here it's a perennial canard.

It's not your money. If you cancelled the program, you would lower your taxes, but it still wouldn't be your money. Try asking the Air Force to fly a fighter jet purchased with "your money." I don't think they look at it that way.

The need to punish people is another essay for another time.

Back to Stephen, I think you were annoyed in line, saw this woman's size and the soda and thought this was a bad situation. And you're probably right. But we can't cure this ill with more government. Take it from a liberal. Yes, the money should be provided. But if she wants to commit suicide slowly with it with diabetes, that's the way it goes. And the money goes to some soda company exec's golf membership, so it's all good.

Posted by James at October 7, 2003 5:10 PM
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Comments

Wow. I was going to post a quick snarky comment about asking for bigger government to regulate the eating habits of the poor, but you did a much better job than a snotty retort from me.

Plus everyone hates fat people.

Posted by: Bil at October 7, 2003 11:09 PM

There's also the fact that soda is always cheaper than juice (which is also loaded with sugar) and usually cheaper than milk.

Posted by: julie at October 8, 2003 1:01 PM

Julie you beat me to it. An added point though it's also checper than WATER!!! Think about it. 2 L Coke can aften be had for 0.69. How much do people pay for a gallon jug of H20?

Posted by: Bob at October 8, 2003 1:38 PM

I once read an article about how Coca Cola was experimenting with an idea to supply coke to your house in the same manner you get water. Your kitchen tap would have hot water, cold water and Coke, and you would have a Coke bill along with your other utilities. I don't know what happened with that idea, but it always intrigued me.

Posted by: Bil at October 8, 2003 2:59 PM

That's horrifying! I had to check the calendar to make sure it wasn't April 1 with you pulling my leg.

Why not install a special flow-reversal valve on your sewer line so you can pipe crap directly into your house too?

Wait... that's cable. ;-)

Posted by: julie at October 8, 2003 4:18 PM

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