Commonwealth Club debate prep help request - SF's soda tax

On October 30, I'm going to be appearing as a panelist at the Commonwealth Club of California to debate Proposition E on San Francisco's November 4th ballot, a 2¢ per ounce tax on distributors of sugar-added beverages.

http://www.commonwealthclub.org/events/2014-10-30/san-francisco’s-prop-e-pros-and-cons-soda-tax

  While I've spoken on and debated city ballot measures at numerous local forums this year and previously, this one is kind of a big deal -- the Commonwealth Club is a prestigious organization that often hosts high-profile speakers, and a quick search of their archives ( http://www.commonwealthclub.org/search/node/libertarian ) reveals they've only had a dozen previous events in the past decade or so that mention the word "libertarian" (events featuring prominent guests including Christopher Hitchens, David Boaz, Bob Barr, Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch of Reason, P.J. O'Rourke, Charles Murray, Art Olivier, and others).

  Right now the other panelists besides myself are a county supervisor who is the measure's leading proponent, and an anti-sugar doctor (they may or may not add another panelist who's against the tax). So I want to be ready to make a strong pro-freedom case, and am putting out a call for help finding good data and arguments against this kind of tax. Here is the text of the measure:

http://sfgov2.org/ftp/uploadedfiles/elections/candidates/Nov2014/Nov2014_SugarSweetenedBeverages.pdf

  Please note I am *not* planning to argue that sugary beverages aren't unhealthy, because I believe they are. However comparisons with other unhealthy foods, beverages, and activities that people engage in are certainly fair game. Data showing that taxes of this sort are ineffective or have unintended negative consequences would also be most helpful. Here are some of the arguments I intend to make:

• Your body belongs to you, and it should be up to you to decide what to put into it, healthy or not.

• This is a slippery slope. The concerns voiced here about people with unhealthy lifestyles becoming a taxpayer burden illustrate how government healthcare subsidies are a threat to your freedom to do *anything* in your life that other people may view as unhealthy or risky (accurately or not). Similar arguments could be used to ban, restrict or tax mountain climbing, football, potato chips, driving, birthday cakes, overseas travel, etc.

• Proposition E would hurt San Francisco businesses, especially small retailers who rely on the sale of soft drinks and other sweetened beverages for a significant portion of their sales, causing many residents to do their beverage shopping in Daly City or elsewhere outside SF, and maybe their grocery and other shopping as well while they're there.

• A 2¢ per ounce tax means a 2-liter, 64 oz soda would have a $1.28 tax added to it which could more than double the cost of the item -- a tax that so dramatically raises the cost of products risks fueling a black market for sodas. Black markets tend to mean increased enforcement costs, and higher rates of violent crime as sellers compete for the high profits to be made in illegal sales.

• San Francisco is already increasingly unaffordable -- this is probably the #1 local news item of 2014. This tax would make the city even less affordable, especially for lower income people most at risk of being driven out of the city, because they are disproportionate consumers of soda, and also because this is a regressive tax and all regressive taxes fall most heavily on the poor.

• Retailers who are charged more for sodas by their distributors who would be paying this tax are not required to add this additional overhead to the cost of their sodas and sweetened beverages, but may choose to spread price increases out over other products they sell in order to maintain their bottom line. This means Proposition E may increase your grocery bill even if you never buy sodas, energy drinks, chocolate milk, sweet ice teas, or other sugar-added beverages.

• Increasing poor people's cost of living will leave them less money to pay for their own health care and less money to pay for education, leaving them with less access to information about good nutrition and healthy eating, and less time to worry about such things amid the struggle to pay the bills.

• Proposition E promises to use tax revenues expected to be generated by the measure on promoting healthy living via stuff like nutrition education, school sports programs, and so on, but money is fungible. There's nothing to stop politicians from cutting existing funding of these programs at the same time they add this new tax money, so that the ultimate effect is to divert the funds toward other purposes. They have a very poor track record of spending taxpayer money in the ways that were originally promised to voters.

• Proposition E is government greed. As of 2010, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that one of every 3 city government employees was paid over $100,000 a year, and salaries have only increased since then -- this tax would be taxing the "have-nots" in order to give the "haves" more money to play with. If they want more money for health and recreation programs, they should raise the money by cutting their own generous salaries, benefits, and office overhead, instead of doing it on the backs of ordinary San Franciscans.

• Proposition E is social engineering -- government officials who think they are wiser than we are treating us like children and attempting to manipulate public behavior.

• A much better approach to encouraging healthy eating and lifestyles would be to eliminate government subsidies for things like high fructose corn syrup, and to stop subsidizing "pre-existing conditions" resulting from unhealthy lifestyles by charging these people the same amount for their health care as people who exercise, eat responsibly, and take care of their health.

  Any additional arguments, or points to back up the arguments listed above -- in particular hard numbers, research data, quotes, and so on -- that anyone can provide would be appreciated!

Love & Liberty,
                                  ((( starchild )))

Go Starchild Go!!!

Michael Denny
Libertarian Party of San Francisco
www.LPSF.org

Hi Starchild,

You asked for suggestions, so here are mine.

Keep remembering that this is a moderated question and answer, so the moderator will cut you off if your response does not directly address the question asked.

Yes, we all know sodas are bad for you, and having a discussion on the bad effects of soda on health seems rather redundant. However, a discussion why the tax might be useless in improving health might be OK. Here are some articles that might help should talking about "freedom" alone prove challenging.

The moderator, Lisa Aliferis, seems balanced; not an obvious left of leftie.

http://blogs.kqed.org/stateofhealth/2014/10/15/election-2014-san-francisco-berkeley-consider-soda-taxes/#more-22029

If you want to throw in some "facts," you might want to look into some studies that talk about soda consumption might decrease, but not obesity. The reason for this counter-intuitive finding is that substitution occurs.

http://www.choicesmagazine.org/choices-magazine/policy-issues/soda-taxes-and-substitution-effects-will-obesity-be-affected Substitution is not all that peculiar because of sugar addiction. Soda consumption decreases, donut consumption might increase.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/01/08/260781785/is-sugar-addiction-why-so-many-january-diets-fail

This article is long and full of regression analysis, but I think the bottom line expressed in the Conclusion is interesting: In the two states were soda taxes were instituted, consumption went down, but obesity kept going up.

http://www.biz.uiowa.edu/frisvold/wp-content/uploads/large_soda_taxes_20140129_workingpaper.pdf Ah, but your friend Dr. Lustig is all excited about another study that shows that diabetes is not caused by obesity, but by sugar! And he is certain to bring that up on the discussion.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/27/its-the-sugar-folks/?_php=true&_type=blogs&hp&_r=0

So, you throw the American Diabetes Association back at him: Obesity and diabetes are correlated -- no specification as to what caused the obesity, sugar or donuts.
http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-basics/myths/

I was reading somewhere (I could not find the article) that Supervisor Mar said taxes are needed because "education does not work." In other words, we cannot change behavior through education. He pointed to the success of cigarette taxes. My problem with that argument is that the campaign against cigarettes was massive -- everywhere pictures of black lungs, wheezing old men, cancer, you name it. So, no way to tell if the education/campaign or the tax contributed to the decline in cigarette consumption.

BTW, speaking of addiction and substitution. Was the increase in drug consumption caused by the decrease in cigarette consumption?

Marcy

Nicely done Marcy....

Mike

I agree one million percent with Mike! He who frames the debate wins the debate, and the Commonwealth has attempted to do the framing by bringing in two health experts. I am indeed confident that Starchild will succeed in reframing the debate by moving it to what is relevant to us. However I thew in some defensive science in case the moderator refuses to accept what she might see as "off topic" and not pertinent to her questions. I obviously did not make clear enough in my post that the preferred strategy is to render the sugar debate totally irrelevant as soon into the discussion as possible.

This Proposition E in my view represents all that Libertarians oppose, including the joining, as you put it, Mike, of science and state. It also represents the state's usual method of creating a problem (involvement in healthcare) then offering a "solution" (squeezing money from somewhere to institute "health programs"). And speaking of health programs, that is what Supervisor Wiener is emphasizing these days rather than taxes decreasing consumption (probably because of the beverage industry's argument that this is an excise-type of hidden tax).

I suppose if we are to say no to proposals, maybe we should come up with proposals of our own. My first suggestion would be role modeling, by suggesting that teachers be trim -- but that might not go over well. Another suggestion would be to continue making food and drink available in schools healthy -- this is not meddling in health care, but simply another form of role modeling.

Question. How is Mr. Wiener intending to make the obese kids participate in these programs?

Glad you are coming to the event, Mike. Aubrey said he is taking half a day off work and coming also.

Marcy

I think Starchild has done an outstanding job of compiling arguments, and I’m delighted and grateful that he’s undertaking the debate; I’m planning to be there. I especially like the last argument, about the other important things that could be done, like ending all the ways we subsidize sugar consumption, and unhealthy behavior in general, shielding people from the consequences of self-destructive behavior. But I would resist Marcy’s well-meaning suggestion of getting into a debate about facts, or about science in particular. Lustig is the world’s leading expert in this area, and he knows his stuff; he is most famous for his research on the effects of fructose in particular on the liver. (I perceive him as a little self-important and narcissistic, but basically a nice guy.) I think you have a far more powerful point in maintaining that science is simply irrelevant to this debate. Lustig won’t take that point well, either; progressive academics believe they should be controlling the world, or at least advising those who do. But you can still acknowledge the importance of his contributions to science and world health while arguing that they are irrelevant to a tax on sugar. Perhaps the concept of separation of state and science, for much the same reasons as separation of state and church, might provide a lever for persuasion. You are coming from a strong place in terms of your own beliefs and practices about food and health; I suspect, for what it’s worth, that your diet is at least as healthy as his.

Thanks, Marcy; I would have been satisfied with a hundred percent :slight_smile:.

As for counterproposals of our own, I thought Starchild had the best idea in calling for the repeal of subsidies to corn producers, the source of the fructose that Lustig is so exercised about. The fructose problem originated, as I understand it, with shifts in subsidies in the 1980s, making sugar more expensive and corn syrup cheaper. Coca-Cola evidently figured people would notice the switch, and complain; they introduced New Coke, which was terrible, long enough for stocks of the original Coke to disappear, then reintroduced “Coke Classic,” now made with HFCS, when comparisons weren’t so easy.

I referred in my earlier message to subsidizing all forms of self-destructive behavior, but I’m not sure about the best way to handle that issue in the debate. It is a fair rejoinder to critics of the nanny state that those of us who maintain healthy diets shouldn’t have to pay medical expenses for those who consume sugary drinks. Socialized health insurance, like ObamaCare, necessarily involves subsidizing such risky behavior, and leads to a corresponding demand to police everybody’s behavior. (A similar coupling occurs between welfare programs and immigration.) It’s probably better to avoid getting in a position of criticizing ObamaCare; but, if the issue comes up, anyone who complains about having to pay for medical services for soda consumers can be compared to conservatives to object to paying for social services for immigrants.

I think Starchild has already identified the strongest points, in terms of fructose being the new target in the War on Drugs, and the typically disproportionate burden of the soda tax borne by poor people.

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Starchild:

Do you have time and place information for the debate? The link below consistently draws a blank for me.

Michael,

  Yes, it’s this Thursday, Oct. 30, from noon to 1pm. They let people in at 1130am. It’s at the Commonwealth Club, which is (for now -- they’re planning to move soon) at 595 Market Street (I think the cross street is around First Street). It’s free, but they’re asking people to register on the page you’re having trouble with -- http://www.commonwealthclub.org/events/2014-10-30/san-francisco’s-prop-e-pros-and-cons-soda-tax . I suspect if you just show up it will be no problem however. You can always tell them you were having trouble with the site.

Love & Liberty,
                                 ((( starchild )))

Thanks for your comments, Marcy. I was sort of wishing Lustig during the debate had gotten into the breath-taking paternalism of "We have scientific proof that poor people shouldn't be allowed to live their own lives without adult supervision because their brains have been destroyed by sugar." I noticed that he took his leave rather abruptly when I responded that I was probably the only one in the group who had grown up poor.

My thanks to you and Aubrey for being there. And a big thanks again to Starchild for a job well done. One of my favorite points (for the benefit of those who weren't there) was Starchild's response to Wiener's point that studies by "Big Soda" couldn't be trusted, unlike studies by "independent" experts: Starchild pointed out that government studies were hardly trustworthy, either, given that government stood to gain tens of millions from the passage of this proposition.

I should have said they stand to gain tens of millions of dollars *per year*. There's always something I think of later. :slight_smile: But thanks Mike, and Marcy, glad you guys and Aubrey could make it, it really does make a psychological difference having friends in the room. There was also a person there I know from the SFDebate group, an older guy who leans somewhat conservative, but I think he must have left early as I didn't see him at the end.

  Dr. Lustig was not what I was expecting. It's rather disturbing to think of people with medical/scientific credentials and attitudes like his being politically engaged. I wouldn't call him a progressive though, except maybe in the moral busybody spirit of early 20th century progressivism. Among other things, I think a modern progressive would have felt some shame or embarrassment over or need to apologize for making $172,000 a year. :slight_smile:

  My overall take on the event was positive, in terms of the visibility and exposure. The format of the debate left something to be desired. I thought I was going to get a bit more time than the other two, or that there would be more hard-hitting questions from Lisa Aliferis the moderator from our perspective, to balance out the fact that it was basically two-on-one, but I didn't feel that happened. My guess is that she supports the tax. Her remarks also seemed to take the official description of and rationale for the measure too much at face value -- although that certainly is far from a unique shortcoming in most people's approaches to this sort of legislation. I don't know to what extent she screened the questions, but the questions she read from audience members were not especially helpful, especially the one about taxes on alcohol and cigarettes which I felt was just designed to get me to remind people that libertarians oppose taxes generally, in order to take away from our opposition to this tax. Did you guys submit any questions? I think it's always a good idea to try to do so at events like this, and to think carefully about what you want their effect to be.

  I feel somewhat mislead about the format as well; George had told us beforehand that they wanted an animated but civil debate, and that we didn't have to wait and only speak when we got a question, but could jump in if we had something to say. Just about every time I tried though, I found my mic was not turned on and so I didn't have the opportunity to jump in; someone was controlling the microphones and only activating them when it was our turn to speak. I don't think I'll probably complain to them about any of this stuff though; I'd like to have the opportunity to speak there again, even if/when it's not a level playing field.

Love & Liberty,
                                 ((( starchild )))

Hi Starchild, Mike, and Marcy. As expected, Starchild, you did a great job today, and I left the debate satisfied that our point of view was well presented. Wiener was totally predictable, but the good doctor was totally out in left field. If the voting public had gotten a chance to see him in action today (and especially afterwards when we were talking outside the building and his absolute elitist and really true colors came out), it might have given pause to those in support of the tax. As it was, to me, the moderator seemed reasonably fair and I didn't see any obvious bias on her part, and I thought she asked harder questions to Wiener and The Dictator. The question I submitted was what about a tax on red meat next, and while the doctor's answer was interesting (and Marcy attested to the accuracy of his answer), I didn't think he actually answered the question. It also occurred to me later, after our short discussion outside the building, that I should have asked him why didn't he try to counsel the poor folks who make such bad dietary decisions, because folks tend to respect and think highly of their doctors, so that would be an ideal opportunity to convince folks one-on-one of the benefits of a healthy lifestyle; however, I guess his answer would have been that they've consumed too much sugar already and they're beyond helping themselves so the government needs to force itself into their kitchens. Oy! Thanks for taking on a difficult assignment and handling it so well!Aubrey

Hi Starchild,

You asked if we submitted questions. I submitted the one I told you I would. But interestingly the question was read a bit differently than what I wrote (I do not think on purpose but in an effort to shorten it). My question emphasized what is to prevent prices to be raised across the board.

Thank you for thinking ahead and not mentioning the mike situation. I have never seen a program at the Club where panelists were allowed to jump in. I think Mr. Dobbins did not make himself clear.

By the way, I suspected Dr. Lustig had something to "sell" besides his well intended anti sugar campaign. He is an author with a best selling book under his belt, so appearances do not hurt sales either.

Marcy

   I should have said they stand to gain tens of millions of dollars *per year*. There's always something I think of later. :slight_smile: But thanks Mike, and Marcy, glad you guys and Aubrey could make it, it really does make a psychological difference having friends in the room. There was also a person there I know from the SFDebate group, an older guy who leans somewhat conservative, but I think he must have left early as I didn't see him at the end.

   Dr. Lustig was not what I was expecting. It's rather disturbing to think of people with medical/scientific credentials and attitudes like his being politically engaged. I wouldn't call him a progressive though, except maybe in the moral busybody spirit of early 20th century progressivism. Among other things, I think a modern progressive would have felt some shame or embarrassment over or need to apologize for making $172,000 a year. :slight_smile:

   My overall take on the event was positive, in terms of the visibility and exposure. The format of the debate left something to be desired. I thought I was going to get a bit more time than the other two, or that there would be more hard-hitting questions from Lisa Aliferis the moderator from our perspective, to balance out the fact that it was basically two-on-one, but I didn't feel that happened. My guess is that she supports the tax. Her remarks also seemed to take the official description of and rationale for the measure too much at face value -- although that certainly is far from a unique shortcoming in most people's approaches to this sort of legislation. I don't know to what extent she screened the questions, but the questions she read from audience members were not especially helpful, especially the one about taxes on alcohol and cigarettes which I felt was just designed to get me to remind people that libertarians oppose taxes generally, in order to take away from our opposition to this tax. Did you guys submit any questions? I think it's always a good idea to try to do so at events like this, and to think carefully about what you want their effect to be.

   I feel somewhat mislead about the format as well; George had told us beforehand that they wanted an animated but civil debate, and that we didn't have to wait and only speak when we got a question, but could jump in if we had something to say. Just about every time I tried though, I found my mic was not turned on and so I didn't have the opportunity to jump in; someone was controlling the microphones and only activating them when it was our turn to speak. I don't think I'll probably complain to them about any of this stuff though; I'd like to have the opportunity to speak there again, even if/when it's not a level playing field.

Love & Liberty,
                                ((( starchild )))

Oops. Sorry that I shook my head in agreement regarding the red meat reply. I did not know it was your question, Aubrey.

Marcy

Hi Starchild, Mike, and Marcy. As expected, Starchild, you did a great job today, and I left the debate satisfied that our point of view was well presented. Wiener was totally predictable, but the good doctor was totally out in left field. If the voting public had gotten a chance to see him in action today (and especially afterwards when we were talking outside the building and his absolute elitist and really true colors came out), it might have given pause to those in support of the tax. As it was, to me, the moderator seemed reasonably fair and I didn't see any obvious bias on her part, and I thought she asked harder questions to Wiener and The Dictator. The question I submitted was what about a tax on red meat next, and while the doctor's answer was interesting (and Marcy attested to the accuracy of his answer), I didn't think he actually answered the question. It also occurred to me later, after our short discussion outside the building, that I should have asked him why didn't he try to counsel the poor folks who make such bad dietary decisions, because folks tend to respect and think highly of their doctors, so that would be an ideal opportunity to convince folks one-on-one of the benefits of a healthy lifestyle; however, I guess his answer would have been that they've consumed too much sugar already and they're beyond helping themselves so the government needs to force itself into their kitchens. Oy!

Thanks for taking on a difficult assignment and handling it so well!
Aubrey