May 10th, 2012
04:02 PM ET

Letters to the President #1207: 'A dangerous corner'

Reporter's Note: Each day since he was inaugurated, I have written a letter to President Obama. I mean every single day. Weekends. Holidays. During blizzards, droughts, floods, and locusts. Well, we haven’t had locusts in my neighborhood during that time, but you get my point.

Dear Mr. President,

Your statement in favor of gay marriage yesterday got me to thinking about the intersection of personal decisions and public policy. It’s always been a dangerous corner where ideologues and zealots of all types hang out in their leather jackets, and it doesn’t seem to matter whether they approach from Personal Freedom Street or Public Good Avenue; they all have an equal tendency to act like thugs once they arrive in sufficient numbers.

They can also cause some strange clashes.

For example, I was listening to a long interview on the radio this morning which seemed to originate on Public Good Avenue. It was about obesity, and one of the salient talking points was this idea of slapping a hefty tax on sugared soft drinks. The argument is that we can help kids get a better, healthier start on life if we make it more expensive for them to buy these products.

But forgive me, if I can’t help but see this as one of those “solutions” just tailor made for political calamity. No matter how well intentioned, it smacks of the very “nanny state” approach that will make the residents of Personal Freedom Street go wild. “Let me see if I get this,” they will say. “At the same time that some people are arguing we really should legalize marijuana..for the public good…you want to outlaw sugar…for the public good?”

I’m sure the folks in the first group are well intentioned, but I also get where the people in the second are coming from. For example, I eat scads of things loaded with sugar. (Not soft drinks, strangely enough. Although I drink them by the gallon, I developed a taste for diet sodas years ago and now really don’t care for those with actual sugar.) I not only like sweet things, but since I run massive amounts I can afford to eat them. Should I be forced to pay a premium on products I like just because other people don’t know how to take care of themselves?

I realize the economic chain at work here: obesity leads to unnecessary illness, which leads to higher medical costs, which leads to higher insurance costs, and on and on and on until all of us end of paying for it anyway.

Still, it seems to me that bringing back robust physical education in schools would be just as effective and strike more directly at the problem; after all, just charging everyone more for sugary sodas, while it may discourage some consumption, will not stop it. (See: youth consumption of alcohol and cigarettes) Whereas requiring every single child to exercise vigorously for an hour each day would, I suspect, have a real impact. Because even if the sugar tax worked, what about bacon? And cheese? And bread? And lunch meats? And all the other things that can be inhaled by kids who are intent of eating badly? What are we going to do about them?

In the end, I think what people need to start doing is spending more time looking for solutions that don’t come to the intersection of Public Good and Personal Freedom looking for a fight, but instead looking for win people over to the wisdom of a reasonable plan.

Speaking of exercise, I’m feeling kind of juiced to take a longish run this weekend. Do you want to come along? You must have a little nervous energy to burn after a week like this. Give me a call if you’re interested.


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