Berkeley Over Bloomberg

How to win public health victories and influence people.

By Nathan Pippenger

This election season, the residents of Berkeley (where I live) are voting on “Measure D,” which would impose a one cent-per-ounce tax on many of the sugar-sweetened drinks which contribute to obesity and diabetes, including sodas, energy drinks, and presweetened teas. Mother Jones has an amusing rundown of the panicked response from the sweetened-beverage industry, which has spent nearly $2 million to fight the law and blanket the city with “No on D” ads. But Measure D has some powerful friends, including Michael Bloomberg, who earlier this month countered the “No” campaign with an initial donation of $85,000—and more, possibly, to follow. Reports of these recent contributions have, understandably, linked Bloomberg’s donation to the notorious “soda ban” he attempted while mayor of New York. But there’s a crucial difference: New York’s soda ban was a crummy idea, and Berkeley’s soda tax is a pretty good one.

When Bloomberg started advocating a big-soda ban in 2012, I encountered a surprising number of liberals who were shocked to discover that most people greeted the idea with derision. The cause seemed obvious to me: people have a visceral objection to being told, in such blunt terms, how to live their lives—even on matters as trivial as the size of soda they’re allowed to drink. (Some, I suspect, were offended precisely because the choice being governed was so trivial.) Many of Bloomberg’s defenders claimed, implausibly, that the ban was in fact no more than a mere “nudge”—a subtle change in choice architecture of the sort favored by behavioral economists. Fortunately, one of the foremost “nudge” theorists, economist Richard Thaler, took to Twitter to “state the obvious: a BAN is not a NUDGE. The opposite in fact. So don’t blame Bloomberg’s ban on large soda cups on us.”

In other words, Bloomberg’s ban didn’t alter the circumstances of your choice; it made the choice for you. Adding to the paternalism was the procedure by which the ban was approved: a vote of the eight-person New York City Health Board, whose members are appointed by the mayor. If New Yorkers wanted to impose a big-soda ban on themselves, or if the health board imposed the ban by way of executing some broader law, that’d be one thing. But both the substance of the policy and the way in which it was imposed reeked of that heavy-handed, father-knows-best style typical of Bloomberg’s tenure—a grating feature, even when you agreed with him on the substance. (As Ross Douthat memorably put it, “sexual freedom and bike lanes for me, stop and frisk and soda bans for thee”). The American right has complained for decades about the left’s alleged desire to curtail free choice and force people to comply with the state. In reality, that desire was most nakedly manifest in the administration of America’s foremost centrist.

In every respect mentioned above, Berkeley’s Measure D is superior to Bloomberg’s soda ban. It’s a tax, not a ban—which makes it far closer to a “nudge,” and not in any realistic way an attempt to control the consumption choices of individuals. It won’t be imposed by administrative fiat, but rather through a democratic process following a robust debate. And for all of these reasons, it has a better chance of avoiding backlash, gaining legitimacy and, in the long run, achieving its public health goals. That can’t be said of Bloomberg’s soda ban, which earlier this summer was killed by New York’s Court of Appeals, which ruled that the health board had overstepped its powers. The soda ban decision, the Court ruled, should have been made by the City Council, an elected legislative body. Of course, putting things up to a vote has never been Michael Bloomberg’s style. But maybe, with his help, it will work for Berkeley.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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