More rhetoric on restricting the choice of the poor

I see that leading Stuff today is an article on New Zealand’s “obesity epidemic”, and how we must changes some things because we are “killing ourselves”.  The policy suggestions are:

In a report published today, the association calls for drastic cures for the bulge, including taxing or minimum prices for sugary drinks, restricting food advertising aimed at children, and taking fast food out of schools.

I’ll be honest, I can see a reasonable justification for everything except the minimum price.  I can see a good justification for changing policies around children, based on habit formation.  This isn’t the point.  The point I’m touching on involves the inappropriateness of quotes like this:

Otago University health researcher Professor Jim Mann said he supported the report’s recommendations, particularly a fizzy drink tax. Kiwis were becoming so big that they were almost blind to obesity. “Parents can’t even identify when their children are overweight or obese. Obesity is fast becoming normal.”

New Zealand’s poverty rates, particularly among children, and cheap access to fatty tasty foods were largely to blame, as was a lack of political will. “There is this obsession with the nanny state, that we shouldn’t be telling people what to do.”

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Top 10 on Global Warming

So allowed me to pop up another one of these “Top 10″ links things – where I blatantly use more than ten links to make some arbitrary point about some arbitrary subject.  This time, global warming – go over and give it a look.

However, there are a few links that I missed.

An excellent post by Eric Crampton from 2010, considering NZ policy choices.  I hear he is doing the next Top 10, so it will be interesting to see if he expands on this!  He discusses the idea of what policy we should put in place, given the fact that the lack of an international agreement removes the “externality” argument from play.  Ideas such as investment in technology (risky, with high potential reward, strategy) and investment in adaption and insurance become much more important here – it is an honest conversation we need to have!

Also, the links in this tweet:

Our views, and expectations of, global coordination are an essential part of what is “right” policy here.  Let’s try to be honest about that.  Yes, we can decry the impact on future generations, and we can do things to signal our concern (that is why I support a tax, even though it does nothing to the chance of a GWE).  But these issues are too important to only be controlled by the tyranny of ‘good intentions’, without considering what the actual future impact will be – if we actually believe that global coordination is fraught, we instead need to think about ways to coordination nationally to insure against/limit the impact where appropriate.  Ranting instead will just see us sacrificing future generations of New Zealander’s to make ourselves sound “moral” now ;)

Productivity in the UK and NZ

I see that Patrick Nolan has an article in Public Finance talking about UK and New Zealand productivity.  Go read it, but come back here to comment as they don’t seem to have a comment system.

As we are a NZ audience, I’ll quote this bit:

While New Zealand faces different challenges, its experience can throw light on the UK’s situation. OECD research recently published by the New Zealand Productivity Commission has shown that the country has good resources – investment in physical capital and average years of schooling are broadly consistent with other countries – and policy settings. It is one of the easiest countries in the world in which to set up a business and its tax and regulation regimes are often seen as world class.

Indeed, the OECD estimates that New Zealand should have GDP per capita 20% above the OECD average. But its productivity performance means it is 20% below. In short, New Zealand poses a real challenge for standard prescriptions for what countries should do to lift their productivity performance.

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On free-riders and externalities

Today I wrote a brief post on the Green announcement of a carbon tax.  I do support the carbon tax, but just wanted to raise some specific issues to think about.

However, a number of people on twitter were unhappy with me saying that, without Kyoto, we didn’t have an externality here – and I think their point is worth discussing.  I think a key issue here is the “group” involved and how we think of policy.  Hopefully by having a brief discussion here I can help to clarify what I was talking about in the prior post.

If this brief rundown isn’t sufficient, I don’t have anything more to say unless you add a comment here with a new framework – I’ve been as clear about my framework as I can be and really need to get back to work ;)

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Greens carbon tax

I see that the Greens have announced a carbon tax to replace the emissions trading scheme (with details and analysis by BERL here).  The authors of TVHE have long been a fan of  this type of switch when discussing the issue (eg here and here).  And the idea of pricing an externality and using it to lower other tax burdens is a good one.  Note:  John Small also discusses here, with specific discussion about dairy.  Aaron Schiff discusses here.

So it should be unsurprising that I broadly agree with the aim Green party policy here, and this should be kept in mind while reading my post.

However, TVHE isn’t about saying what policies I think are good or bad – it is about considering trade-offs and thinking about the details of policy when we can.  In that context, there are a few points I must raise.

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The rhetoric of restricting the choice of the poor

Via Gareth Morgan on twitter I spotted the following post from the University of Otago Public Health blog.

The money quote:

They found that the biggest impact of a minimum price policy was on “harmful” drinkers in the lowest income quintile (7.6% reduction in alcohol), whereas the impact on harmful drinkers in the highest income quintile was modest (1%). Consumption fell by 1.6% among “responsible” drinkers in the lowest income quintile. That is, the impact is concentrated among low-income harmful drinkers.

Moreover, this Lancet paper found that “Individuals in the lowest socioeconomic group (living in routine or manual worker households and comprising 41·7% of the sample population) would accrue 81·8% of reductions in premature deaths and 87·1% of gains in terms of quality-adjusted life-years.” In the public health field, we seldom see policy packages that have such a notable impact on reducing health inequalities. [** Further comment at end].

The gains come from putting a minimum price of alcohol that prices the poor out from consumption.  Consumption that has a benefit – something that is ignored constantly.

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