Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Tax Cars, Subsidize Bikes

Some "foodie" named Mark Bittman wrote an article in the New York Times calling for the government (because we all know they don't have enough to do lately!) to levy sin taxes on pop and processed foods, the building blocks of the Standard American Diet. The way we eat makes him SAD. He proposes using this tax money to found a program to make healthy food more widely available and teach people how to cook it. Which is nice in theory, except that these things never work out as intended and that revenue will go where it always does, a tax cut for the top 10% of Americans.

The comparison to anti-tobacco programs is a shaky one at best. The link between smoking and cancer is direct; the link between obesity and diet, not so much. (Otherwise, I'd weigh four hundred pounds! Seriously, my diet sucks and I should probably do something about it eventually.) The link between obesity and ill health, again, there's a link but it's not a direct one in the way that smoking and cancer are directly linked. And fast food is still food, which is something you need to keep living. It's definitely not the best food, but nothing pisses me off quite as much as food fascists who smugly declare that Taco Bell isn't food.

But you know what's a better analogy? Driving. Just like eating, transportation is a necessity. And just like the government has subsidized corn and soybean manufacturers for more and for longer than we ever should have, it has also subsidized and bailed out oil companies and car makers. We've bent our infrastructure around the almighty car, just as much as we've bent our diet around what's cheapest and easiest. Just like some people in the inner city live in food deserts, people in Houston or South Podunk live in transportation deserts, wherein car-less transportation is only theoretically possible, forcing people to chain themselves to expensive, dangerous steel cages whether they want to or not. Even exercising can be impossible in those kind of places if you don't have access to a car. I grew up in a suburb/small town where there weren't even any sidewalks to walk or jog on, and where if you wanted to do some hardcore exercising, you had to join a gym, which required the cage! That's some vicious circle, dude, and it's no wonder that lots of people just stay home. They've spent too much time in the cage that day already.

And that's not even getting into the health effects of driving! Did you know that sitting will kill you? How about commuting? It seems to me that the car is at least as bad for you as fast food, and possibly worse. So why single out food?

In Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization (which is awesome, by the way), Jeff Rubin talks extensively about the gross, egregious subsidies that our government uses to keep the price of oil lower than it has any right to be. He also talks about the sky-high subsidies that developing nations like India and China are giving their drivers as a way to usher them into modernity, even as the modern world is realizing that car culture is not long-term sustainable.

I picture a world in which Americans (and Canadians and Australians and Indians and the Chinese) are forced to pay the real cost for their oil, a cost which includes carbon offsets because that's an integral part of oil use. A world where "fitness" is not something you do after work or on your lunch break, because everything you do requires physical effort, whether you're walking to the store or biking to work. And although I'm not any kind of expert, I sorta think that emphasizing physical activity and making our communities a good place to walk and bike would do a hell of a lot more good for our collective physical and mental health than slapping French fries out of someone's hand, saying "no!," and telling them what they should be eating instead. (Fun fact: Poor people already know this. They are not dumb.)

And guess what? A society where people don't drive as much, and don't import as much food as they used to due to carbon taxes being taken seriously, is by necessity a locavore society except for the upper 10% of income earners who can afford to buy fancy imported Big Macs and Kobe beef. My dream of high carbon/oil taxes isn't too dissimilar from Bittman's dream of taxing "bad" foods, except that I'm cutting to the source of the problem, not the effect.

So, don't look down on me for eating poorly, and attempt to change my behavior, not unless you're prepared to turn the camera right back on yourself and admit that you, too, benefit from Standard American Transportation (SAT... this is also an apt acronym!). Fast food, and the people who enjoy it or who see it as a necessary evil due to living in food deserts, is an easy target. But make no mistake: what got us to this point is globalization and the deceptively cheap oil that makes it possible. Sin taxing fast food is a surface-level "fix" that allows foodies to sneer at fatties without doing anything to solve structural problems. Let he who is without sin cast the first, uh, tax.

1 comment:

  1. This is a wonderful posting! Thanks. I am copying it to many friends. I live in Toronto which boasts the least subsidized transit system in N.A. (possibly the entire world)and which just elected a mayor that attacks cycling and defends autos. Even with this, we have lots of cyclists and 26% of workers commute daily on our system. Personally, I'd like more. My idea is to convert all public thoroughfares to pedestrian, cycle, and transit use all at once and tell the car companies to go and build new roads for their products and users.