Friday, August 10, 2012

Thinner lab rats?

The New Yorker's James Surowiecki ("Downsizing Supersize") looks to behavioral economics to find something kind to say about Mayor Bloomberg's proposed soda ban.
 ... perhaps the most cunning aspect of Bloomberg’s proposed ban is that it would function as a kind of stealth tax on consumption, while leaving average-sized sodas untouched. Currently, on a per-ounce basis, large drinks are much cheaper than smaller ones—which encourages people to supersize. The soda ban should shift this. Two sixteen-ounce servings are bound to be more expensive than one thirty-two-ounce serving, which creates another disincentive to drink more.

If all this sounds as if New York’s soda consumers were about to become the subjects of an elaborate social-science experiment designed to reshape their behavior and desires, well, that’s kind of true. But then we’ve been the subject of just such an experiment, run by beverage and fast-food companies, for the past forty years. If Bloomberg has his way, we may start feeling like we’re white rats in a maze, but at least there’s a good chance we’ll be thinner rats.

But who wants to be the rat in any mayor's lab?  That's exactly the "nudge" problem.  It gives politicians another lever.  I do not like "soft paternalism" -- or any other kind.

I know there is the perennial externalities argument: fewer obese folks, lower health costs and benefits all around.  But there has to be a cost-benefit analysis to back this up.

How much effect would the ban really have?  How big would the dollar savings really be?  In light of the easy access to cheap sugar highs in our world, to ask the question is to answer it.