The Daily Duh
(from the New Yorker, June 18, 2012, p. 28)
Like Bloomberg’s dumb-ass war on residential smoking, his war on soda represents yet another example of a cowardly politician pretending to address a problem by going after consumers, so it looks like they’re doing something, instead of addressing the structural issues that produce that problem in the first place. Excessive consumption of high-fructose corn syrup and sugar is a symptom of the obesity epidemic. It is not the cause of the obesity epidemic. The only way to address the problem is to change the economic structures that make the epidemic not only possible but profitable.
I have absolutely no formal training in economics, in politics, or in public policy. How is it that something so painfully obvious could escape professionally-trained experts who are, presumably, advising Bloomberg? I’m willing to bet that the answer is - it doesn’t. I’m only speculating, of course, but I’ve spent enough time in and around government to make an educated guess.
What happens is, your boss is a scary billionaire who thinks he’s a king. Your boss says to you, “I want to do something about obesity in New York City.” Now, if you’ve ever been an aide or adviser to a politician, you know that when a politician says “I want to do something about this,” what they mean isn’t “I want to fix this problem” but rather “I want to push through a policy initiative that will make it looklike I did something by the time I leave office.” No politician is interested in setting up a success story for someone else to reap - they want the advantage on their CV in real time. So, as Bloomberg’s aide, what are you going to do? Are you going to walk into his office and say “Sir, the obesity problem is a small part of a huge national economic structure that can’t possibly be addressed successfully on a local level”? No, of course not. You’re going to invent some idiotic policy that will sound and look convincing, something that lends it self to a photo op and a 24-hour news cycle in a way that “national economic structure” just doesn’t: for example, you put your politician in front of a giant jug of soda from KFC, and then put a tiny, classy size of soda in his hand, and you say “See? Any reasonable person can see the difference we’ve made! You used to be able to drink this much soda. Now you can only drink this much soda!”
If possible, you want to design your policy so that it affects as many people as possible (for statistical purposes) but also so that as few of the affected people as possible can fight back, resist, or complain. Where can you most easily find such a population? Among poor people of color, of course. Boom. The boss is happy, the aides are happy, the press is happy, the upper-middle-class white people who read the New Yorker are happy. Who isn’t happy? Oh, you know. Only the people that the initiative is supposed to be helping - but the very concept and language of the initiative makes it clear that these people don’t know what’s good for them and can’t be trusted to make their own choices in the first place, so of course they’re going to be unhappy.
In short, the ethical problem here is not unlike the aporia highlighted by Gayatri Spivak’s brilliant formula “White men are saving brown women from brown men.” You can’t create a cure if you don’t understand the cause of the disease.