Wonks Propose Taxing Calories

It seems America has a love affair with social engineering through the tax code. From “sin taxes” on things like booze and tobacco to tax deductions for things like buying a hybrid vehicle or installing solar panels, the politicians like to pull financial strings to manipulate our behavior.

The latest idea in that vein is a proposed tax on calories to combat America’s obesity problem which is a crisis in the eyes of some:

Abigail Okrent, an Agriculture Department researcher, and Julian Alston, a professor at the University of California at Davis, have compared various options: a fat tax, a sugar tax, a calorie tax and a general food tax.

“A calorie tax would get you the biggest bang for the buck; it’s the most direct way of taxing obesity,” Okrent said.

There are at least a couple of problems with that option, though. Nutritionists would prefer to distinguish between “good” and “bad” calories, and taxing calories might push the price of staples beyond the reach of the destitute.

“It’s probably not politically feasible,” she said.

Twenty years ago I’m sure many thought our national war on tobacco wasn’t politically feasible, and yet here we are. Let’s not underestimate the inexorable rising tide of the nanny state.

But I actually agree with the premise of the tax. A lot of our problems with the over-consumption of food have to do with how cheap food has become. Food prices should go up, but we don’t need a tax to accomplish that.

We need to stop passing farm bills. We need to stop subsidizing food production in general. It would be absurd to, on one side of the policy ledger, spend untold billions on “cheap food” agriculture subsidies and programs only to try and inflate food prices with a calorie tax on the other side of the ledger.

Besides, taxes should be about raising revenue in an efficient manner, not manipulating behavior.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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