Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A Trans-Fat Solution: Wal-Mart?

The Manhattan Institute's Paul Howard has a piece in today's Washington Post arguing New York City's ban on trans fats will make the city less healthy. He makes a point I've made here before -- that even from a social engineering standpoint, the trans-fat ban fails. By tricking consumers into thinking fatty junk food will suddenly become healthy, consumption will increase, and the likelihood of people adopting healthier lifestyles becomes further removed.

The real solution to improving the city's health, Howard argues, is abandoning the elitist mentality guiding Bloomberg's health jihad:
Indeed, even America's justly celebrated diversity makes it difficult to craft one health message that can speak to different ethnic groups, many of which have very different ideas about "good eats" than those that are held on Manhattan's Upper West Side. If any problem begged for a market-based solution, this would be it. And there is plenty of evidence that the market is responding. From McDonald's to Martha Stewart, companies are rushing to educate consumers on how to exercise, eat better and stay healthy.

The problem is that many of these options are out of the reach of the urban poor. In fact, if policymakers are serious about helping low-income Americans get better access to healthier and more affordable food, they need to make poor urban areas more market-friendly.

The first thing they can do is to make it easier for "big-box" stores like Wal-Mart, Costco and Pathmark to open in low-income urban areas that are often only served by small, expensive bodegas and grocery stores. For instance, a 2006 Brookings Institution study found that "higher priced, small grocery stores are concentrated in New York's lower income neighborhoods." ...

Rather than treat larger chain stores for what they are -- a godsend for low-income consumers -- local politicians (driven by local interests) have fought to keep large grocery retailers out of low-income neighborhoods. The result is that a market-driven menu, including organic and bulk options, has blossomed in the suburbs while the choices available to poor consumers have remained stagnant for decades.

Targeted deregulation, rezoning, and a willingness to confront entrenched political interests would all help expand inexpensive grocery options for poor urban consumers, leveling the health gap between them and their affluent neighbors. While trendy shoppers look to Whole Foods for organic produce, low-income shoppers can buy the same vegetables at Wal-Mart.

Over two hundred years ago, Adam Smith wrote in the Wealth of Nations that market competition, by driving down prices, disproportionately benefits the poor, who spend more of their income on such necessities as housing and food. Policymakers (and too many affluent urban voters) take market competition for granted, precisely because they never have to worry about finding healthful food options.

Rather than foisting patronizing policies upon the poor, policymakers across the country should focus on giving better market options to the least advantaged.
Let's hope the Post's editors actually read the piece, seeing as they're calling for the same nonsense to be foisted upon their city.

1 comment:

Karol said...

Whew, you meant Washington Post. :-)