Is A Nanny State "Mary Poppins" Or "Miss Hannigan"

IT ALL STARTED WITH JUNK food. As I write this, I’m a few days past a workus-interruptus shouting match with another commentator, Bob Messenger, who runs an online newsletter called “The Morning Cup” for food industry executives.

As the result of a back-and-forth over a study that compared the relative addictiveness of junk food and heroin, Bob and I developed an epistolary disagreement about the role of taxes and regulation in the food and beverage industry. He thinks they’re the tools of a government that exists only to perpetuate itself on the backs of consumers and industry while limiting choice and profit, while I see them as constructs that allow businesses to exist and operate without causing themselves or consumers undue harm. I don’t mind the nanny. Bob hates her.

Here’s some of my thinking:

While I think a healthy skepticism is important when looking at new research, you and I are both used to seeing enough industry spin to know that the same kind of skepticism should apply – in spades – to anything thrown out by the other side…. But, again, to have a knee-jerk anti-government – and anti-science – reaction to any new study can be read as just as anti-business as overaggressive taxation. After all, lots of research-based regulation that you might claim beheads business also allows it to flourish: research shows that saccharine causes cancer? We fight that as anti-business… until we find that we can make more off of aspartame, ace-K, and Stevia. Science indicates pesticides and antibiotics might be bad for our crops and chickens? Where’s my Whole Foods… or my Wal-Mart, for that matter?

As for these studies taking away our freedom to make our own choices, that’s also a red herring, conflating the creation of informed choice with lack of choice. If the government took tobacco away, instead of taxing it, that’s when you’d really be losing choice. If the government took liquor away, instead of taxing it, that’s when you’d really be losing choice; it’s easy to make the tax collector the villain – until you get drop-foot from your bathtub gin. Economic effect should certainly be taken into account when making new laws or regulations – but so should social and societal impact. These things need to be balanced, and science is one of the things that informs all sides. After all, you don’t want Kraft being the sole voice in deciding what you can eat on Friday any more than you want the government – or the Church, for that matter. Do these things change with the times? Absolutely – but that’s why regulations and laws evolve as well.

I’m not saying it’s all good, or that it’s all easy. I’m just saying that if you’re scared of the nanny state, you should ask yourself who you’d rather have looking out for you: Mary Poppins, or Miss Hannigan?

Here’s some of Bob’s:

Now, like I said, I’m not against research. But, c’mon, there is so much research out there that is dubbed “inconclusive” and requiring further study, that it is often quite easy to be skeptical of the validity of a lot of these studies. I just find it peculiar that this particular study equating an addiction to junk food with an addiction to heroin, is coming out at precisely the same time that the government is cranking up its attacks on the food and beverage industry, and threatening all sorts of punitive reprisals.

As for me being “scared” of the nanny state? Damned right I’m scared of the nanny state. I’m scared of any government that wants to regulate our behavior, at home or in the free marketplace, either by laws or taxes. I’ve been to China, I’ve been to Cuba (via Jamaica), I have seen the worse of the nanny state culture in my time, and, no, we’re nowhere near there… yet! But we are on that road when we allow government to aggressively regulate and tax decisions of choice that used to be ours to make. Take soda. If I want to drink a Coca-Cola, why should I be punished for it by paying some stupid punitive sugar tax that has nothing to do with protecting me, but everything to do with creating more tax revenues for our bloated state and federal governments? Unless you want me to believe that government really is a caring, sensitive entity that only wants to shield us from our own flaws?

Now, I don’t have the space here to repeat everything that went back and forth – and I hate that I have to boil the arguments down to a couple of paragraphs worth of excerpts apiece (you can see them all at www.morningcup.net). And I’m certainly not looking for the last word here. Bob and I don’t have anything personal going on, we’ve just got differences regarding the intent of government.

Here’s the point: there are some hot-button issues out there on regulatory benchmarks. The FDA, FTC, Congress, they’re all sniffing around the industry, and these are going to affect the quality and composition of the products we see in the future. And while I’ve got my opinion and Bob’s got his, there’s a great opportunity for you to help refine your own during an upcoming event, BevNET Live. We’ve got a panel called Current Issues in the Beverage Business that will be filled with folks much more informed than either Bob or myself on the topics of our era. And there will be a whole lot of other very important discussions on strategy, investment, sales, marketing, and the whole scope of the business. We’d love to see all of you there, in Manhattan, on June 7 and 8. Heck, I’d even love it if Bob came, too.