Marcus: Bloomberg's super-size soda edict feeds public anxieties

By Ruth Marcus, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

Published:

 
photoRuth Marcus is a columnist for The Washington Post. Email: ruthmarcus@washpost.com.

Judging the wisdom of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposed ban on super-size sugary sodas depends on where you draw the line between nudge government and noodge government. Nudge government makes sense. It harnesses human nature to steer citizens to smarter choices.

Higher prices reduce consumption, so government wisely taxes products — such as tobacco — that it disfavors. But nudge government need not be nearly so directive. People take what they see first, so if schools set up cafeterias with the fruit and salad up front, and the chocolate cake at the end of the line, they encourage children to eat healthier lunches.

Such simple changes in "choice architecture," as Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write in "Nudge," can "move people in directions that will make their lives better."

Noodge government is nudge government run amok. The word "noodge," from the Yiddish nudyen, to pester, is both noun and verb: Stop noodging me. You are such a noodge. Noodging also is like food allergies; the more you are exposed, the less tolerant you become, until the most minimal encounter can trigger a full-blown attack.

This helps explain the super-size reaction to Bloomberg's super-size edict. It arrives as the United States has become, for many people, the embodiment of Noodge Nation. First they came for our incandescent light bulbs, then they made us buy health insurance. Soon the compulsory broccoli-buying will commence.

My initial reaction to Bloomberg's move was a big gulp — don't worry, Mr. Mayor, lower case — followed by ambivalent acceptance. Sugary drinks are not the only culprit in the obesity epidemic but, according to the Institute of Medicine, are the single largest contributor of added calories to the American diet. Other tactics could be more effective: a soda tax or barring the use of food stamps to buy sugary drinks. But Bloomberg's push for those approaches failed, so a limit on portion sizes could have a modest chilling effect without a huge downside. After all, no one who is determined to drink more than 16 ounces of Mountain Dew will be prevented from chugging away.

In short, it seemed like a nudge. But listen to Bloomberg, and you can hear the hectoring voice of the noodge: "Bold actions to protect the public health always stir controversy at first," he asserted in USA Today. "Smoke-free bars and restaurants, trans-fat restriction and calorie posting in restaurants were all met with skepticism but now are widely popular in New York City."

Bloomberg's Mayor-Knows-Best paternalism feeds -- pardon the pun -- into a broader public anxiety about overbearing government. The bank and auto bailouts, the massive stimulus package, and sweeping new regulations of health care and the financial industry -- all justified, by the way -- have contributed to a public sense that the era of big government is back with a vengeance.

A new poll from the Pew Research Center found 62 percent agreeing that "the federal government controls too much of our daily lives," up from 55 percent in 2009. Such chafing at government control, more than any rational objection, drives opposition to the individual mandate to obtain health insurance.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is cannily exploiting this fear of government as Leviathan. "Under President Obama, bureaucrats are insinuating themselves into every corner of the economy," he warned the National Rifle Association.

Bloomberg's intervention might be good for New Yorkers' waistlines, but it arrives at a particularly fraught moment: on the verge of the Supreme Court ruling on the health care mandate, in the midst of the election and at a moment when the public might be tempted just to throw the noodges out.