Allow me to start with a caveat: I'm no fan of Michelle Obama. She's a statist, or more specifically a nanny-statist, who supports her husband’s econo-moronic policies while spending huge quantities of taxpayer money to support her lavish vacations.
But even Michelle Obama can have a good day, and -- based on her op-ed in the Wall Street Journal -- Thursday was such a day.
"The Business Case for Healthier Food Options" makes a mostly free-market case for the cause she champions of increasing health and reducing obesity among children.
Bringing a smile to my face as I thought of it bringing a scowl to union leaders everywhere, Mrs. Obama spent a full paragraph complimenting Walmart:
In just the past two years, the company reports that it has cut the costs to its consumers of fruits and vegetables by $2.3 billion and reduced the amount of sugar in its products by 10%. Wal-Mart has also opened 86 new stores in underserved communities and launched a labeling program that helps customers spot healthy items on the shelf. And today, the company is not only seeing increased sales of fresh produce, but also building better relationships with its customers and stronger connections to the communities it serves.
If Walmart can do well by doing good, they should. Investors and those who value free society should hope that their actions are not being made with the expectations of losses (or of profits that would not normally represent an acceptable return on capital) and that they are not being bullied into making decisions that they wouldn't otherwise make. It will be interesting to see if Walmart ever comments on the bottom-line financial impact of the projects and stores that Mrs. Obama is complimenting.
To the extent that Walmart shows that companies can generate profits by thinking outside the box and that one need not be a martyr in order to deal with certain critics, Walmart may be blazing a trail for other companies.
A personal aside: As an Objectivist, I don't view either "helping others" or "altruism" as necessarily a valid goal in its own right. That said, if a person wants to help others because it brings him value of any sort (even if just psychological) without sacrificing his own life, that's a good thing. I do believe in individual charity and volunteerism, though not out of a sense of guilt. But government redistribution of wealth -- which it can only do through the threat of force if you don’t hand it over -- is theft cloaked in a costume of charity.
If corporations can generate profits by offering products or services that might be more beneficial to society or certain communities than what those corporations are offering now, and if they make those changes voluntarily (even if pushed by public opinion, but not by government threats), then we're all better off.
An important question is whether the first lady’s project “Let’s Move!” is perceived by those she is trying to influence as representing a well-meaning (if sometimes overbearing) pro-child activist group or as an arm of the government.
On one hand, the Let’s Move! website makes little mention of the federal government, and instead focuses on information about childhood obesity. On the other hand, Let’s Move! is a .gov site, not the .org usually associated with non-profit organizations.
The site highlights that President Obama “signed a Presidential Memorandum creating the first-ever Task Force on Childhood Obesity to conduct a review of every single programs [sic] and policies relating to child nutrition and physical activity and develop a national action plan to maximize federal resources and set concrete benchmarks toward the First Lady’s national goal.” (Leave it to this White House to capitalize “First Lady” when it is not an official title, and everyone from the AP style guide to the White House Museum says that it should not be capitalized. Of course, as with all things Obama, the rule, according to the museum, is “somewhat flexible.”)
Combining the implication that the power of the presidency and a desire to “maximize federal resources” are behind Let’s Move! with links at bottom of each of its web pages to four federal agencies and the White House, one wonders whether Walmart and other companies react to Michelle Obama’s suggestions the way Frank Nitti might have reacted to a “suggestion” from Al Capone. After all, she is the wife of the president who threatened a Democratic member of Congress: “Don’t think we’re not keeping score, brother.”
In her op-ed, Mrs. Obama describes falling childhood obesity rates in several states and, just as importantly for a free society, makes a case for why employers, in addition to parents, should voluntarily take actions designed to lessen America’s collective girth:
We spend $190 billion a year treating obesity-related health conditions like diabetes and heart disease, and a significant portion of those costs are borne by America's businesses. That's on top of other health-related costs like higher absenteeism and lower worker productivity, costs that will continue to rise and threaten the vitality of American businesses until this problem is solved once and for all.
She’s right. There, I said it. In fact, she’s right about most of what she says on this issue, and these changes should be cheered (though I have no way to judge how much change her group was actually a catalyst for):
Over the past few years, through Let's Move!...we've seen teachers bringing physical education back into schools. We've seen mayors building safe spaces where children can play, faith leaders educating their congregations about healthy eating, and parents preparing healthier meals and snacks for their kids.
But eventually, her nannyism shines through: “And we've seen Republicans and Democrats working together in Congress to pass groundbreaking legislation to improve school lunches.”
Another thing: Does Mrs. Obama really need to soak taxpayers for the cost of promoting her pet project? If the administration can shake $500,000 out of individual donors to get repeated access to the president, can’t Michelle raise some tax-deductible donations from charity-minded Americans who want to support her cause and meet the “First Lady”?
Scanning through my pocket copy of the Constitution, I have yet to find authority for Congress or any other part of the federal government to be involved with “improving school lunches.” Perhaps certain legislation is “groundbreaking” because (much) earlier Congresses recognized limits on federal authority.
Perhaps certain legislation is “groundbreaking” in much the same way that an incautious construction crew, in breaking ground for a new project, accidentally breaks a sewer line. Actually, the latter is much better than the former since the sewer lines are always repaired whereas the intrusiveness and expense of the Nanny State are rarely undone.
Speaking of malodorous politics, a long-time believer in government-as-co-parent such as Michelle Obama will have an occasional (or even frequent) bout of nannyist intellectual flatulence. But most often, at least outside of the stifling realm of King Michael Bloomberg, Slayer of the Big Gulp, the odor is soon carried away in whatever fresh breeze of liberty the country has left.
So let’s focus on the good stuff, shall we? Mrs. Obama’s encouraging greater parental involvement and responsibility in our children’s daily lives, right down to making better meals and doing more physical activity, is a welcome respite from a government that otherwise seems to believe that children are by default wards of the state, with parents generously given certain visitation rights.
Most of the first lady’s epistle is a welcome appeal to individuals and private organizations to live, eat, and act in a healthier way. As long as those she is trying to influence see her as an activist with a passion for a particular cause rather than as an implied threat from the federal government, Michelle Obama should be applauded for these efforts, though my appreciation would be far greater if she stopped sticking taxpayers with the tab.
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