When the president announced that Michelle Obama would be heading up an anti-obesity task force last summer, most of us shrugged. Most presidents like to send their wives off on a health-related mission of some sort. Laura Bush worked closely with heart disease and breast cancer charities. Nancy Reagan lectured children on the dangers of drugs. Hillary Clinton tried to burn down the entire American health care system.
In retrospect, we probably should have been a little more concerned. In October, Mrs. Obama confessed that, as recently as two years ago, Sasha's and Malia's meals had been chock full of fast food and pizza. When the Obama family pediatrician told Michelle that this wasn't doing her daughters' health any favors, the First Lady's jaw hit the table. "I was shocked," she said.
The same woman who was floored by the news that Wendy's Baconators are unhealthy was assigned to spearhead the government's anti-obesity policies. That probably should have set off a few alarm bells.
Now we have the fruits of Michelle Obama's labor, so to speak. On May 11 the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity released its official report, and it's a treasure trove of technocratic, finger-wagging nanny statism. The report purports to "solve" the child obesity crisis within a generation, and it's not kidding around. If the government acts on the task force's advice, we're about to be force-fed a five-course meal of do-gooder collectivism.
How to crack the obesity nut? First, make Ronald McDonald a fugitive of the health police. The report frets at length over junk food being advertised to children. It cites a study where preschoolers were shown a piece of broccoli and a chocolate bar. When asked which they would rather have, 78% of the tykes chose the candy. But when an Elmo sticker was placed on the broccoli, 28% of them shifted their votes.
Obviously then, sweeping change is needed. The report recommends that food and beverage companies be given a chance to more strictly regulate their commercials. Television stations are also encouraged to lower the volume on or ban outright junk foods ads. Then if none of that works, the FCC is to be sent in to regulate and censor advertisements -- maybe ban them outright as with cigarette spots.
The report also recommends that food companies be forced to display nutrition facts on the front of food packages rather than the back. The FDA already saluted on that one and is hard at work crafting a regulation.
Government nannies are annoying and unbearable, but their saving grace is that they usually exist at the state level. The worst finger-waggers are usually city mayors like New York's Michael Bloomberg and San Francisco's Gavin Newsom. Consequently, America is an awkward patchwork of nannyism with rules that differ across state and even town lines. In Connecticut where I used to live, all forms of alcohol were sold only at package stores. In my new home state of Virginia, beer is available in the checkout line at Bed, Bath, and Beyond while hard liquor is sold exclusively at state-owned shops that resemble World War II bunkers. It's a strange system, but it sort of works. If I don't like it, I'll always have another state to escape to, as Ronald Reagan might have said.
The anti-obesity plan would begin to federalize the entire food division of the nanny state. The task force recommends that the government look into slapping national taxes on junk food and subsidizing fruits and vegetables. The states' initiatives, in the First Lady's view, haven't succeeded in socially engineering the people enough: "Recent research indicates that current state-level tax rates on soda purchases have had a relatively small impact on adolescent and adult weights. But a higher tax rate would likely have a greater impact on consumption, as evidenced by the effects of the substantial rise in tobacco taxes."
Think of it as a VAT for Dr. Pepper. The report goes on to recommend an astonishing 70% increase in the number of fruits and vegetables in the food supply by 2020.
Then there's the problem of food deserts -- not "desserts" but "deserts" -- and perhaps the crowning jewel of the ridiculousness of the whole anti-obesity initiative. Food deserts are defined as areas of the country that don't have access to a grocery store. The feds consider you stranded in a food desert if you live -- quoting from the report -- "more than a mile from a supermarket."
Already, $400 million has been allotted in the president's upcoming budget to tackle this pressing problem by subsidizing new grocery stores and food delivery programs. Michelle Obama declares that she wants all food deserts eliminated in seven years.
Woe is me, apparently. I live about three-quarters of a mile from a grocery store, according to a quick odometer test. But my apartment complex is literally surrounded by the forces of darkness -- 7-Eleven, Chili's, Legal Seafoods, McDonald's, Subway, Dunkin Donuts, Potbelly's, Hamburger Hamlet, Sbarro's, Cosi's, Chipotle, a liquor store, and several bars. Forget deserts, I'm living in a food post-apocalyptic hellscape.
According to the report, "Residents with better access to supermarkets and limited access to convenience stores tend to have healthier diets and lower levels of obesity." And yet, I'm very healthy and trim. What's going on here?
After running several studies funded by a $13 billion stimulus grant, I determined that my health is a direct result of my self-control. According to my data, limiting portion sizes, buying junk food in moderation, and exercising have all helped me avoid obesity. Further, if I ever become obese, increasing these activities on my own time will help reduce my weight to normal levels.
Regrettably, my conclusions will probably be lost on bean-counting government technocrats who think building a Stop and Shop in the middle of the Everglades will solve our obesity problem. In 120 pages of Michelle's report, there's almost no mention of personal responsibility.
Instead, there's the ghostly presence of the man behind the curtain at the president's regulatory Oz, Cass Sunstein. Sunstein has theorized that people are incapable of making good decisions on their own. Instead, they need to be "nudged" by government regulations and incentives into choosing well. He writes, "[O]ne thing is clear: a system of limitless individual choices with respect to communications is not necessarily in the interest of citizenship and self-government, and efforts to reduce the resulting problems ought not to be rejected in freedom's name." Michelle's report would have the government commandeering those choices to nudge people to eat healthier. It even discusses the "choice architecture" of school cafeterias, a phrase Sunstein coined.
This is the preferred method of the government nanny: Rather than letting the individual clean up his own problems, fiddle with his surrounding environment to force him to conform to the nanny's definition of good. If all this makes you throw up your hands in despair, rest assured that it's been approved by grey suits in Washington armed with scientific studies who just want to make you a better person. They know better than you, after all.