Paul Tullis's Grim Tidings

Bitter musings on politics and policy

Archive for February 2010

Obesity industry: 1 Democracy: 0

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Score another victory for free speech.

The L.A. Times reported Sunday that the beverage industry, led by Coke and Pepsi, has successfully quashed efforts in Congress to help pay for their contribution to the nation’s obesity epidemic with a tax on the nutrition-free products they sell.

Only months ago, public health advocates thought the tax would be a natural for congressional Democrats looking for revenue to fund expanded health insurance coverage. The soaring costs of treating ailments related to excess weight — including diabetes and heart disease — added urgency to the issue.

But the White House staff reviewing funding options never embraced the idea even after President Obama expressed interest last summer. A key congressional committee, after initially seeming receptive, ended up refusing to consider it. Several minority advocacy groups, including some committed to fighting obesity, lined up against the tax after years of receiving financial support from the industry.

So with the same astroturf strategy employed by the oil industry to sow doubt about climate change–fund a group fronting as a grassroots effort offering bogus science to sow doubt about the life-threatening effects of the product you sell–another big business group kills the public interest so it can go on reaping profits.

If corporations are people too, Coke and Pepsi are laughing all the way to the bank over this one.

In the past couple of decades, groups receiving funding from ExxonMobil and the like have convinced journalists of the need for “balance” in discussion about issues over which there is little or no debate, such as the human contribution to global warming, and consequently appeared in the media to debunk decades of independent research by many of the world’s best scientists. “Climate change” is a term invented by Republican pollster Frank Lutz which the Consumer Energy Alliance–which has nothing to do with consumers–and the Institute for Energy Research–whose research results are pre-oradained by their polluting funders–adopted as a harmless-sounding alternative.

It was a brilliant investment on the oil industry’s part, as the percentage of the American public recognizing the danger of climate…um, whoops, global warming…has diminished as its astroturf groups have grown more prominent, and meaningful legislation to reduce emissions is now stalled in the Senate (to put it optimistically).

This time, in a lobbying and PR effort well detailed by reporters Tom Hamburger and Kim Geiger, Coke and Pepsi went one step further. They not only erected the populist-sounding “Americans Against Food Taxes” to speak their case (never mind the only Americans they were representing were corporations, not people; and the tax was to be on drinks, not food) but funded existing groups supposedly acting in the interest of Latinos and placed industry representatives on their boards.

Using the argument that higher food and drink taxes would unfairly burden the poor, the coalition recruited a bevy of Latino groups, among them the Hispanic Alliance for Prosperity Institute, the National Hispana Leadership Institute and the League of United Latin American Citizens…

“Why in the world would a Hispanic health advocacy group do this?” asked Kelly Brownell, the director of Yale University’s Rudd Center on Food Policy and Obesity.

A stunning chart in the Times’ print edition shows a rise from about $4,000,000 in spending by Coke, Pepsi, and their trade group the American Beverage Asssn. on lobbyists in 2008, to $37,500,000–nearly a tenfold rise–in 2009.

It sure paid off. Although Yale estimates

that a penny-an-ounce tax would induce a 23% drop in consumption, and the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that a smaller tax could raise $50 billion over 10 years

the Times reported, industry’s success at misrepresenting available science and attacking some of the most respected nutritionists in the country as biased overcame such facts as what UCLA researchers found:

adults who drink one or more sodas per day are 27% more likely than non-soda drinkers to be overweight or obese.

This is a clear example of why the Supreme Court decision in January, unleashing corporate cash into the political process, is so dangerous: The ones with the most money get what they want, even though it’s bad for the citizens.

Soda is bad for people’s health (see the UCLA study). Taxing stuff that is bad for people discourages people from consuming the bad stuff (see: cigarettes). Fewer bad things happen to people as a result (diabetes, heart disease). What could be a more obvious case of the public interest?

Not in America, though, land of unfettered free speech for pieces of paper.

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Is Osama bin Laden the new Ronald Reagan?

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Conservatives like to crow about how Ronald Reagan won the Cold War by increasing military spending to such an extent that the Soviet Union couldn’t keep up, and went broke as a result. Historical shifts on the order of magnitude of the collapse of the Soviet system are usually a little more complicated than that, but for the sake of the argument let’s accept it, for a moment, as true.

Is al Qaeda doing the same thing to the US as the US did to the USSR?

Take a look at Pres. Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal 2011, then meet me back here in a sec.

See that giant portion of pink, in the circle on the right, labeled “defense”? Notice how spending on defense is greater than all other nondiscretionary spending combined?

From 1990-2002, the US enjoyed the “peace dividend” as a result of the end of the Cold War, with defense spending decreasing from $427bn in 1989 to $307bn in 2001 (including several years below $300bn). With inflation, that’s a decrease of 48%.

From 2002 to 2011, it’s gone from $328bn to a staggering $744bn! Even with inflation, that’s an increase of 95%.

The defense spending by this country is now greater than the next 14 countries combined, for 41.5% of the world total (based on 2008 figures). The rise began in the fiscal year following 9/11, and continues unabated today.

The military’s dominance of our budget it now such that even as sage and experienced a reporter as the New York Times‘s David Sanger is unable to contemplate the possibility of its diminution. On Tuesday, he wrote:

Unless miraculous growth, or miraculous political compromises, creates some unforeseen change over the next decade, there is virtually no room for new domestic initiatives for Mr. Obama or his successors.

For real? No room at all? How about closing several dozen of the hundreds of military bases we operate in over 100 countries? Bringing home the men and women of our armed forces–gay and straight–from a pointless war in Afghanistan? (Why is the right of Afghan girls to go to school more important than the right of American boys and girls not to die, alone, thousands of miles from home?)

I’ve seen what the drone operators see as they remotely fly UAVs over Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, and I’ve seen how much progress a ground war–which we were told six weeks after it started was over, yet continues today, 8 years later–has made. I feel confident that drones are the way to go. If the Taliban so much as pitches a tent we can see it and blow it up. Tent-pitching in Afghanistan, under this strategy, will be quickly eradicated.

Now I’m really going to generate some comments: How about we actually think about changing the policies that are pissing these people off, who send kids on airplanes to kill us?

I realize that there are many pseudo-Islamist radicals who will never be satisfied because they’re fucking psychos, but I also think that if we enforced international law in the Occupied Territories (i.e., eradicated the settlements and let the Palestinians build a functioning state, or fail trying); stopped killing civilians with abandon in Af-Pak; swore off starting illegal wars; and directed our limited resources to such things as keeping nuclear bombs out of the hands of unstable leaders and keeping college students with explosive briefs from getting visas, we would both have a lot fewer America-haters to contend with and a lot greater ability to deal with those that remained.

So this is the cost of an undeclared war against a group of a few hundred men who live in caves, whose preferred personnel carrier is the Toyota pickup truck, and who do battle with college students carrying explosives in their pants:


For this, we are bankrupting the nation? The future is laughing at us.

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