Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The problem with the EU is that it is the same as the UK

Endorsing and responding to this and this.

Do not throw at me the policies and structures of the EU. I want the EU to have better, more liberal policies and better, more democratic structures. This is the same as what I want for the UK.

The reason the EU doesn't have these things is because it is dominated by socialist and conservative politics; the same as the UK.

And yet I will not cry and take my ball home, and demand secession from the UK and the EU. Our interests lie in engaging with the politics of both and working to make them better.

Yet just as my support for the localism agenda in the UK does not make me a secessionist, it should be possible to have a sober debate about EU competencies without it becoming a proxy for the hare-brained withdrawal agenda.

Our best interests are served by a strong and democratic EU, acting on trade, the environment, cross-border crime, security and in the international community. The entrenchment of democracy in Eastern Europe is unlikely to have happened without the EU. And much of it might easily have fallen back into Russia's sphere of influence. A quadrillion pounds of defence spending could not have achieved this kind of progress for democracy and the rule of law, which is in all our interests.

This should not be taken to imply support for any particular socialist or conservative policy adopted by the EU at the behest of the conservative and socialist national governments that control it. Given this political dominance it is a small miracle that the policies of the EU (or UK) are as good as they are.

No. The demands for localism and democratic reform are not predicated on the belief that liberals will suddenly win all the arguments and all the elections under a more democratic system. Rather that politicians of whatever party will be more accountable to the people and will therefore make better decisions.

Eurosceptics of left and right, in common with the SNP have a very quaint belief that the political challenges they face can be attributed to some evil outside force, and if only "they" could be got rid of then "we" can put things right. The use of "they" and "we" is pure emotional button-pushing, and quite arbitrary. Yet the challenges in Scotland are not that different to those in the rest of the UK, nor those in the UK very different to the rest of the continent. Scapegoating the other is cheap and dangerous politics.

So what I am advocating here is not a compromise between the Europhiles and Eurosceptics. I am uncompromisingly in favour of the EU, and of a particular liberal democratic vision of it, and against the policies of socialists and conservatives that stand in the way of that vision; against those policies when they are implemented at the EU level just as much as when they are implemented elsewhere. This means campaigning against the EU "government of the day" in the same way that we would campaign against a similarly wrong UK or local government.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Axe the fat tax

The idea of an extra tax on high-fat foods has been in the news lately, since David Cameron suggested that the idea was worth looking at. Now I've argued before against activism through the tax system. I think most of the time it creates too much administration cost and avenues for avoidance for any good that it does. And I am skeptical of the psychological value of small incentives to do the right thing, which it turns out can often be counterproductive.

In this case the fat tax is intended to tackle the "epidemic" of obesity. But it is not a tax on fat people, but on selected foods deemed to contribute to obesity. Why? I'm pretty sure that it is possible for a thin person to eat doughnuts, and for an obese frame to be maintained with sufficient quantities of muesli and semi skimmed milk. More specifically the argument is precisely that fattening foods are a problem, because it is a problem that people are fat. So a tax on fat people would surely be much more to the point. Yes, there are practical difficulties with a tax on fat people. All that weighing. But let's park that for now and just consider the principle.

The problem is that a tax on fat people would be grossly unfair, offensive and discriminatory. Thus the attempt to levy an extra tax on fat people by proxy, in the hope that we thereby don't notice that the policy is grossly unfair, offensive and discriminatory.

I've had some feedback on this argument from @IanEiloart, @beccaet and @MsNoeticat, which I will address here without attributing particular views to any one person. Thanks for your comments, by the way.

First is the question of whether a fat tax would produce a social benefit by incentivising food manufacturers to change their recipes in a lower fat direction, i.e. to make their regular products more like "diet" products. You know diet coke, diet yoghurt, diet ready meals. All the bulk of the regular product with little of the flavour. There's a reason I don't buy diet products: they are horrid. Making food in general more horrid is not something I would count as a social benefit. Just as starving sailors lost at sea would fill their bellies with sawdust to quell the hunger pangs, the modern body-image conscious person is supposed to fill their belly with a modern food-sciencey equivalent such as cellulose (which may be made from sawdust in fact).

Second is the point that pushing diets in the right direction will benefit everybody. Will it really? Will it benefit people who are underweight? How many borderline anorexics will be pushed over the borderline because they are eating food with more cellulose and less food in it? The problem here is that we are looking at the average person - who may be overweight - and imposing a food policy for everybody, as if everybody was the same as that average person. Many people eat too little fat or too little cholesterol, or too little proper food of any kind. Should they be sacrificed on the altar of the average? Top down, one-size-fits-all policies fit very few.

Finally the suggestion that revenue from a fat tax could be help people who are struggling with weight issues. This is true. And it is fair to say that weight is a very big problem for some people, causing a great deal of distress and poor health outcomes. I do think a fat tax would have to be very high indeed in order to help everybody in this kind of need, which raises the question of why isn't this kind of health support more of a priority anyway? Why should it rely on a hypothecated tax? We don't hypothecate tobacco and alcohol taxes to particular health interventions, and nor should we.

And I would say that a large part of the distress surrounding weight issues is a result of social pressures to conform to a perceived weight ideal. Now what is the fat tax, but another kind of pressure to conform to that same perceived ideal? On the one hand we are campaigning against unrealistic body images in the media; do we really want to turn round and try to impose unrealistic bodies on people through the tax system?

Update: see also freakonomics.