JOHN CRISP: Freedom and deciding to eat well
Many liberals were duly embarrassed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent proscription of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces. On “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart made considerable sport of Bloomberg, and comedian Bill Maher said this is just the sort of the thing that gives liberals and government regulation a bad name.
The prohibition is currently on hold in the courts, but the reaction has been so negative that I suspect we’ve seen the end of it.
Still, on March 24 The New York Times printed “Three Cheers for the Nanny State,” an op-ed in which Sarah Conly, an assistant professor of philosophy at Bowdoin College, asks why we’re making such a big deal over something as trivial as a ban on super-sized soda. This isn’t prohibition, she says. New Yorkers can still drink all the soda they want.
Conly says the problem is that we have a “reflexive response” against being told what to do, even if it’s something that’s good for us. We like to think of ourselves as “free, rational beings,” who, given enough liberty, can create the life that we want.
But, Conly says, this is totally false.
I sense objections from the right — and the left, as well — but hear Conly out. She refers to the work of psychologists and economists, especially Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who argue that human beings often fail to reach their goals because of built-in cognitive biases that easily derail us.
For example, Kahneman and Tversky posit an “optimism bias,” an inclination to believe that while bad things are likely to happen to people in our situations, they are less likely to happen to us than to other people.
This probably helps account for the 20 percent of Americans who still smoke and millions of boys and men who play football each fall. An “optimism bias” deludes them into imagining that they are less likely than everyone else to contract lung cancer or to be paralyzed or permanently befuddled by repeated blows to the head.
I haven’t read Kahneman and Tversky, but I’ll presume to propose another bias that supports Conly’s contention that our decisions aren’t as independent and rational as we’d like to think. I’ll call it a “persuasion bias.”
The Christian apologist C.S. Lewis once said that you could disabuse yourself of the notion that sex is an appetite just like any other — as some secularists claim — by trying to imagine a dark, dingy theater filled with men salivating over a well-cooked steak with all the trimmings being paraded across the stage.
But isn’t this precisely the way we see food and drink in our culture at present? What some people have begun to call “food porn” surrounds us.
It can be classy and elegant — like on the food channels — or it can be blatant, juicy, breaded, deep-fried porn with fries on the side, mouth-watering and irresistible, as in fast-food commercials. The unrelenting message is the same: consume.
As we try to make rational decisions about what to eat, we imagine that we’re on a level playing field. We have fresh fruits and vegetables year round, we have low-fat, low-calorie choices, and we even have fast-food restaurants that post their calorie counts. But as we get fatter and fatter, it’s worth remembering what we’re up against: an advertising industry that blatantly, subliminally and constantly beguiles us with the pleasures of eating and drinking.
On top of all this, consider the essential thesis of Michael Moss’s new book, “Salt Sugar Fat”: Big-Food corporations spend a great deal of energy and money designing “foods” that we just can’t resist.
You really can’t eat just one. And thousands of intelligent, creative people with a lot of money are working hard to make sure you keep eating and drinking, more and more.
In this light, maybe Bloomberg’s attempt to push back a little isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds at first.