June 2, 2009

June 2, 2009 | Commentary on Regulation, Economy

Nationalized Cheerios?

Regular superheroes save us from villains. Liberal superheroes save us from ourselves.

The power-hungry always try to control the big things. It takes extra effort to go after the little things as well, but President Obama and his team are trying.

The Obama administration is talking about new gun controls... a federal ban on smoking in public places... controls on advertising, to make sweets as verboten as cigarettes. Their proposed sin taxes go far beyond alcohol and tobacco, demonizing whatever fizzes or appeals to a sweet tooth.

And of course they are cracking down on Cheerios. Literally.

We'll know we've passed the point of no return when the national motto is officially changed from e pluribus unum to est pro vestri own beneficium -- "It's for your own good."

In a world where General Motors becomes Government Motors, banks are nationalized and billions in bailouts become routine, federal takeovers of lesser things are overshadowed. Obama's desires for government-run health care, government-designed cars and government-approved and auctioned energy may dominate the headlines, but little things mean a lot, too. And Obama's desire to micro-manage lifestyle decisions is another symptom of the belief that only government can fix what ails us.

Obama's choice to head the Centers for Disease Control is a leading indicator. CDC for years has been accused of mission creep, with its controversial forays into the gun control arena and its recent surveys about cell phone usage. The new director, former New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden, would take CDC even farther. As Newsweek notes, "he has enraged restaurant owners, drawn fire from religious leaders, driven smokers into the streets and created a whole new category of souvenir: the official New York City condom."

"Dr. Frieden has a Messiah complex," claims the Center for Consumer Freedom. The New York Post dubbed Frieden's department "the Ministry of Culinary Righteousness."

Why? As William Saletan wrote in Slate:

The food police are closing in on their next target: a soda tax. New York City's health commissioner, Thomas Frieden, is leading the way. He's the guy who purged trans fats from the city's restaurants and made them post calorie counts for menu items. Lately he's been pressuring food companies to remove salt from their products. Now he's going after soda. Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, Frieden and Kelly Brownel,the director of Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, propose a penny-per-ounce excise tax on "sugared beverages." That's nearly $3 per case. Why so much? Because this tax, unlike the petty junk-food taxes of yesteryear, is designed to hurt. Its purpose is to discourage you from buying soda, on the grounds that soda, like smoking, is bad for you.

Frieden refers to tobacco as "legalized drug pushing, and adds, "Terrorists will never kill as many New Yorkers as smoking." Statistically true to date, but isn't the Administration discouraging use of the word "terrorism"? The mindset seems to be that government's job is to protect us from our own behavior more than from misbehavior of others.

During the primary season debate at Dartmouth, Obama was asked about a national ban on smoking in public places. He answered, "If it turns out that we're not seeing enough progress at the local level, then I would favor a national law." Since the President doesn't smoke in public, why should anyone else?

To combat childhood obesity, Obama told the Washington Post that he believes "guidelines for advertising and marketing foods and beverages must be finalized..." If voluntary adoption of industry guidelines proves ineffective, he said, the Federal Trade Commission should then monitor and enforce additional restrictions on ads targeting children.

And who has Obama made his "regulatory czar"? Cass Sunstein, the Harvard professor best known for trying to change human behavior with "nudges." He calls it "libertarian paternalism; it works by limiting people's options. Others, including columnist David Broder, describe it as "help[ing] you make the choices you would make for yourself -- if only you had the strength of will and the sharpness of mind." When government does this, most of us just call it "Big Brother."

And then there's Cheerios. Obama's Food and Drug Administration wrote General Mills an official "Warning Letter" on May 5th. In five pages of legalese, the FDA confirms that it has authorized products (evidently including Cheerios), to state that their fiber helps lower the risk of heart disease and helps to lower cholesterol. But FDA maintains that the text, the type size, and even the colors on the famous yellow box do not conform to their edict. It threatens, "Enforcement action may include seizure of violative products and/or injunction against the manufacturers and distributors."

So the Obama Administration that is ending raids on illegal workplaces will instead raid supermarkets and confiscate cereal?

Trying to change our eating habits and lifestyles through government compulsion is the sign of those who know no boundaries for government. As Mark Twain said, "Little things often make up the sum of human life."

Conservatives, we must unite: keep government out of our cereal bowls. And as much else as we can.

Ernest Istook is recovering from serving 14 years in Congress and is now a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ernest Istook Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

Related Issues: Regulation, Economy

First Appeared in Human Events