The “Affordable Pear Act” – Why Make People Buy Broccoli When We Can Subsidize It With Tax Dollars

February 7th, 2014

One of the arguments advanced in opposition to the broccoli horrible hypothetical, was that Congress would not need to make people buy that leafy green. Instead, Congress could just subsidize the price of broccoli (with tax dollars), to make it easier for people to buy it. This would, indirectly, use the taxing power to nudge people to eat healthy.

But would this actually work?

Well, the government tried this. Kinda, through the “Healthy Food Financing Initiative.”

Clara Ritger writes about it in the National Journal

With the obesity epidemic in full swing and millions of American living in neighborhoods where fruits and vegetables are hard to come by, the Obama administration thought it saw a solution: fund stores that will stock fresh, affordable produce in these deprived areas.

But now, three years and $500 million into the federal Healthy Food Financing Initiative, there’s a problem: A study suggests it’s not working.

James Taranto writes in WSJ about, what he dubs as the “Affordable Pear Act,” and notes that subsidizing these vegetables has no appreciable effect on consumption of vegetables.

All of which suggests that the Affordable Pear Act rests on a backward assumption about cause and effect. It’s not that most “food desert” denizens eat unhealthy food because grocers refuse to supply them with fruits and vegetables. Instead, grocers don’t supply them with fruits and vegetables because the demand is insufficient.

A more apt phrase would be the “Affordable Carrot Act,” because the law uses a carrot–subsidized vegetables–rather than a stick–a purchase mandate

Thus, subsidizing products is not enough. To work, Congress would actually need a mandate–either for broccoli (something people don’t want) or health insurance (something many don’t want to buy).

Which, come to think of it, also among the cognitive errors that gave us ObamaCare. The assumption is that if people don’t have insurance, it must be for exogenous reasons–because insurance companies either refuse to do business with them or charge too much.

To be sure, ObamaCare’s architects didn’t completely believe that, or they would not have imposed a “mandate” in the form of a tax on the uninsured. Applying the same logic to the obesity problem would point in the direction of a broccoli mandate.

And people scoffed at the broccoli horrible.