PM Pick

Fat taxes

Everybody's getting in on banning trans fats: New York City, Chicago, Disney, Pepsi, Wendy's. But why impose a ban when you could generate some revenue with a tax?

On his and fellow conservative Richard Posner's blog, (which is totally bizarre from a rhetorical point of view; it seems as though it were written by Spock), Gary Becker, an economist famous for treating human beings as a commodity (human capital), and performing economic analyses on drug addiction (it's rational) and domestic life (it's a factory), mulled over the implications of a tax on fat, which would be a less paternalistic way of ridding the world of trans fats (a.k.a. hyrdogenated oils) that clog arteries and cause obesity. (Some health officials go so far to compare hydrogenated oils to the threat posed by lead paint, but I think I'd feel substantially more comfortable with children eating doughnuts than paint chips.) Becker is skeptical that the danger outweighs the social pleasure afforded by hamburger sandwiches and french-fried potatoes, and suspects that obesity is more attributable to kids' propensity for such "sedentary activities" as "listening to music on iPods and other devices." Kids spend too much time in front of computers, he suggests, and we wouldn't want to start imposing Pigovian taxes on Internet usage, would we? This seems like a red herring to me -- to find something more appealing to substitute for fat in order to make the argument against social engineering through taxes seem more salient. The same goes for when Becker, evoking the idea that obese citizens may stress the publically-financed health care system and should therefore be taxed to compensate for that (a la one of the rationales for cigarette taxes), shifts the subject to health-care savings accounts and consumer-driven health care, the preferred conservative nostrums for America's healh care crisis.

Posner, in his reply to Becker, seems more cogent on the subject. He raises the point that obesity is correlated with poverty, so a fat tax would likely be regressive and would possibly fail to achieve its intended effect.

Indeed, high-caloric "junk food" might conceivably though improbably turn out to be the first real-world example of a "Giffen good," a good the demand for which rises when the price rises because the income effect dominates the substitution effect. A heavy tax on high-caloric food might so reduce the disposable income of the poor that they substituted such food for healthful food, since fatty foods tend to be very cheap and satisfying, and often nutritious as well.
But his main contention is that the rationale for a fat tax relies on the belief that people who eat fatty food are making informed rational choices and revelaing a preference for Ho-Hos and Doritos over broccoli. Posner, somewhat surprisingly, is willing to throw rational choice out the window here:
I don't think the fact that obesity is correlated with poverty is due entirely to the fact that fatty foods tend to be cheap as well as tasty and satisfying. I suspect that many of the people who become obese as a result of what they eat do not understand how, for example, something as innocuous as a soft drink can produce obesity. I also suspect that producers of soft drinks and other fatty foods are ingenious in setting biological traps -- designing foods that trigger intense pleasure reactions caused by brain structures formed in our ancestral environment (the prehistoric environment in which human beings attained approximately their current biological structure), when a taste for fatty foods had significant survival value.
Because of these biological traps, and the imperviousness of poor neighborhoods to nutrition education, Posner is willing to consider a ban of deceptively innocuous products like soft drinks: "And while generally parents know better than government what is good for their children, many parents who permit their children to drink soft drinks do not."

As much as I don't think the government should be telling people what they can and can't eat, it's hard to see the harm in disincentivizing food that makes for fat children. But the problem seems larger than the junk-food industry, which arises in response to generalized time crunch and the devaluation of time spent sharing a meal. I don't think the poor are necessarily ignorant about the ill effects of junk food, but they don't have the time to put into policing these questions or pursuing the frequently labor-intensive alternatives. We have developed a food infrastructure premised on the idea of delivering filling calories quickly to serve the need for convenience rather than nutrition. What may be needed is a proposal that could provide incentives for convenience, which is almost impossible to imagine, seeing how convenience virtually has become the definition of incentive.


The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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'Curb Your Enthusiasm' S9 Couldn't Find Its Rhythm

Larry David and J.B. Smoove in Curb Your Enthusiasm S9 (HBO)

Curb Your Enthusiasm's well-established characters are reacting to their former selves, rather than inhabiting or reinventing themselves. Thus, it loses the rhythms and inflections that once made the show so consistently, diabolically funny.

In an era of reboots and revivals, we've invented a new form of entertainment: speculation. It sometimes seems as if we enjoy begging for television shows to return more than watching them when they're on the air. And why wouldn't we? We can't be disappointed by our own imaginations. Only the realities of art and commerce get in the way.

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Wars of attrition are a matter of stamina, of who has the most tools with which to keep fighting. A surprising common tool in this collection? Humor.

The name of the game is "normal or abnormal". Here's how you play: When some exceedingly shocking political news pops up on your radar, turn to the person next to you, read them the headline and ask, "is this normal or abnormal?" If you want to up the stakes, drink a shot every time the answer is abnormal. If that's too many shots, alter the rules so that you drink only when things are normal—which is basically never, these days. Hilarious, right?

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