Posts Tagged ‘NYC


Soda Welfare

A friend sent me this piece about New York City’s recent attempt to prevent food stamps from being used to buy sweetened drinks like soda on the idea that the public is simply financing health problems for the destitute. The article comes in response to a recent op-ed written by the health commissioners of both New York State and City respectively (see here for a considered economic analysis of fat tax type measures by Richard Posner).

What I find interesting about the policy to prevent food stamps from being used for sugary drinks is that it’s hard to see how the policy is either a) not justified or b) justified on grounds that would warrant its extension to more parts of the populace.

Consider the question of why NYC thinks this policy is worthwhile. Is it better for the actual people receiving food stamps and now use them to buy sugary drinks? Well, the people presumably take some pleasure in these drinks and are currently consume these drinks despite their deleterious affects on health. If we assume the poor are rational consumers, then we are effectively lower their overall welfare (according to a subjective view of welfare). But maybe the poor, like the rest of us, do not make decisions about our health rationally or perhaps we purchase with imperfect information about how damaging these drinks really are, in which case the justification for the policy is the health of the people buying these drinks. But if health is the goal of the policy, to be achieved by taxing a harmful activity, then taxes should be put in place so that the regular populace can also benefit from these measures (and be disincentivized to drink these harmful drinks). I hope the implication is not that only the poor are behaving irrationally with regard to sugar drink consumption.

Another point is that the government should not be spending money to help people continue to do something harmful, but this raises an interesting question of why we give people money at all. Do we give food stamps because we want poor people to have more PLEASUREFUL lives, because if that’s the reason, then we’re contradicting that goal by denying them the sweet release of a sugary soda (again, on the view that pleasure is determined by willingness to pay). Or do we give food stamps to poor people because we want them to live HEALTHIER lives, in which case the sugary drink restriction policy would be justified.

There is also a repeated mention of the money that obesity costs the public. Sugary drinks = obesity = various diseases like diabetes and heart disease = taxpayer dollars. Here too though, if tax dollars are lost to obesity, then we should be using a tax to recoup those lost dollars in ALL segments of society.

Anyway, I’m kind of vaguely dancing around the main question here, which is: why do we give poor people money so that they can eat and how does that goal interact with this soda policy? Are we trying to make the poor as well off as possible, or only ensure they have a certain minimum amount of welfare, or make sure that they can DO certain things, or make sure they are to a certain degree HEALTHY. All of these notions are separate.

These are tough questions, but my answer is this: I think we give money to the poor so that they can participate in society on equal footing with other people, and this means the money must go primarily not toward making poor happier (as if we could just buy a lot of cocaine for them, or some more sophisticated sedative) but toward making them be able to healthily participate in society (and not be obese and not sick), to be able to learn skills (education), impact our government (vote and have their voices heard).

Toward this goal, I think the policy of NYC is justified. The goal of the policy is to make public dollars maximally translate into able-bodied and capable citizens, and that’s why food stamps already don’t go to alcohol. The rest of public money should go to helping poor people purchase the things they need to be active members of society, so housing, healthcare, education, and food are obviously justified. Still, there will be some who are so ineffective at making use of these opportunities and so fall into miserable lives, and the government should not let these people languish in their suffering, but programs designed to address these people will not be based at ability to participate in society but in overall welfare or happiness.


Josh Harris and We Live in Public

I just watched a documentary called “we live in public,” about a 90s dotcom entrepreneur named Josh Harris and felt absolutely compelled to write a post about this as it relates to my interest in social networking.

The background here is fascinating. Apparently this guy Josh Harris founded some internet companies in the 90s and became a multimillionaire with a company called, which as far as I can tell, was the forerunner to youtube, but suffered due to lack of bandwith.

But more important than Harris’ business acumen and completely anti-social and crazy behavior was that he conceived a project that he called a social experiment in which roughly a hundred people lived in an orgiastic commune created beneath new york city in which every aspect of daily life is taped. This community, called “Quiet,” (like “Rapture” from Bioshock, except the opposite of Randian and rather more communist or something else I can’t even describe) is something I find endlessly fascinating on a variety of levels. First, the community was supposedly an art project but also part experiment. In this society, everything is free including constant and gluttonous supplies of food, drugs, and alcohol, as well as an underground GUN RANGE stocked with hundreds of guns ranging from pistols to some of the most dangerous and bizarre looking automatic weapons I’ve ever seen. People would just go down there and fire off tons of ammunition so that the floor would have to be swept to be cleaned of the bullet casings.

But the big point was that participants in this society were interrogated and quasi-tortured by ex CIA intelligence agents (hired for this purpose) and then given jump suits and a pod to live in with TVs that recorded them constantly as well as allowing them to tune in to other TVs in the underground world. The ideal, according to Harris was to experiment with a surveillance society as well as to make people into TV objects so that everyone was on TV all the time, watched by others, and capable of watching everyone else. Kind of like a chat roulette commune.

Unsurprisingly, the people who signed up for this experiment are probably, let’s say, not ordinary, and became more so as the experiment wore on. People spoke of having their souls stripped from them as Harris continued to manipulate things behind scenes with his CIA hirees (there’s a scene where an interrogator and his assistant regaled in quasi-nazi attire ask a woman abusively and mockingly about the details of her suicide attempt. She starts crying as a result). There was also an extremely cultish looking temple that was built at one point as well.

Symbolically, all hell breaks lose on the night of Y2K and you get the impression that this commune was on the verge of total anarchy as you see Harris watching as a man seemingly forcibly(?) has sex with a woman in a public shower in front of hundreds of other people. The police come soon after (the first morning of the new millenium) and shut the whole thing down as complete chaos erupts. You can only imagine theĀ  faces of the NYC police when they found hundreds of guns organized in an armory along with the “church” of this “art project.” Words cannot convey how shocking and interesting this documentary is.

What are the lessons? Well, it’s hard to tell exactly. At some points this commune seems to be an indictment of a certain kind of obsessively artistic mindset, which as some people interviewed remarked, was a kind of aesthetic fascism. Other times, one gets the impression that this was simply a large group of mentally ill people being manipulated by one extremely smart but also mentally ill person. Other times one thinks that this was a fantasy world of a man that confesses to being raised completely by TV. One imagines that this was his ideal television world. Lastly, one thinks that “quiet” was kind of a dystopian warning trying to convince us to rethink our relationship to technology. Presciently, Harris’s predictions have largely come true with the advent of social media – we are approaching the limit case of sociality on the internet in which everyone desperately attempts to share every aspect of their lives and becomes a slave to the eyeballs that check in on them during every second of everyday.

My own take, given my somewhat conservative mindset, is that “quiet” is just what it purports to be: a kind of hipster aesthetic obsession taken to it’s extreme in which slavery and chaos rather than liberation is the end result. I think aesthetics plays a valuable role in our lives, and I think that I’m progressive enough to understand the importance of breaking taboos and pushing the envelope for the goal of new experiences and new molds of human conduct. This project however seems to be the end point of a kind of totalitarian and melodramatic preoccupation with making everything into art. The result is just bullying and the collapse of human self-worth. Art, if it is to be special, cannot be everything. There must be the everyday and the quotidian for their to be the sublime.

In any case, this is must watch documentary, since I cannot do it justice with this brief description.