Thursday 25 September 2014

Soda sock puppets

The soda tax campaign that is underway in Berkeley and San Francisco is asking voters to support paying an unnecessarily high price for a widely consumed product. This is not an easy sell, even for Californians, and so the campaign has tapped into the rampant anti-business mentality of the region by being entirely about 'beating Big Soda'.

The campaigners hope that Californians will be so angered by the thought of an industry making money that they will volunteer to give the government more of their own cash. And for the benefit of the dimmest voters, they've concocted the fairytale that a soda tax isn't a tax that people will have to pay—oh no!—it's merely a 'tax on industry'.

This is a tax on industry, not a sales tax on consumers or a tax on retailers. Distribution companies will pay the tax for the privilege of distributing sodas and other sugary beverages in Berkeley. It will be the companies’ choice whether or not to pass this tax to the people of Berkeley.

Seems legit...

In San Francisco, the pro-tax campaign is being run by a group called Choose Health SF. Their website is a real treat, including such phrases as "Coke and Pepsi are the real nannies" and "Ending hunger is about more than making sure people have enough calories."

Choose Health SF are obsessed with 'Big Soda'. They are particularly annoyed by the "misleading astroturf tactics of the American Beverage Association". This is a reference to the Coalition for an Affordable City, an organisation set up by the soft drink industry to campaign against "unfair beverage taxes".

Choose Health SF call the Coalition for an Affordable City a "local front group" for Big Soda. By contrast, their own campaign is about "real grassroots community coalition building". They call on Californians to "Join the soda tax grassroots movement." (To see the kind of people they've been building coalitions with, scroll to the bottom of this post).

So who are these grassroots campaigners who want the government to get more tax revenue? Choose Health SF's domain name was registered by Maggie Muir. Maggie Muir is a partner at Erwin and Muir, a public affairs agency that specialises in political campaigns. Erwin and Muir have been "hired by San Francisco lawmakers to lead the political committee in support of the soda tax".

Choose Health SF is, therefore, a classic astroturf group created and funded by the government to lobby for more government action. It is a state sock puppet

There will be some people who say that this is fair enough, it's one front group against another. I can't agree with that. If the soda industry wants to use its own money to campaign on an issue that is important to its customers (or any issue, for that matter), then it should do so. Most of its customers will be glad that it is taking a stand, but if there are those who don't support it, they are free to stop buying its products.

But for a government to use taxpayers' money to campaign for higher taxes under another name? No. The taxpayer has no ability to withhold his money from the campaign if they disagree the government's stance on the issue. He is, as Thomas Jefferson put it, forced to "furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors".

Moreover, it is fairly obvious that the Coalition for an Affordable City campaign is funded by the soda industry. On every page of their website it says:

"Paid for by No on E: Stop Unfair Beverage Taxes, Coalition for an Affordable City, with major funding by American Beverage Association California PAC."

By contrast, the Choose Health SF website does not give even a hint that it is funded by the government. There is no 'About Us' page and Choose Health SF describes itself merely as "a political committee organizing to pass a local sugary beverage tax." There is nothing on the site to suggest that it is the work of a public affairs agency working on behalf of the government. Big Soda has to be upfront about its 'front groups', Big Government not so much.

We've seen various state-funded 'public health' agencies attempt the same trick in the UK in recent years (eg. here, here and here). I dunno, perhaps this sort of state-funded activism is par for the course in the USA? Erwin and Muir boast that they have "secured over half a billion dollars in financing for schools, roads, and parks improvements through 2/3rds voter approval", so maybe it is.

Whatever the case, voters in San Francisco need to be aware that the campaign for higher taxes has been orchestrated by the interest group that has the most to gain from them—the government.


JohnB said...

A “60 Minutes” story coming up this weekend is the new health risk that’s worse than smoking….. it’s sitting down, being seated.

Public Health puts the following on notice:

Big Seat, Big Stool, Big Chair, Big Sofa, Big Lounge, Big Couch.

Anonymous said...

This is not necessarily taxpayers money that is being spent. More likely it comes from voluntary political contributions to the SF supervisors, not from tax revenues.