retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Not surprisingly, we continue to get email on the subject of government regulation.

Just to set the stage, let me see if I can encapsulate the discussion to this point...

There have been a bunch of stories lately about the role of government in a) regulating the way in which foods are marketed to minors, b) regulating the nutritional quality of foods served in schools, and c) regulating how much sugar, salt and other less-than-nutritious ingredients are included in various foods. While I think that the country would be better off if everybody were pro-active about being more responsible about raising the bar in the areas of nutrition and marketing to kids, there is a sizable group of folks who believe that the government has no business meddling in areas better taken care of by free market forces - and some of them believe that by being willing to consider the possibility that not all regulation is a bad thing - and I am still trying to figure out the right approach here - I am a socialist, an elitist, or both. (I believed I was just trying to be open-minded and thoughtful, but so it goes.)

One MNB user wrote:

I very much agree with your reader who states:

“it is outside the mission of government to restrict the sale of food based on its relative nutritional value ... If sugar coated cereals are not good for children then how can one say that California or French wines with virtually no nutritional value can be good for adults?  Has a 7 year old on a sugar high ever caused a drunk driving accident?   Once you begin, where do you stop?”

So very true, there is no end in sight once we start down this road of regulating individual choices for food, drink, goods, and services.  And then, human nature and entrepreneurship being what it is,  some enterprising individuals will start “bootleg Twinkies” and “black market double cheeseburgers –with extra sauce!!” sold in back alleys….

During prohibition, alcohol was illegal in this country.  (Historical footnote – it’s how the Kennedy family made their money – selling bootleg whiskey during prohibition!  Check the facts, it’s true.  I dare you to print this!)

It is also outside of the mission – legally, constitutionally or otherwise – to force any citizen to purchase a good or service.  That means assessing a fine on a citizen who chooses not to have health care!!!  We really have gone crazy, spiraling away from basic core values.  I know I’m not alone in seeing that personal responsibility, free will, choice is the foundation of whether this country survives or not.  All we have to do is look at history.  I believe “this experiment” will survive – by the very fact that we are able to have these discourses and communication.

A couple of points here, if I may.

Nobody is saying that companies won’t be able to make Twinkies, nor that people won’t be able to eat them. (Well, some people may be saying it...but I’m pretty sure they are the people who do things like accuse people with whom they disagree of being socialist or elitist, and who like to draw these lines in such stark terms that there is no room for reasonable discussion. ) You say things like “bootleg Twinkies,” and I’m sure you believe that hoards of marching food police are just over the horizon, and that they’ll take that Twinkie away from you when they pry it from your cold, dead fingers.

Give me a break. This is not going to happen. If nothing else, we learned during the 1920s that Prohibition didn’t work....

Another thing, and I want to make this point as gently as I can. One of the rules here on MNB is that people get to be anonymous if they want to, and I created that rule because I wanted to encourage open discussion without people having to worry about their jobs if they made points that are controversial or even politically correct. That’s why the sobriquet “MNB user” exists. It is a great rule, and I think it is one of the things that makes the discussions here on MNB unique.

However... you asked for anonymity, and you got it...but there is a certain irony to the fact that you attack the Kennedy family for something done almost a century ago, by people who are long dead (and who really didn’t make a secret of those misdeeds), and then say “I dare you to print this.”

That seems, shall we say, a little disingenuous.

Another MNB user wrote:

Commenting on the flood of reaction to the prospect of the federal government inserting itself into the health aspects of children's foods, and by implication, into potentially anything & everything else that's left of life in America: you began your final summation with the plea, can we all take a deep breath, please?

My take here is that the explosion of negative reaction to this next specter of federal intervention is exactly the result of people's perceptions of their own federal government being unwilling to do precisely that: slow down and take a breath from its headlong interventionist, progressive-at-any-cost policy agenda.  To say that federal policymaking activity since January 2009 has been intense doesn't begin to capture the real-life effects of Hope & Change.  When I step back from day to day life in this country and try to get my arms around the overall mood of things, here is the baseline I come back to time and again: "people" (many, if not most) have by and large (a) lost faith & trust in their government -- at all levels; (b) lost faith & trust in financial institutions (Goldman et al.); (c) have lost faith & trust in other big businesses (GM, Chrysler, Toyota); (d) have lost faith & trust in labor unions (SEIU, teachers unions, etc.); (e) have lost faith & trust in the legal system (Miranda rights for foreign terrorists; a tort system run amok); (f) have lost faith & trust in academia (Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., etc.); (g) have lost faith & trust in our election process (ACORN); (h) have lost faith & trust in organized religion (priest sex scandals; televangelists; Rev. Wright) and (i) perhaps as unfortunate & disturbing as any of these, have lost faith & trust in each other.  To the extent this is true -- and I do believe this is pretty much true -- how is anyone expected to "execute" in this society in anything but a frenzied, knee-jerk fashion?  The rush on seemingly everyone's part to simply try & hold onto whatever they may have left of life as they used to know & love it, it trumps everything!  "Guard it today! It'll be stolen by tomorrow!"  I think that's how many people have come to approach life in America.  Sad.

So your comment about "can we please just take a breath", yes, I would say, this whole country needs to take a breath; the federal government, for one, since that institution is so much in the middle of so many of these frenzied debates.  But is that a reasonable expectation?  I would say no.  I don't see the Administration having any appetite for "taking a breath" amidst pursuit of its policy agenda; Congress, same thing.  What's the point of owning the White House & Congress by large margins if you're not going to use it to implement your agenda, come hell or high water?  Those elected officials didn't come to Washington to be "caretakers of somebody else's America"; they came there to substantially remake America in the image they personally wanted.  And so they are attempting to do.  At breakneck speed.  Before November!  Then, to get re-elected to boot!

Washington has demonstrated in spades either their inability, or their unwillingness, to listen to the growing majority of Americans in the health care bill that was passed -- and in the way in which it was passed -- and that process became just the latest poster child of how Washington has no intention of "taking a breath"; so how reasonable is it to expect anyone on the other side of these issues to take a breath on their own?  "I can breathe next week," people might tell you; "Today, I've got to keep my house from being repossessed; I've got to keep my taxes from going thru the roof; I've got to keep my favorite radio talk show host from being pulled off the air; I've got to keep my Congressional boundary lines from being gerrymandered beyond recognition; I've got to try & keep English as a viable language in America; I've got to make sure a Gitmo detainee doesn't move in down the street; I've got to....Yeah, I'll breathe next week."

I personally have never seen America so close to a sea-changing tipping point as I have witnessed her over the last year or so; not even at the height of Vietnam, not thru Watergate, nothing.  This place feels so close to cracking up once and for all into so many splintered & incompatible, irreconcilable pieces that God help us when that day comes.  Riots in the streets of Athens over budget cuts?  Assassinations along the Rio Grande border?  Wait'll it starts happening everywhere.

To be honest, if I felt as victimized by the world as the people you describe in your email, I might have trouble getting out of bed in the morning. I am not a guy who tends to have a lot of faith in institutions of any kind, but I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the fact that institutions by their very nature look to preserve their own status and power. By the way, that goes for most institutions, not just the ones I disagree with.

Your suggestion that the current moment is worse or more polarizing than the days of Vietnam or Watergate is interesting, but I would disagree. Maybe it is all perspective, but during that time in our history there were riots in the streets, there were kids being shot on college campuses, and there was a president engaged in felonious behavior and a cover-up in order to preserve his own personal and political power. Things are tough, but none of those things are happening right now. The attacks are on our country are coming from outside the system, not from within.

But I’m sure there will be a lot of people who disagree with me on that one, too.

Another MNB user wrote:

Sometimes reading the "Your Views" section is both maddening and entertaining at the same time.  You can always count on a political discussion to whip folks up into a froth.  How about some perspective?  How many Captain Morgan's or Viagra commercials do we see during an episode of Spongebob Squarepants?  How vocal would this same "No Government" group be if they noticed that Cigarette companies were allowed to run fun cartoon character ads during The Fairly Oddparents?

It seems to me that a rational person WOULD be upset if a certain type of food was actually banned from being sold, but I read these comments and they are so chock-ful-o hyperbole that it makes me dizzy!  We've had regulations for decades, but all of the sudden, since the last Presidential election, so many people are losing their minds and unable to see this stuff for what it really is.  Where was this outrage in the past?

How about this:  As business people, shouldn't we objectively evaluate and quantitatively measure the ridiculous, dream world scenarios of government overreach cited?  Let's all agree on a date to measure the accuracy of each of the statements, and then let's decide if these folks are right or if they are wrong about government restricting the sale of food based on its relative nutritional value or removing alcohol from wine because it leads to alcoholism.  I think everyone knows what the results will be.

Finally... whoever thinks that such regulation has anything to do with Socialism clearly has no clue what Socialism is.  When our government owns, operates and redistributes the profits from the food industry to social entities, then that is Socialism.

MNB user Gary Harris wrote:

Hang in there, Kevin. I don’t always agree with you, but I’ve always found your opinions thoughtful and well-reasoned.

I’m thinking companies should be able to make what they want and try to sell what they make, but that some restriction on targeted marketing to minors isn’t such a terrible idea, and certainly won’t throw our democratic society down the drain that others see coming ever closer. I’d like to see government get more involved in physical education again. Whatever happened to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and mandatory gym classes for everyone? I was never a jock, got picked close to last for most team events, and didn’t play any organized sports. But on gym days I ran, jumped, played whatever game-of-the-week we were playing, and burned off some steam and some calories. I was in pretty decent shape til the desk job came along, now I have to relearn all that stuff again. But I see the value in it, and I’m glad my kids and grandkids do, too.

I agree. There has to be a way to approach this issue that encourages greater personal responsibility ... gives better, more useful information to people ... but also sets up certain regulations so that young people are not exploited by a system set up to reward profit over responsibility. If this is done prudently, I’m not sure that it means the end of American civilization as we know it.

Now, I am aware that regulatory fever can get way out of control. Which is why I am never in favor of regulation as a first option. But if you look at childhood obesity rates, and the impact it is having on the health care system in this country, it seems to me that we are way past the “first option” stage.

MNB user Chuck Jolley wrote:

I thought most of those people who attacked your point-of-view missed the boat.  At the very least, they only had one foot in the canoe as it was leaving the dock.

The common theme is you were espousing a socialistic view and the government needs to butt out.  Many of the objectors were also trying to narrow the argument to their personal viewpoints/lifestyle instead of looking at the entire picture.  

The fact remains that to many food processors are playing fast and loose with the rules.  Fruit Juice with less than 10% juice and a label that shows water and HFCS as the first two ingredients in flavored water.  Many fast food (quick service?) places vend lemonade that contains 0% lemon juice.  Of course, you have to read the very small type to know what you're getting.

I say let the food business sell anything they want but the label has to be up front and readable - no mice type.  Food regs have to be realistic and aggressively enforced.  If a company wants to produce a liquid beverage that's only 10% juice, it will have to say so on the front of the bottle in type at least as large as the brand name.

Then let the public choose.  Right now, too many products are masquerading as the real thing and the only way the public can know is to bring a magnifying glass to the supermarket.

Publish this and let the responses/accusations begin.  I only ask that anyone who attacks my viewpoint also include their corporate affiliation so I can go the my neighborhood supermarket and check their companies product labels.

A perfect example of what you are talking about, it seems to me, are the regulations that require restaurants to post calorie counts on menu boards. A lot of people don’t agree with me, but I think these laws are terrific...because they allow me to make an informed decision. Nobody is saying that some fast food chain cannot sell that triple cheeseburger with a half pound of bacon. Nobody is saying that I cannot buy it and eat it. But clarity and transparency allow me to make an informed decision.

Someone explain to me why this is a bad thing.

One point I did make yesterday was that there seems to be enormous sentiment in the food industry for government regulation of the interchange fees charged by banks, and I wondered aloud if this desire for federal intervention that would lower these fees is held by the same people who oppose government regulation related to the obesity issue.

MNB user Bruce Crilley disagreed with my observation:

Apples and oranges. That’s the difference between government regulating what we can say and government regulating what financial institutions can charge. Regulation that still allows markets the freedom to do business has been around since Teddy Roosevelt. Regulating not just what we can say (via marketing) but to whom we can say it is a relatively recent addition to government’s quiver of Big Brother”esque” assumed responsibilities.  As a communication professional, I would think this trend would scare the heck out of you.

Be careful what you wish for Kevin, you just might get the government regulation you wished for and some you didn’t.

I appreciate being called a communications professional. I tend to think of myself as just a wisenheimer with a laptop.

But as a “communications professional,” I have absolutely no problem with regulations that require marketing efforts to be as accurate, honest and transparent as possible.

I’m a lot more afraid of people who respond to people with whom they disagree by calling them “socialists.” The “Big Brother” we need to worry about is the one who tells us that there is only one way to think, only one legitimate opinion, only one approach to problems, only one answer. Theirs.

One MNB user responded:

Great point this a.m. re: anti government sentiment. Often noted: only impose government regs that help my business, but don't impose regs that restrict my business...even if they might help the overall economy.

Or help encourage a great degree of healthy living, which would help cut the amount of money spent on health care, which would be good for the economy.

MNB user Steve Loehr wrote:

Credit card companies are monopolies and need to be treated as such. They raise fees in tandem and impose rules without any input from their customers. Credit card fees in the U.S. are the highest in the industrialized world - 4x higher than Australia, for example. Our company will pay over $28m in credit card fees this year - more than our health care costs! As we sell gasoline, every time gas retails go up, credit card companies automatically make more, as their fees are a % of sales (usually 2% or more). We do not want more government regulation in general, however, in this case, someone has to step up to force the credit card companies to be transparent and competitive in their regulations and rates.

MNB user John Llloyd wrote:

Now you’re talking brother. As a progressive in a sea of “anti government” grocers that march to the ditty ‘don’t do as I do, do as I say,’ here is a “liberal” with a “good Idea”.

Gosh. I can live with being called an elitist and a socialist. But a liberal?

I’m not sure we’re allowed to use that sort of language on a family website.
KC's View: