Thursday, February 03, 2005

Trimming Government Fat

This story caught my eye, if only because it was one of the policies debated, and defeated on the final day at the Liberal convention last weekend.

This is the type of thing I’ve been in favour of for a long time. I really believe the tax code should be modified to reward healthy and environmentally sound choices and to punish poor ones. But after listening to the debate on the topic, I’m now firmly against tax breaks for gym memberships. Why? Because it would amount to nothing more than a tax break for rich, white people. Let’s face it, how many low income single mothers buy gym memberships? The best exercise can sometimes be a jog around the block (or, from my personal experience, running away from a mob of angry gun owners who’ve spotted that Liberal sign on your front lawn).

A fairer way to go about things would be to bring in a “fat tax”. Tax junk foods, fast foods, and fatty/unhealthy foods. I think this is a far better solution than rewarding those who (somewhat ironically) drive across town twice a week in January to walk on a treadmill for an hour.

12 Comments:

  • Whoa! Stop right there. I've got 3 beefs (pun intended) with that post:


    1. "tax break for rich, white people"

    a. re. "rich" - most of the people jogging during lunchhours (and returning to a gym at which they can shower) in downtown Calgary ain't rich. They're more likely to be firmly middle class: secretaries, paralegals, production accountants, engineers, geologists, etc.

    b. re. "white" - I allege that you're just using the "rich, white, etc. etc." stock cliche for the sake of impact. There isn't a strong minority/poverty link in Calgary (aboriginal/non-aboriginal yes, but I think that's a different and unique debate), and even if a mild one exists it isn't so strong as to merit significant consideration in the context of the viability of a provincial fitness strategy.

    c. overall - SO WHAT??? If the tax break yields its intended results (improving people's fitness to achieve a social good and reduce overall healthcare costs), so what if the effects are felt disproportionately in one demographic than another? This isn't a zero-sum game; financial (or health!) benefits accrued by one class do not necessarily come at the detriment of another. This isn't a program which negatively impacts distributive justice. To target specific claims in the linked article, it's "not preaching to the converted" and giving cash back to those with gym memberships: rather, it's enticing people to go the gym. I absolutely agree that convenience is a larger motivator (and would therefore support corporate tax breaks to places that install showers, gyms, etc.), but deny that finances are a negligible factor, and assert that in fact removing a financial hurdle would act as a motivator.


    2. "how many low income single mothers buy gym memberships? The best exercise can sometimes be a jog around the block"

    a. Having mentioned "low income" in wielding another cliche, it looks like my point immediately above has been conceded: money talks. How many single mothers would go to the gym if it cost a lot less? I say more. Which is a social good. Which merits an administrative incentive on the part of the province. Now, how many single mothers have time to go the gym? The point is sort of moot on both sides; hence one would look to universal daycare (which I support, but is a different debate) and corporate tax incentives to build showers, gyms, etc.

    b. The *best* exercise is *never* "a jog around the block." A good exercise *can* be a jog around the block. But try that in -30. Or -15. I don't care, it still sucks.


    3. 'bring in a “fat tax”'

    a. HOLY TAX THE POOR BATMAN!!! Really, that's just like VLT's. The poor eat more junk food. The poor gamble more. The poor smoke more. Social facts. I support taxing the shit out tabacco because it kills you, and second-hand kills me, but the rest are just indirect poverty taxes. There may seem to be an incongruity in my defence of universal tax incentives to be felt majoritarily by the middle class and a denunciation of punitive taxes to be felt by the poor, but that incongruity exists only if you posit a zero-sum system. Which isn't the case, as any (non-marxist) economist will tell you. The former incentive doesn't hurt anyone, and arguably indirectly benefits everyone. The latter directly hurts one group, while ostensibly indirectly helping everyone.

    b. This is a corollary to the above, but merits individual mention: I think a fat tax won't substantially affect consumption patterns to the point of improving health. It will provide a revenue stream, but that's it.

    By Blogger matt, at 2:00 PM  

  • I'm not sure that I agree that by implementing the "Fat Tax" that you are indirectly taxing the poor. It's cheaper to buy whole foods than convenience foods even without the tax, and if you're truly counting your pennies you're probably thinking twice about buying convenience food. Whole foods go a longer distance and give you more than one meal.

    In BC, convenience food is already taxed. I just recently moved here from Alberta and I will say that it has made me think twice about what convenience foods I'm willing to buy when I have to pay an extra 7% on it. I'm buying more whole foods for two reasons in BC, one because of the tax and two because groceries here are more expensive and it's cheaper to buy whole foods and get off my lazy ass and make whole food meals as opposed to convenience food meals.

    By Blogger Amber, at 3:06 PM  

  • Valid points Matt, but I'm sticking behind two things:

    1. People who use gyms are generally middle to upper class. If you're working extra to support your family, or are a single mom, you don't have time to go to the gym.

    2. A fat tax would work. "Neccesity" foods would be exempt and if poor people buy junk food instead of the basics, then that's their problem. But, at least, it would hit everyone with unhealthy habits, rather than only helping the upper class which I maintain the gym vouchers would do.

    Finally, I don't think the gym idea would work. Sure, more people might buy gym memberships in January if they got a tax break, but where's the incensite to not give up in February? Considering it's even less of a sunk cost, I don't think people would be motivated to stick with it. If I've put down 200$ for a yearly membership, I'm more likely to get my "money's worth", than if I only put down 50$.

    I do like the intent behind this, but I really don't think it would work.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 4:23 PM  

  • I'm going to repeat myself, with three questions:

    1. Why is bad if gym vouchers end up only helping the middle class?

    2. Why is it ok if the poor with unhealty eating habits are made poorer?

    3. If a single mom doesn't have time to go to the gym, she doesn't have time to run around the block in -20 weather, so why are we kicking this example around?

    By Blogger matt, at 5:18 PM  

  • How many people buy gym memberships but barely even use it?

    The intent behind the gym voucher program is a good one, but its primary beneficiary will be gyms as businesses, with the health of Albertans lagging distantly behind.

    By Blogger Jim, at 8:21 PM  

  • "1. Why is bad if gym vouchers end up only helping the middle class?"
    -Because inevitably, if money is spent on giving them tax breaks, there's less cash to go around for social programs or low income tax breaks.

    "2. Why is it ok if the poor with unhealty eating habits are made poorer?"
    -To encourage them to eat healthier. The same reason the poor who smoke pay cigarette taxes.


    "3. If a single mom doesn't have time to go to the gym, she doesn't have time to run around the block in -20 weather, so why are we kicking this example around?"
    -The point here is that there are a lot of ways to get in shape other than buying a gym pass. What if someone works construction? Should they get a benefit too? What if someone bike's to work every morning?


    And even if more people BUY gym passes, are we sure this will encourage them to use it. If the sunk cost is less, it seems to me they'd be less motivated to go to the gym.

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