TCS Daily

Machine Politics

By Duane D. Freese - May 13, 2004 12:00 AM

Whatever happened to the notion of participatory democracy? You know, the idea that "all people had basic rights to participation, or that democracy was the system best suited for respecting human dignity"? You know, the radical '60s stuff of Tom Hayden, Gary Wills, E.J. Dionne and the Port Huron Statement?

Well, it got killed -- by the left. Leftists and liberals now prefer to have Washington dictate the answers. Why? Because participatory democracy at its finest is the free marketplace where people can vote for what they want by the dollars they spend. And that's just not right.

For the left found it's so much easier to force everybody to do what they want in one place rather than take their message to the people. People -- especially people in local governments -- are clods. They don't know what's good for them.

Thus, when pollution of air and water became a great concern 30 years ago, liberals and leftists in the environmental movement quickly abandoned any principle about localities having a say about standards. Once the Environmental Protection Agency was established, it became the tool to dictate the standards. Those areas in noncompliance, heh, heh, could do without highway funds, or whatever.

Now that same anti-participatory, anti-democratic, federal dictatorial attitude is about to be applied to cleaning up the great "obesity epidemic."

This week, the activist organization Center for Science in the Public Interest released an earthshaking study showing, ta-da!, that vending machines in middle and high schools primarily dispense candy, potato chips, pretzels, cheese crackers and sugary sodas rather than healthful fruit and vegetables, or skimmed milk.

Now a normally observant person might ask, "What do you expect? Isn't that what vending machines have always dispensed anywhere, any time? Did we really need a study to tell us that?" A normally inquisitive individual also might ask: Was there any correlation with the introduction of vending machines in schools and increased levels of overweight and obesity?

That would be something newsworthy. As Sandy Szwarc noted in her series on diet and obesity on TCS last summer, "Studies... analyzing the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III) by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the USDA's Continuing Survey of Food Intake by Individuals found no relationship between consumption of soft drinks and the overall quality of diets or the BMIs in adolescents. In fact, teen boys who drank the most carbonated beverages also exercised the most, and the thinnest kids tended to be the biggest pop drinkers."

CSPI says otherwise, but its study didn't look into actual cause and effect relations. Such mundane concerns might have only diminished the shocking revelatory nature of the CSPI report's finding about the contents of vending machines.

How shocking? Well, enough so that Democratic Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, along with Democratic House member Lynn Woolsey of California, felt impelled to introduce federal legislation to regulate -- really -- the contents of vending machines in schools. As the 15th Century religious reformer (some would say zealot) Gialarmo Savonarola confessed: "I know not my own heart, but I will show thee what I feel." Act first, reason later.

Under the proposed legislation, the USDA would determine appropriate healthy offerings in vending machines. School districts that provided such healthy vended offerings would presumably be rewarded with federal grants, or at least that seems to be the idea. Those that didn't could apparently lose their USDA school lunch program money.

Why such a heavy federal hand? Well, according to Sens. Harkin and Leahy, it's because obesity is such a big federal issue with $93 billion in Medicare and Medicaid money being spent on obesity related health problems. (By the same logic, since inactivity increases obesity, the federal government also should regulate television watching, video gaming and other non-strenuous leisure time activities -- but let's not give the feds any bright ideas).

It is, of course, nonsense. School districts ought to be able to figure out for themselves what to stock and what not to in their hallways. CSPI itself has sent around its own circulars to schools to tell them what they think schools should do. But CSPI and the rest of the liberal left seem to prefer dictation to persuasion.

There is a better way to deal with food choices in schools. It would be to get the kids involved. Schools ought to be centers for learning, and not merely by rote regurgitation and memorization. The issue of vending machines in schools is one in which young people ought to participate. It is a perfect teaching tool about health issues, personal choices and responsibility and democracy.

Vending machines aren't the root of the obesity problem. Personal choices are. And if kids had to discuss and decide what would be offered in vending machines, and perhaps even in lunch programs, they might learn something about nutrition and citizenship.

That kind of participatory democracy is something the radicals of the '60s demanded -- out of respect for themselves and others. But apparently that's old millennium thinking. Democrats of the new millennium seem intent on dictating student choices instead.


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