News outlets were buzzing recently with the news that New York's Gov. David Paterson had announced an astonishingly harmful package of new taxes and fees, guaranteed to hurt New York's already feeble economy by further deepening the economic burdens this particularly liberal state imposes on its weary populace.
Fresh on the heels of complaining publicly that "Saturday Night Live" had the gall to make fun of his visual impairment, and in a beautiful illustration of the blind leading the blind (as Paterson leads the state's government), the Empire State's replacement governor demonstrated quite ably that Fred Armisen's portrayal of him as a bumbling, stumbling, clueless fool was, if anything, unnecessarily kind. Paterson's judgment in economic matters is enough to make New Yorkers long for the return of Eliot Spitzer, whom Paterson replaced after Spitzer's repeated use of a high-priced prostitute became public knowledge and forced Spitzer to resign in disgrace. (Not to be outdone, Paterson took office and almost immediately announced that he had been having a series of extramarital affairs, lest any New Yorkers be tempted to believe the lieutenant governor's promotion might actually be a good thing.)
You may be asking, "What does this have to do with technology?" The answer is this: Among the many new taxes and fees Paterson has invented and budgeted, in an orgy of unfettered tax-and-spend liberalism, is a huge tax on "regular" soda – sodas that are not specifically "diet" in nature. This attempt to codify, yet again, political correctness and liberal sensibility as public law promotes the consumption of substances produced through technology, specifically chemical technology. This is not the first time such a maneuver has been made, and as always happens when technology and government social engineering meet, unintended consequences are the result.
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The overarching issue is that of individual freedom, of course. Specifically, when the government targets politically incorrect consumer goods for taxes – the equivalent of raising "sin" taxes such as are levied on alcohol and tobacco products – it is presuming to tell you what is and is not good for you. It is using the force of law to make you live as those in government power wish you to live. Repugnant as this is, however, it isn't the primary point of concern. No, much more importantly, when the government encourages the consumption of a specific product, it must then take responsibility for that increase. Where chemical technology is concerned, this is always risky. In the case of Gov. Paterson's tax on "non-diet" soda, the government is making the erroneous assumption that so-called "diet" sodas are healthy, healthier than regular soda, or even safe for human consumption in quantity.
If we are to accept that a tax on soda is warranted or at least tolerable, it makes much more sense to tax all such beverages. Carbonated beverages in general, "diet" or otherwise, simply aren't healthy for you. Caffeine has various and widely known negative side effects, both short-term and long-term. The high acidity of dark colas can cause gastronomic distress and may be the cause of other problems. While "diet" sodas don't have the same high number of empty calories that regular sodas do, the artificial sweeteners used in them have been linked (spuriously or otherwise – the scare over the use of the sweetener saccharine is a good example of the former) to a variety of potential problems, such as cancer. Even if we stipulate that none of the diseases purportedly caused by "diet" sodas really are caused by them, there's no way to know what long-term consumption of such high levels of chemicals and additives might be doing to us. Taxing "regular" sodas (though we know the sugar in empty-calorie regular soda can cause diseases like diabetes) encourages increased consumption of the diet alternatives, creating the unintended consequences associated with that long-term and heightened ingestion of chemicals.
This isn't empty speculation. The "better living through chemistry" that is both product and goal of our technological age can cause us to re-evaluate our choices later on. Margarine, once touted as a healthy alternative to "real" butter, contains trans fats, which are apparently so unhealthy (by today's standards) that New York City has banned their use in restaurants (one area of the public's food consumption that is firmly under bureaucratic control). The whole point of margarine was supposed to be that it was a better alternative, something we devised to take the place of a much simpler, much more natural product thought to be quite unhealthy. Of course, the reaction to the unintended consequences of our technology leads us to government intervention – which may, in fact, turn out to have even more unintended consequences later on. What harms will Paterson's so-called "obesity tax" produce that we have not yet envisioned?
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It is neither logical nor really feasible to go through life as a Luddite, shunning all technological development – chemical or otherwise – out of fear. Many very real improvements in our standard of living can be achieved through the judicious use of technology. Food irradiation is one good example of this issue. Irradiating food to kill harmful bacteria increases food safety (and we've seen our share of e coli scares in recent years). Some fear it out of the very natural, very visceral anxiety most of us experience when confronted by the term "radiation." Over time, however, more people are coming to accept the notion, and we all benefit from its widespread use. The fastest way to derail these efforts would be to make it a government mandate of some kind, which could very well create unintended consequences later if technology not fully understood is nevertheless rushed into application.
For technological advancement to move hand in hand with public acceptance, not to mention public safety, it must occur at its own pace. For a free nation to remain free, and for a technologically advanced people to continue to innovate, government mandates must be prevented from fostering dangerous and largely unanticipated side effects.