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The carrot, the stick, and stupid policy

As a society, we generally have a set of expectations for how we want people to live. In general we try to encourage people to do things we want, usually by passing on bits of paper, while discouraging people from doing things we don't want, usually by either taking bits of paper from them or by restricting their movements. Two big areas where society is seeing some importance are in areas of health and environment. As I'll discuss shortly my current country of residence seems to understand the stick quite well, but doesn't seem to have any concept of the carrot.

First, to health. A year or so ago, Jamie Oliver brought up stuff about children not eating properly in schools and associated problems with junk food and childhood obesity. In yesterday's Western Mail, it was reported that Cardiff is planning to ban chips from schools to encourage healthier eating. Let me just say that as a child, I usually had 2 or 3 healthy meals a day, and a further 2 or 3 unhealthy ones, as well as lots of healthy and unhealthy snacks. I ate a lot. I needed to. Coupled with a growing body, I was quite an active child, playing a variety of sports and participating in other activities. The problem seems to me that this country doesn't understand sports. I blame it squarely on the dominance of soccer. Whereas in Australia it is not uncommon to play a wide variety of sports - on weeknights as well as on weekends - here, it seems that it is soccer on a weekend or very little else. The carrot; the essential thing to encourage health and fitness: to encourage people to be active. Rebecca joined a gym yesterday. Cheapest membership: £41. $100. Per month. Per month! 30 days.

A chip ban is all well and good, but if you make exercise unaffordable, all that happens is that people won't do it, and no amount of good eating is really going to make a difference. Actually, a chip ban is not all well and good at all. I see nothing wrong with eating chips sometimes. Better than all the doughnuts I have eaten in my life...

Next, the environment. We're told about how important it is to use environmentally friendly transport options. The train is fantastic. We all know that short flights use quite a lot of fuel and emit a lot of CO2, and there is frequent talk here of increasing taxes on flights as a CO2 tax. Sometime in the future, Bec needs to go to London for a meeting. Booked two months in advance, how much do you think a train far to London for the day will cost. Leaving in the morning and coming back that night. Make a quiet guess before reading on. For the cheapest ticket which qould get her in by 11AM. Made a guess yet? One hundred and fifty pounds. About $400. For comparison, I could book to fly out of Cardiff to go to Parma Mallorca tomorrow and come back on Tuesday, first quote I got, for the same price. Do that trip 3 and a bit times, and I could get to Melbourne for the same price. Indeed, a quick first look and I could book a set of flights which would see Bec have a similar set of constraints, and travel times, for £42. Going via Edinburgh. Am I the only one who sees this as insane?

There are times when regulation hampers freedom and is overly restrictive. There are other times when an essential services act needs to be invoked for thinks which aren't actually essential services, but are important socially. Banning or taxing offenders is one way to go about it, but it is useless or worse if the things which are good, or important, or preferential are exploitatively over-priced.

I know someone here who is applying to be a physics teacher. They want physics teachers. They have a shortage of physics teachers. She has a PhD in Physics. She is asked to pay £12 for her application. How ridiculous is that? She is applying for a position THEY have a shortage in, and they want to charge HER money. Something they should be offering a carrot for, and instead they are actually providing a stick!

I recently got an NTL phone. After an initial bout of poor service almost led me to not get a phone at all, I found someone who was helpful, and I got a basic package. He suggested that they wanted to charge me £25 for a reference check. I suggested that they wouldn't be doing that. We reached a compromise, whereby I don't pay for a reference check, but I get a telephone line and I pay the (cheapest) standard bills for it. You see, here's the thing. I am the customer. They are the service provider. I pay them to provide a service. If they want to perform a check on me, that is their business. If they want to charge me for the priviledge then I don't feel inclined to pay for their telephone service, and they can go and get stuffed.

On the other hand, they are still ahead of us when it comes to bank service and newspapers.


Comment from Gillian

A Propos; the state government has decided to ban high sugar fizzy drinks from school canteens. They are also thinking about banning lollies and chocolates. They are planning to not allow fizzy drinks on school premises. I'm not sure what they hope to achieve. So kids don't have them at school. Won't hurt them, but I suspect it won't gain much either.

As for your many meals a day-I worked out once you polished off about 4000 calories a day on a normal day. Just as well you excercised it off!

I respond

How ridiculous! I don't believe in making unenforceable rules. If they want to provide guidance for schools as to what they can sell or what they shouldn't, fine. I think banning it is over the top. Even further, how are they going to enforce a ban on them being on school grounds? Enforcing it means that there is a punishment involved. I can just see it going like this (for those who know Carol Jensen, this will work better with her voice for the teacher's part. For those who don't, she was my level co-ordinator at school.):

"Alex, what are you drinking?"
"You know the rules against bringing fizzy drinks to school."
"Yeah, but they're silly rules."
"Alex, you can't pick and choose which rules you follow. I'm going to have to give you a detention."
"So tell me, why is the rule in place."
"Because fizzy drinks are unhealthy"
"So I'm going to sit inside all lunch time rather than running around playing (insert whichever sport I was playing at the time)?"
"Fine, you can have two cleaning duties instead."

I didn't often win against her. Seriously, though, how do teachers enforce a ban? Usually through punishments which involve sitting down being bored. How is that going to help? How does that enforce the message that we want healthier living? For all readers, note: the 4000 calories was an average. There were days when I ate a lot more than that. I needed it to make up for all the exercise I did. I struggled to put on any weight. I still do. Since moving over here, I've lost 5kg without trying. Imagine what'll happen once I start exercising seriously and regularly - I'll start eating lots more!

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