Mike Bloomberg must be getting a bit antsy in these waning days of his semi-legal third term as mayor of New York. After ten years in office, my hometown CEO seems to have given up on our crumbling infrastructure and troubled education system, and he is facing down a problem he can handle. At City Hall this week, Bloomberg announced he will outlaw the sale of sodas, iced teas, sports drinks, and other sugar-packed beverages greater than 16 ounces, which these days is about the size of a McDonald's small. The proposal is riddled with exceptions, and New Yorkers will still be able to buy enormous quantities at supermarkets or bodegas, but everywhere from your corner restaurant to Madison Square Garden, the days of the mega-soda are numbered.
The mayor is no fan of sugary drinks, which he insists contributes to the city's obesity epidemic: 58% of the residents of the five boroughs are now overweight or obese. To be fair, this is New York – at least we don't drive, and maybe we can burn off a few of those thousand calories on the waddle to the subway, where riders can see ads from the administration featuring a diabetic soda lover with an amputated limb.
Last year, you may remember, Bloomberg tried to prohibit low-income New Yorkers from using food stamps to buy soda and other sugary beverages; the federal government shot it down. With this ban, though, Bloomberg can have his way far more easily. All that's required is a revision of the city health code, which the mayor can do pretty much unilaterally. He doesn't need to get a law passed in Albany, which often ends badly for him: Albany killed his one truly great idea, a London-style congestion charge. He doesn't even need to get it rubber-stamped by the city council.
This is Bloomberg in his favorite mode, that of unquestioned head of New York Inc. Our nonpartisan mayor has never had much time for the niceties of government, negotiating with colleagues and meeting stakeholders. He far prefers to rule from his bullpen at City Hall, executing from the top down or else delegating to a host of deputies hired from the private sector. In today's New York, the CEO proposes, and his will is done.
It is interesting to note, though, that the mayor's own company is actually more permissive than his city when it comes to downing high-fructose corn syrup. Bloomberg LP, the financial media company that made him into the 12th-richest man in America, may be notorious for its Orwellian surveillance of its employees, who carry security passes that track their location – but they can slam as many sodas as they can afford to pay for in the company pantry.
The mayor is taking abuse from all sides now about his penchant for these kind of nanny-state provisions. Bloomberg has banned smoking not just in bars and restaurants, but in public parks and on outdoor terraces. He made New York the first city to ban artificial trans fats, such as margarine and cheap, processed vegetable oil. And he introduced calorie counts at fast food joints and your local Starbucks, where the cold caffeinated beverages of a different socio-economic class can be every bit as fattening as a soon-to-be-banned giant Mountain Dew.
These laws infuriate people – and not just the anti-government right and the populist press, but self-congratulatory liberals who would never touch a half-gallon soda at 7-Eleven but recoil at the thought of leaders "telling us what to do".
But here's the thing: public health is a totally legitimate concern of local government, and it's pretty weird for the very same people so angry that the Republicans or the US supreme court may void federal healthcare reform also want to defend unhealthy behavior in the name of "freedom" or "individual choice".
Smoking leads to a horror house of epidemiological costs: would anybody contend that we shouldn't regulate it? And while banning sugary drinks would obviously be ineffective (and Bloomberg's proposed food stamps prohibition was classist and foolhardy), regulating the terms of their sale is exactly what the government is for. The original glass Coke bottle was a refreshing eight ounces. Yet portion sizes have ballooned to antisocial scale in recent years: food companies make more money selling larger sizes, since the perception of value in giant portions outweighs (too literally) the marginal cost of production.
The soda industry profits while public health declines and public coffers dwindle. If regulating portion sizes can improve public health, even at the expense of private enterprise, then let's get to it.
The problem isn't the nanny state; the problem is the nanny. Regulation and governance are supposed to take place in a robust democratic framework, but that is not how things work in contemporary New York, where our billionaire leader will have his way. City Hall is promising a three-month "comment period" before the measure comes into effect, but we know what that means. The decision has been taken at the top: deputies and mandarins have gathered the data to support the chief's idea; the media have been enlisted to make the case; and public forums will offer the veneer of consultation.
At a press conference announcing the measure, Bloomberg told reporters that he was going ahead with the ban because "I think that's what the public wants the mayor to do." Well, he would know.
Bloomberg's most deleterious legacy, then – and one from which New York will need a long time to recover – is how he deactivated politics in the city for an entire decade, and how, by dint of his billions, he reduced an entire city from citizens to consumers. His absurd re-election in 2009, which cost him $100m of his own cash and entailed cowing the entire political and media establishment to allow his scrapping of term limit laws, exposed just how inert he has made New York, a city once called ungovernable but now worryingly quiescent.
While the brief interval of Occupy Wall Street gave us a reminder of what public political engagement looks like, that is almost certainly finished now. So we have receded once again into a population for whom the regulation of the sale of carbonated beverages is the closest we get to caring about our own laws and government. It's telling, really, that many opponents of this new measure have been so upset that our mayor is telling us "how to live". Because in Bloomberg's New York, that is all that's left: this is a city where how we live is now congruent with what we buy.
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