Hamburgers, Guns and Tobacco

By DAVID MOON, Moon Capital Management
March 28, 2004

In recent testimony on Capital Hill, Federal Reserve Board chairman, Alan Greenspan, reiterated his decades-old suggestion that all federal legislation have an expiration date. This would force future citizens and legislators to evaluate the effectiveness of every Congressional decision. Particularly with respect to fiscal, monetary or other economic decisions, this would help differentiate legislation with sound financial basis from laws passed simply as favors or punishment to certain constituent groups.

I thought about that this week when I read that almost a third of the children in Knox County are overweight. This information was released less than a week after the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation that would prevent people from suing restaurants for causing obesity.

The lawmakers had the audacity to claim the super-sized protective legislation was driven by a concern for the economy. 'I don't want to see all those [restaurant] jobs at stake,' claimed the bill's sponsor, Ric Keller (R., FL.)

I suspect Keller's concern about lost jobs might also extend to a certain congressional House district in Florida, one that also happens to be the headquarters of Red Lobster and Olive Garden.

Why are we protecting McDonald's, but not Philip Morris? Is it okay to sue a company because its product gave you cancer, but not diabetes? If your heart attack was caused by decades of cigarettes, you can call a lawyer, but if your heart attack resulted from arteries clogged with french fry grease, you are responsible for your own actions?

The health statistics are comparable. Tobacco accounts for 435,000 U.S. deaths annually, compared to 400,000 for poor diet and physical inactivity. Interestingly, the House bill automatically dismisses any state or federal lawsuits based on weight gain or obesity resulting from any served or manufactured food or beverage ' except alcoholic beverages. Obviously, the beer manufacturers aren't giving enough money to the right people.

Does that sound cynical? Of course it does. But what else could explain Congress almost passing similar protective legislation for the firearm industry two weeks ago? The bill was withdrawn only after The National Rifle Association withdrew its support, because of language that would have impacted gun shows. Legislatively, limits on manufacturer liability are good when the NRA supports it, but bad without that support? Sure, no automobile driver has ever been impaired as a result of hamburger abuse. But is that reason enough to protect the purveyor of grease and not the hops and barley manufacturer?

Why do we need these types of laws at all? Do we need government to force people to be responsible for their own actions? And if the answer is 'yes,' why should one type of responsibility be mandated while shirking the other is congressionally encouraged?

Hence the cynicism.

If we ever adopt chairman Greenspan's idea to require re-approval of all federal laws after a certain period, this type of legislative favoritism would be more clearly exposed. And perhaps, eventually, responsibility would be clearly accepted where it always logically resided: with the individual.

David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management, a Knoxville-based investment management firm. This article originally appeared in the News Sentinel (Knoxville, TN).

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