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Policy: Economy

Big Ideas: On pizza, cigarettes and cupcakes

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Education,PennAve,Joseph Lawler,Economy,Smoking,Think Tanks,Magazine

Frederick Hess for the American Enterprise Institute's AEIdeas: A Maryland middle school has sparked heated controversy by holding an end-of-day pizza party for high-performing students. As Donna St. George reported in [the] Washington Post, Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring only invited straight-A students to the final period celebration, while allowing B and C students to join after school. Students with less than a C average (306 of Eastern's 865 students) weren't invited at all. Some parents and education professors complained bitterly, with one Mount St. Mary's professor denouncing the school for “creating a caste system.”

I’m not unsympathetic to the concerns, especially when students with special needs, for instance, may have a tougher time earning an invite. Educators must always strive to strike a healthy balance between encouraging hard work and rewarding merit, on the one hand, and creating an environment that embraces and supports all their kids, on the other. If the school was routinely holding exclusionary events or assigning cafeteria seating based on grades, I’d think they’d probably have gone too far.

That said, c’mon! We now live in a society where the scales have been decidedly tipped away from encouraging hard work and towards making kids feel OK.

 

SMOKE 'EM IF YOU SMUGGLE 'EM

Lyman Stone for the Tax Foundation: A recent study suggests that high taxes on tobacco products drive black market cigarette sales, finding that some areas have black markets equal to nearly half of total sales. The study, which was based on an analysis of cigarette packs littered throughout major urban areas, found that nearly 40 percent of cigarettes in Boston are black market, as are 48 percent of cigarettes in New York City, 30 to 55 percent of cigarettes in Providence, R.I., and 30 to 60 percent in Washington, D.C. ...

The phrase “black market” cigarettes, however, can raise a ghoulish specter for readers when, in fact, it covers a wide range of activities. Some of these smuggled cigarettes may in fact use counterfeit stamps, hijacked trucks or other nefarious means, including actual bribery of law enforcement. However, some “smuggled” cigarettes are simply normal people shopping over state lines. Pinning down exactly how much cigarette smuggling is an organized attempt at mass tax evasion versus consumers shopping for a good price can be quite tricky.

Enforcing anti-smuggling laws is thus difficult, and could be costly. The exact cost of enforcement is virtually unknown, as very few states publish public data on how much money is spent specifically enforcing tobacco excise tax laws. But if spending on policing of drugs and alcohol is any clue, the bill for states to increase enforcement would be substantial.

 

DESPOTISM OF THE DELICIOUS

Evan Bernick for Heritage's Foundry: Like aspiring American entrepreneurs throughout our country's history, 11-year-old Chloe Stirling wanted to help herself by helping others. Determined to save money for a car when she comes of age, Chloe baked, sold and donated cupcakes for two years. She ran her business, called, “Hey, Cupcake!” out of her parents' kitchen in Troy, Ill.

Ironically, it was Chloe’s success that got her in trouble. After a local paper lauded her creative cupcaking, the Madison County Health Department took notice and told her to close up shop.

What were they thinking? Section 750.1360 of the Illinois Food Service Sanitation Code requires that a kitchen used for a “food service operation” must be separate from any “living areas,” including the family kitchen. Chloe’s mother, Heather Stirling, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that officials said that the family would need to buy a bakery or a separate kitchen for Chloe.

Heather’s reaction says it all: “A separate kitchen? Who can do that?”

Not our problem, say local officials. “The rules are the rules. It’s for the protection of the public health,” health department spokesperson Amy Yeager said, according to the Post-Dispatch. “The guidelines apply to everyone.”

As Chief Justice John Roberts once wrote for a unanimous Supreme Court in Gonzalez v. O Centro (2006), this statement “echoes the classic rejoinder of bureaucrats throughout history: If I make an exception for you, I'll have to make one for everybody, so no exceptions.”

Discretion is inherent to law enforcement. Every decision to enforce a law diverts resources from other priorities. So it’s worth asking whether there is any reason to think that this instance of unauthorized cupcake production endangers the public health. Otherwise, we’re justified in asking whether local health authorities have better things to do with taxpayer money.

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