CapX: With food prices on the rise, now is not the time for clumsy anti-obesity policies

Do we really need a 9pm watershed to protect our youth from the perils of Pringles?

This article was published on CapX.

The rise in gas prices isn’t just pushing up energy bills, it’s affecting food prices too – and the worst is yet to come.

Tesco chairman John Allan has predicted that food prices could rise by 5% by spring as energy and other costs feed through to the high street.

Food and drink manufacturers have been absorbing rising commodity prices for years, allowing consumer prices to remain as low as possible, but that is beginning to take its toll. Combined with the lingering effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and weaker exports due to Brexit, producers’ margins are becoming ever more squeezed, which has a knock-on effect on food prices on the shelves.

As Helen Dickinson of the British Retail Consortium put it, ‘it would be impossible to protect consumers from any future rises. As commodity prices, energy prices and transportation costs continue to rise, it is inevitable that retail prices will continue to follow in the future.’

Food prices were already rising early last year. Global food commodity prices rose by 17% in the first half of 2021, as pointed out by ex-Bank of England chief economist Andrew Haldane. The UN Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says there has been a 30% year-on-year rise in prices, fuelled by non-economic factors such as poor wheat harvests.

But instead of considering how to keep costs down to protect consumers, the Government is pursuing a self-defeating, expensive anti-obesity drive. Take the Health and Care Bill, amendments to which are being debated in Parliament this week. This legislation will ban ‘buy one get one free’ and ‘three for two’ promotions in supermarkets, while new advertising rules will affect all food the Government deems ‘unhealthy’, with a new 9pm watershed to protect Britain’s fragile youth from the perils of Pringles and menace of Mars bars.

What’s even more frustrating is that the very idea that restricting certain foods will make us thinner is a wild over-simplification. Most primary schoolers could probably tell you that multiple factors contribute to obesity, and that staying a healthy weight involves a balance between diet and exercise. There is no untested silver-bullet that will make Brits shed the pounds en masse.

To make matters even worse, this regulatory drive will raise already high costs faced by food manufacturers, which will inevitably be passed onto consumers. That’s before you consider the direct costs of stopping low-income shoppers accessing two-for-one deals, which many rely on to help make ends meet. Indeed, according to research from the Food & Drink Federation annual shopping bills could rise by more than £160 per household thanks to these new rules. That might not hurt those on middle incomes particularly severely, but it’s potentially ruinous for households who are already on the breadline.

As John Allan pointed out in his BBC interview, for those on lower incomes the cost of food takes up a disproportionate chunk of household budgets. In other words, not only will these clumsy anti-obesity interventionists make the poor poorer – they will hit the poor harder than anyone else.

While the clamour is always for politicians to ‘do something’ to address high prices, in this case the best response would be to take a step back and pause the Health and Care Bill until we can properly assess its potential impact on the cost-of-living crisis.

CapX: Nannying anti-obesity policies are a big fat mistake – the market already has the answers

A pioneering new anti-cholesterol drug shows innovation, not centralisation is the way to fight fat.

This article was first published on CapX.

The vaccine rollout may have stalled but Britain is still world-leading in at least one area: obesity and nannying policies designed to squash it.

A sugar levy on soft drinks. A ban on junk food advertising during the day and online. A £100m fund to ‘support weight management services’. A patronising rewards scheme which hands out points when people make healthy choices like buying fruit and vegetables. Perhaps even a hefty tax on all sugar and salt. There’s no shortage of ideas for slimming Britain down swilling around in Westminster.

But all these policies suffer the same flaws. None work and all will damage us, in various ways.

The junk food ad ban, for instance, will hamstring the food, advertising and broadcast sectors and remove just 1.7 calories from children’s diets per day – per the Government’s own analysis. People responded to Theresa May’s soft drinks sugar levy by finding creative ways to consume the same amount of sugar as always, including switching to other high-sugar, high-calorie drinks like fruit juices or resorting to own-brand alternatives to their usual choices, which contain the same amount of sugar but are cheap enough to offset the artificial price increase. Yet politicians are still working from the tired ‘tobacco playbook’, trying to solve socio-political ills by taxing and regulating them out of existence.

Public health policy never seems to be evaluated on its success or failure. The Government presses on with these measures even when they fall flat because it views saving its citizens from cellulite as a sacrosanct public good. If ministers could stop obsessing over centralised anti-obesity policies for just a moment, they would see that the market is producing plenty of solutions of its own.

For instance, NICE announced this week that the NHS will soon beginning offering inclisiran, a ‘game-changing’ new anti-cholesterol drug which steps in where other drugs, like statins, have failed in order to reduce harmful fats in the blood. NHS England estimates it could save 30,000 lives over ten years.

If the Government really wants to make Brits less fat – and if Boris Johnson was serious when he promised in 2019 to ‘roll back the continuing creep of the nanny state’ – it should scrap its tax-and-ban approach, invest in science and allow free-market innovations like inclisiran to take the lead in the fight against obesity.

Instead we have the deranged plan laid out by food tsar and Leon owner Henry Dimbleby in his ‘National Food Strategy’ to slap a stifling tax on all sugar and salt. Make no mistake, Dimbleby’s plan would be an unmitigated disaster. It would do nothing to combat obesity and would instead only make the poor poorer. Adding £3.4bn to our shopping bills every year and pricing the poor out of pleasure is perhaps the polar opposite of ‘levelling up’.

Obesity is shaping up to be our next pandemic in more ways than one. To begin with, we are getting fatter. Much more worryingly, the Government is continuing to set new precedents for intervention in our private lives.

The state is taking it upon itself to make our lifestyle decisions for us, and depriving the poor of pleasure and choice in the process – that’s a big, fat mistake.

CapX: Knee-jerk reactions are no way to regulate big tech

A new quango will seek to rein in Silicon Valley and the Chancellor has set his sights on punitive taxes for the uber-successful technology sector.

This article was first published on CapX.

Regulation enthusiasts around the world have set their sights on big tech.

In the UK, the outlet for this newfound appetite to rein in Silicon Valley is a brand new quango called the Digital Markets Unit [DMU], set to form part of the existing Competition and Markets Authority [CMA]. Specifics about the DMU’s remit are hard to come by, but the Government says it intends to foster a ‘pro-competition regime’ as it adapts the regulatory landscape to the challenges of big tech.

Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and the minister holding the levers of power behind the DMU, is keeping his cards close to his chest. His stance remains murky, for instance, on the recent regulatory punch-up between Facebook and the Australian government. State powers down under emerged victorious after Mark Zuckerberg agreed to fork out new fees in order to host news links on Facebook.

Dowden has reportedly been chatting to his Australian counterparts – and has sent cryptic messages to the t-shirt-wearing gurus across the Atlantic (and Nick Clegg) – but has yet to come down on either side of the fence or offer any substantial hints about whether or not Britain might follow in Australia’s footsteps.

Others in Westminster appear much keener on an agenda of active hostility towards the American tech giants. Matt Hancock has already said he wants to see the UK mimic Australia’s hamstringing of social media companies by forcing them to pay news producers, calling himself a ‘great admirer’ of countries which have done so successfully.

Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak is already planning his next move. In the manner of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Dictator in a 100-metre sprint firing a gun at runners as they pull out ahead, Sunak has set his sights on the uber-successful technology industry, and wants to slow that success down by taxing it.

Not only does Sunak want to penalise tech giants for their successful business models with a new tax, he is also planning to use this year’s G7 summit in sandy Cornwall to lobby his international counterparts to do the same, with US treasury secretary Janet Yellen first in line to hear his pitch, which has the support of the Prime Minister. Companies like Amazon are already taxed for their digital services in the UK, but the chancellor views the current system as a stopgap until a global tech tax can be implemented.

This dramatic influx of punitive policies is set to do much more harm than good. Some new regulation may well be needed in this area – but there is an urgent danger that the Government will hurriedly execute a raft of headline-hungry policies which will do immeasurable damage in the longer term.

Poorly thought-out attempts to ‘level the playing field’ between old and new forms of commerce is not the area where post-Brexit Britain should be chasing a world-leading status. Instead, let’s set an example for what a modern, free economy which regulates big tech without being hostile towards it can look like. It’s not too late to keep the Digital Markets Unit’s in-house red tape production line from getting out of hand.

CapX: British universities should not be peddling China’s soft power

Under a thin veil of teaching, Confucius Institutes have allowed Beijing to quietly infiltrate British academia. Why are universities opening themselves up to the direct influence of the Chinese Communist Party?

This article was co-authored by human rights activist Benedict Rogers. It was first published on CapX.

If there was any doubt before now, the actions of the Chinese Communist Party in 2020 have shown that it stands in opposition to members of the international community seeking to promote liberty, democracy, and the protection of human rights. From the cover-up of vital data in the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak, to dismantling freedom in Hong Kong, threatening invasion of Taiwan, brazenly arresting journalists, and perpetrating a genocide of the Uighur Muslims, Beijing has placed itself firmly on the wrong side of the history.

As a result, democratic nations are now undoing decades of diplomacy and gradually disentangling their politics and economies from the CCP. US President-elect Joe Biden looks set to coordinate an international coalition of democracies to counter China – a more effective strategy than Trump’s trade war.

In the UK, Huawei is being entirely removed from the new 5G mobile network and the British government is seeking to shore up its reputation as a defender of human rights through a variety of diplomatic manoeuvres. The House of Commons narrowly rejected an amendment to the Trade Bill that would have allowed domestic courts to rule on whether the CCP is guilty of genocide in Xinjiang.

These moves away from cooperation and towards condemnation are becoming more urgent with each passing day. Recent document leaks have drawn attention to the hundreds of CCP members who have sworn oaths of loyalty to Beijing and are now working for the Chinese government in universities, defence and pharmaceutical companies, banks, and even British consulates. We are only just beginning to glimpse the tip of the iceberg of the ways in which the CCP wields its influence across the world.

There is one aspect of the CCP’s lurking presence in democratic countries that deserves our attention, now more than ever. Responding to the revelations surrounding US Representative Eric Swalwell’s connections to a suspected Chinese spy, Representative Liz Cheney called for democratic governments to shut down Confucius Institutes.

Confucius Institutes can be found at over 500 universities across six continents. Among them are 29 in the UK, including the Confucius Institute for Business London (CIBL) at LSE. At first glance, Confucius Institutes appear to be innocuous cultural associations, much like the British Council, the American Center or the Alliance Française – but delve a little deeper and a more sinister truth emerges.

Confucius Institutes are a project of Hanban, a division of the Chinese ministry of education. The CIBL calls itself “a partnership between LSE, Tsinghua University and Hanban”. It is part of a project run directly by the Chinese government, initiated by Hu Jintao, its last president, to accrue soft power. This is not a conspiracy theory – it is the stated aim of the initiative. Former senior leader of the CCP, Li Changchun, describes it as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up”.

Under a thin veil of teaching, Confucius Institutes have allowed Beijing to quietly infiltrate British academia. They act as vehicles for the CCP to spread its malign propaganda and compromise the integrity of the British higher education and research sectors. Reports from Human Rights Watch and the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission detail the ways in which Confucius Institutes directly undermine freedom of expression. Investigations from intelligence agencies in Canada, Belgium, and the US have reached the same conclusion.

Of course, on the face of it, the reason Confucius Institutes exist – teaching and cultural exchange – is worthwhile, and many of those Institutes engage in valuable activities. Issues arise when they begin acting beyond their remit, as seems to happen frequently. There are countless examples of western universities, especially in the UK and US, behaving in extraordinary ways as a result of pressure from the Chinese government, facilitated by Confucius Institutes. In 2014, a Portuguese conference had its program directly censored by Hanban because it mentioned Taiwanese academic institutions. The offending pages of the programs were physically torn out as the conference opened.

When China expert Isabel Hilton contributed to an academic journal for a conference, she found that an inconvenient section about the arrest of environmental activist Wu Lihong, who had previously exposed the endemic pollution of a water system relied on by two million people, had been removed by one of the sponsors – a Confucius Institute. The Dalai Lama has been blackballed from campus events countless times, and discussion of the so-called “three Ts” – Tiananmen, Tibet and Taiwan – is often designated as off-limits. The list goes on.

Around one in eight LSE students is domiciled in China. Research from LSE’s Professor Christopher Hughes found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that they were not best pleased about their home regime’s formal presence at LSE. It is a cruel irony to travel from China, a country known for its closely surveilled research environment, to Britain, one renowned for its academic freedom and prowess, only to find that the Chinese government is operating in exactly the same way on the campus of the British university.

No other country in the world has a propaganda outfit based in its education department, controlling hundreds of academic institutes in other countries. China’s motives are transparently harmful and its Confucius Institutes are a key weapon in its armoury. Why are British universities like LSE opening themselves up to direct influence from Beijing in this way, and training up the next generation of Chinese state propagandists in the process?

As we enter a micro-era of international politics which is sure to be defined by a recalibration of relations with China, now is the time for our academic institutions, like LSE, to renounce the Chinese Communist Party – despite its deep pockets – and show the world that they will not compromise their integrity for the sake of foreign dictatorships. Governments and universities have turned a blind eye for too long – both have a role to play in the urgent removal of Confucius Institutes from British soil.

CapX: Bad news is fake news – humanity is a force for good

We seem to have an unquenchable thirst for Bad News, apparently taking great comfort in the assurance that the world is on the brink of implosion and it is all our fault.

This article was first published on CapX.

Last month, BBC One drama Years & Years gifted us a speech for the ages in which we – that is, the entire population of the world, apparently – were retrospectively lectured about how we let everything go to pot thanks to our unquenchable desire to make things better. “Every single thing that’s gone wrong, it’s your fault,” we were sternly informed.

Dispensing with any hint of genuine drama and launching into full-fledged meta-fictional self-satire, we were then told that the dawn of automated checkouts in supermarkets was the beginning of the end for the human race. “Twenty years ago, when they first popped up, did you walk out?” we were asked, straight-faced. “Did you write letters of complaint? Did you shop elsewhere?”

“And I think we do like them, those checkouts,” continues the cutting monologue.  “We want them.” You don’t say. Disappointingly, the connection between the advent of consumer technology, such as the innocuous automated checkout, and the ostensibly looming nuclear Armageddon is not made clear. And yet, remarkably, the programme’s series finale enjoyed near-universal praise from critics, who variously called it “powerful”, “terrifying” and “a raging call to arms”.

Though under the guise of fiction, this message conforms to a cult of chronic negativism in the media. We seem to have an unquenchable thirst for Bad News, apparently taking great comfort in the assurance that the world is on the brink of implosion and it is all our fault. A recent op-ed in the Guardian, for example, called for us – without a hint of irony – to reject “the cult of optimism” and “embrace pessimism”.

Perhaps the worst culprit of the incessant dissemination of pessimism porn is the environmentalist movement. In the pursuit of perpetual greenness, it seems there are no limits to the depths of pessimism that may be plunged, nor are inconvenient truths of any consequence. On CapX recently, Marian Tupy dissected the philosophical roots behind the climate catastrophists’ bizarre fetish for apocalypse, even when in direct contravention of the facts. It was in keeping with the tone of her comrades that Greta Thunberg proclaimed this week that our beloved planet is unlikely to survive another two decades.

Pessimism about any and all issues du jour is nothing new, of course, but the proliferation of unprecedented communications technology has taken it to a dramatic new level.

Consumerist media culture has resulted in an appetite for eye-catching headlines, rather than hard facts. We want to read about the country where a civil war has just broken out, not the one where a shaky peace accord has been signed. We are more drawn to a story saying the world will end next year than one that saying things are looking better than predicted. The beast of public attention is satisfied only by a ceaseless stream of stories more shocking than the last.

By every relevant measure, humanity is the most advanced and productive it has ever been, and the world is a much better place than it was even a short time ago. To point this out does not take romanticism, nor cherry-picking of statistics, but what should be the blindingly obvious assertion that, as we have all got richer, our lives have gotten better.The alarmist narratives are grounded in rhetoric, rather than truth. On the environment, carbon dioxide emissions have been declining in the UK for six consecutive years, plummeting last year to levels not seen since 1858. Around the world, use of renewable energy resources has been shooting up in recent decades; as of 2016, modern renewable energy production has seen more than a five-fold increase since the 1960s, with infamous polluters China and India leading the pack.

Life expectancy – the surest measure of how well we are doing at looking after ourselves – tells a heartening story. Less than thirty years ago, we lived to an average of 65 years. As of 2016, that figure stands at 72.5; we added seven and a half years to each of our lives in the space of less than three decades.

At the crux of these great strides forward, of course, is economic growth. In 1990, well over a third of the world’s population was living in abject poverty. Today, it is less than one tenth, and that figure continues to tumble. As if that wasn’t enough, we are also more peaceful, more democratic and much more literate than at any other point in human history, with these rigidly upward trends showing no signs of plateauing.

Famed orator James May put it beautifully: “The world has never been going to the dogs. Every generation says it but if it were true we’d be there by now. There are no dogs.” That’s worth remembering the next time some loud voice tries to scare you into thinking the End of The World is coming and it’s all your fault. And as for those churning out this kind of miserabilist content – why not add a bit of hope to all the doom and gloom?