Cops Bust Hamburglar!

By John R. Graham, director of Health Care Studies

Santa Clara County, California: Sheriff’s deputies raid a fast-food restaurant, line up a dozen workers against the wall, and block the doors. The manager nervously tries to assure that everything is in order, but one of the deputies catches a glimpse of something shiny behind a freezer.

He reaches behind, and, with a sharp tug pulls out the evidence that the restaurant is in violation of Santa Clara County Ordinance No. NS-300.820 – a six-inch-long plastic Iron Mantm action figure. The manager desperately tries to assure the cops that the toy belongs to his own son, and was inadvertently left behind. No dice – they haul him downtown on suspicion of using toys in promotions to lure kids and their parents into his restaurant to eat.

Have no doubt that the ordinance part of the story is real. As part of a crusade against childhood obesity, three politicians in a county of 180,000 people have decided that parents are not allowed to decide whether they can take their children to a restaurant where they might receive a toy alongside their meal. This embarrassing spectacle of political overreach invites a question: Is the government competent to improve childhood obesity?

In a March 3 column in the San Francisco Chronicle, Santa Clara County Supervisor Ken Yeager unwittingly answered in the negative, admitting that school lunches “need to be improved” and that “kids need more physical activity.” Indeed, on this score, California’s government-owned public schools are so bad that Assemblyman Isadore Hall (D-Compton) composed a bill, AB 2705, requiring “moderate to strenuous physical activity,” for at least 50 percent of the class period, in grades one through six.

And does the Santa Clara government have nothing better to do than crusade against toys? Indeed, the Board of Supervisors appears to be unmoored from the county’s more pressing concerns.

In a survey of Santa Clara County residents conducted last month by the California Restaurant Association – an interested party, to be sure – 80 percent of respondents said that this issue was not something that local government should decide. Almost nine in 10 did not believe that local politicians are better informed than ordinary citizens about what restaurant food is healthy. Only one in 10 believed that local government should have the power to ban toys or gifts from restaurant promotions, and maybe that one person believes other issues are more pressing.

Last June, the Board of Supervisors approved a budget that tried to plug a hole in the $273 million deficit by ending legal representation for children in dependency cases (through eliminating 24 positions in the District Attorney’s office), and cancelling a patrol unit of Sheriff’s Deputies for the perimeter of the Elmwood Correctional Facility, which contains about 4,000 inmates. But that did not do the trick.

Facing a deficit that still amounts to $230 million as of this month, the County Executive proposes using the Japanese management technique of “hoshin kanri” to make decisions on shrinking departmental budgets. According to the San Jose Mercury News, the proposal did not go over well with the county’s career bureaucrats. Furthermore, the county just reported that assessed property values have collapsed by $21.4 billion in the last year, a drop that the County Assessor described as “off the charts” and a predictor of low property-tax revenues.

Santa Clara County’s Board of Supervisors also voted four to one to enter amicus curiae in lawsuits challenging Arizona’s new immigration law. The county will soon consider a resolution commanding its law-enforcement officers not to check suspects’ immigration status, unless required by federal law. So illegal immigrants working in fast-food restaurants will be safer than Iron Mantm action figures.

The fast-food toy ordinance, meanwhile, is so absurd that even the San Francisco Chronicle (April 30) editorialized on its futility. Somehow, I don’t think that being held up to ridicule is enough to stop politicians arrogant enough to fantasize a magic answer to childhood obesity.

After all, politicians have a desperate, emotional, need to be noticed doing “something” about your problems. Expect this ordinance to come to a California county near you in the near future. No child’s Happy Meal will be safe.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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