Larry Lessig and the sugar lobbies

Lawrence Lessig, lawyer and leader of the Fix Congress movementWhile I was waiting for the colloquy between Lawrence Lessig and David Gergen to begin at Harvard Law School Tuesday, I heard a woman a row behind me practically squeal with delight about the hospitality-provided cookies, asking her husband to go get her another one because “they’re just so good!”

I didn’t say anything to her because no one likes a scold or a snoot. But there was something in her reaction that curdled me, yet again, about the delight people take in refined-sugar-laden food, even though it’s rarely healthful. Maybe I was just in a bad mood.

I’d thought I was taking an hour or so off from “my” topic, though of course, advocates are never very far from their animating issue. I’d come to the Ames Courtroom to hear from Lessig directly on reforming Congress, a topic on which I’ve been following him for several years. His current book is "Republic, Lost."

Then the guests began their pre-interview patter, and what was practically the first topic? Lessig sniffed disapproval at mention of the cookies, and Gergen sussed out that it was because of the high fructose corn syrup almost certainly contained therein.

Now, I don’t hold a special opprobrium for HFCS; I think all refined sugar is pernicious, and downright harmful to millions of Americans who are food addicts. But I was delighted to see Lessig, a thought leader I admire, take ground similar to mine, even though we have differing motivations.

To him, the drastic rise in American obesity can be traced, in part, to two interest groups: Sugar growers have succeeded for decades to win tariffs on foreign sugar, keeping the price of sugar much higher than it would without the lobbyist-fueled political shield. The other group is corn interests, whose crops are so subsidized that federal money is the difference between profit and loss on every bushel. 

With table sugar more expensive and corn sugar less expensive, HFCS became the nutritional-industrial complex’s sweetener of choice and we got fat. To me, that's why the nation's rapid increase in obesity rate roughly coincides with the advent of of HFCS, not because the formulation of HFCS is that much more unhealthful than other forms of refined sugar.

I’d already made the connection that oversupply of corn, aided by federal subsidy, had made it possible for food formulators to splash sweetener over broad portions of the food market where it hadn’t been economically feasible earlier, but I hadn’t thought of how the sugar tariffs had kept it from being economical earlier. Smart guy.

Lessig has other examples aplenty, but he says all lead back to our fouled political process in which Congress is supposed to represent the people only, but finance rules cause it to favor the people who fund their campaigns first.

Part of his solution is to have those who oppose this condition to unite to change it, regardless of other political commonalities. We can battle out our differences on level ground, once that ground is re-established.

I’m with him.

Author and wellness innovator Michael Prager helps smart companies
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