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10.24.09

Stop Indulging, America

From quilted toilet paper to big-screen TVs, a raft of new proposed regulations could change life for the greener—and flush away some all-American creature comforts.

Who knew what a power suck a 50-inch television could be? Well, California does, and the state that does everything first could decide on November 4 to to slap one-of-a-kind efficiency standards on these energy hogs.

Since the California Energy Comission began studying the issue several years ago, the electronics industry’s best hope of stopping regulation of big-screen TVs has been an intervention by the most testosteronic of governors, Arnold Schwarzenegger. A sports fanatic by way of Hollywood who popularized the Hummer for casual city driving, Schwarzenegger, they hoped, would recognize the injustice of outlawing TV screens the size of aircraft carriers.

Posting calories on a restaurant menu in New York City helps get you reelected. Doing so in Biloxi, Mississippi, would get you run out of town.

But then the data came in, and the environmentally concious governor saw the light. Getting rid of any TV over 50 inches that doesn’t meet new efficiency standards will save enough energy to power a million homes and reduce emissions by 3.5 million tons. (And there’s no Cash for Clunkers program easing remote controls from the hands of Monday Night Football fans.) But CEC Commissioner Julia Levin promises the pain of the downgrades will be mitigated by the economic benefits—producing replacements for the estimated one-quarter of TVs that won’t meet the new standards, she says, will “help the California economy grow and create new clean, sustainable jobs.”

Reducing the size of TV sets is one thing. Reducing the size of people is a job for the feds. Health experts agree that obesity is killing us, with the medical costs of treating weight-related conditions up 37 percent since 1998, to $147 billion last year. During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama noted that if we could go back to the obesity rates of 1980 we could save Medicare $1 trillion.

In the scrum of proposals to improve health and fund reform, the White House has targeted one of the main culprits in the ballooning of America : sugared drinks. Last month in an interview in Men’s Health magazine, Obama said he is “exploring” a levy of 3 cents on every 12-ounce serving, which would raise $24 billion over the next four years.

This plays to type better than Schwarzenegger’s going after TVs—maybe too much so. At the Iowa State Fair, Obama grimaced at funnel cakes and soft drinks the size of the Grand Canyon. In the Oval Office, he offers visitors an apple instead of a bowl of candy. It’s easy to tag him as just one more skinny elitist trying to kill the buzz of a Big Mac, a milkshake, and a double order of fries.

But calm down, if that’s possible on your corn syrup high—Republicans are determined to keep the arugula-loving president’s hands off your soda. The ranking minority member on the Senate Finance Committee, Charles Grassley, dismissed a soda tax as a “nuisance” that he intends to block. And it helps opponents that such a tax would fall disproportionately on the poor, because it’s so much cheaper to eat badly. A dollar can buy 875 calories of soda, but just 250 calories of vegetables or 170 calories of fresh fruit, according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

States with the most obesity are among the poorest—and the least likely to welcome the government at their dinner table. Posting calories on a restaurant menu in New York helps get you reelected. Doing so in Biloxi, Mississippi, would get you run out of town.

Still, the industry is worried enough that they’ve begun running an ad reminiscent of Harry and Louise, which helped kill Hillarycare in 1993. This time, Louise looks into the camera as her kids carry gallons of carbonated beverages into the house. She plaintively points out how a few pennies can add up for working families and slyly mentions "juice drinks" as well as soda—as if the tax were to be levied on O.J. instead of artificial powerades.

Toilet paper is next up for a cost-benefit analysis. Like those huge TVs, super-fluffy quilted brands use up far more energy than necessary because they are made from old-growth trees using a chemical-heavy process. America’s premium toilet paper is to the rest of the world’s TP as a Cadillac Escalade is to a compact car—no other country wipes with such a luxe product. And even as we become more environmentally conscious, these energy-eating brands have increased sales by as much as 40 percent in some markets. So far, environmentalists are not suggesting that people do without—or pay a "softness tax"—they are simply appealing to conscience in hopes of popularizing toilet paper made from from 100 percent recycled fibers, which now accounts for less than 2 percent of sales.

Stephen Colbert recently joked that if the environmentalists win the war on Charmin, we may have to fall back on the next softest thing—the spotted owl. Funny, but years ago the idea of seatbelts other than in an airplane or tobacco being deadly was risible. Someday we'll wonder how we ever thought flushing a Redwood down the drain was a reasonable thing to do. And the Heritage Foundation’s Conn Caroll was not joking when he warned, “First they came for your car, then for your cheeseburger. Now those crazy environmentalists want to control how you wipe." Would you knowingly flush a redwood down the drain?

But if we’re no longer watching The Biggest Loser, then we won’t need a 50-inch screen, right? Over to you, California.

Margaret Carlson is a columnist for Bloomberg News. She was a columnist and deputy Washington bureau chief for Time magazine.