Atlas Chugged

Atlas chugged.

Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”

Before the New York Board of Health’s recent decision to place some restrictions on the purchase of sodas over 160z, the American Beverage Association distributed this postcard all over the city, and they also had delivery trucks painted with the message. I put the card near my computer as a sort of ironic talisman, since I was completing a project on Mayor Bloomberg’s extraordinary public health reforms. Skeptics may not realize it, but life expectancy is increasing in New York City.

The more I stared at this card, the more this muscular man seemed familiar. I’m always teaching the importance of symbols and framing in health policy. He’s supposed to look like the Lady Liberty, holding the soda as a beacon of… (sugar?).  Or maybe he is the man on the cover of Ayn Rand’s book The Fountainhead ? Perhaps he’s Atlas (groaning under the weight of that enormous 32oz Sprite)?  Either way, this image raises the question of whether we have superficial and cartoonish debates in health policy–freedom, liberty, bureaucracy, all on a postcard–or is this actually a great encapsulation of these issues?

Overall though, I’m troubled that beverage producers, of all businesses, would have the courage to make pernicious linkages between libertarianism, athleticism and muscularity, and that no one would notice this contradiction.

Author: Miriam Laugesen

Miriam J. Laugesen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Policy at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. Much of her research is focused on the design and politics of physician payment policy within Medicare. Twitter:miriamlaugesen@

20 thoughts on “Atlas Chugged”

  1. Good question. But I find myself more struck by the blatant appropriation of socialist realism in both illustrations. Either would be easily at home in a WPA post office mural (of which a good many survive). Maybe it’s ironic for the book cover, but still …

  2. I would go further than Altoid. This is ’30s public style, whether Socialist Realism, WPA, or the Oscar statue. Per Wikipedia, the original Fountainhead cover didn’t have a figure at all (indeed it resembles Ed Ruscha more than anything else).

  3. Welcome to the blog, Dr. Laugesen (unless I missed a previous post).

    I’m more amused that the guy appears to be shirtless, holding a fountain drink that he most likely purchased in an eatery or minimart. Bad manners, that.

    1. He is shirtless, but the pic is truncated at the armpits, doubtless to hide his potbelly.

      (Welcome aboard, Dr. Laugesen!)

      I’m not very sympathetic to Big Sugar, but they do have a point here. Bloomberg fancies himself to be a local Lee Kuan Yew. He’s generally right on the policy, but pretty hamhanded in his tactics. (His War on Automobiles entails an enormous amount of near-random parking tickets, for instance.) Maybe he has to be, because Big Sugar and Big Cop (the enemy in the War on Automobiles) and Big Mac aren’t going to give up easily. Heck, Lee Kuan Yew also broke a lot of eggs, but made a pretty good omelet. But Bloomberg’s approach, like Lee’s, entails subordinating the lives of the citizens to the public good. And I don’t think that a discontent with this is “pernicious.”

      1. Although Bloomberg is in many ways almost as megalomaniacal as Rudy, he’s in the weird position of having dictatorship forced on him by the dysfunctional government around him. Not in a See What You Made Me Do sense, but rather in the sense that the mayor’s office (along with the city council) has a bunch of unreviewable powers that are very hamhanded, and then a bunch of lesser powers that are subject to external review and veto. The soda thing is a perfect example: Bloomberg and the city council have the power to ban oversized soft drinks, but they don’t have the power (so say courts and legislature) to surtax them or otherwise place soft limits on their sale. Parking ditto, in a more circuitous way.

        If no one will let you use a wrench or a screwdriver, then every problem looks like a nail.

      2. Paul is right on Bloomberg being close to Rudy on the megalomania scale. However, there is a big difference between them: they way they exercise their megalomania. Bloomberg exercises with mostly rational policies, Rudy exercised by playing with little toy soldiers, all painted blue.

  4. Indeed, socialist realism is alive and well. I learned in Political Science 100 that there are similarities at the extremes of political ideologies. Thus the convergence of socialism and libertarianism.

    I don’t know why I didn’t see it before. He’s shirtless and bare, like his comrades, they are all hard so hard at work building Utopia.

  5. Overall though, I’m troubled that beverage producers, of all businesses, would have the courage to make pernicious linkages between libertarianism, athleticism and muscularity, and that no one would notice this contradiction.

    I dunno…not only can I not work up any outrage about that, but I think concern here is downright uncalled-for. Actually, I’m not really certain what’s troubling you. Is it the putative links among “libertarianism, athleticism and muscluarity,” or the putative linkage of those things with soda? The pix in question are not notably muscular, by today’s standards, but even if they were, I don’t think this would call for concern.

    I really do think we have to be careful not to fall off that particular cliff, reading too much into such things, and being too easily irked. There are tendencies on the intellectual left that encourage people to treat all “texts” basically as Rorschach tests, and down that path lie all sorts of bad and illiberal things.

    On a final note, the evidence that soda is singularly pernicious nutrition-wise–moreso than other junk food–is extremely shaky. And even if it weren’t, I’d probably be inclined to side with the libertarians on this one, be they muscular or puny. This kind of micro-management by the nanny-state is the sort of thing that ought only even be considered if the evidence of harm is very, very strong–which it isn’t here.

  6. I think banning large sodas is a bad idea. They should just have to post the calories — for everything. It can’t possibly be that hard.

    A lot of those public health policies turn out to be wrong in the end anyway. Here in LA, the geniuses running the school district banned low-fat chocolate milk entirely in schools, I believe, instead of … perhaps … just asking the producers to put less sugar in it. Meanwhile, chocolate milk isn’t necessarily bad for you in the first place, unless *all* milk is. (For which some will argue.) Well, nonfat milk is more or less not worth drinking, it tastes so bad. So, I’m not sure these things work. We should just make it easier and cheaper to eat healthy foods by cutting the prices and putting them everywhere. Bans are just annoying and give me that horrible feeling of having something in common with libertarians.

    1. Banning various food products in schools has created a whole new gray market. Kids backpacking contraband into schools to sell to their peers at a premium.

    2. NGC: precisely what authority did the people who banned low-fat chocolate milk have? You say they could have worked with the producers to get a special school edition of chocolate milk with less sugar, but could they have done so? Did they (unreportedly) try that route and get rebuffed?

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