The Arizona Desert Lamp

Living in the Third World today

Posted in Education Policy, Media, Politics by Evan Lisull on 28 May 2009

My colleague has already commented on Michael Crow’s absurd claim that Arizona was on the path to a “Third World” style education, but unfortunately common sense rarely wins in the public sphere. Thus, the newly formed Arizona Economic Council – the left-leaning counterpart to the Goldwater Institute – has debuted its first media campaign in a video entitled “Third World.”

There’s a lot of things wrong with this campaign, and they start with the opening still:

Still 1

Where exactly in the “Third World”? AZEC doesn’t care – because after all, Rwanda, Somalia, Honduras, and Papau New Guinea are just the same people with different little clicks, right? It doesn’t really matter which country they come from – we just don’t want to end up like Them. It’s a surprisingly ignorant approach for an organization that purports to speak for higher education – that place where people are supposed to be able to locate countries on a world map. In this rhetoric, the Arizona Economic Council echoes no one more than Tom Tancredo, who described Miami as a “third-world country” back in 2006. His fellow Republican, Governor Jeb Bush, denounced the remarks as “disparaging” and “overheated rhetoric.” (HT: Freakonomics) More curious than this nativist connection is the fact that the pushback against using “Third World” as a term comes more often than not from the academy, where “developing world” is the preferred nomenclature.

The gawking continues:

Still 2

“See kids? This is what happens when you privatize your roads!”

Still 3

Quelle horreur, no Uggs!”

The punchline, of course: “Poor Arizona.” The children of whatever African nation (PC Police, help me – am I allowed to infer Africa from this spot, or is that a sign of my Yakub-engineered mindset?) turn up their nose in disgust at your parsimonious state.

Still 4

The Goldwater Institute shoots this claim out of the water, but even more interesting than the numbers that they cite is this OECD paper on education spending in Latin America, with the following graph:

Spending v. Results

My French is a little rusty, but the basic conclusion here is that there are diminishing marginal returns on primary and secondary (i.e. K-12) education spending starting at around USD 5,000. In the Goldwater piece, Matthew Ladner writes that, “I could dig up comparisons on academic outcomes, but that would just be running up the score.” Yet the point isn’t to score points – the point is to ensure not just that kids are getting a good education, but are getting an education that will provide opportunities for them to sustain themselves. Outcomes matter much more than spending levels, and should be emphasized, not de-emphasized. As the OECD piece points out:

Education is an excellent example of the challenges facing Latin America as it pursues higher-quality fiscal policy more generally. More money would help, but how that money is spent matters as much or more. The current reform efforts in Chile and Mexico further illustrate that each case demands solutions tailored to the needs of their education systems and political contexts.

The OECD isn’t talking about Luxembourg, or Canada, or France here – even in those Third World countries that the AZEC so fears and loathes, sheer spending is not the answer. It most certainly is not in Arizona. Being “Third World” isn’t based on spending levels, but on a variety of factors; such nuance is lost entirely in Crow and AZEC’s rhetorical bombast.

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Quitting smokers continue to punish children

Posted in Politics by Evan Lisull on 27 May 2009

SmokingIn the aggregate, this should be great news:

PHOENIX — The number of adult Arizonans who smoke dropped by nearly 20 percent since 2007, according to a new report being released today.That decline is the sharpest in the nation, said Bill Pfeifer, president of the American Lung Association of Arizona, which released the survey.

The study, based on monthly telephone surveys, shows the percentage of Arizonans 18 and older who smoke dropped to about 16 percent.

In human terms, it translates into 170,000 people who no longer are smoking.

Yet a large decrease in smokers will lead to a large decrease in tobacco tax revenues. And thanks to 2006’s Proposition 203, this will lead to a large decrease in revenues for the state’s children’s health and education programs. Last February, the program began to see hints of the financial struggles ahead:

First Things First ended fiscal 2008 with $236.6 million: $82.7 million in its administrative account and $153.9 million for programs to benefit Arizona’s children. The organization plans to spend $91 million in its first full year on strategies set up by the regional councils, plus additional money on statewide initiatives.

The state legislature did take $7 million in interest earned on First Things First’s coffers to close this year’s budget deficit. That loss won’t affect the initiative’s plans in the next few years but could hurt the organization’s long-term progress, especially if the Legislature decides to take more interest earnings to balance future budgets.

. . .

Money the initiative makes off the tobacco tax is expected to decrease over time, as Arizona’s population growth levels off and more people never start or quit smoking. Because that decrease is anticipated, there is a need to save funds now. Hibbs said he was disappointed by the legislative decision to appropriate money from the fund’s interest, even though that’s not likely to have a short-term effect.

As far as the $7 million taken by the state goes, the money taken to balance the budget could’ve have remained in the program, had the state legislature not mitigated its proposed cuts to the universities. Snark aside, this money pales in comparison to the revenue lost from quitting smokers. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (akin to MADD in its duplicitous name) estimates [DOC] that Arizona averages 217.5 taxed packs of cigarettes sold per each smoking adult in the state. A First Things First tax of 80 cents per pack leads to an average of $174 per smoking adult for the program. With the estimated 170,000 person drop, this would result in a revenue shortfall of $29.58 million – a 12.5 percent drop from their total revenues. This is also a conservative estimate, as it doesn’t take into account the study’s finding that those who were smoking, smoked less.

Also worth considering is the high administrative cost associated with the program – 34.95 percent of total FTF tax revenue is spent on administrative costs. By way of comparison, the Gates Foundation spends [PDF] 7.96 percent on administrative overhead, and the Salvation Army spends [PDF] 9 percent, including fund-raising.

It is one thing to support a purely Pigovian tax, that charges smokers in direct proportion to the “costs” that they incur on society. (Of course, as has been pointed out elsewhere, such costs would be absorbed by smokers anyways if the state wasn’t providing the care in the first. A different debate for another day.) It is quite another to support a punitive tax on a minority group, as supporters of Proposition 203 readily admitted:

Rarely do we see an admission that the movement to increase cigarette taxes is politically motivated. In an article (subscription required) in today’s State Tax Today, however, a proponent of Arizona’s Proposition 203 (which would increase that state’s cigarette tax to fund, among other things, early childhood education programs) admits that politics drove their decision to use the cigarette tax as a funding vehicle:

“We polled on everything…(t)his was the thing that would be the most succesful [sic] in Arizona.”

Not quite as popular as confiscation of minority-owned goods in Weimar Germany, but you get the idea. What’s more, the programs supported by the tobacco taxes are almost exclusively aimed toward poor children – whose parents are disproportionately affected by the regressive tax. Rob with one hand, dole with the other.

Children’s health and smoking cessation are certainly legitimate (if not incontrovertible) aims of government. But by conflating the two together, both aims are ultimately hindered.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Justin Shearer

Robert Shelton’s ready, watch your SPEED (also, new dorms)

Posted in Campus, Politics by Evan Lisull on 26 May 2009

Bad government programs, like George Romero’s zombies, refuse to die, no matter how much lead you pump into them (somebody call the CPSC!). In April 2008, Presidents Shelton, Crow, and Haegar starting pushing for a state-based stimulus package called SPEED – the Stimulus Plan for Economic and Educational Development (Maximizing Education, Talent and Hospitals never made it past the drawing board). The package drew largely on lottery revenues, a regressive and opaque source of revenue. The plan’s primary support hinged not on the academic merits of the buildings, but on the economic activity that the SPEED would bring to the construction industry. This, perhaps, is to be expected – it’s hard to justify spending money on building a Starbucks twenty feet from a university-sponsored coffee shop, unless you’re intent on digging holes for the sake of digging holes. Yet Big Construction isn’t just looking for more work – among the many projects offered by the universities, ASU is proposing the construction of a new school dedicated to . . . construction.

In October of that year, Rep. Russell Pearce held up the bill, citing that antiquated philosophy that you “can’t spend money when you don’t have it.” This hold lasted until the end of the 2008 legislative session, and the bill appeared to be dead once and for all. Yet through its journalistic voodoo magick, the Associated Press has brought the story back to life (the circulated piece is largely drawn from Anne Ryman’s article in the Republic). The piece mostly is a rehash of last year’s debates, but there are some updates worth noting:

The committee later green-lighted the projects, but the state budget crisis caused university officials to hold off issuing bonds to cover construction costs. The officials are waiting until the 2009-10 budget is finalized because a pair of bills in the state Legislature could impact their spending authority and the amount of Lottery funds available.

Senate Bill 1029 would eliminate the SPEED construction program, except for about $167 million in already-approved projects.

House Bill 2635 would continue to route increased amounts of Lottery funds to help the state’s budget deficit. This could affect how much universities would get because they are last in line to receive Lottery funds, behind state services such as parks and transportation.

6thStDorm

In other Bob the Builder news, the $116 million dorm project has since been spun off from the SPEED program, and now two new dorms – “one at Euclid Avenue, south of Coronado Hall, and the other at Highland Avenue, north of Apache-Santa Cruz Hall” – are good to go (see left). The UANews piece buries the actual benefits of the project – more on-campus housing – in the bottom paragraph, and spends the rest of the piece having fun with Keynesian magic multipliers:

The project is expected to have a direct employment impact of 1097 jobs, which are expected to last one year. Direct jobs are positions that are primarily spent working on the design, engineering and construction. An additional 294 indirect jobs – in areas such as warehousing, transportation and other areas – will be created.

“When these workers spend their incomes in the state, they generate another 430 (construction) jobs,” said Alberta H. Charney, UA senior research economist and author of the report.

“And when these 430 workers spend their incomes in the state, they generate 238 rainbows of happiness!” When these 1097 “new jobs” and their “indirect and induced impacts” suddenly vanish from the economy next year, will it be fair to call President Shelton the greatest destroyer of employment in Pima County? Hopefully, it’s not too late to propose naming one of these buildings “Bastiat Hall.”

Election Code violations, even over summer break

Posted in Campus, Politics by Evan Lisull on 25 May 2009

Leo YamaguchiThe fun, it seems, never ends. A quick refresher: among its many restrictions, the ASUA Elections Code includes the following:

8-4.02

All General Election candidates shall remove all campaign materials within one(1)

business week after the results of the General Election are announced.  This includes

electronic resources such as Facebook Groups.

Yet even as the Senate voted to pass the Code with this provision, most all of them continued to maintain their own groups. This story was picked up in the Wildcat, and the Senate quickly moved to change their group names, lamely offering the excuse that these groups could not be removed (lame not in the sense that it isn’t true, but that such concerns should have been raised when they voted on the Code). This year’s class seems to have learned from the follies of their predecessors; yet Senator Yamaguchi apparently missed this entire discussion, as his Facebook group still exists under the name, “VOTE LEO for SENATE…ROCK ur VOTE!” The kicker? Among his many credentials, Senator Yamaguchi cites his membership in the “ASUA Policy & Conduct Review Board.” Now several weeks have passed since the election results were announced, and it is undeniable that Senator Yamaguchi stands in full violation of the Code. But since ASUA operates not by rule of law, but by rule of BIZARRO, Senator Yamaguchi, like his Code-violating colleague Senator Atjian, will escape with nothing more than a “tsk tsk” from President Nagata.

Again – the point is not to continue such absurdity. This is an incredibly boneheaded regulation, a half-born child of the “There Oughta Be a Law” mindset that plagues ASUA and the nation as a whole. Yet for all the ruckus that has been raised relating to this clause, no one has ever asked what this regulation accomplishes, or what makes a group’s name changing so essential. No one has ever asked how ASUA gets off so flagrantly violating the Constitution, or why ASUA has any business meddling in completely voluntary and private operations such as Facebook. Hopefully, Sens. Yamaguchi and Atjian will be the ones leading the way in designing a more reasonable elections code in the coming year.

At this point, it’s a wonder that anyone even listens to the Election Commission at all. If these election code violations go by unpunished, why bother adhering to any of its provisions? Spend thousands of dollars, form political parties, and post unapproved campaign material – as things currently stand, you won’t get docked anyway.

Devil’s Weed

Posted in Random by Evan Lisull on 24 May 2009

Coffee with CaffeineJust when you thought ASU couldn’t get any more evil, their International Institute for Species Exploration discovers something like this:

Name: Coffea charrieriana

Common Name: Charrier Coffee

Family: Rubiaceae

How it made the Top 10: This is a new caffeine-free coffee from Cameroon, the first record of a caffeine-free species from Central Africa. Cameroon is a center of diversity for the genus Coffea and such wild species are potentially important in breeding programs. In this case the new species could be used for breeding of naturally decaffeinated beans.

This is the O’Douls of the natural world, and I fear for the future. The link is courtesy of the LA Times, which incorrectly identifies the home of the IISE as our own UA (repent, ye ombudsmen!).

Oops! PIRG did it again/They played with your card, got lost in the game

Posted in Campus, Politics by Evan Lisull on 22 May 2009

Credit CardOne of PIRG’s pet issues, both locally and nationally, has been increasing regulation of credit cards. Now, with the President’s signing of H.R. 627/S. 414, their wish seems to have been granted. Among its many provisions:

Minors: For consumers under 21 years old, a company must get the signature of a parent or another to take responsibility for the debt, or it must obtain proof that the under-21 consumer can repay credit.

Of course, this has always been the attitude of the regulatory mind – citizens generally aren’t capable of making decisions for themselves, and thus Papa State must step in to make sure that they don’t mess up. This is exactly the same sort of mindset that justifies the current drinking age – after all, we’ve all seen what those wild underage kids do after they’ve got a little Captain in them. Certainly, students can abuse credit and get themselves into debt – but as neo-prohibitionists will readily remind you, students can get themselves into even bigger trouble with alcohol. After all, no one has died from binge crediting. Either 18-21 year olds are adult citizens, or they are not; PIRG and the supporters of this bill have taken the latter stance.

PIRG’s defense?

Edmund Mierzwinski, consumer advocate at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), said after the bill’s House passage Wednesday that he expects the limits on aggressive marketing tactics will ultimately reduce students’ debt. As for limiting student access to credit, Mierzwinski said students who can afford to pay off credit cards won’t be affected at all.

“Nobody’s intent was to prevent students from getting cards,” he said. “I think the banks are using [that argument] as their whipping boy.”

“Oops, sorry! We didn’t mean to restrict your access to credit, honest!” Mr. Mierzwinski seems content to make 18-21 year olds second-class citizens, who are assumed uncreditworthy until proven otherwise. It’s useful to consider this attitude in wake of their recent push for a mandatory fee here at the UA. The student chapter of PIRG wanted students to pay more hidden fees on tuition so that they could fight hidden fees on credit cards, all while making it harder – accidentally, mind you! – for these students to get credit for themselves.

Image courtesy of Flickr user SqueakyMarmot

Against Summer Vacation

Posted in Education Policy by Evan Lisull on 22 May 2009

Summer VacationThis isn’t the most popular case to be making right about now, when most everyone is reading this poolside on their Blackberries. But in a discussion on inequality in education, blogging UA professor Lane Kentworthy spells out why the extended break is such bad policy:

Second, we have evidence from the natural experiment that is summer vacation. During those three months out of school, the cognitive skills of children in lower socioeconomic status (SES) households tend to stall or actually regress. Kids in high-SES households fare much better during the summer, as they’re more likely to spend it engaged in stimulating activities. In his book Intelligence and How to Get It, cognitive psychologist Richard Nisbett concludes that “much, if not most, of the gap in academic achievement between lower- and higher-SES children, in fact, is due to the greater summer slump for lower-SES children” (p. 40).

This adds a more serious side to what is already accepted anecdotal fact of summer vacation relapse. And while the widening of the gap is important, there’s also an overall loss in knowledge – kids rich and poor spend the first three weeks or so refreshing everything that they forgot over break. Add that to the last couple of weeks before break, which is mostly an exercise in large-scale babysitting, and you have solid month of school time wasted.

This extended summer vacation, unlike some other policies, is not an anachronism of our agrarian past, but rather the brainchild of reformer Horace Mann:

In the 1840s, however, educational reformers like Horace Mann moved to merge the two calendars out of concern that rural schooling was insufficient and–invoking then current medical theory–that overstimulating young minds could lead to nervous disorders or insanity. Summer emerged as the obvious time for a break: it offered a respite for teachers, meshed with the agrarian calendar and alleviated physicians’ concerns that packing students into sweltering classrooms would promote the spread of disease.

Mann is right to suggest that overstimulation of the mind is an issue, but this is akin to those alcoholics who reel from stone-cold sobriety one week to double-fisting the next. Rather than such disparate zones of engagement and non-engagement, schools (and the poor kids’ minds) would be better off extending the school year further into the summer, while interspersing more frequent extended weekends and week-long breaks. (Although you don’t have to entirely destroy summer to make this work; the month of July, for instance, can be off-limits.) This also makes life easier for parents, who don’t get similarly extended breaks (yet*) and thus must spend three months finding a way to keep an eye on the kid. To get back to the inequality issues, this involves sending kids off to camp for extended periods of time, an option that involves spending a good deal of money.

This is less of an issue on the collegiate level, with the wide variety of internship options and the lack of stigma on taking summer classes. But even a few more extended weekends – and for the UA, a decent thanksgiving break – would go a long way.

* – I’d be remiss if I didn’t quote the linked-to Vandy Right piece, quoting the Politico:

Rep. Alan Grayson was standing in the middle of Disney World when it hit him: What Americans really need is a week of paid vacation.

If this where Congress’ great ideas come from, it’s no wonder that our legislative branch is well on its way to Cleon and Cataline. Some future ledes from the Politico:

“Tommy Bruce was moshing at Coachella when it hit him: What Arizona really needs is a huge concert.”

“Barney Frank was lighting up a bong when it hit him (Ed. – ha!): What Americans really need is legalized marijuana.”

“Bill Clinton was screwing Monica Lewinsky when it hit him (Ed. – HA!): What Americans really need is a defense of heterosexual marriage.”

“Dick Cheney was lashing a suspect’s back with a cat-o-nine-tails when it hit him: What the White House really needs is some legal justification for their politicies.”

Image courtesy of Flickr user Criss!

Mid-Week Update: Bring Regents, Guns, and Stimulus Funds

Posted in Campus, Politics by Evan Lisull on 20 May 2009

Arne Duncan is Watching YouAll on board the omnibus!

1. Mo’ Regents, Less Problems? Via Student Activism, an rather sensible case for more student regents over at the Chronicle [$]:

Public universities now charge undergraduate students substantial tuition and fees because state support has dwindled. Students (or their parents) are required to make up that missing portion of those institutions’ basic operating budgets.

It is only logical and fair, therefore, that the method of selecting regents and trustees for public universities should change to reflect the new financial situation. I propose, following the old slogan of “no taxation without representation,” that the composition of those governing boards be modified in proportion to the new financial reality. If state funds now provide, for example, two-thirds of the core operating budget, with student fees providing one-third, then the composition of the governing board should directly reflect that 2:1 ratio of interests.

At my own University of California, for example, that would mean that six of the 18 seats on the Board of Regents now filled by gubernatorial appointment would be given over to appointees selected by tuition-paying undergraduate students and their families.

As the author Charles Schwartz points out, there is precedent for this in the CaPERS Board, where six of the members are public employee beneficiaries. Were this formula applied to the Arizona system, five of the ten ABOR seats would be tuition-paying representatives. I suspect, however, that this policy will not work out exactly as Dr. Schwartz envisions it. Simply putting students on the board will not change state funding one whit, and as we’ve already seen here, student regents can overcome their tendencies against tuition hikes rather quickly. However, it is likely that tuition-payers would push much harder for cuts and program reforms than those already enmeshed within the system; ironically, this would result in more cuts than we’ve already seen. (And yes, that’s a good thing overall.)

Besides all this, there is the issue of double representation: in-state tuition-payers are already represented (albeit indirectly) in the state legislature. Yet there is one group on campus that is paying a disproportionate amount of tuition revenue, a group that has no such representation – out-of-state students and their families. Forcing out one of the Council of Zion and replacing them with a student regent that specifically represents out-of-state students is an excellent intermediate step.

2. The Cato Institute highlights two more failures of gun-free zones around schools. Again, though, arguing through bizarre instances is no way to go about making this case. The Brady Campaign can run through a list of examples just as well as the NRA can. The broader point is that the number of gun owners within gun-free zones are statistically insignificant, neither posing a threat nor as serving as an effective deterrent. In this country, the presumption is liberty, until a strong case can be made to the contrary. Especially seeing how possession of firearms is listedexplictly between the right to speech and the right against forced quartering of troops, it’s hard to see the overwhelming case justifying these sorts of zones.

3. Every budget you fake, every bill you take. Arne Duncan, bored with kicking around inner-city children in D.C., has decided to turn his attention towards the orphan-children states at his feet:

“If folks are misbehaving, they won’t get Round 2,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said this morning at a Congressional hearing on President Obama’s budget for the 2010 fiscal year.

. . .

“I want to assure you that I will be scrutinizing how states spend their stabilization money to make sure they are focused on education,” he said.

Mr. Duncan also defended the president’s plan to end the guaranteed-student-loan program and said the “marketplace” would ultimately force colleges to hold down rising tuitions.

“This is the wrong market” for colleges to be raising tuition, Mr. Duncan said. Colleges that continue to do so, he predicted, “will pay the price” in enrollment declines.

You got that – if you don’t eat your meat, how can you have pudding? Ignore for your sanity his cognitive dissonance on marketplaces and choice – if Secretary Duncan is oh-so-wise when it comes down to each and every university’s tuition policies, why not just set them himself? Under the logic of Obamanomics, there’s no reason why Duncan can’t refuse to give the money unless states set an artificial tuition freeze. (As to the logic of federalism and the Constitution . . . aye, there’s the rub. But come on,  it’s a goddamned piece of paper – who’s got time for that when our children is not learning?)

Bonus Arne Duncan fun fact of the day: “Some of his childhood friends were John W. Rogers, Jr., CEO of Ariel Capital Management (now Ariel Investments) and founder of the Ariel Community Academy, Illinois Senator Kwame Raoul, actor Michael Clarke Duncan, singer R. Kelly, IBM Fellow Kerrie Holley and martial artist Michelle Gordon. Duncan’s spoken accent at this time led at least one college basketball coach to assume that he was of African-American descent.” [emphasis added – EML]

Arne Duncan AND R. Kelly Are Watching You

Much, much better.

(Somewhat) New News Blog for the UA

Posted in Campus, Media by Evan Lisull on 16 May 2009

We like to think that we stay relatively on top of things in our area, but somehow this one flew under the radar. Sally Gradstudent is the pseudonym of a, well, grad student, blogging on higher education in the state. Two reasons why Sally is staying in our blogroll:

1. She comes at the issues from a completely different point of view. The impetus behind the Lamp was a desire to raise the level of the UA’s conversation of ideas, and Sally’s site – an unapologetic defender of the student protest point of view – goes a long way in furthering that goal.

2. She’s a grad student. This is kind of a subset of the first point. It’s sometimes hard for us as undergraduates to see things through the graduate’s eyes, who themselves are a curious beast in the jungle of the university. Stephen Bieda has been greatly helpful in this regard (and we hope that he continues to comment), but the more grad students we have talking directly to undergraduates, the better.

Sad to say, the blog will probably be quiet for a while, what with the school year being over. But if you plan on following UA-related news next year (or, like us, you’re still catching up from the past semester), Sally’s site is a staple in the UA news diet.

ASU – where “habeus corpus” is a drinking game

Posted in Campus by Evan Lisull on 13 May 2009

So Jon Stewart may have called turned your school into a punchline. But cheer up, ASU – you were just named the number one partying law school in the country (HT: Brown & Little)! James E. Rogers can’t be too miffed, though – the UA was close behind at the number 4 spot. While party rankings are fun and meaningless, this one is somewhat useful because it provides rankings for 102 different law schools. This is a large enough sample size that the number-crunching gnomes here at the Lamp can churn out a chart comparing US News rankings and party school rankings:

The r-squared, if you’re interested, is 0.089, where 0 is absolutely no correlation and 1 is perfect correlation. For all intents and purposes, there is no significant relationship here; in other words, there is no correlation between partying and academic quality. This is how you can have schools like U. Virginia, which made both the US News top ten and the partying top ten, as well as schools like Hofstra, who scored low in both polls.

The methodology of both SubtleDig (the site behind the party rankings) and US News is dubious. Yet even accepting these caveats, these numbers still raise the question – why should these schools be at all concerned with the outside activities of their students? It can’t possibly have anything to with academics, as Harvard scored in the top ten while, y’know, being Harvard Law. This has not stopped the UA from subjecting its law students to the irreprehensible Red Tag pilot program, or the equally moralizing Code of Conduct.

It would be nice to see a more comprehensive party ranking done for undergraduate education. I suspect that the correlation between partying and academics (or lack thereof) would be slightly higher, but not enough to justify the assortment of anti-partying measures that have been enacted to stop this “epidemic.”