The Arizona Desert Lamp

Column on Get REAL in today’s Wildcat

Posted in Campus, Culture, Politics by Evan Lisull on 3 November 2009

Get REALThe Internet-People declare: All your Paper are belong to us! Ben Kalafut had a piece on Proposition 400 in yesterday’s paper (and if you’re a Tucson voter, take the time to read his excellent breakdowns of the other propositions – 200, 401, and 402); today, Laura was kind enough to find a spot for our tilting at the windmills of Legal Age 21.

Writing the piece also served as a reminder of one of the benefits of blog format – no word limits! Sure, this allows for a lot of run-on and obsessive inquiries to little end, but it also prevents necessary clarification of certain lines.

One that particularly sticks out is the mention of President Shelton’s refusal to sign the Amethyst Initiative, an item that this site first reported in its infancy, over a year ago. Yet reading it through again (older, wiser!), Shelton’s dismissal of the Initiative comes off as even more venal than before. Here is what signatories of the initiative pledge to do:

To support an informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the 21 year-old drinking age.

To consider whether the 10% highway fund “incentive” encourages or inhibits that debate.

To invite new ideas about the best ways to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol.

We pledge ourselves and our institutions to playing a vigorous, constructive role as these critical discussions unfold.

Here was President Shelton’s response (with emphasis added):

Underage drinking in general and binge drinking specifically are serious concerns for our society and certainly at universities where so many young people in the 18-20 age group are present.  It is wise to think about, plan and execute programs that address these problems.  From my perspective, I do not believe the issue is sufficiently simple to be solved by lowering the drinking age.  I have not signed the petition.  The studies with which I am familiar indicate that starting to drink earlier can lead to more problematic behavior in later life.  At the UA, we address these issues through education and programs to inform and assist students.  I offer a list of some of our interventions below as provided by the VP for Student Affairs.

But there’s nothing in the Initiative which makes any President beholden to any drinking age! All it wants is a critical conversation, with honest airing out of facts. Instead, President Shelton alludes to “studies” with absolutely vague conclusions (so much for scientific rigor), and lists of a list of bureaucratic forms that make other health-ranking bureaucracies happy. He fails to mention the issue of the highway fund, although I suspect he’d drop the drinking age to twelve if it got some money from the state legislature. His response is the antithesis of an “informed and dispassionate debate.”

Drinking age disaster

Posted in Culture, Politics by Connor Mendenhall on 18 April 2009

More on the Amethyst Initiative and the flaws of a federally-mandated drinking age from economist Jeffrey Miron and researcher Elena Tetelbaum in Forbes magazine, where the duo explain their investigation into the effects of a 21-and-up drinking age (wonkily referred to as the “MLDA21”), and the federal legislation that forced states to set it there:

Our research compares traffic fatality rates in states before and after they changed their MLDA from 18 to 21. In contrast to all earlier work, however, we examined separately the impact in states that adopted an MLDA21 on their own and those that were coerced by the [Federal Underage Drinking Act].

The results are striking. Virtually all the life-saving impact of the MLDA21 comes from the few early-adopting states, not from the larger number that resulted from federal pressure. Further, any life-saving effect in those states that first raised the drinking age was only temporary, occurring largely in the first year or two after switching to the MLDA21.

This makes sense if a higher MLDA works only when state governments can set a drinking age that responds to local attitudes and concerns–and when states are energized to enforce such laws. A policy imposed from on high, especially one that is readily evaded and opposed by a large fraction of the citizenry, is virtually guaranteed to fail.

The major implication of these results is that the drinking age does not produce its main claimed benefit. Moreover, it plausibly generates side effects, like binge drinking and disrespect for the law–the very behavior that events planned for this month’s alcohol awareness theme are designed to deter.

Our results thus challenge both the value of the MLDA21 and the value of coercive federalism. While we find limited evidence that the MLDA21 saves lives when states adopted it of their own volition, we find no evidence it saves lives when the federal government compels this policy.

Here is the paper itself, available at SSRN. Earlier this year, President Shelton dismissed the Amethyst Initiative, citing some studies and listing a number of educational programs at UA targeting alcohol abuse. Here’s some evidence for the former category. As for the latter, well, Playboy‘s covered how well those programs are working out.

Amethyst, revisted

Posted in Campus, Politics by Evan Lisull on 24 January 2009

Drunk Kid 2The Wall Street Journal recently collected short policy prescriptions from a wide swathe of thinkers on the right. Most of them are sharp, but the piece pertinent to our site is the recommendation by Glenn Reynolds, of Instapundit fame:

I will make one policy proposal. Some of my fellow libertarians hope that the Obama administration will put an end to the drug war. I hope so too, but I’m not too optimistic. Instead, I propose a smaller step toward freedom — eliminating the federally mandated drinking age of 21. This mandate was a creature of Elizabeth Dole (who is no longer in the Senate to complain at its abolition), and it has unnecessarily limited the freedom of legal adults, old enough to fight for their country, to drink adult beverages.

What’s more, as the 130 college presidents of the Amethyst Initiative have noted, rather than promoting safety, it has largely created furtive and less-safe drinking on campus. As a former professor of constitutional law, President Obama knows that the Constitution gives the federal government no legitimate role in setting drinking ages. Returning this decision to the states would be a step for freedom, a step toward honoring the Constitution, and a step away from nannyism. It would also be a particularly fitting act for this administration. Barack Obama received enormous support from voters aged 18-21. Who better to treat people that age as full adults again?

Peter Suderman, Megan McArdle, and the good folks at Reason agree. Speaking of Reason, Radley Balko has an interview with John McCardell (how many ways can you spell that name?), the former Middlebury College president behind the Amethyst Initiative:

Q: How has Mothers Against Drunk Driving responded to the Amethyst Initiative?

A: MADD’s response has been disappointing and is unbecoming for an organization as revered as they are. They spammed the email boxes of college presidents, called them “shirkers,” and encouraged parents not to send their kids to those colleges. All this for nothing more than a call for discussion. If this question is as settled as they say it is, why such an exaggerated response?

I think their tactics backfired. MADD tried to bully these presidents into removing their names. We lost three presidents as a result, but we gained 20 more. And I think it actually strengthened the resolve of the presidents who stayed on.

Q: MADD and other opponents of your objectives say the college presidents are just trying to pass on their own responsibility to enforce the minimum drinking age. But is it really a college president’s responsibility to enforce criminal law?

A: That’s a great point. It’s about as logical as asking a couple of state troopers to come onto campus to teach calculus.

Perhaps MADD spamming was behind Shelton’s weak response, which you can read here. The key line, in my eyes, is, “Underage drinking in general and binge drinking specifically are serious concerns for our society and certainly at universities where so many young people in the 18-20 age group are present.” This, of course, assumes that a public school should be making moral judgments about their student body — a very dubious prospect in my book. If you are going to go Carrie Hatchet, though, at least be consistent — premarital sex should be decried, Campus Health sale of condoms should be banned, as should the Union’s fast-food joints, smoking on campus, cursing (at least South Carolina is trying), and anything whatsoever that involves carbon emissions.

As we talk about budget cuts and tax revenue shortfalls, it’d be really nice to see a study estimating how much business and tax revenue would be generated from changing the age; talk about a recession-proof consumer demand. As the state threatens to go bankrupt, this a stimulus plan that everyone outside of the MADD-types can get behind.

Meanwhile, a SWAT team has raided a fraternity in Washington State. Abuse of police power, constitutional violations, wasted federal and state funds, and erosion of respect for authorities of the law? No worries. But stupid Facebook pictures? Now that’s the end of Western civilization.

Drinking Age, Cont.

Posted in Campus, Politics by Evan Lisull on 28 August 2008

Shocking news from UT-Austin:

College students today celebrate 21st birthdays with an average of 12 drinks for men and nine for women, finds the most in-depth picture yet of the consequences of extreme partying.

The University of Texas at Austin research found 78 percent of students cited ill effects, including hangovers (54 percent). Of 44 percent who had blackouts, 22 percent found out later that they had sex; 22 percent got in a fight or argument. And 39 percent didn’t know how they got home.

Next you’ll be telling me that public sex acts are illegal! Oh, wait. I’m a bit surprised at how low these numbers are: only 54 percent with hangovers? Although this is probably the most amusing study these researchers have done in their careers, the results also yielded a pertinent insight:

Texas’ larger study of 2,200 also looked at drinking in the two weeks before and after the 21st birthday and found frequency of drinking increases after 21, but quantity decreases.

Psychology professor Kim Fromme, who directs the Texas study, says turning 21 decreases the risk associated with heavy episodic drinking. Overall, the research found most students drank twice a week or less; 19-year-olds drank the most.

So much for that argument. An aspect of the drinking age debate that sometimes gets overlooked is the fact that if the drinking age were 18, many drinking-age birthdays would occur while the new adults were still living at home. While there certainly would still be a good deal of shenanigans, the home environment could do a lot to stymie some of the more outrageous and dangerous behavior that occurs when that kid heads off to college.

As Tyler Cowen has pointed out, if the current policy were so effective, why not make the drinking age 25? 50? Hell, why not ban the substance outright? Oh, right: we did, and it was a miserable failure. Yet some people never learn:

Laura Dean-Mooney, national president of the Irving, Texas-based Mothers Against Drunk Driving, isn’t convinced.

“Increasing access is not going to reduce binge drinking. Access would be increased,” she says.

Because that worked in the 1920s. And it really works now, since freshmen who finally get their hands on some liquor are in no way inclined to overdo it. Right? Right?

Shelton on the Amethyst Initiative

Posted in Campus by Evan Lisull on 26 August 2008

A few days ago, the Amethyst Initiative made news by releasing a list of over 100 college presidents and other high-ranking officials who had signed onto their program. As the website states, “These higher education leaders have signed their names to a public statement that the 21 year-old drinking age is not working, and, specifically, that it has created a culture of dangerous binge drinking on their campuses.”

President Shelton, however, did not sign on. Below is the text of the email he sent in response:

Some thoughts on the Amethyst Initiative.

Underage drinking in general and binge drinking specifically are serious
concerns for our society and certainly at universities where so many young
people in the 18-20 age group are present.  It is wise to think about, plan
and execute programs that address these problems.  From my perspective, I do
not believe the issue is sufficiently simple to be solved by lowering the
drinking age.  I have not signed the petition.  The studies with which I am
familiar indicate that starting to drink earlier can lead to more
problematic behavior in later life.  At the UA, we address these issues
through education and programs to inform and assist students.  I offer a
list of some of our interventions below as provided by the VP for Student
Affairs.

-e-CHUG online, educational intervention for incoming UA freshmen,
completed by over 5,500 students in Fall 2007

-U.S. Dept. of Education Model Program status for reducing alcohol
use among UA Greeks

-SAMHSA funded Project CHAT, that screens students for high-risk
drinking and employs motivational interviewing in a one-on-one setting

-SHADE Alcohol Diversion Program for students with alcohol
infractions

-A coordinated social norms marketing campaign that aims to
correct misperceptions about student alcohol use.

-UA staff also serve on the following community groups/coalitions
to address underage alcohol use:

-UA Campus and Community Coalition for Alcohol and Other Drug
Prevention

-Arizona Underage Drinking Prevention Committee

-Pima County – Tucson Commission on Addiction, Prevention and
Treatment

-Pima County – Tucson Task Force to Reduce Underage Drinking

-Arizona Institutions of Higher Education (AZIHE) Network, a
statewide consortium that proactively addresses alcohol and other drug (AOD)
use issues among youth attending colleges and universities in Arizona

-Southern Arizona DUI Task Force

-Community Prevention Coalition – partially funded by the State of
Arizona Office of Health and Human Services

If I am thinking of the same study that President Shelton is, then it should be made clear that when the issue of “drinking earlier” is brought up, it refers to, “early initiation of alcohol use (before the age of 14) as one risk factor for problems with alcohol later in life.” Once in college, it’s already passed. Meanwhile, the Marines have already lowered the drinking age for their service members overseas.

Also notice the absence of the following words and/or phrases: civil liberties; adulthood; consent; Amendments XVIII or XXI; or highway funding.

Until Shelton changes his mind, however, we can continue to enjoy the wonderful results of these many, educational programs.

(The email also mentioned that it was sent to a Wildcat reporter, so expect this to pop up in the paper in the next few days.)