Saturday, February 24, 2018

What About Guns?

Normally, the gun politics debate in general is beyond the scope of Twenty-One Debunked.  But in the wake of the Parkland school shooting in Florida on February 14, 2018, in which the 19 year old killer bought the AR-15 legally, the gun debate has taken on some rather ageist overtones lately, particularly among those who generally pro-gun in general.  Both Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Rick Scott have recently revealed themselves as ageist hypocrites by pushing for raising the age limit for all guns to 21, at both the federal and state levels, respectively.   Under current federal law, the age limit for purchase is 18 for long guns and 21 for handguns, and 18 for simple possession of either type, unless the state sets a higher age limit.  (But heaven forbid these ageists even question the idea that the "right" to own weapons of war like the AR-15 is somehow sacrosanct.)

Twenty-One Debunked fundamentally opposes raising any age limit higher than 18, including but not limited to for guns.  Not only is it ageist, but it also doesn't really solve anything, since most mass shooters are over 21 and those under 21 would simply get a "straw purchaser" over 21 to buy the weapons for them, as the Columbine killers so infamously did.  If we really are serious about solving or even taking the dangerous edge off of America's practically unique gun violence epidemic, we need to get to the root of the problem rather than scapegoat young people for adult problems.

Both Twenty-One Debunked and the TSAP recommends the following measures be taken:
  1. Bring back a new and improved 1994 assault-weapons ban yesterday, this time with more teeth.  This time, include all rapid-fire devices and all magazines with more than ten rounds in the ban as well as the previously-banned types of semi-automatic rifles and their knockoffs.
  2. Remove the 20-year ban on gun violence research, yesterday. 
  3. End the gun-show loophole and implement universal background checks, yesterday.
  4. Put a significant excise tax on all bullets/ammo, like Chris Rock recommended. (Seriously)
  5. Treat ammo sales the same as gun sales.  Or better yet, treat bullets like Sudafed:  must show ID, limit on the number that one can buy, the number bought would be recorded, and if you do buy too many, you will be investigated.
  6. Pass a "one gun a month" law at the federal level.  And consider perhaps putting a limit on the number of guns that an individual can own at a given time, except for antiques/relics/curios.
  7. Require reporting of lost or stolen guns.
  8. Regulate firearms like other consumer products in terms of health and safety standards--currently such standards are nonexistent.
  9. Improve enforcement of existing gun laws, which tend not to be enforced very well these days, and improve state reporting of prohibited persons to NICS.  Also, prohibit anyone on the terrorism watch list from buying any guns, period. 
  10. Consider a massive gun buyback program, one that pays significantly more than what the guns are worth on the street.  Voluntary for any still-legal weapons, mandatory for any newly-banned ones. 
  11. And last but not least, improve our woefully-inadequate mental healthcare system.
Of course, to truly solve our gun violence problem would require a fundamental overhaul and transformation of our society, which the TSAP clearly supports.  We need to go from being what Riane Eisler calls a "dominator" society to more of a "partnership" society, as the latter kind is far less violent overall.   But in the meantime, the aforementioned recommendations would go a long way towards taking the dangerous edge off of the problem. 

While we don't know why this particular mass murderer did what he did, it was most likely due to a combination of toxic masculinity, easy access to weapons of war (including the obligatory AR-15), and some sort of grudge with the school that kicked him out.  He was also known to do reckless stuff, wanted to join the military (most likely for the wrong reasons), and apparently enjoyed hunting.  Regardless of the motive, the first two factors are absolutely essential for virtually all mass shootings, whether in schools or otherwise.

And before anyone else starts getting on their anti-youth high horse about this, keep in mind that the zero-tolerance school policies put in place in the wake of Columbine, along with the increasingly prison-like atmosphere in schools these days, have done absolutely nothing to stop school shootings from increasing dramatically since then.  Such tragic events went from occurring an average of once or twice a year in the 1990s and early 2000s to nearly once a WEEK this year so far as well as the past few years.  If anything, one can argue that the "powder keg" atmosphere made things worse in the long run.  And of course, most mass shooters in general are over 21 and the vast, vast majority are over 18.  

I don't know about you, but my favorite part of the Second Amendment is where it says "well-regulated".  Too bad so many Republican Congresscritters who are bought and paid for by the NRA can't seem to read the first half of the freaking sentence.  Oh, and nevermind that when it was written, guns at that time fired at most one round per minute, not 600+ per minute like so many of today's killing machines.  Not like the gun lobby and their lackeys really do nuance.

UPDATE:  Looks like while Trump is backing off of the idea of raising the age limit for guns to 21, Governor Scott nonetheless went ahead with it in Florida.  And the NRA is suing the state of Florida over that.

180/180: How to Clean Up Chicago (Or Any Other Major City) In 180 Days Or Less

With all of the talk about Chicago's crime wave (despite most crime being at or close to the lowest in decades nationwide), the national opioid epidemic, and the corresponding calls (mostly from the right-wing) to get "tough on crime" as well as to further reinvigorate the War on (people who use a few particular) Drugs, we at Twenty-One Debunked have decided to discuss an idea that our webmaster has been working on for almost a year now, that may one day become a full-length book.  In a similar vein as When Brute Force Fails:  How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment by UCLA researcher Mark Kleiman, we have put together an evidence-based strategy called "180/180" (i.e. turning the crime and drug problem around 180 degrees in 180 days) that we feel jibes better with our movement.   While we borrow many ideas from Kleiman, we also reject a few of his ideas and have added several of our own as well, drawing from the vast experience of various cities, towns, and countries around the world.

Twenty-One Debunked believes that 1) the drinking age should be lowered to 18, 2) cannabis should be fully legalized for everyone 18 and older and treated no more stringently than alcohol or tobacco, and 3) all other currently illegal substances should be treated for the most part according to the Portuguese model of decriminalization of users, since full legalization of such substances (while we don't necessarily oppose doing so) is unlikely to be politically feasible at this time and could have unforseen consequences if not implemented properly.  Additionally, the True Spirit of America Party also supports abolishing (or at least greatly reducing) material poverty (which is, along with structural racism and economic inequality, one of the major root causes of both crime and substance abuse) via a Universal Basic Income Guarantee as well as a Humprey-Hawkins style Job Guarantee program.  In the long run, all of these things are likely to reduce crime and/or substance abuse overall.  But in the meantime, with or without the aforementioned measures in place, enter the 180/180 strategy to really take a bite out of crime in the near-term:

  • Implement an all-ages curfew law for the first 90 days, albeit with exceptions for people traveling to or from work or school.  Similar to what Iceland did, except for all ages and for a limited period of time.  Set it at 9 pm Sunday-Thursday and 10 pm on Friday and Saturday in general (10 pm and midnight, respectively, in the summer when days are longer).  
  • Implement a "dry law" (no alcohol can be sold, period) for the first 30 days of the strategy.
  • Increase the number of police and the number of patrols conducted, while also being careful to maintain good relations overall between the police and the community.
  • Raise the taxes significantly on all alcoholic beverages and/or set a price floor on such drinks. 
  • Put a "sinking lid" on the number and density of alcohol outlets, especially liquor stores.
  • Make simple possession of cannabis (and perhaps other drugs) and "underage" drinking the lowest law-enforcement priority (LLEP), similar to the San Francisco Miracle of the 1990s.
  • Do a "low-arrest crackdown" on any hard-drug markets, as was done in High Point, NC.  Instead of the usual catch-as-catch-can, build a case against every drug dealer in town, with enough evidence to put them away for a long time.  Then call them all in for a meeting and give them an ultimatum: stop dealing now or go to prison.  The market will dry up very quickly, and likely remain as such for years.
  • Implement Hawaii's HOPE program (for hard drugs) and South Dakota's 24/7 program (for alcohol) for probationers and parolees. 
  • Implement the strategies of Operation Ceasefire, aka the Boston Miracle, as a proven way to defuse gang violence.
  • Conduct an evaluation of the effectiveness after 180 days.  If serious crime has not dropped by at least half during that time, re-start both the curfew and dry law again, repeating as needed.  Otherwise, do not bring either one back, but maintain the other components of the strategy.
If the reader found the first two components to be a bit jarring, that was in fact the goal.  It SHOULD be very jarring to anyone who believes in individual rights.  Only by applying them to all ages would such measures really have any significant benefit, and should be short-term since they basically function like a tourniquet--good for stopping the bleeding, but once the bleeding has stopped, leaving them in place would do more harm than good on balance.  And doing them frivolously would also do more harm than good, so reserve the curfew and dry law for places with exceptionally high levels of crime and/or hardcore drug abuse.  Otherwise, the other components of the strategy can stand alone, which we like to call "180/180 Lite".

Other, medium- to longer-term measures that ought to be included in a comprehensive strategy are:

  • Get the Lead Out, and Take a Bite Out of Crime.  Numerous studies have shown a strong relationship between preschool lead exposure and later involvement in crime and other social ills during adolescence and adulthood.  (And take fluoride out of our drinking water as well, which worsens the leaching and effect of lead and is also neurotoxic in its own right.)
  • Provide free birth control to anyone who wants it, and end the current assault on women's reproductive rights, yesterday.  (Fewer unwanted children will lead to fewer criminals in the long run, according to Freakonomics)
  • Send nurses to visit the homes of first-time mothers who are poor and/or young.  According to Kleiman, this may be the most cost-effective crime-fighting program ever devised.
  • Implement sensible gun control laws (while still respecting the Second Amendment), as well as putting a tax on bullets.
  • For cities with very high crime rates, consider combining the controversial Project Exile (i.e. tougher enforcement of federal gun laws) with the aforementioned Operation Ceasefire, as was the case in the strategy known as Project Safe Neighborhoods
  • Shift the school day (for middle and high school) to both start and end later.
  • Raise the minimum wage.  (Yes, studies do show a correlation)
  • Implement a "Housing First" approach to solving homelessness.
  • Invest more in education in general, from pre-K through post-grad.
  • Invest more in both mental health and substance abuse treatment programs, as well as substitution therapy (methadone, buprenorphine) for opioid addicts.
  • Provide more opportunities for alternative forms of recreation, like Iceland did.
  • If we find we must follow the "broken windows" theory, think James Q. Wilson (who invented it), NOT Rudy Giuliani.  Do NOT use racial profiling or police brutality, or anything else that violates anyone's civil or human rights, period.
  • And for crime in general, we must always keep in mind that swiftness and certainty of punishment works better than random severity.  Punishment is a cost, not a benefit.
And of course, all of these things have social benefits that go way beyond simply fighting crime as well.  The evidence is overwhelming, so what are we waiting for?

We have been trying to get "tough on crime" for decades now.  It's time to get SMART on crime instead.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

National Academies' Drunk Driving Study Is A Mixed Bag

The latest NHTSA-commissioned study done by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has just been released.  The 489-page report came up with the following recommendations based on a review of the literature:
  • Lower the BAC limit for DUI to 0.05 (currently 0.08 in all 50 states* and DC)
  • Increase alcohol taxes
  • Reduce the hours and days during which alcohol can be sold
  • Crack down on sales of alcohol to people under 21 and people who are already intoxicated
  • Put limits on alcohol marketing and fund anti-alcohol campaigns similar to what is currently done with smoking.
As we can see, this list of recommendations is a mixed bag overall.  Let's go through each of these ideas, one by one:

Lower the BAC limit to 0.05.  Twenty-One debunked supports this one, albeit with the reservation that driving with a BAC of 0.050-0.079 ought to be a traffic violation rather than a criminal offense, with criminal penalties reserved for those above 0.08.  The models used in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, or even the one currently used in New York, should be used in all states and territories.  And all penalties for DUI should be steeply graduated based on BAC in general.

Increase alcohol taxes.  Twenty-One Debunked fully supports this one, and it is in fact a key component of our proposal.  And it is probably the single best way to reduce alcohol-related harms, including drunk driving casualties.  We recommend raising and equalizing the federal tax on all alcoholic beverages to the 1991 inflation-adjusted level for distilled spirits, namely $24 per proof-gallon.

Reduce the hours and days during which alcohol can be sold.  Twenty-One Debunked does not take an official position on this one, but would be fine with a modest reduction depending on the details (days?).  It would seem that there is an optimum time for "last call" which is overall better than anything much earlier or later.   We need more information to make a sound judgment about this recommendation.

Crack down on alcohol sales to people under 21.   Well, you should know by now how we stand on that one.  In a word, NO.  Twenty-One Debunked believes in lowering the drinking age to 18, full stop.  That said, we would be fine with cracking down on vendors who sell to people under 18 all the same.

Crack down on sales to people who are already (noticeably) intoxicated.  Twenty-One Debunked would be okay with that, as long it is not done in an ageist or overly heavy-handed fashion.

Put limits on alcohol marketing and fund anti-alcohol campaigns similar to smoking.  Twenty-One Debunked supports this one, albeit with some reservations.  Clearly, alcohol and tobacco are quite different from one another in terms of both harm and addictiveness, and that undeniable fact should figure into any such campaigns.  Alcohol is not all bad per se, unlike tobacco.  As a wise man once said, smoking is not like drinking, it is more like being an alcoholic.

Also, some ideas were noticeably absent or at best downplayed from the list of recommendations.  These include:
All of which we support, and are either proven or at least promising.  And of course we support lowering the drinking age to 18.  Yet they supported tougher enforcement of the 21 drinking age.  Why, given how it has been so thoroughly debunked by Miron and Tetelbaum (2009) and several other studies?  Well, no one wants to admit that their crown jewel is somehow tainted--and NHTSA et al. clearly considers the 21 drinking age to be their crown jewel of sorts.

But back to the controversial 0.05 limit proposal, as we have noted above, it should be administrative rather than criminal.  Even for BACs above 0.08 it should also carry such administrative sanctions in addition to (and separate from) any criminal penalies.  And the Canadian experience with such has shown that swift and certain (but modest) punishment works wonders, much more so than lowering the boom rarely and haphazardly.  As for the fear that bars and restaurants will lose business as a result?  Well, let us play the world's smallest violin for them.  They may want to think ahead and invest in "safe rider" programs then.  Problem solved.

So what are we waiting for?

* The criminal BAC limit is 0.08 in all states except Utah, whose new 0.05 law goes into effect on December 30, 2018.  Some states, such as New York, actually already set the limit at 0.05 for a lesser offense that is just a traffic violation and not a criminal offense, albeit with license suspension.

Why Are Traffic Deaths On The Rise?

After decades of a massive secular decline in traffic deaths, reaching an all-time record low in 2014 per VMT as well as per capita, such deaths have been creeping up again since then.  2015 and 2016 both saw national increases in fatalities, and 2017 looks likely to continue that grim trend (and indeed has in several states).  In fact, it is the largest two-year jump in deaths in half a century.  So why has progress stalled and begun to reverse in recent years?

The list of most likely factors includes the following:
  • Lower gas prices
  • An improving economy since the Great Recession
  • An increase in distracted driving (and walking), primarly from smartphones
  • Higher speed limits than in the past 
  • Infrastructure in disrepair from neglect
  • Slacking on traffic safety improvements in general since the early 1990s
All of these things are true, and all of them are known to be correlated with traffic casualties.  Other factors are involved as well, to be sure, but these are the big ones.  The first three are the proximal causes, while the last three are the more distal ones.

Of course, drunk driving and not wearing seatbelts remain rather persistent contributors to the number of these deaths, but such behaviors remain far lower than they were decades ago.  Nevertheless, they remain at dangerous levels, and it is apparently a bit too early to feel safe in that regard.  And with real alcohol prices at record lows today and alcohol consumption on the rise for the past two decades, there is definitely a cause for concern in that regard.

What about drugged driving, then?  Is it really on the rise, like some have claimed?  Perhaps, but it may simply be that we are getting better at detecting it rather than an actual increase.  Or perhaps it is a bit of both.  The opioid epidemic certainly doesn't make the roads any safer.  And contrary to the anti-legalization folks, there does not seem to be any firm link between cannabis legalization and traffic fatalities.  In fact, some studies have found decreases in highway deaths following cannabis liberalization, due to an apparent substitution with alcohol.

One thing is for sure.  Whether this spike in traffic casualties is a short-term blip or the start of a longer-term trend (which will only be known in hindsight), it should be a major wake-up call that we clearly cannot afford to be complacent about it any longer.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

In Other News, New Study Finds That The Sun Rises In The East

Captain Obvious called, and they want their study back.  Namely, the one that found that more frequent police traffic stops in general leads to less drunk driving.  In fact, communities with very few traffic stops had a rate of impaired driving that was as much as two to three times higher than in communities with more frequent traffic stops.  The same was true for the intensity of DUI saturation patrols, which, interestingly enough, were found to be quite superior to roadblock-style sobriety checkpoints in this study.

Additionally, they also found that the number of DUI arrests, after other variables controlled for, was also inversely correlated with drunk driving despite the chicken-or-egg problem inherent in this measure.  Thus, on balance, the greater the probability of arrest if one does drive drunk in a given community, the less people are willing to drive drunk in that community.

Again, we see that the perception of swift and certain punishment--that is, greater odds of getting caught--does indeed act as a robust deterrent for drunk driving.  Gee, who woulda thunk it?

So how about the following thought experiment:  if the drinking age was suddenly lowered to 18 overnight, how would police respond now in 2018?  Most likely, they would become more active in cracking down on DUI, fearing an increase in such among young people.  And that crackdown would not only prevent the feared short-term increase in traffic casualties, but also have a spillover that would reduce traffic casualties among all ages.  That is the most logical prediction of the net effect of doing so nowadays, as it's clearly not the 1970s anymore.

It's time to finish the job.   So what are we waiting for?

Friday, January 5, 2018

18 in '18

It is now 2018, and this year may be the very best chance we have had in a long time to lower the legal drinking age to 18.  With the Amethyst Initiative and Choose Responsibility already now over a decade old and ultimately a flash in the pan, and the relative dormancy of our movement since about 2012 or so, it's time to start the "third wave" of our movement now.  We need to be re-invigorated like never before.

Thus, we need to start getting "18 in '18" initiatives on the ballot in as many states as possible, in addition to pressuring our legislators to lower the drinking age to 18.  With the mid-term elections likely to be "on fire" in terms of more voter turnout than usual, especially for young people, it seems that at least some such initiatives may have a chance.

Let America be America Again, and lower the drinking age to 18.  If you're old enough to go to war, you're old enough to go to the bar.  'Nuff said.

What better time than now?

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The One Thing That Philip J. Cook and Wayland Ellis Both Agree On

Sometimes an idea comes along that is so compelling that even polar opposites of a particular ideological or public policy spectrum are willing to at least grudgingly embrace.  And sometimes that idea is not only not a new one, but has existed since practically forever yet has been largely underutilized all the same despite all the evidence in its favor.

Take the following two authors and researchers:  Philip J. Cook (author of Paying the Tab:  The Costs And Benefits of Alcohol Control) and Wayland Ellis (author of Abolish the Drinking Age:  The Conservative Case Against Alcohol Regulation).  The two can be considered to be each other's foil in many ways in regards to alcohol.  Cook is American, pro-21, pro-regulation, leans a bit more liberal than conservative, and leans more communitarian than libertarian.  In contrast, Ellis is British, anti-21, anti-regulation, conservative by British standards, and leans quite libertarian even by American standards.   

And yet, there is one thing that they both agree on:  the single most effective public policy measure to reduce alcohol-related harms is higher alcohol prices, such as through higher alcohol taxes.  Cook arrives at that conclusion enthusiastically while Ellis arrives at it perhaps a bit grudgingly, but the conclusion is the same regardless despite their otherwise polar opposite views on the drinking age and alcohol regulation in general.  Now that really says something!

And it pans out, given the reams upon reams of research evidence that arrive at that same conclusion in a wide variety of times, places, demographics, and functional forms.  Twenty-One Debunked generally agrees more with Cook than Ellis on most of the topics under discussion with the notable exception of the drinking age of course.  Especially since Cook's own 1984 study with Tauchen was one of the now-outdated studies that convinced the feds to force states to raise the drinking age to 21 in the first place.  We agree with Cook on some things, Ellis on others, and clearly agree with both on the issue of alcohol taxes.  Alcohol prices relative to inflation and income are currently at a record low in the USA, in no small part because taxes are at at a record low as well.  And there really is no overarching benefit to society for alcohol to be that cheap, while there is plenty of proven and serious harm from the excessive drinking (among all ages) that such cheap alcohol encourages.

Twenty-One Debunked supports lowering the drinking age to 18, while also raising and equalizing the federal alcohol taxes across the board to $24/proof-gallon, equal to the inflation-adjusted 1991 level for distilled spirits.  That would be a little more than an extra dollar for a six-pack of beer or an extra dollar on a fifth of liquor.  That could be done more gradually by first raising it to $16/proof-gallon and then to $24 a year later. Additionally, we would also be fine with (though not necessarily wedded to) the idea of setting a minimum price of $0.50-0.75 per standard drink or at least banning the practice of retailers selling alcohol below cost (already banned in many states).   Cook would support the latter idea of a price floor while Ellis would most likely not, but both would at least support higher alcohol taxes.

So what are we waiting for?

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Would A Price Floor for Alcohol Be A Good Idea?

With the issue of alcohol taxes now coming to the forefront lately, there is also another policy measure designed to reduce the problems and externalities associated with excessive consumption of alcohol:  minimum unit pricing.  That is, a setting a minimum price per standard unit* of alcohol, which like excise taxes would increase the price of the cheap stuff (that is favored by heavy drinkers) but unlike taxes would have no effect on beverages whose price is already higher than the new minimum.  After all, the effect of taxes operates through the mechanism of higher prices, so the public health benefits should be similar for both taxes and a price floor, or some combination of the two.  The biggest differences would be in efficiency (who bears the costs) versus revenue (who gets it)--though even for taxes alone, the largest effect size, at the margins, would be on the heaviest drinkers as well, for obvious reasons.

One can see the effects of a price floor on both cheap alcohol in general as well as in bulk quantities.  Take a 40 oz. bottle of 8% ABV malt liquor that now costs $2.99.  That contains a whopping 5.3 standard American drinks*.  If the price floor was then set at $0.75 per standard drink, for example, the price would go up to $3.99, a small but significant jump that really would add up for a heavy (and/or very young) drinker.  A six-pack of 12 oz. cans of say, Budweiser (5% ABV) that sells for $5.99 per six-pack, already above that hypothetical price floor at $1.00 per standard drink--and that is a low-ball price for a six-pack in the USA--would be unaffected.  A 12-pack of the same product selling for $9.99 would still be unaffected, and an 18-pack could be sold for as little as $13.50.  But that 30-pack now on sale for $14.99?  Well, the price for that would go up to $22.50.  And that 15.5 gallon keg that currently sells for $100 or less, excluding deposit?  Well, that contains about 168 standard drinks, so the minimum price for that would jump to $126 per keg.  And those prices for bulk quantities would really add up for anyone who frequently throws or attends keggers or other large drinking parties--leading to somewhat fewer such occasions and/or less beer to go around at such parties.  And now combine that with even a modest tax hike and you get a marginal effect size that is greater than either measure alone.

What about the hard stuff?  Well, we see that while most of it would remain unafffected by a price floor, the cheaper end of the scale would be nonetheless be affected as well in a similar manner to beer.  Take a "handle" (i.e. a 1.75 L bottle) of the cheapest vodka, whiskey, or whatever that currently costs $12.99 in some places.  That contains about 40 shots of 1.5 oz each, so at 80 proof that would equal roughly 40 standard drinks per bottle.  If the minimum price were set at $0.75 per standard drink drink, that bottle would now cost about $30.  Even a mere $0.50 per drink floor price would raise the price of the cheap booze to around $20 or so.  So while distilled spirits would be the least affected category overall, they would in fact be even more affected than beer at the lower end.   And this would also lesssen the yawning disparity between on- and off-premise prices, thus reducing the urge to "pre-load" or "front-load" with cheap booze before going out to the bar, pub, or club.

So yes, Twenty-One Debunked would be fine with a price floor of $0.75 per standard drink, just as we would be fine with raising alcohol taxes across the board to as high as $24/proof-gallon for all beverage types.   A combination of both would also be good as well.  Given how moderate and responsible drinkers would barely be affected at all by either measure as noted (as long as the thresholds are not set much higher than the ones above), they hardly qualify as blunt instruments and are in fact highly efficient in practice.  That's a small price to pay for liberty.

* One "standard American drink" or "standard unit" of alcohol is equal to one measure of the following:  one 12 ounce can/mug/glass of beer at 5% ABV, one 5 ounce glass of wine at 12% ABV, or one 1.5 ounce shot of distilled spirits at 80 proof (40% ABV).  This is known as alcohol equivalence.  Contrary to popular opinion, these all contain the same amount of alcohol.  So keep this in mind if or when you drink.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Of Death And Taxes, Part Deux

While the opioid epidemic has recently been declared a public health emergency, what if we were to tell you that there is another drug epidemic that kills even more people (a whopping 88,000 per year vs. 65,000 per year for opioid and all other drug overdoses combined), a number that has actually been increasing in recent years?  And that number, though staggering in itself, is merely the tip of a very large iceberg of injury, illness, crime, violence, motor vehicle crashes, family breakdown, addiction, and other social costs linked to this deadly yet ubiquitous substance.  Meanwhile, the powers that be are responding to this epidemic with a collective shrug for the most part.  I think the reader would figure out by now that we are talking about alcohol.

And aside from its overall banality, what is particularly notable about the alcohol epidemic is how ageist our response has been.  While the epidemic clearly affects all ages, the powers that be have been focusing in laser-like fashion on people under 21 while largely ignoring people over 21, despite the fact that people over 21 make up the vast majority of this epidemic.  Not only does this scapegoat young people for largely adult problems, but it also hinders any real solutions to such problems as well.  It's basically the "pink elephant in the room".

Fortunately, we know now after decades of reams of research evidence that there is in fact a very simple solution for reducing the death rates and other harms of excessive drinking.  And that solution is raising alcohol taxes.   The higher the price of alcoholic beverages, the fewer deaths and other alcohol-related problems occur, all else being equal.  Even modest increases seem to have a significant impact.   We know this, yet not only have the powers that be generally let the alcohol taxes lag behind inflation, but have actually moved to lower such taxes as a lesser-known part of the new Republican tax bill.  

So what should the ideal alcohol tax be?  According to researchers, the externality costs of alcohol are estimated to be around $45-58 per proof-gallon, yet the federal tax on distilled spirits is $13.50 per proof-gallon, and for wine and beer it varies but tends to hover between $4 and $5 per proof-gallon.  And while state and local alcohol taxes vary, they are also generally very modest in most states, especially for beer.  So there is a very wide range by which such taxes can be raised while still being socially efficient.

Of course, those figures are now effectively even lower now that the Republican tax bill has lowered such rates even further for roughly the first 100,000 proof-gallons of all alcoholic beverage categories across the board.  But the aforementioned rates still remain the top rates above the respective thresholds in the now-tiered system.  Beer was always tiered with a reduced rate for the first 60,000 barrels, but now that reduced rate is even lower still, and for the first time ever distilled spirits now enjoy a reduced rate for the first 100,000 proof-gallons.  The rate structure is not inherently bad in itself, of course, but both the new and old rates are simply too low.

Twenty-One Debunked believes that, along with lowering the drinking age to 18, that alcohol taxes should be raised significantly.  Specifically, we support raising and equalizing the federal tax on all alcoholic beverages to the inflation-adjusted 1991 level for distilled spirits, which would be $24 per proof-gallon in 2016 dollars.  It should also be simplified by getting rid of all credits and lower tax rates, with perhaps the exception of ones for the first X number of proof-gallons produced by very small domestic producers.  At the state level, it would also be good to equalize alcohol taxes across all beverage types, while allowing localities to levy their own alcohol taxes (including sales and gross excise taxes) as they see fit.  The latter is especially important for college towns.

Even a smaller hike, such as to $16 per proof-gallon across the board, would likely save thousands of lives per year according to researchers.  And of course it would also raise more revenue.  As for job losses, the best research suggests that the net effect is actually neutral or even positive with respect to jobs overall.  So it should be a no-brainer.  A win-win-win situation for everyone but the alcohol industry, basically.

Oh, and by the way:  craft breweries (both macro and micro) not only exist in high-tax Canada, but actually appear to be thriving over there.  Keep in mind that the tax hikes we propose would still leave American beverages cheaper than Canadian beverages.  So even if we raise such taxes dramatically without reduced rates or credits for small producers, they will likely continue to thrive here as well (at least if such tax hikes are phased in somewhat gradually).

Don't get us wrong, Twenty-One Debunked does not believe that alcohol is inherently evil or anything like that.   We are certainly not in league with the neo-dry lobby!  But when we as a society fail to appreciate that alcohol has a very real dark side for all ages, there are very serious consequences to doing so.  History speaks for itself.  So what are we waiting for?

Friday, December 22, 2017

Have a Safe and Happy Holiday Season

(This is a public service announcement)

It is that time of year again when the holidays are upon us, and many of us Americans (and around the world) will be celebrating with alcohol and/or other substances.  We at Twenty-One Debunked would like to remind everyone to be safe and celebrate responsibly.  There is absolutely no excuse for drunk driving at any age, period.  We cannot stress this enough.  It's very simple--if you plan to drive, don't drink, and if you plan to drink, don't drive.  It's really not rocket science, folks.  And there are numerous ways to avoid mixing the two.  Designate a sober driver, take a cab, use public transportation, crash on the couch, or even walk if you have to.  Or stay home and celebrate there.  Or don't drink--nobody's got a gun to your head.  Seriously.  And the same goes for other psychoactive substances as well, and a fortiori when combined with alcohol. 

ARRIVE ALIVE, DON'T DRINK AND DRIVE!!!   If you plan to drink, don't forget to think!  The life you save may very well be your own.