Sunday, June 14, 2009

Why should I support lowering the drinking age?

This is probably the first question you are asking. Here are the answers (adapted from the Drug War Rant FAQ by Pete Guither), each tailored to a different group:

Q1) I am a liberal Democrat. Why should I support lowering the drinking age?

A1) The drinking age of 21 is a form of age discrimination, and Democrats are not supposed to support discrimination. Young people are one of the party's greatest assets as well. It also creates just another excuse to arrest poor and/or minority youth, similar to what happens during the War on Drugs. Besides, the law does not work very well as written.

Alienating youth, the future of America, any further than necessary is foolish. It will come back to bite you in the end, since they are part of your base.

The right to privacy of Roe v. Wade fame, used often by the pro-choice crowd, would logically extend to personal choices about alcohol use among legal adults as well. And the age of adulthood is 18 in nearly every state.

If you're old enough to go to war, you're old enough to go to the bar.

One could also note that enforcement of such a futile law is expensive, wasting money that could be used on education, treatment, and other positive programs that would reduce alcohol abuse.

Q2) I am a conservative Republican. Why should I support lowering the drinking age?

A2) Interesingly, you have even stronger reasons to support a lower drinking age than the Democrats do. First, it is not fiscally conservative to spend ludicrous amounts of money enforcing a futile law. Over two decades after raising the drinking age, the majority of 18-20 year olds still drink. Secondly, basic conservative principles such as individual liberty and responsibility, free market economics, and respect fror the family are all grossly violated by having a drinking age higher than the age of majority. Thirdly, states' rights (another basic conservative principle) are violated by the federal coercion to have a drinking age of 21.

A law whose primary purpose is protecting legal adults from themselves is incompatible with free-market capitalism, and it would inherently retard natural selection if it were successful.  True conservatives and old-school Republicans do not support "nanny-state" policies.

In addition, "Law and Order" Republicans should note how diverting law enforcement resources away from real crimes cannot be good. A higher drinking age has never been proven to reduce crime. Plus, a high drinking age erodes respect for law and authority as well by making criminals out of otherwise law-abiding citizens.

Q3) I am a libertarian. Why should I support lowering the drinking age?

A3) Well DUH! If you need to ask, you are probably not a libertarian.

Q4) I am a member of the Green Party. Why should I support lowering the drinking age?

A4) The same reasons from Question 1 apply to you as well. But there are others as well.

The core principles of sustainability and social justice preclude any unenforceably high drinking age. Legal Age 21 is not very eco-friendly in that it leads to litter-laden "woods parties" and the use of disposable plastic cups at clandestine parties when they are forced underground.

Q5) I am a communitarian who does not believe in individual rights. Why should I support a lower drinking age?

A5) There are plenty of arguments for lowering the drinking age that do not appeal to a notion of individual rights. First of all, a drinking age of 21 inhibits social cohesion, creating an "us against them" mentality. Second of all, it fails to adequately protect young people from the dangers of alcohol--it merely forces drinking underground and in many ways makes things more dangerous. Third, it encourages truly dangerous drinking styles (extreme binge drinking), which can have knock-on effects on non-drinkers as well.

It would be better for all members of a community if 18 year olds were allowed to drink "above ground" like older adults can, where it can be better monitiored, and resources can be better prioritized.

Also, read Question 4 above and read on to Question 12.

Q6) I am a Christian who believes drinking, especially teen drinking, is immoral. Why should I support lowering the drinking age?

A6) Most of the negative alcohol references in the Bible concern the abuse of alcohol, rather than simply use. And none of these are age-specific. There also several positive references to alcohol in the Bible as well. In fact, the ratio to positive to negative references is almost 4 : 1. And let's not forget that Jesus turned water into wine. And there were plenty of people under 21 who partook of it. Im other words, there is zero Scriptural evidence that Jesus would have supported a legal drinking age of 21.

It can also be said that, like Prohibition, the 21 drinking age creates a "forbidden fruit" that tempts the youth to drink and behave in a more sinful manner, and potentially drags them further away from the church and into an underworld full of God knows what. It also erodes respect for the law by making criminals out of otherwise law-abiding citizens. So Matthew 18:6, the famous "millstone" verse often invoked by the Women's Christian Temperance Union, could actually be used to refute the 21 drinking age and other forms of neoprohibitonism.

However, there are some Christians who believe in abstinence and some who believe in moderation. Those are both perfectly acceptable personal spiritual beliefs and do not require civil laws to back them up.

Q7) I lost loved ones due to drunk driving. Why should I support lowering the drinking age?

A7) Because there are far better and more constructive ways to tackle that problem than age-discriminatory prohibition. You don't swat a fly with a sledgehammer unless you want to see unintended adverse consequences. Alternative approaches that have worked well in other countries include raising the alcohol taxes, lowering the blood alcohol limit further, tougher penalties and enforcement for DUI, and education would serve society much better. Increased public transporation would also likely reduce fatalities. Bottom line: we need to stop being so lenient with drunk drivers, the terrorists of the road, and mount a wholehearted campaign against the practice without the distractions of the 21 drinking age (which consumes precious resources that could be better spent elsewhere). And most drunk driving fatalities are caused by drivers over 21, with 21-24 year olds being the worst of all.

Q8) I have a relative/friend/acquaintance who died or had his/her life ruined from alcohol at an early age. Why should I support lowering the drinking age?

A8) A situation like this is a terrible tragedy. However, it does not mean that criminalization of teen drinking is the answer. I assume that this tragedy happened when the drinking age was 21, yet the extensive law enforcement resources and erosion of civil liberites did not prevent it.

In some cases, alcohol abuse tragedies will happen whether the drinking age is 18, 21, or any other number. On the other hand, criminal prohibition often adds to the dangers:

  • Criminalization adds a stigma to teen drinking that often prevents people from seeking help until it's too late.
  • Stigma can also interfere with seeking medical attention in the case of alcohol poisoning and alcohol-related injuries. Someone who would not hesitate to rush an over-21 friend with alcohol poisoning to the emergency room, may unfortunately wait a dangerous amount of time considering what to do with an under-21 friend who has overdosed or was injured under the influence. (Not that there is any real excuse, of course)
  • Forcing alcohol use underground increases the risk of alcohol poisoning, injuries, and violence associated with clandestine drinking.
  • Since they don't know when the next opportunity to drink will be, binge drinking often results. As they get older, the opportunities become more frequent, but the high drinking intensity remains. And when they finally do turn 21, they drink even more before the eventually begin drinking less.
  • Some teens drive drunk rather than ask their parents for a ride, out of fear that they will find out they had been drinking. Much teen drinking takes place in far-off locations as well, and this obviously spells trouble in rural areas.
  • By trying in vain to keep 18-20 year olds from drinking, law enforcement officers (and others) are often spread way too thinly to help keep alcohol away from those under 18, especially those under 15 (who appear to be at a heightened risk for later alcohol problems relative to older teen drinkers). Our priorities are clearly not straight. In fact, national surveys show that it is easier for 13 year olds to get alcohol than cigarettes (purchase age 18 in most states) despite such a high drinking age of 21!
The truth is that many, but not all, of the dangers associated with teen drinking can be eliminated or reduced through lowering the drinking age to 18. For the rest, Legal Age 21 won't help (it would merely mask or delay the problems, if it even does anything at all), but increased stigma-free treatment and education programs can. Remember, we don't have a teen drinking problem, we have an American drinking problem. Alcohol abuse is a problem at all ages, not just those under 21, and Legal Age 21 is not a solution. In fact, it is part of the problem, and distracts from the pinkest elephant of all in the room--the alcohol abuse among older adults.
Wiser societies, such as many European countries, have been able to tackle alcohol abuse much better than us without any sort of prohibitionist element present. Over there, parents teach their kids how to drink responsibly rather than approach alcohol from a position of moral panic. And most importantly, they draw a sharp distinction between use and abuse--to them, the first is natural and normal, while the second is greatly frowned upon at any age.

Q9) I am a feminist. Why should I support lowering the drinking age?

A9) The pro-21 crowd is constantly saying that Legal Age 21 protects young women from being victimized. But that is patently false. There is no hard evidence that this is true. In fact, forcing drinking underground needlessly puts young women in dangerous situations where they are more likely to be victimized. And enforcing the drinking age diverts precious resources away from fighting real crimes as well, including sexual violence. The dangers are real, but the drinking age does nothing to reduce them. And let's not forget Natallee Holloway, and the countless others like her as well.

What the pro-21 crowd is really saying is that 18-20 year old women, despite being legal adults, still need to be protected from themselves, as if they were children. Any self-proclaimed feminist that is not offended by this assertion is probably not a real feminist.

Q10) I am over 21. Why should I support lowering the drinking age?

A10) Believe it or not, there are plenty of non-altruistic reasons to support it. Do you have any friends under 21? Relatives? How about roommates? Or a significant other? Do they drink? Do you drink? If any of these is answered "yes," you have plenty of reasons to support a drinking age of 18.

Legal Age 21 arbitrarily divides the 18-24 demographic into two groups, creating a virtual Berlin Wall between them. One group can go to bars, the other can't. One lives in the Overworld, the other in the Underworld, so to speak. This limits the opportunities for socialization between them, especially in locations where the law is strictly enforced. Thus, the law inhibits social cohesion. And when the 18-24 demographic is divided in any way, they are more easily conquered as well.

Even worse, some states have "social host" laws in which you can be held criminally and/or civilly liable for what an underage person does after drinking in your apartment. And those cases, especially civil ones, can get real ugly in our over-litigious society.

Plus, you also have to deal with those annoying keg registration laws in some states, not to mention being constantly asked for ID no matter how old you look.

Yes, if you just turned 21 you may at first not like having your thunder stolen, or seeing 18 year olds hanging out in your favorite bars, but that's a small price to pay for liberty and social cohesion. Remember that you were 18 once as well.

Q11) I am a college president/professor/RA/RD/staff member. Why should I support lowering the drinking age?

A11) You have plenty of reasons:

  • Over 130 college presidents have signed the Amethyst Initiative, an initiative to debate the 21 drinking age. Most of those who have the courage to debate such a sacred cow are also ambivalent or against it rather than for it.
  • Your liability will most likely be reduced if the drinking age was 18, along with liability insurance costs. (One would hope that tuition would follow as well)
  • It would be a lot easier to monitor the drinking behavior of students when drinking is done "above ground" instead of "underground" like it is now.
  • It would be easier to teach students how to drink responsibly when they don't have to hide the fact that they drink.
  • Colleges are currently faced with a moral dilemma: either become arms of the law or havens from the law. Both have been tried; neither works very well.
  • You would now be able to focus on the real problems of alcohol abuse rather than drinking per se.
Q12) I am a parent of a high school student. Why should I support lowering the drinking age?

A12) Ah, the toughest nuts to crack. Where should I begin?
  • High school students in America, especially seniors, have always drank, and always will. The majority of upperclassmen will do so at least occasionally. That is about as certain as death and taxes. The 21 drinking age has not stopped it, though it often puts them in dangerous situations since drinking is forced underground.
  • They currently have little trouble getting their hands on booze, though the methods of procurement are highly unpredictable. Alcohol is easier to get than cigarettes according to surveys of both 8th and 10th graders. Even in grades 11 and 12, where the spillover should be strongest, the overall availability is not dramatically different. But since they don't know when their next opportunity to drink will be, binge drinking often results from this feast-or-famine mentality. The current situation is the worst of both worlds--it creates both "forbidden fruit" and "low-hanging fruit" at the same time.
  • Legal Age 21 turns alcohol into a "gateway" drug.
  • It would be better to focus enforcement on keeping alcohol out of the hands of kids much younger than 18 (especially those under 15) rather than divert precious resources toward utterly futile attempts at keeping 18-20 year olds from drinking.
  • Better methods of reducing teen alcohol abuse and related problems include raising the alcohol taxes (especially on cheap beer), advertising restrictions, honest alcohol education that begins well before 18, and tough enforcement against drunk driving, drunk violence, and disorderly conduct. These methods have been proven to work in numerous countries around the world.
  • A drinking age of 18 will likely be respected more than a drinking age of 21. Some 17 year olds may even choose to wait a year to remain within the bounds of the law.
  • Alcohol use is not the problem, alcohol abuse is. And that is true whether you're 18 or 88.
  • Eventually your kids will go to college, or at least move out (hopefully). It would be better in the long run to teach them to drink responsibly before high school ends than to bury your head in the sand or approach alcohol from a position of moral panic.
  • You can have a graduation party (like they did before 1984) without running afoul of the law if the drinking age was lowered to 18.
  • Social host liability would be greatly reduced if the drinking age was 18.
  • Two words: Natallee Holloway. If the drinking age was 18, she would likely still be alive today.
Q13) I am an illegal drug dealer/smuggler/kingpin. Why should I support lowering the drinking age?

A13) Actually, you shouldn't support a lower drinking age. The current drinking age of 21 turns alcohol into a gateway drug, increasing demand for your wares. In fact, in some parts of the country, a lot of the stuff you sell is easier for an 18-20 year old to get than beer, since you typically don't card your clients. But I'm sure you already knew that. Some studies (DiNardo and Lemieux, 2002) show that when legal drinking for 18-20 year olds retreats, cannabis advances (and probably vice-versa as well).

Q14) I am a member of a fraternity or sorority. Why should I support lowering the drinking age?

A14) Actually, you shouldn't support a lower drinking age. Take a look at the UK or Australia, where the drinking age is 18, and you see that Greek organizations are nonexistent. Even in Canada, which is 18-19 depending on the province, they are far less prevalent than in the United States. Notice a pattern here? Get ready to have a big "going out of business party" when the drinking age is lowered. You will no longer be needed.

However, if you are an academic or service-oriented fraternity/sorority, whose raison d'etre is something other than partying and getting wasted, rest assured that you will not suffer. In fact, your membership will likely rise instead, since the competition would be largely extinct.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

What Would the Ideal Study Look Like?

This is the question that any researcher (or debunker) must ask and answer before doing anything else in order to avoid the common pitfalls that lead to specious inferences. We here at Twenty-One Debunked believe that any drinking age study that fulfills all of the following criteria is ideal:

  1. The study is longitudinal, also known as "panel data." In other words, it contains both a time element and a cross-sectional element. Most studies discussed on this blog are longitudinal. (10 points)
  2. The study contains a minimum of 10 consecutive years of data, ideally beginning before 1980 and lasting well after 1990. (Subtract 1 point from criterion #1, for every year less than 10. Add 0.5 points for every year greater than 10, maximum 15 points)
  3. The study includes all 50 states and DC. (5 points)
  4. The study includes Puerto Rico. (5 points)
  5. The study controls for state and year fixed effects. (10 points, 5 for each one)
  6. The study controls for state-specific time trends and/or other types of trends. (5 points)
  7. The study controls for all of the following variables: vehicle miles traveled, population of the age group(s) studied, number of licensed drivers, real per capita income, unemployment rate, seat belt laws (primary and secondary), speed limit, average vehicle size, tourism expenditures, BAC limits of 0.10 and 0.08, zero tolerance laws, administrative license suspension (ALS), sobriety checkpoints, other drunk driving laws, money spent of DUI enforcement, real beer tax (or price), gas price, dram shop laws, average outlet density, keg registration, and driving age. (0.5 points for each variable controlled for, 1 point for those in red)
  8. The study controls for demographic characteristics of each state's population (race, ethnicity, religion, etc.). (2 points)
  9. The study tests for border effects. (2 points)
  10. The study controls for adult per-capita alcohol consumption, but the models are tested without this covariate as well, and both results are reported. (1 points for with only, 1 points without only, 2 points for both)
  11. The study tests all four legal drinking ages: 18, 19, 20, 21. (3 points)
  12. Grandfather clauses are accounted for. (2 points)
  13. The study tests for robustness the effect of including or excluding certain states and time periods. (3 points)
  14. The study is done using total fatalities as the dependent variable, as well as using single-vehicle nighttime fatalities as a proxy for a crash being alcohol-related. The latter avoids reporting bias and testing bias associated with a crash being labeled as "alcohol-related." (3 points for using total fatalities, 2 points for alcohol-related fatalities, 5 points for single-vehicle nighttime fatalities, 2 points for a day/night counterfactual)
  15. The study separates data into four age groups: 15-17, 18-20, 21-24, and 25-29. The last one should be used as a control group for each of the other three, since it is too distant to be affected by the drinking age. DO NOT use 21-24 year olds as a control group! (2.5 points for each of the four age groups)
  16. Each model is tested for robustness by using driver fatalities in each age group studied, and/or using fatalities of any age that involved at least one driver of the age group studied. (3 points)
  17. If data before 1975 (the year FARS was created) are included, the models are further tested for robustness using 15-24 year old total fatalities. (-5 points if not)
  18. For studies that look at effects that are not traffic-related, additional variables need to be accounted for. (unrated, does not apply to every study)
  19. Regressions contain an error term. (3 points)
  20. R-squared values are reported, or some other measure of goodness-of-fit. (3 points)
  21. Tests for statistical significance are done at the 10%, 5%, and 1% levels, and/or 95% confidence intervals are reported (3 points for 5% level, 5 points for all three, 5 points for confidence interval).

As far as we know, not a single study meets all of these criteria. But a few do come very close indeed. As a result, we at Twenty-One Debunked generally consider any study that meets 90% of the above rubric's points as very high quality and one that meets 80% as high quality, provided that criteria #1 and #5 are met in full as well. We are not aware of any study that meets #4, which is unfortunate because Puerto Rico's drinking age is still 18 to this day, and there are otherwise no data points for a drinking age below 21 after 1988. And they are in the FARS database as well. However, one could potentially consider Louisiana to have had a de facto drinking age of 18 until 1995 due to a massive loophole that has since been closed.

The following scale is what we use to grade studies based on the above rubric:

90-100 points: A (very high quality)

80-89 points: B (high quality)

70-79 points: C (decent quality)

60-69 points: D (marginal quality; near-junk)

Below 60: F (inferior quality; junk)

For cross sectional, time-series, and pre/post studies, which are weaker than longitudinal studies and thus can never be considered high quality (points can never exceed 79), our criteria are more stringent. Fixed effects and time trends obviously cannot be controlled, so additional variables need to be accounted for in cross-sectional studies. Theoretically, if enough variables are controlled for, a cross-sectional study can closely approach the accuracy of a longitudinal one, and would be considered "decent quality" for our purposes. For time-series and pre/post studies, there needs to be a suitable comparison group (or state) as well. The comparison group may NOT simply be 21-24 year olds in the same state since there is some evidence that fatalities may be shifted to/from that age group when the drinking age changes. It would be better to use 25-29 year olds AND to control for as many observable variables as possible in that case.

For those that don't know:

Fixed effects and time trends are an easy way to control for some omitted variables (with caveats of course). State fixed effects control for relatively permanent yet unobservable characteristics of each state, as long as they do not change significantly over time. Year fixed effects control for national trends that are the same in every state (safer cars, etc.). State-specific trends are the interaction of the state and year fixed effects. Time trends can be linear or quadratic.