I was going to let pass the recently publicity garnered by the Amethyst Initiative in their quest to lower the legal age for alcohol consumption from 21 to 18. Not because I wasn’t interested – I have 2 teenagers at home – but because it seemed like a non-starter. 21 saves lives. Why tamper with it?
A recent local incident took the lives of 3 teenagers in a fiery wreck caused by a repeat teen offender’s attempt to evade arrest. Another brought the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission to my sleepy hometown and resulted in 10 teens being arrested. As one resident put it, "21 didn’t just fall from the sky. It’s the age at which people are finally mature to make decent decisions."
Even Ezra Klein’s banal truism, "21 is, of course, a bizarre marker. Demanding that kids refrain from drinking for three years after they become legal adults and, in most cases, leave their parent’s supervision, is a bit odd", couldn’t rouse me to blog about it.
But Mark Kleiman’s take is more interesting. No one wants kids driving – ask the Texas parents who are mourning over the fatal incident described above. Mark says:
To address the specific problem of youthful drinking and driving, we could — as some states have already — change the drunk-driving laws so as to forbid drivers under 21 to drive with any detectable level of alcohol. (These are called "ZT" [for "zero tolerance"] laws.) For someone still learning both to drive and to hold his or her liquor, even a little bit under the influence an be too much. Anyway, a bright line (and zero is a very bright line) may be better observed than a rule that enables the proverbial "two beers."
Now that’s what I call thinking! This perhaps means it can never be implemented by a legislative body, but it’s still a damn good idea. 18-20 year-olds can drink but cannot drive while influenced. Period. It’s crystal clear and addresses the argument that a kid old enough to volunteer to get killed in Iraq ought to be able to have a beer back home.
Mark also discusses the idea of raising alcohol taxes as an impediment to teen drinking:
To address the more general problem of excessive drinking by teenagers (not to mention the still more general problem of excessive drinking, period) we could raise alcohol taxes. This summer has provided a useful object lesson in the Law of Demand: when gasoline prices went up, people drove less. Drinking is the same, especially heavy drinking. Price matters.
Doubling the current alcohol tax, which currently averages out to about a dime a drink, to twenty cents a drink, would put a substantial dent in heavy drinking, especially by younger drinkers. That would measurably reduce homicide, other violent crime, and other accidents, in addition to reducing drunk driving. And the additional tax burden on anyone but a heavy drinker would be trivial: even someone knocking back an average of two drinks a day (which puts him at about the 90th percentile of alcohol consumption) would wind up paying additional taxes of less than $80 a year. To paraphrase my favorite ad for expensive Scotch, "If the tax increase matters to you, you’re drinking too much."
At any rate, the idea of adding a dime to the price of a beer isn’t bad. It’s not much good either. People can afford to stay home from the mall on the weekend or defer a vacation until next year. But as the so-called War on Drugs tells us, they’re going to find a way to drink, regardless of the price.
Ten cents isn’t going to matter to anyone, least of all teenagers, and increasing the tax to the point that it would have a noticeable effect would be difficult to get done. Furthermore, doing so would have the effect of putting alcohol into the status of an illicit drug: available but out of reach, economically speaking.
The problem with doing this is that, once again, people want to drink. The effect of making drugs illegal has been incredible levels of drug-related crime. Pricing alcohol beyond the means of poor Americans would have the same impact.
I do love Mark’s last line, all the more so because it’s true. Of course, if you’re drinking at all, you’re drinking too much, so perhaps I shouldn’t find the joke amusing but rather sad. Unfortunately, this may render my opinion meaningless in the eyes of imbibers.