Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Underage Drinking As Human Right? I Don't Think So

October 16, 2013, 3:25 p.m.

Why Bar Owners, Students, Should Embrace Iowa City's 21 Law

This morning's Daily Iowan carries an opinion piece arguing that those whom the law forbids to consume alcohol at any time (those under 21) have been denied their human rights by the Iowa City Ordinance forbidding them to be in places of business, the sole purpose of which is to profit from the sale of alcohol, between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. Blake Whitten, "21-Ordinance Violates Human Rights," The Daily Iowan, Oct. 16, 2013, p. A4. It is reproduced in full at the bottom of this blog essay.

Those urging repeal of the so-called "21" ordinance come at their efforts at arguments for doing so from a variety of directions. I have already addressed the argument that goes, "because the drinking age should be 18 rather than 21, therefore, those under the age of 21 should be permitted to be in bars between 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m." (even though, I would add, for them to drink during those hours is a clear violation of law). "Deeth's Drinking Age: A Reply; 21 -- 'Not Just a Good Idea, It's the Law,'" October 6, 2013. [Photo credit:]

The following was added by me as a comment to the online version of this morning's Daily Iowan column that attempted to argue why the 21 ordinance is a violation of students' "human rights." It was subsequently published by the Daily Iowan as "Letters to the Editor/Online Comments."

Re: 21-Ordinance is Human-Rights Violation
Nicholas Johnson
The Daily Iowan
October 17, 2013, p. A4
There are all kinds of age-based laws and regulations restricting those underage from, among other things, getting married, driving cars, buying guns, performing in porn videos, purchasing cigarettes -- and yes, alcohol. None is considered a human rights violation. See, "Deeth's Drinking Age: A Reply,"

Bars are in the business of profiting from the sale of alcohol. Those under 21 are legally prohibited from buying, possessing or consuming alcohol. The logical, and most easily administered, standard would be to prohibit anyone under 21 from ever entering a bar -- as is the standard in many places.

Instead, Iowa City lives with a compromise that enables bar owners to profit maximize, and those who cannot legally purchase what they have to sell to be in bars for 20 out of every 24 hours each day. Those under 21 are only kept out of bars from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. It's scarcely "21-only"!

It seems to me the City Council's approach is exceedingly generous to bar owners and their illegally binge drinking students alike, not something either should be protesting.

And since the author raised the "no one over 50 in bars after 10" example, nor is it a denial of my human rights as an old geezer that I have to get my driver's license renewed more often than my middle-aged children do. Someday it may be forcefully taken from me. The state has a right to determine if my driving puts at risk my own safety and that of others.

As John Neff has noted in a comment on the blog essay linked above, "The age dependence of hazardous use of alcohol decreases much faster than a Constant/Age with most of the problems in the 15 to 25 age range. The peak age is about 19, so 21 is a reasonable compromise for the minimum legal age to drink." In short, that's why the legal drinking age is 21. It, like limitations on my driving, is designed to minimize the risk of harm underage drinkers pose to themselves and others.

Meanwhile, 21 remains the legal drinking age. John Deeth has endeavored (earlier on these pages and elsewhere) to make the case for lowering the drinking age to 18. But until he persuades the Congress and Iowa Legislature of his position, (1) keeping those under 21 out of bars is logical, (2) permitting them in bars until 10 p.m. is generous, and (3) leaving them there until 2 a.m. is just asking for trouble -- the trouble we got the last time we tried.

Here is the Daily Iowan opinion piece to which the above is a response:

21-Ordinance Violates Human Rights
Blake Whitten
The Daily Iowan, October 16, 2013, p. A4.

Imagine that we’re debating a law that reads:

“No person, individual, association, corporation, partnership, or club holding a liquor-control license, wine, or beer permit, which authorizes on-the-premises consumption, nor his or her agents or employees shall allow a person who is 50 years or older to enter or remain in the licensed or permitted establishment between the hours of 10 p.m. and closing.”

Of course, restricting the legal right of older citizens to freely associate is ludicrous, outrageous, and completely unacceptable. As fair-minded Iowans, we wouldn’t stand for such a law, however benevolent the reasons advanced by the law’s proponents and regardless of how many community leaders endorsed it. [Photo credit:]

Replace the words “is 50 years or older” with “who has not yet attained the legal age,” and you have the 21 bar-entry ordinance.

But is discriminating against a younger demographic of Iowa City citizens really the moral equivalent of discriminating against older citizens? Apparently so, according to Iowa City’s own human-rights ordinance enshrined in the city code:

“It shall be unlawful for any person to deny any other person the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages of any place of public accommodation because of age, color, creed, disability, gender identity, marital status, national origin, race, religion, sex or sexual orientation.”

Apparently staff brought this conflict to the attention of the city recently. In true Orwellian fashion, the council has decided to redefine human rights to specifically exclude the 21-ordinance as a human-rights violation. Poof. Age no longer matters.

City councilors chose a path of political expedience and hypocrisy. But what about the rest of us, those who don’t have political careers to protect or the need to publicly save face? Do we fold human rights neatly into a box that we call the law, or do the inalienable nature of such rights impel us to reconsider the law itself?

I wish that Sally Mason understood the irony that each time she extols the “nanny state” by promoting the 21-ordinance in a speech to the student council or in a press interview, she actually works against instructors who demand personal responsibility, hard work, and academic excellence in the classroom. Students rightly perceive the hypocrisy of the mixed message between rights and responsibilities: “Study hard, but be home in bed by 10 o’clock.”

One issue rarely mentioned is the example we’re setting for our ever-growing contingent of international students, many of whom hail from countries whose governments are considered less than democratic. These students are watching: Is America still the land of the free and the home of the brave? Are vulnerable minorities (in this case, young adults) treated with dignity and respect?

I call on students to vote YES on Public Measure G to affirm that you matter. (It’s especially easy for in-state and out-of-state students to register and vote early at campus locations before Oct. 25.)

Vote YES for your fellow students’ dignity and self-respect. Vote YES to show your international colleagues (international students) that the American dreams of freedom and equality are alive and well, right here in Iowa City.

Much has been debated about safety. The consensus seems to be that downtown is quieter but that house parties are better attended since 2010. But if the goal is a quiet downtown at the expense of freedom, then let’s be fair about it by passing a curfew that forbids everyone from being downtown after 10 p.m. Short of that, and in the great Iowan tradition of grace and fair play, let’s remove the human-rights violation known as the 21-ordinance. Vote yes on Public Measure G.

Blake Whitten is a lecturer in the Department of Economics and the Department of Statistics.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Deeth's Drinking Age: A Reply

October 6, 2013 10:30 a.m.

21 -- "Not Just a Good Idea, It's the Law"

Reluctantly, I must part company with John Deeth -- for whom I have enormous respect when it comes to his political work and judgment -- on the matter of underage drinking. (His original column, and his response to this blog essay, appear below in their entirety.)

There is a long list of reasons why.

A drinking age of 18 is something that he and a great many others support -- including those whose motto is "Iowa City: Where Great Minds Drink Alike." [Photo credit: Nicholas Johnson.]

Teach Children Respect for Law: Follow It or Lobby to Change It. So far as I'm concerned, those who would like to change the law are welcome to try. It is not my purpose on this occasion to make arguments for, or against, reducing the legal drinking age to 18. Thus, assertions such as, "If you're old enough to fight a war, you should be old enough to have a beer," are irrelevant. From my perspective, arguments for changing the law are unpersuasive as reasons for violating the law.

Perhaps it is the lawyer in me, but I think it is irresponsible, and poor parenting, to tell our children, as John Deeth writes, that "It's tacitly OK to start drinking in your late teens, as long as you don't get caught." Kids have enough inclination as it is to be bound by no higher moral and ethical standards than whatever is required to avoid getting caught. Are there any laws, regulations, or religious values that John believes one should comply with, whether or not one will get caught? If so, he has failed to provide us his standard by which we might figure out what they are. From this perspective, young men might also be advised, as some seem to believe without the advice, that "It is tacitly OK to start raping in your late teens, as long as you don't get caught."

It's Not True "You Can Only Learn From Experience." I am similarly troubled with his unqualified assertion that "you can only learn from experience." Does he really believe that the only way young college women can only learn of the possibility of pregnancy from drunken, unprotected and unwanted sex is to become pregnant? The only place students can learn of the risks of toxic blood alcohol levels is in an emergency room? The only way they can learn of the possibilities of killing friends and themselves in auto accidents while driving drunk is by doing so?

I thought the human species had options. I thought one of them was K-12 and college education. What a multi-billion-dollar waste education turns out to be if "you can only learn from experience." (And see the comment on this blog from "Anonymous," below, a 21-year-old who seems to have found other paths than "experience" to knowledge regarding alcohol.)

Our "21 Only" is Neither "21" Nor "Only" -- It is a Compromise, and One Bar Owners Should Embrace. From the standpoint of the law, and common sense, what we call in Iowa City a "21-only" law is far from what its name suggests. It is a very generous compromise between what the law might require, and John's "18-only" position, one that ought to be gratefully grabbed by him, bar owners and students seeking the nation's "Number One Party School," rather than being opposed by them.

"Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" head writer Mason Williams' multiple talents include a knack for one-liners, one of which is: "Here's a ball; don't bounce it."

Think about it. The law forbids those under 21 from purchasing, possessing, dispensing, or consuming alcohol. Bars are business establishments designed to maximize income from the sale of alcohol. That's not to say that nothing else goes on there, or that no one enters a bar except for those whose sole purpose is the consumption of alcohol. It is only to say that sales of alcohol are bars' exclusive business purpose and source of profit. Clearly, any activity that would substantially reduce profits would probably not be permitted to continue for long.

The common sense approach, and the law in many jurisdictions, would be to forbid anyone to enter a bar who cannot legally engage as a customer in the business in which that bar is engaged. That would be "21 Only" -- only those 21 or older would be permitted in bars.

Our "restriction," by contrast, only prevents underage students from being in bars for four hours a day: from 10:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. They can go into bars during the early morning hours (when bars are open on game days), they can go in throughout the day, they can go in at night until 10:00. Whatever one can say of such a law, it is clearly not "21 Only."

So why do bar owners and some students want underage students in bars between 10:00 and 2:00? Because underage students want to drink alcohol then (in the many ways they find to do so), and the bar owners want the profits.

Just as it is not my purpose to make arguments why the drinking age should be kept at 21, rather than lowered to 18, similarly I am not making an argument for keeping (or repealing) the law that forbids underage students to be in bars after 10:00 p.m.

All I am pointing out is that our out-by-10 law is not "21 Only," as it permits underage students to be in bars 20 out of every 24 hours a day. This standard seems to me a quite reasonable compromise between keeping them out entirely, and letting them drink 24/7.

We Have Already Separated the 'Alcohol Abuse' and 'Underage Drinking' Issues. John Deeth writes that we need to, "separate the 'alcohol abuse' issue from the 'underage drinking' issue." Aside from the PAULA-only violations (possession of alcohol under the legal age), and even for most of those, it seems to me that what Iowa City police are already doing is precisely what Deeth is proposing.

John says we must "recognize the rights and wishes of young adults." He seems to be trying to turn a violation of law into a "right." Even if there was a "right" to violate this law (underage drinking), hopefully even John Deeth would acknowledge that there are no rights to violate the laws that are violated as a consequence of underage drinking: driving over the 0.08 blood alcohol level, rape, fights, property damage, public urination, and other behavior of the young inebriated. See, "'GO, HAWKS!' -- Just Not in My Yard."

It's relatively unlikely in Iowa City -- not impossible, but relatively unlikely -- that any underage students who have consumed modest amounts of alcohol will be arrested, if they are otherwise behaving as rational, sober adults, they are not walking around with open containers, and they are not engaged in other varieties of law violations or obnoxious behavior.

"Separate Alcohol Abuse and 'Underage' Issues"
John Deeth
Iowa City Press-Citizen
October 6, 2013, p. A6

America has a dysfunctional coming of age ritual with alcohol. It’s tacitly OK to start drinking in your late teens, as long as you don’t get caught. That makes access to alcohol, while not difficult, still a valuable commodity for the coming-of-age person, emphasizing the link between adulthood and alcohol and encouraging over-use when the “forbidden” (nudge wink) fruit is available.

The college drinking culture cost me a point off my GPA and my first serious relationship. My own difficult experience with alcohol tells me you can only learn from experience. That’s why I so adamantly oppose the 21 drinking age and why I voted “yes” to repeal the 21-only ordinance.

21-only supporters try to claim that this fight is not about the drinking age. But by refusing to engage on this under-discussed issue, they perpetuate that cultural dysfunction and lose credibility with the same young people they’re patronizingly trying to “protect.” That makes it harder to address the binge drinking problem they claim to care about.

Nearly every politician I know privately says the 21-only drinking age is unworkable. Some even admit it’s unfair to the young adults whose support they eagerly seek in general elections. But almost none say so in public. The city-university establishment stance on this is that the end, cracking down on the No. 1 Party School, justifies the means.

For almost all purposes besides alcohol, 18-year-olds are considered adults. In 1971, our nation made a wartime decision, by the overwhelming majority that a constitutional amendment requires, that the age of adulthood was 18. The drinking age is nowhere near as enshrined. It’s just legislation. It can be changed.

Even an assistant city attorney now admits that the 21-only ordinance has human rights implications. But instead of addressing that by recognizing rights, the city wants to redefine rights to get their desired outcome.

Rights fights are uncomfortable sometimes. You have to stick up for unsympathetic characters like Larry Flynt and Illinois Nazis, and Vodka Samm and self-interested bar owners. (Yet self-interest is OK if you want to keep beggars away from your jewelry store.) Rights aren’t less important just because the right in question is less high-minded.

Some people in this town would be happier if the university were nothing but athletes, tenured faculty, invisible grad students who never leave the lab and the cultural amenities usually seen only in much bigger cities. But without our students, without those immature and inconvenient freshmen and sophomores, there is no Iowa City.

The young adults who drive Iowa City’s economy want and deserve adult fun. I’m not pretending that 19-year-olds will go to the bar “just to dance,” or sip on one drink while earnestly discussing their literature class in a quiet pub. They’ll make mistakes.

That’s the point. “We don’t want to go back,” says 21 Makes Sense (sic), yet their vision looks back to the we-know-what’s-best-for-you attitudes of the 1950s. Instead, we should encourage young adults to make their own decisions and take responsibility.

Only when we separate the alcohol abuse issue from the “underage” (sic) drinking issue, and recognize the rights and wishes of young adults, can we Old People be taken seriously on the very real problem of binge drinking.

And voting “yes” to repeal the 21-only ordinance is a good first step toward the conversation about the drinking age we need to have.

Iowa City grandfather John Deeth turns 50 this year. He had his last drink on Aug. 25, 1985.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

'GO, HAWKS!' -- Just Not in My Yard

October 5, 2013, 2:30 p.m.
Homecoming's Public Urination

The Athletic Department needs to put at least a half-dozen porta-potties along Melrose Court, from its intersection with Melrose Avenue to the barricade at the intersections of Melrose Court, Myrtle Avenue and Greenwood Drive.

It's Homecoming.

For some football fans Iowa City is home. For others a second home. For still others it's just the home of Kinnick Stadium.

Unfortunately, apparently some fans came from a place where "home" means you can pee on your neighbors' lawns whenever you want. [Photo credit: Nicholas Johnson.]

It's nice that the Athletic Department can drop 70,000 folks into a tiny residential neighborhood designed for about 200, and that the crowd can feel at home. Sharing the football Saturday with friends. Tailgating. Throwing a football around. Playing the beanbag game. The colorful clothes, the music, the chatter.

What's to complain about that?

I am a resident of that neighborhood (in the house I lived in from 1941 to 1952, and returned to in 1989). So far as most of the fans are concerned, there's little, if anything, about which I complain. They are friendly, fun-loving, and respectful.

Unfortunately, that can't be said of all.

I have often written in the past about the trash that gets left behind. Most of it is left out in the open and can be easily picked up by the neighbors. The two exceptions are (1) the broken glass created, and left behind, by those who enjoy throwing beer bottles into the air just to watch them crash and shatter on the sidewalk, and (2) those who think it tidier to throw trash under bushes, out of the way, perhaps not realizing that means we need to get down on our bellies and crawl under the bushes to get it back out. [Photo credit: Nicholas Johnson, 2012.]

In fairness, early Sunday mornings these days there seems to be less trash throughout the neighborhood than there used to be. There's an organized trash collection and removal effort. This is in addition to the valuable service provided by those who have always gathered the visible cans and bottles and carried them off on their backs, in large 300-container bags, in exchange for the redemption money welcomed by those down on their luck.

But the public urination business is another matter. It's really offensive, and quite common. The two pictures embedded in this blog essay were taken within 10 minutes of each other while my wife and I were trying to enjoy breakfast on our back patio this morning. [Photo credit: Nicholas Johnson.]

I've never called the police to report it. It would never have occurred to me to do so. But two weeks ago, during the Western Michigan game, I noticed an Iowa City Police car parked in front of the house and went out to see what was going on. The friendly officer asked if I lived here. I said I did. He asked if I had given students permission to urinate in my yard. I acknowledged that I had not. "Just wanted to make sure," he responded, "because I just gave a guy a ticket for public urination." What a unique experience it was for me; the first time since 1941 that anyone had ever been ticketed for peeing in our yard (so far as I'm aware).

As we continued to talk, I noted that a little earlier I had asked three or four guys who were urinating on my front lawn to please go down the street to the Myrtle Street Parking Lot, where there are usually a dozen or more porta-potties, and how they'd argued with me. Their analytical position seemed to derive from their possession of an entitlement to pee wherever they wished. The officer explained that I should not expect to have reasoned discourse with a drunk.

OK, he's right. But I do expect reasoned discourse with the Athletic Department. The football program pulls in (and spends) tens of millions of dollars each year from television revenues, ticket sales, and gifts. This morning's paper explains that it spends over $200,000 on paying the dozens of regional law enforcement officers needed for security. Tara Bannow, "About a Dozen Agencies Protect Gamedays; UI Spent About $210K on Security Last Season," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 5, 2013, p. A1. It can put up porta-potties by the dozen when and where it wishes. Why can't it put up a half-dozen where its paying customers, and neighborhood residents, have to put up with the externalities created by 70,000 Hawkeye fans -- including their public urination?

Oh, and sorry about the 26-14 outcome today.

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