Cigarettes and Booze

ColumboThis afternoon, Dylan Matthews reported on some recent research that looked at the depiction of smoking and drinking in the movies. Since 1998 when cigarette companies were forbidden to purchase product placement in movies, smoking in films has gone down dramatically (exponentially, actually). But drinking in films has been the same as it ever was. That’s to be expected. Over the last couple of decades, we’ve seen the country turn against smoking. There has been no such change with drinking.

There is one interesting change at the movies: there’s more drinking in films that kids can see: G, PG, and PG-13. The data are pretty noisy, but the increase is sharp. There could be a lot of reasons for that. In fact, it occurs to me that it could be an artifact of the research. For example, if there is a trend toward making more PG-13 films, that could explain it. I don’t recall seeing cans of Budweiser in G rated films. (Of course, I don’t know much about this; the four films I have seen recently that I thought were G were all PG.) But it could be that alcohol producers are trying to advertise to kids.

What bothered me in Matthews’ article was the discussion that maybe we should ban product placement of alcohol in movies. I think that cigarettes and alcohol are distinctly different. Cigarettes have basically no up side; they get you a little high, they pollute the air, and they kill you. Alcohol as it is consumed by the vast majority of people is at worst harmless and very likely healthful. There’s no doubt that alcohol kills a whole lot of people and otherwise harms them. But the picture is complicated in ways that it just isn’t with cigarettes.

I’m also concerned about this whole idea that we should go around banning everything that is bad for us. It’s not that I think it is a slippery slope. In fact, it is the fact that I don’t think it is a slippery slope that I feel I must make a strand here. There are lots of ways that we can mitigate the harm caused by alcohol. But I don’t think kids seeing adults drinking in a normal way is bad; in fact, it might be good. That isn’t true of kids seeing movie stars smoking.

Thanks for the Memories, Bob

Bob HopeYou probably know the quotation, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!” It was said by that great lover of liberty Patrick Henry who was born on this day in 1736. I mean, that great lover of white man’s liberty. You see, he was a slave owner all his adult life. He didn’t grow up with slavery; he married into the business. According to Wikipedia, he used the possibility of slave revolts to promote war with Britain. He’s a real charmer. Yet we hear a lot about him in grammar school and almost nothing about the true believer in liberty Thomas Paine. I understand that when Virginian evangelicals wanted to start a college in 2000, they wouldn’t pick Paine who was neither a Virginian nor a Christian. But did they really have to pick someone as offensive as Patrick Henry?

Writer Max Brand (Frederick Schiller Faust) was born in 1892. The author of The Once and Future King, T. H. White was born in 1906. And John F. Kennedy was born in 1917.

A brave man, Gene Robinson (the “gay bishop”) is 66 today. Annette Bening is 55. And Melissa Etheridge is 52. Here she is doing “I’m The Only One”:

The day, however, belongs to Bob Hope, who was born on this day back in 1903. When I was a kid, I thought he was hilarious. Later, I had no idea what I found so funny. He does have a great arrogant delivery. But the material?! Oh my! I look through a lot of clips of his stand-up routines, but I couldn’t find anything acceptable. I could deal with the vaguely racist and homophobic material. But it was all so dated. I just isn’t fun to watch. But there is no doubt that he was a great comedian. Here is a long 20 second set-up to a 2 second punch line. But it’s pretty funny:

Happy birthday Bob Hope! This one is for you:

Lincoln Chafee Becomes a Democrat

Lincoln ChafeeHave you heard the news? Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee will become a Democrat tomorrow. You probably don’t care, but stick with me because this is interesting. He used to be a Republican. And then he became an independent. I’m still not sure what the hell that is. When a regular person is an independent, it normally means that they don’t have a clue or any real interest in politics. You can generally depend upon them to think whatever the news is barking at them at the time. I figure these are the people who claimed to be Christians during Bush’s first term but who decline to answer now. Confused people. I’m sure you know the type.

But in a politician, independent means something else. As far as I can tell, it normally means someone is a Democrat, but they don’t like the label. Put in more general terms, it means they are socially liberal and economically conservative. And that pretty much means Democrat at this point. So Chafee is just admitting what’s been clear for a while. It would be like Tobias on Arrested Development announcing that he’s gay. But you have to wonder about his first name: Lincoln. His parents have got to have been Republicans. And let’s face it: the Republican Party is no longer the party of Lincoln. It’s more the party of John C. Calhoun, if you know what I mean.

I find it disturbing that we only see Republicans become Democrats. It never works the other way around with established politicians. Now I know: much of that is just due to the fact that the Republicans have become a revolutionary party. And indeed, most of these politicians have just stood still and watched as the Republican Party moved in directions seemingly designed to signal that they will lead the fascist movement in the 21st century. But it isn’t just that. A politician could leave the Republican party and remain an Independent for the rest of his career. That’s especially true of a governor. Consider everyone’s favorite metrosexual Charlie Crist who only last year completed the final leg of his journey from Republican to Democrat. What’s up with that, Charlie?

What’s going on, I think, is that the Democratic Party has made it far too easy for old school Republicans to become Democrats. Look: I want the Democratic Party to be a big tent. If it weren’t, I wouldn’t be in it. Just the same, the Democrats have made it a lot harder for people like me on the left to stay in the tent because they’ve moved the tent so far to the right. In general, on economic issues, the modern Democratic Party is about where Nixon’s Republican Party was. Actually, it’s probably even more conservative than that. The only place where the Democrats have moved left is on social issue. And the only people who really agree with the conservatives on social issues are people in the bigoted Republican base. There is no doubt in my mind that the Republican elite would liberalize those positions if they thought they could get away with it.

Don’t get me wrong: I am glad to have Chafee and Crist in the Democratic Party. But is it asking so very much that it not be a trivial move for the more reasonable Republicans to fit into our supposedly liberal party? That’s all I’m asking for.

Federal Government Out of Drug Policy!

American Heroin - George Henry BorawskiOver at Wonk Blog this afternoon, Harold Pollack presented, The Most Embarrassing Graph in American Drug Policy. I was shocked at that headline. “You mean America has a drug policy?” I said. It seemed always just to have a “lock up poor minorities and militarize the police” policies. It took me a moment to remember that America also has a “prop up oppressive governments” policy. Now all of these policy as done in the name of the “drug problem” but it never occurred to me that we had an actual drug policy.

The graph is not a surprise. As I’ve been arguing for coming up on two decades: the only positive outcome of the drug war is to perpetuate the drug war. In the 1970s, street level heroin was expensive and very unpure. How unpure? How about 3% pure at times. And then in the late 1990, the price had gone down substantially, and the purity was often over 90%. Now, had the purpose of the drug war been to provide heroin users with cheaper and better quality product, then the drug war was a stunning success! If the purpose of the drug war was to lock up as many users as possible, it was a great success! If the purpose was to cause as many users as possible to die of disease and overdose, then it was a huge success! In other words, if the purpose of our drug war was to harm as many people as possible, then we should applaud it. But if the purpose of the drug war was to keep people off of drugs, it has been an unmitigated catastrophe.

Here is the “embarrassing” graph:

Drug Prices and Users in Jail

I hope that it is obvious that this graph goes about 20 years past embarrassing right to criminal. There is no excuse for this. Law enforcement authorities should have long ago looked at this and thought, “We’re doing something wrong.” But instead, the mythology surrounding drugs causes a situation where there is no winning. If the supply of heroin on the street goes up, the DEA can scream, “We need more resources, drugs are getting more plentiful!” Of course, if there is some short-term disruption of supply, that too justifies more resources, “We’re making progress, give us more money!”

Some people (those who have not been reading me the last 20 years) may wonder why putting more people in jail causes the price to go down. That’s simple economics. The people at the top of the supply chain really have little to worry about. The people who are arrested are the mules and the street dealers. The people who take these jobs are desperate—many of them are addicts themselves. Thus, by incarcerating more of these low-level suppliers, the government increases the prices that these positions pay. More people willing to do these jobs means more product on the street. Greater quantity supply equals lower prices.

Of course, I’m none too fond of what Pollack has to say about the current drug policy. He thinks there is hope. Why? Obama! He actually applauds Obama for a reduction in the “rhetoric” of drug policy. But at least that’s true. He also credits him with a decline in drug incarceration. That doesn’t have anything to do with Obama. That is mostly just that states are running out of money to imprison such a large percentage of their populations.

So let me be clear: there is almost nothing to be hopeful about in the war on drugs. It continues on unabated. In continues on making the problems worse. I have concrete ideas on reasonable incremental changes we could make to improve the problem. And in a reasonable nation, they might be worth talking about. If the federal government would give up its control of drug policy, the states really could be the incubators of innovation. But as it is now, states can’t even liberalize their cannabis laws without the federal government stepping in and arresting law abiding citizens. So if there is to be any real improvement in drug policy, it will start with the federal government getting out of the drug game, which it never should have entered in the first place.

Avik Roy Says Republican Reform Just Branding

Avik RoySupposed conservative reformer Avik Roy wrote an article over at the National Review on Monday trying to get in on all of discussion of the Republican apostates. What he’s trying to do is push back against the argument that many of us have made that these supposed reformers are doing nothing but tinkering around the edges of the dominant (and crazy) Republican center. But Roy claims we progressives are missing the big doings in the conservative pundit world, “Actually, there is something significant going on within conservative circles, something with potentially much longer-lasting effects than a shift on a few policies here and there.”

Ah, you see: we progressive getting all worked up about actual policy. There’s something more important than that! Can you wait to hear? I will torture you no more! “For many of today’s conservative reformers, equality of opportunity—especially for the poor—is the highest moral and political priority.” Ah, that explains it!

The problem here is that there is no such thing as “equality of opportunity”—at least not the way conservatives approach social policy. Last September I wrote:

There is a recent conservative meme to the effect of, “We believe in equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes.” It sounds great, right? But what it really means is, “We believe in inequality of opportunity, and inequality of outcomes.” The fact is that there cannot be equality of opportunity if the outcomes are too unequal.

Right now, our economic inequality makes equality of opportunity a joke. But what do Republicans want to do? They want to make it worse.

Another aspect of this that is ridiculous is that Roy’s argument would mean that Mitt Romney is one of those reformers. And that explains what Roy is really on about. “Equality of opportunity” is not a new philosophy. It is a new talking point. It is a new branding attempt. It is a way for conservatives to cloud their image as heartless villains.

The rest of his article is more or less a declaration of defeat. He says, yes, the reformers believe what the Republican Party believes in. But somehow their priorities are different. And this means that they really do care about the poor. It’s really something to behold. This is especially true if you see his article in the context of the whole Republican branding campaign of the last many months. We already know that the Republican establishment is not willing to do anything other than re-brand their old unpopular ideas. And now Avik Roy is explaining that the same goes for the reformers. Good job, guys!