The Agenda

Frank Lautenberg’s Legacy

In his debut post at Business Insider, Josh Barro argues that Frank Lautenberg was, at age 89, too old to serve in the U.S. Senate. The really galling thing is that during Lautenberg’s first race for the Senate in 1982, he not-so-subtly implied that his opponent, the Republican incumbent Millicent Fenwick, was at 72 too old for the job, as Adam Clymer recounts in his obituary. But I was mainly struck by Clymer’s description of Lautenberg’s various legislative achievements, starting with the national drinking age:  

Mr. Lautenberg’s first major victory came in 1984. A freshman senator in the minority party, he pushed through a provision to establish a national drinking age of 21, a measure that threatened to cut 10 percent of a state’s federal highway funds if it did not comply. He argued that the change would save lives by ending “a crazy quilt of drinking ages in neighboring states” and prevent those under 21 from driving over “blood borders” to get drunk and then try to drive home.

“He had to fight like hell to get it through,” Jay A. Winsten, associate dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, said in an interview. “The estimates are that the cumulative lives saved are in excess of 25,000.”

Roughly speaking, Winsten is implying that lives saved per annum are in the neighborhood of 1000. One wonders, however, if the fact that a national drinking age of 21 has turned millions of younger Americans into people who willingly and flagrantly violate the law every time they have an alcoholic beverage has offsetting consequences. In a working paper released in December of 2011, Philip J. Cook and Christine Piette Durrance found the following:

On January 1, 1991, the federal excise tax on beer doubled, and the tax rates on wine and liquor increased as well. These changes are larger than the typical state-level changes that have been used to study the effect of price on alcohol abuse and its consequences. In this paper, we develop a method to estimate some important effects of those large 1991 changes, exploiting the interstate differences in alcohol consumption. We demonstrate that the relative importance of drinking in traffic fatalities is closely tied to per capita alcohol consumption across states. As a result, we expect that the proportional effects of the federal tax increase on traffic fatalities would be positively correlated with per capita consumption. We demonstrate that this is indeed the case, and infer estimates of the price elasticity and lives saved in each state. We repeat this exercise for other injury-fatality rates, and for nine categories of crime. For each outcome, the estimated effect of the tax increase is negatively related to average consumption, and that relationship is highly significant for the overall injury death rate, the violent crime rate, and the property crime rate. A conservative estimate is that the federal tax reduced injury deaths by 4.7%, or almost 7,000, in 1991.

Drawing on these findings, Mark Kleiman (via Dylan Matthews) has made the following claim:

Doubling the federal alcohol tax from the current ten cents per drink to twenty cents would reduce homicide and automobile fatalities about . . . 7% each, saving about 3000 lives per year. It would cost a two-drinks-per-day drinker (at about the 80th percentile of all drinkers about $6 per month. (Fully internalizing the external costs of drinking would involve taxes nearer a dollar a drink.)

One wonders what might have happened had Lautenberg chosen to simply raise the federal alcohol tax rather than to coerce states into raising the minimum drinking age by denying federal transportation funds to those states that refused to comply. It seems at least possible that (a) substantially more lives would have been saved and (b) respect for the rule of law would be somewhat stronger. Like Kleiman, I tend to think that we’d be better off with no minimum drinking age:

There is good evidence that age restrictions reduce underage alcohol abuse and drunk driving. That is true even taking into account the inducement for kids to drink created by making drinking a badge of adulthood and the difficulty of teaching responsible drinking practices to teenagers who are forbidden to drink at all.

But against the benefits we must weigh the costs of making the vast majority of adolescents into lawbreakers. Nearly nine high-school seniors in ten report drinking. Criminalizing statistically normal behavior trivializes lawbreaking by enacting a law that almost everyone breaks, and breaks without apparent harm: Most teenage drinkers, like most adult drinkers, don’t have a drinking problem. The current drinking age has also normalized the acquisition and use of false identification documents, which seems like a bad idea in the age of terror.

Elsewhere, Kleiman has proposed the creation of “drinking licenses,” so that instead of stripping a problem drinker of his right to drive, we’d strip him of his right to drink or to purchase alcohol. This proposal is somewhat difficult to reconcile with phasing out the drinking age — but perhaps we could simply impose a much lower drinking age, at which point young people would be eligible to apply for said license. 

I should note, in a spirit of anti-churlishness, that whether or not one agrees with Lautenberg’s various policy positions, he did choose a late adulthood of public service over one of leisure, which is in some sense admirable. 

Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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