Tuesday, November 05, 2013

We Still Need To Talk

(Written and prepared ahead of time. Didn't need to change it.)

I had it backwards.

In May I supported the pragmatic benefits of the justice center, but voters decided to use that local issue to protest larger justice system problems.

This election, I saw the 21 bar vote as a place to oppose the drinking age. But this time I was supposed to be “practical” and endorse the ordinance’s success in better enforcing a bad law. Since my support is the kiss of death, I may endorse Terry Branstad’s re-election.

The people have spoken and I’m on the short end. That’s fair. But after 21 bar elections in 2007, 2010 and this year, our community has yet to seriously discuss the law itself.

If the ballot question had simply been “do you like obnoxious drunks,” even I would have voted No. But laws don’t work like that. As the late supervisor Pat Meade used to say, “you can’t legislate out stupid.” You need an objective standard, and so we stare at a huge contradiction.

For most things - military enlistment, marriage, contracts, voting -  the age of adulthood is 18. We felt strongly enough about it that in the middle of our most unpopular war, we put the 18 voting age into the Constitution itself.

Only alcohol has a special adult-plus age, enforced by a dubious federal highway funding mandate. We’ve lived with the contradiction almost 30 years. Our attitude is summed up by one comment online: “Nobody cares if those under 21 drink so long as they behave themselves.”

If nobody cares, why is it illegal?  I don’t like nudging and winking until there’s another problem, then using a rarely enforced law as a tool to punish other illegal behavior. It makes people take the law, all law, less seriously.

The drinking age is an orphaned issue, which is why I keep on about it despite knowing I’m a bit of a laughing stock on the issue. It only affects three years worth of people, who are among the least connected to politics. By the time they’re active voters they no longer care. As we’ve seen in these three elections, attitudes change drastically at age 21: I got mine, screw the sophomores.

Which leaves it to us old folks. Do we take rights away from people and set the uniform adult age at 21? Too many people, especially Iowa City townies, would like that. But as long as an issue is partisan, and these days young voters are heavily Democratic, there’s not the consensus-level support a Constitutional amendment needs. And I prefer expanding rights to reducing rights.

So I say apply the consistent 18 to the drinking age, and try to teach responsibility in a context that also includes rights. Limiting access to alcohol by age makes that access more valuable to the youngest adults, and encourages abuse when that access is available. It’s the worst possible context for an inexperienced drinker.

Too many elected officials – and yes, I specifically mean our city council and legislative delegation - are content to simply live with the contradiction and point the finger at the federal government. But anyone representing thousands of young people, even if they can’t or won’t directly legislate, has a responsibility to take a stand.

21 Makes Sense (sic) flatly refused to discuss the drinking age during the three campaigns, declaring it off topic because they knew it was their weak point. OK, powers that be: you won. We still need to talk.

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