Is It Time To Reconsider The National Drinking Age?

beer_mugHas the United States drinking age of 21 failed? More than 100 college presidents think it has, signing a proposal to lower the drinking age to 18 in an effort they hope will curb binge drinking and promote moderation on college campuses. Spearheaded by former Middlebury College President John McCardell, the Amethyst Initiative was drafted in response to a growing concern among college administrators that the high nationally mandated drinking age in the United States is promoting an unhealthy culture of clandestine binge drinking among college students. The initiative has been signed off by the presidents of prestigious institutions including the presidents of Duke University, Dartmouth College and the University of Maryland.

The initiative has stirred strong criticism from groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, as well health and transportation officials, says the Washington Post. Groups such as MADD claim that the higher drinking age saves over 900 lives per year in drunk-driving related deaths. Other critics contend that college administrators are simply trying to transfer their responsibility in dealing with teenage drinking by putting the burden on parents and high school administrators.

I find the topic to be an interesting one, and see compelling arguments on both sides. As a recent college graduate, I can attest that the message that school administrators send to the students is often convoluted – underage drinking was explicitly prohibited on campus, yet administrators acknowledged that it is nearly impossible to control, and as a result often minimally enforced the policy. Whenever it was perceived by the students that the school was being forced to crack down on underage drinking, underclass students tended to respond in expected and dangerous ways, by locking themselves in dorm rooms and “pre-gaming” with bottles of hard alcohol.

Lowering the drinking age would also be beneficial to small businesses in college towns, particularly bars and music venues. During the 1970s, the small New England town where I went to college had several bars and other establishments catered to students, yet these businesses shut down when the national drinking age was enforced. As a result there is relatively little interaction between the students and members of the community, as well as few places for students to go that aren’t owned and promoted directly by the school itself.

Unfortunately for the signatories of the Amethyst Initiative, it is extremely unlikely that lowering the drinking age will ever be seriously considered on the national stage. The national drinking age is enforced by Congress by tying the 21 and over age to federal highway funding - it is unconstitutional for Congress to directly mandate a drinking age, yet does so by threatening to cut any state’s access to federal highway funding if the drinking age is ever lowered. With the vast majority of the voting public over the age of 21, few voters are directly affected by the drinking age, yet most voters have a real concern in maintaining federal highways.

It is unfortunate that there is little chance of a serious debate on this important issue, and I find it disappointing that groups such as MADD overwhelmingly oppose any real discussion. The decrease in drunk-driving related deaths is a significant and compelling argument for keeping the drinking age at 21 – yet how does this compare to injuries and deaths related to binge drinking, and have these numbers actually been increasing as the college presidents say they have? More importantly, how does a culture of binge-drinking and excess affect people later in life – would a lower drinking age and an emphasis on moderation result in lower rates of alcoholism in the future? These are important questions that I would hope could be addressed by these groups, yet fear that they will never be seriously discussed at a national level.


Women And Online Media

women_bloggingThe number of visitors to websites catering to female audiences has doubled in the past two years, says the New York Times. The number of sites targeting women exclusively has increased by 35 percent in the last year, making it one of the fastest growing online sectors, second only to politically-themed sites. Websites such as, a humorous blog about motherhood, provide content similar to that of popular female magazines, but in a more informal and accessible format. The most popular sites command a high price for ad space and have become quite lucrative.

Investors have taken notice of the rising popularity of these websites and blogs; Comcast recently put down $125 million to buy Daily Candy, a popular fashion blog. Major retailers such as Wal-Mart and JCPenney have been using tactics gleaned from these websites to target products specifically to female audiences. For instance, Wal-Mart employed an online ad campaign on the Glam Media network (a collection of over 650 affiliated women’s sites) in the form of a quiz called “What’s Your Steak Style?” that featured online advertisements of Wal-Mart's oh-so-delicious steak collection.

The Times article also noted that the recent surge in interest in websites catering to women has not been replicated for male audiences. The article accounts for this by stating that women are attracted to the irreverence, humor and community on these sites, while men are often harder to pin down. While I am sure that there are often inherent differences between the websites that men and women choose to read, and that the irreverence and honesty of these popular blogs has helped make these sites popular among women, I am not convinced that these factors can completely explain the discrepancies between trends and male- and female-focused websites.

Historically, men have had a larger presence on the Internet. Websites that may have been male-centric have had more time to diversify, which makes it difficult to generalize a website as "just for men," rather than a more specific topic which appeals to either gender. As these sites catering to women continue to gain popularity, it seems likely that they too will diversify.

In addition, in the rapidly evolving ecosystem of the Internet, it is often difficult to sustain popularity over time. Internet users are finicky and lack loyalty to specific sites, not only expecting change, but demanding it. For instance, in the realm of social networking sites, Friendster begat MySpace, which begat Facebook, which begat LinkedIn—the current darling of the mainstream media (I personally think Mark Zuckerberg was a moron to not sell Facebook when he had the chance, especially given the recent fallout of Google’s talks to acquire the popular—yet likely doomed—news aggregator Once a concept online has been deemed “the next big thing” by traditional media outlets such as the New York Times, the trend is often close to the peak.

So now that I am done with that little tirade on Internet trends in general, I will comment that there are things to be said about the rapidly increasing popularity of sites catering specifically to women. Women account for 50.3 percent of the U.S. population, but their influence on the Internet seems only to be recently acknowledged. Understanding what makes certain sites popular, as well as how female preferences differ from those of men, will be crucial to understanding the direction of female-oriented websites as they begin to diversify and become appealing to more specific demographic groups.

Steetcars Making A Comeback In American Cities

portland_streetcarStreetcars may be starting to return to American cities, says the New York Times, with nearly 40 cities in the country exploring options to create new tram systems. Portland, Oregon was the first city to invest in a modern streetcar line, and has seen success in the program since it was initiated in 2001. Other cities are weighing their options, hoping to create affordable public transportation systems that will attract young professionals and spur economic growth and development along the lines. In Cincinnati, city officials are gathering funds for a $132 million streetcar system that will connect several neighborhoods in a six- to eight-mile loop. The city hopes the project will rejuvenate the run-down neighborhoods through which the proposed trolley will run.

While many U.S. cities had streetcars operating in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the majority of American cities dismantled their lines in the middle 20th century, making way for the up-and-coming automobile. Yet trams have many inherent benefits, and in fact have remained popular in many European cities. Unlike subways or light rail systems, streetcars operate on tracks that are flush with the road, creating a system that is much more integrated into the community and give riders direct views of storefronts and the surrounding neighborhood. Streetcars have additional advantages over busses in that they can be boarded from both sides, and in some cities have the right of way over normal car and bus traffic.

Having grown up in a Philadelphia suburb still serviced by a trolley system (surprisingly, Philadelphia’s SEPTA continues to operate several trolleys that extend out into the suburbs--much less glamorous than the more famous trams in New Orleans or cable cars in San Francisco), I look forward to seeing more cities utilize streetcar and light rail public transportation systems. Static public transportation systems provide much more incentive for investment in the neighborhoods that are serviced by them, a tactic that Seattle (with the support of Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen) employed when creating the South Lake Union Streetcar line (formerly officially named the South Lake Union Trolley; an unfortunate acronym led to the name change), to bolster interest in an area that up until recently had been predominantly home to industrial warehouses.

As major cities look to build new streetcar systems and extend additional lines, investors should be aware of the potential opportunities these new public transportation lines could bring.


Minorities The Majority In One In 10 U.S. Counties

According to the New York Times, minority groups made up the majority of the population in one in 10 counties in the United States in 2007. Among young people, the numbers are even higher, with minorities composing nearly 43 percent of the population under the age of 20. Minorities make up about one third of the United States population, and with such a large contingent of young people, are likely to break 50 percent of the population earlier than the original prediction of 2050.

The statistics, from data recently published by the U.S. census bureau, paint a complex picture of diversity in the United States; yet the data continues to follow historical geographic trends. Counties with African American majorities tended to be in Southern states, and counties with Hispanic majorities were predominantly along the Southern U.S. border in the South and West (for a more detailed look, check out the New York Times demographic map).

Las Vegas Growth Pushes Development Into Northeastern Arizona, But At What Cost?

Kingman-ArizonaA planned bridge expansion on the Colorado River, providing easier access to Las Vegas from Eastern Arizona by expanding a two lane bridge to four lanes, is opening up the region for new development, the New York Times reported. As developers around the Las Vegas metropolitan area thirst for raw land, plans are underway to develop communities in northeastern Arizona as the newest exurbs of Las Vegas. Builders in Kingman, Arizona, a desert outpost with a current population of 40,000, are planning on building new homes at a pace that would create 80,000 new homes in the region by 2040. This could boost the town’s population to nearly 200,000 in that time span.

The developers responsible for the planned communities are optimistic, despite high gas prices and the collapsed housing market. According to John Salem, the mayor of Kingman, “It’s gorgeous here, we don’t have any natural disasters, no forest fires, no hurricanes, tornadoes or floods, good schools, lots of cheap land, the cost of living’s down, we have proximity to the Colorado River, to Flagstaff, to Las Vegas, to Phoenix.” In addition to this, hydrology studies by the principal developers in the region have concluded that the local aquifers could support high population growth for the next 100 years.

Despite this confidence in building new houses in Kingman, I find it surprising that these types of developments are still being promoted with such fervor. Given the state of the economy, rising fuel prices and growing concern about global climate change, building 80,000 homes in the middle of the desert, two hours away from the closest metropolitan area (one hour once the bridge is completed in 2010) on top of a reserve of water that is estimated to last 100 years at best sounds like an economic and environmental disaster waiting to happen.

At a time when consumer preference appears to indicate a shift back to more urban environs, investors should consider more realistic options. To borrow a concept from environmental writer Bill McKibben, we need to look for durable solutions--such as investing in public transportation infrastructure, urban infill and brownfields remediation--rather than continuing to push development into geographic regions that can be considered "marginally sustainable" at best.


With High Fuel Prices Bikes Are In And Planes Are Out

bike in trafficThe high fuel prices this summer are having major effects on the United States’ mobile population: Cities are beginning to see real increases in the number of bicyclists on the streets and significant cuts in scheduled airline flights. Newsweek reports that bike friendly cities such as Portland, Oregon have had major increases in the number of bike riders as commuters look for alternative methods of transportation. The city has experienced a 24 percent increase in the number of bikers on certain bridges this May over the same month last year.

While the increasing number of (non-carbon-emitting) bicycles on the street is a positive consequence of high gas prices (aside from the occasional confrontation between aggressive bikers and motorists), high fuel prices have begun having a negative impact on some communities as airlines begin drastic cuts in scheduled flights to smaller markets. NPR reports that small airports such as Monterey, California, Butte, Montana and Ft. Lauderdale, Florida are beginning to see airlines cancel numerous flights and even discontinue service altogether.

Some lawmakers are responding to these cuts in service by suggesting increasing government subsidies for these flights, through the preexisting federal “Essential Air Service” program. Proponents argue that subsidies are necessary to keep smaller and more remote communities afloat and that arguments against the subsidies are "elitist" and are geared against small-town America.

While it is unfortunate that it may no longer be economical to have frequent flights to smaller airports, I think that arguing to subsidize the airline industry in this way is incredibly misguided. As fuel becomes more expensive, subsidies would only prolong the inevitable. Investing in expensive and inefficient airline routes is contrary to the direction the market is moving and would undermine funds that could more appropriately used to bolster public transportation systems and enhance the nation’s infrastructure to better accommodate cyclists (which is clearly the direction that the market is moving).


Digital Mapping, Campaign Contributions, and... Jimmy Buffet?

The Internet has brought down many of the barriers involved in obtaining public information, particularly in the realm of politics. Information on campaign contributions, election results and other public information from the U.S. Census Bureau and other government agencies--once only accessible to politicians, journalists and grad students- -is now available to anyone with an Internet connection. Powerful web applications such as Google Maps allow this public information to be displayed in an intuitive and interactive manner, making it simple to answer those burning questions such as “What are the political leanings of the new city I just relocated to?” or “Is my boss as conservative in his politics as he is with my paycheck?” and “Which political campaigns did Jimmy Buffet donate to this year?”

Google provides a good starting point when looking for this type of information, as many sources utilize Google’s mapping technology. Google Maps has a portal devoted entirely to this year’s election, with links to various election related maps. A primary results map breaks down all of the recent primary elections by each party, as well as by state and county. By clicking a desired location you can find out what percentage of people in your chosen county voted for Obama, as well as what regions picked Huckabee (remember him?) over McCain.

For an even more local approach, there is Huffington Post’s Fundrace website (which you can view on Google’s election portal as well, but without the snazzy search features available directly through HuffPost). Fundrace, which first appeared during the 2004 election cycle, divulges public information on campaign contributions over $200, allowing you to search for anyone by name or address. This means you can see the major campaign contributions of everyone in your neighborhood (which could potentially avert any awkward conversations at your local block party this summer), and lets you investigate the contributions of specific people (who knew Uncle Seymour was really a bleeding heart liberal all along?).

Tools like Fundrace are interesting because they provide a vast wealth of knowledge and provide a snapshot of the country in a way that was once available only to a select few. As a tool, Google Maps is exciting because it invites users to create their own maps, using whatever datasets they have access to (in addition to the vast array of features, including Street View, traffic predictions and walking directions, that Google has already developed). Tools like this help to add transparency to the political process, as well as democratize freely available information.

On a side note--Jimmy Buffet has contributed to the campaigns of Wesley Clark, Bob Graham and Congressman Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania’s 7th District (my home district).


Unemployment In United States At Highest Level In Four Years

The unemployment rate in the United States has reached its highest level in four years, reports the New York Times. Topping off at a jobless rate of 5.7 percent in July, the labor market shed 51,000 jobs this past month. Young people have been particularly affected by the downturn in the job market, especially for those seeking first jobs, as the teenage unemployment rate has hit 19 percent, its highest point in 16 years.

The unemployment rate was one more piece in a worrisome series of recent events, including store closings and layoffs at coffee behemoth Starbucks and a $15.5 billion loss posted by GM this past quarter. Despite this, economists have yet to declare the current state of the economy officially as a recession, given that the latest reports show that the nation’s GDP is still increasing (albeit at a slower pace than expected). These factors further muddle the country’s economic outlook, as few people seem to know what to make of it--earlier this week the New York Times ran the headline “GDP Grows at Tepid 1.9% Pace Despite Stimulus,” while the Washington Post simultaneously ran the headline “US Economic Growth Improves Over First Quarter,” both citing identical government statistics.

Even the jobless data sent mixed signals, with the 51,000 jobs lost significantly less than the 75,000 that were predicted to disappear. Either way, rising unemployment is never good for the economy, and in comparison to the relatively abstract concept of gross domestic product, layoffs have a much more tangible impact on the average American.



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