Monday 15 November 2021

Teetotaling documentaries

The latest anti-drinking documentary will be on tonight. Would for a world in which we'd also get documentaries from former teetotalers extolling the merits of light to moderate drinking. Instead we just get ones going the other way. 

In anticipation of some of what we might expect to hear:

  1. Price elasticity of demand varies by whether you’re looking at moderate or heavier drinkers. Heavier drinkers are less price responsive. Hiking excise does more to get moderate/light drinkers to cut back than it does to get heavy drinkers to stop. It doesn’t make sense to use a linear excise tax to address a harm that’s heavily nonlinear in consumption. It’s like trying to stop speeding by increasing petrol excise on the theory that speeding uses more fuel. Excise on spirits in New Zealand, if we were ranked against the European Union, would have New Zealand at third or fourth highest.
  2. When you’ve got something that has minor baseline costs but harms that rise sharply with consumption, you need some kind of two-part tariff structure. Basically, use excise to offset the low-level stuff but use other targeted policies for the rest. There are available proven policy tools that directly address harms. The 24/7 sobriety project, run in South Dakota and then expanded to other states, imposes a monitored non-consumption condition on parole/probation for offenders who’ve shown a pattern of alcohol-related crime. In South Dakota it was aimed at repeat drink drivers. The thing just works. New Zealand is set up to do it. We have the Drug & Alcohol Courts that could be perfect for it. But the thing that makes the project work in the US is the certainty of spending a night in the cells if you breach the condition. Here it’s all airy. You’ll have to talk to your probation officer who may or may not do anything, and if he does something, who knows whether the judge will impose a night in the cells or not. It’s the certainty of a very small penalty that drives better outcomes elsewhere, and here we’ve just been reluctant to do that for whatever reason. I think I’m the only one the country that beats the drum for this one, and it’s just bizarre. It works. When Mark Kleiman talked with the NZ Drug Foundation about it circa 2014, he noted that some parolees coming off the programme asked to be kept on it to help them stay on the straight and narrow. There are some folks who just have a very very bad relationship with alcohol. Excise isn’t the way to solve that. 
  3. Measures of social cost are kinda dumb just on their own. You might as well tally up all the money people pay for skis, lift tickets, food while they’re at the hill, the time off work, the ambulance and hospital and ACC bills and call that the social cost of skiing. Would it help with anything? No. You certainly wouldn’t ban skiing on the basis of it. But regardless of the number you come up with, it’s entirely possible that some safety measures pass cost-benefit analysis. Whatever the social cost of skiing, it might make sense to put padding around the pillars that hold up the chair lifts so people don’t hurt themselves too badly when they crash into them. If the measure is cheap, it could be worth doing regardless of whether the social cost of skiing is a big number or a small number. And even if the cost is a big number, putting a $1000 per lift ticket tax on skiing would be stupid. Similarly, regardless of some shonky tallied total social cost figure that ignores benefits, some measures could easily be cost effective. Like 24/7. They have to be evaluated on their own basis. Why spend time and effort on a process that’s just designed to come up with a big number to drive blunt policy measures when you could instead weigh up whether particular promising interventions really stack up?
  4. There's likely to be complaining about alcohol advertising and such. That's all already regulated. And it's hard to see that more regs would pass muster - at least on the evidence I'd seen as of 2014 when I wrote this
I worry that watching tonight's show might require heavy drinking. And it's late enough at night that my usual barman will be in bed (it's a school night) and unavailable to make me a Manhattan. Maybe I could request one earlier in anticipation. 

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