Naked Classism

When San Francisco banned the McDonalds Happy Meal, Adam Ozimek said that illustrated the slippery slope of paternalism; if we’ll ban that, what won’t we ban? Now the US Feds offer a bigger example:

The Food and Drug Administration said it had concluded that adding caffeine to alcohol was unsafe and unapproved. … The products … have become a favorite among college students. … Treasury Department officials announced … the companies would be told that the products had been mislabeled and were therefore illegal to be shipped. And the Federal Trade Commission told the companies that marketing the products might violate federal law.

cans1

Federal officials were facing increasing pressure to take action in the wake of a series of high-profile incidents. … Students … ended up in the emergency room after consuming the most popular of the drinks, Four Loko, including some with alcohol poisoning. In other incidents, deaths and fatal car crashes have been blamed on the drinks. …

The drinks … contain high levels of alcohol and caffeine, making it difficult for people to realize how intoxicated they are, experts say. … Consuming one can of Four Loko is the equivalent of drinking as many as five cans of beer and a cup of coffee. …

Four Loko [said] … “If it were unsafe, popular drinks like rum and colas or Irish coffees . . . would face the same scrutiny that our products recently faced.” … It had previously added multiple warning labels to its cans.

My college student son assures me caffeine doesn’t keep kids from knowing they are drunk, and it is easier to track drinking with a few big cans than with lots of little shots; they usually limit themselves to one or two cans a night. Those who want to binge can do so just as easily without the cans. But the facts don’t seem to matter.

cans2The FDA likes to present itself as a paragon of scientific rigor, but there is no rigor here. No randomized experiments or even careful regressions. Just public pressure to “do something” about vivid examples of “those people” hurting themselves.

Little remains of the rule of law precept to treat people equally. The exact same chemical combinations which are fine to serve rich old folks at cocktail receptions, are banned in cheap cans from convenience store coolers. Clearly the goal is to target particular vaguely-imagined classes of people, and regulators would be fine with having the law specify the color of the cans, the geographic locations, time of purchase, form of financing, whatever it took to get to “them” without overly bothering “us.”

And this is where the slippery slope of paternalism leads: naked classism. When we the good people notice that those distrusted others do things that don’t seem proper to us, well we should just pass whatever laws it takes to make them toe our line. Surely it wouldn’t be responsible to just let them do stuff we wouldn’t, right?

Added 8a: mtraven points us to a CDC fact sheet, which cites exactly one randomized experiment with 26 subjects, whose abstract says:

When compared with the ingestion of alcohol alone, the ingestion of alcohol plus energy drink significantly reduced subjects’ perception of … impairment of motor coordination. However, the ingestion of the energy drink did not significantly reduce the deficits caused by alcohol on objective motor coordination.

They saw no difference after 30 minutes, but after 120 minutes the perception of altered motor control under alcohol was 15 +/- 15 (0 is none, 100 is max), while under alcohol plus energy drink was 11+/- 12, and under energy drink alone was 6 +/- 12.  They pooled the later two groups to get a 5% significant difference from the first group!  That’s not remotely kosher.

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  • bluto

    Banning the recreational activities of the poor have always been something the rich have prioritized for eons. Opium, MJ, even all alcohol in the US.

  • Andy McKenzie

    I see where you are going with this, but I think there is an ageism that trumps the classism, especially in the case of the caffeinated drinks. If lawmakers could ban them to a certain age groups (say <25), I bet they'd prefer that.

    • komponisto

      Both ageism and classism ultimately reduce to status-ism.

  • Tommy Hanson

    snaps

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  • Shane

    Relevant:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disparity_between_United_States_federal_criminal_penalties_for_crack_cocaine_and_powder_cocaine_offenses

    There had been a 100:1 ratio in the severity of mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine versus powder cocaine, prevalent in lower and upper classes, respectively. The Fair Sentencing Act, passed August 2010, was intended to eliminate this disparity, but was weakened to 18:1 for political reasons.

    • lemmy caution

      That is a good point about the crack cocaine.

      They are not putting people in jail for drinking Four Loko.

  • The Man Who Was . . .

    The exact same chemical combinations which are fine to serve rich old folks at cocktail receptions, are banned in cheap cans from convenience store coolers.

    What exactly is wrong with that? At least in the abstract, I’m perfectly ok with certain types of people consuming certain chemicals while other people shouldn’t be let near them.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    Here’s some evidence for the ban. Can’t vouch for the quality, but I’m guessing it has more “scientific rigor” than “my college student son assures me caffeine doesn’t keep kids from knowing they are drunk”.

    I didn’t know you had a son. Doesn’t that make you guilty of paternalism?

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  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    I’m kind of with mtravern in that I’m not sure your post adds much light to the heat.

    It seems to be more a call for conflict pageantry (with you hunting for populist or anti-“The Man” ground) than for empirically grounded, existential risk minimizing policy.

  • Dániel Varga

    I agree with mtraven and Hopefully Anonymous that Robin did not manage to overcome his biases here. On the other hand, I checked mtraven’s link, and the key paragraph looked like the ugliest case of correlation-is-not-causation:

    Drinkers who consume alcohol mixed with energy drinks are 3 times more likely to binge drink (based on breath alcohol levels) than drinkers who do not report mixing alcohol with energy drinks.

    The referenced paper is online: Event-level analyses of energy drink consumption and alcohol intoxication in bar patrons.. I only had time for a quick read. They did control for whatever variables they could control for, but it still seems very unconvincing to me.

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  • m

    at my high school, the administration did a little research and discovered that the majority of fights happened in the last 5 minutes of lunch. their solution? make lunch 5 minutes shorter. that baffled me at 16, exactly the way this Four Loko thing baffles me now.

    kids who want to get wasted are going to do it. banning a particular beverage is not going to change anything. you can still go to the bars and get as many vodka & red bulls as your heart desires. just like the lunchtime fights in the hallways, nothing is going to change until people realize how to target the source of the problem: the social pressures that make young people behave the way they do. as with so many paternalism arguments, the answer lies in education, not legislation.

    also:

    under “dangers of mixing alcohol and energy drinks,” the CDC lists the following:

    “Drinkers who consume alcohol mixed with energy drinks are 3 times more likely to binge drink (based on breath alcohol levels) than drinkers who do not report mixing alcohol with energy drinks.”

    i think they need to review the correlation/causality distinction…

    • Carinthium

      Or alternately figuring out where Prohibition went wrong in enforcing an alcohol ban and use it.

  • James Babcock

    The caffeine seems like a red herring to me. The description says that the cans contain five drinks’ worth of alcohol, but a can is a single-serving container; you can’t reseal it, so there’s pressure to finish the contents even if it’s too much. That makes Four Lokos a problem, for reasons entirely unrelated to caffeine. I expect that halving the size of the cans and selling them in two-packs would be a big improvement. Or selling them in twist-cap bottles. There’s already regulation of alcohol content and serving sizes, so this seems like a better solution.

    • Sister Y

      The serving size/container question is perhaps valid, but to some extent might constitute another example of pernicious misunderstandings between the classes, because of course subcultural rules require that one divert a portion of the container out onto the ground, out of respect for deceased associates.

  • zachK

    if they wind up banning coffee stouts or other “experimental” craft beer products, I’ll be very unhappy.

  • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

    > Little remains of the rule of law precept to treat people equally. The exact same chemical combinations which are fine to serve rich old folks at cocktail receptions, are banned in cheap cans from convenience store coolers.

    What caffeinated alcoholic beverages are those rich old folks allowed to drink?

  • I drink therefore I am

    “What caffeinated alcoholic beverages are those rich old folks allowed to drink?”

    Jameson and Coffee (Irish Coffee)

  • Yvain

    Are you asserting that rich old folks are equally likely to binge on Irish coffee as college students are on energy drinks?

    • kevin

      Are you asserting that it matters?

      The reason the old people don’t binge on Irish Coffee is not because of the coffee, but because they are old.

      Banning the energy drinks won’t stop kids from bingeing on energy drinks with alcohol. The Vodka Red Bull predates four loko, and it seems it will outlast it as well.

      So congratulations, petty authoritarians. You’ve succeeded in making people use containers inefficiently.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    To expand upon a point made jokingly above: you have kids, and so if they’ve survived to college age presumably you’ve acted paternal towards them — stopped them from drinking the bleach under the sink or whatever. Parenting is “classist” in that there is a big distinction between the parenting and the parented classes in terms of rights and responsibilities.

    So paternalism is not the problem; it’s the state taking a paternal role that’s your problem. Politics, in other words.

    • Wonks Anonymous

      Robin seems to have misgivings about non-state paternalism as well. Even “Future Self Paternalism” is suspicious to him. The post “Overconfidence & Paternalism” is about parents behaving paternalistically toward their children. “Honest teen paternalism” was about lecturing rather than coercing teens. “Pod people paternalism” is hard to categorize.

  • To What Age?

    I think the problem here has more to do with to whom these drinks are marketed. I don’t think many people over the age of 25 would choose to drink these. In my opinion, most people over the age of 21 wouldn’t really drink these either. They’re marketing is eerily similar to that of energy drinks, which are mainly marketed at teenagers. These beverages are sold with binge drinking in mind, there’s not even the onus of responsibility by the manufacturer to say “drink responsibly.” I’m all about a market regulating itself, but when said market proves irresponsible in it’s regulation, then it’s the government’s responsibility to step in.

  • http://akinokure.blogspot.com agnostic

    They’re not the same chemical combinations — the alco-pop drinks also have enough sugar to kill a horse, unlike rum and coke or Irish coffee. When a person is drunk, caffeinated, *and* on the biggest sugar rush of their lives, maybe the full range of negative externalities of their drinking are worse than if they were only drinking alcohol and caffeine alone.

    It’s only in this way that the policy is classist — lower-class people are sugar-holics, while upper-class people have at least some taste for bitter and sour things.

  • http://akinokure.blogspot.com agnostic

    Also, back on planet Earth, banning harmful substances is not classist — greater support for paternalistic bans is found among the poorer, less educated, stupider, and those who identify as lower-class.

    Most relevant item from the General Social Survey is GRASS, asking whether or not marijuana should be legal.

    There is monotonic increasing support for legalization by intelligence (WORDSUM). Those who got 0 of 10 vocab words correct are 14% in favor, those who got all 10 are 39% in favor.

    There’s monotonic increasing support for legalization by education level (EDUC). Those who didn’t graduate elementary school are 8% in favor, those who have more than 4 years of college are 35% in favor.

    There is flat support for legalization by self-identified class (CLASS), except that upper-class people are more in favor. About 25-27% in favor among lower, working, and middle classes, but 31% among upper-class.

    Also flat support for legalization by real income (REALINC), except that the super-rich are more in favor. About 24-26% in favor among those making $0-100K, but 34% among those making over $100K.

    Recalling Bryan Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter idea, these bans aren’t surprising. They stem not from one strong group bullying another with less power, but from the targeted group targeting itself. The lower-status people who these alco-pop drinks are geared to probably have better first-hand experience of the full range of negative externalities that go along with their consumption.

    Do you really think you couldn’t find plenty of hand-wringing and calls for the ban among high school and college students? We only hear from the ones who are into these drinks.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      I discussed the topic today with two classes of 30 students each. No student said they supported the ban. I also tend to think of weed as something better liked by the more educated.

    • Constant

      Both the idea for this ban and the idea for the happy meal ban appear to have originated in the CSPI, which does not seem to be an organ of the stupid low class, but rather seems to be an organ of the smart high class. Going back as far through my own aggregator as I can on the subject of caffeine+alcohol, I find this entry at The Agitator dated Dec. 2008. Quoting a CSPI mail:

      Greetings, Earlier this year CSPI threatened to sue MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch for the marketing of their respective alcoholic “energy” drinks. These drinks are dangerous, because the caffeine masks the effects of the alcohol—drinkers may not feel impaired, but they are. We were pleased that Anheuser-Busch agreed to pull its products from the market.

      And delving further:

      A 2008 study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest showed that 10 out of 12 meals that came with toys exceeded the recommended caloric limits for children noted Santa Clara county Supervisor Ken Yeager, who champions the ban.

      and in June 2010:

      CSPI to Sue McDonald’s If It Continues Using Toys to Market Junk Food to Children

      Wikipedia informs us that:

      CSPI is headed by Michael F. Jacobson, who founded the group in 1971 along with James Sullivan and Albert Fritsch

      As for Michael Jacobson, he:

      holds a Ph.D. in microbiology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology

      Interesting fact:

      It was Jacobson who coined the now widely used phrases “junk food”[3] and “empty calorie”.

      He doesn’t seem to me to be a typical member of “the poorer, less educated, stupider, and those who identify as lower-class.”

  • http://akinokure.blogspot.com agnostic

    Following up on the age-ist angle, support for legalization of marijuana is curvilinear. It’s at its highest, and remains pretty flat, across the ages of 19 to 28, at about 36%. It falls noticeably after that, around 27% through the 30s and 40s, 20-25% through the 50s, and falling to around 10% through the 80s.

    Interestingly, the 18 y.o.s were only 29% in favor, putting them with 30-somethings more than the 20-somethings. This probably goes backward through earlier high school ages; it’s not until college that people care a lot about this stuff.

    Even among the age groups most in support — college and just out of college — there’s far from a majority in favor. So even if the democracy put legalization to a vote among young people, legalization would still fail. Probably true for voting on the ban of alco-pop drinks for the same reason.

  • Sarah

    Robin makes a pretty standard libertarian argument, and in fact this was my initial reaction to reading about the ban.

    But there’s another way to look at it.

    Picture a sixty-year-old man, a distinguished professor, sipping a corretto in a café. Now picture a crowd of drunk teenagers binging on alcoholic energy drinks out of cans and screaming obscenities. Now, I don’t know about you, but I think the world could use more of the former and less of the latter. It would be a more beautiful world. More refined. Perhaps, yes, classier.

    Why should we not disapprove of boorish behavior? Why should we not forbid it? Freedom, perhaps. But freedom just means permitting people to do distasteful things. It means that the old man, the café, and the corretto must compete with the frat party. And, human nature being what it is, the frat party will win. Suddenly freedom seems rather horrible.

    I believe in taste. And taste is aristocratic. Taste is defined by what it excludes. Good taste is always effortful; it is what requires education and investment to appreciate. Good taste will not survive unless it is enforced. The present social and economic situation is not practical for enforcing good taste; we must therefore turn to government, however blunt that instrument may be, however cruel its application.

    Without enforcement, our world will be upended. All the world’s loveliness will be endangered, as surely as Chekhov’s cherry orchard. The better things in life: literature, the arts, the well-set table, the garden, the Sunday school, the piano lesson. All vulnerable. All in need of protection, of enforcement. Enforcement is perhaps not kind to the public as a whole; it is, however, the preservation of the only part of the world that I care about.

    This is the difficulty with libertarianism. Whether it is just or not I do not know. I know that it fails to protect the things that matter to me.

    • http://pdf23ds.net pdf23ds

      I don’t believe you’re serious.

      • the27th

        I’m serious-ish.

        There’s no way to really ban all bad taste without awful humanitarian consequences that I can’t stomach. But I think I approve of small measures (like this one) that penalize bad taste on the margin. They may not reduce consumption of caffeinated alcohol all that much, but they can contribute to the public perception of a societal norm against it.

        I’m in favor of public subsidies for high culture and taxes or municipal bans on distasteful behavior.

      • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

        Yeah, a middlebrow reader can detect its perfectness, and so it either fails as pro-libertarian reverse psychology, or possibly succeeds as anti-libertarian reverse-reverse-psychology.

    • m

      It means that the old man, the café, and the corretto must compete with the frat party. And, human nature being what it is, the frat party will win.

      unfortunately, you can’t “parent” people out of their need for experience. telling a teenager that “drinking is bad” is not going to eliminate their drive to try it for themselves. humans learn from mistakes. trying to enforce our way out of this habit would take away part of the human-ness that is essential in creating the beautiful things. granted, some mistakes are tragic. we’d all like to see a world without tragedy, but that would probably take away some of the beauty as well.

  • Matthew

    Mtraven,

    I have kids, and I have taught them how to make their own choices by giving them responsibility and treating them as people worthy of respect.

    Strangely enough they usually make very good decisions without being controlled like little robots. Perhaps this is a difference between libertarian parenting and helicopter parenting.

  • Matthew

    I believe in taste. And taste is aristocratic. Taste is defined by what it excludes. Good taste is always effortful; it is what requires education and investment to appreciate. Good taste will not survive unless it is enforced.

    I agree. Here let’s start out: ban Microsoft Windows, ban Android (only iPhones allowed), no heavy metal music, Hannah Montana is forbidden, etc.

    • Broggly

      I have been assured by the more devoted conoissuers of the ferrous arts that many musicians display the complexity of Bach. Something a plebian such as yourself could never understand.

    • quix

      Only a man with zero class would choose iOS over Android. iOS is your fizzy drinks. Android is my gin, my whisky, and my wine.

  • the27th

    Well, Hannah Montana needs to go, for sure. I don’t know about Android. But Twilight gets the axe.

  • http://complexmeme.net/ ComplexMeme

    My college student son assures me caffeine doesn’t keep kids from knowing they are drunk, and it is easier to track drinking with a few big cans than with lots of little shots; they usually limit themselves to one or two cans a night.

    That’s not saying much. Two cans of Four Loko has the alcohol content of ~10 shots of liquor (or two bottles of wine) and ten cups of coffee. That’s quite a bit to have in one night.

    Those who want to binge can do so just as easily without the cans

    Yes, it wouldn’t take that much more determination to down five shots and a pot of coffee compared to chugging a can of Four Loko. But the fact is, form factor affects behavior quite a bit. There’s a reason why hard liquor is not generally sold in 8oz cans.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      I think you misread the caffeine content.

    • Ray

      Um, you’re not reading things correctly.

      Four Loko is between 12 and 20 proof depending on which flavor you buy. That’s pretty weak actually when compared to rum or whiskey, and a far cry from the levels you’re quoting.

  • Ray

    It’s nice that these things – Happy Meals and the drinks – are getting so much attention.

    However, the restrictions on every day food products is much more alarming. Raw milk comes to mind, but there’s a real legislative war against people that don’t want to eat strictly out of the supermarket.

    Google s.510. If this thing passes it could technically be illegal to sell some vegetables out of your own garden to a neighbor or at the farmer’s market.

    The so called slippery slope is well behind us already.

    • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

      We have been picking up speed for quite some time. The real question now is, How does the slope bottom out? A gradual run-out, it just keeps going, a brick wall, or drop off a precipice?

      I just saw this on HN; a “Native American” nutjob gets Brave new World removed from a high school reading list, and the “educators” seem to be apologizing and sucking up rather than resisting.

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  • http://www.brightminds.co.uk BrightMinds

    Yes ban alcohol when it’s sold with caffine, stupid. But still allow the sale of alcohol with caffine in a bar. Real stupid.

    Stop trying to control people central government.