Friday, February 2, 2007

Modern Drunkard

So, Robin Hanson again shocked us with the facts last night in health econ class. Most compelling to me, and all the undergrads who were there, is the apparent health benefits of drinking. This is different than all those reports about "one glass of wine per night turns out to be healthy." The statistical evidence indicates there is no upper limit on the health benefits of drinking, ie the more you drink, the healthier you are. Why does this not make the news? Well, you may have guessed that government and other paternalistic organizations don't like the message.

And I would agree, based on the reaction of the undergrads. I certainly didn't need this information in college. I almost wish someone had told me "drinking makes your stomach hurt, because everytime you take a drink I'm going to punch you in the stomach."

One wine hangover will convince anyone that drinking cannot possibly cause health benefits. So, Robin offered up an alternative explanation: drinking signals health. At least in part, people drink to signal their health. The last guy standing is the alpha male. Maybe that was my problem, I never figured out the standing part.

So this may explain why drinking is so prevalent on college campuses. Young'ns have a comparative advantage at drinking a tremendous amount without taking on that evil, drink-sodden look. Does this mean we should consider moving the drinking age up to 22, or 25? After all, it does appear to be a market failure, of the kind Robin was referring to in his signaling example.

At Sewanee, Max will remember the university banned kegs during our second semester freshmen year. The first semester was truly a drunkard's dream. Free beer everywhere. The ban made drinking beer a little more expensive. So we switched to whiskey. It was more fitting anyway, since Sewanee is located in the hills of East Tennessee, surrounded by distilleries. My point is that I doubt there is any good way to actively suppress such an effective signaling equilibrium.

In Europe, as we know, youth drinking laws are less restrictive. And youth drinking appears to be less of a problem. I speculate that this has more to do with alternatives to drinking, while the laws are of little consequence. Being surrounded by castles and art museums, as opposed to hillbillies and 'stills, the signaling in Europe occurs along more refined cultural dimensions. This factor alone may explain why K-12 produces better results in Europe, as I wondered in a previous post.

This illustrates another of Jane Jacob's major themes, which she focused on in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It is that cities, as the highest form of human civilization, offer many more benefits than costs. In economic terms, the positive externalities, e.g. networking, far exceed the negative externalities, e.g. pollution. See more on this here.

I wonder if she knew about Robin's health stats that indicate city living takes 15 years off your life. Smoking only takes 3.

Bottomline: I'm not really sure where this leaves us. But it's happy hour at the Big Hunt.

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