Livin’ La Vida Loko

Last Tuesday was not a good day for any American outside of the top one percent of wage earners. Democrats lost 65 seats in the House, bestowing the GOP with their biggest majority in, well, over half a century and now cling to power in the Senate by a narrow margin. The next two years will likely be characterized by ridiculous Republican investigations of the Obama White House — is he from Kenya? From Indonesia? From Mars? — tax cuts without matching cuts in spending, attempts to undo all the progress of the past two years and a general lack of drive to solve the problems of today. When the Republican minority leader in the Senate says that his top priority is preventing Obama from winning reelection, you know he could care less about trying to fix the economy.

With all of that, I’m far too depressed to analyze the seeds of the Democratic defeat, or even to point out the good things that happened — Shumlin prevailing in the Vermont Governor’s race, or Bennett winning by a narrow margin in Colorado, or Reid holding his seat and his position as Majority Leader. Plus, I’m not even sure that last one is a good thing. And so, like any self-respecting writer, I’ll turn to alcohol to numb the pain — writing about alcohol, that is.

Republican politicians aren’t the only thing sweeping the nation and causing widespread vomiting this fall. The colorful alcoholic beverage known as “Four Loko” has exploded in popularity and is rapidly becoming the drink of choice for college students around the country. Both the New York Times and Washington Post recently ran stories about the dangers of the drink, which contains a large dose of alcohol, caffeine and other ingredients more commonly found in a can of Red Bull.

While the can itself states that the drink is 12 percent alcohol –— the same as, say, a dry Reisling — estimates, both in the media and on campus, seem to differ as to just how many “drinks” are contained within one $2.50 can. One story I read suggested that the answer to this was three, while another said four — which would make sense, given the name of the drink. Yet if you do the math, it turns out that a single can contains a quantity of alcohol more comparable to an entire bottle of wine, or about six standard drinks, along with as much caffeine as a large coffee.

The drink’s popularity has unsurpsingly caused widespread concern among school administrators and healthcare professionals. Many schools are taking the step of “banning” Four Loko from their campuses because of its perceived risk to the student body, while Michigan just banned it from stores all across the state. These measures will probably be ineffective at best. Stupidity remains a far greater risk than some stylish new drink. A closer look at the hospitalizations among students who drank Four Loko reveals a common trend ­— all drank copious amounts of other alcohol as well. One student was admitted to the ER after chugging three cans of the stuff and then taking some Tequilla shots. Others mixed the Loko with beer and shots of rum and vodka. But I’ve yet to see a headline this fall about how shots pose a health risk to the nation’s youth.

Obviously, students should be made aware of the risks of a drink that they may not be as familiar with as beer or hard alcohol. They should know, for example, that a single can contains more calories than a Wendy’s “Baconator” burger. With time, awareness will grow, and Four Loko’s popularity will fade, as does every new weekend fad. In the meantime colleges — including Middlebury — need not consider a ban on the beverage. Most of the students who consume it are under 21 anyway, and those above deserve the right to choose what they drink for themselves. It’s already against the law for underage students to consume any alcoholic beverage, including Four Loko, yet they overwhelmingly flout those rules to drink on the weekends. Public Safety officers already make students dump out their drinks and/or give them citations when they bust up an underage party. A ban of any single drink will not change this. By banning Four Loko, colleges only will add to its popularity and appeal, decrease the information available about it and delay medical attention for students who need it but who fear repercussions.

Two More Years!

Bill Clinton made an appearance on the Daily Show two weeks ago, and he made the first strong case I’ve heard in a while — from a Democrat — for keeping his party in power after November: 18 months have passed since President Obama took the White House with the tough task of repairing the damage to the economy caused by the recession. Tough times and tough choices remain, but his administration has made progress. They deserve two more years before voters pass the keys back to the party mostly responsible for this mess.

It was probably a mistake to focus first on health care at a time when people were more concerned with their jobs. Yet it was still a good long-term move: as of last week, insurance companies can no longer drop people’s coverage when they get sick, children can no longer be denied coverage for pre-existing conditions and limits on claims have been banned. All of these are positive and necessary steps forward for our country. None of these would have happened without Democratic control.

Despite unrealistically sunny projections by the administration that have hurt the public perception of their policies, the vast majority of economists believe that the stimulus bill prevented things from getting far worse. The bill protected a lot of jobs — providing states with money to prevent massive layoffs of teachers, policemen and firefighters, as well as creating jobs in the construction sector. Government spending has a far higher and faster rate of return than tax cuts, which people often save rather than spend in a weak economy. We desperately need more money for schools and direct spending on our infrastructure. Many of our roads, bridges and tunnels were built after World War II. Our rail system is the shame of the developed world. With interest rates at record lows and millions of Americans out of work, we might as well invest the money now.

If Democrats retain control of Congress, some of this might happen. If Republicans seize the reins of power, none of it will; these are, after all, the same people who attack both the first stimulus package and the Troubled Assets Relief Program, a program that has mostly paid for itself. There is no chance they will support the spending needed to help repair the economy. Instead, they’ll push through tax cuts that we cannot afford while doing nothing about entitlements and the ballooning defense budget. Don’t believe me? Read their recently unveiled “Pledge to America.”

The best arguments for a Democratic Congress come from the Republican Party. I have never enjoyed situations where the best reason to support one party is because the other would be so disastrous to America, but we have reached that point. The “Pledge to America,” promises to rein in spending and balance the budget, which sounds reasonable until you read their proposals for doing so. They pledge to make Bush’s tax cuts permanent — at a 10-year cost of $3.7 trillion — and promise not to cut money from Medicaid, Social Security or the military, which together make up nearly 60 percent of the total federal budget. To make up for this, they propose repealing Obama’s health care bill and cancelling the rest of TARP. The Republicans claim that ending the bank bailout will save $16 billion — hardly enough to fill the crater in the budget the tax cuts create.

I believe in a balanced budget. Now might not be the best time to focus on it, but we will soon need to make the tough choices necessary to close the deficit. Yet, based on history and the Republican “vision” for the future, they are not the party to accomplish this task; they don’t even appear to understand the math.

Democrats have been almost comically bad at building support for their agenda, but it’s tough to be the ruling party in the world of the 24-hour news cycle. And they deserve more time to fix the damage from the recession and the Bush administration; they deserve two more years. If they haven’t made any progress by then, I will gladly vote for a Republican in 2012. I just hope it’s someone reasonable, like Mike Bloomberg or Mitt Romney.

Unfortunately, the Republican party of today is anything but reasonable.