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By Steve Kalb

August 28, 2008

Goodbye Carrie Nation

Last July, I wrote in this column what I thought was a fairly cogent series of arguments for allowing young adults to legally drink at 18.

Interestingly, over the last two weeks 123 college and university presidents have come around to my way of thinking. At one level or another, these forward-thinking individuals endorse the return of the legal drinking age to 18.

The fundamental difference between them and the people who write laws is that college presidents and those who work on college campuses interact with 18, 19 and 20 year olds every day. They know that as a group, college students are not nearly as irresponsible as parents and lawmakers think they are.

For those who missed the original column the first time around, here it is:

Life beats fiction anytime. You just can’t make this stuff up.

From Saturday’s Hartford Courant:

“A Stafford man arrested three times in two weeks on drunken driving charges was arraigned Friday in Superior Court in Rockville.

Roland G. Gilbranson, 40, was also charged early Friday with driving while under license suspension and making an improper lane change.

Judge Terence A. Sullivan set Gilbranson's bail at $5,000 and also made it clear that if he drove again he'd be jailed without bond.”

How is it that this irresponsible mental midget isn’t in jail now as a danger to all of us? What does he have to do, drive headlong into a bus full of kids or nuns before we lock him away for our own protection? I’m afraid to ask how he got to court. Probably drove.

I’ve never been arrested for DUI. I have a brain in my head. It would never dawn on me to have a few belts at the bar and then slide behind the wheel of my car for a ride home.

Last year a lot of people in Connecticut did, and many killed themselves in alcohol-related car crashes. To that I say “terrific.” Your efforts will eventually improve the gene pool since you are obviously a moron. Just please don’t take anyone else with you.

Now before you stop reading as you scream that I am a cold-hearted lout, read on a couple more paragraphs -- you may wind up agreeing with me.

Once again this year, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (they are the new and improved new millennium version of Carrie Nation and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union) and some well-meaning legislators are out to prevent “kids” from drinking and driving. In and of itself this is nothing new. MADD has been trying to serve as our collective “Mother” for years.

As someone who interacts with teenagers and young adults at the collegiate level all the time let me tell you something: Fellas, you got it all backwards. You can put up all the checkpoints and write all the laws you want but young adults are going to find a way to drink. You did, your parents did and your kids will. Gravity is. And young adults will drink.

And then there is the law of unintended consequences. In the United States, we raised the drinking age in order to make it harder for Johnny and Jane to drink and drive. Oopsy, now they have to buy booze illegally and find a place to drink it. Since they have no place to go what do they wind up doing? They drive around drinking that six-pack of beer or fifth of “fermented in the bag” hooch. There’s a good plan. We tossed kids out of bars where responsible adults could watch and limit their drinking (and maybe even call them a cab) and put them in cars.

A few facts to muddy up the emotional “we have to save our children from themselves” waters: At 16 most “kids” can get married. In New Hampshire you can be as young as 13 and, not to be outdone, in West Virginia there can be “special provisions” for an underage girl who is pregnant. In all 50, an 18-year-old can enlist in the armed forces and go off to kill people and break things. They can sign a contract and be held liable for their actions. At 18, they are adults.

But apparently at 18 they are not yet mature enough to know when to stop drinking. Let me say this out loud again just to make sure. They can get married, go up to their eyeballs in debt, can kill -- and possibly be killed -- but they can’t drink. Say that out loud five or six times and remind me again how that makes any sense.

And here is the real rub. Raising the drinking age from 18 to 21 in the misguided belief that it would cut down alcohol-related driving fatalities did nothing. Drivers 21-24 have the highest percentage of alcohol-related deaths. Johnny and Jane got older but remained just as stupid. Yeah, I know, sometimes you just can’t fix stupid.

So what is the answer? More laws, more roadblocks, more wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth and more money spent on educating our young as to the alleged insidious nature of demon rum?

Here is a novel thought. How about learning to treat young adults as young adults, not four-year-olds? How about teaching them something about “responsible” drinking?

It doesn’t take someone with an IQ of a rake to figure out that students binge drink because they are afraid of getting caught. You remember taking long drags on that cigarette in the bathroom between classes in high school ’cause you only had two minutes and you were afraid someone might catch you? Same thing, except in this case it’s Captain Morgan not Camels. And while we are at it, how about making our drinking and driving laws transparent, stricter and easier to enforce?

In Belgium, the fine for DUI can be as high as $11,000. In Denmark, the fines and imprisonment are based on blood alcohol level. You can expect to get your license shredded and possibly go to jail for up to 2.5 years for a first offense. In Germany, a first-time offense could be considered criminal with penalties of up to five years in jail and tens of thousands of dollars in fines. In Norway, they just shred your license and you are “disqualified” from having one. Oopsy.

Tell anyone, teenager or adult, that driving while under the influence could mean you could go to jail for years, pay hefty fines and lose your driving privileges for life and we might get lots of drunk drivers off the road.

It sure makes a lot more sense then trying to tell that 18-year-old soldier shooting at insurgents with his M-16 over in Iraq that he isn’t old enough to have a beer.

Steve Kalb is a freelance reporter and TV news talent coach. He is also an adjunct professor of  broadcast journalism at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. You can reach him at sdkalb@gmail.com. (Note: The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Hamden Daily News.)

August 11, 2008

Edwards? So What?

Professional politicians and image consultants will tell you it is never the event that sinks a politician or celebrity -- it's the cover-up. Had you not heard what John Edwards had done, but only heard the reactions to his action you would think he had disemboweled his wife and children. He didn’t. He had an affair with a woman. That’s never happened before.

We have reduced political reporting and coverage to the reporting of gossip. Platforms and ideas now take second billing to the candidates -- and candidates’ marital transgressions.

I am not suggesting that husbands and wives sleep around with individuals not their spouses. In theory you marry someone ’cause you want to be exclusively with them and not just add them to a stable. But since 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, someone is having an affair every once in a while with someone else.

Whether or not I “step out” on my marriage should be of interest only to me, my wife -- and her lawn shears. Quite simply, it is no one else’s business. The problem is we have to keep reminding that to the ever-curious and those Bible-beating sanctimonious busybodies who have nothing else to do but judge. Isn’t there something in the Bible about “do not judge lest you be judged?” Probably my version, not theirs.

Does someone’s martial transgression somehow make them less of an effective leader or less of an intelligent individual? If that were the case, probably half the heads of state in Europe would be out of work.

So let’s run the “fidelity litmus test” on our current and immediate past president. George Bush has, by his own account, a terrific marriage to a magnificent woman. There is no evidence he has strayed. His marriage is intact.

But this is the same individual who has approved the wholesale gutting of the U.S. Constitution, paying particular attention to rights of privacy, habeas corpus, separation of powers and the separation of church and state. While he has allegedly remained ever faithful to Laura, he has succeeded in alienating just about every other leader in the free and not-so-free world.

Ever-watchful regulators in past administrations have come down with cataracts on this one. There is a direct line between the regulatory myopia of this administration and the mortgage meltdown. If that wasn’t bad enough look at what has happened to our FDA, EPA and justice department? Once proud agencies of government are in many cases now the object of scorn and ridicule, thanks to inept leadership and decision-making approved in the breach by the current president.

And then there is Bill Clinton, a narcissist if there was one. A comb for his perfectly coiffed hair in one hand, a Big Mac in the other. Here’s the fella who “never had sexual relations with that woman,” Monica Lewinsky. And for lying about it came thisclose to being hurled out of office. But the important issue -- the lying -- is of little to no interest to the Sean Hannitys of the ultra-conservative world. They see the sex act as repugnant, dirty, filthy, disgusting and beneath the office of president. Maybe they are just a tad jealous, after all when was the last time anyone gave Pat Robertson or Rudy Giuliani a second look? Wait a minute, didn’t Sir Rudy shack up with Judy while he was still married to Donna? It is not the fornicating that is important; it’s the lying and the cover-up.

More importantly, I don’t remember President Clinton confusing the Constitution with a large sheet of Charmin or of the economy going into the tank. As a matter of fact, I recollect those being pretty good years and of the United States being reasonably well respected around the world -- except for the snickers by many who wondered why we cared about whether Bill Clinton slept around.

And anyway, what is a politician to do? If he strays and then admits it he is excoriated in the press by right-wing demagogues and by the religious right. If he strays and tries to get away with it by lying, sooner or later he gets caught and excoriated by right-wing demagogues in the press and the religious right.

John Edwards may have just done us a favor. He may force us to ask why we care so much about the private lives of our public figures. It is up to him and his family to be honest with one another and work it through. And it is none of our damn business.

Steve Kalb is a freelance reporter and TV news talent coach. He is also an adjunct professor of  broadcast journalism at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. You can reach him at sdkalb@gmail.com. (Note: The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Hamden Daily News.)

July 28, 2008

Who Needs News?

If I were to sum up the condition of the media these days it would be “a mess.”

Hemorrhaging money, newspapers are hurling their once much-beloved reporters, editors and photographers under the bus and into early retirement as quickly as they can.

TV stations are in many cases not renewing their “higher priced” talent, and in many medium and smaller markets either closing or significantly downsizing operations.

Radio? You’re kidding. Most radio stations have abandoned their commitment to local news except in large markets.

Newspapers now steer their readers to their websites, which increasingly resemble those of TV stations. In what might be seen as an example of mass confusion, many TV stations now steer their viewers to a morning newspaper for the complete story. And all but the largest and best radio news operations wouldn’t have anything local to report on air at all if it wasn’t for their local newspaper.

So here we are, probably about one-third of the way into the Internet revolution with what appears to be no real clue of how we will collect and distribute news to you the reader/viewer except that with shrinking staffs and shrinking budgets we will be doing less.

And if you ask anyone who is trying to figure out where we are going, you seem to get the same answer: the solution is the Internet.

Mind you, the Internet creates nothing. It is simply a delivery vehicle. It delivers product created by radio, TV and newspapers that employ people. Without people working there is no product. As it turns out, the Internet is an incredible delivery vehicle for porn. People who are unwilling to spend 10 cents to read a newspaper online will shell out significantly more to see high-definition repeats of “Debbie Does Denver.”

An increasing number of people don’t want to buy newspapers. They’re free online. The problem is that somehow newspapers have to pay for reporters, editors and the staff that makes reporting the news possible. The Internet makes doing that cheaper but doesn’t make it free.

Good reporters cost money, which is why Sam Zell, who owns the Hartford Courant and a collection of other Tribune properties, has offered early buyouts or pink slips to 75 employees here in Connecticut. That is on top of earlier cutbacks.

No one knows how much less news will be covered by the Courant but what all of us in the news business do know is that measuring reporter productivity at a newspaper is a losing proposition. Stories just don’t fall into your lap. Amazingly enough, sometimes a source doesn’t immediately get back to you and sometimes the folks you are writing about aren’t exactly racing to help.

TV reporters are experts at doing more this year than they did last year. Stations are doing lots more news with only a few more people and whatever they do can and usually is repurposed many more times than ever before.

Many think music should be free. Doesn’t matter that artists have to make a living, too. If someone, anyone, anywhere actually bought a song many believe everyone else should be able to get it for free or next to free. The artist in this equation gets nothing.

I can now watch my TV news on the web. Someone needs to explain to me why I would want to watch a highly produced high-definition TV newscast on a 15-inch laptop screen when there is a $1,000 high quality 36-inch TV screen in the next room. OK, every once in a while it’s kinda fun to watch a news package I really liked a second time, but the whole newscast?

And cell phone companies think I’m really going to watch TV on my cell phone? Who spiked their Kool-Aid and with what?

I hope I am wrong but from my vantage point it appears as though the Internet has democratized the production and delivery of news, but we are asking fewer people to produce more news and entertainment for which there are more venues in which to display it and which, with the notable exception of porn, will create less revenue.

And this is a prescription for success? How?

Steve Kalb is a freelance reporter and TV news talent coach. He is also an adjunct professor of  broadcast journalism at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. You can reach him at sdkalb@gmail.com. (Note: The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Hamden Daily News.)

July 14, 2008

The Double-Nickel Comeback

As gas prices continue to shoot for the moon you had to know that sooner or later someone would suggest returning the United States to the national 55 mph speed limit.

Proponents today, like U.S. Sen. John Warner, think that someone actually drove 55 when the law was enacted by President “Tricky” Dick Nixon.

I was in my 20s back then and I can tell you “without equivocation” that virtually no one drove the so-called “double nickel.” Little old ladies in their 1960’s era Plymouth Valiant or Mercury Comet outfitted with bias ply tires, numb steering, a flight bench seat and the handling characteristics of a cheap $5 shoe didn’t drive 55.

It was without exception the most universally ignored law in the country. It did do one thing, however -- almost overnight it created the radar detector industry.

Since no one wanted to drive 55, people bought detectors like the “Fuzzbuster,” a huge vision-impeding black box about the size of a carton of cigarettes you mounted on your dashboard. When it detected a radar signal, its not-so-tiny indicator light began flashing and its buzzer went off. This alert was about as polite as a chainsaw, but it achieved its purpose.

Radar detectors were legal in almost every state except Virginia (home of Sen. Warner, I might point out) and the District of Columbia. My recollection is that in Connecticut you could own one, you just couldn’t use it.

So lots of people here in Connecticut forked over hundreds of dollars for a radar detector and then kept them in the glove compartment. Right. And they drove 55.

The underlying theory behind the double nickel was that it would save gas and save lives. Simple math will tell you it does neither.

As a general rule, miles-per-gallon increases directly with the increase of speed until you hit 55 or so. There is a valley or two in that graph but we’re talking generally here. You’ll use about 20 percent more gasoline if you drive 70 mph than if you drive 55. Magically enough, 70 just happens to be 27 percent faster than 55. Go figure.

So it takes me 27 percent more time to get where I am going if I drive 55 than 70. If I drive 12,000 highway miles a year then I’ll spend 218 hours a year on the road if I drive 55, but only 171 if I drive 70. That is almost two full days a year. Sure, I’m using more gas but I’m getting there faster.

So let’s play with some numbers.

In 2000, there were 191 million licensed drivers in the United States. If each one of them saved only one day (not two) by driving 70 instead of 55, the savings would be 191 million person days. That’s 523,000 person years. Divide that by the average lifespan of 70 and you come up with the incredible 7,500 lives saved each year by driving 70 versus 55.
In 1995, when Congress finally got around to officially repealing the 55 mph speed limit, there were apocalyptic predictions there would be more than 6,000 traffic deaths every year on our nation’s roads. Even if that were the case I just showed you how we “saved” 7,500 per year, so in actuality driving faster would save 1,500 lives a year even if there were carnage on the highways from people driving faster.

In fact there were fewer road injuries in 1997 than in 1995. Ralph Nader was wrong when he said, “History will never forgive Congress for this assault on the sanctity of human life.” Fewer people died, Nader was wrong and life went on.

Want to save gas? That’s easy. Make sure your tires are properly inflated and have low-rolling resistance. Don’t just buy the cheapest pair of sneakers (slang for tires) you can find. Change the air filter regularly. Under-inflated tires and a dirty air filter can cost you 5 percent to 10 percent of your gas mileage.

Really want to save gas? Buy a new set of Hot Wheels that gets decent gas mileage. And by decent I mean something on the north side of 23 mpg combined city and highway, not rolling downhill in neutral. Getting double digits just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Junk that land ark for something that will comfortably take you, your family and your “stuff.” It will mean packing less than everything you own when you go on vacation. You’ll actually have to make decisions about what is important rather than “everything.” But you’ll figure it out.

Want to save lives? Drive 70.

Steve Kalb is a freelance reporter and TV news talent coach. He is also an adjunct professor of  broadcast journalism at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. You can reach him at sdkalb@gmail.com. (Note: The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Hamden Daily News.)

June 30, 2008

Burn the Oil Leeches

If you think people are hot under the collar over the price of gas, just wait until this winter. Gasoline may be $4.50 a gallon today, but home heating is expected to push $5 or more next winter. You can cut down on your driving, but you can only get so cold.

Yet, you would be hard pressed to hear anything about it from Congress or the State Capitol. You’ll hear blame put on speculators, OPEC, Nigeria, India and just about anyone and everyone else for the high price of a barrel of oil, but not much beyond that.

Faced with an impending crisis, the only thing our legislators in Hartford were able to accomplish was to pass some silly law that allows discounts if you buy gas with cash. Now as I drive down the road looking for gasoline, I have to try and figure out if the posted price on the sign is the “cash” or “credit” price. Not all retailers give cash discounts.

So here’s a big “thank you” to legislators for adding another layer of confusion. Oh, by the way, there are a half-dozen credit cards that give you at least the same discount if not more and are free. But I digress.

It is not unusual for the average homeowner to go through 800 gallons of home heating oil over the course of a winter. In January 2001, the first year for which the state Office of Policy and Management published figures, a gallon of home heating oil was about $1.20. You could heat your house all winter for about $960. In 2002, the average price was $1.50 a gallon. Total cost? About $1,200.

It took until January 2006 before home heating oil cracked, and hovered over the $2 mark. Oil then jumped to the $2.50 range the next year. That’s $2,000 to heat that average home -- more than double the cost in 2001.

This past February, oil prices skyrocketed to $3.65 a gallon. In one year, the cost had gone up almost $900, not quite a 50 percent increase. Today the price is $4.50 or so with no end in sight. That's $3,600 for the average home for one winter.

But even as prices soar through the roof, the Bush Administration has seen fit to cut low-income heating assistance by 20 percent. “Let ’em freeze” appears to be this ruler’s version of “Let them eat cake.”

If you're thinking that brand spanking new pellet stove is the answer, better think again. Pellets come from compressed wood shavings, the itsy-bitsy-teeny-weenie pieces left over when trees are milled into lumber, etc. Home building and remodeling has come to a virtual standstill. So it’s a safe bet the cost of pellets will go up 10 percent or so per ton.

Yet, political candidates are not having any true substantive discussions about the 10s of thousands of people who will have to decide this winter whether to eat or freeze. (Oopsy, John McCain is talking about reducing the price of gasoline by 12 cents a gallon.)

And that says nothing about the economic impact. Imagine how much money is being lost to the domestic economy because people are sending money to OPEC and not buying cars, clothes or whatever made here in the United States. That “anemic stimulus” check you received in the mail was just eaten up by the swelling cost of home heating oil.

And about that barrel of oil. Experts believe upwards of $30 of the current cost is due to speculators. Those are folks who buy and sell just about anything, anywhere, anytime if they can make a buck on the increasing price. Another $20 is due to the depressingly depreciated value of the American greenback, which is worth little more than the Mexican peso. Another $10 is for what is called the “fear factor”: a terrorist attack, ruptured pipe or probably another three cars bought in India.

That means the “real” cost of a barrel of oil should be around $70 or so. How do we get back there?

One simple solution is to require larger margins for those who speculate in oil, and require those who buy futures to hedge their bets and take delivery. You can still purchase oil futures at $139 a barrel, but you have to put more of your own money up front and you have to actually take delivery and pay for the stuff.

My guess is that would wring the “speculators’ excess cost” out of the market pretty quickly as the fellas on Wall Street, who have been trading up oil, would suddenly have to buy storage tanks. These folks don’t want to own it; they just want to buy it low, convince everyone there will be a shortage of it, and then sell it for a profit. And the next leech does the same thing.

I know. I can hear the “free market” folks screaming that things would be worse if it wasn’t for speculators and how they actually “temper” market fluctuations.

Right. And I believe in Snow White and the Tooth Fairy. If this is what happens when the market regulates itself then it is time for government to step in and protect its citizens. That is what government is supposed to do, isn’t it?

Steve Kalb is a freelance reporter and TV news talent coach. He is also an adjunct professor of  broadcast journalism at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. You can reach him at sdkalb@gmail.com. (Note: The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Hamden Daily News.)

June 16, 2008

Pain in the Gas

“Gas Prices Reshaping Workday Commutes” proclaimed the Hartford Courant on Sunday’s front page. People are now rethinking how far they are willing to commute to work. The cost is now a major expense in the world of $4.50-a-gallon gasoline. But that only begins to tell the story.

With gas prices up 30 percent over last year, more of us are desperately trying to find cheaper ways of getting to work. For most that means driving. Unfortunately in its myopic view of transportation, Connecticut has consistently made mass transit play second fiddle to the car. Bus service in New Haven and Hartford could hardly be described as “comprehensive.” Let’s call it what it really is: a joke.

Now try going to Hartford from New Haven by bus. There’s one a day from New Haven to Hartford, three from Cheshire, six from Simsbury and so on. More importantly, the schedules are designed for someone who works 9-5 Monday through Friday. Work any other schedule and mass transit is not an option.

So it doesn’t take a moron to figure out why I-91 and I-84 to and from Hartford are clogged every morning and afternoon. We have a “mass transit” system hobbled by a lack of funding and foresight. We’ve widened roads, built new ones and generally done just about everything we can to make the car the only method of transportation in Connecticut.
If I-91 and I-84 are clogged, I-95 and the Merritt Parkway are Connecticut’s answers to “off-street” parking.

Almost 40 million people took Metro North last year and the line reports a 4 percent increase in ridership due in large part they suspect to skyrocketing gas prices. Ya think?

Interestingly, more people take the train between stops within the state than those who take it all the way to New York. The equipment currently in use is 30 years old, uncomfortable and suffers from what I call “reverse thermodynamics.” You freeze in winter and boil in summer. And because there aren’t enough trains, many commuters get to pay confiscatory rates for the privilege of standing in old, smelly trains with barely operable toilet facilities. Cattle have it better.

Contrast Connecticut’s commuter rail system with New York’s. NY trains are years newer, cleaner, more comfortable and there are more of them. Commuting from Brewster to Manhattan may still be a 90-minute ride but at least you get a seat.

Solutions? Easy.

First, let’s stop thinking that mass transit has to pay for itself. Government is in the business of providing for the public good. Let’s go out and buy buses and develop a timetable and route structure that get people to their places of employment quickly and efficiently. NYC is buying hybrid buses that run on diesel and electricity and are reported to cost $325,000 each. The City is also buying ones fueled by liquid natural gas. So should we. And let’s do it in less time than it took for Columbus to find the new world. We’ve had plenty of studies and studies of studies and plans on how to implement the studies. Someone just needs to do it.

And while we are at it, we should probably take a look at how the transit districts are run. Good a time as any.

Meanwhile, the state is buying 340 new Kawasaki M8 trains that are supposed to be arriving some time late next year and cost around $2 million each. We should buy an additional 50. Unless someone happens to find a Prudhoe Bay-sized oilfield in my back yard, chances are the price of gasoline isn’t going down any time soon. Commuters will flock to Metro North if there are enough cars and a vibrant enough schedule.

Here’s a thought. Want to get more people off the roads from Connecticut to New York? How about a one-stop express train from New Haven to New York City? Or from Fairfield or Bridgeport to New York City? You would have to make reservations.

And where would all this money come from? How about a five-year moratorium on building roads. I’m NOT advocating spending one dime less on road maintenance and bridge inspections. Let’s just stop building new ones and “improving” the ones we have. Somehow spending $50 million to widen a 3.5-mile stretch of I-84 near Cheshire looks less and less like it was ever a good use of taxpayer money.

Steve Kalb is a freelance reporter and TV news talent coach. He is also an adjunct professor of  broadcast journalism at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. You can reach him at sdkalb@gmail.com. (Note: The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Hamden Daily News.)


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