And This, Dear Children, is Why You Must Travel

Or at least read about different places, times, and peoples.

Here is a chart published over at The Washington Post.  It breaks down alcohol consumption by adult Americans into deciles, according to “number of drinks per week.”  It’s an interesting chart, not only for the reasons obviously being pushed by the newspaper (“if you do much more than sniff a cork, you’re a drunk”), but for several others.

For starts, it demonstrates pretty well what the article refers to as the “Pareto Law.”  I’ve not heard that particular expression, although I am familiar with the concept of “Pareto efficiency.”  I have heard of the concept before, expressed as the “long tail” effect, which applies not only in purchases of consumer goods but across pretty much all human activity.  According to the Pareto Law, it seems, the top 20% of purchasers of a particular class of consumer goods generally account for 80% of all sales of those goods.  Do you have a friend who’s got not just one or some, but all the most recent versions of Apple’s i-this-that-and-the-other? He’s the guy they’re talking about.  The article presents this pattern in the alcoholic beverage industry as being of peculiar concern, because if you drink that much (so as to get into the 80th percentile or higher) “you almost certainly have a drinking problem.”

By the way, I love that expression: “a drinking problem.”  According to what standard?  Different people’s bodies tolerate different levels of alcohol consumption.  Different other life behaviors affect how well your body tolerates different levels of alcohol consumption.  Different patterns of alcohol consumption affect what alcohol does to your body.  All of those factors also affect in profoundly different ways how your consumption of alcohol affects your life, your work, your patterns of friendship, how you perceive and deal with the world you move through.  And on and on.  But for some reasons Americans just love them the notion of “a drinking problem.”  I know someone who is, with a few pretty glaring exceptions, of unusual discernment and reasoning capacity.  And yet this person parrots without batting an eye the old saw that “if you have more than four drinks ‘at one sitting,’ that’s ‘binge drinking.'”  To which the only possible response is, “Bullshit!”  What’s “a sitting,” for starts?  Is it without getting up from the same table?  Is it at the same event?  Or does it mean just sitting down to watch a football game and drinking four beers over the course of the three or so hours it takes for a professional football game on television?  And is four Miller Lite “beers” the same as four George Dickels?  Anyone who asserts they are equivalent is not entitled to be taken seriously on the subject.

My point is not that it’s not possible to drink indisputably too much, too frequently.  It’s certainly not that doing so over any length of time is going to harm the drinker and very likely those around him, in some physical or moral manner.  My point is that all this pseudo-scientific “measurement” nonsense is exactly that: pure bullshit, from start to finish (here’s a link to a National Institute of Health article, in which much is made of exceeding the “recommended limit” on drinking”; on what scientifically defensible basis is that “recommended limit” based?).  It’s like the notion of a “best college.”  Are there colleges that are undeniably better than others by most relevant standards?  Of course.  But is there a “best college”?  Anyone who asserts there is such an animal and he knows which one either is lying to you, or he is so foolish that you are within your rights to question whether he’s smart enough to judge a college in any event.  As Thomas Sowell pointed out decades ago, the question to investigate (and it does take digging; a lot of digging to find the answer, because the education industry goes to outrageous lengths to hide such information) is not, “Which is the best college?” but rather, “Which is the best college for this student?”  The same with “a drinking problem.”  You simply cannot answer the question whether someone drinks too much by reference to counting the “number of drinks” per day, or per week, or per month, relative to some manufactured-from-whole-cloth “recommended limit,” and then declaring that if that number is greater than X, he has “a drinking problem.”  You have to ask whether that person drinks too much for his own life.  But that doesn’t make for very large research grants, does it, or for splashy headlines, or invitations to let an opinion in a 30-second spot on the evening news show?

So just what does this chart show?

It shows how little Americans drink, most of all.  Fully 30% of American adults drink exactly nothing alcoholic during the course of a week.  Go find another Western country in which that is the case.  Remember, “nothing” is a pretty stiff standard to meet.

Another 30% of adults drink (on average) less than one “drink” per week.  That’s per week, Gentle Reader.  So if you have a single glass of wine on Friday night with your wife, congratulations!  You drink more than 50% of the American adult population.  If you on top of that have one (count it! one) beer at the turn, and then — O! the dissipation!! — a second beer at the 19th hole on Sunday afternoon, that makes three “drinks” per week, and you are north of the 60th percentile.

Now let’s suppose each day during the week you have a single glass of wine with your supper each evening (you know, like the damned doctors tell you is good for you), then a single beer while watching television over the balance of the evening.  That’s ten “drinks” per week; you’re above the 70th percentile.  And now let’s add those two (you lush!!) beers at your Sunday golf round (up to twelve now), or maybe while bowling on Saturday evening, or perhaps after working outside all day long.  And now let’s add in, at some point during the 168 hours comprising that week, another four random Miller Lite “beers.”  That’s sixteen “drinks” in the course of a week.  You may well never have had, depending on whether you were eating at the time, any measurable blood alcohol content at all.  But you’re above the 80th percentile now.  You drink more than 80% of all other American adults.

I spent two full years living in Germany as an exchange student, among Germans.  I have travelled there in the interim.  I have also travelled, although much less, in a not unrespectable portion of the balance of Europe.  And I read, and have read, copiously about other places, peoples, and times.  And I’m here to tell you, three “drinks” per week doesn’t even get you in the gates in the vast majority of other cultures, other places, other times.  Fifteen “drinks” per week likewise won’t raise an eyebrow, particularly not if it’s in the form of beer, “in the manner of a Christian” (to borrow one of my favorite Charles Sibthorp expressions).  At least as of 25 years ago breweries in Germany still either by law or custom were obliged to provide their employees with a liter or two of beer per day, which had to be consumed on premises and during working hours (back in the day the draft horses delivering the barrels also got a daily ration).  And how about France, where a half-bottle of wine with lunch is neither more nor less than what any civilized man would expect?  Or Italy?  How about Eastern Europe, where alcohol consumption is more skewed towards hard liquor (and beer, of course, as well)?

And let’s go back in time, Gentle Reader, to a time when only a fool would drink the water anywhere outside a pristine forest.  Wine and beer were what you drank because the water would kill you.  Literally.

I categorically refuse to recognize behavior at levels indulged in by hundreds of millions of people all over the world, places which are highly civilized, pretty damned prosperous by any historical measure, and overall desirable places to live as being either aberrational or objectionable.  Period.  I likewise refuse to consider those levels of behavior, when indulged in across centuries of civilized culture, as being objectionable.  Period.

Let’s look at that 90th percentile and up, the tenth decile.  It’s hard to imagine consuming ten “drinks” per day, on average.  On the other hand, there’s a huge difference between the 15.28 “drinks” per week averaged within that ninth decile (80th to 89th percentiles) and the 73.85 of the tenth decile.  It’s almost a factor of five, in fact.  Which suggests to me that there is a curve hiding in there somewhere.  I’d be mighty curious to see the numbers of the constituent percentiles of that last, highest decile.  Because if the pattern of the long tail still holds within that last decile, then the bulk of that 73.85 “drinks” per week is accounted for by the very top-most percentiles.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of this writing the U.S. population is just over 323.1 million.  As of 2014, the gross U.S. population was estimated at 318,857,056, of which 82,135,602 were ages 19 and down, leaving 236,721,454 ages 20 and up, which I’m going to suggest is a usable proxy for “adults” in that drinking study.  Ten percent of that is 23.672 million people, a lot of people.  But if my hunch is correct that we’re looking at long tail pattern, then maybe only about 3% of the people are still accounting for the vast majority of whatever it is we’re interested in looking at, in this case alcohol consumption.  Three percent of “adults” still works out to 7.1 million people, which is a lot of people to round up.

On the other hand, if my hunch is right (and I’d be very surprised if I’m all that far wrong) it means that 97% of “adults” are consuming “drinks” at a rate which, except in the fevered imaginations of the National Institute of Health, The Washington Post, and this breathless fellow who wrote the book referenced in the WaPo article, just aren’t and have never been viewed as being at all out of the ordinary in the balance of the world, either now or at any point in recorded human history.

Perhaps what this chart and its attendant newspaper article are really telling us is that in a population of 323.1 million people, even a pretty large number of people with undeniably destructive behaviors still works out to be a fart in a hurricane as far as the societal scope of the problem represented.  But that the huckster and the demagogue can easily make it out otherwise.  And that we as citizens and voters would be very well-advised to examine very closely all such sermons and exhortations.

 

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