A coastal elite's guide to the drinking class
Notes on alcoholism, socioeconomic status, and (unfortunately) Nick Kristof's hard cider brand
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There have been a pair of stories in the past few weeks that together give you a pretty good idea of how this country thinks about drinking, class, and the damaging realities of both. They are:
This troubling new report that alcohol-related deaths spiked by 25%+ in the first year of the pandemic
This profile about former New York Times columnist and disqualified Oregonian gubernatorial candidate Nick Kristof, who is these days making cider and wine in the Beaver State
First, the study. Late last month, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism researchers published a study in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association detailing just how deadly the coincidence of global pandemic and chronic alcoholism has actually been here in the U.S. The TL;DR is “very.” The biggest takeaway from the peer-reviewed paper, surmised here in the NYT (not by Kristof, we’ll get to him in a second; emphasis mine throughout):
[T]he new report found that the number of alcohol-related deaths, including from liver disease and accidents, soared, rising to 99,017 in 2020, up from 78,927 the previous year — an increase of 25 percent in the number of deaths in one year.
“The assumption is that there were lots of people who were in recovery and had reduced access to support that spring and relapsed,” one of the researchers, Aaron White, told the Gray Lady. This is undeniably bad/sad news, even more so when you learn that according to the same study, in the first year of the pandemic the mortality rate amongst drinkers aged 25-34 went from 11.8 to 16.1 per 100,000, or 37.0%. Awful, awful stuff. (We joke around a lot here at the boozeletter, but I sincerely hope everyone in the Fingers Fam is comfortable with their relationship with alcohol. If you aren’t, and you feel like you need help, please get it.)
With those… well, sobering statistics in mind, we turn our attention now to the Pulitzer prize-winning PornHub adversary Kristof, who was the subject of a recent New York Magazine profile by Olivia Nuzzi. The former columnist/public intellectual/bicoastal elite famously left his job at the Times to run for governor of Oregon, only to have his candidacy invalidated by a residency requirement in the state’s constitution that he figured simply wouldn’t apply to him because he has such good ideas. The piece showcases Kristof as painfully earnest and deeply convinced of his own ability to make change, but it also highlights the paternalistic tensions that come with the territory of his sort of technocratic liberalism. Nuzzi reports that he ran for governor of Oregon with no experience whatsoever, and without even bothering to vote in the state’s previous election; she also recaps his (cynical and somewhat notorious) practice of seeking out the bloodiest tragedies abroad in order to sell humanitarian interventionism to readers at home.
For his critics (and even fans), these are classic collisions of Kristof-ian earnestness with Kristof-ian vanity. But for the purposes of this column, the showstopper comes when Kristof—who upon returning to the Beaver State began producing and selling wine and hard cider from his Portland-area farm—holds forth on to Nuzzi on the matter of alcoholism and its victims:
“I don’t think that most people appreciate that most years, alcohol kills more people than drugs,” Kristof told me, though he clarified that he does not believe this is true of the type of alcohol that he makes. He also does not think that profiting off the sale of alcohol and lowering rates of alcohol addiction, two of his stated immediate goals, are in conflict. “You know, I’ve lost friends to alcoholism, but I haven’t lost any to Pinot Noir alcoholism,” he said.
“I wouldn’t be in favor of barring alcohol in general. I think that wine can be, or cider can be, a social good and can create social capital. Things that bring people together, I think, are good for society. I think alcohol can do that, and I think that’s true of wine and cider. I take your point that some people start with nice Pinot Noirs and then… ,” he trailed off. “But I think that is much less common, and those who die, the mortality from alcoholism, it’s driven really by working-class Americans, and it’s in kind of bulk hard liquor particularly. I don’t think that good wine and cider add significantly to the problem.”
In other words: alcoholism is a province of the unwashed masses, fine farm-grown ciders are the province of the wealthy, and never the twain shall meet. Very cool, Nick!
This is, to put it mildly, an extremely reductive view of the relationship between alcohol-related mortality and class. For one thing, there are plenty of rich people who drink to excess! In fact, a 2018 study of 200,000+ Norwegians’ health/death details compared to class status found that:
study participants from the lower classes drank less, and were more likely to not drink at all, than those in middle or high socioeconomic classes. Despite this, they still experienced more alcohol-related hospitalizations and deaths.
Rich people tend to drink more, but suffer fewer consequences from drinking. Hmm, why might that be? Is it because they drink $10 artisanal ciders instead of bottle pulls of Popov? Maybe… or maybe they “bear a disproportionate burden of negative alcohol-related consequences” due to “a variety of moderating factors, such as race, ethnicity, and gender,” as a 2016 meta-analysis of studies found. Not to mention neighborhood and education level, which a 2019 study marked as key indicators of bad booze outcomes. Ditto housing, the lack of which makes people 6-10x more likely to die of alcohol-related causes, and the rate of which increased by a “devastating” degree in 2020. Woof! Kristof, who has made his bones for decades opinion on human suffering, should know all this—all the moreso because Oregon’s addiction and housing crises were supposedly central to his doomed statehouse run. (“Instead of working to end homelessness… they’re working to end my candidacy,” he griped to Nuzzi, referring to the state Supreme Court judges and regulators who ruled him ineligible to campaign for governor in February. Talk about sour grapes, amirite?!)
To suggest, as Kristof does, that booze’s negative effects are a function of the American poor’s unsophisticated, unquenchable thirst for full-proof spirits is to pathologize the lower class’s afflictions rather than interrogate the economic and political factors that produce and exacerbate them. It’s snobby as hell to hand-wave alcoholism as a moral failing of the hoi polloi, and it’s hypocritical to profit of beverage alcohol of any kind without acknowledging that, yes, the booze you make, no matter how bougie, has the capacity to cause harm in addicts’ hands.
What bothers me the most about Kristof’s effete, condescending self-exoneration is how it conflates alcohol-related problems with what people choose to drink, rather than how they are forced to live. He deflects blame away from a broken system—our big, beautiful bipartisan republic, both parties of which are completely in thrall of capital’s aims and hostile to redistribution of wealth to address deficient education, housing, healthcare, etc.—and onto individuals for simply not possessing the good taste/foresight/economic means to select Nick’s Nebbioloinstead of Boone’s Farm, or whatever. It’s completely incurious, insulting as hell—and absolutely of a piece with Kristof’s hollow liberal promise of “transformative change.” (Nuzzi rightly skewers that phrase as “the redundant inspirational slogan favored by Establishment technocrats plotting a revolution of efficiency powered by the consultant class.”)
There are meaningful conversations to have about alcohol and class in this country, but they require engaging meaningfully with the economic structures and political systems that delivered us to this moment in the first place. Anything less is political, if not clinical, malpractice. After all, as one epidemiologist told the New York Times upon the release of the study showing 2020’s alcohol-related mortalities, that massive 25% uptick in deaths is “an exacerbation of issues that were beginning before the pandemic for many people.” The status quo in this country hasn’t worked for a long time, and you’d have to be either delusional or blind drunk to believe otherwise.
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🐶 BrewDog Indy shuts down amid international taproom expansion
Got a tip late Friday from a source in Indianapolis that BrewDog USA, the stateside subsidiary of the controversial Scottish craft brewing conglomerate, had abruptly shut down its taproom in the city. Taprooms close all the time, especially these days, but this closure is newsworthy both because BrewDog plans to open 27 new locations this year (according to a LinkedIn post by embattled CEO/cofounder James Watt), and because this location is the same one where a year earlier a manager fired four LGBTQ+ employees, citing the need for a “culture change.” (The firm later terminated that manager and said their language was “unsanctioned.”) Also, after its debut on the Brewers Association’s Top 50 craft brewers by sales volume in 2020, it was absent from the list in 2021. Also the U.S. subsidiary is heavily indebted to the Scottish parent company in a way that should make operational failures like this concerning to BrewDog’s U.S. retail investors (“equity punks,” in the jargon), who could be wiped out in the case of a bankruptcy due to their inferior share class. Also BrewDog plc (the Scottish one) keeps saying it’s going to go public at some point. Hmm! Through a representative, BrewDog confirmed in a statement that it did not plan to shutter any other locations. I guess we’ll see.
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That said, this piece in Jacobin detailing the history of German socialists building organizations around beer rather than schnapps is pretty fascinating!
Not real… yet, at least.
I feel like there was an anecdote in Dan Okrent's book about how thousands of middle or upper class people who voted for Prohibition were shocked to find out it applied to them - they had all figured it was only for poor people and they'd be able to continue drinking regularly.
Should our pal Mr. Kristof ever care to dig into some actual data on this:
1. Columbia University researchers Sarah McKetta and Katherine Keyes analyzed National Health Interview Survey data from 2006-2018 and concluded that women’s binge drinking—defined as four or more drinks in one occasion, or roughly two hours—was concentrated among women at the highest levels of socioeconomic status. (True, this pattern is less pronounced for men.) They concluded that “women at all levels of SES [socioeconomic status] increased binge drinking, but increases were most pronounced among high SES women.”
2. According to Gallup polling, upper-income and highly educated Americans are more likely than other Americans to say they drink alcohol. Whereas eight in 10 adults in these socio-economic status groups say they drink, only about half of lower-income Americans and those with a high school diploma or less say they drink. And, Gallup notes: "While higher socio-economic status drinkers are more likely to say they have had an alcoholic drink more recently, they are not more likely than others to report overindulging in alcohol. There are no meaningful differences by income level in the percentage who say they sometimes drink more alcoholic beverages than they should."
While I don't feel comfortable coming down too hard on the side of "rich people are drunk all the time," it feels at least worth stating that there are increasing levels of alcohol consumption associated with higher socioeconomic status, and that the disease of alcoholism doesn't check your tax return.