Not quite against alcohol

Fergus has an excellent essay ‘Against Alcohol’. It’s a review of David Nutt’s new book, (which I haven’t read). Fergus gives a detailed summary of Nutt’s view and draws his own conclusions — namely that alcohol is seriously bad for your health, even in small quantities, and that it is a drag on productivity. There’s a related article about how Netflix (and similar services) is also a drag on productivity.

These articles are easy to agree with. You can get a lot done with your life if you ditch Netflix and wine and work for two hours in the evening. This is how many people write books (or blogs!). The UK economy is apparently losing out on £20bn a year through lost productivity to hangovers, so this is not just about your side-hustle.

I am sympathetic to this sort of thinking. Abstinence is easier than restraint, as Samuel Johnson said about why he gave up drinking. The benefits of tv and alcohol are underestimated (and somewhat under recognised at all) by Fergus and Leopold, but they are certainly not simple trade offs. If you doubt that the costs of alcohol to society are high then once you’ve read Fergus’ essay, try Tyler Cowen.

Most years I stop drinking for a prolonged period. The last time it was for eight months. This is not a forced or intentional practice. I just lose the taste and I enjoy not drinking. Something similar happens with tv. Generally I don’t watch much, but I will go through phases of watching two hours a night. This is indeed a massive waste of time in one sense. I have a lot to do and a lot I want to do. Watching tv and drinking isn’t on the list.

I’m not to going to make a broad argument in favour of alcohol. The idea that ‘elites’ who can drink moderately but who worry about the effect of alcohol on others are hypocrites, unaware, or both, holds water for me. Once we accept that drinking leads to all sorts of problems of violence, accidents, health, and others, then it seems clear that lowering the demand for alcohol in general might be a good thing. However, people who call for alcohol pricing laws and restrictions on who can buy what often won’t accept that if we all stopped drinking the market would become small and expensive and that might do the trick. A voluntary temperance movement is never on the table. As I said, this isn’t the argument I’m going to look at.

What I wonder is whether all that time drinking and bingeing really does count as lost productivity. First, I question whether hungover people would in fact be productive at work. Is there, for most people, a ‘natural rate of productivity’, such that if they stopped getting drunk on Thursdays and were able to do more on Fridays, their productivity earlier in the week would adjust lower? Or that they simply wouldn’t do that much work on Friday anyway? I don’t know, but it seems quite possible that the marginal gains here are smaller than we expect. People who get hungover may or may not be the best workers anyhow. Is this something we have measured?

Second, alcohol isn’t always unproductive. Plenty of writers have been drinkers. This is anecdotal, so you should prefer Fergus’ argument. But — Graham Greene swilled spirits, Kingsley Amis was a soak, William Golding was a terrible alcoholic (quite a sad case), Evelyn Waugh took his sleeping draught with whisky which eventually gave him a psychotic episode. He turned that into an excellent book. Poets like Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell also. Not to mention Patricia Highsmith. For productive writers, alcohol doesn’t necessarily dampen output. Iris Murdoch used to write with a glass of whisky. Again, are we able to include this in our measurement of the costs?

Third, alcohol has passed a sort of Lindy test. Drinking has been around for a long time and been integral to many institutions. Fergus talks about enjoying rituals without it — I too have been pressured to drink champagne at parties when I didn’t want to and found it silly that people cared so much. I didn’t drink the champagne and still had a lovely time. But it’s also possible for alcohol to be part of the joy of a dinner with friends or an important celebration without it being a drag. It may indeed be the case that this sort of drinking comes out quite well in the overall cost-benefit analysis. For some people, not drinking does mean a more boring, stultifying, and unsuccessful social life. Can we quantify the effect on people who simply are not able to relax and participate? What about people who need a nip to calm their terror of flying or similar? There are productivity gains of a sort implied in all of these things. Imagine all the people who go home and discuss a work problem with their partner over a drink. This is often how people make important, productive decisions.

Fourth, productivity relies on ideas. When we think we move between concentrated thinking and diffuse thinking. Often when we stop concentrating, we get more ideas. Hence why you come up with all your best stuff in the shower or on a walk. Your brain is in diffuse mode. Could having a drink or watching tv be a sort of diffuse mode? Sure, they don’t have to be what we do once we stop concentrating. Going for a walk or having a chat might be a better idea. But it’s not obvious to me that they are not part of an overall system of productivity in our lives. Michael Suk-Young Chwe got the idea for his book about Jane Austen and Game Theory while watching movies like Clueless with his daughters. In his argument against Netflix, Leopold Aschenbrenner wonders how many more books Matthew Yglesias could write without Netflix. Maybe it wouldn’t be that different as he’d still have to spend time in diffuse mode. William Golding used to read Russian literature in the morning and watch daytime television in the afternoon.

Probably most people at the margin should have less alcohol and less tv. But we’re not all going to write a book with that spare time, those things bring us some pleasure, and it’s not obvious that temperance wouldn’t come with relatively high costs for some productive people. I wonder — do we really know the equilibrium on this?

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