Why can’t a country’s productivity be predicted by alcohol consumption?

Consider the costs to a society from alcohol: (a) productivity lost due to drunkenness, (b) drunk driving, (c) hangovers, (d) resources spent on legal proceedings following drunken sex on campus, and (e) time and money lost due to medical care required because of excessive alcohol consumption.

It is hard to find someone who would say that U.S. GDP is higher because of the alcohol we consume.

Wikipedia puts out a helpful “List of countries by alcohol consumption per capita.” Shouldn’t we expect that, assuming these numbers are relatively stable over decades and centuries, a rough inverse correlation between drinking and productivity?

Yet the correlation does not seem strong. The Greeks drink less than the Germans or Swiss. Italians drink about the same amount as the Japanese. Egypt is not famously productive and yet they consume minimal alcohol.

If drinking is as destructive as we are told why can’t we see it in the stats?

13 thoughts on “Why can’t a country’s productivity be predicted by alcohol consumption?

  1. This one actually isn’t that difficult.

    1) Some of the alcohol related costs to society are direct results of attempts to limit alcohol use/ punish drunks, and not from the use of alcohol itself. For example, on your list (d) and also to some extent (b) (insisting that everyone drive and then punishing drunk drivers, while allowing bars in suburbs surrounded by parking, may not be the best way to limit drunk driving). A more permissive society will incur less of these types of costs. That will partly offset any increased costs coming directly from alcohol use.

    2) Alcohol is medication for relieving anxiety. In “high productive” societies people will have more anxiety and stress and will use more alcohol. I’ve not been to Egypt, but I’ve been to similar countries in the Middle East and the tropics, and my wife is from one of them. Its true that people don’t drink much in these places. They also spend a lot of time each day literally sitting around and doing nothing to an extent almost inconceivable to someone from the northeast US.

    In short, people like to exaggerate the bad social effects of alcohol. The substance itself has a mixture of good and bad effects, and some of the worst drink-related problems are caused directly or indirectly by prohibitionist efforts.

  2. My guess would be that the impact of alcohol consumption on productivity is often swamped by other factors impacting productivity.

  3. A tiny proportion of ultra productive people are offsetting the cost from drunken people and a tiny proportion of people are doing the drinking, leaving the rest to be productive.

  4. Legal and medical expenses related to alcohol ADD to GDP, they don’t take away from it, as does the money spent on alcohol itself. GDP is an imperfect measure.

  5. Alcohol consumption follows power laws. In the US the top 20% of alcohol consumers, people who regularly drink 1/2 a bottle or more of wine or its equilivent per day are consuming more than 1/2 the alcohol consumed. If they stopped drinking there would be no alcohol industry.

  6. I worked in a liquor store when I was young and I can attest that a high percentage of sales was to steady customers. There were people who came in almost every day. That being said, if you could cure that group of their alcoholism, there would still be an alcohol industry but it would only be 1/2 as big. 1/2 as big would still be a big industry.

  7. Joyless puritanism will do far more damage to a nation than liquor ever could. The “alcohol problem” in America is really just the problem of a violent and uncivilized underclass which is barely functional even under the best of circumstances. Anybody who has been to Germany or Japan knows that people there like to drink and not always in moderation; the difference is that a drunk German or Japanese won’t go street-race his car, beat his wife or play Wyatt Earp with his handgun. By contrast, go to any American hospital and spend a night in the trauma bay: it’s a certain demographic that crashes their mopeds at 3 AM with BACs of .17, typically not district attorneys or professors of literature at the local college.

  8. Prohibition in the US was a good or at least a defensible idea. But it was tried too early. It should have been instituted in the 1950s, when it was apparently decided to maximize the time that everyone drives around in a car.

    The overall point being that since alcohol is a social drug, its effects are a complicated product of how its use interacts with the overall society. Some societies can handle quite large amounts of drinking, and the example of Japan shows that this includes binge drinking. Others probably would be better off with prohibition.

  9. How do India and Pakistan do? Their citizens are more or less of the same people, but the latter have a religious injunction against alcohol (although there’s some stigma in India, as well) The numbers I have say that India does %7-10 better in per capita GDP.

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