Drinking Smart

The more educated a person is, the more money s/he spends on booze.* So says new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Political blogger Matthew Yglesias has a vibrant discussion in his comments thread at ThinkProgress about why. Do ‘smarter’** people drink more because the more you know about the state of the world around you the more you need a drink? Or because it’s socially functional for the over-educated to feel and act a little stupider a little more often in a culture that values street-smarts over book-smarts? Or do more educated folks simply pay more for alcohol?

Well, speaking as a prof who both thinks and drinks too much (at least according to my kids) it’s a bit of both. I rarely bought my own liquor when I was young, and a bad tequila incident cured me of over-doing it. My beverage of choice in college was neither the $3 wine I drank on weekends nor the watery beer of the Juarez night-clubs, but rather the freeze-dried instant Taster’s Choice vanilla-flavored coffee that got me through all-niters in the pursuit of a grad-school-app-worthy GPA. (Yeah, go ahead and gag.)

But once I made it into grad school the calculus shifted. Doctoral work took me north to the high desert and rain country of the Pacific Northwest, where I discovered micro-brews: once you’ve tried a Black Butte Porter there’s no going back to Corona or Bud Light. And I learned that dissertations write themselves faster (and your heart stays healthier) if you keep a nice glass of red handy – whereas coffee just makes you thirsty. Unlike beer, however, my new affinity for wine didn’t mean always buying the high-end stuff: my favorite shiraz remains a 7.99 bottle of Yellow Tail.

So yes, I pay more for beer, and I drink more cheap wine than I used to. And I do it both to dumb down when I’m tired of thinking, and  to sharpen my mind when writing. But what self-respecting social scientist extrapolates simply from one’s own experience? Let’s have a look at the data.

In general terms, income does matter – it’s not all about education. When you look at alcohol expenditures as a percentage of income in the BLS data, there is almost no difference between what professors spend and what high-school drop-outs spend (.64% of their annual income on alcohol). So educated people buy more alcohol because they can, not because they’re ‘smarter.’

So are profs, lawyers, and doctors buying more brew or just buying the fancy stuff? Well, at least according to this post, highly educated people do actually drink more, not just better – even controlling for income. 

Why (and what) that is I’m not sure. But wine at least (like coffee) has culturally been associated with higher thinking and creativity, and for my money this is definitely reflected in the nerd culture of Western academia. At University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where I now teach in the political science department, faculty meetings are wine and cheese affairs, and grad seminars often take place at the pub. The National Science Foundation has a line item in grants for “synergistic activities” over food and drink with colleagues – because NSF knows that talking and thinking over alcohol greases the wheels of scientific innovation.

And everyone knows all the good stuff at academic conferences happens at the hotel lobby bar, not at the panels.  The possible exception being the “Zombies and International Relations” panel at last year’s International Studies Association conference. Everyone came in costume. Most of us had been drinking…

*This is just booze for the home, mind you, it doesn’t include bars and restaurants.
**I use the term loosely. Who says higher education makes you ‘smart’?

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