Guns, like alcohol, have many legitimate uses, and they are enjoyed by many people in a responsible manner. In both cases, there is an elite which has absolutely no problems handling the institution in question, but still there is the question of whether the nation really can have such bifurcated social norms, namely one set of standards for the elite and another set for everybody else.
I don’t know anything about guns so I’ll set that part aside. My bafflement is with the claim that “there is an elite which has absolutely no problem handling [alcohol].” Is he kidding? Unless Cowen is circularly defining “an elite” as the subset of elites who don’t have an alcohol problem, I don’t buy this claim. And I actually think it’s a serious problem, that various “elites” are so sure that they have “absolutely no problem” that they do dangerous, dangerous things.
Consider the notorious incident when Dick Cheney shot a man in the face. From Wikipedia:
Whittington was shot from 30 or 40 yards (40 m) away while searching for a downed bird. Armstrong, the ranch owner, claimed that all in the hunting party were wearing blaze-orange safety gear and none had been drinking. However, Cheney has acknowledged that he had one beer four or five hours prior to the shooting. Although Kenedy County Sheriff’s Office documents support the official story by Cheney and his party, re-creations of the incident produced by George Gongora and John Metz of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times indicated that the actual shooting distance was closer than the 30 yards claimed.
Wikipedia continues, “The incident has been the subject of jokes, satire and public ridicule.” But I don’t think it’s funny at all. The fact that it’s considered a joke, maybe that’s because of an attitude that “there is an elite which has absolutely no problem handling” guns or drugs.
And then there’s this member of the American elite:
On July 25, seven days after the incident, Kennedy pleaded guilty to a charge of leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury. Kennedy’s attorneys suggested that any jail sentence should be suspended, and the prosecutors agreed to this, citing Kennedy’s age, character and prior reputation. Judge James Boyle sentenced Kennedy to two months’ incarceration, the statutory minimum for the offense, which he suspended. In announcing the sentence, Boyle referred to Kennedy’s “unblemished record” . . .
I assume one reason for the unblemished record was that his driver’s license and car hadn’t been taken away, all the other times he’d been driving drunk.
Or check out the diaries of John Cheever. The man was obsessed with alcohol, and it ran in the family. From Wikipedia:
[In 1964] Cheever’s alcoholism had become severe, exacerbated by torment concerning his bisexuality. Still, he blamed most of his marital woes on his wife, and in 1966 he consulted a psychiatrist, David C. Hays, about her hostility and “needless darkness.” . . . [In 1969] Cheever’s alcoholic depression deepened . . . On May 12, 1973, Cheever awoke coughing uncontrollably, and learned at the hospital that he had almost died from pulmonary edema caused by alcoholism. After a month in the hospital, he returned home vowing never to drink again; however, he resumed drinking in August. Despite his precarious health, he spent the fall semester teaching (and drinking, both with fellow writer-teacher, Raymond Carver) . . . Cheever’s drinking soon became suicidal and, in March 1975, his brother Fred, now virtually indigent, but sober after his own lifelong bout with alcoholism, drove John back to Ossining. On April 9, Cheever was admitted to the Smithers Alcoholic Rehabilitation Unit in New York, where he shared a bedroom and bath with four other men. Driven home by his wife on May 7, Cheever never drank alcohol again.
Sure, that was then, this is now, but alcohol abuse definitely occurs among the elites. Just for example, Katherine Keyes and Deborah Hasin discuss the reasons why “DSM-IV-diagnosed alcohol abuse is associated positively with higher SES, e.g. higher income in adults and educational achievement in college-aged young adults.” They attribute this correlation to the fact that alcohol abuse is easier to detect among drivers (for example, they’ve had their license revoked), and lower-income people are less likely to drive a car. But even if the correlation between alcohol problems and income is zero or slightly negative, this still leaves lots of high-SES Americans—“elites,” in Cowen’s words—who are seriously impaired by alcoholism.
Cowen seems to have an image in which low-income alcoholics are ruining their lives, while heavy-drinking elites can handle their drink. But it’s not so simple. Sure, the more resources you have, the better you can handle the challenges in life. Whether it’s drugs or disease or challenges in your job, if you and your family has money, you’ll be more likely to get by. But the idea that elites can handle it, I don’t think so. And neither do these people.
Cowen also writes,
Our car crash problem – which kills many thousands of Americans each year — is also in significant part an alcohol problem.
But, as Keyes and Hasin report, there is a positive correlation between SES and having your license revoked. So, to the extent that alcohol is killing thousands of people via car crashes, this is actually is a problem with heavy-drinking elites who in fact have serious problems handling their alcohol.
And there’s more to the story. One of the notorious aspects of law enforcement on America’s roads is that if you run someone over in your car, the law will rarely do much to you unless you were blind-drunk at the time. Here’s one of many examples:
A motorist jumped the curb and slammed into a bus stop and scaffolding in East Flatbush on Saturday, striking up to 10 pedestrians. Four people were hospitalized in critical condition, including a woman and her young son. According to the Post, Denim McLean, whose age has been reported as 2 and 3, is brain dead. . . .
Police told DNAinfo that the driver, 48, “accidentally” hit the accelerator instead of the brake as she approached a red light at Utica and Church: “As she swerved to avoid colliding with the traffic around her, the vehicle jumped onto the sidewalk, hitting up to nine pedestrians, police said.” . . .
Witnesses told the Daily News that the unnamed driver, who was hospitalized along with a passenger, was speeding before the crash. That she jumped a curb and hit multiple people with a vehicle is not in dispute. Nevertheless, NYPD apparently concluded its work with characteristic haste. As early as 10:27 p.m. Saturday, less than four hours after the incident, the Post reported: “Police do not believe the crash was a crime.” A Post follow-up published this morning reads: “Cops said the driver passed a breath-alcohol test and would not be charged.”
This does not contradict Cowen’s point about the interaction between alcohol consumption and dangerous driving, but it does suggest to me that a focus on alcohol (rather than the dangerous behavior that is exacerbated by alcohol) has the problem that it lets a lot of killers off the hook. Here are some numbers:
Kenneth Cole, Gerald Green, and Jason Williams were all killed by motorists in the 67th Precinct since last November, according to crash data compiled by Streetsblog. While the precinct wrote 45 speeding tickets in 2012, and 71 citations for failure to yield to a pedestrian, officers issued 5,219 summonses for tinted windows, and 2,216 for seatbelt violations. . . .
With 48 killed and 5,377 wounded, Brooklyn saw more pedestrian and cyclist injuries and deaths than any other borough in 2012, according to NYPD. With one known prosecution, Charles Hynes led all NYC district attorneys in charging sober drivers for taking a life.
People have problems with alcohol, guns, and cars. Elites who think they have “absolutely no problems handling the institution in question” are not exempt.