Friday, June 25, 2010

The Alcoholic Republic

I like to think of myself as well educated. I went to great schools, and I was always encouraged to learn more about everything rather than just take one person's opinion. My father was a huge history buff, but somehow he never mentioned (or maybe never knew?) that we used to be a country of drunks.

Sure, some images of people sitting under trees with a bottle of whiskey are familiar to me, but I would never have thought that such a Puritanical nation would be referred to as the "Alcoholic Republic" by many of our founding fathers. From 1790 to 1830, we drank whiskey at every meal. We drank it at work. We drank it at political rallies. We drank it at quilting meetings. Europeans were fascinated by our cheap booze.

Of course, with such drinking habits so common, the results were fairly typical: public drunken debauchery, violence, family abandonment, and alcohol-related diseases all spiked. All of this helped fuel fire for the Prohibition movement, and since then we've never been able to consume alcohol at quite the same rate, despite a valiant effort by college students.

Have you guessed how this is relevant to our current health epidemic? It has the same underlying cause: cheap corn. When American farmers produce too much corn, the price falls, and businesses find some way to profit off of us. Back then, the only thing to do with all the corn was to distill it into alcohol since it was far more expensive to ship it around the country. The price of whiskey plummeted and everyone could afford to drink it by the pint. So they did. And now, the only way to get rid of the excess corn is to process it into our food, which drives the price down so that everyone can afford it. And so we eat it.

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