Tuesday, April 29, 2008

And I thought I had to get people angry?

I started this blog to get people in Pennsylvania angry about the PLCB. I figured once enough people realized the problems inherent in the State Store System and the Liquor Code, they'd get angry enough that we could start thinking about political action.

I'm wondering if I underestimated the level of anger already out there. Steve Twedt did a series of pieces on the PLCB in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette back in January (more about that in the near future: great work by Steve). The paper opened a forum on its website to see what people thought about the PLCB.

Take a look. These people are mad enough to march on Harrisburg now; there were a substantial number who said it was one of the reasons they'd left the state.

"I believe the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board is an antiquated system that should be abolished immediately."

"This arrangement is insane to anyone experienced in service oriented retail business."

"It doesn't curb underage drinking or alcoholism, has no effect on drunk driving."

"The way the state runs the package stores is illegal. They run it as if we are in Russia."

Well, and one or two malcontents...

"I absolutely love the fact that the government of Pennsylvania still cares about the health and well-being of its citizens and children enough that it controls liquor sales...why is it the state's job to get more people to consume alcohol? It isn't. Alcohol is a drug. Long live our wonderful state store system!" (Dude...they sell drugs every day...at privately-owned drugstores.)

Looks like the revolution may start without me.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Reason #2 -- The Two-Headed Monster

Mutations occur all the time in nature. Two-headed calves, wingless birds, albino alligators: they're not normal, they're not how things were meant to be, and they rarely survive without being kept alive by human interference.

Kinda like the two-headed monster called the PLCB.

Reason #2:

Buy More Booze! (But Don't Drink It!)

Is it any wonder that the PLCB is such a second-rate purveyor of booze? It's like Wang Chi says in Big Trouble in Little China: "My mind and my spirit are going north and south!" On the one hand, the PLCB is supposed to be making sure that Pennsylvanians don't drink booze in any illegal (or immoral) ways, or drink too much of it, or drink it before they're of legal age, or buy it without paying the full load of taxes. But on the other hand, the PLCB sells all the wine and liquor in the state (except for the small amount sold at Pennsylvania's wineries), and the more they sell, the more money they can give to the state (and insure their continued job survival).

Or, as they put it in the PA Liquor Code:

This act shall be deemed an exercise of the police power of the Commonwealth for the protection of the public welfare, health, peace and morals of the people of the Commonwealth and to prohibit forever the open saloon (can you say "Repeal-era language"?), and all of the provisions of this act shall be liberally construed for the accomplishment of this purpose. ("Liberally construed" means, I assume, that if the local enforcement agent can find a way to hassle you, he will...and more about that in the future.)

and furthermore,

The provisions of this act are intended to create a system for distribution that shall include the fixing of prices for liquor and alcohol and controls placed on prices for malt and brewed beverages, and each of which shall be construed as integral to the preservation of the system, without which system the Commonwealth's control of the sale of liquor and alcohol and malt and brewed beverages and the Commonwealth's promotion of its policy of temperance and responsible conduct with respect to alcoholic beverages would not be possible.

(I would invite all the Christian folks who find a religious bias against booze to consider the contradictions inherent in this situation, specifically in Matthew 6:24: "No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other." Sounds like the quandary of the PLCB, right there in the holy writ.)

What's it gonna be, guys: sell sell sell, or are we putting an end to the scourge of demon rum? I don't think it's fair to ask an agency to do both. It's got to cause strain on the brain. I know it does for me. In politics, in research, this is called conflict of interest (yes, in journalism, too, but let's keep that riveting discussion to other blogs), and this is a direct, no-question-about-it conflict of interest: Buy our booze so we make money for the state, but don't buy booze so the (how'd they put it?) "public welfare, health, peace and morals of the people of the Commonwealth" are protected.

This conflict of interest is enshrined in statute. The PLCB is tasked with both jobs. It would be like tasking the PA Department of Agriculture with selling a ton more PA-produced cheese and meat and butter while also making them responsible for encouraging Pennsylvanians to eat a healthy diet full of green leafies. We don't do that: the PA Dept. of Health is responsible for that kind of diet recommendation. Besides, a healthy diet can include cheese, meat, and butter; it's the amounts that are the issue... just like alcohol consumption.

So why isn't that "consume alcohol in a responsible manner" job part of the Department of Health? Why isn't enforcement of licensing part of the Department of Revenue? Why don't we leave criminal enforcement to the State Police and local law enforcement instead of running it through the all-too-autonomous Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement and the PLCB's all-too-lazy judges?

There are a number of reasons, but I believe, at the base of it, it goes back to two things. First, Pennsylvania's liquor code is still mired in the era of Prohibition and Repeal, and the same patronizing attitude towards "public morality" that I noted in Reason #1. But second, and just as important, is that the State Store System provides a huge chunk of cash to run an anti-alcohol bureaucracy, something that makes it look like this is all self-funding.

Wrong. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that government revenue is fungible. The money coming into the PLCB coffers could just as easily go to the Department of Health as stay in PLCB hands for anti-alcohol programs; it's an entry in a spreadsheet, not a bag full of cash. Split off those functions -- after first determining whether any of them are worthwhile (this college-focused program actually has some excellent components), or if they're ridiculous anti-alcohol propaganda -- and assign them elsewhere. Then the agency won't be going in two different directions at once.

Even better...split off those functions and do away with the PLCB's retail function altogether, so the State isn't in the booze business.

But that's a topic for another day. For now, let's stick to putting the two-headed monster out of its misery.

The PLCB should be abolished because it is simultaneously responsible for selling legal alcohol beverages, and for discouraging their purchase. The health functions of the agency should be assigned to the Department of Health; the enforcement functions should be divided between the Department of Revenue and the State Police; a greatly overhauled and simplified licensing function could be the job of a much smaller sub-agency at Revenue. Taxation, of course, would be handled by Revenue and the individual privately-owned licensed retail booze outlets.

All of this pre-supposes a complete re-writing of the PA Liquor Code. All I can say is that it's about time...and yes, that's also a topic for another day; quite a few other days, actually.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Spread the Word

One Man's Fight

With stubborn reason
He tackles hypocrisy,
politics, and greed.

And so "Why The PLCB Should Be Abolished" (should've thought of a catchy acronym when I was naming this thing) is immortalized by Captain Hops at Beer Haiku Daily.

Another Marylander (but native Pennsylvanian), the inimitable Sandy Mitchell, noted the blog with a post titled "The Case Against Pa.'s Liquor Control Board."

Meanwhile, PA bloggers are noticing too.

At Muckney Brewing, it's "Lew Starts Some Shi..." with a first line of "And I'm sure, in short order, the fan it will hit."

Over on Nate's Beer and Brewing Blog it's "Lew Takes on the 800-lb Gorilla."

At Kevin Rowe's Philadelphia Area's Cask Ale blog, he notes the arrival of WTPLCBSBA (that's not really going to work, is it?) and says: "Please tell everyone you know about this."

Foobooz.com calls it the PLCB Abolition Movement...hey, there's an acronym.

There was even this on DrugRoar.com (a blog about...drugs): "Lew Bryson has a new blog titled Why The PLCB Should Be Abolished. It’s about (duh) Why the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board should be abolished; like a lot of Bryson’s writing, it’s entertaining and convincing."

Thanks! Keep spreading the word.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Feedback -- off to a good start

I got the following e-mail yesterday -- only 30 hours after launching this blog -- under the subject line: "You have become my new favorite person." Thinking it was yet another offer from an Ivory Coast millionaire, I almost deleted it, but I looked, and found this.

Dear Lew,

Your PLCB blog and first postings are like the the return of summer to the Arctic after 6 months of darkness. I have been feeling increasingly disgusted and distressed by the alcohol laws in this state and believe that we the citizens need to work to dismantle them. My disgust with the PLCB might have reached its nadir this weekend when I went to buy four bottles of wine at the FXXXX store (the writer said I could post this, but asked me to take out clues to his identity), and was told "you expect me to get your bottles out of the basket?" --- It was about the first time I ever thought about slugging a woman.

My background, Lew, is that PA is the sixth state that I have lived in (which means I have lived in over 10% of the US!). Prior to here I have been in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Washington, and Michigan. Pennsylvania has the worst, most pathethic system for booze purchasing that I have come across in all of the places I have lived, and I would venture, that the laws here might very well be the worst in the country. It pangs me to no end that I can't go to Trader Joes and buy 2-Buck Chuck or beer, or that I can't go up to Whole Foods to buy beer and wine.

What we need is a ballot initiative abolishing the PLCB and privatizing booze sales -- to start with.

Count me in!

And that's just the best one. There have been five other supportive e-mails (besides the comments I've put up on the blog already) already. I've been contacted by a reporter from a major Pennsylvania newspaper about the blog. There are currently 50 votes on the site poll. Visits to the blog tripled on the second day and today's hits are on track to crush that.

Still waiting for my first negative comment. I'm sure it won't take long.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Reason #1 -- We're Adults

Oh, where to begin?

I knew when I started this that the tough part would be picking the first reason to abolish the PLCB. Should it be the government retail monopoly, or the crap selection, or the loss of revenue to bordering states, or the 18% Emergency Tax, or the lack of service to retail accounts, or the costs of the State Store system, or the licensing system... The list just goes on and on, and they're all terrible.

But when you get down to the root of it, the base cause and source of the problems with the PLCB is that it reeks of the patronizing attitude of do-gooders. We, the itty-bitty wittle citizens of the Commonwealth, just can't handle our liquor -- or wine -- so the State has to do that for us.

Reason #1 on why the PLCB should be abolished:

We deserve to be treated like adults.

Just look at the name of the organization: the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. They are in place to control our access to booze*, to control the price of it, to control where and when we can buy it, to control who makes all the money off the sale of it, to control what kinds of booze we're allowed to have**. The state's Liquor Code even controls our choice to buy booze out of state; although the liquor stores right across the border may be closer, may have better prices, better selections, better service, better stores, we are not allowed to buy booze there and bring it home. If we do, the State will -- if they can -- arrest us, fine us, seize the booze and destroy it.

The PLCB's not Big Brother: it's Daddy.

I've often said, in reference to various liquor laws (but most often Pennsylvania's), all I want is to be treated like an adult. Don't tell me I can't have a beer because it's got a picture of Santa on the label, don't tell me I can't buy booze on a Sunday, don't tell me I can only buy two sixpacks at a time in a bar and no sixpacks in a beer store, and don't tell me that the State has to control the sale of booze because otherwise I'd go crazy with it.

Don't tell me that, because it's pure D horseshit. Maryland doesn't control it, I can buy a bottle of rye whiskey in a drugstore (and I have, by God), and the Free State† seems to have a pleasantly civilized populace. New Jersey doesn't control it, and in the months I spent researching New Jersey Breweries I didn't see any evidence of a state that was drinking itself to ruin.

This is, we're told over and over, a free country. I once heard a priest ask in a July 4th homily "Is any one of us truly free?" and I was so irked I still remember it bitterly. Yes, within the responsibilities I have undertaken and the accountability honor and law require, by my lights I am free. Just the fact that I'm writing this blog, an opinion, openly stated, against the laws of the State, proves that to some degree.

If we're free, how does the State get away with telling us where we can buy booze? What's so dangerous about booze -- compared to other dangerous things like cars, guns, propane, cigarettes, diesel fuel and ammonia fertilizer, power tools, gasoline, and horny goat weed -- that the State forbids private citizens to sell it? It's pure bluenosed patrician elitism, a ludicrous hangover from Prohibition and Repeal, an attitude that should have been washed away years ago.

The PLCB should be abolished because it assumes the citizens of Pennsylvania are incompetent to handle their own affairs: a deadly insult to our honor and intelligence in a democratic nation. We deserve laws about booze that rightly assume adult citizens will drink responsibly, as the majority of drinkers do.

More to come.

*I'm going to refer to liquor and wine where interchangeable as "booze." Usually I refer to beer separately in this blog's context because of the division imposed by the state's two retail regimes, but I'll sometimes use "booze" to refer to all three because I like it better than "alcohol beverages," and a lot better than "alcoholic beverages."

**Note to the PLCB: two of the reasons I started this blog was because you stopped carrying Connemara Irish whiskey, and you stopped carrying Elijah Craig 12 year old in 750 ml bottles. Shouldn't have done that...

†"This nickname originated in an article written by Hamilton Owens, the editor or the Baltimore Sun. In 1923, a Georgia Congressman, William D. Upshaw, attacked Maryland as a traitor to the union because it never passed a State enforcement act supporting Prohibition. Hamilton Owens' article, "The Maryland Free State" was a mocking response to Mr. Upshaw, suggesting that Maryland should secede from the Union before acting to prohibit the sale of liquor. This article was never published but Mr. Owens referred to Maryland as "The Free State" in later editorials."

I love footnotes...

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I've been saying this for years...

I remember the first time I bought booze from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, the PLCB.

I went to the State Store on N. Queen Street in Lancaster. I was 21, and a junior at Franklin & Marshall College. The store was a counter fronted on a small area; standing only, no seats, no coatrack, nothing. It looked like a methadone clinic: come in, get your prescription, get out. I picked up the PLCB catalog and ran my finger down the list of vodkas. I went up to the counter and pointed to my selection, and said the number of the selection -- only the number, not the name, please -- to the clerk. He went into the shelves, and brought back my bottle of Smirnoff. He didn't ask for my ID, just my money. I paid him.

I remember the second time I bought booze. I got in a friend's car and we drove down Rt. 222 to Conowingo, Maryland, where we bought two cases of liquor. We went and got steamed crabs, then drove home by a different route, laughing all the way at the lower prices, huge selection, and friendly service we'd found. I had already decided that if this was how Pennsylvania was going to force me to buy booze, I'd break the law to avoid it.

After almost 30 years, I've thought of lots of reasons why the PLCB is a bad idea, why it should be abolished in the favor of privately-owned retail stores -- the way it is done in most states -- and why it seems impossible that this will ever happen. I'm starting this blog to present them, in hopes that it may, in some small way, help move Pennsylvania towards the day when we turn our backs on this relic of Repeal.

The State Stores have improved since I bought that bottle of Smirnoff -- they're called Wine & Spirits Stores now, they're open on Sundays, and they actually have aisles -- but they're still ridiculous. The system is ridiculous. The state has taken over an entire segment of retail -- wine and liquor sales -- and reserved it to themselves. "We will sell these products," they say, "and only us. We will control those sales, because only we have the power and responsibility to sell to the right people, and collect the taxes properly. If we did not control these sales, surely chaos and criminality would result."

Well, okay, I made that up. What they actually say is this:

Overview of the PLCB
This overview describes how the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) carries out its mission, presents a history of the PLCB, and provides information about each of the Board's major organizational entities. The overview also includes many facts and figures which demonstrate the major contribution that the PLCB makes to Pennsylvania's economy.

We are currently in the process of updating this document.

So...nothing. Let me take a whack at it. The PLCB exists because at the time of Repeal, Pennsylvania had a governor, Gifford Pinchot, who still ardently believed in Prohibition, and a legislature that believed Repeal may well be temporary and that Prohibition was still a strong political force -- to be fair, a belief that was prevalent in the day. Few people knew that Prohibition as a political force was deader than a doornail, in a state of complete collapse.

Working with what they knew, Pennsylvania's legislators put together a "control" system that was actually fairly common among states. They would control all sales of wine and liquor (note that beer was not included) through state-run stores. The clerks would simply deliver the bottle; they would not make recommendations of any one brand over another, a policy rooted in a brute force approach to fairness that would unfortunately lead to a total lack of any kind of service mentality. "We got it, you want it: play by our rules or get lost" was the attitude that ruled in the State Stores, and largely still does, despite the recent development of a human face.

The PLCB justifies itself by the revenues it brings in, by the supposition that it 'controls' abusive and underage drinking better than privately-owned businesses would, and by the money it "infuses" into the state economy by paying landlords for leases on the stores and the wages it pays its employees. It is a system that works so well that Pennsylvania is surrounded by great liquor stores across its borders.

I say we take it down.