Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The PLCB. A failure of an idea and the beginning of a fiefdom.

Sometime in December of 1933, then Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot sat down to write an editorial piece for the Rotarian magazine [you can read it, starting in page 12*]. He laid out his reasons for "The Pennsylvania Plan," his reasons why he felt that the government had to restrict alcohol for the citizens, because they couldn't control themselves. Let's look at the points he made in The Pennsylvania Plan, and see if Pennsylvania needed them then...and if we have any need of them now.

Pinchot said that Pennsylvania's liquor control legislation is dependent on five cardinal points.

  1. The saloon must not be allowed to come back.
  2. Liquor must be kept entirely out of Politics.
  3. Judges must not be forced into Liquor politics.
  4. Liquor must not be sold without restraint.
  5. Bootlegging must be made unprofitable.

Ardent environmentalist; ardent prohibitionist
After a quick look, you might conclude that all of his points have failed except #4. (We do our own bootlegging these days, thanks to the big liquor stores on the New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland borders.) However, during the 85 years since Repeal, the meaning of the language in some of the points has changed.

Take point #1: saloons pre-Prohibition were in a large part controlled by the brewers. Prices were kept low, so demand was high. There were enticements like free food or snacks for those buying beer, which is why you see strangely detailed happy hour laws about how much food can be given away, and what kind. Bars were "tied" to the brewer that backed them; the only way you could get a Miller instead of a Bud, for instance, was to go to another bar. The corruption this caused, both in business and in politics from the free-flowing graft money produced, was one of the big drivers for Prohibition. 

That all changed with the three tier system in place in Pennsylvania (and most of the United States) today. That created three defined "tiers:" producer/brewer, wholesaler, and retailer, and forbid owners of one tier from owning businesses in the other two. No "tied houses." So did the saloon come back? Yes, but not in the same way, and that hasn't been all bad for the consumer. We'll call this point a draw.

In point #2, Pinchot was talking about patronage, the "spoils system," in which state jobs were handed out as political favors. He's already planning the huge jobs program of the State Store System of Stores. Point #2 meant that employees would be selected based on skills testing instead of loyalty testing; who they knew and the favors they could do. This was mostly true for the rank and file store workers, not so much for the managers, and not at all for the Board who have all been political hacks, cronies, and lawyerly hangers-on since day one.

He also thought that this new system would keep politicians from buying votes with booze, and thus fall under the control of distilleries and brewers. Did that work? Hard to say, because how people drank changed during the Depression. More drank at home after Repeal, because they could buy at a local store instead of having to go out to a speakeasy or club. This all changed again once the stores were unionized. Now the money flowed from union coffers into politician's pockets to buy votes to keep this archaic system alive. Although the jobs are still subject to civil service rules -- despite recent efforts to change this, under the guise of "improvement" -- overall this has failed.

Money, money, money, moooooney...
Point #3 is keeping the dollars, booze and votes away from judges and their decisions. Now we have judges working for the the PLCB...well, mostly 'working.'  I wonder what Gifford would say about that. This has worked, but largely because judges working on booze have been ring-fenced, as the British say.

Point #4 was probably true for the first 70 years of the State Store System of Stores -- ah, fond memories of the completely customer-unfriendly counter stores! -- but no longer. When the board that was put in place to control drinking is now advertising, having sales, sponsoring fests of various kinds, even trying to sell booze by robot! -- you can say that the restraint is limited at best.

Point 5 is pretty much irrelevant. As we said, bootlegging went from criminal enterprise to an everyday crime cheerfully "committed" by private citizens. Governor Pinchot thought that the state would be able to sell alcohol for less than the bootleggers, and they mostly did. But the power of the police-enforced monopoly and pure greed kept them from selling wine and spirits for less than the border states, which made them complicit in making criminals of everyday citizens.

Governor Pinchot was a leader in the Dry movement and was a teetotaler himself.  He really thought that his plan would have "support of the vast majority of the citizens of Pennsylvania."  But he never actually let the people decide, and as we all know, there has never been a single scientific poll that showed the citizens to be in favor of the State Store System of Stores.

Looking back to what was envisioned by Pinchot, you can see how corrupt the plan became over time. Millions of dollars were " be made available to school districts to help schools that were in danger of being closed." Even if we sucked out every penny possible from the PLCB now, it would only be about $90 for every taxpayer** this year. That's certainly not a rate the PLCB could keep up, and not really enough to notice in my almost $5,000 tax bill. Pinchot also suggested that if an item wasn't available the system "would have to get it." Still failing at that one 85 years later. And don't forget: there were THREE TIMES as many licenses available back then as now. Where did we go so wrong, Gifford? A commonwealth turns its thirsty eyes to you.

Unfortunately, not everything he proposed went...wrong. The Governor said that "Whisky will be sold by civil service employees with exactly the same amount of salesmanship as is displayed by an automatic postage stamp vending machine." Sure enough, that is exactly what we have in almost every transaction! He also said that there will be no artificial stimulation of the demand for liquor. No PLCB sponsoring a flower show trying to get women to drink, no staying open longer for hunting season, no bottle signings by third rate celebrities.

As a naturalist, Gifford Pinchot was probably second only to Teddy Roosevelt in public service. (He was the first professional forester in America.) His main fault was that he never actually wanted to know what the citizens thought of his Pennsylvania Plan, because he thought he knew what was best for the masses.

And that is the thing about the PLCB and the Almighty Liquor Code that has changed the least.

*If you get the chance, read the "Regulated Licenses, Retail Plan" by Frank J. Loesch on page 14.

** 10.1 M adults, 68.6% are homeowners, ~90% of them pay some property tax

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