Thursday, June 23, 2011

Or Maybe Not: privatization bill coming soon

Okay, maybe I got carried away. Because I wrote to Representative Taylor after my last post, and asked him why he was giving the PLCB what they wanted, their "False Dawn Initiative," the "alternative to privatization." I was despondent. Then I got this response, and I feel all better. Check it out:
"At this time, Representative Turzai has not introduced his privatization bill. I fully expect this bill to be introduced within the next 10 days."
I almost forgot to read the rest of the letter. Here we go, people, here we go. Are you ready to do something? Are you ready to write your reps (and copy Taylor and Turzai and the Governor), are you ready to go to Harrisburg? Are you ready to take part in a civil disobedience demonstration against the unAmerican Pennsylvania booze sale monopoly law that could get you fined or even taken to jail? More to come.

Taylor Privatization Letter June 23

And I thought Joe Da CEO was clueless...

Check out this tone-deaf defense of the wine "kiosk" debacle by PLCB Chairman PJ Stapleton in today's Inquirer.So much amazing stuff here, like this: "it is worth remembering that Wegmans made an investment with full knowledge that the kiosk reached far outside the face-to-face customer service Wegmans was accustomed to providing." So it was Wegmans' fault that the "kiosks" were so far to the left on the customer service bell curve that you couldn't see them with binoculars; they knew that these machines were supposed to operate on their own and should not have been surprised by that. Got it, PJ! Wegmans is crazy! (Well, except...the "kiosks" didn't operate that well on their own, which is probably what surprised and eventually seriously disappointed Wegmans.)

More? How about this petulant foot-stamping: "The wine kiosk was evidence of innovation at its finest, something the wine and spirits industry had not seen before. This made it an easy target for criticism." It clearly was not "innovation at its finest," since it didn't work the way it was supposed to. It was a kludge, an ATM welded to a soda machine, bolted to a security camera, with a breathalyzer duct-taped on the front (note: that was sarcastic, and no actual duct tape is used in the "kiosks." I don't think so, anyway). That's what made it an easy target for criticism...which both Wegmans and the Inquirer recognized. Not to was unnecessary "innovation," since there's already modern technology available to do what the wine "kiosk" was supposed to do, and do it better: it's called shelves.

Then he winds up with this whiny crap: "...what we could use is fewer inaccurate political attacks and more productive discussion and action on behalf of all Pennsylvania consumers." First: not political. It's an unpopular bureaucracy. No politics involved. Second: not inaccurate. Wegmans said the "kiosks" didn't work and made their stores look bad. They demonstrably didn't work as advertised, and that definitely makes the stores look bad (not to mention, taking up valuable retail space while they weren't working).

Finally, what would be "more productive discussion"? They give PJ space with a straight face, and that's not the first time the PLCB has been allowed on the editorial page. The PLCB doesn't want to discuss this, they want to keep doing what they're doing. Sorry, no longer on the agenda. Privatization hearings are coming, PJ: put on your dancing shoes.

And be sure to read the comments. Wow. Hope these people write their reps with anger like that.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Is Privatization Bad for your Health?

The guys at Freakonomics have always struck me as a bit too quick to jump on the anti-alcohol wagon; sure, there are valid points to be made for the social costs of alcohol abuse, but the numbers that are out there would really benefit from a closer look. But this piece was handled more fairly, I thought, even though the big quote from the Herzenberg study overweighted things a bit.

Thing is, as the comments pointed out, the whole argument that privatization increases consumption is quite likely a flawed one, based on questionable methodology: "retail purchase" is a reliable substitute for "consumption." That sounds okay, till you consider how many Pennsylvanians cross the Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey borders to buy caselots of booze. Look, if my DAD did it, I know plenty of other Pennsylvanians are doing it. Hell, I'm in Kentucky right now, and I have four bottles of bourbon that I can't get in PA in the car (Old Fitz BiB, Heaven Hill 6 Year Old BiB, and Charter 101 (the 4th is a surprise for someone, but trust me: it's not available in PA!); I'm planning on giving them all away before I return to PA, though...).

It doesn't even pass the "straight face test," to use a popular Washington phrase. If consumption in these newly privatized states and provinces were really up by 48%...where's the corresponding increase in alcohol-related problems? Because there is none. We're being sold a sack of crap again.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Republicans Selling Privatization Down the River

I hate to say this, but privatization may be dead...again. And to my deep disappointment, it's the Republicans in the state Legislature who are killing it. Check out this action in committee this week:
o HB 260 (Rep. John Taylor, R-Philadelphia): Allows the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to implement customer relations marketing programs to offer incentives to customers, extends the Sunday closing time from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., removes the limit on the number of stores allowed to operate on Sundays, increases the range of fines for minor violations of the Liquor Code from between $50-$1,000 to between $100-$2,000, and increases the range of fines for major violations of the Liquor Code from between $1,000-$5,000 to between $2,000-$10,000.
o HB 1356 (Rep. Scott Petri, R-Bucks): Allows the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) to hire employees outside of the Civil Service Act, allows the PLCB to establish a classification and compensation for these employees that shall not be subject to the Administrative Code, and allows the PLCB to purchase all goods and services deemed necessary at its sole discretion.
Let me translate that for you. HB 260 will let the PLCB offer coupons and 'membership' programs, open all their stores till 9 PM on Sundays, and dump more money into the PLCB's budget through fines (fines that are, I'd remind you, imposed by what amounts to an independent system of courts and police). HB 1356 will allow the PLCB to become a total patronage pesthole, hiring whoever they see fit -- under the guise of hiring wine and spirits "experts," experts along the line of Joe Da CEO, I assume -- and buying whatever they want -- more kiosks? more crap vodka brands? more 7' tall bumblebee costumes? -- without any oversight.

I can make it simpler: the Republicans in the Legislature are lining up to give the PLCB bureaucrats everything they asked for to stave off privatization. Why? Cui bono might be a better question. Who got to these guys? Why are they not listening to the voters and citizens of Pennsylvania, who have been consistently polling at over 2/3 in favor of flat-out privatization?

Do you give a damn about privatization? Write your legislator, ask them why they're preparing to ignore the will of the people on this. If privatization goes away this time, it's going to be 20 years before we get another shot at it.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Why prices matter (and why they don't)

First, read this story in the Inquirer (which they picked up from the Harrisburg Patriot-News). It's about prices at the State Stores vs. prices in private stores in border states. Here's a sample:
But a survey of liquor stores in four states conducted by the Harrisburg Patriot-News reveals that prices aren't always better across the state line. In fact, in some cases, Pennsylvania prices are cheaper.
A 750-milliliter bottle of Bacardi Superior P.R. Rum sells for $14.99 in Pennsylvania and $15.99 at Plaza Wines & Liquors in Manchester, N.J. A Yellow Tail Chardonnay is $7.99 in Pennsylvania and $8.99 at the New Jersey store.
Across the border in Delaware, a 1.75-liter bottle of Johnnie Walker Red is priced at $29.99 at Total Wine & More vs. the $41.99 Pennsylvania shoppers pay.

This is a "survey" conducted by the paper. Look, I know Sue Gleiter, I like her. She's interviewed me for stories, including some on the PLCB, but this is kind of sloppy. There's no information given on how many stores were 'surveyed' or how the 'survey' was done. I'd like to see one done like the supermarkets do it around here; don't check individual prices and show me WOW THIS ONE ITEM IS C*H*E*A*P*E*R* AT OUR STORE!!! Fill a typical cart and add up the total (and don't fill it at the PLCB's "outlet stores" on the border where prices are kept artificially low by adding liter bottles at cut-rate prices...that the rest of us in the state can't get). 

Next, read this letter in today's Inky from wine writer (and Pennsylvania resident) Mark Squires. He rips the story a new hole:
A story on May 24, "Pa. liquor often cheaper than in neighboring states," was an example of sloppy analysis and virtual propaganda. Of course, you can find instances when Pennsylvania prices might be cheaper on a particular item. With the 18 percent Johnstown tax, though, prices won't be cheaper overall or cheaper all the time.
In Pennsylvania, you aren't allowed to shop around because the Liquor Control Board is a monopoly. If you find a store in New Jersey with a bad price, you can go to another store. Or to Maryland, Delaware, wherever. Not every little private store may be exemplary, but there can be little doubt that, taken together, private stores win on service, selection, and price.
Incidentally, I was able to find online in about 90 seconds a 2010 Yellow Tail Chardonnay in a variety of stores ranging from under $5 to $6.33 in New York, New Jersey, and Washington, while the writer of the aforementioned article merely found that Pennsylvania, at $8, was cheaper than one New Jersey store.
Dead on the money, so to speak, and the bolded bits strike home to the real problem with the PLCB: the monopolistic nature of it. They have no real competition when it comes to Pennsylvanians, and we are a captive audience, forced to buy at these stores by the coercion of law.And yet...we put up with that, and seem willing to allow legislators like Senator John Pippy run our lives and make our decisions. For God's sake, Pennsylvanians, stand up on your hind legs and act like adults. Tell your legislator that you don't need to be CONTROLLED any longer.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Wegmans to PLCB: get these lemons out of our store

Ah, it's sweet when another dopey plan by the PLCB is a complete failure. WGAL-TV in Lancaster is reporting that the Wegmans grocery store chain has requested the PLCB to remove the wine kiosks from their stores. Check out the story here; and you can read the actual letter here. It's wonderful to be so right about something; the wine kiosks have been an unadulterated disaster. They were unwieldy, they were insulting, they were the result of graft and crap, they were another desperate and obvious attempt to stave off privatization, but worst of all, they didn't even work. Permit me a little gloating; it is so good to have been so right about this.
video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

Enjoy this video from two Californians baffled and bemused by The Wonderful Wink Kiosk!

What's next? Well, it's not good, unfortunately. Because Senator John Pippy is apparently losing the guts to push for privatization. He's wimping out and talking about settling for some of the alternatives the PLCB is suggesting. I've got a better idea, Senator Pippy; how about you listen to the citizens of Pennsylvania, who continue to support privatization at a ratio of 2:1 or better? How about you consider that instead of the pleas of a bunch of entrenched bureaucrats who don't give a damn about anything but their jobs, their budgets, their secure power? Why keep this fossil, reeking of 70+ years of patronage and patronization? Cui bono, Senator?