Beer and the New Jersey Turnpike

There has been ongoing discussion in the beer blogosphere about Flying Fish Brewing Company’s decision to name a variety of  it’s beers after exits on the New Jersey turnpike. My first thought was that for anyone who has ever driven the New Jersey Turnpike this wouldn’t be very appealing or effective  marketing. Other people had more serious objections. A spokesperson for New Jersey MADD  initially released a statement claiming the Exit Series Beers were endorsing drinking and driving. Most beer bloggers responded to this claim with ridicule. MADD later retracted the statement.

Yesterday,Alan McLeod, A Good Beer Blog proposed that beer bloggers take the issue of drunk driving seriously and called for a new organization, Beer Bloggers Against Drunk Driving or BBADD.

In a followup post today, Alan suggested that the interests of brewers and beer bloggers differ. “From those in the trade, there’s a reluctance to look anything like MADD or to discuss the negatives related to craft beer.”

Historically however, the brewing industry tried very hard to work with and help fund MADD and other neo-temperance organizations.  While the USBA still existed they were very careful to not express an opinion on the minimum drinking age and were totally supportive of MADD’s efforts to reduce drunk driving. The Beer Institute, successor to the USBA, has pretty much followed this line. The larger brewers organizations generally save their energy for fighting taxes increases and any attempts to restrict their abilities to market their products.

I have been reading beer bloggers for about three or four years and it is my observation that  beer bloggers, who are sometimes also home brewers,  are the most vociferous in their complaints about neo-temperance activities. I think Alan will have an uphill battle  promoting BBADD.

BBAD
BBAD

The Legitimacy of Taxes

Today’s New York Times has a story about Oakland, California passing a “huge tax increase – 15 times the former rate” on medical marijuana. Members of the pot industry see this as a further step towards legalization of marijuana.  From 1862 on, the liquor industry accepted federal taxation in exchange for the recognition of their business as legitimate. During Prohibition,  Jacob Ruppert and other brewers argued for a return to legal production of alcohol for  tax benefits. Repeal occurred in part because of the desire of very wealthy Americans to avoid personal tax increases during the Great Depression. California has a huge budget crisis.  Oakland will raise $300,000 from the tax increase. The need of governments for steady, stable sources of revenue often triumphs over moral concerns.

marijuana plant

Counting

On Monday the Congress voted to appoint Robert M. Groves as the director of the Census Bureau. (See New York Times )The upcoming 2010 Census has become very political. Republicans are worried about the use of sampling and ACORN workers to conduct the census. In 1988 I worked as Field Operations Supervisor in preparation for the 1990 census.

I had used census material from the nineteenth century in my research and was excited to help with the compiling of contemporary data. My experience doing this job for about six months made me much more skeptical about the validity of the statistics .

Groves’ appointment reminded me of this work and also of the d’var torah we heard while we were in Israel. We attended a Reconstructionist minyan on Shabbat and one of the rabbinical students spending a year in Israel gave a talk on the Torah portion for that day. It was from Numbers and had to do with the counting of the Jewish people. The person talked about what it means to be counted and if there are time when we would not want to be counted.

Another day on our Israel  trip we spent time with Daniel Rossing, Director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations. He discussed the minority status of Christians in Jerusalem. All of this has made me realize that we hold a multiplicity of identities at the same time. We can be the person with power in one situation and completely powerless in another. When it comes time to be counted what position you are in could make a big difference in how you would feel about being counted.

Book Review: “The Wettest County in the World” by Matt Bondurant

The Wettest County in the World, by Matt Bondurant, (Scribner:New York, 2008)is well written. The device of placing Sherwood Anderson within the story is more problematic. Anderson does serve to frame the story as a mystery. Under the guise of writing a story about the Bondurant boys and moonshine, Anderson’s character helps guide the reader through the narrative maze. It is interesting that Bondurant starts his story of hardship for the family in the Flu Pandemic of 1918-1919. This certainly gives his book a timely feeling.

Bondurant presents illicit distilling or moonshine production as occurring because of both hard times and thrill seeking. Moonshine, governmental corruption, and tax evasion have a long history, dating back to 1862 and the creation of the Bureau of Internal Revenue to finance the Civil War.

Until the passage of the Volstead Act, which established enforcement procedures for Prohibition, the federal government had a limited view of its proper role in the regulation of the liquor industry. From 1862 on, officials conceived of liquor taxation as an easy, painless, and morally expedient way to raise revenue. High excise rates led to speculation, corruption and illegal distilling, significantly reducing the amount of money the government received. The Internal Revenue Act of 1862 created many new patronage positions and new opportunities for spoils. Because officials established a bureaucracy but paid little attention to administration, time honored patterns of political appointments and gain continued.

Despite reform efforts by David A. Wells and others, the combined forces of speculators and government spoils men dominated the federal tax policy and its administration. In the generally lax atmosphere of the Grant presidency, corruption reached new heights. Using the need for funds for Grant’s reelection as a pretext, mid-level revenue officials in St. Louis and other Mid-west cities set up a collection ring that cost the federal government millions in revenue from St. Louis alone.

Following the breakup of the Whiskey Ring, the administration of the Bureau of Internal Revenue stabilized. Although fraud by licensed distillers did not disappear, the Bureau shifted its attention to moonshine, particularly in the South.1 These unlicensed distillers are the characters in The Wettest County. During Prohibition, any production of alcohol for commercial purposes was illegal but the Virginia distillers in the book had a history of illegal production dating back to the nineteenth century.

After Repeal, widespread illicit distilling subsided but Southern moonshine has remained a perennial problem for the federal government. Federal legislation prohibits distillation of spirits for home use. Distilling sprits always requires payment of taxes and filing of paperwork prior to beginning production. In the early twentieth-first century, the ATF was the lead agency in Operation Lighting Strike, formed in Virginia and North Carolina to fight the big business of illicit distillation of alcohol. In a first, Operation Lightning Strike used federal money-laundering legislation to combat moonshine.2

Jack Bondurant is the chief protagonist; the author does not fully develop his character. The epilogue, which ends the book, although factual, is the least developed aspect of the book, particularly because the author does not really explain why Jack left the family business. Overall, The Wettest County is enjoyable to read and provides some, good historical information.

Labor

On Friday, The New York Times had a story about the United States Conference of Mayors meeting that was last weekend in Providence, Rhode Island.  Apparently, top-level administration officials, including Vice-President Biden, did not plan to attend because local firefighters were going to be picketing during the event. Robert Gibbs, President Obama’s Press Secretary stated, “We (the administration) have always respected picket lines and administration officials will not cross one.”

I do not think we have has such a pro-labor, pro-union Presidency since the New Deal. The firefighters union has been in a contract dispute with the city for ten years. The Mayors’ group chose Providence for their meeting five years ago. The Mayor of Providence, David N. Cicilline (D) called the picketing “political extortion.”

The Providence firefighters are using time-honored organizing tools including the boycott to advance their agenda. Boycotts were a typical tactic of unions, including the brewery workers, in the nineteenth century. Since the Obama administration is supportive of labor and unions, it will be interesting to see if that support, combined with hard economic times, leads to greater labor activity and union organizing.

Tobacco Legislation

Last week, Congress passed and President Obama signed legislation that greatly enhances federal regulation of the tobacco industry. As a historian, I generally think change happens slowly but the rapidity with which American society has transformed from cultural acceptance, even approval of smoking, to a completely negative view is starling.

When I was growing up, my parents and almost all the adults, I knew smoked. As a teenager and young adult smoking was both everywhere – bars, restaurants, public events and arenas – and heavily advertised on television. In the forty-five years since the Surgeon General’s report on the harm smoking causes, there has been a warning label, a ban on television advertising, the creation of smoke-free indoor space and, recently, smoke-free outdoor spaces.

The newspaper stories discussing the pending legislation use the term “addiction” to describe the practice of smoking. This also represents significant change. For much of American history, society has characterized nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol as legal, primarily harmless habits. Alcohol was usually the most problematic of the three. Now, nicotine, although legal, falls under the broad category of psychoactive, addictive substance, similar in their effects on the body.

Moralists have always viewed smoking as undesirable behavior. This attitude kept women from smoking for many years. When smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke became a public health issue, the battle lines changed. If alcohol use and or abuse ever became predominantly a public health issue rather than one of individual choice or morality, brewers and distillers could face more of an uphill battle to maintain the legitimacy of their industry.

Peace

At the end of our meeting with the Sufi Sheik, Abdul Aziz  Buchari, in his lovely and historic home, he said he had a website. I asked him if he was on Facebook. He replied, “Yes.” Twitter? “I am  working on it.”

Almost everyone we met had email and a website. The Arab merchant we bought our game table from said he was trying to develop a site. When the world is that interconnected can getting along be far behind?

We read and discussed a Yehuda Amichai poem, that, in part said:

“Why is Jerusalem always two, (Jerusalem) Above and (Jerusalem) below while I want to live in Middle Jerusalem.” (I’m sorry I don’t know the name of the poem.)

The Internet and the world wide web also occupy both high and low spaces.Would the middle be a better understanding of other cultures and more peaceful ways to solve problems?

Sin Taxes

There is a very lively discussion of the proposed fee increase in the federal beer tax going on in the blogosphere. Two places that have interesting discussions are Alan McLeod, at A Good Beer Blog, and Steve Sullivan, guest blogging yesterday on Kasper On Tap on the Baltimore Sun site. Sullivan provides a roundup of the current blogging on proposed increases in liquor taxes to finance health care reform. I have posted a bunch on this topic and my dissertation and a large part of my book dealt with the federal government and liquor taxes.

Last April I posted about a proposed increase in the Wisconsin beer tax. Many of the points are also relevant for the federal situation so I am re-posting it.

April 14, 2008

The  website Wausau Daily Herald.com had a posting yesterday suggesting that Wisconsin raise its beer tax. Apparently the state is facing a rising problem of underage drinking and some legislators as well as police officers  believe one response should be increased beer taxes. The state is also facing a budget deficit of $250 million.

Wisconsin has not increased the beer tax since 1969. It remains at six cents a gallon; the national average is twenty-six cents. During the forty years that the Wisconsin beer tax has remained stationary, tobacco taxes in the state have increased eight times. They are currently $1.77 a pack. Wisconsin ranks first both in percentage of high school students that drink and  binge drinkers.

Given Wisconsin’s historical image as a center of brewing, the author of the posting suggested that, “Proposing a beer tax increase here is like suggesting higher tobacco taxes in North Carolina.” The author actually understates the potential opposition to a beer tax increase since he cites only Miller as a factor in the current Wisconsin brewing industry and claims primarily sentimental value for the industry today. However there are over fifty breweries and brew pubs in Wisconsin; several of which are among the top fifty brewers in the  country. Miller Brewing is of course the country’s third largest brewers while  Minhas Craft Brewery of Monroe, Wisconsin is fifteenth.

In 1991, when the brewing industry faced the first tax increase for beer in forty years, brewers large and small joined to fight the proposed increase. In fact most brewing industry organizations including the Beer Institute, the Brewers Association, and the National Beer Wholesalers Association maintain that tax should be rolled back.

Although craft brewing has a certain cachet that would imply it is something other than a business, craft brewers are no different from Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Coors  in seeking the least possible federal and state interference and regulation via  taxation or other means. Given the poor economic landscape as well as the particular problems facing brewers such as the hops shortage, it is very likely that the brewing industry will argue against the tax as a regressive measure that would fall unfairly on middle class and working people. Because the brewing industry has always emphasized the heavy tax burden it already bears, it will argue that further taxes are not appropriate.

Increasing taxes to  cover the societal costs of alcohol and abuse is something that the brewing industry has always rejected and will most probably continue to. It is very interesting that these arguments date back to the the beginning of federal taxation of beer and distilled spirits in 1862 and have not changed very much.

Beyond Amethyst: The Conference

This past Friday I attended a conference at Hampshire College about the drinking age and whether it should be changed. Alex Torpey, a graduating student , organized the conference as part of his Division III, or senior project.

Ralph Hexter introduced the keynote speaker and indicated that he feels the issues around the drinking age and drunk driving hinge on responsibility. President Hexter is a signer of the Amethyst Initiative which called for lowering the drinking age to eighteen. Continue reading “Beyond Amethyst: The Conference”

The Awful Truth

Andy Crouch has a very interesting post about the efforts of Daniel Lanigan to buy a bar in Cambridge. It is of particular interest to me because until recently Daniel owned the Moan and Dove which is my favorite bar. He also owned the Awful Dirty Truth which I think he envisioned as a beer restaurant but I don’t think it worked. The issue Andy is reporting on concerns the liquor license and whether the bar in Cambridge will be open until 2 a.m. The License Commission is concerned because they are trying to eliminate “barrooms””. The neighbors are concerned because of crowd control. These and similar issues were standards parts of the pre-Prohibition world. Licensing was often a tool of Prohibitionists in their attempts to curtail the liquor trade. Liquor control polices developed during Repeal also relied on licensing. A main goal of Prohibition was to eliminate the saloon; post-Repeal polices along with changes in the packaging of beer have encouraged a huge trend away from public drinking toward drinking in the home. The craft beer movement and the growth of beer pubs has reversed that trend somewhat. However, the License Commission hearing shows that public officials prefer drinking to be a part of a dining experience and frown on establishments dedicated solely to drinking.