Reality Check

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image via FWaGS Facebook page

Prominent national wine bloggers Tom Wark and Joe Roberts both recently published reactions to the Arthur Goldman case (the Malvern Attorney who was arrested for selling wine out of his basement) that were also takedowns of the PLCB and the PA liquor code, with each writer using the case (and subsequent reaction to it) as justification that the the PA laws are surely headed for the historical scrap heap sometime soon – though neither writer provided any sort of timeline. At first, like most wine lovers would be, I was tempted to greet these posts with a satisfactory fist pump that the open market that we dream about is that much closer to reality, a pat on the back to something we’ve all hoped for at one point or another. After some reflection, however, I realized that, by trying to illustrate how PA liquor control is “doomed” (Roberts) or that the market “will open up… of this I have no doubt” (Wark), these authors inadvertently illustrated, in an almost crystal clear way, how and why we are, in reality, such a long way from privatization in PA. Furthermore, the naivete of these viewpoints – because of the way they paint an unrealistic portrait of the situation for readers – actually do more harm for the movement than good.

Wark’s piece, entitled “Abraham Lincoln Was Right About Wine Laws“, begins with a quote by the former president which states that “the best way to get a bad law repealed is to enforce it strictly,” goes on to illustrate the absurdity of PA’s laws, then uses the Goldman case as an example for how PA does in fact enforce its ridiculous laws strictly. But here’s the problem: PA doesn’t enforce these laws strictly. If Wark lived here, he would know that it is not hard to get around them. Is it more difficult than in a free market state? Of course. But only slightly. If you’re a wine or spirits connoisseur in PA, odds are you live near a border (because that’s where the population centers are, and that’s where people with money are). So, you go across the border to Total Wine, Moore Brothers, etc. (Is the location of many of these stores, barely over the state line, just down the road from the major city of Philadelphia, a coincidence?) Or, you shop at one of the many online stores that ship to PA. You ship to friends in neighboring states, or to UPS or FedEx stores and drive it back home.

Yes, it is true that some people get busted carrying liquor across the border, but the numbers are small. According to an article in The Philadelphia Tribune, in 2012 and 2013 combined, there were a total of 17 violations (12 administrative & 5 criminal) and 6 warnings. Not exactly a slew.

“We’re not looking for somebody who stops and buys a case of beer on their way home,” Major Thomas Butler, director of the state police Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement told the Tribune. He went on to say that the state police are far more concerned with bars, clubs, and other establishments who are buying in bulk to resell, not private citizens looking to restock their cellars. So basically, as long as you are a little bit careful, you’ll be fine. (This doesn’t make it right, but it is nonetheless the reality of the situation.)

Thus, if Arthur Goldman wanted to keep building his wine collection for his personal consumption, he could’ve done so for the rest of his days and the government would have never given him a second look. But he got greedy, and started selling. At that’s what got him caught.

Wark’s implied point, then, that the state’s strict enforcement of its absurd laws will eventually lead to repeal doesn’t hold water. They just aren’t enforcing all that strictly. His other point – that the state is losing tax revenue because of this behavior – is certainly valid, but the effect of so-called border bleed on tax revenue is a different issue than the effect of our laws on the consumer experience, and I would rather not conflate them.

In Roberts’ article, “Why Pennsylvania Liquor Control Is Doomed”, the PA-based blogger takes a different angle, illustrating the general outrage to the Goldman case, and noting how most of the comments made on news stories about it mention how ludicrous it is that government funds were spent on a “crime” as meaningless as this one. In summary: PA citizens are in favor of privatization, so it will eventually happen.

Though web comments are hardly something to base an argument on, he’s not wrong about the first part. But here’s the rub: it’s not an important issue to most people. In 2013, Franklin & Marshall published a poll that showed this very thing – most PA residents were for privatization, but didn’t see it as critical. Sure, it’s just one poll, but it jibes with common sense. For a lot of people, access to booze just isn’t a major political issue. (Nor should it be.) And it’s not like we’re in the dark days of the PLCB, when you had to walk up and order your wine through a barred window. “Carlo Rossi Red, please.” These are nice stores, with good wine. It’s not perfect, but for most people, who just want their bottle of Yellow Tail, or maybe whatever’s on Chairman’s Selection and got a 90+, it works pretty well. It’s fun to complain to your neighbor about that time you got a great deal down in Delaware, but you’re not going to change who you vote for because of it, are you?

We geeks might feel differently, but we’re a small group in the grand scheme. And, as we discussed when we were looking at Wark’s piece, it’s not that difficult to get around the system. It’s an annoyance, but is it so much of an annoyance that you’d support a politician that you didn’t agree with otherwise? That you’d spend a lot of free time lobbying for or working to enact change in Harrisburg? Couldn’t that time be just as easily spent driving across the border, or scouring the deal sites online? (Of course you shouldn’t have to act this way; I’m merely asking if it is worth the time required to actually change it. Maybe I’m cynical; I’d counter with realistic.)

In closing, I’m not trying to argue for or against privatization here. I’m only saying that we’re not any closer than we were four years ago. And one thing’s for damn sure: offering false hope when, based on what’s happened the past two years in our state congress, the status quo is most likely here to say for the foreseeable future, isn’t helping the cause at all. Because the only scenario that’ll get us to an open market involves a mandate from PA citizens and a lot of hard work from a committed group of freedom fighters.

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