200820 may

Pennsylvania alcohol – Live free and or die in PA

In Pennsylvania:

  • you can’t buy wine or liquor in a beer store
  • you can only buy wine and liquor in a state run monopoly shop
  • there are beer stores (they call them distributor shops,) but you can’t buy less than a case (24) of beer in a beer store
  • if you want a six pack, you can only get it “take out” in a bar, at a hefty margin

Before I start ranting about what an imposition on freedom this is, I’ll say this has some pretty interesting (but unintended) positive effects.  First, lots of people go to bars since it’s such a pain to get beer otherwise, and you might as well sit down and drink it instead of take the $1 discount you usually get for taking the beer home.  Second, there are these tiny little box bars in random places in quiet suburban neighborhoods that basically serve as beer corner stores.  These spots are a neat community development.  As often happens, good things come from bad things.  Great relationships, realizations, and renewed communities can rise out of natural disasters.  Of course, that doesn’t get me praying for typhoons.

Americans often like to connect economic freedom with political and personal freedom.  When Russia and China open their economies, they will ultimately be forced to open their political system – or so the theory went 20 years ago.  We know it’s not that simple now, but let’s take a look these Pennsylvania liquor laws for an interesting contrast.

You can buy beer, baijiu (Chinese rice vodka-ish drink,) and cigarettes (not to mention beetlenut and bootleg DVDs) on literally any corner in China.  You can open your beer in the store, walk down the street, wave to a policeman, and take the subway – all sipping your beverage.  Not that I’m a lush, but that sounds like freedom to me.  Economic freedom means anyone can sell me beer in any reasonable location.  Personal freedom means I can take that beer and drink it where I want to, as long as I don’t get wasted and start bothering people.  Political freedom means nobody wants to take that right away from me.  The first time you walk down a street with a beer in your hand on a lazy Sunday afternoon, you feel slightly awkward but oddly liberated by this simple pleasure.  By the time you get back to the “land of the free,” you start wondering where you feel more free – totalitarian China or the USA.

Why is the law in PA so insane?  I’m guessing it’s a decendent of the temperance movement.  Now, as with most laws, there is an entrenched economic interest rolling in dough that will fight tooth and nail to stop rational reforms.  According to my favorite source of mostly accurate data, Wikipedia, the state run liquor stores rake in $1.6 billion, while the state’s other hand happily collects an 18% liquor tax and 6% sales tax on top of that staggering number.   Of course the state liquor board is a monopoly, so it does not pass their volume discounts or efficiencies of scale to consumers.  In fact, stores in neighboring states that don’t get volume discounts sell to consumers for up to 40% cheaper, but it’s illegal to bring those to PA.

Well, it’s taxes so it goes to running state services, you say.  Sure, but you can be certain that so much money flowing through such a draconian institution does not go untapped by those in the know.

Other entrenched interests include the “beer distributors” which are those stores where you can only buy 24 packs.   They’ve got a nice monopoly on reasonably priced beer sales, and consumers are forced to buy from them in quantity.  Bars also make a nice business selling one-zies and siz-packs to those not looking to throw a superbowl party, but who want to sit down with a beer and watch the hockey game.

What’s worse, the county where Pittsburgh resides adds an additional 10% tax on liquor.  Boy do these taxes add up!   That money is supposed to fund the Port Authority which operates the public transportation system.  Let’s see what we are getting for that money on the bus system, which is all I’ve used at this point:

  •  Zoned pricing
  • $2.00 starting rate for a ride one way on one bus
  • $2.50 for a ride with a one time use transfer – if you ride three buses, it’s $2.50 + $2.00

and compare that to San Francisco, the second most expensive housing market in the country (Pittsburgh is the fourth cheapest)

  • $1.50 for unlimited bus rides for 1.5 hours

Conclusion?  There’s something very, very fishy going on in Pennsylvania liquor industry.  There is clearly a lot of money at stake, and nothing pisses me off more than mobsters raking in cash at the expense of my freedom.

2 responses to "Pennsylvania alcohol – Live free and or die in PA"

  1. Jon Hancock June 1st, 2008 21:59 pm

    good article. I think maybe I would rather publicly rail against corrupt Shanghai government officials before I stir up muck with Pittsburgh corruption. Shanghai officials have lots of sources for looting. They may be more inclined to ignore your rants and just stick their hands in another pocket until the storm blows over. You start taking shots at what may be the last good honey pot to some Pennsylvania good ol’ boys and watch your back man!!!

  2. admin June 2nd, 2008 00:16 am

    Somebody is out there? I guess I should fix all those typos.

    Hi Jon, true about Shanghai, but of course there is less of an expectation of honesty. And besides, I thankfully don’t have to deal much with them these days.

    Not sure my blog is capable of causing a storm. Anyway, mobsters are practical these days. Haven’t you watch Sopranos? It must be true. In that vain I get the sense organized crime has moved to second tier cities where there aren’t any of those snarky independent local news outlets and nobody pays any attention. Of course, I’m talking out of my pi as usual.

    Good to hear from you.

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