Thursday, September 17

Remember the Sabbath Day Sale. Now Through Advent.

FIRST, Your Moment of Praeteritio: We are simply going to ignore the fact that, having more-or-less accidentally stumbled upon the inexplicable Megan McArdle's inexplicable Atlantic blog this AM, we find at the top some cute wildlife vid labeled "Mental Health Break". For one thing, the best response we could come up with is "Katie Couric Takes a Week Off To Recharge Her Gravitas" or "Bush to Conduct Camus Symposium".

But mostly because we've spent most of the week in the chilling thrall of the succubus of Hoosier politics, which is a lot like accidentally falling in love with a 38-year-old pole dancer with three kids, a pack-and-a-half-a-day Misty Slims Ultra Light Menthols habit, "in the box if they've got it, hon", and a missing eyetooth.

Specifically, there's the curious case of the World's Third-Worst State Legislature™, which, in my youth, met biennially without anyone noticing, but which now seems to have become some sort of floating twelvemonth advice bureau. Or else it recently discovered Television. This began when the powerful Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee, chaired by the powerful Luke Kenley, declared a half-dozen-or-so per diemfests to examine the shocking, shocking behavior of Indiana's land-grant colleges, which had, in response to the Indiana State Legislature torpedoing its own budget agreement at the 11th Hour of the regular session, so that it could be called into special session by Governor Whazisname, in order to more blatantly showcase his dedication to preserving the "Surplus" he's created in part by flatlining the proposed modest increase in state education spending, had, I say, raised tuition. This is known, when it's being used as an argument against raising any taxes, any time, anywhere, which might unfairly fall on people with money, as "costs being passed on to the consumer". When such cost-passing makes the incontinent redlining of government funding by a party of demagogic corporate shills look something less that thoughtful, however, it's grounds for arm-twisting threats of political retaliation nine months before the World's Third-Worst State Legislature™ is scheduled to meet again.

Fans of the genre will enjoy learning that the local teleprompter readers repeatedly referred to the hearings as "bi-partisan", based, apparently, on the fact that the Democrats on the committee showed up to collect their largess, too. They will not require a reminder that when said Whazisname was serving as Federal Budget Ratiocinator for the Bush administration, "Surplus" was defined as "Unconscionably holding onto The People's money you seized as if it were your own".

Now comes the Interim Study Committee on Alcoholic Beverages Issues and Expense-Account Restaurant Dining (I added that last part) to examine the pressing issue of Sunday off-premises liquor sales (which have been illegal in Indiana since forever), since, apparently, there won't be time to consider this when the actual legislature actually meets next year. This prompted the usual local teevee news hysteria, and caused brave Indiana blogger Doug Masson to write a couple thoughtful posts, which prompted me to start ranting, which, in turn, prompted me to stop mid-fourth-rant and decide I ought to post about it on my own fucking site for once and spread the misery around.

So, first, the background. The 21st Amendment ceded control of alcoholic beverages to the States, which predictably resulted in a coast-to-coast festival of Rationality. Indiana's resulting alcoholic beverage laws are largely untouched since the 1930s, with the predictable result that what "upgrades" do get addressed are generally those Alcoholic Beverages Issues which concern the people who benefit from the sale of Alcoholic Beverages and the lobbyists who love them. It's the sort of The Customer Doesn't Exist approach which has made recent releases of Microsoft Windows so successful.

Like most of the rest of the country, Indiana's laws had their oddlings (grocery-store-permit holders can't sell cold beer; liquor stores can't sell cold sodas), their Blueness (no Sunday sales), and Just Plain Slack-jawed Backwoods Religious Manias (until the mid-60s women could not sit on barstools); like most of the rest of the country, I suppose, budding liquor clerks must tire of hearing out-of-state customers comment on how "weird" Indiana liquor laws are before they've collected that first paycheck. (I was in a liquor store--wineshop, really--once when the fellow who'd already wasted a couple minutes of good Getting Wasted time arguing over whether the "No Shirt No Service" sign applied to people such as himself who were "just going to get some beer", loudly appraised the clerk, myself, and everyone else in the joint how mind-blowingly unfathomable he found it that one "couldn't buy cold beer in a gas station in Indiana". The clerk and I both looked at him as though he'd demanded to know why there wasn't a haberdasher's on the second floor, as in any decent dramshop or public house.)

Anyway, there was a drawn-out fight in the Sixties which eventually resulted in Sunday sales, by the glass, in certain restaurants, which is where the matter has stood for a quarter-century. In the interim, Indiana allowed multi-state chain pharmacies to become major liquor players, permitted grocery-store-licensees to sell hard liquor, not just beer and wine, and, perhaps most tellingly, repealed--after a decade's pointed blathering--Indiana's "beer baron" law, which had prohibited brewers from establishing exclusive distributorships. The law had had the unintended but highly fortuitous effect of a) keeping beer prices lower in Indiana than surrounding states and b) keeping out Coors, which insists on exclusive distributorships since its products require specialized handling to preserve their high quality. That one kicked around for a decade--once falling to an Evan Bayh veto--just like the current Sunday sales law has, all the while growing ever more important in the eyes of local media. I suppose a cynic might suspect there's some money changing hands somewhere, and that the delay represents nothing more than a sort of auction period. The law eventually passed, enriching a family of Rocky Mountain gun-tottin' fluoridation nuts while raising beer prices for actual Indiana citizens about 20% overnight. My own compromise suggestion, foolishly based on rationality, was for Indiana to simply declare that Coors did not produce anything which could rightly be called an alcoholic beverage. Never got a proper hearing.

Now it's Sunday sales, which have been coming down the pike long enough that the Interim Study Committee on Alcoholic Beverages Issues meeting gets covered in the local "news" as though a) it had the power to decide something right there; and b) there was any question about the eventual decision. Liquor stores oppose the change, since they're currently closed by law on Sundays, while the Big Box retailers they now must compete with are open anyway. And the issue gets reported as an insider fight over the question of "freedom" to buy booze on Sunday "as in most other states". Which, to my knowledge, has never been raised as an issue in any other context, and certainly not recently, as in "most states manage to conduct reasonable facsimiles of fair elections without requiring every voter to produce his identity papers".

I'm not personally opposed to Sunday sales in any way. I am more than a little disconcerted at the ease at which Wal*Mart, or Coors, or fireworks distributors, come into the state, spread green manure around for a few years, and get state laws changed, but apparently I'm the only one, plus I'm used to it by this point. What honks me off, really, is the ease with which the whole thing gets portrayed as a question of "the right to buy" without anyone ever peeking under the hood.

Because, y'see, I've been collecting wines, modestly, for over thirty years now. I've run headlong into Indiana's real concern for consumer "rights" and other states' practices more times than I can count. Freedom? I cannot buy on the internet from anyone out of state--not from winespecialist.com, not from Sam's in Chicago, not directly from any small winery, brewery, or distiller outside Indiana--unless I first go there in person and prove I'm over 21. And that, the result of a recent SCOTUS decision, is an improvement over the first thirty years of my collecting, when I couldn't buy from out of state at all, except in person, and could not legally return to Indiana with my purchase.

And what I can buy in-state is entirely at the mercy of state-licensed distributors; I can't cultivate a relationship with my local wine guy and have him try to get me some Williams-Selyem pinot, because he can't order from anyone but those distributors. If a guy with a distributor's license decides to bring in a single case of some very rare Barolo, and sell it only to one Italian restaurant where it will be made available to me, if at all, at exorbitant markup, he can get away with doing so. Highly-sought-after collector wines (I'm not in that market) are parceled out like Christmas toys. And I'm in Indianapolis, where the lion's share of this stuff goes. Half the people in Evansville who don't care how much farmland and how many bird sanctuaries we destroy to build I-69 are just trying to get halfway decent wine without an eight-hour round trip.

So, increasingly, the For Sale sign on the Indiana General Assembly the Interim Study of alcoholic beverages produces bigger dinner plates for the gargantuan tastes of organizations which count very accurately but don't do anything else very well, and the consumer, in between lectures about how his freedom is being enhanced, never knows what hit him when that item he bought regularly gets replaced by something the distributor got a better deal on. (There used to be a shortcut to the complex problem of understanding the insanity that is Burgundy available to the Hoosier oenophile: if a particular vintage was available in Indiana, you knew it was so bad the importer couldn't sell it elsewhere.) Okay, so the fact that grocers sell little that isn't mass-produced crap, nor care one whit, is partly the fault of consumers who don't give a shit, either. I'm not asking for that to change, and what if I did? How 'bout just a little freedom from it, in the Interim?

7 comments:

heydave said...

Does not Evansville at least still have the Mickey's brewery? Lucky bastards.

Joyful Alternative said...

What you need is a state liquor store system, like Pennsylvania's.

Sator Arepo said...

Sir:

It warms my heart to know you are a Burgundy man.

Respectfully,
SA

Aaron said...

Joyful Alternative:

Now I'm giggling uncontrollably.

Although, having researched the issue a bit, Pennsylvania's wine laws are slightly less insane than Indiana's appear to be, so we have that going for us.

Doghouse Riley said...

Much of my information comes from a long-time friend who managed the best wine store in town for many years. He reports that people from OH and PA--state-store states--routinely fell to the ground and kissed his feet for his incredible low prices, while people from Illinois--direct import, retailer can buy anything he can get his hands on--threatened to string him up for piracy.

jackd said...

Excepting only the pharmacy and grocery stores selling liquor, I think every situation you mentioned - including the "you vill show us your papers!" requirement for voting - also applies in Georgia.

Sunday by-the-glass alcohol sale laws are further devolved to the municipalities, meaning the relative political heft of the local Babtists vs. the restaurant owners can be evaluated pretty readily.

guitarist manqué said...

Could be a new ad campaign for GA:

All the antique liquor laws without those annoying Sundown Towns. Not sure who this might appeal to though.