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KQED Debates SF Alcohol Tax

On KQED Radio this morning on the local show Forum with Michael Krasney held a defacto debate on the proposed Alcohol Mitigation Fee between San Francisco Brewers Guild president Rich Higgins and city supervisor John Avalos, who introduced the ordinance to tax alcohol sold in San Francisco. Rich held his own as best he could, but Avalos is a seasoned politician more used to dodging questions and spinning data his way. Plus, it seemed to me most of the callers were sympathetic to him and hostile to Rich, though most seemed more than a little uninformed (thanks local media). Same deal on the show’s web page, New Alcohol Fee for San Francisco?, where one commenter went so far as to call Rich unprepared because he didn’t know how to remedy the city’s financial problems, as if that’s his job. Unbelievable.

Perhaps most annoying was Michele Simon’s call. She’s an attorney and holds the position of Research & Policy Director for the Marin Institute, the organization that’s largely responsible for the proposed “fee” ordinance. She called to make it clear that their target was the big foreign alcohol companies and that she, too, likes beer or wine now and again so therefore the Marin Institute is not a neo-prohibitionist group, as she added that many of their critics have resorted to name-calling. Was she going for sympathy that anyone might have the temerity to be critical toward the organization? I call the Marin Institute a neo-prohibitionist because I sincerely believe that’s what they are, not because I’m on the playground in 5th grade. [Ms. Simon, in a comment (see below) also agrees that name-calling is a tired strategy. I would, however, counter that proper labeling of the character of any organization is useful, and even sometimes critical, to knowing their intentions. When I say the Marin Institute is a neo-prohibitionist group I do so not to simply lob a pejorative at them, but instead to characterize them as I indeed view them.]

Of course, their policies are what leads me to that conclusion. I know they keep saying they’re not anti-alcohol — and maybe they even believe it — but what they actually do is contrary to that. Actions speak louder than words. If it quacks like a duck, guess what it is? They may claim to be against just big alcohol, but their actions harm the small family breweries, wineries and distilleries far more than they ever hurt the big foreign corporations.

And they know it, too. Back when they were going after Alcopops, the big companies told them outright that if their legislation passed that every one of them would change the formula of their products so the new legislation would no longer apply to them. Who would it continue to apply to? All the small breweries who barrel-age their beers, that’s who. And they told the Marin Institute that fact directly to their face, in Sacramento. So they knew that their scheme would not do what they said it would and would instead directly harm people they claimed were not their target. What did they do? Crow about their hollow victory, that’s what.

Then there’s the fact that the Marin Institute gets at least a portion of its funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is most definitely not just a neo-prohibitionist group, but the neo-prohibitionist group. Read the Center for Consumer Freedom for their very different take on whether the Marin Institute is neo-prohibitionist or not. [Note: Ms. Simon writes that they no longer receive funding from the RWJF. The report I cited is from 2003, and it may well be they no longer do receive funding from them.]

I know that I’m not beloved in the halls of the Marin Institute, but that’s probably because they’re used to having most people, and particularly the media, swallow what they’re selling uncritically, often without examining it all. They enjoy widespread support because of the way they manipulate their information and shape propaganda to raise money from the faithful. Few politicians can stand up to them because of decades of demonizing alcohol on several fronts. And the media just seems to roll over rather than be seen as pro alcohol. That leaves mostly the industry to fight them, and they end up seeming too self-serving even if that’s not always the case. That’s how we got to where we are today, with alcohol paying more in taxes than any other consumer good — and still it’s not enough. It’s never enough.

Anyway, you can listen to the entire hour here, or you can go to the KQED archive and download it for later.

Still, overall I think Rich did much better than I would have done. I would have lost it on more than a few occasions. He at least kept his cool. Well done, Rich.

Rich Higgins in his brewery at Social Kitchen.

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