When is a report not a report? When it’s created as propaganda by an organization with the sole purpose of advancing its anti-alcohol agenda. In fact, just calling such propaganda a “report” seems dishonest in and of itself. Witness today’s press release from the self-appointed sheriff of Alcohol Alley, the newly renamed Alcohol Justice (f.k.a. the Marin Institute) entitled “Drunk With Power: Industry Kills Alcohol Mitigation Fees in California in 2010.” Talk about a loaded title. To my mind, a “report” should at least pretend to be an impartial, unbiased examination of a set of data. But as the title suggests, those of us in the alcohol industry are all “drunks,” abusing power and indiscriminately “killing.” That’s how we’re portrayed, as pure evil. Yeah, that describes me and just about everybody I know in the beer world. I hate kids and dogs, and just love pulling the wings off of flies, just for the fun of it.
The press release explains that the “report” examines the political lobbying by alcohol companies and money spent by them. Now I’m not a big fan generally of the corporate influence of our current political system, but it’s not illegal. The reason Alcohol Justice (AJ) is able to compile the lobbying money spent is because it has to be disclosed at all levels. It is, in plainer terms, legal and transparent. Nobody’s done anything wrong. They claim it “details the ever-present dominance of the alcohol industry and its lobbyists on California policymakers in 2010.” But dominance over whom? Over what? It’s not as if alcohol companies are the only people or organizations spending money on lobbying. Every company and/or industry does so. Their corporate charters all but demand that they engage in lobbying. Like it or not, it’s a part of doing business in California and the United States.
The majority of the AJ “report” includes a long list of money received by California politicians from alcohol lobbyists or as political contributions. And they’re drawing the conclusion that they therefore must have been bought off. But their “report” proves no direct correlation between receiving money and how a politician votes on legislation having to do with alcohol regulation. In fact, some of their data seems to contradict that idea.
Just looking at money received from one sector ignores any money they may also have received from any other, possibly even competing, industry or interest. And it doesn’t take into account what portion of the total money any politician received comes from alcohol and/or who else gave them contributions.
Maybe I’m jaded, but even the amounts themselves seem small, especially as a percentage of the total they received. Total lobbying expenditure by all alcohol companies is $1.3 million, according to AJ. One figure I found said that there was $552.6 million spent on lobbying in California in 2008. So that means the alcohol portion, even if they spent that much three years ago, is only 0.23% of all lobbying dollars spent. Hardly the “drunk with power” that AJ churlishly decries. That hardly demonstrates a “dominance of the alcohol industry and its lobbyists,” as they characterize it. More like a drop in the pint glass that is California politics.
The executive summary of the “report” claims that alcohol companies spent $5 million on both lobbying, campaign contributions and other political spending in 2010. Given how big our economy is, that also seems like a vanishingly small amount, especially when it is claimed that it bought so much. According to Follow the Money, California campaign contributions totaled $716,750,583 for 2010. AJ claims that of that $5 million figure, $1,572,939 was spent on candidate contributions. That means that a mere 0.22% of campaign contributions come from alcohol companies. Again, that hardly indicates the undue influences that AJ claims in their “report.”
To me, it’s just as likely that many, if not most, of the politicians don’t view the alcohol companies as pure evil, the way Alcohol Justice does. They probably see them as job creators, having a positive impact on a depressed economy and providing some enjoyment to their customers, quite necessary when so many people are out of work and their spirits so low. Not everybody who drinks abuses it, in fact most people don’t.
The politicians are most likely just people like you and me who like a drink once in a while. They’re part of the majority of people who drink moderately and responsibly, and therefore they can see the legislation for what it is: the work of fanatics who see compromise as a weakness, view all alcohol as bad, believe moderation is not the answer, and for whom only total prohibition is the only result that will satisfy them. And so they vote against it, like they should; like any reasonable person would. The majority of their constituents don’t agree with the radical ideas of neo-prohibitionists. Like most reasonable people, these politicians and the people they represent, don’t see alcohol as inherently bad; the only negative is the abuse of it by a small minority that is rarely addressed by legislation claiming to be for that purpose.
The “mitigation fees” they claim were killed by lobbying are not even a true metric. The idea that the companies that make and sell alcohol should have to pay for the damage caused by its abuse by a minority of individuals is not exactly a time worn idea. NRA lobbyists are not working to insure that gun makers don’t have to pay to mitigate the “harm” done by people shooting one another with their guns. Likewise, the red meat industry isn’t working to insure that cattle ranchers and meat packing plant owners don’t have to pay to mitigate the “harm” done by people who eat too much steak and hamburgers. Those are, quite properly, matters of personal responsibility. But according to the AJ, there is no personal responsibility for the actions of people who abuse alcohol. In that case, it’s always the fault of the people who make and sell it.
The “report” also claims that “only $10,000 was reported being spent by the industry in San Francisco to defeat Supervisor John Avalos’ Charge for Harm fee” (emphasis added), which made me laugh. Avalos may have introduced it, but it was really a Marin Institute (now AJ) initiative from start to finish. But they mention that because they think more money was spent, and wasn’t disclosed. Talk about being a sore loser.
The report also singles out a couple of politicians for their association with the alcohol industry. For example, they detail how former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom is, in their words, “firmly entrenched in the alcohol industry.” And that is offered as the only proof that he is somehow beholden to the interests of alcohol companies. It’s incredibly insulting to suggest that someone in politics is incapable of being impartial if they also derive some of their income from the alcohol trade. It could simply be, as Newsom himself suggested, that he saw through the “charge for harm” fiasco and viewed it for what is was — a bad idea that unfairly punished the majority of law-abiding responsible citizens — as so many others did.
The “report” begins, and ends, with the conclusion that “[t]he alcohol industry continued its ever-present dominance at all levels of California politics in 2010.” But the numbers they cite in their self-fulfilling “report” are meaningless in the vacuum of their reasoning without placing them in the larger context of the much more complicated state of politics in California. $5 million sounds like a lot of money until you actually think about how little that is compared to everything else that the state is facing. The alcohol industry in California isn’t drunk with power in California. Hell, it isn’t even tipsy.
In the same year that the alcohol industry spent $3,683,148 (the AJ’s $5 million figure minus lobbying), California agriculture spent $9,658,149, the computer industry spent $30,749,507, the energy industry spent $72,667,630, finance, insurance and real estate interests spent $64,002,966, the health care industry spent $18,759,752 and labor unions spent $76,563,954. Those industries spent 2.6, 8, 20, 17, 5 and 21 times the alcohol industry, respectively. Geez, just general business interests (not part of a specific industry) spent $29,912,733, over 8 times what the alcohol industry spent. Maybe it’s not the alcohol industry after all that’s drunk with power.