People keep calling me names (or at least disparaging the things I keep writing) for pointing out the connection between John McCain and Anheuser-Busch, as if business and politics together is merely coincidental. Sorry boys and girls, but I will never believe that business intruding into politics is good for ordinary citizens or that it ever makes our lives any better. Its obvious ubiquitousness doesn’t make it any more right and is hardly a reason to give up and stop talking about it.
A democracy is at least supposed to be about the will of the people, not the will of business interests. So as long as the money for a candidate’s campaign comes from a business with deep political ties and a habit of throwing money around to secure favorable treatment by our government — and as long as it’s in my purview by virtue of it being a beer company — I’m going to keep bringing it up.
Yesterday, the Libertarian-leaning Reason magazine (who, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve written for in the past), had a very illuminating article by senior editor Radley Balko entitled How Your Beer Bought John McCain’s $500 Loafers: Uncovering the Government Subsidies Behind Cindy McCain’s Family Fortune
The problem is the contradiction between statements and actions. As Balko describes it:
McCain has never been shy about laying into what he feels are the excesses of capitalism, including the way lobbyists can bribe lawmakers to jigger the system to their liking. The problem for McCain is that the fortune he married into came by way of alcohol wholesaling, an industry that isn’t remotely free market, is awash in excess, and that wouldn’t exist were it not for rigorous system-jiggering from high-powered lobbyists.
Now I probably don’t have to tell you that I think the three-tier system does have some merits, though it has problems, too, and Balko goes on to highlight a number of those. I have many friends who work for beer distributors and most of the ones I know are hardworking, good people who have done much to raise the status of and, most importantly, the accessibility to craft beer.
The article spends most of its ink on detailing the history of how beer distributorships came into being and how they function. Many large retailers, notably Costco, would like to dismantle the three-tier system, and in fact they sued the State of Washington recently in a much-watched test case. Eventually, the court ruled against Costco in all but one of their arguments, citing a compelling state interest to regulate alcohol sales. But the fight is hardly over. Costco — and Balko — see the three-tier system as merely a way to keep a stranglehold on the pricing of alcohol and gouge customers, but that’s not entirely true, either.
The three-tier system, for all its flaws, does at least keep a relatively level playing field for all sizes of retailers, from the smallest mom and pop corner liquor store to the Costcos and Walmarts of the world. Dismantle it without a coherent new plan to regulate alcohol, as Costco vs. Washington sought to do, and a massive advantage will be given to large retailers, as well as the biggest beer companies. This would have enormous negative consequences for small, local craft brewers in gaining access to market and would likely put the brakes on thirty years of progress in re-invigorating America’s beer market, taking us from laughingstock to world leader in terms of quality and diversity in three short decades.
So what does this have to do with politics, again? Balko concludes by answering that question thusly:
But let’s get back to John McCain. What does the candidate lecturing Wall Street about greed think about the alcohol wholesaling industry? Is it fair? Should government be subsidizing (if not outright creating) an industry by forcing consumers to pay more for alcohol—for which they get little to no added value in return? And who’s greedier, the family who exploits that system to amass a small fortune, or the brokers and traders McCain derides for pursuing profits in a free market?
So is it “silly” or “unrealistic” (which are some of the gentler epithets lobbied at me) to worry that putting a President in the white house with ties to Anheuser-Busch specifically and the big alcohol lobby generally will not result in a boon for their interests? After all, businesses don’t donate money just to be good corporate citizens. There’s always some sort of quid pro quo. As Balko mentions obliquely, as a senator, McCain has usually recused “himself from federal legislation pertaining to alcohol regulation.” But if John McCain is elected President next month, he will no longer have that option. Does anybody really think his ties to A-B won’t matter under such circumstances? If not, your Kool-Aid must be better than mine, and well above 5% ABV.