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« What exactly do I do? | Main | Political Soapbox - 2 (digging the hole deeper) »

Political Soapbox - 1 (on no! he's numbering them!)

At the recent NBWA convention a great deal of time was spent focusing on change.  A timely topic since the pace of change in the beer world is only increasing… don’t expect it to end any time soon.  We were told that we must change our attitudes about some of the political aspects of our industry and even look to past “enemies” as potential partners.  In fact we need to discard the entire concept of enemies.  “Control advocates” are now are our new partners.  Say what?! 

I probably should keep my mouth shut about the politics of the beer distribution industry but I have been a beer drinker since I was 18 (yes, back when the laws were sane) and it has been the focus of my consulting practice since the early 80’s.  But most importantly, I feel strongly about the principles involved in this fight (oh wait, in this discussion), because they are only a symptom and microcosm of a larger battle which is occurring in almost every aspect of modern life.  And ultimately THAT is where the solution lies.  This is a long-term problem which won’t be solved in the immediate future.

First, let’s be clear… it is incredibly stupid not to be active in the political arena.  All industries (and for that matter companies) need to be active at the local, state, and federal level.  I’d prefer it wasn’t the case, but the reality is that government is a significant factor in every industry.  Ignoring this doesn’t change it.  And for a regulated industry like ours, it is even more important.

But I have to take exception with some of the points being made in the fight to defend the beer wholesaling industry.  And I can easily understand why the brewers might not be overjoyed with some of these “winning” arguments.  In fact I can understand why the brewers might be rather upset at some of the arguments that are used to defend wholesalers.  As I have stated before, I draw the line at destroying the beer/beverage alcohol industry in an attempt to protect a distribution system… even one which is my life-blood.  Some things are more important than our immediate self-interest.  Some points/issues which I think we need to re-examine are:

·                    Winning the battle but losing the war.  Beware of the tactics of political consultants whose only goal is to win the immediate issue.  They do not care (nor I suppose should they) about the long-term damage they might do, they only want to win their battle, take credit for the win, and move on to their next jig (at a higher billing rate based on their recent “success”).  Some of the TV ads run in the recent Mass campaign are down right scary.  I cannot believe beer wholesalers supported them (yes they won the ballet issue, but at what cost?  Their words will come back to haunt them and all of us), and I cannot believe the brewers were happy with this type of propaganda. 

·                    Do you know the Mass campaign’s success was based on getting OUR ENEMIES and NON-DRINKERS to support “our” side.  OUR CONSUMERS were actually against “our” position.  I might just be a dumb farm boy but I have to sit up and take notice when we side AGAINST the desires of the people who consume our products and join forces with non-drinkers and strong control advocates (I’m not supposed to call them neo-prohibitionists but that is what many of them are).  I’m not making this up.  The political consultants mapped it out in great detail while crowing about their “success”.  We do this to “protect” our industry?!  What do we tell our consumers if they ever awake to this fact?  Do you think they will support us in the future?  And there will be more fights.  Would you support us if you were in their shoes?  ANY TIME we have to “win” by getting the votes of non-drinkers and strong control advocates, while going against the desires of our consumers, should be cause for alarm.

·                    Do we believe that people (and government) don’t have memories?!  The media might let slick politicians off the hook for past positions but I don’t think we will get the same treatment.  Let’s look at some of these positions and where I think they might lead.  Also, as you analyze these positions, try to step back and look at them as a disinterested third-party, just some working schmuck who doesn’t know (or really care) about beer distribution.  How would you think if these ideas were presented to you?  How would you vote?

o       We defend some issues by pushing the idea that cheaper is not necessarily better… a lower price leads to “excess” consumption and therefore we’re doing everyone a favor by keeping prices higher.  Follow this to its logical conclusion.  If this is true then why shouldn’t excise taxes be raised?  Perhaps substantially.  YOU make this case, that disinterested third-party will simply take you at your word.  Why should the beer wholesaler pocket the money in keeping society safer by keeping prices higher?  If I’m that third-party, I’d have to believe a better course would be for government to take the money.  How do you respond to this?  You’ve already stated that higher prices are better; your only argument is that you should pocket the money rather than the government.  That is a losing position

o       Another point being made is that fewer points of alcohol sales is better for society.  Under this thinking, more places selling alcohol equals more abuse.  Now I’ll put my knowledge and expertise on the economics of distribution against anyone’s and yes, fewer points of distribution with the same sales volume will lead to higher profitability for the distributor.  But at what cost?  Demonizing our product?  Using the same language as people who want to outlaw our product?!  All so grocery chains can’t have more licenses?  Or c-stores can’t sell beer or wine?!  What are the long-term implications of making it OUR POLICY that fewer points of alcohol sales are better?  Where does this thinking take our disinterested third party?  WE already admit this to be the case, now the only argument is how far to take it.  C-store driven markets are at tremendous risk with this logic.  There is already a steady push to outlaw selling beer wherever gas is sold.  And now we in effect agree with the basic proposition?  We demonize our product to keep from servicing a few more accounts?!  Or to keep chains from getting more power?  Talk about short-term thinking.  These words will come back to haunt us.  Yeah, I know about the “contributions” to the local preacher in keeping a local area dry but at least those moves were done in private, not on TV and in the editorial pages of the local newspaper… and not with disturbing video of drunken driving crashes.

·                    It has been said that politics makes for strange bedfellows, and this is very true but I have to question the wisdom of considering control advocates as our new partners.  One man’s reasonable control may be another man’s…  There is an unfortunate reality to many of the contentious issues facing modern society… and that is the zealots who are usually the energy behind this or that cause do not seek compromise.  There is NO room for the other side, the battle never ends and any attempt at compromise is simply a chance to move the football down the field… and those who seek compromise are simply going to be used.  The NRA is a perfect example of this fight (and as full disclosure, I am a member of the NRA and a strong supporter of the Second Amendment and gun rights.  And the NRA is the best protector of both).  The NRA gives no ground on almost anything.  This causes them to take positions which I don’t really agree (like armor-piercing bullets).  But I fully understand their position.  The other side is not seeking compromise, they are seeking ultimately to outlaw the private ownership of guns… you know, people don’t kill people, guns do.  How do you compromise with groups who want your annihilation?  Just from a logical viewpoint, how can one side compromise with the other? It seems a fool’s errand to try.  It would be the same as seeking compromise with terrorists who want you dead.  If they won’t change their desire, no compromise (other than total surrender) is possible.

I’d love to believe that MADD and the various other neo-prohibitionist groups would like to find a common ground and end these battles for the “common good” (whatever that may be).  Let me state that again, I’d love to be able to work with these groups and together try to address some common problems and end their constant attacks on this industry.  But the problem is that I simply don’t believe they ultimately desire this common ground (I’d be happy to be wrong).  We think we are “settling” the issues but sadly, I think they see it as simply moving the football down the field, with our active assistance.  Before I get into too many partnerships with these groups, I’d like to have a very clear understanding of where they ultimately stand on our industry.  Not just in this or that battle but what their ultimate goal is.  And if we have to demonize our product to agree with them, then I think we are probably wrong.  From what I read and hear, they sure don’t seem like they’re ultimately seeking a reasonable compromise… just moving the ol’ football down the field.  For the hard-core zealots who drive these organizations, their “reasonable” compromise sees all of you out of business and as much as is possible a return to the Eighteenth Amendment.

I realize Craig and his crew at NBWA, and all the state associations have a difficult task, and balancing everyone’s interests and desires is far from easy.  And there are political realities that they must deal with.  There will always be a certain amount of tension and conflict.  The same is true for the brewers and distributors.  But as we fight for our collective industries, we must not lose sight of the greater goal.  We must not make short-term decisions which may help us win that particular battle, but end up costing us the war.  Perhaps I am still too old school and see these things as fights, but until I see a willing partner who truly desires an end to the battles and mutual compromise… I recommend keeping our powder dry and our eyes peeled.  Of course we should be friends with both sides of the political aisle, this is only wise in our two party system, but let’s make certain our friends are that, friends.  And if we can make more friends, even better.  That’s what our industry is all about.

And on a last note, regardless of how you feel about the wars in the middle east, this country has some of its best and brightest giving their blood on the battle field for us.  That they can operate machines of tremendous destructive capacity, that they are in effect trying to rebuild two entire nations, that they give their very lives for this great nation… yet that they are not mature enough to drink a beer is a freaking obscenity.  It is bullshit to the highest degree.  Yes I know the political will is not present to change the drinking age – or better yet, to go back to our constitutional foundation of states rights on this and many other issues, but there never will be the political will unless someone leads!  That’s what leadership is about.  That is the essence of leadership.  Anyone can get something agreed to when everyone already agrees.  I can’t see how this single point can’t be clearly made and don’t see why we should be afraid of making it.  But then again, I’m a dreamer.  But if you really want to address the long-term issues we face, if you really want the 21st Amendment to mean what it says… follow the advice of a founder father of this country and work to instill these beliefs back into your communities:

“I consider the foundation of the Constitution as laid on this ground that ‘all powers not delegated to the UnitedStates, by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states or to the people.’ To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specially drawn around the powers of Congress, is to take possession of a boundless field of power, not longer susceptible of any definition.” —Thomas Jefferson

Instead we seek compromise from those who desire no compromise and too often cower when other industries are attacked, “glad it isn’t us”, instead of loudly standing up for the rights so eloquently and profoundly stated in our Constitution.  The following may be overused but it captures the essence of our larger fight.

They came first for the Communists,

and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews,

and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came for the trade unionists,

and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Catholics,

and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me,

and by that time no one was left to speak up.

Speak up.

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