One of my college economics professors had a maxim that he drilled into us students: “Markets are for consumers.” Economic logic can help to predict how certain changes will affect people up and down the supply chain, but if you start using that knowledge to protect producers’ interests at the expense of consumers, then you’re doing economics wrong. Markets are for consumers. (The maxim applies to monopolies too. They are problematic because they raise prices or are unresponsive to consumers, not because they wipe out competitors.)
Keep this maxim in mind as you read about the Washington Brewers Guild’s opposition to Initiative 1100, which will liberalize alcohol sales in Washington:
Beer brewers and drinkers opposed to privatization of state liquor sales? Indeed, says Heather McClung, president of the Washington Brewers Guild, which represents the state’s small craft breweries and, roundaboutly, craft-brew drinkers. Her industry is lined up against I-1100 – though still weighing I-1105 – the privatization measures headed for the November ballot and detailed in last week’s SW cover story. “There is something that is being left out of the discussion it seems,” says McClung.
I-1100, for example, is actively promoted as a modernizing of liquor laws, she says, when it’s actually a sweeping proposal that repeals 39 state laws, enabling the biggest retailers, distributors, and producers to own and give favorable pricing to each other. That, says McClung, of Seattle’s Schooner Exact Brewing Company, would eliminate the level playing field that small breweries such as hers need if they are to prosper.
At issue is a section of the initiative that would allow breweries to self-distribute and offer discounts to bulk buyers like Costco, grocery stores, and bars. Beer in Washington must currently sell at a uniform wholesale price: Costco pays the same amount for crates of it that a small retailer pays for a few cases. As a result, beer prices at large retailers are higher now than they will be if I-1100 passes.
Eliminating the uniform price requirement might make it harder for craft breweries to compete with the big beer companies who can offer greater discounts and benefits. Does this make the initiative anti-consumer? Only if you look exclusively at craft beer drinkers. Craft beers currently make up about 7% of the US market (probably somewhat higher in beer savvy Washington). The vast majority of beer consumers will benefit from being able to buy macrobrews at lower prices.
To put this another way, the Washington Brewers Guild is saying that the state should keep beer prices artificially high for 93% of the beer market in order to maintain the same broad selection for the remaining 7% (or whatever the actual figures are in Washington).
Personally, I doubt that the results will be as bleak as the WSG predicts. Craft brews are growing in popularity while macros are declining, and that’s unlikely to change. Smaller breweries are also starting to merge, operating independently while taking advantage of economies of scale. There may be some closures — this is true regardless of I-1100 — but craft beers don’t show any sign of going away.
However, even if I’m wrong, that doesn’t mean this is a bad bill. As much as I love good beer, it would be improper to elevate my preference to force of law. If the only way the current high number of small breweries can survive is by shackling their larger competitors, then we may need to settle for having fewer breweries. I hope that beer drinkers will continue pay more for quality, but that’s their decision to make. Markets exist for consumers — all consumers, not just the ones who like microbrews.
Additional notes: The question of tied houses is complicated, and arguably the matter of most concern. It’s the aspect of I-1100 I would be least confident in supporting.
File this story under the “Brewers Behaving Badly” label, which previously featured California craft brewers lobbying against laws that would allow beer companies to hand our more swag or offer free tastings in bars, Pennsylvania brewers opposing a measure to let consumers buy beer in 18 packs, and Michelle Minton’s coverage of Colorado brewers opposing the sale of good beer in grocery stores.
For more on liquor privatization efforts, see my recent post in the Examiner.
Hat tip to Drink Gal, who also has a good post on the subject.