Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


PA state wine commissars tech FAIL

posted by Rod Dreher

Just look at this thing. It’s a vending machine for wine, now being tried out in Philadelphia. As regular readers and/or PA residents know, this state has a Soviet-style liquor-purchasing system in which you have to buy all wine from state stores, whose selection is limited, and — in my experience — whose employees know jacksquat about the products they sell. wine-kiosk1.jpgThis Wine-O-Mat is supposed to be an effort to make it easier for consumers. They’re being placed inside grocery stores — two right now, but up to 100 if they work out. The idea is that you can buy your wine from the vending machine at the supermarket, and not have to make the extra stop by the state store. So, how does it work? Excerpt:
Th

e process for buying wine isn’t completely automated. After the customer swipes their license and blows into an alcohol sensor, they have to look into a camera so that their identity can be verified remotely by a state employee. The whole process takes about 20 seconds.

Got that? You have to blow into a straw, and then have a state employee look at you by video link. How insane is that? Here’s an idea: liberalize the liquor laws so supermarkets can sell wine to people who want that convenience, and Pennsylvanians who want to shop at real wine shops with knowledgeable sales people to assist us can do so? Crazy, I know. Let’s just invent some cumbersome new technology so we don’t have to observe common sense. At least with the Wine-O-Mat, you don’t have to be insulted by the poor service at the state wine stores. I mean, you don’t expect a machine to be able to tell you anything about the product.
I invite you to peruse previous rants about the PA system here and here. Happily, we Pennsylvanians who live near the Jersey border at Philadelphia have an excellent option.



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Al-Dhariyat

posted July 9, 2010 at 2:50 pm


Welcome to PA, Rod!
Though in their defense, the folks who work at my local state liquor store are pretty knowledgeable. Still, I’d prefer a private system (with better hours too).



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CAP

posted July 9, 2010 at 3:04 pm


wine shouldn’t be harder to purchase than skin mags.



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Coldstream

posted July 9, 2010 at 3:05 pm


Spent several months holed up in motel near Pottsville for work…was utterly dumbstruck when I discovered Pennsylvania’s liquor laws and how they worked. Especially when I finally discovered a state wine and spirits store only to discover it closed by 9 pm on a Friday…I went back to my room and drank my Walmart purchased tonic water in annoyed silence.
I can only hope they clean the alcohol sensing straw between uses…
And, Rod, to encourage bootlegging like that, bringing alcohol across state lines (which is illegal in PA as far as I could discover, even for personal use)…well, it’s civil disobedience I can get behind.
Who wants to chip in to get Rod a black Trans Am for his wine runs?



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Scott Lahti

posted July 9, 2010 at 3:09 pm


Drink – GOOD!



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B

posted July 9, 2010 at 3:09 pm


You know, the local wegmans at my college had a whole bunch of beer and such one could buy. My local sandwich shop also has a small section, too.
To be honest, having grown up here, we walked into a gas station out of state, which had a whole separate section one could buy alcohol in. We were really surprised.
Dad enjoyed the opportunity to drink a beer at Busch Gardens several years ago. We thought that was a bit wonky, too, but dad wasn’t going to pass it up!



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Peter

posted July 9, 2010 at 4:00 pm


I’d use that kiosk just out of the novelty of it although I assume it’s mostly generic wine, like Yellow Tail.



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kenneth

posted July 9, 2010 at 4:06 pm


So what we need is a win-win idea. Legalize pot in PA. The civil service mafia will get control of that and turn the booze market over to the private sector.



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praesta

posted July 9, 2010 at 4:51 pm


Making vending machine patrons take breathalyzers and mug shots before buying wine? This is the height of anal retention. Let me guess — PA has a mandatory carding law. Even people that are obviously older than 21 are carded under those laws.
We need to have a nationwide open debate about alcohol policy in the US. For some reason, it’s politically and even socially taboo to question the arbitrary “21″ law. Young adults will drink regardless of age. I’ve seen it while living back home in the US and while living abroad. I strongly doubt that drunk driving fatalities are proportionally much higher in the US than here in Canada, where the drinking age is no higher than 19. Then again, certain provinces have absolute state monopolies over alcohol. It’s time for statistical studies instead of civil rights violations and fear-mongering. Let’s decide policy on research, not profit motives.



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Scott Lahti

posted July 9, 2010 at 7:19 pm


News story: The process for buying wine isn’t completely automated. After the customer swipes their license and blows into an alcohol sensor
That’s a lot better than the bribery common under Prohibition, which often entailed blowing an alcohol censor…
praesta: Making vending machine patrons take breathalyzers and mug shots before buying wine? This is the height of anal retention.
They just want to make sure they can hang on to their liquor license at renewal time.
Whoops -
Did I mean: annual retention



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Andrew

posted July 10, 2010 at 11:01 am


Rod:
You really complain a lot about this.
First, going to New Jersey (or Delaware) and transporting wine back is illegal and wastes time. The State Police actually do stake out the stores and nab people doing this. Plus the amount of gas you burn and wear and tear on your car negates any possible savings.
Second, you are expecting way too much in the way of customer service. New Jersey and Delaware have private wine sales but the salespeople have no more knowledge of their product than in PA. They certainly know more than people in states with grocery store sales, who know almost nothing.
Third, you can buy wine from vineyard outlets in PA, and these can be found in grocery stores and malls around the area. These people actually are somewhat knowledgable sometimes. But the prices are higher.
Fourth, I’ve never noticed the selection being any better or worse at the state store than at Roger Wilco and other places out of state. In states with grocery store sales, the selection is generally much worse than in PA, because only large volume wines get stocked. Same with beer in states with grocery store sales – small imports and microbrews are nowhere to be found. PA’s system, with its centralized purchasing for wine and liquor, and its beer emporia, can afford to buy and stock out of the way labels.
Fifth, the state store workers actually get to make a reasonable living on which they can support a family, unlike most retail workers, and the wine and liquor is still reasonably priced. State store wine selections go from $3.99 to $100′s, and if you went to Jersey to buy the same stuff its unlikely you’d save more than a few dollars. Your typical bottle of wine at the state store at around $12 and is less than the typical $15 in the private vineyard outlets in PA, and the vineyard outlets are staffed by your typical sub-$10 per hour help, while the state store workers make $20+.
Maybe, since you have now joined our lovely state, you should learn to just live with it and discover the things that are good about it. Pennsylvania has many quirks which in the end turn out to be rather nice. We have a flat income tax, but with exemptions for the poor by size of family, and we don’t tax retirement income, so many retirees live in the state. Our sales tax exempts food and clothing, so you rarely pay it. Only the State Police may use radar guns – local cops have to focus on things like solving crimes instead of running speed traps. The climate is perfect for a long gardening season and for raising fruit trees despite being pretty far north in the country. We have a large state legislature so that our representatives actually can go around their small districts and get to know many of their constituents, and so that ordinary people can run for office and win. Despite having two huge urban areas with almost 6 million people (Philadelphia and Pittsburgh), the majority of people in the state live in small cities and towns of less than 100,000 people and in rural areas. Pennsylvania is “backwards” and “untrendy” enough that it has not been overwhelmed with illegal and legal immigrants – what you see here is much more pre-1970 old school Americana. You now live in the 4th largest urban area (8 million people from Atlantic City to Reading and Allentown and Trenton to Wilmington) behind NYC, LA, and Chicago) with all the benefits that brings (large airport with flights everywhere, important media outlets, large companies, etc.), yet it is entirely free of the hype, high living costs, and media scrutiny of smaller places like Boston, DC, Dallas, San Francisco, Seattle, Miami, etc. This is easily the cheapest and most livable area on the northeast coast. Why don’t you learn to live with our idisyncracies and enjoy it here instead of your incessant whining?



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Rick the Road Rager

posted July 10, 2010 at 11:47 am


The State of Iowa had this state-controlled liquor system until the 1960′s!! And a governor who was a member of AA actually promoted and “pushed” the change through the Legislature! The “new” system has worked well for over five decades now without any great problems.
However, I will reserve judgment on these vending machines, etc. until after I visit PA and the Philadelphia area. To date, we have not had the pleasure of spending anytime there. So something to lood forward to!!!



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grendel

posted July 10, 2010 at 12:05 pm


Andrew — Loved your post!



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Rod Dreher

posted July 10, 2010 at 12:56 pm


Andrew:
This is easily the cheapest and most livable area on the northeast coast. Why don’t you learn to live with our idisyncracies and enjoy it here instead of your incessant whining?
I have whined only about the stupid liquor laws and the environment at the Fourth of July thing. That strikes you as “incessant”? You strike me as somebody who is far too sensitive for your own good.
In any case, let me say for anybody who cares to know: I really love life in Philadelphia. This is without a doubt the most gorgeous place I’ve ever lived in, and I’m very happy I moved here. I hope I spend the rest of my life in Eastern Pennsylvania. And I hope they change the stupid liquor laws.
Andrew, let me ask you: do you drink wine seriously? Because it seems like you don’t know what you’re talking about. I never bought wine at a supermarket in Dallas (except for supermarkets like Central Market and Whole Foods, which had serious wine departments, staffed by clerks who knew about the products they were selling) because I wasn’t likely to find what I was looking for, and as a wine beginner, I had nobody to help me find good bargains. If you’re the sort of person to whom all red wine tastes the same, and all white wine tastes the same, this is no big deal. But I’m not that person.
To liberalize the wine and spirits laws in Pennsylvania would not turn all wine stores into expert shops. Many, perhaps most, people who drink wine don’t need those kinds of places. But we who do would be able to have them, and to patronize them.
I would also suggest that you don’t have nearly enough experience with stores out of state to praise the crazy PA state beer system, which forces consumers to go to special beer distributors to buy their beer — and forces them to buy beer a case at a time. In Texas, which allows grocery stores to sell beer, the local market drives what stores stock. Upscale supermarkets like Central Mkt and Whole Foods carry all kinds of speciality beers, a staggering selection. Supermarkets in more ordinary neighborhoods don’t have that kind of selection, because their customers don’t buy them. Everybody’s happy. Anyway, the idea that compelling beer drinkers to buy their beer at specially designated stores, and in relatively large quantities mandated by law, is a superior way to regulate the trade in beer is manifestly absurd. But I tell you, it makes me buy less beer. A six pack will sit in my fridge for a month or two, so I’m not a huge beer drinker. I cannot justify buying a case of beer, because I’ve got nowhere to keep it. So unless I go out to the Whole Foods in Plymouth Meeting, where they’ve built an in-store pub so they can sell beer by the bottle or six-pack to get around state laws, I just don’t buy beer. This makes sense how?
More:
First, going to New Jersey (or Delaware) and transporting wine back is illegal and wastes time. The State Police actually do stake out the stores and nab people doing this. Plus the amount of gas you burn and wear and tear on your car negates any possible savings.
Illegal, yes. Come and get me, coppers. The “wear and tear” on my car, and the amount of gas I burn getting from Philadelphia to New Jersey, just across the Ben Franklin Bridge, is utterly negligible. Dude, it’s right there! It would take me longer to get to the Phillies game than to Moore Bros in Pennsauken. Anyway, I don’t shop there to save money. I shop because I get superior service from knowledgeable clerks, who have helped me discover new wines, and to do so on my budget. I am happy to pay more for good service and better selection. I know perfectly well it’s possible to go to a Delaware or New Jersey wine store with vastly superior selections than state stores, and get incompetent help. But I don’t go to those stores, now do I? If people want to go to those stores, why shouldn’t they have that choice? My complaint about the PA law is that it doesn’t allow stores like Moore Bros. to exist.
Second, you are expecting way too much in the way of customer service.
I’m sorry, but that’s just bulls*it. I’m paying $20 or more 750 ml of liquid; I expect the people selling it to me to be able to tell me something about its quality before I lay out that kind of money. Again, if that doesn’t really matter to one, fine — but for people like me, who expect that kind of customer service and are willing to pay higher prices for it, why not let us? Why force us to take what we can get by distorting the market?
Fifth, the state store workers actually get to make a reasonable living on which they can support a family, unlike most retail workers, and the wine and liquor is still reasonably priced.
Again, I don’t drive to Jersey to save money; I drive to Jersey to get good value for my money. Big difference. Why on earth is it my moral obligation to settle for poor customer service as part of my social duty to state workers who hold jobs for which they are not qualified? I am simply mystified by the idea that it’s a good idea for the state to monopolize trade in wine, and compel customers to accept bad service when they go to buy the wine.
Extending that logic, why not have the state hold a monopoly on the sale of groceries? Make everyone buy their food at state-owned supermarkets. Limit the selection, turn the employees into civil servants, and make customer service unimportant (it doesn’t have to be, because employees can be as incompetent as they want to be, and it changes nothing, because the state holds a monopoly). Do you really think that’s a superior way to sell groceries? If yes, please explain. If not, then why is it a superior way to sell wine?
Isn’t this more a matter of you thinking wine drinkers are snotty-tots who ought to be happy with whatever they get? Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m trying to come up with a more compelling explanation for your logic.
By the way, a lady in a restaurant the other day told me that yes, the state wine stores in our part of town are awful, but if you go over to this or that store on the Main Line, you’ll find really knowledgeable staff. So that’s good.
And finally, as I said before, we really love Pennsylvania, and plan to stay here forever. But loving where you live does not mean shutting up when you see something that ought to be changed.



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Houghton

posted July 10, 2010 at 1:03 pm


Now this is just funny. The funniest thing I’ve seen or read all week — save for Double Rainbow man.
Andrew, this comment is appalling: Maybe, since you have now joined our lovely state, you should learn to just live with it…”
Da, tovarisch!



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Rod Dreher

posted July 10, 2010 at 1:28 pm


Another thing, Andrew. There is nothing wrong with not liking wine, or not caring enough about the way it tastes to be able to discern much difference among bottles. But I believe what I take to be your disinterest in the quality of wine blinds you to why it’s so important as a matter of thrift to have experienced help in the wine store. The PA model only makes sense for people who don’t care what their wine tastes like (e.g., one bottle’s just as good as another, so it doesn’t matter what you pick up) or people who are expert at wine, and who can negotiate the shelves with perfect knowledge and confidence.
I am neither. Wine is something I’m interested in, but I’m still a relative neophyte, and I love to learn. But given the relative expense of wine, it’s not a hobby I can afford to play hit-and-miss with. At Moore Bros., I’ve already established a relationship with a particular salesperson there. I talked with her when I first went in about the kinds of wines we liked, and the kinds we didn’t care for. This was valuable information, because it helped her draw on her knowledge of the store’s stock to guide us to bottles that would likely please us. It’s been a great relationship, because she’s helped us discover wines we wouldn’t have tried on our own, because of uninformed prejudices. Perhaps more importantly, we buy from Moore Bros. with confidence because we can be sure we’re not going to get a bum bottle. I’ve bought several cases from Moore Bros. since we moved here, and I can only think of a single bottle that I just flat-out didn’t like. That’s an incredible record, much better than I could accomplish on my own. In fact, I can tell you that most of the times I’ve been left to my own devices to pick my own wine in the state store, I’ve been disappointed with the results, and have felt more or less than I threw my money away.
The point here is that I only started getting seriously into wine when I discovered (in Texas) the value of finding a good wine store with knowledgeable, helpful staff, and establishing a relationship with them. I did that in Dallas, and I’ve done it here (though I have to go out of state to do it). This practice has opened up a wonderful world to me of wine-drinking and connoisseurship, and, more practically, it has taught me a lesson about value and thrift.
On the other hand, I guess I’d save money if I had to depend on the state store for wine, because I wouldn’t buy much of the stuff. The risk of throwing my money away would be too great. That, too, is a lesson in thrift, but is that really the one you want to learn, as opposed to learning from a positive example that brings a lot of pleasure, and even joy?



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Andrew

posted July 10, 2010 at 4:29 pm


Rod:
“disinterest in the quality of wine”
The quality of wine is neither equal to nor propotional to its price.
I like wine (and beer and liquor) and generally have a glass of wine and a beer a night.
You are or should be knowledgeable enough about consumer behavior to know that to an extent, making something more expensive increases its allure and desirableness to the purchaser. This has been found time and again with taste tests of wine, where people tend to like the cheaper bottles when they are not told the price, and the more expensive bottles when the price is revealed. Its also been found that people think that the very same wine becomes better and better as its price is increased – even though it is the same wine.
http://news.cnet.com/8301-13580_3-9849949-39.html
and
http://www.freepursuits.com/cheap-vs-expensive-wine-can-you-taste-the-difference
I’m personally convinced there is little to be gained by going from a $10 bottle to a $20 or $30 bottle. I’ve had a $100 bottle once. It was enjoyable, and the best part about it was that I didn’t have to buy it. But it was not 10 times better than a $10 bottle.
The worst thing about being a wine snob is that it cuts deeply into your wine budget. While you fuss about bringing home two “perfect” $35 bottles of wine to get 4-5 glasses each for your wife and yourself, I can buy 10 bottles from $5-10 for the same price and we can then enjoy 20-25 glasses each – being a snob changes your habits from a daily glass to a weekly glass, or quintuples your budget for the same consumption.
And before you cast me off into the outer darkness of the non-discriminating wine pallet, let me challenge you to go to the PA state store and pick up a case of a variety of whatever domestic and foreign bottles of wine are selling for $5-10 right now, then mix and match them in your collection with your expensive bottles, and see if you can actually notice a significant difference, except in your wallet.



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Andrew

posted July 10, 2010 at 4:38 pm


Rod:
Regarding the State Store system, lets look at it this way.
No, we would never set up this system today if we were starting from scratch. And possibly, (I’m not convinced from personal experience) there is lesser selection in the stores.
Yes, the employees are relatively high cost and come with government pensions. because of this there are signifcant social harms to be expected in terms of the wellbeing of the employees if we change it now. As St. Thomas Aquinas notes, just because we can change a law, doesn’t mean we should if the change produces more harm than good.
The State Store system doesn’t cost the state anything in terms of subsidizing wine drinkers. It allows better control over the distribution of liquor to undesirable consumers such as homeless drunks and the underage. The high cost of the employees is offset by the bulk buying and shipping power of a system serving 12 million consumers. The lack of knowledge you perceive in the employees could always be cured by simple training without otherwise changing the system. Why not write the state commissioner about this?



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Coldstream

posted July 10, 2010 at 4:58 pm


I just liked these comments in Andrew’s post:
“First, going to New Jersey (or Delaware) and transporting wine back is illegal and wastes time. The State Police actually do stake out the stores and nab people doing this.”
Compared to this praise for the state of PA:
“Only the State Police may use radar guns – local cops have to focus on things like solving crimes instead of running speed traps.”
I’d like to think State Police would have something better to do like solving real crimes rather than staking out people buying a $20 bottle of wine in Jersey and bringing it home…but that’s just me.
And there was this line:
“Pennsylvania is “backwards” and “untrendy” enough that it has not been overwhelmed with illegal and legal immigrants.”
Apparently you haven’t spent much time in places like Hazelton or Shenandoah (where a Mexican immigrant was beaten to death by some white teens). The trial was going on while I was there.
And Rod, if you want a 6 pack of beer, I think you have to go to a bar to buy it. At least that was my understanding…I refused to participate by jumping through the state hoops to buy alcohol.
Captcha phrase: quirk program. That’s putting the PA system mildly.



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CAP

posted July 10, 2010 at 5:38 pm


“The State Store system doesn’t cost the state anything in terms of subsidizing wine drinkers. It allows better control over the distribution of liquor to undesirable consumers such as homeless drunks ”
out of curiosity, is there some empirical evidence that ‘homeless drunks’ patronizing fine wine shoppes is such a manifest problem that it becomes necessary for the state to take control of the sale of wine?
and how exactly is it determined what is an undesirable consumer?
inquiring non-pennsylvanian minds want to know.
(the catcha, ‘by islamic’ reminds me of a story . . last year, when i was in morocco, a moroccan friend took me with him to buy a bottle of liquor at a local shop. but how is this possible? the sale of alcohol is illegal. it is haram. oh! but the moroccan government allows for liquor stores which can only sell to ‘tourists’ or non-muslims. oh, okay (we’re in a town that sees about zero tourists.) so we go to the unmarked liquor store. and it is . . packed! so who are all of these people (all moroccan)? my friend looks around, and smiles . . ‘tourists!’)



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Katy

posted July 10, 2010 at 5:55 pm


I don’t understand why Andrew has brought in the argument that state run liquor store employees are paid twice as much as retail workers in NJ (or elsewhere) who happen to know what they’re talking about. Clearly, if the state hacks don’t know diddly about wine, they are overpaid for their labor and would only be able to continue to be employed at a wine retailer in a free alcohol market state IF THEY WERE QUALIFIED TO BE THERE. I have to wonder what other sorts of laws the state of Pennsylvania has enacted which limit the free market its citizens could enjoy if not for its monopolistic tendencies.
Wasn’t Pennsylvania the state with the creepy, Orwellian state income tax payment commercials a while back?



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Peterk

posted July 10, 2010 at 8:49 pm


“The high cost of the employees is offset by the bulk buying and shipping power of a system serving 12 million consumers.”
so what you’re saying is that PA buys wine by the tank car and then puts it into bottles with fancy labels. excellent idea, next thing they will be adulterating the wine like the French have done in the past.
I live the Old Dominion aka Virginia, here hard likker is so sold in state stores, wine and beer everywhere else. The state likker stores are a joke I like single malts the selection is ridiculous, i have a better selection at home than my neighborhood state store has
These state own stores are result of the repeal of prohibition. prior to prohibition there wasn’t this problem. we can thank the progressive/liberals for the crazy likker laws in this country



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Andrew

posted July 11, 2010 at 8:28 am


“we can thank the progressive/liberals for the crazy likker laws in this country”
The prohibition laws and liquor control laws were and remain an initiative of conservative Republicans, just like the laws against narcotics and gambling are supported by the same crowd.



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kevin s.

posted July 11, 2010 at 6:44 pm


@Andrew
“You really complain a lot about this.”
There’s a lot to complain about.
“First, going to New Jersey (or Delaware) and transporting wine back is illegal and wastes time. The State Police actually do stake out the stores and nab people doing this.”
I’ll take this to mean the state is running gigantic surpluses, and can afford to devote resources to this utterly useless law enforcement activity? And no violent crime whatsoever?
“In states with grocery store sales, the selection is generally much worse than in PA, because only large volume wines get stocked.”
So what? There are still plenty of quality, mainstream brands of wine and liquor that should be available to those who want to purchase it.
“PA’s system, with its centralized purchasing for wine and liquor, and its beer emporia, can afford to buy and stock out of the way labels.”
Maybe they can, but states with government-run liquor stores are never known for having a good selection. Centralizing business seldom results in positive outcomes for small companies of any sort. Just look at Walmart.
” the vineyard outlets are staffed by your typical sub-$10 per hour help, while the state store workers make $20+.”
So wages are artificially, ludicrously high, and this is a good thing? How does the increased costs encourage people to try smaller private labels of beer and wine? This is an argument against state run liquor stores, not for them.
“Pennsylvania has many quirks which in the end turn out to be rather nice.”
And there are those that result in wine vending machines.
“Only the State Police may use radar guns – local cops have to focus on things like tracking down people who bring alcohol over from Delaware instead of running speed traps.”
Fixed that for you.
“Why don’t you learn to live with our idiosyncracies and enjoy it here instead of your incessant whining?”
Why should he learn to live with them instead of fighting them? This is a Democracy, yo.



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kevin s.

posted July 11, 2010 at 6:50 pm


“The prohibition laws and liquor control laws were and remain an initiative of conservative Republicans, just like the laws against narcotics and gambling are supported by the same crowd.”
Prohibition was the hobbyhorse of temperance groups, which were strongly associated with the progressive social gospel movement. In Minnesota, it is Democrats who work to keep our idiotic web of alcohol restrictions in place. In Pennsylvania, it is the unions.



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