Tuesday, February 01, 2005

I'm thirsty. I'm lazy. And! I'm not alone.

The issue of liquor privatization actually makes me laugh. Perhaps it speaks ill for the nature of federalism that, 11+ years after a wildly successful Alberta experiment in privatizing liquor retailing, no other province has followed suit.

It started with Damian Penny on Sunday. (Sidebar - I read the same article that day in the Lethbridge Herald - between that and his frequent complaints about Gwynne Dyer, I'm pretty sure that the Herald and the Corner Brook Post-Dispatch, or whatever it is, are the same papers with a different A1). His own citation doesn't quite include the part he refers to in his editorial comment, so here it is:
In Alberta, proponents and critics of the liquor changes have argued for years. And the proliferation of liquor stores leaves many unanswered questions. How much availability, convenience and lower prices are desirable when it comes to alcohol?

"When you drive through the inner city and see more and more liquor stores with later and later hours, I don't think that necessarily improves us as a society or a province," says Dan MacLennan, president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, the province's largest union.

Colby Cosh commended Damian's thesis, and got off a good rip:
There is a special whimsy in watching these people travel east to warn Ontarians--whose leaders are pondering the fate of the LCBO, or pretending to--that retail privatization somehow intensified the blight in Alberta's poor urban neighbourhoods. Watch out, Toronto! Don't turn into another Medicine Hat!

Whimsy, indeed. The phrase "proponents and critics of liquor changes have argued for years" is non-disprovable, and may even be true, assuming the authors can find four people who are still discussing it in 2005. But as a general characterization, it's garbage. The "debate" has been over for 10 years. Finding an Alberta booze consumer who regrets retail privatization is about as likely as finding someone who wishes the government telephone company still had a monopoly on long-distance service.

I'll lay off Dan MacLennan, as he is a good and sensible guy, and his remarks don't actually constitute an "argument".

Anyway, I think Cosh misses the mark here, or possibly gets it backwards:
"..the LCBO actually seems to do a fairly good job at imitating a private business in its retail policies (price aside) and service practices."

He's only right in the sense that you wouldn't walk out of a Beer Store, having made your purchase, thinking that the government manages the transaction terribly (like, say, a provincial DMV). But for starters, most beer in Alberta is not cheaper than the rest of the country - this is probably the worst argument than privatization enthusiasts elsewhere can advance. It's exceedingly difficult to make apples-to-apples price comparisons between the provinces; taxes, government wholesaling, and other regulations conspire to make price a rather perverted reflection of the retailing model's efficiency.

The best argument for privatization, from a consumer's perspective, is in this hilariously poignant post at Tart Cider:
Call me spoiled, but I have had it up to here with the 1.8 km round trip to my nearest Beer Store. Don't even get me started on the 3.4 km round trip to my nearest LCBO, whose selection seems geared mostly towards upwardly mobile winos. (Do we really need two sizes of Baby Duck?)

Well, call me spoiled, too. Story time: on January 13th here, the weather was frigid and the roads were atrocious. Unfortunately, I was out of sustenance. My favoured liquor/beer store (which, by the way, offers me reward points, redeemable for more delicious alcohol in times of restricted cash flow) is about 3 minutes from home (and on the right side of the road - when I'm going the other direction, I stop at the store on the opposite side of the street at the same intersection). Due to road conditions, the trip to this store would have been at least 10 minutes round and possibly dangerous. The kids needed a bath and I like my body in one piece - what to do? Aha! I'll go to that other store in my decrepit neighbourhood strip mall!

Normally it's a one-minute drive; I had to take it really slow, so it took me 5 whole minutes to get there and home again, sixer in hand. There was of course no line. There's never a line. This is also the store I hit when I run out in the backyard, but have already had a few. (Note to Dr. Garry Aslanyan: isn't my 3-minute walk the safest possible outcome in this scenario? Selley alludes to this: people driving around looking for beer are not near as patient and determined as people driving around looking for more beer).

My circumstances are not unique; if you live in an urban area in Alberta, there is a liquor store within a 10-minute walk of your doorstep. This is only a bad thing if you see alcohol as inherently evil, and that only government can retail it safely, unlike smokes, guns, prescription narcotics, explosives, etc. etc. etc.

Private liquor retailing has done for Alberta consumers what ATMs have done for people with bank accounts - made their lives a hell of a lot more convenient, with no observable downside. I can't believe that "the public interest" in this issue is still being debated.

UPDATE: More & continued, here.


At 12:03 p.m., Blogger Sacamano said...

The first time I went to Ontario and had to go to the "Beer Store" I laughed out loud because it made me think of the "24 Elsinore" scene in Strange Brew and that guy in the back pushing the case out on those crazy rollers. I had totally forgotten that such a system even existed. I stopped laughing when I realized I was going to have to drive 45 mins. down the highway to get a bottle of rye - and that the store might be closed by the time we got there.

I love my Tops Booze 'n' Porn.

At 2:33 p.m., Blogger Sean McCormick said...

You know what I hate most about privitization? The bastards went and did it *after* I had sobered up.

How considerate is that?



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