Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Beer and Democracy

Regular readers know that this blog has a couple of continuing themes: one is to call people on it when they give presidents credit that should really go elsewhere, and another is what a monumentally bad president Jimmy Carter was.  So when I saw E.D. Kain (via Chait) get all worked up about Jimmy Carter's supposed role in "saving" beer, you might guess that I got a little suspicious. And, I'm enthusiastic to report, Carter doesn't deserve the credit, as best as I can tell.  Keep reading if you want to know who does.

OK, Kain's post says that "Carter deregulated the beer industry, opening the market back up to craft brewers."  It turns out, as it often does in our Madisonian system, that things are a bit more complicated than that.  Apparently, the bill Carter signed made home brewing legal, which in turn apparently led to innovation, which apparently led to the microbrewery explosion of the 1990s, although apparently only after some relevant state and local laws were changed.  Yes, that's a lot of "apparently"s; I'm not even a beer drinker, and I'm not going to chase down the details beyond that.  My verdict: if people want to say that the bill in question was a big piece of why beer got better, I'm not going to argue with them.

But was this actually Jimmy Carter's accomplishment?  Reason's Greg Beato takes up the story in an article from last year:
In 1978, however, a supplier of beer-making equipment in Rochester, New York, asked his congressman, Barber Conable (R–N.Y.), to sponsor a bill that would extend the home winemakers’ exemption to DIY beer makers.

According to James Fleming, author of a 2004 biography of Conable called Window on Congress, the congressman had no great interest in home brewing. He wasn’t even a beer drinker. In 2002, when two reporters contacted Conable to discuss his role in helping jump-start the “American beer renaissance,” he didn’t even recall the bill. But when he introduced it to his colleagues in 1978 Conable apparently felt more passionately, insisting that independent Americans shouldn’t have to “rely on the beer barons” for their daily libations. According to an Associated Press article written at the time, the bill “sailed through the House on a voice vote with no audible objection.”

Under the guidance of Sen. Alan Cranston (D–Calif.), it fared much the same in the Senate. Then Carter signed it into law.
I can't say that I've read Fleming's biography of Conable (beyond the linked excerpt), but it sure seems to me that if this version is correct than calling this law Carter's is entirely wrong.  Instead, this basically sounds like a typical story of a Member of Congress representing a ("special") interest from his district.  Granted, had Carter chosen to fight Conable's bill, it's possible he might have been able to stop it, but perhaps not.  Regardless, no one deserves to be called the hero of a story for acquiescing in what the real players did.  And apparently the real players here were in Congress, led by Barber Conable.

Why do I bother with this sort of thing?  Well, I'll fess up on this one to a perhaps overdeveloped dislike of Jimmy Carter, so there's that...but really, it's just a bonus.  The truth is that when we treat the president as if he was the entire government; when we go along with a political culture in which hatred of Congress and hatred of Special Interests is expected, what we're doing is ignoring and disdaining the things that make American democracy such a tremendous accomplishment.  In a nation of 300 millions, it really is an amazing thing that some small business owner can contact his or her Member of Congress, and next thing you know there's a whole new industry and and a whole lot of happy consumers.  It's too bad that we haven't found a way to celebrate that sort of thing, but if you want to start, make sure you ignore Jimmy Carter and hoist one instead for Barber Conable, Member of Congress from New York from 1965 to 1984.  And your second bottle?  Make that for James Madison.  After that, you're on your own.


  1. Alas, I had to give up beer a few years ago. However I enjoyed many a fine brew by companies that exist thanks to Rep. Conable's attention to his constituents.

    As an overly weighty footnote, it's worth noting that a good chunk of "Obama's agenda" was crafted by Congress. It's fashionable among some on the left to bemoan Obama's unwillingness or inability to twist arms the way Lyndon Johnson did. What's far less noted is Obama's skillful recognition of Congress' own powers and his quiet (for the most part) insistence that Congress do its job.

  2. How about toasting the anonymous "supplier of beer-making equipment"? Sounds like he should get a little of the credit as well.

  3. If this was the only notable act of deregulation during the Carter years, it could be seen as an accident. I'm not a Carter fan but the longstanding association with 1970s Democrats with big, inefficient, bureaucratic-minded government and 1980s Republicans with deregulation is a perverse reading of the historical record. The reality was that some sectors of the economy were over-regulated in the 70s (really, the airlines were ridiculous) and that the wonks of Carter's day knew that much. Not only did they get no credit for that effort from the public or the media, the GOP went on to successfully campaign against Democrats as if they were closet socialists. Once in power, the Republicans kept pushing the dereg button whether or not it made sense, warping a smart policy initiative into ideological simplicity.

  4. Sounds more like special interests getting laws in acted to benefit them. i.e. the Beer Making equipment dealer, benefited from the law, he wanted is so he could sell more equipment. This wasn't about freedom or deregulation, it was about profit.

    With that said there was the unintended consequence of a robust beer industry that has save millions of people from Bud, and allowed the US to catch up with the rest of the world (beer wise)


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