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Driving us to drink - Tom Purcell

It's all you really need to know to understand where our country is headed: liquor.

In Pennsylvania, my home state, an "independent" government agency, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, oversees alcohol-related matters.

Depending on your age and line of work, you can't possess, sell, distribute, transport, import, store, drink or manufacture wine, spirits, malt or brewed beverages -- or the rotgut your great-grandma showed you how to make in the basement -- without a license of one sort or another.

Our liquor board dates back to 1933. That's when the 21st Amendment ended Prohibition. Since Prohibition was a federal program that didn't work well for only 13 years, Pennsylvania, apparently, decided to create a state-level program that wouldn't work well forever. The board now owns and operates state stores in 67 counties, which generate nearly $2 billion a year. It's the largest purchaser of wine and booze in the U.S. It's run by three governor-appointed members and a CEO.

The CEO has been in the news of late. In March, he caught flak for contracting with a consulting firm to teach store clerks, who are sometimes cranky and uninspired, how to be cheerful and more knowledgeable about the products they sell. He caught flak, in part, because the contract was awarded to the spouse of a state store employee.

He caught more flak for hiring consultants to change the state stores' image -- he spent thousands in state-store "profits" to improve the "brand" and, possibly, change the name.

But here's the main reason he caught flak: What's the point of teaching cranky, uninspired government employees how to be cheerful and knowledgeable -- what's the point of improving the brand -- when the government-run monopoly is the only retail joint in the state where citizens can get their hooch?

I certainly don't fault state-store employees for being cranky and uninspired. They're just reacting to the cues and incentives of the organization they work for -- bad cues and incentives that are natural to government-run monopolies. That's why I buy my wine in Virginia.

In Virginia, the state doesn't have a monopoly over wine (though it does over booze). The taxes on spirits are much lower than in Pennsylvania. That means Virginians can buy wine and beer at the grocery store, the drugstore -- almost anywhere. I buy my wine at Trader Joe's.

Trader Joe's sells decent wines from all over the world -- at ridiculously low prices. Charles Shaw, a California wine, is only $3.29 a bottle. It's only $3.29 because our capitalistic system has produced amazing technologies and efficiencies, which have led to an abundance of grapes, which has led to really cheap -- and pretty good -- wine.

Of course, such capitalistic efficiency is hurting my social life. I dined with a lass at a trendy D.C. restaurant recently. We enjoyed four glasses of house Cabernet. When I got the check -- and saw I was charged $44 for just the wine -- I couldn't help but make some calculations aloud. "Good God!" I shouted, causing my companion to slump in her chair. "We could have had 13 bottles of Charles Shaw!"

In any event, the people at Trader Joe's are extraordinarily friendly and knowledgeable. This is because of competition, a desire for profit, a fear of going out of business ... sentiments that have unleashed efficiency, innovation and passion at Trader Joe's.

The people who work there love wine. They spend several minutes helping you find the perfect bottle -- even though nobody sent them through costly consulting courses.

That's why I've been worried of late. The fellows running our country are fans of the government-run model. They like the idea of "smart," Ivy League types directing our industries, our health care, our decisions. We must stop them.

Anybody who has bought wine at a Pennsylvania state store knows that government operations tend to discourage the human spirit -- to discourage efficiency, innovation, cheerfulness. If the birds running Washington have their way, they'll drive the rest of us to drink.

Tom is a humor columnist nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. E-mail him at Purcell@caglecartoons.com.