This is what war looks like

Byline: | Category: Culture, Economy, Ethics, Government, Taxes & Spending, Uncategorized, wine | Posted at: Friday, 5 December 2014

Mayor Michael Bloomberg promised New York City a war on smoking.  War is what they got.



While it didn’t do so explicitly, New York’s progressive government decided that smoking was so bad that it was worth killing over.  You may accuse me of hyperbole, but consider that when government passes and enforces any law, it has taken the decision to use the State’s coercive powers against the non-compliant.  Above is a picture of what the law’s coercive powers look like, what a war on smoking looks like.  The “war” in this picture does not look like hyperbole to me.

The law that led to Eric Garner’s death was a prohibition on the selling of loose, untaxed cigarettes.  In other words, Eric Garner was a bootlegger.

Any time that government restricts a willing buyer and a willing seller from agreeing upon a price, a black market will develop.  It is a rule as old as mankind.  During the first Progressive era, the rule was Prohibition and the black market was big.

Eighty-eight Christmases ago sixty New Yorkers lay violently ill in the hospital.  Eight already had died.  The culprit was poisoned alcohol.  But the criminal mind behind the culprit was the government itself.

During Prohibition, alcohol still could be produced.  It was needed in the manufacture of paints and solvents.  So to legally produce it, the government required it to be “denatured”.  Usually that was done with the addition of poisonous methyl alcohol.  But it was a simple chemist’s trick to turn methyl alcohol into ethyl alcohol, which could then be drunk.  By 1926, thousands of amateur chemists were performing that trick and thereby skirting Prohibition’s rules. They had to be stopped.  It was the law, after all, and the law had to be enforced.  So the federal government required the addition of toxic chemicals in industrial alcohol.  The additives included kerosene, strychnine, and formaldehyde.  All are highly poisonous if ingested.  By Prohibition’s end an estimated ten-thousand drinkers were dead.

The ten-thousand were collateral damage.  Nay, they were actively violating the law.  They weren’t just innocent bystanders, but were enemy combatants in the war on drink.  They deserved to die.  After all, they were violating the law.  And if we shrink from enforcing the law, people will cease to have respect for it.

Over the last dozen years, New York City was the central front in the second progressive era’s war on smoking.  Mayor Bloomberg was that front’s field marshal.  He raised the legal age to purchase cigarettes to 21, prohibited smoking in all restaurants, attempted to prohibit it in parks and even apartments, and both he and his successor increased taxes step by step to an absurdly high$5.85 per pack.  At that price the black market is big.  But all this was necessary, Bloomberg and Deblasio have said, because 6,000 New Yorkers die every year from the effects of smoking.

In the war on smoking Eric Garner was an enemy combatant.  And for that offense, the supporters of New York’s war on smoking determined that he deserved to die.  I trust they’re happy with the result.

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Byline: | Category: Above the Fold, Culture, Economy, Ethics, Government, wine | Posted at: Monday, 18 November 2013

Prior to the disastrous implementation of Obamacare, has there ever been a law that fell that so far out of disfavor that the American people clamored for wholesale repeal? Yes, it was called Prohibition.

The parallels between Prohibition and Obamacare begin with the fact that both laws were the culmination of decades of “Progressive” ideals.  A century ago Progressives believed that people would be better off if they were able to control what individuals were allowed to buy and sell.  Modern Progressives are no different.  From its first attempt in Maine in the 1850s, Progressives in both parties worked tirelessly to extend anti-alcohol laws to the entire country.  This most recent bout of progressivism began sixty years ago with Democrat Harry Truman, who pushed the idea of socialized medicine.  The movement received considerable advancement from Democrat Lyndon Johnson, who created Medicare, Republican George W. Bush, who added prescription drugs coverage, and Republican Mitt Romney, who built the first Obamacare-like system in Massachusetts.

Many Progressives of an earlier era wanted Prohibition for others, but not for themselves.  The progressive United Methodist Church, which was officially dry but whose membership certainly wasn’t, said that, “Under slavery the Negroes were protected from alcohol, consequently they developed no high degree of ability to resist its evil effects.”  A Collier’s editorial elaborated on this form of racial paternalism, “White men are beginning to see that moral responsibility for the negro rests on them, and that it is a betrayal of responsibility to permit illicit sales of dangerous liquors and drugs.” These were the attitudes of “Wet-Drys,” people who themselves drank, but who didn’t want “others” to drink.  Besides racism, anti-Catholicism was rampant among earlier Progressives.  Germans, Italians, and Irish (and let us not forget anti-Catholicism’s sibling, anti-semitism), flooded America’s cities during this period–and they all drank!  Modern progressives similarly want Obamacare for thee, but not for me.  Most infamous is that Congress specifically exempted itself and its employees from the new Obamacare requirements when it passed the law.  Favored Progressive partners too–especially unions–have asked for, and gained their own Obamacare exemptions.  Hypocrisy enjoys a long pedigree among Progressives.

Electoral chicanery is another similarity.  There was a rush to enact the Eighteenth Amendment before the 1920 Census resulted in redistricting that would give more House seats to the cities and the immigrant Catholics who lived there.  Following the census, which recorded a 21% population increase largely as a result of immigration, there was so much concern that “Wets” would gain the upper hand in Congress as well as in state legislatures, that Congress was never redistricted in accordance with the Constitution.  Until 1933 when Prohibition was finally overturned, the House was stuck with the same district lines that were drawn back in 1910.  A century later, modern Progressives played similar games after Republican Scott Walker  Brown’s surprise election to the Senate from Massachusetts meant that the House bill enacting Obamacare could not be ratified.  Instead, an earlier Senate bill, that was nowhere near to ready for implementation and which had not gone through a conference committee, was accepted without modification in the House, and in defiance of the Constitutional provision that revenue bills had to originate in the House.

In 1925 H.L. Mencken observed:

“Five years of Prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.”

More than three years after the passage of Obamacare, one could make similar observations:  there is not greater health insurance coverage but less;  there is not lower health care costs, but more; and certainly, respect for the law–even from the law’s namesake and executor–has not increased, but diminished.

There is a final similarity which I am afraid might also come to pass.  While it is popularly believed that the 18th Amendment was repealed, that was actually not exactly true.  The 21st Amendment did not return things to the way they had been.  Instead of repeal, the modfication to the Constitution gave the States special power to legislate alcohol.  Because the Amendment gives the States jurisdiction, alcohol is not afforded protection under the interstate commerce clause.  Each state can, and does, tax interstate sales, while they prevent residents from acquiring alcohol across state lines.  This, and a whole host of other state restrictions, has created a hodge podge of laws that makes life difficult for wine-makers, retailers, and consumers alike.  The only beneficiaries of such legal confusion are the descendants of Prohibition’s bootleggers who are now ensconced in legally mandated monopolies.

Similarly, when Obamacare meets its demise, it is unfortunately likely to die in such a way that the successor system will leave Americans worse off than they were before Obamacare ever became law.  I hope that on this latter prediction, I am proved wrong.

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Light posting for a little while

Byline: | Category: 2012, Blogging, Economy, Military, Regulations, Taxes & Spending, wine | Posted at: Monday, 14 May 2012

Starting tomorrow I will be going on active duty for the next four months.  That means that my posts will probably be less frequent and will certainly be less partisan.  When I come back in September I will return with a fresh up-close perspective on the European economy, Middle East politics, and Defense Department waste, as well as the upcoming presidential election. 

And if I’m real lucky, I’ll be able to talk with you about a book.

BTW, this might be a good opportunity to reiterate that whatever opinions you read on this site are mine alone and are not to be construed as the opinions of the Department of Defense.

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Are wine drinkers snobs?

Byline: | Category: Blogging, Culture, wine | Posted at: Tuesday, 10 April 2012

I’m doing some wine research and I keep running across wine blog posts that come off as . . . well, snobbish. 

Here’s one discussing the thrill of being in a bubble separate from US culture, ironically even while discounting research that such a bubble might exist.  ” . . . at least my bubble is stocked with decent wines (and, yes, most of them are French, as if that even needs to be said).”  Read the comments for more.

Dr. Vino, a Ph.D., is another blogger who sometimes treads near snobbish waters.  He wrote recently about the propensity of wine writers to write reviews of higher price wines in a post entitled, “Do wine writers write only for the one percent?” 

Obviously, not all wine writing is snobbish, and to be fair to these wine bloggers, I enjoy reading them all and have even written a guest post for one of them.  Still, there does seem to exist a tension on wine blogs between a disdain for beer and mass-produced wines on the one hand and dismay that there aren’t more American wine drinkers on the other.  It’s the oenological equivalent to simultaneously complaining about people who shop at the big box stores (especially WalMart) where most Americans shop, while trying to convince those same Americans to support their views.

If a drink divide does exist in America, the fault for the fault exists on both sides.  While travelling several states over for the Easter Holiday my radio scanned to the Sean Hannity Show.  He was in a discussion with one of his producers or interns in the studio when the subject turned to alcoholic drinks.  Asked about his drinking habits, the host was almost apoplectic with denial that he was a wine drinker.  Hannity prefers Coors Lite.  And with obvious pride, he announced that he had never eaten brie.  Chips and dip were his cocktail cuisine of choice.  It was reverse snobbery as a form of snobbery itself.

Germany, where I’ve spent most of the last two years, is a country which straddles the beer-wine divide.  Most Americans probably visualize Germans as lederhosen-clad, polka-listening swillers of suds.  However, even in beer-centric Bavaria there exists a wine region (Franken) nearly as prolific as the Sonoma Valley.  Further west along the Rhine, grapes grow in even greater abundance.  And while the Germans I’ve met each have their favorite beverage, in my experience they don’t tend to begrudge those who make a different choice.  They certainly don’t seem to attach economic or political significance to one’s choice of drink.

If there is any significance to one’s choice of drink, it is regional.  In Württemberg locals sip quarter-liter mugs of trollinger, a pale red wine made from grapes grown pretty much only in the Stuttgart area. Just east of there in Bavaria, weizen, a beer made from wheat is the beverage of choice. Further north, where barley better tolerates the cool weather, pilsner is the local drink. It is similar across much of Europe: locals drink locally.

Americans, ever willing to go national with a popular product, have broken the local link to drink.  Perhaps with the nationalization of beverages, there came about the opportunity to differentiate drinkers.  It wouldn’t be the first time that Madison Avenue marketing has convinced Americans to select products based less on what they like, and more on what they would like to say about themselves.

As one who enjoys both stem and stein, I resent the imposition of socio-politics into drink.  The choice to me is all about context:  I would no sooner drink a zinfandel at a sunny summer ball game than I would toast a bride with Budweiser.  Each has its place.  And it is not the place of wine snobs or beer-drinking reverse snobs to pronounce judgment on the other.  If you agree, I would ask that you raise your glass with me–whatever might be in it.

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A champagne toast to America

Byline: | Category: Culture, Government, Regulations, wine | Posted at: Monday, 9 January 2012

I strongly recommend John Tamny’s oped on Forbes.  Here’s the money quote about Americans:

“We’re an ideal, not an ethnicity. Thank goodness.”

I’ve long argued that same point to any who would listen.  I’ve lived about a third of my adult life in three foreign countries on two different continents and traveled to many more.  What I’ve come to realize is that there are very few places on this globe where you can become a nationality because you want to.  I could move to Japan, learn the language and promise to forevermore use only chopsticks.  Doesn’t matter.  I can never become Japanese.  But someone from Nagasaki can move to Nashville and be just as American as any redneck you’ll ever find on Second Avenue.

All we ask is that to become American that you first recognize that it is freedom that makes us great.  But also recognize that freedom is a two-way street.  It means that as others extend the freedom to you to be you, that you give them the same courtesy in response.  In little things, it means that if you want to wash your car on a Sunday, in America you can.  And if you’d rather spend that day at rest, you can do that too.

In bigger things, as Tamny points out, it means that you mustn’t be a slave to tradition.  I’m a student of wine, so let me use an oenological example.  For a wine to be a champagne, it must be made: in Champagne-a region in France, made from only a few select grape varietals, and made according to the méthode champenoise.  Given that Champagne is so far north and grapes grown there are often under-ripe, it was usually the case that the only way wines from there could be made palatable was by the addition of a little sugar.  It was that late addition of sugar to the bottle that gave rise to the bubbles.  Now, if you’re a believer in global warming, you might believe that this would be a good thing for the vintners of Champagne, as it would allow their grapes additional time to ripen and therefore create another avenue to sell their wines.  But you would be wrong.  For a wine to be labeled “champagne,” remember, it must be made in the méthode champenoise–the traditional way of making a sparkling wine in Champagne.  So the Champage producer who would like to make a still wine from his grapes would be out of luck.  Why?  Because he bucked tradition, and tradition dictates (not to mention law and international treaty) that for a wine to carry the word “Champagne” anywhere on the label (remember, Champagne is a region, not a synomym for sparkling wine) it must be a sparkling wine.

Okay, so you don’t care for wine, and you especially don’t care for pretentious French wines.  Fine.  But Tamny’s point applies to industries far and wide.  When tradition dictates what is within the bounds of what you’re allowed to do, someone else will find a better way around your stupid tradition, and when they do, they will take away all your customers too.  That’s the American way.  Or–Tamny’s point–it used to be the American way. 

“. . . Entrepreneurs by definition disrupt the existing and accepted commercial order, and considering how many on the planet tend to cling to what already exists and is comfortable, many around us would naturally deem us a bit scruffy for always rocking the economic boat.”

And, while we’re on the subject of wine . . . it is the American way that has made it the case that since 1976, knowledgeable wine afficianadoes have recognized that the greatest red Bordeaus and the finest white Burgundies in the world come not from France, but from California–where until recently experimentation and entrepreuership were encouraged in not just the wine industry.

Read the whole thing.  And may we Americans continue to make some of the world’s greatest wines.

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My wine week

Byline: | Category: Culture, wine | Posted at: Saturday, 2 May 2009

I don’t often use my blog to tell you guys about my day, but this week has been so fun I just had to share.  It’s been an oenophile’s dream. 

On Wednesday I was at Ridge Vineyards to meet with Paul Draper, the head winemaker there since 1969.  For three hours I had the run of the winery on Monte Bello Ridge with the ultimate tour guide as my host.  I tasted the ’08 MB Cab, wine that was just on the vine only a few months ago, directly from the barrel.  It’s a surprisingly smooth wine even this young and will probably be drinkable immediately upon release some time next summer.  I drank the ’07 MB Cab straight from the fermenting tanks where the barrels had been recently combined before bottling this week.  I had the ’08 Geyserville Zin straight from the hose as it was being racked.  Both of the latter two wines had big tannins that will make them a little harsh when first released, but will enable them to improve with age. 

Then I went to the tasting room where Paul wanted me to compare the ’07 Geyserville with the ’97 (a great California vintage) so that I could see how it stood up to time.  The answer:  quite well.  It was much softer than its younger brother, but still had all the fruit, spice, and character you expect with a fine zin.

After that it was up to Sonoma so that I could meet with Joel Peterson of Ravenswood Winery, a legendary producer of big zins.  He and I spoke for about an hour and then it was off to taste wines.  All of his zinfandels were what you would expect:  huge.  Ravenswood’s motto, after all, is “No Wimpy Wines!”  But the biggest surprise was his gewurztraminer.  Actually, it was two surprises in one.  I was first surprised that he made a gewurz, and then I was really surprised how good it was.  And at only $17, it’s a steal.  But, alas, I can’t order it online because I live in one of the 22 monopoly states that don’t allow direct shipment of wine because that would keep the wine wholesalers from getting their unfair cut.

The next morning was an early flight so that I could get back home for l’Ete du Vin, a great cause and serious wine event.  Here I encountered Napa in Nashville.  Barely an hour off the plane I was at a tasting with Chateau Montelena’s Bo Barrett (yes, that Bo Barrett, of Bottle Shock fame).  His wife, Heidi Barrett, a great winemaker and wine consultant in her own right, was there with two very different and very good offerings from La Sirena.  Laurent Sarazin brought two sparkling wines from Schramsberg–his ’05 Brut Rose was killer.  Dirk Langford came from Beringer with a ’98 Private Reserve Cabernet, which I found disappointing, but the ’05 was seriously good.  Damian Parker of Joseph Phelps Vineyards brought his Insignia cabernet brand from ’98 and ’06.  There, the situation was reversed; the older wine was spectacular while I found the young one a little tired.  Finally, Peter Mondavi Jr. was there from Charles Krug Winery.  His ’04 “X Clones” Cab was phenomenal.

Then today, a good week got even better when I had the opportunity to sit down with Gary Vaynerchuk to discuss wine retailing, Jets football, and family.  I had a bunch of questions for him, but the one I most wanted to ask was the last:

You are offered ownership of the New York Jets, but you have to give up drinking, selling, and writing about wine; what’s your choice?

Gary’s answer:  “If you cut my veins open, I bleed green.”

If you don’t know who Gary Vaynerchuk is, or if you don’t like wine, or even if you think you don’t like wine because it’s snobby, foreign, and pretensious, you need to watch Gary’s daily video blog, already viewed by more than 80,000 “Vayniacs” every day.  He makes wine approachable and fun. 

That actually was true of everyone I met this week.  These guys are legends in the wine world.  Bo Barrett’s Chateau Montelena Chardonnay bested the very finest white Burgundies at the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris.  Paul Draper’s 1971 Monte Bello Cabernet came in first over Bordeaux’s greatest red wines at a thirtieth anniversary retasting of that epic event.  Everyone of these folks was approachable and fun.

Which is the lesson of this week . . . wine is meant to be approachable and fun.  It’s not just for the snob at the country club or for special occasions.  There is a wine for every occasion and in every price range.  So get out there and find the ones that you like.

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