Tuesday, January 06, 2009

More on the Single-Beer Ban

There have been some more developments in the single-beer ban here in Nashville (I have blogged about it before here). Here is the text of the ordinance. The City Paper had an editorial on the subject. I think the editorial is mostly off-point, until the end, anyway. The editorial argues that the single-beer ban is unnecessary because there are already laws against littering. I think that misses the point; the ban is intended to stop litter before it starts. If it would reduce litter, most of the editorial's argument would be irrelevant.

I don't think it would reduce litter, however, and I don't think it would reduce public drinking. I sent the following to Erica Gilmore, my city council member, and to Diane Neighbors, the vice-mayor and president of the council:

I am a resident of the Salemtown neighborhood, an economist, and a concerned citizen. I am writing to oppose Ordinance No. BL2009-369, which would prohibit the sale of single cans or bottles of beer for consumption off-premises in specific parts of Nashville.

This bill also prohibits sale from an ice tub, although the reasons for this are unclear to me. If beer is kept cold, and the seller is licensed, why does it matter whether the beer is in a refrigerator or an ice tub? Perhaps this is related to a public health concern, although it’s not clear to me why standard tort law could not deal with problems here if any should arise. In any case, my concern is with the ban on sales of single beers.

The purposes of this ban, as I understand them, are two:

1) To reduce public drinking of beverages in certain areas.

2) To reduce littering.

I do not think this bill will achieve either objective. In fact, it could have the opposite effect in both cases.

Regarding the first argument: It is said that there are too many people drinking on street corners, sometimes in view of children. I do not see how this bill will stop this. Instead of buying a single beer at a time, people who want to drink will simply buy a six-pack, and drink them one at a time. Perhaps the concern is for the easy temptation of a single beer—but a person with a serious drinking problem is ill, not stupid. If they must buy six beers at once rather than one at a time, then they will buy six beers at once. In fact, groups of people often gather to drink and talk (outside the market at the intersection of 7th Ave N. and Garfield St., for example). This makes it even easier to circumvent the single-beer restriction. Six people need merely contribute enough money to buy a six pack, have one of them go in to buy it, and bring it out. Now they each have a beer.

It is true that there is increased inconvenience to obtaining a single beer, and that this may reduce usage. On a per-beer basis, however, a six-pack is usually cheaper than an individual beer. It is not clear what the net effect of this could be. People could end up consuming more beer, because the beers are cheaper per bottle or can. In other words, it is possible that this bill would increase drinking, rather than decrease it. Regardless of the direction of the effect, I see little reason to expect a large reduction in drinking.

It has been suggested that single beers are often dropped in the street, leaving broken glass and trash lying around. In light of the argument I have just provided, I do not see any reason for this to change. In fact, the amount of litter could increase, because six-packs come in cardboard packaging. Now we will have that lying around, in addition to the bottles. This is not an improvement.

To summarize, it does not seem likely to me that this bill will do anything other than provide a minor inconvenience to some people. I do not think it will achieve its desired ends, and it could actually make matters worse.

If you are not swayed, however, by these potential consequences, then let me make three other arguments. First, I do not think it is any of your business, or my business, or anyone else’s business, whether people buy six-packs, four-packs, or single beers. This is not a proper role for government. Surely there are more important problems to address. I understand that this is not a popular viewpoint, but it should be expressed. I don’t even drink alcohol (especially beer), but I do not want to infringe on the rights of adults to buy beer in a quantity of their choosing.

Second, suppose that this bill does nothing at all (that is, suppose I am wrong, in that it does not make matters worse, and its proponents are wrong, in that it does not improve anything). Or, for that matter, suppose that I am correct and this bill makes matters worse. How will you know? Where is the provision in the statute to measure its effect? Who will be keeping track of the change in litter? Laws that do nothing, and laws with bad effects, should be repealed This law will likely stay on the books, adding to a labyrinth of regulation, whether it works or not. If you really must pass this ordinance, let me suggest a simple change: Include a sunset provision. Set the law to expire one year from now, unless you vote to extend it. At least that way there will be a point at which the community can assess whether or not it has made any difference. I think this request is reasonable.

Finally, I find the geographic restrictions included in this bill strange. I understand that they are included because this bill is supported by some people within the specific geographic area. Nonetheless, banning single beer sales is a good idea, why is it a good idea only in these locations? Why is it not a good idea everywhere? I suppose this is not so much an objection as a cause of confusion on my part. I do not understand why single beer sales are acceptable everywhere else but not in these places.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Having said all that, I am not optimistic that my words will change anything. Erica Gilmore's constituents are supporting her in this, and it is from them that she gets the votes that keep her in office. The other council members have no particular reason to care about whether this ban is a good idea or a bad idea. So long as they appear to be doing something, it may even gain them votes as well. Unless there is a large and vocal opposition to this ban--and I have seen no sign of one yet--it will probably pass, regardless of its merits.

P.S. I have not forgotten the post on Game Console Economics. I hope to summarize the responses given both in the comments and on the exam sometime soon.