Thursday, July 29, 2010

Last Call: Book Review

Lessons of Prohibition as timely as ever.

It gained serious momentum with the creation of the Anti-Saloon League, the most powerful pressure group in American history. It took down the 5th largest industry in the nation. Financed heavily by teetotaler John D. Rockefeller, it lasted 14 years, and it is mind boggling to contemplate the parallels with the current drug war.

On January 16, 1920, with the official passage of the 18th Amendment banning the manufacture, sale, or transport of alcoholic beverages, America carved out only the second explicit limitation on the activities of its citizens in the Republic’s history. As Daniel Okrent writes in his definitive history, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, “you couldn’t own slaves, and you couldn’t buy alcohol.”

Americans in the late 1800s drank a lot of alcohol. “Multiply the amount American’s drink today by three,” says Okrent. Taxes on whiskey and beer helped pay for the War of 1812 and the Civil War. By the end of the 19th Century, consumption of distilled spirits, particularly whiskey, had been partially replaced by…. beer! It was German immigrant brewers who cornered the market for “liquid bread,” as beer was sometimes known. (Italians who migrated to California sparked Napa Valley’s wine industry.)

Who had the power to take on the brewers and distillers of America in a fight to the finish over alcohol? According to Okrent, the answer was: white Anglo-Saxon protestant women.  And not just the well-publicized “hatchetation” of Carrie Nation and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In fact, the women’s suffrage movement and the drive for prohibition were inextricably linked. The fact of alcohol in family life was one of the reasons women wanted “the right to own property, and to shield their families’ financial security from the profligacy of drunken husbands.” As famed alcoholic Jack London observed, “the moment women get the vote in any community, the first thing they proceed to do is close the saloons.” At least, so London hoped—he thought perhaps prohibition might save his life.

Lamentably, women were joined by racists and nativists in the fight against alcohol and its alleged grip on “the infidel foreign population of our country.” On the Iron Range of northern Minnesota, “congressional investigators counted 256 saloons in fifteen mining towns, their owners representing eighteen distinct immigrant nationalities.” After the United States entered World War I, the Anti-Saloon League stoked anti-German feeling as part of the Prohibition strategy.  It was “native-born Protestants against everybody else,” Okrent writes. Demonizing foreigners was and is a useful strategy in any prohibition campaign.

In California, vintners exploited the so-called fruit juice clause in the Volstead Act, the enabling legislation for the 18th amendment. During the California Grape Rush of 1920, “Grapes are so valuable this year that they are being stolen, a Napa Valley newspaper lamented. The fruit juice clause was intended to allow farmer’s wives to “conserve their fruit” by fermenting the apple crop into hard cider.

A second useful loophole for grape growers was an exemption in the Volstead Act, allowing wine use for “sacramental purposes” during Catholic and Jewish ceremonies. A “dry” Methodist dentist promptly responded with a Protestant version: Welch’s Grape Juice.

The third major exception covered the legal distribution of alcoholic beverages “for medicinal purposes”—the only exemption for hard liquor. Clearly, alcohol in its many forms was a necessary part of practicing medicine. But “beverage alcohol” was a different story. Nonetheless, doctors wrote prescriptions for alcohol on government-issued prescription forms, and, despite initial opposition, the American Medical Association (AMA) eventually discovered 27 different medical conditions, ranging from diabetes to old age, which might benefit from the alcohol treatment, arguing that any interference with the medicinal use of liquor would be “a serious interference with the practice of medicine.”

It made for a strange set of bootlegging bedfellows: Rabbis, priests, farmer’s wives, doctors—and Al Capone. Meanwhile, alcohol poured over the border from Canada, came to the coast in ships from the Bahamas, and was offloaded in Seattle from smugglers on land and sea. As one prominent “wet” complained, Prohibition had become “an attempt to enthrone hypocrisy as the dominant force in this country.”

Prohibition even had its own version of “3 Strikes” legislation, called the Jones Law, which imposed up to a five-year sentence for first violations. Lansing, Michigan, passed an ordinance calling for mandatory life in prison for a fourth violation. One effect of such harsh laws was to force out small-time bootleggers, clearing the field for the major operators, like the Bronfman family and its Seagram’s brand of whiskey in Canada.

In the end, as the saying went, “Prohibition was better than no liquor at all.” Yet overall consumption of alcohol did decline, particularly during the early years.  Things began to change by the late 1920s, though, as the drys pushed “the limits of law’s ability to defeat appetite.” Part of the problem, Okrent believes, was simple: “Drys didn’t understand drinkers, in scores of different ways.”

“By one accounting, U.S. attorneys across the country spent, at minimum, 44 percent of their time and resources on Prohibition prosecutions—if that was the word for the pallid efforts they were able to sustain on such limited resources,” Okrent writes, again with application to the present state of affairs. In Alabama, prohibition prosecutions accounted for 90 percent of the federal court’s workload. And all this at a time when the federal government had lost more than $440 million in liquor tax revenues, much of which ended up in the pockets of foreign-born criminals.  By 1926, bootleg liquor sales were estimated at $3.6 billion nationally, “almost precisely the same as the entire federal budget that year.”

Not a pretty picture. “The business pays very well,” as attorney Clarence Darrow put it, “but it is outside the law and they can’t got to court.” As a result, Darrow said, “they naturally shoot.”

The head of the DuPont family suggested that liquor tax revenues “would be increased sufficiently to warrant the abolition of the income tax and corporation tax,” similar to today’s argument that, by ending drug prohibition, California and other states can balance their precarious budgets.

By the late 1920s, it was said, the only groups who continued to favor Prohibition were evangelical Christians and bootleggers.  In 1929, following the Crash and the beginning of the Great Depression, with banks folding and unemployment soaring, “any remaining ability to enforce Prohibition evaporated.” The Repeal movement promised that with the end of Prohibition, the Depression “will fade away like the mists before the noonday sun.” That didn’t happen. But in the first post-repeal year, the government took in more than $250 million in liquor taxes, representing about 9 percent of total federal revenue.

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