Matt Yglesias suggests after a Twitter debate that I and Tom Philpott are conceding a lot to neo-liberalism because we’re OK with microbrews. I’m not so sure.
Matt’s original claim was that craft brewers were somehow analogous to charter schools, giving us delicious individualist brews, rather than unionized mass-produced piss.
So here’s the thing. You may not like Miller or Bud Light, but Miller and Anheuser-Busch both run unionized breweries. And as Loomis notes, one consequence of the cartelization of the American beer brewing industry was to generate monopoly profits for the large breweries. This was good not just for “Miller executives” but for all the stakeholders in the enterprise. When a unionized firm is in a non-competitive marketplace, the union is in a strong position to force the firm to share some of the monopoly rents with the workforce. When the market becomes more competitive, not only does the unionized firm lose market share but the union in general loses leverage. The craft breweries are basically the charter schools (or foreign-built trains) of the beer world.
I think this first version of the claim was wrong, on any reasonable interpretation. If Matt was suggesting that good beer and good unions are somehow incompatible, all I can say is Sir, I refute you thus!. If he was arguing instead, as he seemed to be claiming on Twitter, that Big Microbrew threatens the bargaining power of unions in the American beer industry, then he was making a wildly implausible claim. Not only do microbrews only account for a small percentage of the market (about 7% as best as I can see) but they constitute a more or less entirely separate market from the market for Miller, Budweiser etc. There’s simply not that much substitution between the two – hence, not much in the way of market effects. Unlike e.g. steel minimills in the 1980s, microbrews pose no fundamental threat to the way the major industry is organized. He’s correct that charter schools (which I personally have no very strong inherent objections to, by the way) also only constitute a small percentage of the US education market – but beer, obviously, is not subject to the same political forces as is education. There is little likelihood that the appeal of microbrews will lead state, local or federal officials to impose or encourage mandatory hopping levels for Anheuser-Busch, or that US unions would object if they did. Unlike their Danish compatriots they have no skin in the game. Microbrews have no realistic chance of transforming the main marketplace in ways that would undermine unions.
Matt seems now to be making a somewhat different claim, which doesn’t really make much sense to me.
The Farrell/Philpott explanations of why this is okay in the case of domestic craft beer rely on the claim that empirically speaking the impact of the new entrant in question on the marketplace is going to be small. That may be true, but it’s in considerable tension with the impulse of Philpott (based on his original article) and Farrell (assuming “pissy” is not a compliment) to valorize the new entrants. … There seems to me to be a kind of special pleading at work here, where on the one hand a neoliberal approach to the beer market is justified on the grounds that it’s giving consumers superior options, but then it’s okay to be a neoliberal about beer because only a tiny minority of consumers will actually appreciate these new options. Neoliberalism for me but not for thee
This is a very peculiar argument. Matt has been quite good in the past at taking on libertarians and conservatives who claim that all liberals want is a bigger state. Now, he seems to be suggesting that all that people to his left want are bigger regulation and bigger unions, and that when it comes to craft ales and stuff that they really care for, they’re big old hypocrites who want deregulation all the way. This claim rests both on a caricature of the left and a fundamental misconception about the issues at stake, which concern personal likes and dislikes, not politics. I have particular tastes in beer, but I don’t feel that other people are missing out on very much if they don’t share those tastes, and instead drink beers that I myself dislike. Not only am I prepared to share a blog with such people, I’m even married to one of them. Nor, even if my tastes were like those of dsquared and my spouse, would I have any reason to oppose deregulation that did no apparent damage to the causes that I believe in. Where a policy change gives people more choices, and there are no discernible negative side-effects, I’m all in favor. I cannot on earth see why anyone would prefer to describe this stance as ‘special pleading,’ or a major concession to neo-liberalism rather than e.g. ‘common sense.’
Perhaps there is some Bierstalinismus Fraktion out there, which believes that the proletariat will never be fully realized as a class-in-itself until it learns to appreciate hoppy microbrews, but which has reached an accommodation with neo-liberalism in which these joys are reserved for the revolutionary vanguard. I’m not a member of it. Nor, I suspect, is anyone else whom Matt is disagreeing with. This is a rotten test-case for arguments about neo-liberalism, precisely because neo-liberals, left-liberals and social democrats have no reason to disagree with each other. In cases where there is a clash between (a) increasing individual choice, and (b) plausibly weakening political forces that help militate against inequality, there are real arguments to be had (and, depending on the specifics of the case, one might reasonably favor the one side or the other). But I’m not seeing any such clash here, and I’m rather confused as to why Matt thinks that there is, and that people to his left are engaging in special pleading so as to ignore it.