Saturday, December 29, 2012

US shopping: Booze and bulbs

Trips back to the US always include home repairs and travel provisioning, trips to the Home Depot and the Safeway.  It still feels odd to find the stores so large, the opening hours so late, the parking so vast as compared with the Netherlands.  Nor an I used to hopping into the car and tootling off to the store at all hours for no reason, rather than walking to the Jumbo for a few things for dinner.

The stores generally seem quieter this year, people making less eye contact, everyone a lot ruder in the parking lots.  I think that folks are pulling into themselves a bit, sullen after the election and worried about the likely tax raise on Jan 1.

Washington State transitioned from selling liquor in state-owned stores to allowing full retail sales several months ago.  I voted against the ballot measure (People wanting 24/7 access to  liquor stores probably need to think about why), and I’m underwhelmed with the result.  There re now liquor aisles in the food stores, heavily taxed and with prices higher than the state stores were.  But worse is that they only stock what sells.  I needed cranberry liquor for a recipe, wanted a nice single-malt for a friend.  None is now available.

When stores market to the masses, they stick to the familiar, the cheap, and the bulk brands.  Choice is vanishing. 

Social problems are multiplying. Theft of bottles and distribution to minors is way up

Fees and taxes have closed businesses rather than stimulating them. Sales have increased in Idaho and Oregon.  More drinking drivers are on the roads.

I also had several light bulbs burn out: getting replacements is getting harder.  The federal government passed laws promoting energy efficiency,  requiring incandescent bulbs to be phased out in 2013.  The alternatives are limited.

Coiled florescent fill the aisles, but are more fragile and expensive than the older bulbs.  They cost $5-7 for a single bulb; incandescents used to sell for a couple of bucks.

Long-life bulbs claim up to 9 years operating life, offsetting the costs, but mine seem to blow out within six months.

The quality of light is much harsher in the new bulbs, a white “daylight” that cools and sharpens rooms to an industrial ambience.

I’m sure I sound like a grumpy old man,  but I’m really not.  These are two examples of  policies with beneficial intent that, in practice, have raised economic and social costs while lowering product quality and choice.  It’s a good lesson in unintended consequences, with business, consumers, and government all bearing some responsibility for making things worse. 

A partial solution might be to appoint review panels that evaluate the effect of laws a year after they are implemented.  The goal would be to see if policies have had the desired effect and what secondary changes have taken place.  Then laws could be intelligently tweaked lessons taken forward to future legislation.

I’m not hopeful about how this foreshadows legalization of marijuana in Washington State in 2013.

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