Back when he was mayor of Indianapolis, Stephen Goldsmith developed what he called the “Yellow Pages” rule.
In the face of tight revenues and calls for lean government, Goldsmith would let his fingers do some walking.
To evaluate whether any city government activity deserved the public’s money, he’d look in the phone book to see how many private businesses or nonprofits provided the same kind of service.
If he found a page or more of listings, Goldsmith would begin to question why his City Hall was in that particular business.
Some of us might differ over how broadly to apply Goldsmith’s rule. I, for one would argue that various activities – like schools, police, prisons – uphold core public goods. So government should always be active in such areas to protect the common weal, no matter how many corporations claim to provide a similar service.
Still, in this age of deficits and sequesters, the Yellow Pages test remains pertinent. Government may do many things that were good ideas at one time, but no longer make sense.
And these activities may now be stealing dollars from core purposes such as paying teachers, hiring cops, or fixing bridges.
Which brings me to last week’s vote by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives to privatize the state’s liquor store system. Let’s put aside the question of whether this particular, complicated bill is the ideal vehicle. Let’s not speculate yet on what the Senate will do to it.
Let’s just note that Pennsylvania’s state store system clearly fails the Yellow Pages test. Well, it does as long as you’re looking at listings in any of the 48 other states that don’t insist on a wacky state monopoly on the sale of wine and liquor.
Part of the rationale for this state control is to curb alcoholism. But the Centers for Disease Control reports that Pennsylvania ranks seventh among the states in the rate of binge drinking. Not a sign of a strategy that’s working.
Democrats who oppose this bill claim to speak for consumers, but it’s clear most consumers hate the state stores and the crazy-quilt system for buying beer. The Dems’ stance really is driven by a desire to take a stand, any stand, against the national Republican drive to neuter public-sector unions. And those state store employees are unionized.
Let me end with a quote a famous Pennsylvania consumer, whom I’m pretty sure would drip with sarcasm at the state store system.
It was Benjamin Franklin who said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” You heard the man. End the state stores. It’s God’s will.