Jimmy Carter: Not the King of Beers? (Updated)

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Here is potentially disappointing news. After receiving waves and waves of reminders about an essay crediting Jimmy Carter (my one-time employer) with having ushered in the microbrew / craftbrew paradise that is modern America, I included a link to that report.

Alas! From reader Tom Hilton, disillusioning truth: it wasn't Carter at all. Details below. On the other hand, Carter still is responsible for those solar panels on the White House roof (that Ronald Reagan removed). And for car-mileage standards that, for a decade or so, made the U.S. auto fleet far more efficient. So, there's still something. Tom Hilton writes:

While I have immense admiration for President Carter, and would love to see him get the credit he deserves for all sorts of things (and who knows; now that Obama has officially supplanted him as History's Greatest Monster, maybe he will), but E. D. Kain's claim that Carter "deregulated the beer industry" (in Kain's words) is grossly inaccurate. What Carter did sign was HR 1337, which legalized homebrewing "for personal or family use, and not for sale"--'deregulating' individual, not commercial, behavior. The legalization of homebrewing did contribute to the growth of the craft beer industry (according to Charlie Papazian, 90% of the pioneer craft brewers started out making homebrew), so President Carter certainly deserves credit for that...but it just as certainly isn't "beer industry" deregulation.  [Below, statue of "History's Greatest Monster," from The Simpsons.]

CarterMonster.png

IMO, the step that really touched off the craft beer explosion was the legalization of brewpubs in various states--WA and CA in 1982, OR in 1983, with others following shortly thereafter. This is consistent with the graph, which shows a leap in numbers from 1979 to 1989 (meaning the growth could have started at any point during that decade); according to the American Brewers Association, the low point was 1982, meaning the turnaround actually began in 1983 (not 1979). Also: of the 1500 breweries in existence today, 2/3 are or began as brewpubs.
Kain is not the originator of the claim; he paraphrased it from a post by a guy named Rob Carlson, writing back in March. A week before Carlson's post, Greg Beato wrote a post arguing that HR 1337 was responsible for the craft beer explosion (and giving Carter credit); my best guess is that Carlson read Beato, but misread the nature of the bill (possibly because Welch oversells the impact of homebrewing legalization, making it sound as if it led *directly* to greater market diversity). Kain's post, of course, got cited by just about everybody.

From my perspective, the real story here is how an inaccuracy ("Carter deregulated the beer industry") that could have been checked with a modest amount of online research suddenly became conventional wisdom without anyone of note correcting it (I tried here, and a beer blogger in Baltimore also attempted it:, but neither of us is prominent enough to have any noticeable impact). I think the problem is that there is no political constituency for factual accuracy in this case: libertarians like the pro-deregulation moral of the story, liberals like the partial rehabilitation of President Carter, and in any case a correction wouldn't change any of the broader conclusions.

Again, I don't mean to take away any credit from President Carter. I'm just old-fashioned enough to believe that factual acccuracy is worth pursuing for its own sake.

Fair point about the value of old-style reporting skills, even in the world of the blogs. I am not, in fact going re-report this story myself, since I can't bear the further heartbreak of looking into this lost part of the Carter legacy. But for the record, this is what I know right now.
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UPDATE: Erik Kain, author of the item in question, writes in to defend his interpretation. You be the judge:

Your reader is quibbling over the definition of deregulation. Removing a barrier to entry to any market is an act of deregulation whether or not access to the market is direct or indirect.

If, for instance, people were not allowed to bake their own bread without a license from the government and strict adherence to a number of regulations, then this would effectively crowd out a lot of people who would otherwise become bakers. One doesn't need to legalize the sale of home baked bread in order to deregulate the bread market, they simply need to legalize the baking itself which provides people with basic access to the craft as well as to the supplies necessary to pursue that craft. Likewise, regulating away home bakers would also crowd out a lot of suppliers who would otherwise provide baking goods and information to home bakers. Soon only bakeries with access to lots of cash and influence would have any market share at all, regardless of whether or not smaller bakeries were legal.

The same phenomenon applies to home brewing. In the pre-Carter days there was little or no access to home brewing supplies, very little knowledge base for do-it-yourselfers to draw from, and far less experimentation with home brewing, making it effectively impossible to gain entry to the beer market for non-corporate brewers. Carter's deregulation essentially stripped away all these barriers to entry, making it possible for a number of people who would otherwise not have entered the market to do so. Did deregulation of brewpubs also help lead to the craft beer explosion? Certainly. But as your reader notes, 90% of craft beers began as home brews. Without Carter's deregulation, the brewpubs themselves would never have taken off. 90% of the craft brews we now have would never have existed. Even if this didn't allow home brewers to directly sell their beer in the wider market, it allowed them to gain the skills and information necessary to do so.

Removing these barriers to entry can rightly be understood as deregulating the beer industry. It's just semantics to suggest otherwise.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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