Matt Steinglass responds to me and Matt Yglesias and Ryan Avent on pub culture:

I think these observations are all apt, but I'm also wondering why a comparison of pub quality in these three places would focus primarily on regulatory or economic issues rather than that diffuse and confusing beast we call culture. I can think of two reasons why people tend to write disproportionately about economic and regulatory reasons for these kinds of problems. First, they're concrete. You can investigate the regulatory issues surrounding licensing businesses in your area pretty easily, and those rules are discrete and public and clear. Then you can analyze the expected results. Second, problems with regulatory and eocnomic origins are amenable to solution. Change the regulations and you might in principle have solved the problem, even if in this case nobody can figure out quite how to do that.

But what strikes me overwhelmingly about the difference between bars/pubs in London, New York and Washington is that these three cities have completely different nightlife cultures. Those cultures are irreducible to the regulatory environment or to economic behaviour. The regulatory environment in London doesn't do much to explain why, when you walk through Southwark on a winter's evening at 6:30pm with the thermometer tipping 0 degrees centigrade, you see crowds of men and women in long dark coats standing on the sidewalk sipping pints of bitter. It doesn't explain the fact that up until 1990 there basically wasn't a decent atmospheric bar with good food in Washington, DC, or not one that would be recognised as such by someone from New York or London.

One can argue about whether our posts should reflect more on culture, but I can tell you why they do focus on regulatory issues:  we all live in DC.  And in DC, regulatory decisions are very clearly driving what the bar culture looks like.

The gentrification boom in DC has hit up against a limited supply of bars--and neighborhood commissions that are very resistant to quickly opening more of them.  The result is that no bar stays un-crowded for long; if it's any good at all, it's soon overwhelmed with a tidal wave of people fleeing the standing-room-only crowds at all the other bars.  The bars aren't like this because most people in DC want to spend their Friday nights packed like cheap sardines; the bars are like this because there are so few of them in the areas where people under 35 live, that the only people who can bear to be in them are the people who will tolerate any conditions, including those of veal calves, if only they can endure them while holding a drink.

This is a new development in the areas of DC where, as it happens, Matthew Yglesias, Ryan Avent and I, all like to go out of an evening.  When I moved to DC a scant three and a half years ago, there were enough bars where you could enjoy a Thursday night seated in the company of friends. Then came January 2009, when I held a birthday get-together at a previously local place on 11th street.  Unfortunately, there wasn't much getting together; more than half the people were turned away because of overcrowding.  Several bars had been shut down in Adams Morgan because the weren't serving enough food to comply with their tavern licenses; the result was that Adams Morgan relocated to U Street.  

Since then, this pattern has been repeated over and over; any bar that opens is pleasant for a month or so, then completely, miserably jammed.

I think it's fair to say that our views on the relative importance of regulatory factors may be jaundiced by this--but in DC, regulation (and population pressure) clearly is the driving factor behind the lack of cozy, comfortable spots to get a bite and a beer.