Thursday, September 29, 2011

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

During the trip to New Zealand, I finished reading Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent. I bought the book last summer after seeing the author interviewed on the Jon Stewart Show. The book examines the events leading up to the passage of the 18th amendment, the years during prohibition and then passage of the 21st amendment.

The book looks at the history of alcohol consumption in the United States. The per capita consumption of hard alcohol in the 17th and 18th century is almost unbelievable. By the early 19th century, Americans were drinking the equivalent of 90 bottles of 80-proof liquor per adult per year. By the end of the 19th century, the country saw the rise of German brewers and an explosion growth in beer drinking and the number of bars.

I have always scratched my head and wondered at how they were able to pass a constitutional amendment outlawing the manufacture, sale, or transportation of "intoxicating liquors". The book does a nice job of showing how a number of factors came together at the same time to make it possible. A set of factors as varied as Woman's suffrage, the Jim Crowe laws and World War I and bad feelings towards Germans came together to push prohibition forward. Surprising to me, one person--Wayne Wheeler--was largely responsible for taking advantage of the opportunity and making the constitutional amendment a reality.

Interestingly, the 16th amendment allowing Congress to levy an income tax is largely the work of the prohibitionists. Through most of the 18th and 19th century, the United States government was largely financed by taxes on alcohol. In order to outlaw alcohol, there had to be an alternative source of income for the federal government.

The best part of the book is the years during prohibition. It is absolutely amazing how out of control things were. The criminal justice system was swamped. Organized crime expanded to deal with the lucrative business. There was widespread corruption among those charged with enforcing unpopular laws. Prohibition was an abject failure.

The book suffers a little from a nonlinear style at certain points as well as just the overwhelming number of people and places. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book and would it give it a solid B grade.

As an odd footnote, the author Daniel Okrent is credited as the inventor of Rotisserie League Baseball, the precursor to modern fantasy baseball. He appears in the ESPN 30 for 30 film titled Silly Little Game.

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