Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

"Why do people get worked up over Wal-Mart?"

Good question. Jay Evensen, editor of the Deseret Morning News editorial page, tried to tackle that question in a column last month:

I'm trying to understand the hatred Wal-Mart seems to generate.

Up and down this country, there are few stores that can mobilize massive protests or get people to attend city council meetings more efficiently. There are, conversely, few stores that can get those same people to throw on a pair of jeans and a dirty T-shirt and go on a shopping spree more efficiently.

It is as if American-style capitalism has finally reached its logical extension — a place Karl Marx would denounce in the vilest terms before slinking inside to buy a cheap DVD player.

I have a neighbor who jokingly refers to Wal-Mart as "Darwin's waiting room." But that description has more to do with the type of people one encounters in the store at 2 a.m., when the aisles are still brimming with activity and checkout lines are still long, than to any threat the store poses to other retailers.

What I'm trying to understand is the type of venom that led the city of Hercules, Calif., recently to use the power of eminent domain to condemn a piece of land Wal-Mart owns so that it couldn't build near the city's waterfront — an act Marx certainly would have supported.

I'm also talking about the type of hatred that has led thousands to oppose Wal-Mart's efforts to charter itself as an industrial loan corporation here in Utah, so that it can offer credit cards, debit cards and electronic check services in its stores. This has led to a strange coalition of groups that traditionally have been fighting against each other, such as banks and realtors.

And how many of them shop there secretly?

Late last year, the Pew Research Center released a poll it conducted on public attitudes toward Wal-Mart. It found that 84 percent of Americans had shopped at one during the past year, and 81 percent said it was a good place to shop.

On the other side of the equation, however, 34 percent rated the store as a bad place to work, and 69 percent said they had a favorable view of the company. That figure puts Wal-Mart lower than McDonald's and Microsoft, two other corporations that have been known to raise fears.

Clearly, we're conflicted on the subject.

The hatred all seems to revolve around the same argument, which was summed up nicely by Hercules resident Anita Roger-Fields, who told the San Francisco Chronicle that Wal-Mart "is the worst thing that could happen to our community. They want to crush the competition."

This column is not an endorsement of Wal-Mart. It's frankly not my favorite place to shop. But I'm wondering when crushing the competition became un-American? Isn't that the whole idea behind a free-market economic system? Isn't competition supposed to lead people to innovate, invent and find new ways to give customers what they want at a low price, and doesn't it do this because the alternative to being innovative and inventive is to go out of business?

Or do we believe in competition only until someone does it a lot better than someone else? Do we believe in private property rights until, like the people of Hercules, it involves a property owner who is big and rich and generally despised?

Where do low prices and our romantic notions about small shops and early 20th century downtowns intersect? And whose interests are we serving? The same Pew survey found that the people most fond of the store are the ones who earn less than $30,000 a year — poor people who need low prices.

That does put opponents in a difficult, rather snobby, position.

Federal regulators are going to rule soon on the store's Utah bank charter. There are some intelligent arguments against allowing commerce and banking to mix. Interestingly, though, the feds already approved a similar plan for Target, with virtually no opposition at all.

My guess is that, unless people can come up with a better argument than that it hurts competitors — a difficult argument to make in a land awash in retailers — Wal-Mart will keep the lights on for those 2 a.m. mutant shoppers.
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