Friday, August 17, 2007
"War against Wal-Mart? Not in our name"
For those of you without a subscription to the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, this was my final Town Crier II column from Wednesday. You won't have Forbes to kick around anymore.
"Big box retail carries with it some heavy baggage," wrote Dwight Merriam in his paper, "Breaking Big Boxes: Learning from the Horse Whisperers." "Issues of unionization, wage scales, benefits for workers, and adverse effects on existing retail uses are real and important, but must be questioned as a basis for land-use planning and regulation." According to Merriam, most big-box opponents use coercion and an "over-our-dead-bodies" approach that only creates strong feelings that are exacerbated by media attention. This creates an environment where winning is "by attrition, not reason." He recommends that opponents work with big-box retailers instead, for as he puts it, "some of those who rail against big box retail are out of touch with what mainstream America wants."
Who exactly are these big-box opponents and why are they so out of touch with what mainstream America wants?
A Pew poll released in August 2006 found that among Republicans, Democrats, and independents of conservative, moderate and liberal persuasions, only a majority of liberal Democrats (53 percent) held an unfavorable opinion of Wal-Mart. By the same percentage, only a majority of liberals felt that Wal-Mart was a bad place to work.
In a 2005 study, 72 percent of professors at U.S. universities identified themselves as liberals. Predictably, opposition to Wal-Mart in Pullman has come from the ivy-covered halls of academe in the form of the Pullman Alliance for Responsible Development.
One of PARD's many absurdities is that the groups it claims to represent (retail employees, downtown merchants, etc.) are not reflected in PARD's leadership. As Rolling Stone editor Matt Taibbi recently lamented, "Having rich college grads acting as the political representatives of the working class isn't just bad politics. It's also silly."
Indeed, what could be sillier than a Ph.D. associate university dean and a Ph.D. Chinese professor "fighting the good fight" for "wage workers" and "mom-and-pop stores" in Pullman?
PARD's activities could be dismissed as merely a "penchant for revolutionary drama" featuring "oppressed" emeritus professors and suburbanite undergrads with duct tape over their mouths, Australians signing petitions not to shop at Wal-Mart in Pullman, and shriveled deer testicles, if not for the seedy underbelly of elitist bigotry.
According to Pew, only 28 percent of liberals shopped at Wal-Mart regularly, as opposed to 45 percent of conservative and moderate Democrats and similar percentages in other political groups. Not surprising really, as liberals have an average annual income of $71,000, the highest of any political category. In contrast, the average income of a Wal-Mart shopper is $35,000. To paraphrase Moscow Mayor Nancy Chaney, liberals can afford to be selective.
In fact, the lower the annual income, the more popular Wal-Mart becomes. Pew found that 90 percent of people who earned $20,000 or less had a favorable opinion of the retailer. And why not? In 2004, low-income families saved enough on groceries at Wal-Mart to equal a 6.5 percent pay raise.
Debra Saunders of the San Francisco Chronicle once opined, "Vocal Wal-Mart foes believe they have a right to decide who sets up shop in their town, and the right to keep out shops that might attract lower-income shoppers. This is just class warfare. While Wal-Mart haters are free to not shop at Wal-Mart, they want to wield the club of government so that others don't shop at Wal-Mart."
Class warfare seems to be occurring in Pullman, where according to the hearing examiner's report, "Suggestions of the intrusion of undesirable social classes were presented in great detail" by PARD at hearings last year.
Did PARD mean the elderly lady, the immigrant family, the retired couple, the single mom with two small kids, and the cash-strapped student? Those are the people I see while shopping at Wal-Mart in Moscow. If so, many "undesirables" already live here in Pullman.
Portland, that Utopia of "responsible development," has banished Wal-Mart outside city limits for years. Last month, however, an Ikea, the very antithesis of smart growth, opened there. But it's OK. Portland's mayor assured his fellow latte liberals that, "Ikea shares our values." Which values are those? Bald-faced hypocrisy and snobbery to allow a mammoth 280,000-square-foot big-box store that caters to yuppies?
Constructive land use planning is vital. But when Wal-Mart foes talk of "neon big-box discounted culture" and "cheap Chinese crap," they display intolerance for those who shop there. We cannot and will not accept that on the Palouse - not now, not ever.
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