Wal-Mart is Coming to Town
Well two items of news from small-town America today. First is that today was the official start of summer in Canton, with the Dairy Princess Festival and Parade. You really haven't experienced small-town America until you've had a Kraft caramel hurled at your head by a 10 year-old girl in a cow costume.
Second is the apparent arrival of a Wal-Mart Supercenter to the Canton-Potsdam area. There are non-Supercenter Wal-Marts 20 and 40 minutes away in other towns, but this will be their first store in either of the two college towns in the area. The usual suspects (e.g., the faculty at the four colleges) are already wringing their hands for the "loss" of "their" town, forgetting that they came to teach here (it it really "theirs"?). They are also in the top 20% of the income bracket in the poorest county in New York state, which perhaps leads them to forget that the rest of the county, especially those for whom this new Wal-Mart would mean substantially less driving to visit, would really like to have 400 new jobs and access to good merchandise and notably cheaper prices. And that doesn't even count the beneficial competitive pressures this would place on other local stores. It's also worth noting that the anti-Wal Mart crowd has the time and influence to go raise hell with the local planning boards and media, as well has having easier access to travel and the Internet, both of which afford them more shopping options. Subsistence farmers in the rest of the county are a little too busy to protest FOR Wal-Mart, and don't often get to the big-city malls, or can't afford internet access, to get what they need.
What's most interesting to me is that some of the "usual suspects" are starting to get it. Sort of. I wrote to the station manager of our local NPR outlet, offering my services if they wanted a pro-Wal Mart voice (I did this the last time this issue came up). Her response to me was interesting: she recognized the benefits Wal-Mart would bring, but then said she wished they weren't "such a pig of a company." Presumably, the "piggishness" refers to their anti-union stance. What's funny about this is that she can't see the connection between the fact that Wal-Mart is not unionized and their ability to create jobs and provide cheap goods to the area. If unionization succeeded, and pushed up wages/benefits accordingly, the result would be some combination of fewer jobs and higher prices. It's a story as old as the hills: self-interested behavior leads to unintended benefits for others. When we try to put political power over the liberty to be "piggish," we wind up hurting precisely those we are trying to help. I find it fascinating when I read such an obvious example of not seeing the work of unintended consequences.
One of these days, I'm going to write a long essay, or even a book, that's a tribute to strip malls and Wal-Mart, emphasizing the ways in which they have substantially enhanced the well-being of so many Americans, at the price, perhaps, of our aesthetic sensibilities. Call it "An Ode to Suburbia." That'll sure make me lots of friends on both the Left and Right.
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Oscar Chamberlain - 6/7/2004
Few companies are as brazen as Wal-Mart in pressing sweatshop countries to lower their costs (and therefore their workers already low living standards) as Wal-Mart. Many of those workers, particularly in China, do not have even the limited array of choices our workers have, so you can't call that the free market in action.
Steven Horwitz - 6/6/2004
Fair enough. In the very short run, there are some negative job effects elsewhere. However, most of the studies, but not all, that I've seen indicate that Wal-Mart is a net boon to the local business after some fairly short period of shakeout. Let's not forget that the 400 jobs created mean 400 or so more people with dollars to spend at Wal-Mart's *competition*. This, by the way, is the proper understanding of Say's Law (very confusingly rendered as "supply creates its own demand"). The better formulation is that "production is the source of demand." As Wal-Mart succeeds, demand elsewhere in the economy rises, increasing employment beyond Wal-Mart as a result.
Jonathan Dresner - 6/5/2004
I do wish, when touting the job creation of Wal-mart, the touters would subtract the jobs lost in competing local business or more worker-friendly chains.
Robert L. Campbell - 6/5/2004
When Wal-Mart proposed to open a Supercenter in Clemson, South carolina, a few years ago, the opposition was also largely led by faculty members. One particularly vocal leader was also active in our Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.
The only poll I saw showed that a narrow majority (in a town that's known for heavy zoning) was in favor of Wal-Mart, but the City Council eventually came up with a way to block it.
Wal-Mart regrouped, purchased a site one exit farther east along US 123 (still close to Clemson, but entirely in an unincorporated part of Pickens County), and is now building a Supercenter.
When the new plans were announced, there was much gnashing of teeth, and some openly expressed desire to project political power beyond the city limits.
I only wish that the effort some of my colleagues invested in keeping Wal-Mart at bay had been applied instead to pressing the university's upper administration to behave more responsibly.