Wal-Mart Haters Miss the Big Picture

Even those readers who are unfamiliar with Southern California have probably heard of Inglewood. The crime-ridden, drug-infested, gang-laden cesspool of a city just outside the Los Angeles city limits is nationally known thanks to rap music lyrics, a murder of a prominent rap performer and a 2002 videotape of a cop beating the pulp out of a 16-year-old black kid.

If you fly into LAX and take a wrong turn in that rental car and end up there, be sure to roll up the windows and lock the doors — especially if you are stuck at a red light beside a slammed Lincoln Navigator, the vehicle of choice of drug dealers and gang-bangers.

Yet, to hear most Inglewood city officials describe it, the city’s anarchic atmosphere is not the biggest threat to residents. The real threat, in the view of religious leaders, council members, union leaders and community activists, comes from the Arkansas-based retailer, Wal-Mart. Officials could not be counted on to approve a plan to open up a Wal-Mart on a vacant lot next to a racetrack, so the company has put its plans to a ballot next week.

Only the city’s mayor, Roosevelt Dorn, had the sense to stand up for a company that promises hundreds of jobs, hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual sales tax revenue to the city, and — most important, perhaps, to low-income residents — low-priced goods and, eventually, low-cost food if it blossoms into a Supercenter.

One council member told a radio station that Wal-Mart’s plan is the equivalent of slavery. Somehow, opening a store and offering products and jobs in a relatively free market is the same thing as coercively binding people in chains and owning them as property. What explains such willful ignorance? The unions, which fear competition from companies that offer market wages, are stoking the fires.

So is the Los Angeles Times. In a column on Thursday, Pat Morrison makes fun of the "good ol’ billionaires in Bentonville, Ark. — and their good ol’ lawyers and accountants. They’re sitting back there in their Ozark offices right now, counting their money and laughing to beat the band. At you.

"Get a load of that Inglewood, they must be saying — ready to sell its birthright to us for a mess of pottage."

It’s OK, of course, for liberal columnists to shamelessly exploit racial stereotyping by trying to get an overwhelmingly black and Latino city riled at the rednecks from Arkansas who are trying to take their birthright. Real clever, huh?

Morrison is furious that Wal-Mart would go around the left-wing council and appeal directly to residents. Residents, you see, are selling their "right to representative democracy" in exchange for "cheap DVD players, buy-one-get-one-free boot-cut jeans, a half-price Barbie dream house." Yes, yes, I’m sure Morrison would never shop for cheap electronics goods, and she certainly wouldn’t be caught dead with boot-cut jeans or a half-price Barbie dream house.

It’s so easy to make fun of people who, supposedly, want to trade their souls for cheap goods. Of course, no one really is trading their souls for such goods. Most of us, liberal elites such as Morrison included, typically stretch our dollars any way we can. There’s no crime in that. It’s honorable when companies try to outdo each other with higher quality and lower prices, which is the opposite of what government does. Yet the Left always wants to give government more power, more of our money taken by force, and more moral credibility.

The Left, and some quarters of the Right, always want to demonize corporations that, last time I checked, never put a gun to anyone’s head to make them shop or work there. In their world, we should all pay twice as much for lower-quality, American-made goods, just so their union buddies can earn big bucks and be free to treat customers shabbily and influence the political process with their forcibly taken union dues.

No thanks.

Ironically, Inglewood council members are arguing that Wal-Mart will take business from local stores. That’s a hard case to make in a vast urban area that often resembles an endless strip mall. It’s not as if this is some small town, where Wal-Mart is coming in and offering something that is not already widely available.

Even in small towns, it is bogus to suggest that Wal-Mart should be kept out to protect downtown merchants. When I lived in a small town, the downtown pharmacist was open at hours that suited him, not at hours that were convenient to customers. Sometimes I would find on the door a sign saying, "Will be back soon." Is soon an hour or 15 minutes? I have no desire to protect these sorts of businesses. When the big home improvement center opened outside town, I no longer had to pay $30 a gallon for paint in a dirty downtown hardware store run by surly owners.

Let’s not romanticize what downtown merchants often are like.

That said, I personally dislike Wal-Mart for two reasons.

No. 1 is personal. I hate the crowds. The stores are bleak. I like to shop at places that have a certain surprise factor. Like at the discount furniture store, IKEA, where you’ll find all sorts of fun and weird things you never expected to find. Those Swedes might have a socialist ethic, but they certainly understand a thing or two about design and merchandising. Even Target is cleaner and more interesting than Wal-Mart.

But, so what? We’re all free to shop where we choose. For certain mundane items, despite the unpleasantness of the shopping experience, I always go to Wal-Mart because of the low prices.

No. 2 is far more significant. Wal-Mart executives not only take subsidies from cities that desperately want the stores to locate in their midst, but they sometimes let cities use eminent domain on their behalf. Other retailers, especially Costco, do the same thing. A recent Colorado Supreme Court decision overturned a plan to condemn a private lake and fill in part of it to make way for a Wal-Mart.

Costco worked hand-in-hand with the city of Cypress, Calif., to try to use eminent domain to take a property owned by a church so that it can be transferred to the discount retailer. The transfer was called a "public" use because the public would supposedly benefit from the additional tax revenues Costco would pay. In that worldview — a fairly common one, I might add — there is no such thing as private property rights. As long as the government can find a use that pays more taxes than the current use, then it is, by definition, a "public" use. Some courts have reined in these abuses, while others have allowed them. My first book, due at the stores in June, is about the misuse of eminent domain on behalf of private corporations.

Here’s where some distinctions are important, yet an economically illiterate public seems unable to make them. I’ve even had a long discussion recently with a prominent business executive who simply could not grasp the distinctions I am making. To him, and many others, one is either pro-business or anti-business. But the readers of this Web site are not pro-business. We are pro-freedom, pro-markets.

That means that when Wal-Mart wants to open a store on its own private property in Inglewood, then it should be free to do so. It should be free to offer whatever wages it wants, hire whomever it chooses and sell whatever goods at whatever prices it chooses. The market, i.e., buyers, will decide whether Wal-Mart offers fair deals. This should not be left to a bunch of morons on a city council.

But it also means that taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to subsidize Wal-Mart. It also means that city officials, seeking the vast sales taxes that Wal-Mart offers, should not abuse their powers to take privately owned land on behalf of a greedy corporation. (Greedy is a correct term when we are talking about corporations seeking the abuse of government power on their behalf.)

To LRC readers, this is a fundamental and obvious principle. To the LA Times and the Inglewood City Council it’s about slavery and birthrights and who knows what else. Perhaps we can teach them what we mean. If only we could, say, ban the kind of stores they like, or, bulldoze their houses and businesses to make way for the kind of businesses we prefer. Maybe then they would understand the value of freedom.

We won’t do that, of course. We’re too principled and powerless.

Steven Greenhut (send him mail) is a senior editorial writer and columnist for the Orange County Register.

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