Being a good liberal means knowing what to love and what to hate. Today's liberalism, you see, is a passion. It consumes its adherents, often to the point of blinding them to reality.
Take Walmart. Liberals hate Walmart. Liberals hate Walmart because labor unions told them that they must hate Walmart. Liberals do not often ask themselves why they hate Walmart. They certainly do not ask whether keeping Walmart out of major American cities serves the best interests of the people who live there.
Recently, a self-identified “good urban liberal” named Matthew Yglesias checked out the new Walmart that just opened in Washington, D. C. It was the district’s first Walmart… which means that it now has more Walmarts than New York.
That Ygleesias was pleasantly surprised is not news. That he offered some interesting reflections on the state of American shopping is not news either. What is news is that his brief column suggests that some liberals are asking themselves whether the mindless boycott of Walmart serves the local community.
Yglesias sets the scene:
Like most good urban liberals, I’ve been engaged in a lifelong near-boycott of Walmart. Not so much out of any deeply felt, principled objections to the store, but because they don’t really build Walmarts in big liberal cities. When the company tries to set up shop in a liberal town, it’s frequently stymied by union groups and their allies. The myriad zoning and permitting rules surrounding urban land create many avenues for groups with political clout to block disfavored stores, and such moves have, for example, kept Walmart out of New York City for years.
Unionized supermarket workers, to say nothing of the other stores that purvey both wet and dry goods, have happily used their political power to, Yglesias says, “rig the game” against Walmart. What good is power if you cannot use it to undermine the free market?
It’s the liberal two-step: you stifle free competition and then you rail against the free market.
Walmart simply crushes the brick-and-mortar competition available in the city, and its competitors were quite right to try to rig the game against it….
But compared with the union stores, the aisles are pleasantly wide, the shopping carts all have functioning wheels, and the shelves have every kind of boxed macaroni and cheese a person could want. It even offers some financial services, like a check-cashing operation where you can get up to $1,000 for a $3 fee. Because a good deal on check cashing is a way to get customers in the door and ready to shop, Walmart can offer a much better rate than a stand-alone storefront check-cashing operation that needs to rely on fees as a profit center.
Of course, the unions have complained the Walmart pays minimum wage—for the most part, it doesn’t— and have suggested that it mistreats its workers.
This is not what Yglesias found in his Washington Walmart:
Most damningly, the store is well-staffed with friendly and helpful people who make the Safeway experience seem like shopping in a Russian customs line. The (I assume) lower pay lets Walmart hire more people. And however meager the wages may be, they were high enough that 23,000 people applied for 600 positions at the stores, meaning the people who got picked are probably pretty good at their jobs.
The statistic is staggering. Tens of thousands of Washingtonians want to work at Walmart. I am confident that the D. C. community is not alone in this regard.
But, municipal government has blocked Walmart from investing in the communities and providing jobs for people who desperately need them. They have also blocked Walmart from helping, with its low prices and absurdly wide selection, to provide a better quality of life at a lower price.
Good liberals cannot let that happen.
On the other hand, the people who want these jobs voted for the City Council officials who are blocking their access to these jobs. So you do not have to feel sorry for them. Or, as the adage goes: Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.
Were we living in a truly free market economy, Walmart’s problem would not be labor unions and competing market chains. It’s real competition would be Amazon. Or, when it comes to food in New York City: Fresh Direct.
Yglesias believes that the future of shopping, at least for people like him, lies in ecommerce. Surely, that is the story that we should be watching. Not merely because we like to keep up with trends, but because the rise of ecommerce will inevitably influence commercial real estate values and job opportunities in large cities. Ecommerce can sell more things cheaper, so it also exerts deflationary pressure on prices.
Yglesias is wondering: as more and more shopping takes place online, what will become of big stores like Walmart?
In his words:
But why would I buy some socks or a no-stick frying pan or a coffee maker at Walmart when Amazon Prime would ship almost anything to my door in 36 hours? In fact, this past November, just as the finishing touches were being put on the new Walmart, I was getting serious about putting Amazon’s Subscribe & Save feature to use. Paper towels, toilet paper, dish soap, hand soap, laundry detergent, whatever you call the stuff that goes in a dishwasher, dried pasta, canned beans, and basically anything else that won’t rot are now scheduled for drop-off on the 22nd of every month. For now, less-wired demographic groups are still eager for the brick-and-mortar shopping experience. But delivery—no parking, no schlepping—is the future of urban commerce, not reengineered big-box stores.
Yglesias is happy to let the free market sort things out:
Walmart knows this, of course, and is trying to get into the e-commerce game in a big way. But even if it succeeds (which will be very hard), urban stores seem unlikely to play a large role in a strategy that calls for goods to be distributed from very large suburban warehouses. In the meantime, cities that have been fending off Walmart have been shooting themselves in the foot. The multibrand physical retail store is a fading concept, but Walmart does it very well—and its downtown D.C. shop shows the company certainly can make it work in urban centers that deign to grant them permission to try.