Thursday, September 6, 2007

Blessed Are the Monopolists?

I have decided to switch gears and write about, of all things, WalMart. I have been thinking about a couple of weeks’ old newspaper column about WalMart pulling out of negotiations with the City of Tallahassee to provide a grocery store in an area the city is interested in redeveloping. (Now, why we all shouldn’t run for the exits when we hear that a City government is getting involved in choosing grocery stores is an issue for a different post entirely). What caught my eye, and I don’t have the original paper in front of me, was one community activist who sniffed something along lines of “We know we need a grocery store, but I think we can do better [than WalMart]”. Really? On what criteria?

This got me thinking about the incredible disdain with which elite urban American culture views WalMart. I’ve always wondered about the reasons for this. Is it something about the Waltons’ religious background? Well, the Waltons were faithful members of and significant donors to the Presbyterian Church, USA, one of the pillars of liberal Protestantism. Is it because some categories of their employees don’t have full insurance benefits? Perhaps, but, as I’ve said over and over, this reality is a product of our ridiculous history of wage and price controls and is nothing the Waltons invented. Moreover, not only do most U.S. firms, particularly including many “Mom and Pop” stores, make a similar distinction, but I would advise also looking at the heart of American elite opinion, academia. I suspect that many, if not most, U.S. universities practice the “part time/no benefits shuffle”.

I think the answer lies in cultural snobbishness. That’s important, because it’s pretty clear that Jesus wasn’t really fond of urban (i.e. Jerusalem) elite snobbishness. We know Jesus and his disciples attracted attention because of their rural accent, and future disciple Nathaniel asked “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Let me recall an incident from my childhood. My parents moved around a lot when I was young. In one stretch we lived in typically suburban Dallas, and were there long enough to see the opening of the first suburban shopping malls. Then we moved to a town I’ll call Smallville, population 22,000. What a shock. There were two historic banks in town, neither of which particularly wanted your business. There was a small Montgomery Wards, a Sears catalog store, and a single, locally owned, department store. And, on the edge of town, a store I will call the Brand X Discount Store. Brand X had a potential market because their “discount” status made them somewhat cheaper than the main street stores. However, I remember the Brand X store very well (I could ride to just about anywhere in Smallville on my bike). It was dirty, cluttered and unattractive. The products sold there were not of high quality, employees were not friendly or well informed, and returns were not easy.

It was in towns of approximately Smallville’s size that the Waltons made their fortune. The WalMarts offered customers truly lower prices, clean, well lit stores, and a reputation for friendliness and a generous return policy. Simply put, WalMart believed that people who lived in towns of about, say, 22,000 deserved the same things that customers in larger cities took for granted. To put this in religious terms, WalMart was practicing hospitality to a segment of people that many identified as “the least” in society. But what this practically meant is that WalMart became significantly attached to the prejudices against this particular cultural slice of America.

Indeed, in fact of course, this meant that some locally owned stores in towns such as Smallville faced price pressure, and maybe went out of business. That’s what losing your monopoly status means. I remember traveling with some people from a small town in Wisconsin, and they mentioned that a WalMart had recently opened there. I thought: "Oh, here comes the hymn to small town downtown America". In fact, what these people told me was essentially: “It’s about time. Those guys downtown have been living off the high prices from their monopolies long enough.” I will ponder for a future post why it seems that so many Christians have adopted “poor people pay higher prices at home-town monopolies” as some type of Christian value. I don’t see this anywhere in the Gospels, and I’m curious as to where it comes from. I suspect, as a fan of Os Guinness, that this is where a cultural value masquerades as a religious value.

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