The world’s poor are confronted by a host of horrible problems — civil war, AIDS, dictatorship and a lack of access to the most basic public services, like sanitation, education and transportation. Modest investments in health care and clean water would most likely save millions of lives and allow millions more the health and energy to attend school and better their lives. In the United States, the urban poor lack access to good schools, adequate medical care and safe neighborhoods.
A recent Yale Daily News column (“Here comes Wal-Mart — There goes the neighborhood,” 1/14) suggests that Yale activists respond to these problems by organizing to prevent Wal-Mart from opening a store in North Haven. In this view, Wal-Mart is a bane to poor people around the world and it must be stopped.
Where on Earth do Yale’s bright and good-hearted activists get their ideas about priorities for activism?
Let me advance a controversial idea: In recent decades, Wal-Mart has done about as much to advance the economic life of the nation’s poor people as any other institution in the nation. The nation’s poor benefit greatly from access to low-priced goods. After all, the problem of poverty is the problem of not having enough money relative to the prices of needed goods. Imagine the joy of a poor single mother who can finally afford a new winter coat for her 10-year-old daughter. Imagine the poor family who can buy Christmas presents for each of their three children only because $20 buys three decent toys at Wal-Mart. I think the fact that some Yale “liberal” activists are unmoved by these scenes reveals a not-so-hidden upper-middle-class contempt for the actual lives and “tastes” of poor people.
Wal-Mart offers lower prices than, say, K-Mart or a small downtown discount clothing store not because it uses factories in China (other stores use the same factories), nor because it pays lower wages than other stores (entry-level retail wages are low generally), but because its huge investment in information and communications technology allows it to match its wholesale purchases more carefully and quickly to consumer demand, avoiding waste and greatly lowering its costs. It is no accident that when Amazon.com opened, it hired away a group of Wal-Mart’s information technology specialists.
When Wal-Mart moves into an urban Northeastern market like New Haven, it displaces other suburban discount retailers like the late unlamented Bradlees, Ames and Caldor chains. The victims of Wal-Mart’s entry into the New Haven area are not middle-class Mom-and-Pop store owners, because the downtown stores that compete with suburban discounters were shuttered long ago. The “losers” are the shareholders and executives of the competing discount chains. The winners are the primarily low-income consumers who flock to Wal-Mart.
The Yale Daily News columnist argues that Wal-Mart is so large relative to the world economy — as large as Ireland and Israel combined! — that it can drive down world wages. Ireland and Israel are tiny places and so this argument cannot possibly be correct. The columnist appears to think that Chinese factory wages are being driven ever downward, when the facts are dramatically in the opposite direction (as one would expect if the demand for Chinese labor is increasing).
The columnist is worried that Wal-Mart workers are not unionized. Very few retail workers are. If the issue is unionization and retail wages, the campaign ought to be much broader than Wal-Mart and would, I suppose, involve boycotts of most of the Mom-and-Pop stores that the columnist wants to save.
Here is the experiment that one might run. Ask poor people in New Haven if they would be upset or happy if a Wal-Mart opened downtown. My strong belief is that poor people would celebrate, while a few Yalies protested. Many local folks would even apply at our hypothetical Wal-Mart for jobs, and would be happy to get them. For most poor families, the real problem is that Wal-Mart is too far away, not that it is too close. Similarly, ask a Chinese factory worker if he would prefer to give up his rapidly increasing standard of living and return to a life of rural starvation.
The low prices brought to the region by Wal-Mart do come at a cost to the incomes of competing (discount chain) business owners and to the fragile tastes of a few “sophisticated” college-town consumers. The question is whether these costs ought to be enough to convince Yale’s bright young activists to protest against Wal-Mart (and Starbucks and McDonald’s and so forth) instead of the world’s many true ills.
Steve Berry is the James Burrows Moffatt Professor of Economics.