Archive for Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Mixed feelings on Wal-Mart

February 14, 2006


Self-interest gets a bad rap these days.

It is both the driving principle of capitalism and a fact of human nature.

And, it explains so much about many Americans' ambivalence toward Wal-Mart.

A survey of attitudes toward the nation's largest retailer among New Yorkers, who might be expected to be among the least supportive of the firm and its practices, explains much about that love/hate relationship.

They don't like the company and wish it were operated differently.

But in a New York minute they are on their way to shop there.

Now, remember New York City is not just in the bluest of states; it is among the few remaining U.S. hotbeds of unions - who see the retailer as their sworn enemy.

New York has become the final domestic frontier for a company with one more store in Milan, Tenn., population 7,000, than New York City with a good deal more than 7,000,000 residents.

Consider that Wal-Mart is further along in penetrating China than the Big Apple, or for that matter the entire Empire State. Wal-Mart has 11 stores in Shenzhen, a city of 7 million people located across the border from Hong Kong. In all, there are 56 Wal-Marts in China compared to the 45 in New York state.

Wal-Mart, which has no stores in New York City but wants a piece of the action, is meeting resistance from the coalition of labor, civil rights and community groups that have declared it to be their corporate enemy No. 1.

In Manhattan, N.Y., those groups carry more political clout than in Manhattan, Kansas.

Yet, the Quinnipiac University survey of New York City residents last month found that even though most don't particularly like its nonunion practices and global supply chain, that won't stop them from spending money there.

Only 51 percent wanted Wal-Mart to open stores in New York City, and 57 percent said the company doesn't pay its workers enough. Yet, 65 percent - 63 percent of union households - said they would shop there if they could.

Some might say these numbers epitomize the view of New Yorkers as crassly selfish, but that would be as unfair as it is judgmental. The phenomenal success of the company in the rest of America shows New Yorkers are no different than North Carolinians or North Dakotans.

It is fashionable to decry selfishness as responsible for every societal ill. But without the natural motivation for personal gain, our economic system might fall down around us or at least produce much less prosperity for all.

This constant effort by everyone to get the best deal they can creates the productivity fueling the economy. And that explains why people can both dislike Wal-Mart andshop there.

Remember, those societies that have sought to ban such normal human impulses have been the worse for it. Just ask the billions of Russians, Chinese and Indians who have only relatively recently forsaken various forms of socialism, which sees self-interest as evil.

The notion that self-interest has its virtues may seem like common sense, but it's not a universal given.

About 15 years ago, shortly after the Soviet Union's breakup, my family hosted a congenial and bright teacher from Russia as part of an exchange program. He was from a rural area where apples, for instance, were easily obtainable at reasonable costs, although jobs and currency were scarce.

My then 10-year-old son asked why this man did not take those apples, board a train for Moscow, where they were in short supply, and sell them there to make money. No, that would be wrong, the Russian said, because that would be taking advantage of market conditions.

My son, who now works for a major U.S. multinational company, even then realized this nice Russian was from another planet when it came to understanding economics.

One does not have to agree with the fictional Gordon Gekko in Hollywood's "Wall Street" that "greed is good" to understand being selfish isn't always a bad thing.

That's why people can dislike Wal-Mart in the abstract, yet be more than happy to buy all their stuff.

- Peter A. Brown is assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute and a former editorial-page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.


Bronco7fan 12 years, 4 months ago

the Russian had it right. He was thinking of others.

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