« Suburbia | Main | The passing of an era »

Wal-Mart Government

Where do you stand on issues of democracy and corporate rule?

One way to find out is to consider a case where they seem to be so closely interwoven that it's hard to clearly separate the democracy from the corporate bullying. The city of Inglewood, California, will vote tomorrow on whether to allow Wal-Mart to build a superstore largely exempt from local ordinances governing the rest of the city.

Is Wal-Mart Government a good thing when the people vote for it?

While Wal-Mart has turned to the ballot in a number of cities and towns to win the right to build its giant emporiums, the Inglewood initiative is significantly different. The proposal would essentially exempt Wal-Mart from all of Inglewood's planning, zoning and environmental regulations, creating a city-within-a-city subject only to its own rules. Wal-Mart has hired an advertising and public relations firm to market the initiative and is spending more than $1 million to support the measure, known as initiative 04-A.

On one hand, it seems right to let the citizens of the community that will have to live with the consequences of Wal-Mart Government decide for themselves if that's a good thing.

On the other hand, it smells like exploitation when Wal-Mart feels the need to submerge the issue in $1 million of direct campaign spending, and when the ballot issue is responding to a City Council and numerous community groups who have already said "no."

Ironically, perhaps, the best argument against Wal-Mart is also the best argument for Wal-Mart. The Mayor (who supports the initiative) says:

"We're talking about a new police station, a new community and cultural center, a new park in District 4, upgrades for every park and recreation area in Inglewood," Mr. Dorn said. "As far as I'm concerned, it's a no-brainer."

The goodies that make Wal-Mart so easy to say "yes" to simultaneously make it very hard to say "no." They raise the issue of whether there's real choice, and real democracy, when an economically strapped community can obtain a new fire station only by exempting a powerful global corporation from virtually all its local requirements and controls.

Say to a starving man: "give me the right to ignore your wishes in the future, and I'll set you up with all-you-can-eat for the next week."

Coercion? Or real choice?

Consider another of Wal-Mart's arguments, made by corporate spokesman Peter Kanelos:

There's only one entity in the entire state of California that can determine how much market share any company has, and that's the customer.

Like it or not, this is powerful. It points up the fact that we may often say one thing as citizens, and say the opposite as "customers." Wal-Mart is powerful, but that's only because we keep shopping at Wal-Mart. We buy their cheap goodies; does this mean we're 'estopped' from denying them their exemptions from regulation? Or at least, does our opposition to Wal-Mart mark us as inconsistent when we continue to shop there?

What do you think about democracy? What do you think about corporate rule? It's time to take your stand.


The next battle: Los Angeles:

In the city of Los Angeles, where officials are putting the finishing touches on an ordinance that would effectively prohibit the Supercenters in much of the city limits, political and labor leaders say they are watching Inglewood closely for clues to the kind of fight the company may wage against them.

More analysis here:

But Inglewood is different. Never before has there been anything like this, anywhere. The Homestretch at Hollywood Park initiative asks Inglewood voters to carve a wide path through land-use law. The issues are so complex that Judge Dzintra Janavs said she could not wade through them all; yet those are the very issues to be presented to voters in the form of a 71-page ballot measure that creates a one-project exception to planning laws and administrative procedure.


What you have described is what economists call "voting with their feet." Citizens can tlk all they want about keeping Wal-Mart out, but talk is cheap, and when it comes down to it, people will do what makes them better off. And often that means shopping at Wal-Mart.

As far as coercions vs. choice in dropping the regulations. You should take that as an example as to why these regulations often have hidden costs of keeping businesses, that customers want if voting with their feet, from setting up shop in the community. You're right in a way - they shouldn't drop the regs for Wal-Mart. They should drop them for everyone (at least the ones that are net harmful, which is most of them.)

But when people vote differently with their feet than they do in the ballot box, why should we privilege what they do with their feet? We often assume that we should, but seldom give reasons for this.

Because when people vote with their feet--actually their pocketbooks--on a given occasion, they're responding to a unique issue with a particular action. I may have no objection to WalMart and yet vote an anti-WalMart candidate into power because I agree with him on sewage subsidies, or whatever.

Further, for all the passion you've got up there, don't you think it's a little ridiculous? "Give a starving man a choice..." But Inglewood, California isn't starving, even if it's not Beverly Hills. They're making policy choices, like mature adults do: do they want to live in a city with a WalMart, and if not, do they want to pay taxes to have what they're foresaking? Certainly, the fact that an organization should have to offer hefty bribes to a city in order to buy property and open up for profitable business would seem more of an imposition than the idea that those receiving the bribes are somehow morally deserving.

Finally, given that WalMart lost the vote, might you take back your implication that Inglewood is akin to a starving man who has no choice?

On voting with your feet: I agree with you that voting with one's feet, or pocketbook, is what you claim it is. What I'm after is an argument about why we should privilege this action over voting. Voting is also a "particular action" which "responds[s] to a unique issue." Liberals tend to privilege voting decisions (without argument); conservatives tend to privelege spending decisions (without argument). I'm curious about what the arguments would be...

Inglewood (fortunately) has turned out to be a bad test case for the conflict between corporate rule and democracy. The citizens of Inglewood have chosen, adult-style, to pass up those always-low Wal-Mart prices in order to retain the public control which they value.

But let's then treat the issue I posed in my post as a purely hypothetical situation. Imagine a really, really, poor town in a similar situation. East St. Louis, Illinois, for example.

Finally, are you suggesting that Wal-Mart can't be treated fairly unless they bribe the town? That sounds ridiculous. Wal-Mart can do business in Inglewood without bribing anyone. They just have to abide by the same public regulations and laws that everyone else must comply with. That sounds fair, reasonable, and just to me.