22 April 2011

The SWPL/Bobo Grocery Store

One of the first thing I remember from EconTalk when I first subscribed years ago was Mike Munger talking about how a business is stuck between a rock, a hard place, and some other hard place when it comes to avoiding criticism from anti-market demagogues. If you set prices higher than your competitors, you're accused of gouging. If you set prices the same as competitors, you're colluding. And if you set prices below your competitors, you're predatory.

I was reminded of that lesson when I read Radley Balko's wonderful "How To Run a Protest-Proof Grocery Store"
This piece from my colleague Michael Moynihan about a Whole Foods protest in Boston would be amusing if it weren’t so infuriating. Seems that a group of activists are trying to block a Whole Foods from opening in a gentrifying part of the city. The problem? As we’ve seen with similar efforts to stop Walmart from opening stores in urban areas, the people the activists claim they’re protecting actually want the store to open. Silly poor Latinos. Don’t they know what’s good for them?

I pointed out during the last backlash against Whole Foods (because CEO John Mackey dared to have non-leftist opinions about health care) that the evil corporate giant treats its employees far better than grocers with union labor, or in this case, the quaint neighborhood store everyone is trying to save.

So what’s the problem? I’d say the left’s hate of Whole Foods is pretty neatly summed up in this Alternet piece: It’s Mackey’s libertarian politics, the company’s opposition to unionization (which is quite different than how it treats its employees), and its general “bigness” and “multinational” status. In other words, it’s nothing that the company actually does. It’s more about what it represents. Everything big is bad. Except for government. Or something like that. [...]

All of which got me wondering. What would it take to run a grocery store that’s immune to progressive protest? I came up with this checklist:
  • You must pay your employees a high wage and provide them with excellent health insurance. However, you may pay them crappy wages and offer fewer benefits so long as you let them unionize. Bonus points if they’re required to divert a portion of those crappy wages to union dues.

  • You must offer organic food, and cater to alternative diets. You should probably also offer ethnic food. But don’t get too big.

  • You must insist that your suppliers adhere to strict standards about the treatment of animals and the environment. You should buy local. You shouldn’t sell anything that can only be shipped by jet or tractor trailer. We don’t want our enjoyment of our shade-grown, fair-trade, organic morning roast with hints of chocolate, currant, and elderberry ruined by a giant-carbon-footprint finish. But remember, you still need to cater to a wide variety of diets. And have good selection. And not charge too much. [...]

  • Just a reminder: You must do all of these things while keeping your prices low. But not so low that you might cause a rival locally-owned store to go out of business. [...]

  • You should invest in urban areas, but any profits should only come from suburban stores with predominantly white customers. Otherwise you’re taking advantage of people of color.

  • Actually, strike that. Morally, you should really only be making just enough money to keep the lights on. Maybe enough to also provide yourself with a modest, progressive urban lifestyle. Anything more is greed. If you’re doing well enough to actually open another store, not only are you making too much money, you also are now a “chain”. And chains are inherently evil. [...]
Don't miss the rest of the list of requirements. The ones for distilled alcohol particularly are particularly good.

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