Columbia County, Ark. — There’s no sign of it here in Magnolia, Ark., but the boycott season is upon us, and graduates of Princeton and Bryn Mawr are demanding “justice” from Wal-Mart, which is not in the justice business but in the groceries, clothes, and car-batteries business. It is easy to scoff, but I am ready to start taking the social-justice warriors’ insipid rhetoric seriously — as soon as two things happen: First, I want to hear from the Wal-Mart-protesting riffraff a definition of “justice” that is something that does not boil down to “I Get What I Want, Irrespective of Other Concerns.”
Second, I want to turn on the radio and hear Jay-Z boasting about his new Timex.
What might that be?
If you want an illuminating example of the fact that there is more to the way that prices work in a free market than can be captured by the pragmatic calculations of cold-eyed util-traders, consider the luxury-goods market and its enthusiastic following among people who do not themselves consume many or any of those goods. One of the oddball aspects of rich societies such as ours is the fact that when people pile up a little bit more disposable income than they might have expected to, they develop a taste for measurably inferior goods and outdated technologies: If you have money that is a little bit obscene, you might get into classic cars, i.e., an outmoded form of transportation; if your money is super-dirty obscene, you get into horses, an even more outmoded form of transportation.
If economic “exploitation” means making “obscene profits” — an empty cliché if ever there were one — then Wal-Mart and the oil companies ought to be the good guys; not only do they have relatively low profit margins, but they also support millions of union workers and retirees through stock profits and the payment of dividends into pension funds. By way of comparison, consider that Hermès, the luxury-goods label that is a favorite of well-heeled social-justice warriors of all sorts, makes a profit margin that is typically seven or eight times what Wal-Mart makes, even though, as rapper Lloyd Banks discovered, its $1,300 sneakers may not always be up to the task. If Wal-Mart is the epitome of evil for selling you a Timex at a 3 percent markup, then shouldn’t Rolex be extra-super evil?
Strangely enough, Jay-Z remains “a celebrity quite serious about social justice,” according to the Huffington Post, even as he offers paeans to high-end horologist Hublot; though he does, as advertised, seem to favor the platinum Rolex Day-Date II. Celebrity dope Ashton Kutcher angrily demanded: “Wal-Mart, is your profit margin so important you can’t pay your employees enough to be above the poverty line?” It is safe to bet that Rolex earned a much higher margin on the Milgauss watch that Kutcher wears, as surely as does the maker of the fairly spendy Baume & Mercier watches for which he served as a celebrity pitchman.
A few weeks ago, I was very much amused by the sight of anti-Wal-Mart protests in Manhattan — where there is no Wal-Mart, and where, if Bill de Blasio et al. have their way, there never will be. Why? Because we’re too enlightened to let our poor neighbors pay lower prices. The head-clutchingly expensive shops up on Fifth and Madison avenues? No protests. Rather, they were bustling with the same class of people behind the protests, people busily accumulating — or at least making like Holly Golightly in the window at Tiffany’s.
Here in Columbia County, Ark., a not-especially-prosperous locale behind the Pine Curtain where the median household income is about half the national average and where a few twists and turns down county roads find you in a world of shacks and chained-up dogs out of a Snuffy Smith cartoon, nobody is boycotting the local Wal-Mart. In fact, the locals seem rather fond of this purported outpost of economic exploitation and wicked capitalist blah-blah-blah. And it is not difficult to understand why: It is an important part of local commerce in a community that is hungry for enterprise.
People buy Rolex watches for reasons other than their timekeeping excellence, just as people buy Ferraris and horses for reasons other than going to the store to pick up a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread. Economists talk about “Veblen goods,” which are more valued because of their high prices rather than in spite of them, coveted not for their conventional utility but for their exclusivity. Owning a Rolls-Royce isn’t about the car — it’s about you. Which is why you see magazines such as The Robb Report — one of those glossies full of “bland advertisements for being wealthy,” as the novelist William Gibson put it — for sale in places such as Wal-Mart, where the typical customer is not actually in the market for a yacht or Kiton overcoat. If you’ve ever seen the heartbreaking sight of a young woman stopping a Wal-Mart checker three-fourths of the way through ringing up her purchases — because she does not have enough money to pay for what’s left in her cart — then you can be pretty sure that what’s going in her sack is more or less the opposite of Veblen goods.
Ironically, the anti-Wal-Mart crusaders want to make life worse for people who are literally counting pennies as they shop for necessities. Study after study has shown that Wal-Mart has meaningfully reduced prices: 3.1 percent overall, by one estimate — with a whopping 9.1 percent cut to the price of groceries. That comes to about $2,300 a year per household, savings that accrue overwhelmingly to people of modest incomes, not to celebrity activists and Ivy League social-justice crusaders.
Ultimately, these campaigns are exercises in tribal affiliation. The Rolex tribe, and those who aspire to be aligned with it, signal their status by sneering at the Timex tribe — or by condescending to it as they purport to act on its behalf, as though poor people were too stupid to know where to find the best deal on a can of beans. Or call it the Trader Joe’s tribe vs. the Wal-Mart tribe, the Prius tribe vs. the F-150 tribe.
We see this everywhere: In Ferguson, self-righteous and self-appointed spokesmen for the marginalized point to the fact that the criminal-justice system generally produces far worse outcomes to the poor and the non-white than it does to the well-off and white. This is, generally speaking, true. And though the dynamics are equally complicated, the same thing is true of the government schools, which do a pretty good job for rich white kids in the suburbs while functioning as day prisons and incubators of dysfunction for poor minority kids, especially in big cities. But the social-justice warriors in Ferguson will fight on bloody stumps to prevent reform of the government-school cartels, the endless failures of which do far more to harm the lives of the economically and socially vulnerable than any police department does. Why? The teachers are part of the tribe, and the cops are part of a rival tribe, which is why nobody ever bought a Rolex out of the royalties of a song titled “F**k the Milwaukee Public Schools.”
On the one hand, we have Wal-Mart, which makes a modest profit margin by helping to feed and clothe people who typically do not have a lot of spare money. On the other hand, we have a grotesque exercise in snobbery — snobbery frequently compounded by stupidity. The view from Fifth Avenue is rather different from the view from Columbia County.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.