The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

7 June 2006

You are not expected to know this

We're all being forced into a vast national kindergarten, says Eric Scheie:

For many years I lived in a crummy Berkeley neighborhood which had a lot of low income, Section 8 apartment buildings, drive-by shootings, that sort of thing. There was a Safeway a few blocks away and a local liquor store and "convenience" store which sold groceries at prices I thought laughable. It never ceased to amaze me how able bodied adults would prefer to spend a lot more money on groceries at ripoff prices rather than walk an extra two blocks to Safeway. They weren't being ripped off, though. They were paying more for the convenience. I never felt sorry for them at all, as I considered them fully capable of making choices.

Others used to tell me that the corner store was "taking advantage" of "the poor." Were they? What advantage was being taken? If I were wiped out financially and had to get by on food stamps or something, I'd buy rice, beans, powdered milk and tortillas for whatever were the lowest prices I could find, and I'd have food for the month. If someone else wants to buy grape soda and cheese puffs at $4.95 a bag, why is he being taken advantage of any more than I am? Don't we both have the same ability to select which items to buy? Unless the person is mentally retarded or something, I've never understood the "taking advantage" argument. Sounds like "exploitation" (another meaningless word). Or insisting that "the poor" have a "right" to live in Manhattan at an "affordable rent."

Then there's "economic apartheid." This ill-defined concept (dreamed up by Harvard Ph.Ds who specialize in undefined undefinables) involves things like "forcing" poor people to things like use check cashing centers instead of banks, and furniture rental stores instead of thrift stores. I mean, really, if you can't afford a new couch or a TV, there are plenty of used ones for sale cheap. Why would anyone pay more to rent a new item for one month than it costs to buy it used?

It's not quite that cut and dried — evidence suggests that lenders are neither perfectly infallible nor particularly color-blind, at least when mortgages are at stake — but some people don't do the math, and when they see that they can get a computer, and not some off-brand clunker but an actual Dell, for a mere $18.99 a week (I actually saw this on an ad yesterday, it doesn't occur to them to look at the tiny print on the bottom of the screen to see how many weeks it will take. (In a year, it's up to $987; you can buy a heck of a lot of hardware for quite a bit less than that.) Besides, they're not just selling (or renting) goods, they're selling convenience:

[W]e have a great selection of name brand home furnishings, appliances and electronics that can be yours with no hassles and no big down payment.

For some people, that may be worth the extra cost. (This survey of "unbanked" individuals, who rely on check-cashing services and such, suggests some reasons why.) I think the key is in the phrase "no hassles": if you expect to be ill-treated by guys in suits, you might well prefer the guys in the strip mall, even if they're going to charge you out the wazoo.

Ultimately it still comes down to consumer choices, and inevitably some of those choices are going to be better than others. Quantitatively, what's the difference between paying a buck at the 7-Eleven for a 20-ounce soda because it's close by and paying a buck at Whole Foods for a 20-ounce soda because you get that warm feeling from shopping there? You can't legislate thrift — unless, of course, you want to force everyone to shop at Wal-Mart.

Posted at 6:30 AM to Political Science Fiction

TrackBack: 11:24 AM, 7 June 2006
» What I learned in the second grade was wrong! from Classical Values
I never thought I'd write a post about such a mundane topic as peanut butter, but here I am, doing just that. Where it comes to buying peanut butter (a staple food for me), I'm one of those cheapskates who......[read more]

Agreed. I live in a very rural area in Oklahoma where the only choices are the "hometown" grocery stores which make me sick (possibly even the food would make you as well but I'm not game enough).

Not only are the stores dreary, many of the products on the shelf are expired, some of which actually will be over a year old soon. One store I go to when I HAVE to for an item in the middle of the week has Kraft salad dressing that expired last July, and, guess what, its on "special" most of the time. They also run silly, same every week, promotions such as stamp programs that get you a "free" loaf of bread or milk for 2.49 a gallon for each completed card (of which each stamps constitutes $5 in purchases and takes 20 stamps to complete, you do the math and tell me if that bread was actually free...)

Yet I see people shuffling in these stores each week in herds because of their convenience to where they live. While I'd kill for a Safeway to even be in this part of the country, I know that will never happen. Wal-Mart is king, and America for the most part is still in love with them.

I can't understand how these people can live doing this when there is so many better retailers that actually want your business and offer overall lower prices and much higher quality if you are willing to seek them out. I drive about 45 minutes to an Albertsons where I can buy quality meats and vegetables (ever see a T-bone on sale at Wally World for 2.99/lb?). While some think this is crazy, with promotions such as double and triple coupons, I save on average 40 to 60 dollars which more than covers gas when I stock up. A customer watched in amazement the other week when my bill went from nearly 200 down to just under 110 after scanning all of them.

Anyway, I appreciate your time. I came across your article through Topix and thought I'd take the time to let you know how I feel about pitiful grocery stores as well.

Posted by: Chris Nygaard at 1:35 PM on 7 June 2006

I wholeheartedly agree that higher priced stores do not take advantage of the poor, but I am coming around to seeing how some money-lending schemes and rent-to-own schemes (yes, I used the word "schemes") are set up to taking advantage of the uneducated and illiterate, who are, most likely, also the poor.

As an attorney, I've read some incredibly complicated case law about such schemes and some of them are pure evil. There are people who are clever enough to wrap up a thoroughly confusing but binding legal document that effectively pulls a consumer to the deepest debt and make it look like a hand up. Once the consumer is drowning, he'll be thrown a small "favor" that looks like a life jacket, but is really attached to an even heavier chunk of iron to pull them even lower into despair. Eventually, the customer will be hauled into court for defaulting and failing to pay penalties. You can only imagine the stress this puts on the confused customer.

I consider higher education and the blessing of a family that supports education to be the sort of gift that begs humility and a willingness to protect those less privileged. Taking advantage of those less fortunate is sickening.

Posted by: Jan at 9:08 AM on 8 June 2006