7 June 2006
You are not expected to know this
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
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