India Uncut

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Friday, December 08, 2006

Thomas Sowell on Wal-Mart and Starbucks

Oh, how fashionable it has become these days to rant against Wal-Mart and Starbucks. Thomas Sowell puts it in perspective:
Wal-Mart is the big bugaboo these days but what "power" does Wal-Mart have? I lived three-quarters of a century without ever setting foot in a Wal-Mart store and there is not a thing they can do about it.

It so happened that this past summer in Page, Arizona, I needed to buy some toiletries, which caused me to go into a nearby Wal-Mart for the first time. Inside, it looked more like a small city than a large store. But the prices were noticeably lower than in most other places. Is that the much-dreaded "power"?

Apparently Wal-Mart does not pay its employees as much as third-party observers would like to see them paid. But obviously it is not paying them less than their work is worth to other employers or they probably would not be working at Wal-Mart. Moreover, third parties who wax indignant are paying them nothing.

One of the morally indignant "films" (more high-toned than "movies") coming out of Hollywood makes the same complaint against Starbucks, depicting poverty-stricken Ethiopian coffee growers providing beans for the big-bucks coffee store chain.

Are the Ethiopian coffee growers worse off now that Starbucks is buying their beans?
Indeed, it is quite the in-thing to depict people as 'exploited' even though those people do what they do out of choice. Wal-Mart employees would not work there if they did not feel it was the best option available to them. Ethopian coffee growers sell their beans to whoever gives them the highest prices. In India, it is common to hear call-centre employees described as 'cyber-coolies', and yet, as I argued in a WSJ op-ed last year, the outsourcing industry has empowered and not enslaved them.

I was at a book launch not long ago at that excellent new bookstore in Mumbai, Landmark, when Mahesh Bhatt, who was the chief guest at the launch, waved his arms expansively around him and said something to the effect of: "You are so happy to be in this big shop, aren't you? Well, let me tell you, you are all slaves." He was ranting about that bogey word, 'consumerism', and many people in the audience nodded wisely.

Then, the launch over, they browsed for a while, and bought a few books. So did I, before going off to drink some coffee, thus helping the farmer who grew the beans that I consumed immeasurably more than all the sanctimonious ranting in the world.
amit varma, 12:21 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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