You might be a ‘progressive’ if … you think the only thing worse than a poor neighborhood losing a grocery store would be a poor neighborhood gaining a WalMart, a Family Dollar, or a select few other stores that excel at providing goods to the poor (they’re on the list alongside Enemy Restaurants). — Yours truly, 1/19/13

A journalism student at UNC-Chapel Hill wrote a column in The News & Observer this weekend to describe his mixed feelings over the closing of a Roses store in Chapel Hill. How the student arrived at his position — that, his fond childhood memories of the store and how his family relied upon the low-price retailer aside, the loss of Roses is a good thing, but good luck explaining that to the poor who don’t realize they’re being exploited by cartoon supervillain Art Pope — can only be seen as a triumph of the strictly orthodox, anti-free-inquiry model currently employed in American academe.

A sampling:

Roses sells almost anything you can think of, and it sells it cheap. Fruit of the Loom is about as close as it got to carrying anything like a “brand-name,” but that was the point. We’d go there to pick up a $10 lamp or a small toy if I were on the way to a friend’s birthday party. It’s where I went to get my parents their birthday and Christmas presents when I was buying them out of pocket money. And whenever I asked my mom to buy me something – a new pair of pants or a soccer ball, for instance – her reply was always the same: “Can’t we just get that at Roses?” …

Roses is the only store of its kind within walking distance of the neighborhoods that surround University Mall. Many of these are among the poorest in Chapel Hill. … Were they being exploited? Absolutely. But that doesn’t make things any easier for them in the short run now that Roses is leaving.

Gosh, it almost sounds as if Roses helps poor people by providing low-costs goods that others can’t or won’t, without even requiring them to travel very far. One might think that would enable poor patrons to have more money left over to buy other needs for their families, expanding the purchasing power of their relatively fewer dollars.

You might even think this is a good thing, if you go for the notion that it’s good to help the poor help themselves, that it’s good to be a job creator that employs the poor, that it’s good to “give back to the community” when you’re a successful entrepreneur, which an entrepreneur can do only after being successful (i.e., providing services people want at prices they’re willing to pay).

All that could tempt a journalism student into some rather heterodox thinking on campus as well as in life. Fortunately, this temptation is quashed:

My sorrow is complicated by the fact that Roses is owned by Art Pope, a man whose politics I vehemently oppose.  … As I reached the age of political awareness, I realized that Art Pope was essentially using his customers’ money against them. And because of their limited mobility and the lack of other nearby options, there wasn’t much they could do about it.

So here is the situation:

Assume there are poor people who have “limited mobility” and a “lack of nearby options” who somehow need food, clothing, and groceries just like “privileged” people.

Assume you are an evil capitalist maniacally bent on exploiting them.

How would you, evil capitalist, exploit these poor people?

  1. Ignore them because the poor don’t have much money. They can rot in the streets for all I care.
  2. Treat them like a captive market — if they want something, they can figure out how to come to my store in my wealthy part of town, and pay my high prices. Since they have no place else to go, they’ll have to, muahahaha!
  3. Treat them like consumers and cater to their needs, offering them low-priced goods and placing the store near them, saving them time and money on transportation, too. It’s a low profit margin, and it keeps out the privileged people who like to use “the poor” as political bludgeons but don’t want to be that close to actual poor people; however, no one else is offering this combination, so it just might be a working business model.
  4. C, because that’s what Art Pope does, and by definition what Art Pope does is evil

The student goes on to make an oblique comparison to “vestiges of Jim Crow” (in college, of course, this is a guaranteed-A-paper tactic). It also includes these two sentences that the editor should have struck, if not to save face for the writer, then at least for the paper:

  • “I believe systems of commerce need to prohibit the creation of an underclass that at once produces and consumes low-cost goods for the benefit of the upperclass.”
  • “The big picture tells us that Roses is an exploitative institution that ultimately perpetuates the poverty of its customers.”

Academe is not all lost yet, however. Duke’s Michael Munger wrote a letter in response, which was published today. I can’t improve upon it, so here it is.

Munger’s main points are these:

  • “Some folks are so ignorant of markets that they think selling quality products at low prices in convenient stores such as Roses is ‘exploitative.'”
  • Having this ignorance in print “makes for a useful reading for my economics classes.”
  • The student is getting his ideas from “UNC, [which] is protected from any kind of competition and takes its budget from public taxes.” He pays just “a fraction of the cost of mislearning economics; he is essentially using taxpayers’ money against them. And because the state uses taxes to subsidize leftist think tanks like the journalism school, there isn’t much those of us who care about education can do about it.”