Wednesday, December 11, 2002

This NYT editorial by Harvard History professor Lizabeth Cohen contained some material which made me uncomfortable by its slant or implications. It seems the editorial is intended to highlight the inequalities of modern commerce, particularly malls, and to generate outrage -- but I don't like being made to feel outrage at things that are only made to seem outrageous.

As retailers chose to bring "the market to the people instead of people to the market" ... they inevitably favored some people over others. Shopping centers aimed at what Macy's Annual Report for 1955 called "middle-income groups" explicitly distanced themselves from consumers deemed undesirable because they were too poor, black, or young and unruly.

In 1955, shopping centers were pretty new. It's pretty obvious that new developments typically are available to the rich first. Of course a store like Macy's is going to target a particular income group that they believe will return profits. Would Cohen complain if Tiffany's put out an annual report saying it was targetting rich people with its diamond and gold jewelry, or if a yacht company admitted to putting ads in Wall Street Journal rather than on lamp-posts in the slums? It's not immoral to sell expensive goods to rich people.

Next, a historian ought to realize that after the rich people had places to shop, then the middle income groups, the remaining niches were for lower-income groups. In the 80's, from what I can tell, stores like Target and Wal-Mart filled that niche astoundingly successfully.

At a time when many low-income Americans didn't own cars, the few bus routes to shopping centers were carefully planned to transport nondriving customers, particularly women, from nearby suburbs, not low-income consumers from inner cities.

Wasn't the whole point of shopping centers in the suburbs being new -- that there were already stores in the inner cities? So, of course the suburban malls are going to encourage transporting people who have nowhere else to shop rather than people who already have someplace to shop. That doesn't make the people who already have someplace to shop (the inner-city residents) disadvantaged. In fact, one could argue that inner-city residents were themselves advantaged, before suburban shopping malls popped up.

It's true that in some cities (Cohen's example is Newark) the inner cities became dead zones where poor people lived and shops were abandoned. That's a reaction to risk, and it seems in many cities today we're reducing the risk to shopkeepers in those areas and commerce is returning.

If customers looking conspicuously different from typical suburbanites actually made it to the mall, they were often met by unwelcoming security guards who had been hired by management and were not accountable to any public authority.

Isn't that the same in many institutions? Stores don't uniquely have this problem, so do universities and churches and even government buildings. Being accountable to government isn't a panacea. In fact, stores have a unique incentive to be welcoming to a wide variety of people because you can't tell who might spend money.

Malls have done little to encourage public transportation to accommodate the low-paid, urban workers who now dominate shopping center sales forces.

I take it Cohen wants malls to have a social conscience and responsibility. Surely the malls don't have a problem actually hiring these people and having them show up on time. Is it really the mall's responsibility to encourage public transportation for their workers?

The death in 1995 of a black retail clerk from Buffalo, killed trying to cross the seven-lane highway that separated her bus stop from her job inside a suburban mall, was only the most brutal example of this form of discrimination.

This sentence bothered me the most. Sorry, was the mall discriminating in hiring the black person? Was the public bus system discriminating in putting the bus stop on the opposite side of the freeway from the suburban mall? Or was the driver who hit her discriminating in choosing a black person to run over? This is a brutal example of a this form of damning allegation.

As developers sought sites close to the affluent populations to which they catered, their presence augmented the prosperity of host communities, exacerbating an already unequal distribution of economic resources in metropolitan areas.

This is a generic problem; why is Cohen blaming the mall developers? Why not the house-builders who don't build shacks, or the schools for not bussing in slum children? Or the employers putting good work opportunities out in the burbs? A complex social problem like this can't be fixed by assigning blame to just one link in the chain.

Cohen's last prescription is that Christmas shoppers should spread their money around -- not just to malls, or online sites, but also presumably to local/city stores. Prescriptions like that do no good over the long run -- it just wastes Cohen's breath, perhaps makes a couple socially-conscious people either feel guilty or go out of their way to do a less convenient (less efficient!) shopping trip. The whole premise of a market-based society is that the sellers go where people want to buy. If that's the suburbs, the inner cities, or online, they'll go there. From what I've seen, it's all three.

Here's my prescription for Cohen, and all those who -- like me -- want to better the lot of disadvantaged people. Help them directly. If you think that inner city kids don't get enough education, give money to their schools (or give them voucher/money to give them the power to influence schools). If you think that mall workers don't have adequate transportation, work on that directly. Complaining that malls cause these problems is an ineffective way to address these problems because it's only one piece of a very complex social puzzle.

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