Last year, I worked with my community organization to stop a pawn shop from opening in our neighborhood. We met with the owners of the pawn shop chain, polled other neighbors, and eventually lobbied hard with our alderman to prevent the necessary permits so the place could open.
I think my neighbors opposed the place because of pawn shops’ reputation as places to unload stolen items. This isn’t a concern I have- whenever we go out of town, I leave the silver that was inflicted on me at our wedding sitting by an open window. The giant, heavy, always tarnishing flatware is functionally useless, but it’s worth something and might prevent getting a window getting broken or (worse) the thieves taking my Xbox and television.
For my part, I didn’t want to see the pawn shop open because I thought it was exploitive. I think that pawn shops, payday loan joints, and cash for gold business take advantage of people who are down on their luck, desperate, and who might not have the information or skills to realize what a lousy deal they’re getting. Worse, I think the owners of these business cynically exploit people in these situations to make a buck – an opinion I managed to choke down when I spent an hour meeting with the local pawn shop owners.
I’ve been kicking around a blog post on the pawn shop for awhile, and then last week I realized that I am an embarrassingly HUGE hypocrite. A-Donald-Rumsfeld-writes-a-book-of-advice-reminding-readers-that-it’s-easier-to-get-into-things-than-to-get-out-of-them – level hypocrite. Also, I’m worried about the fitness of my knee – the one that jerks with liberalism.
Here’s why: I hate Williams-Sonoma. I can’t believe they can charge $25 for a pound of Cracker Jack or $42 for 12 sticky buns. The company, which also owns official McMansion Outfitter Pottery Barn, made FOUR BILLION DOLLARS last year selling comically priced food and gadgets for conspicuously consuming Americans who can’t boil water and whizbang gadgets that were too stupid for Skymall. This is to say nothing of the gold bakeware. Huckster Williams and Bamboozle Sonoma take advantage of the anxiety of diet-obsessed authenticity-fetishizing non-cooking idly rich Americans and sell them rococo gimcracks to ornament the mise en place behind the Papa John’s box. What could possibly be more exploitive than that?
In both the case of the pawn shop and Williams-Sonoma, I find the business astonishingly cynical and the customers dupes. Yet, I feel for the pawn shop customers – sympathy to the level of advocating to my alderman that my local government step in to save these people from themselves. I of course would do no such thing if Williams Sonoma opened near my house, though I would be shocked that I didn’t notice the tornado that moved my house to Highland Park.
Sure, there’s something to be said about these businesses and their customers’ money. Pawn shops exist because some people don’t have any, and Williams-Sonoma exists because some people inherited theirs. Either way, the fools and their money will soon part. Why do I feel badly for the former and not the latter? If people want to lose their money and a company is set up to take it, isn’t that what makes the American system grand? Why am I such a hypocrite?
What was the subprime mortgage crisis about if not exploitive businesses (the lenders) and dupes who didn’t have the information or skills to realize the lousy deal they were getting (all of the residents of Las Vegas)? It was liberals who backed the Consumer Financial Protection Agency and other measures to stop this sort of thing. I’m not so sure that when Republicans accuse the left of being paternalistic, they’re wrong. On the other hand, people make a lot of terrible decisions, like keeping a loaded gun in a house with children, drinking and driving, or getting an advanced degree in the Humanities. What would society be if we didn’t watch out for those among us who make such poor choices for themselves?
When we were discussing the pawnshop with my neighborhood organization, one of the local business owners said “really, who am I to tell someone they can’t make a buck?” I suddenly had to come to terms with the fact that I think ALL retail businesses are exploitive. I’ve had bad experiences with car dealers, real estate agents, appliance salesmen, etc. and it’s based on this: I KNOW they’re trying to screw me, and I’m trying to stop them from doing it. When the car dealer ran down the street a couple of years ago to finally relent to my terms on my car (after 2 hours) I felt like I won – even though i just committed to spending thousands and thousands of dollars.
As a progressive, I don’t think I’ll ever come around to believing that people shouldn’t be protected from their own ignorance and lack of information and the business there to prey on them. Yes, it’s their money. But it just makes me feel bad. I guess I am a squishy liberal. Conservatives, after all, would never tell you what you should or shouldn’t do with your money, just what you should do with your uterus. And I don’t have one, so who cares? I can feel myself changing parties already.