Last week, an announcement (or denouncement, if you like) was published on the official blog of Portland Commissioner Steve Novick that the city will begin divesting itself of the $36 million worth of Walmart bond investments.
In my view, there are two aspects of this move that, on the surface, deserve a thumbs-up and one that is facepalm-worthy.
First reason why they seem to be in the right: Portland officials and residents understand the power of the dollar in making your preferences and values known. I think that Commissioner Novick nailed it when he professed, speaking on behalf of residents and other city officials: “We don’t want our money to be saying things that are at cross purposes with values we profess every day.”
Bravo for recognizing your power as a consumer! What better way to stick it to a private business or organization you do not like or find abhorrent than by hitting them where it hurts the most- not tossing your dollars into their bottom line via direct purchases, if you’re an individual consumer, or the purchasing of bonds, if we are talking about a city.
Yes, I know Novick et. al are individuals working for and speaking on behalf of a public entity. But the principle is the same: private individuals should be free to choose which business will get their dollars and not have their monies expropriated through taxes or bond purchases to prop up a business. This brings me to another reason why this divestment is a prudent move.
I want to belabor that second point: state or local governments should not be propping up any private business- neither in the form of subsidies or corporate bonds. I, like others of the laissez-faire persuasion, would rather see businesses thrive on customer service and demand without a helping hand from the states or municipalities. Neither the vilified, big-box giants of the world nor the oft-cherished mom-and-pop shops should be propped up at the tax-payers’ expense.
If Walmart’s allegedly and anecdotally nasty, labor-practices are not enough to vex your conscience, then its extensive use of public money and benefits might. According to Walmart Subsdiy Watch (a watchdog arm of Good Jobs First, which evinces little to no disdain for the very idea of subsidies), the retailer receives public benefits in the form of “free” land, infrastructure, and state/local grants, among others.
Now the facepalm-worthy part of the story. Why this ostensibly prudent move by Novick, his fellow city-officials, and, perhaps, their constituencies is in the wrong:
Do not, by any means, interpret this gesture as a sign that Portland—perhaps the bastion of all bastions of progressive politics and philosophy—is warming up to libertarian or laissez-faire, economic principles. It turns out that Steve Novick and other Portland officials are not rebutting the idea or practice of subsidies or public investment. Walmart is just taking the latest hit in the city’s adoption of socially and environmentally responsible investment principles, which includes divestment of fossil fuel holdings and the jettisoning of holdings in businesses with practices that are contrary to the values professed by progressives.
To the leaders in Portland, subsidies and investments (by the city) for businesses we do not like=bad, but public subsidies and investments for business that align with our values=good and worth very dime of taxpayer expense.
Look, I find Walmart ‘s privileged status as troubling as the most vocal critics do. And if you find their business and labor practices objectionable, you are free to spend your money elsewhere. That being said, we also should not be using taxpayer money to buttress businesses and industries that we like, even if they are greener or more worker-friendly. On the surface, Portland’s financial, f*** you! to Walmart is a welcome move. But they are swapping one favored, crony for others (albeit the greener and more progressive ones) instead of ditching the practice of propping up businesses and industries altogether.