By David Storobin
Former New York State Senator and a candidate for City Council
“Why didn’t you ever ask me to buy you anything growing up,” my mom wondered a few of years ago.
“What was there to ask for?” I replied. “You couldn’t afford anything.”
That was the reality of being raised by a divorced mother who gave up her job as a medical school professor in the Soviet Union to become a $5 an hour cleaning woman in the United States, a reality familiar to immigrants of both current and past generations. Like other boys, I wanted a water gun, a bicycle, a Knicks or a Rangers jersey, but those, of course, were pipe dreams. All through middle school, high school and college, poverty was the order of the day.
The month when I got accepted to law school, my mom got her first job as a social worker for a mere $21,700 a year. Life and future, given these two events, suddenly seemed different.
It felt like we finally were leaving the degradation of poverty behind. That month, for the first time since coming to America, I bought clothes in a regular store instead of at a flea market. Between middle school and college, the most expensive piece of clothing I owned was a $12 winter coat. A $2 pair of used jeans I bought had a large hole around the knee, which in embarrassment I tried to convince my high school classmates was outdated fashion from the long-gone 1980s.
I could’ve had new, but inexpensive clothes. “Luckily”, there were politicians who sought to protect me from this, and they keep protecting all other poor New Yorkers to this day. There are stores like Wal-Mart where poor people can afford to shop. These clothes and other goods may not be fancy, but they are new and respectable. We can’t buy them in New York City. After all, the cheap prices offered by Wal-Mart are just not fair to… its competition like Marshall’s and Sears. This, of course, is no different than me as an attorney lobbying to prevent other law firms from operating in Manhattan and Brooklyn where my offices are located. Think about how much more I could’ve charged my clients if I had less competition!
The argument against Wal-Mart is that it destroys business around it. Anecdotal evidence of an occasional business taking a hit is presented to back this belief. But what are the real facts? The law of supply and demand dictates that when demand increases, so does the price. The evidence is clear: when a Wal-Mart opens, the price of commercial real estate around it skyrockets. The only reason for it is the increased demand from other businesses who seek to be near a superstore that functions as a center that attracts customers to the area.
Obviously not everyone benefits, but this is true for everything. Not everyone benefited from, say, The Industrial Revolution. Dale Cargenie’s dad was among the farmers who were bankrupted by industrialization. Does that mean that The Industrial Revolution should’ve been blocked by do-gooder politicians? Of course not! Similarly, while some of Wal-Mart’s competition – mostly other large corporations – may lose out, the majority of businessmen benefit.
But my main concern isn’t with those completing with or profiting from Wal-Mart. No, I didn’t sell out to Wal-Mart. Neither Wal-Mart, nor any other large corporation, nor any lobbyist group has ever given me a cent, not even when I was a Senator. Almost all my donors and volunteers are people who never participated in politics before. My concern lies with the poor and the middle class. Activists who don’t understand economics say that allowing Wal-Mart to operate harms the workers because of the wages the company pays. But if someone has a better job available to them, they will take it. For those who don’t have another option, why are we preventing them from getting a stepping stone, the same stepping stone my mom got when she got a $21,700 job, which eventually resulted in her achieving a middle class status?
The more jobs are available, the more employers have to compete for workers, the higher the wages will rise. Nothing depresses wages like unemployment. Nothing encourages a company owner to pay the minimum like getting 200 job applications for every job opening, which is what I got every time I hired someone since the recession began five years ago.
To win votes, politicians pretend they can solve every problem by passing a law. It allows them to take credit where no credit is due. But the way to increase wages is to increase employment, not by government dictates.
Just as importantly, we need to make purchasing more affordable for the poor. It is a concern most politicians just can’t comprehend. They didn’t grow up in poverty, they didn’t have to choose between Wal-Mart and the flea market.
When the election results were announced at my victory party, a crowd of 1,000 people – almost none of whom have ever before attended a political event – chanted, “We Won! We Won!” The real politicians were confused. They simply couldn’t understand former doctors and engineers who became housekeepers and cabbies, and then climbed into the middle class, while pushing their children further up the social scale. These people were there for me when every political insider described my campaign as hopeless because these people knew that here was one candidate who understood where they came from.
In most cases, I cannot pay them back for helping me, nor can I pay back the strangers who showed up with food at our door our first day in New York. I can’t pay them back, but I can pay them forward by helping another 12-year-old kid who wants to wear clothes that no stranger has worn before. That kid and his parents need Wal-Mart. For that kid, I will fight.
And we will win again.