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Who is a big-box ban really protecting?

The San Diego City Council ordinance banning so-called “big-box” retailers from San Diego - which Mayor Jerry Sanders rightly vetoed - leaves us wondering who the council is trying to protect.

Is it San Diego shoppers? The proposed ban would outlaw stores larger than 90,000 square feet that generate more than 10 percent of revenue from non-taxable goods, like groceries, and seems directly aimed at Wal-Mart Supercenters. We think these stores would provide consumers with a vital low-cost shopping option in a city where precious little comes at low cost.

It is the workers? Proponents of the ban say Wal-Mart employees are underpaid and without access to health insurance. Well, so are tens of millions of other Americans who have nothing to do with Wal-Mart. The thousands of employee applications that pour in each time Wal-Mart opens a new store should tell us something about where the company stands as an employer.

Is it Wal-Mart’s smaller competitors? Councilmembers have said that new “big-box” stores often squeeze the life out of smaller, “mom-and-pop” businesses. But what mom-and-pop stores are we really talking about? Ralph’s, Vons and Albertson’s, big chains who are now locked in labor struggles with their own underpaid employees? Meanwhile, smaller chains like Trader Joe’s are thriving and expanding in San Diego, and the British chain Tesco is set to move into our region with similar, smaller shopping markets. They don’t seem too afraid of Wal-Mart.

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Is it the third-world laborers who produce so much of what we buy at Wal-Mart? It’s true that Wal-Mart scours the globe for the lowest prices on their goods - lots of companies do that. The difference is that Wal-Mart passes a lot of those savings on to consumers. And the fact is, if you criticize Wal-Mart on moral grounds, you probably morally disagree with capitalism itself.

It seems the only true beneficiaries of the City Council’s sudden interest in where San Diegans buy their groceries would be the groups who bring home so much of the councilmembers’ campaign bacon: labor unions who don’t want the non-union Wal-Mart in town.

We think those unions and their allies on the council are thinking selfishly in their support of the “big-box” ban. Here in La Jolla, we know there’s no room for such stores, but we also know this: Our city’s infrastructure is crumbling beneath our feet and its finances look even worse. Is this the time to say, “Thanks, but no thanks,” to the mountains of sales tax revenue these stores would bring?