Thursday, September 11, 2008

Finding the Good in Walmart

Here's the abstract from a provocative new paper by Charles Courtemanche and Art Carden (HT Marginal Revolution):
We estimate the impacts of Wal-Mart and warehouse club retailers on height-adjusted body weight and overweight and obesity status, finding robust evidence that non-grocery selling Wal-Marts reduce weight while grocery-selling Wal-Marts and warehouse clubs either reduce weight or have no effect. The effects appear strongest for women, minorities, urban residents, and the poor. We then examine the effects of these retailers on exercise, food and alcohol consumption, smoking, and eating out at restaurants in order to explain the results for weight. Most notably, the evidence suggests that all three types of stores increase consumption of fruits and vegetables while reducing consumption of foods high in fat. This is consistent with the thesis that Wal-Mart increases real incomes through its policy of "Every Day Low Prices," making healthy food more affordable, as opposed to the thesis that cheap food prices make us eat more.
The paper is gated, so I haven't read it yet. While we can't talk about the empirical design of the paper, we can look at the basic model. Normally we assume that as the price of something goes down, people buy more of it; as a result, Walmart's low prices on groceries should induce people to buy more, increasing obesity among customers. However in the US, virtually everyone can afford more food than they need. The real issue is food quality. The cheapest foods are highly processed, calorie dense and nutrient poor. Anyone who has been in a Whole Foods recently knows that organic food is a luxury of the affluent.

Where Walmart comes in is in lowering the prices of produce and other nutrient-rich, healthy foods. The benefit to low-income consumers is the ability to eat like a someone on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Since the obesity epidemic is heavily concentrated among low-income individuals, providing healthy foods at low-cost is crucial.

Yes Walmart's labor practices are deplorable, but it is not universally evil.

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