Yeah, I’m supposed to be on blog vacation, but this topic was eating at me.
Today I ate lunch at My Hero. My Hero is a local sandwich shop that has operated at the same location for about 30 years. My order was taken by Rosie, the owner of the shop. Rosie is a real American success story – a Puerto Rican immigrant and mother who took a low-wage job at My Hero about 25 years ago and eventually bought out the original owner, with whom she had become good friends. (I know all this from reading a local newspaper article about a year ago.) Rosie is also a very sweet and friendly person.
While waiting for my change, I glanced down and saw a petition sitting on the counter. Signers were expressing their opposition to the opening of a new Wal-Mart in Northridge. Noticing me reading the petition, Rosie said, “You should sign that. It’s to stop a Wal-Mart from opening.” I couldn’t help myself; I asked, “Uh, why?” And she replied, “Because it will hurt all the little guys.”
I should have said, “Oh. Well, no thanks!” But I felt a strange compulsion to justify myself. So I said something like, “Well, you know, small businesses have to able to compete. I mean, you guys are great, but competition is necessary.” She was about to say something back, but we were both rescued by the arrival of the next customer.
I went off to my seat, and I thought to myself, “I bet she thinks I’m an asshole.” And despite my strong conviction about my own position – I would never have signed that petition – I still felt a tiny pang of guilt. There I was, talking with this incredibly nice and hard-working woman, standing there in her place of business, and refusing to make the simple and nearly effortless gesture of signing her petition.
And I had to wonder: How many people sign petitions for just that reason? Not because they agree with the cause, but because signing is easier than looking like a jerk? If my convictions on the matter had been just a little weaker, I might have been tempted to sign. And if I were indifferent on the issue, I almost certainly would have signed. If other people are anything like me, it illustrates a problem with petitions. Unlike a poll or survey, a petition does not claim to be a representative sample of the population – but it does claim to show some depth of support for a particular position. But if people are signing them simply to avoid social awkwardness, then the number of names on petitions doesn’t show anything of sort.
And by the way, where can I sign the petition in support of Wal-Mart? Therein lies another problem. In the case of a new Wal-Mart, the beneficiaries (everyone who will benefit from Wal-Mart’s low prices and convenience) constitute a large and diffuse class of people with relatively small per-capita benefits. The losers (mostly business owners who will face stiff competition) constitute a small and concentrated group with relatively large per-capita losses. Obviously, the latter group is much more likely than the former to raise a ruckus and circulate petitions, regardless of whether the Wal-Mart will produce net benefits. Thus, petitioning is subject to the same familiar incentive problem that affects public decision-making more generally. The result is that, even if we compare the results of competing petitions, we still have no reason to think the results tell us anything meaningful about the real costs and benefits – of Wal-Mart or anything else that’s the subject of a petition.
(Addendum: Whatever you think of Wal-Mart, I can't believe it would have any detrimental impact on My Hero. Wal-Mart is hardly known for its sandwiches, and in any case, the new store would be located miles away, while My Hero is walking distance from its main customer base, CSUN students and faculty. I can only assume Rosie supported the petition out of solidarity with other small business owners.)