The Marketplace of Ideas is Indeed a Marketplace

By September 20, 2017Blog

By Tim Shea

Special Contributor

A couple weeks back, my wife and I found ourselves in the Twin Cities visiting family. Partly to satisfy her shopping cravings, partly to get a little time away from said family, the two of us decided to spend an afternoon at the Mall of America. And so I found myself participating in that great, husbandly tradition of droning in the wake of my spouse as she carved a glorious path of commerce through the nation’s largest shopping mall. I had my phone out, flipping back and forth between news sites and reddit in search of a topic to blog about. As it turned out, however, a great blog topic appeared right in front of me in the form of a Nordstrom clearance rack dominated by a single name: Ivanka Trump.

Rarely have I seen first-hand such a succinct, pointed, and perfect example of an abstract economic truth of our times. I immediately closed out of the internet on my phone and snapped a picture. My wife, who had first drawn my attention to the display, laughed at my impromptu bout of enthusiastic if amateur photography. So what exactly is this truth that prompted such a knee-jerk reaction? That the social, moral, and political stances we take, associations we keep, and comments we make—our participation in the marketplace of ideas, in other words—carry with them real economic costs and benefits.

What’s even more interesting about Ms. Trump’s brand is that it represents a pitched battle (as opposed to a one-sided rout) on the economic front of the social and political conflict currently cleaving the nation. The first official shots were fired back in February with Nordstrom’s highly-publicized decision to stop carrying the brand. They cited poor sales as justification and, judging from the sheer volume of Ivanka brand clothing still gracing the clearance rack six months later, their casus belli wasn’t unwarranted. Several other prominent retailers followed suit not long after.

But then a funny thing happened. Despite what would have been a crippling blow for many brands, online sales for the Ivanka Trump clothing line went through the roof in February. At least some of the boost can be attributed to ethically-questionable plugs for her clothing line, but it’s also easy to imagine a more comprehensive explanation; that in seeing their favorite political family unfairly targeted, whether reality or merely perception, right-wing supporters of the Trumps rallied behind the brand via online retailers as a way of showing their support. Thus the battle lines were drawn, with the Trump brand winning in some venues and demographics and losing in others.

Alas, it seems a battle that Ms. Trump is ultimately destined to lose. Sales have slipped in recent months, and there is no shortage of anecdotal evidence of Trump-brand clothing flooding Goodwill and resale sites. Perhaps Ms. Trump’s supporters are losing interest in propping up the brand. Perhaps the divorce from major retailers was too much of a hurdle to overcome in the long run. To an extent, it doesn’t matter. The fact remains that political, social, and moral stances can absolutely impact the bottom line of a business or community. Sometimes that impact is good, sometimes it’s bad, but as we’ve noted previously, those impacts must be considered when businesses, communities, and governments are weighing policy decisions.

Some might argue that punishing members of society for deeply held beliefs is fundamentally unfair. It is not our place to comment on this aspect of the debate, nor is it our place to definitively tell business and community leaders what they should do. Our goal is to simply lay out the facts as we see them and make recommendations.

It is worth mentioning, though, that these economic impacts aren’t brought about by out-of-touch legislators, or unaccountable judges, or unelected bureaucrats. They exist because of the everyday choices of average Americans. That does not mean that the marketplace of ideas is perfect, and without flaws. But in era of rampant partisanship and political divide, voting with our wallets might be the most democratic solution we have.


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