Saturday, December 03, 2005

Liberals Can Be Sensible About Wal-Mart (Even If Most Aren’t)

From the Washington Monthly blog, with a hat tip to our Canadian e-mail correspondent:

. . . the fact that some liberals and leftists have a positive take on the Arkansas-based retailer.

First, Jason Furman, an advisor to John Kerry making an economic argument:
Wal-Mart’s low prices help to increase real wages for the 120 million Americans employed in other sectors of the economy. And the company itself does not appear to pay lower wages or benefits than similar companies, or to cause substantially lower wages in the retail sector. Although there may be a dispute about the magnitude of the cost savings for consumers, no one disputes that they are large. In contrast, the effect on workers is relatively smaller and far from obviously negative.

At worst, to the degree the anti-Wal-Mart campaign slows or halts the spread of Wal-Mart to new areas, it will lead to higher prices that disproportionately harm lower-income families.
Furman even addresses the argument that Wal-Mart doesn’t pay a “living wage” from a sound public policy perspective:
But Wal-Mart, like other retailers and employers of less-skilled workers, does not pay enough for a family to live the dignified life Americans have come to expect and demand. That is where a second progressive success story comes in: the transformation of our social safety net from a support for the indigent to a system to that makes work pay. In the 1990s, President Clinton fought for expansions in support for low-income workers, including a more generous Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and efforts to ensure that children did not lose their Medicaid if their parents took a low-paid job. The bulk of the benefits of these expansions go to the workers that receive them, not to the corporations that employ them.
In other words, public policy tries to put people with spotty work records, poor schooling and no specialized skills to work. There is no way in the world such people can command $20 per hour in a globalized labor market. But they can command Wal-Mart wages (which are well above the minimum wage), and government kicks in the rest.

Then there is the fact that some liberal Democrats have noticed the practical political effects of an attack on Wal-Mart. According to Ed Kilgore:
In the southern small-town, rural and exurban communities I know best, and among the low-to-moderate income “working family” voters Democrats most need to re-attract, Wal-Mart is considered pretty damn near sancrosanct. And if Democrats decide to tell these voters they can’t be good progressives and shop at Wal-Mart, we will lose these people for a long, long time....If you think we’ve been damaged as a party by culturally conservative working-class perceptions of us as people who want to take their guns away, you ain’t seen nothing yet if we become perceived as the party that wants to take Wal-Mart away.
Even feminists have found some virtues in the Wal-Mart approach to retailing. Rosa Brooks observes:
For frantic women who juggle careers and children, what’s not to love about stores that sell practically everything under one roof? One of my female friends, a union labor lawyer who wouldn’t be caught dead in a Wal-Mart, nonetheless confesses a penchant for Target. “I get a perverse thrill whenever I’m there,” she admits.

And let’s face it: Who would really rather go back to the age of small mom-and-pop stores? How did women live before the advent of the superstore? Actually, we know the answer. They generally didn’t work, which was just as well because they had to spend a couple of days a week meandering from butcher shop to green-grocer to baker, not to speak of all those trips to the drugstore, the shoe store and so on.
The fault line among liberals is pretty clear. Those who have some empathy for, or at least a desire to appeal politically to, moderate income Americans see a lot of virtue in Wal-Mart. But the die-hard cultural elitists don’t.

The latter group is very much in evidence in the discussion that followed the post on the Washington Monthly blog.

For me, the downside of Wal-mart isn’t something to be analyzed in strictly economic terms. It’s more the sociological effects of huge, grey buildings owned by a rightwing family in Arkansas, sitting in a sea of asphalt, doing business in an impersonal way, full of cheap stuff made in faraway sweat shops, contributing to sprawl and the decay of our community ambience. Walmart is an affront to our quality of life.

I think there is an unfortunate tendency to look at the Walmart issues as though it can be sliced, diced, and put on a graph for analysis by economists. The more important question IMHO [in my humble opinion], is,

“What kind of society do we want to become?”
How about a society where people can make their own choices without being dictated to by cultural elites? Another poster says:
I hate Walmart for the awful architecture and car-based commerce.
And another one:
The mallification of today’s America is bad enough (tarmac and parking lots as far as the eye can see). To my jaundiced eye the Walmart stores I have seen seem to be located in the most unappealing (strip-)malls I know.

Maybe they could plant a little grass or, at a minimum, paint the tarmac green.
And along similar lines:
I don’t like Walmart for the usual reasons, but also and maybe mostly because it is a huge contributor to sprawl and homogenization of the countryside. Once you get a Walmart in, all the other big box and chain stores move in. Then roads, strip malls, fast food pits.
But there was a genuine diversity of opinion among the posters. For example, one asserted:
If you liberals weren’t so concerned with asserting your cultural superiority by running down red state institutions like Wal Mart, Firearms, etc, you might have a chance at winning the odd election. I personally rarely shop at Wal Mart. Too crowded, and I don’t need the savings. But I would never take away the right of people who do need the savings to shop there out of some aesthetic judgement.
And then, perhaps the most succinct comment:
boy...talk about some typical, ignorant, stereotypical liberal limousine liberal comments on this thread...as someone who actually grew up poor...fuck you.
And finally, an oddball but quite sensible post:
Wal Mart is too expensive for my taste, I prefer Good Will. True. I, and many of the friends I hang with just love second hand stores, a blast, really.
Of course, this strategy assumes that one has a lot of spare time to seek out bargains. If you do, dandy for you.

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