W HO’S THE BIGGEST, BADDEST COMPANY OF THEM ALL? WAL-MART, OF COURSE, LEADER OF THE FORTUNE 500 LIST AND THE LARGEST EMPLOYER IN AMERICA (next to the government , that is).
Wal-Mart is also the largest employer in Mexico (again, next to the government).
The company has 1.4 million employees worldwide, and it has made its investors a ton of money . In short, this is a classic American success story, and free-market success story. Therefore, the company has a lot of enemies.
In fact, Wal-Mart is featuring in Democratic campaign rhetoric, and other rhetoric, as a villain, along with Enron and Halliburton.
Is this wise of politicians, considering that 100 million people shop at Wal-Mart every week? We’ll leave that to the political strategists.
The roster of Wal-Mart foes includes the following: Democratic politicians, and particularly those trying to impress unions; union leaders (while we’re on the subject); left-wing pundits; a handful of right-wing pundits, concerned for localism; and arbiters of taste (mainly soi-disant).
In the Democratic primaries, John Kerry knocked Wal-Mart on a number of fronts, particularly that of health care: He denounced the company’s provisions for its employees as “disgraceful” and “unconscionable.” He also said, “They throw a lot of money around, they get a lot of things happening, but it ain’t necessarily good for the community.” (Here, he is attempting a little populism—he did not learn that language in his Swiss boarding school.) Kerry continued, “We need to stand up and demand they behave corporately responsibly.” (That’s more like it.) The candidate suggested that the company be punished by loss of tax deductions.
Howard Dean, too, was a fighter against Wal-Mart. (His Vermont was the very last state to accept a Wal-Mart store.) In the presidential primaries, Dean took the usual line that Wal-Mart “kills small towns.” Somewhat refreshingly, however, hepromised audiences that if he got the chance to “do what I want to do on trade agreements, you are going to pay higher prices at Wal -Mart”—he would crack down on the Chinese, for one thing.
John Edwards, before he bit the dust, slammed the company for “driving down the pay scale for everybody.” Richard Gephardt the most unionized of the candidates — offered the opinion that the company was ripe for an anti-trust suit. And then Dennis Kucinich, bless him, warned that someday Wal-Mart might take over” Iraq. (The New York Sun caught that last nugget, and others.)
The tale of Kerry and Wal-Mart has a nice twist: Part of his fortune rests on the company, because his wife owns between 1 million and $5 million in her Wal-Mart stock. That maybe chump change for the Kerry-Heinzes, but it counts.
And a Wal-Mart spokesman noted cheekily that Wal-Mart sells Heinz soup made in Muscatine, Iowa to the good people of South Korea. How’s that for globalization?
The Democrats aren’t through with their anti-WaI-Marting. Rep. George Miller, the veteran lefty from California, ordered what might be called a hit study on Wal-Mart, through the Committee on Education and the Workforce, on which he is the senior Democrat. The study was drawn up by his staff. Released in February. it maintained that Wal-Mart actually costs taxpayers money, because—so mean is the company to its employees—all the rest of us have to subsidize their health care, child care, and so on, and so on. It is the Democratic aim to paint Wal-Mart as an awful machine both Dickensian and Orwellian, gobbling up towns, people, and souls. This portrait is ridiculous—but many enjoy it.
AN ALL-PURPOSE BOGEYMAN
“What, exactly, are the complaints against Wal-Mart?
They are numerous—it is almost blamed for the common cold but the main ones appear to be these: that it is too big. That it is too impersonal. That it “drains the life out of Main Street.” That it is “Sprawl Mart.” That it pays its own employees too little. That it denies them health care. That it is un-unionized (that much is true). That it employs illegal aliens (about that, more later). That it relies on foreign goods. That it is square (banning racy magazines, for instance). That it is crassly American. That it is vulgar. That it is ...........!
Frankly, more than a bit of snobbery goes into Wal-Mart bashing. This is a store that sells every product under the sun at very low prices to Middle America. (It is the biggest seller of groceries, toys, and furniture . It sells 30 percent of all the disposable diapers purchased in the U.S., 30 percent of hair products, etc.)
WAI-MART IS GLORIOUSLY, UNABASHEDLY ,
I hope it’s not too McCarthyite to suggest that those who dislike Wal-Mart are those who may not be so crazy about America tout court.
Daniel Mindus of the Center for Consumer Freedom points out that Wal-Mart has become, for the Left, like the SUV, or the oil and gas industry, or the gun—a simple hate object.
Wal-Mart fires the passions of anti-globalism, anti-consumerism, and surely anti-corporatism (along with snobbery).
This company may be considered the most flagrant expression of democratic capitalism, loud testimony to the size, scope, entrepreneurialism, and efficiency of America. That doesn’t sit well with a good many people.
As can be seen from the remark about Heinz soup and Korea, the company is pretty adept at responding to critics. This is not a patsy company, not a “suicidal corporation,” to borrow Paul H. Weaver’s memorable phrase. It invests heavily in PR, and it invests heavily in politicians: WaI-PAC is a formidable political action committee, the number-two such giver in the country (next to Goldman Sachs). And if someone blasts the company on television or in print, Wal-Mart is likely to respond nimbly and tartly, too.
The company says, basically, that it does the service of employing over a million people, and of supplying high-quality goods at rock-bottom prices to many millions more. That is a bad thing?
Critics like to contend that Wal-Mart employees live “paycheck to paycheck”; that is not true. But what is true—certainly truer—is Wal-Mart’s rejoinder: “We are the store of countless people who live paycheck to paycheck, wanting and needing decent products at decent prices.” Touché.
Many object to a Wal-Mart in their community, but most people welcome it they are just not the activist type, and seldom write articles for the newspaper or deliver commentaries on public television.
Some of us have a romantic feeling about Mom-’n’-Pop stores: but people vote with their feet, and they are not, most of them, voting for Mom ‘n’ Pop. Besides which, how many people did Mom ‘n’ Pop employ, and what sort of big benefit package did they offer them?
About health insurance : More than 90 percent of Wal-Mart employees have it. Fifty percent of those employees get their insurance through the company; and the rest get it through ........... Well, teenagers get it through their parents; others are covered by their spouse’s plan; senior citizens have Medicare, or benefits from a previous employer. There are options. Wal-Mart is a huge employer of the young those wanting their first jobs and the old (those in retirement, or semi-retirement, wanting to keep a hand in, to mingle with the folks).
A company spokesman says, hard-headedly, “If we weren’t a desirable employer, we wouldn’t be able to fulfill our growth potential. We have competitive wages and benefits in every community we serve. We don’t start at minimum wage anywhere in the country unlike our unionized com-petitors.”
Ah, yes, th e unions. It is an ongoing affront to organized labor that Wal-Mart, the biggest and baddest, remains un-unionized. The United Food & Commercial Workers has a whole department devoted to Wal-Mar t to targeting it, unionizing it. The UFCW campaigns as though its very existence, as a union, depended on success.
No one should suppose that a Wal-Mart job is a demeaning or a dead-end job. Two-thirds of Wal-Mart managers come from the ranks of hourly employees. The company constantly stresses that it is a place of opportunity, and this is not mere corporate propaganda. Interestingly, the accusations now hurled at Wal-Mart are exactly those once hurled at McDonald’s. Remember “Mciobs”?
That phrase had a life in the 1988 presidential campaign, as Governor Dukakis went on about “good jobs at good wages. (Since employment was so high, one could hardly complain about the raw number of jobs.) It took Thomas Sowell and other smart people to explain that McDonald’s was important for those wanting to reach the first rung of the job ladder they could then climb, within McDonald’s or elsewhere.
A word, now, about illegal aliens —this is one of the Wal-Mart “scandals.”
Last October, 2003, the feds staged some well-publicized raids on Wal-Mart stores; they busted a bevy of illegals . According to the company—and there is no reason to doubt it—Wal-Mart had worked for three years with the government, which was investigating some of the cleaning contractors used by the company. Wal-Mart “continued to employ the contractors long after we would have brought those services in house, at a cost savings to us.” (So says a company spokesman.)
The federal investigation continues. Wal-Mart is not off the hook. But the company can’t help pointing out that many of those whose hearts usually bleed for illegals, and their right to work, go positively jingo when it comes to Wal-Mart ——and Wal-Mart alone.
And , yes, the company is a heavy importer of foreign goods, including from China . This is a noteworthy development, as Wal-Mart started out with a “Made in America” theme. It was quasi-protectionist. Now the Wal-Mart theme is, “Made Anywhere, So What?” A company vice president told Business Week, “The mindset around here is, we’re agents for our customers.” Critics who never breathe a word about Laogai, in other circumstances, get all human-rightsy when discussion turns to Wal-Mart. (Laogai is the Chinese gulag.)
THE TIMES NO LIKE
In the field of Wal-Mart sniping, the New York Times is pretty much champion. (What else is new?) It has not exactly crusaded against Wal-Mart, not like it did against Augusta National Golf Club, in the time of editor Howell Raines. But the paper emits a steady stream of stories casting Wal-Mart in the worst possible light.
One story—published on March 6, 2004, began in almost comical fashion: “Alexander Luten’s grandfather did well for a man born into slavery.” A right-wing parodist could not improve on that.
What story against Wal-Mart wouldn ‘t begin with an evocation of slavery?
The Times’s article, headlined “In a Historic Black Hamlet, Wal-Mart Finds Resistance,” concerned Sandfly, Ga., and the arrival of a Wal-Mart Supercenter there. The writer, Andrew Jacobs, did not cite any particular offense, but said that opponents “see Wal-Mart’s coming as disrespectful to a community that feels intense pride in its past and its roots in West African culture.” One local was quoted as saying, “Our culture and values were passed down from our parents and great-grandparents, and we are trying to pass them down to our kids.” How Wal-Mart might impede this process is a mystery. But WaI-Mart is seen, by some, as a sinister force, with a magical capacity to destroy almost anything.
And did you read this, last December, 2003? “The annual celebration of the American consumer economy—the holiday shopping season is just underway, and WaI-Mart, the juggernaut of retailing, already seems to have claimed its first victim.” That would be F. A. 0 . Sehwarz, the old-line (and pricey ) toy seller, which was on the verge of going under—Wal-Mart had cut severely into its business, selling the same toys at much lower prices. Time magazine went the Times one better~ however, with the headline “Will Wal-Mart Steal Christmas?” (The newspaper itself noted this.)
Everyone knows that Christmas isn’t really Christmas unless you overpay for toys.
The Times had the good grace to quote a Federal Reserve economist who said, “Wal-Mart is the greatest thing that ever happened to low-income Americans.”
Editorially, the paper has decried “the Wal-Martization of America,” claiming that the company’s effect on the national work-forcc “threatens to push many Americans into poverty.” This betrays a strange understanding of economics, and it is the same understanding that has defamed McDonald’s for years. Wal-Mart has done McDonald’s this favor: It has replaced the hamburger chain as “Bogeyman No. I” in the mind and rhetoric of the Left
The fact is, Wal-Mart is held by many economists—to have single-handedly kept American unemployment down, and productivity up or steady, in lean times.
Of course, the left-wing magazines have been hard on Wal-Mart for many a moon. Listen to a recent “comment” in The Nation: “The Los Angeles area remains one of the few urban centers that Wal-Mart has yet to penetrate. But having gained a foothold in suburbia, the chain is now furiously pummeling the gates of the urban core, whose potential consumer base is disproportionately immigrant and poor— and therefore primed to respond to WaI-Mart’s discount appeal.”
Bear in mind: This is considered a bad thing.
A COMPANY LIKE NO OTHER
Because Wal-Mart is so big and so important—it attracts endless flak. According to Fortune, the company was sued 6,087 times in 2002 alone, “or about once every 90 minutes every day of the year.” And surely Wal-Mart is guilty here and there . As a company spokesman remarked for this same Fortune article, “When you have one million people working for you, there are always going to be a couple of knuckleheads out there who do dumb things.”
The company adjusts, adapts, copes, even to the point of a little PC: A major Wal-Mart executive has grumped about the number of white men working as Wal-Mart managers. (Too many.) And the company’s detractors may also be interested to know that its anti-discrimination policies cover gays.
Moreover, Wal-Mart has hired a “reputation consultant” and aired TV ads touting the company as a friendly, nurturing place to work. As it was morning in America, it is morning at Wal-Mart.
But warmth and fuzziness aside, Wal-Mart is a bracing, historic enterprise. As Larry Kudlow the economist, TV personality, and enthusiast for capitalism—says, “They have invented the modern company. They are really the first lnternetized, globalized company, engaged in real-time inventories, real-time ricing—everything. They are the model for everyone else.”
Brink Lindsey, the Cato Institute trade guru, calls Wal-Mart “an agent of dynamism,” meaning, naturally, that “others have an interest in demonizing it.” Furthermore, “Wal-Mart is a distinctly American phenomenon, and therefore an anti-European phenomenon.” Euros and their likenesses in America have no
patience for Wal-Mart . “The Europeans sniff at our job creation,” says Lindsey, “while their job market is stagnant. They say, ‘Oh, America just has those new Wal-Mart-type jobs.’ Actually, the percentage of managerial and professional jobs in our country has climbed steadily. Yes, we have a lot of low-end jobs, but we have a lot of young people and older people in our workforce, unlike Europe. There, they don’t let people get hired, they don’t let industries move fast, they don’t create jobs” they just snort at America and Wal-Mart, unwilling to dent their own double-digit unemployment.
None of this is to say that brave new economic worlds are always comfortable, for everybody. In a column, Thomas Sowell quoted Judge Robert Bork to the effect that “somebody always gets hurt in a courtroom.” Added Sowell, “Somebody always gets hurt in an economy that is growing. You can’t keep on doing things the old way and still get the benefits of the new way.” Or, as a lady from Sandfly, Ga., put it to the New York Times, “Change is here. Sometimes you just have to accept it and move on.”
Only in this instance, change is also overwhelmingly good: Wal-Mart employs masses of workers, has made investors piles of money, has saved consumers a fortune. How many other companies do as well?
How many politicians contribute as much?
NATIONAL REVIEW Magazine
April 19, 2004. (Pgs. 30-32)
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