[Homestead] Saying it like it is: Don't Blame WalMart
genegerue at ruralize.com
Mon Feb 28 08:51:09 EST 2005
This article by Robert Reich is poignant to me. I became aware that the
Bush administration paid back the huge campaign contribution by the boss at
Home Depot by fixing it so that the ceiling fans imported from China get an
exemption on import tariffs. Home Depot is the largest seller of ceiling
fans in the U.S. I find that kind of quid pro quo--big business money buys
big political favors at the expense of smaller businesses--offensive to my
citizenship values and accordingly call the U.S. Congress the D.C.
Whorehouse. Yet, knowing this, I still shop at Home Depot. Helluva dilemma.
Shall I beat myself up over this apparent breach of values behavior simply
accept that I am just another smart American consumer, going where it is
convenient and money wise to buy what I want? How do you guys feel about
these things? Do you shop at WalMart and Home Depot? How do you feel about
the values dilemma?
Don't Blame Wal-Mart
By ROBERT B. REICH
Published: February 28, 2005
Berkeley, Calif. BOWING to intense pressure from neighborhood and labor
groups, a real estate developer has just given up plans to include a
Wal-Mart store in a mall in Queens, thereby blocking Wal-Mart's plan to
open its first store in New York City. In the eyes of Wal-Mart's
detractors, the Arkansas-based chain embodies the worst kind of economic
exploitation: it pays its 1.2 million American workers an average of only
$9.68 an hour, doesn't provide most of them with health insurance, keeps
out unions, has a checkered history on labor law and turns main streets
into ghost towns by sucking business away from small retailers.
But isn't Wal-Mart really being punished for our sins? After all, it's not
as if Wal-Mart's founder, Sam Walton, and his successors created the
world's largest retailer by putting a gun to our heads and forcing us to
Instead, Wal-Mart has lured customers with low prices. "We expect our
suppliers to drive the costs out of the supply chain," a spokeswoman for
Wal-Mart said. "It's good for us and good for them."
Wal-Mart may have perfected this technique, but you can find it almost
everywhere these days. Corporations are in fierce competition to get and
keep customers, so they pass the bulk of their cost cuts through to
consumers as lower prices. Products are manufactured in China at a fraction
of the cost of making them here, and American consumers get great deals.
Back-office work, along with computer programming and data crunching, is
"offshored" to India, so our dollars go even further.
Meanwhile, many of us pressure companies to give us even better bargains. I
look on the Internet to find the lowest price I can and buy airline
tickets, books, merchandise from just about anywhere with a click of a
mouse. Don't you?
The fact is, today's economy offers us a Faustian bargain: it can give
consumers deals largely because it hammers workers and communities.
We can blame big corporations, but we're mostly making this bargain with
ourselves. The easier it is for us to get great deals, the stronger the
downward pressure on wages and benefits. Last year, the real wages of
hourly workers, who make up about 80 percent of the work force, actually
dropped for the first time in more than a decade; hourly workers' health
and pension benefits are in free fall. The easier it is for us to find
better professional services, the harder professionals have to hustle to
attract and keep clients. The more efficiently we can summon products from
anywhere on the globe, the more stress we put on our own communities.
But you and I aren't just consumers. We're also workers and citizens. How
do we strike the right balance? To claim that people shouldn't have access
to Wal-Mart or to cut-rate airfares or services from India or to Internet
shopping, because these somehow reduce their quality of life, is
paternalistic tripe. No one is a better judge of what people want than they
The problem is, the choices we make in the market don't fully reflect our
values as workers or as citizens. I didn't want our community bookstore in
Cambridge, Mass., to close (as it did last fall) yet I still bought lots of
books from Amazon.com. In addition, we may not see the larger bargain when
our own job or community isn't directly at stake. I don't like what's
happening to airline workers, but I still try for the cheapest fare I can get.
The only way for the workers or citizens in us to trump the consumers in us
is through laws and regulations that make our purchases a social choice as
well as a personal one. A requirement that companies with more than 50
employees offer their workers affordable health insurance, for example,
might increase slightly the price of their goods and services. My inner
consumer won't like that very much, but the worker in me thinks it a fair
price to pay. Same with an increase in the minimum wage or a change in
labor laws making it easier for employees to organize and negotiate better
I wouldn't go so far as to re-regulate the airline industry or hobble free
trade with China and India - that would cost me as a consumer far too much
- but I'd like the government to offer wage insurance to ease the pain of
sudden losses of pay. And I'd support labor standards that make trade
agreements a bit more fair.
These provisions might end up costing me some money, but the citizen in me
thinks they are worth the price. You might think differently, but as a
nation we aren't even having this sort of discussion. Instead, our debates
about economic change take place between two warring camps: those who want
the best consumer deals, and those who want to preserve jobs and
communities much as they are. Instead of finding ways to soften the blows,
compensate the losers or slow the pace of change - so the consumers in us
can enjoy lower prices and better products without wreaking too much damage
on us in our role as workers and citizens - we go to battle.
I don't know if Wal-Mart will ever make it into New York City. I do know
that New Yorkers, like most other Americans, want the great deals that can
be had in a rapidly globalizing high-tech economy. Yet the prices on sales
tags don't reflect the full prices we have to pay as workers and citizens.
A sensible public debate would focus on how to make that total price as low
Robert B. Reich, the author of "Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle
for America," was secretary of labor from 1993 to 1997.
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