[Paleopsych] NYT Op-Ed: Don't Blame Wal-Mart

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Sat Apr 16 22:04:44 UTC 2005

Don't Blame Wal-Mart
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 shop there.

    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

    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 themselves.

    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 [1]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 terms.

    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 as possible.

    Robert B. Reich, the author of "Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the
    Battle for America," was secretary of labor from 1993 to 1997.


    1. http://Amazon.com/

More information about the paleopsych mailing list