It’s remarkable how much can go through your head in a really short period of time. (It’s equally remarkable how little can go through some people’s heads in a very long period of time, but I digress.) This morning I got an e-mail from Brian at daedalnexus, and I quickly registered the headline and blurb:
Don’t Blame Wal-Mart
Wal-Mart has not become the world’s largest retailer by putting a gun to our heads and forcing us to shop there.
Here’s what went through my mind, all within the space of about a second and a half:
- Jeez, here’s some simplistic apologist defending Wal*Mart.
- Of course nobody forces us, but it’s more complex than that.
- Dammit, you have to look at the larger economic system.
- I’m hungry (this one wasn’t so much a thought as it was a vague, lizard-brain kind of awareness).
- People shop at Wal*Mart because it’s cheaper and cheaper is important when you’ve been squeezed to death and are working for peanuts.
- Wal*Mart is both cause and effect here.
- Dammit, this is why people need to read Robert Reich’s The Future of Success.
Verily, I am the king of snap judgments. So then I looked to see who the doofus apologist was, and sumbitch, it’s the aforementioned Robert Reich, and he isn’t making excuses at all. So I ease my attitude back into the holster and read on.
Reich begins by noting the sorts of exploitative behavior we routinely castigate Wal*Mart for: it pays workers an average of less than $10/hour, provides most with no health insurance, keeps out unions, games labor law, “turns main streets into ghost towns by sucking business away from small retailers,” and so on. All of which are fair and damning charges, by the way.
But – you knew there was a “but,” didn’t you? – nobody forces us to buy from Wal*Mart. We do so because they have cheaper prices. (BTW, by “we” I’m referring to Americans generally – I won’t step in one of their stores unless there’s just absolutely no choice, and if it costs me a bit more, that’s a price I’m willing to pay to help preserve the sanctity of my community.) All companies seek to drive cost out of the system, and Reich acknowledges some of the ways in which he himself seeks cheaper alternatives, even when it hurts the kinds of community businesses he values.
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.
Definitely worth the read.
My issue here isn’t really whether we buy cheaper or pay more to preserve local business, exactly. It’s that Americans don’t seem to have put two and two together yet. When a company talks about driving “cost” out of business, when it talks about “efficiency,” what we seem not to grok is that those are euphemisms. Cost – regardless of how you distribute the pain, that’s another way of saying “salary.” We’re finding ways of paying somebody somewhere less. Cutting their pay. Reducing the income they have to shop at our store or any other. Slashing the money they have to pay for food and shelter and educations for their kids. And once we start bandying about the dreaded “e-word,” efficiency, we might well be talking about getting rid of jobs altogether. Different collections of incredibly wealthy people cause euphemisms to be deployed in different ways.
People can go to Wal*Mart and pay less, and then when they get home sit around and bitch because of the way their employers are squeezing, downsizing, outsourcing. It’s like they’re sitting in the backyard complaining to a fox that somebody has been raiding the henhouse at night and they can’t for the life of them figure out who.
Reich sees a moderate, middle road between the two warring camps – “those who want the best consumer deals, and those who want to preserve jobs and communities much as they are” – and offers a variety of possible policy solutions that would address these issues in a realistic fashion. But, as he says, “as a nation we aren’t even having this sort of discussion.”
There are a lot of discussions we aren’t having as a nation. In some cases we’re too lazy, and in other cases perhaps we’ve been suckered into believing that certain types of discussions are inherently undemocratic. Lately I’ve had people suggest to me that the rights of companies to be free from “government interference” are more important than the kinds of personal civil liberties that once caused patriotic men to wax philosophical about “inalienable rights.” I can’t swear that this is what these folks meant to say – not everybody thinks deeply about their beliefs, I’ve learned, and prefabricated catchphrases often substitute for ideas in the lives of simple people – but regardless, it is precisely what they said.
In far too many cases, we aren’t having conversations simply because we aren’t smart enough. Some day I’ll continue down this road by referring to the writing of two landmark 20th Century thinkers, Walter Lippman and John Dewey, both of whom noted the difficulties of decision-making in a society where people couldn’t possibly understand the complexities of the issues weighing on their lives. For now, I’ll simply observe that I’d be happy if I saw some indication that the public wanted to understand those issues….