Why is MALDEF Honoring Walmart?

The other day I received an invitation from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) for its annual fundraising dinner in Los Angeles.  But what struck my eye was the icon in the middle of the invitation: “Walmart: Gala Chair.”

Let’s be clear what it means to be a gala chair: it’s essentially something of an honor in exchange for a contribution.  For Walmart, it means that they get the public relations benefits of being a MALDEF supporter; MALDEF, of course, gets the check.  All of this is good and mutually beneficial.

Except that, as is well known, Walmart has one of themost egregious employment records of any large American company.  It underpays its workers, and sometimes doesn’t even pay them at all.  As Harold Meyerson documented in a superb article last year, Walmart helps run a collection of warehouses where the workers suffer in terrible conditions.  Oh, and most of those workers are Latino.

Every nonprofit has to deal with a fundamental problem: advancing the organization’s mission and preserving the organization itself do not always dovetail.  Compromises have to be made.  When I was a board president of a legal service organization in East Los Angeles, we received decent-sized grant from Altria, the new name of Philip Morris.  No one likes tobacco companies, but if we didn’t take the grant, we would have been forced to lay off two lawyers and close down an effective program.  We took the money.

But this is different.  It’s one think to take some money: it’s quite another to honor the organization and place it high in your promotional materials.  And Walmart isn’t just another company: it’s the world’s largest retailer, with gross receipts in excess of many countries’ GDP, which is at the heart of an American business structure actively seeking to undermine workers’ rights and eviscerate middle class jobs.  This is a compromise too far.  It attacks the very constituencies that MALDEF claims to be working for.

I often wonder about why the nations’ progressive movement is so weak, especially in comparison to the Right.  There are many reasons, of course, but perhaps one of them is the inability of organizations to work together in coalition, to not take the easy way out if it would mean undermining their coalition partners.  My contacts at the AFL-CIO and Change To Win told me that neither organization was even aware of this, much less being able to voice their opinions when it was being considered.  In and of itself, MALDEF’s poor choice isn’t the cause of the Right’s ascendancy, but it does show that sometimes the biggest obstacle to progressive change are some alleged progressive organizations.

Happy holidays – but few

Long American working hours are inefficient.

If you are reading this on Monday, the chances are that if you are American, you are back at work; if a European, you may well be still on holiday. The most striking difference between the American and Western European economies isn’t productivity, which is similar per hour worked, but the annual number of hours worked. OECD data on annual hours worked per employed worker for 2002:

400px-Yearly_working_time.jpg(credit Wikipedia)

The annual difference between France and the USA was 431 hours, say 10 weeks. Roughly a third of this was accounted for by leave and holidays. Dixit Wikipedia :

US law does not require employers to grant any vacation or holidays and about 25% of all employees receive no vacation time or holidays. For employees that do receive vacation, 10 working days with 8 national holidays is fairly standard. Members of the US Armed Services earn a total of 30 vacation days a year, not including national holidays.

Most European workers have holiday entitlement more like those of US servicemen than US civilian workers.

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Peak solar and the Maharishi

Peak Solar – prices of PV modules have started to fall.

A year ago I posted on the paradox that the price of photovoltaic solar panels had been going up. Well, it’s been falling now for six months; not a lot in dollars – from $4.85 a watt last June to $4.82 now, a bit more in euros – from €4.78 to €4.70. There was an 1c uptick in the dollar price in June, but not the euro one. These are the wholesale prices for the modules that account for 60% of the value of a complete panel. Source: the helpful industry trade website Solarbuzz.

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The price trend in euros is actually much more significant than that in dollars. The US is a small part of the world market. Because this infant industry still relies on consumer subsidies, most of the world’s installed PV lies inefficiently under the grey, high-latitude skies of virtuous Germany and Japan. Spain has recently jumped into second place – and it actually has sun!

MB08-WorldMarket2007.gif

On the basis of this micro-trend, I’m calling Peak Solar: the price has peaked and will fall from now on. Why?

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Something to be thankful for

Some of Wal-Mart’s not-anti-gay policies are annoying the American Family Association.

Wal-Mart is taking flak from the (un)Christian Right for being insufficiently hostile to gays and lesbians. Nothing too drastic: Wal-Mart joined the Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and contributed to a group that promotes gay rights in the workplace. But anything that helps peel Mr. Sam’s successors away from the conservative coalition can only be good for humanity.

The illusion of choice

A comment on my Walmart post below reminded me of a grouse I’ve been nursing for some time. One thing about big stores is that they could offer a really wide variety of merchandise, and having failed to find somewhat specialized photographic items in the small neighborhood camera stores that used to be the only way this equipment was sold in France, I am a great admirer of places like B&H Photo. B&H, I should mention, is not just a web address with a warehouse you can’t actually go in to; they have a real store with everything out to pick up and mess with. Of course this store is in New York, not where you probably are, but places like it are one reason cities like New York are good places to live. The Bay Area has four serious photography retailers that I know of, and one is even in Berkeley.

However, the potential variety of inventory in most big stores is an illusion, and the less specialized they are the more this is true. Take CompUSA, which does have a presence near you, and many thousand square feet of it. CompUSA has a computer that watches sales like a hawk, and ruthlessly prunes slow-moving items, so the large rack of cables actually has no specialized or rare ones, but twenty hooks with the same five fast movers, the cables you already have two or three of . If you want something the least bit arcane, you are out of luck, because the maximum straight-face selling price of a special item does not capture its real value to the customer. I believe CompUSA no longer stocks any SCSI cables in its stores at all, though it has every known brand of blank CD in five different package sizes each.

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What’s really wrong with Wal-Mart

I have to weigh in to the Wal-Mart discussion, because if we only talk about the retail and labor economics of this institution, we are missing something that may be even more important. I’m thinking about the degradation of everyday life Wal-Mart, and all big-box stores and malls, enforce as an inseparable condition of their ability to provide a lot of stuff at a low cash-register price. I use that awkward phrase to emphasize that things we pay less money for may still be expensive in other ways: getting stuff at places like Wal-Mart is a transaction in which we sell our humanity for money. The reasons are a little complicated, and have more to do with automobiles than employment practices; bear with me.

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Walmart Welfare

Mark’s post below notes, quite rightly, that Walmart is a Janus-faced problem for liberals. On the one hand, it helps the people we (at least me) care most about as consumers, but may (I think this is more complicated) hurt them as workers. Mark suggests that liberals need to keep hammering Walmart on their own internal policies. I think that’s true where unionization is concerned, although this may be a pipe dream, given how deeply complete managerial autonomy is in the Walmart model. But I’m actually not quite as bothered with Walmart’s relatively low wages ane meager benefits, in and of themselves. Walmart works disproportionately in lower-income areas, so we should expect their wages to be lower, and I do think there’s an argument that, because the company hires so much through the ranks, that it is actually a force for good social mobility-wise.

What really bothers me about Walmart is what Mark hints at, which is its relative non-support for broad egalitarian policies that would arguably be in its own interest. This is a question that a fantastic graduate student at Yale, Nicole Kazee, has been looking at what she calls “Walmart welfare”. Employers like Walmart would/do actually benefit disproportionately from welfare state policies like universal health care, wage subsidies (like EITC), child care, education and literacy programs, etc. (as we all know, Walmart is already relying considerably on Medicaid) To the degree that things like this are paid out of progressive income taxes, they would actually have very little impact on Walmart’s bottom line (although they would impact its owners) while providing a substantial subsidy to their cost of doing business.

So, I’m not sure how much energy I would actually devote to beating up Walmart on things it can only do relatively little on without drastically changing its business model. If I were advising liberal strategists, I would encourage them to think of Walmart as a potential ally as a matter of cold hard self-interest, not simply because they’d like to do something to get liberals off their backs (which will inevitably only lead to symbolic action). I would try to put together Walmart executives with the better, more creative liberal social policy folks to talk about welfare state expansions and how they might be designed so as to attract the support of Walmart. Esp. with a changed Congress coming up, who says Walmart wouldn’t be interested in listening?