The times, they are a-changin’
    (Wal-Mart division)

If Wal-Mart is willing to dump its Republican consultant for making the Harold Ford miscegenation ad, maybe there’s the basis for a peace treaty between progressives and the company that, despite the numerous parts of its behavior that are rotten, also does great good in the world.

Wal-Mart just dumped Terry Nelson, the maker of the race-baiting anti-Harold-Ford spot. Nelson, the political director for the Bush ’04 campaign, was running Wal-Mart’s effort to mobilize its employees as Republican voters.

Wal-Mart as it now exists is a paradox. It has been a force for enormous good as the marketing department of China’s consumer-goods export industries, which have rescued half a billion people from $2-a-day penury. Wal-Mart has driven down consumer prices in the United States, especially for goods bought by the lower half of the income distribution.

Moreover &#8212 and this point has not, I think, been adequately appreciated &#8212 it has provided those low-income consumers with high-quality, well-designed products, taking much of the status insult out of discount shopping. (The contrast with K-Mart, for example, which expresses its contempt for its shoppers by selling them cheap stuff that looks cheap and is unnecessarily shoddy and ugly, couldn’t be sharper.)

On the other hand, Wal-Mart treats its own employees like dirt, uses its market power to bully its suppliers, censors the books and music it sells, and even its pharmaceuticals, to cater to “family values” prejudices, and supports reactionary politics.

Costco has shown that it’s possible to make money out as a discount retailer while treating the employees decently. But Costco is still mostly a food store, not a full-on competitor to Wal-Mart as a full-service discount emporium. It’s obviously in the interests of progressives, and of the country, to weaken Wal-Mart’s market power by encouraging Costco to grow and to broaden its inventory.

But we also have to decide how to deal with Wal-Mart: to treat it as the enemy, or to try to convince Mr. Sam’s successors that running a sweatshop empire with a reactionary political and cultural identity isn’t in the company’s long-term interests. In the long run, I think it’s better to have allies than enemies, and I don’t see Wal-Mart as being as incorrigibly reactionary as, say, GE or Exxon-Mobil. The bigger a foothold Wal-Mart gets in culturally Blue areas, the stronger the business case for softening its hard-right edge.

The two strategies aren’t mutually exclusive; they can even work synergisticly, with anti-Wal-Mart groups to continuing to hammer the company, while some Democratic politicians &#8212 preferably those with strong pro-labor credentials &#8212 try to work it around to behaving somewhat better. Any Democrat who does so risks being labeled a centrist, squishy sell-out. And of course centrist, squishy sell-outs will be more inclined to take that route (and some of Wal-Mart’s political cash) than hard-core progressives. But I’d regard a Democrat who reached out to Wal-Mart, without giving up on the minimum wage, unionization, and national health care, as smart, not slimy

The bad cops have been doing their job; now we need some good cops. Wal-Mart’s customers are, or ought to be, our voters. There ought to be a way to make peace. And Wal-Mart’s latest move suggests that there’s a peace camp within the company, too.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

5 thoughts on “The times, they are a-changin’
    (Wal-Mart division)”

  1. I shop at both Walmart and Costco, and Costco will never be a competitor to Walmart. The membership warehouse model is just fundamentally different from what Walmart does.
    Where I live there was an inner city redevelopment in which the city–Democrat-run, of course–chose Costco over Walmart as the prime tenant. Most of those in the immediately surrounding area choose, if that's the right word, to not spend $45 to join. I like to stop on the way home; they have good prices on wine.
    No, progressives will just have to settle for Target.

  2. Um.
    (1) In 2002, Wal-Mart's imports from China total $12B (source). Let's say they amount $30B today. China's GDP was $1.2T in US dollars in 2002; let's say it's 1.5B today. That puts Wal-Mart's imports at 2% of China's economy. A large number for one company, sure; but Wal-Mart's revenue as a percent of US GDP is larger (2.6%).
    (2) Given that Wal-Mart is virulently anti-union, it's not a point for compromise with WMT. Perhaps on the minimum wage and health care there's a middle ground to be had, where even a labor/populist Dem might have a case for working with WMT rather than against them. But it's more likely that state & federal legislatures will force WMT & othter large employers to provide health care, and thus get them to lobby for universal coverage to eliminate their comparative disadvantage.
    (3) as has been documented with companies like the Vlasic, Coca-Cola, Huffy, Levi's jeans, and others (see article linked above), suppliers must sacrifice quality to meet WMT's cost demands.

  3. Some manufacturers and supplier have stated they decided not to sell to Walmart because Walmart demanded they offer a cheapened version of the product under a quality brandname.
    Personally, I have made several trips to Walmart. I found that selection was limited, quality was poor, and, in general, that the poorer I got, the more sense it made to buy a quality product that I wouldn't have to replace very often.
    See also, recent exposes of the Walmart "cheap drugs" publicity campaign.
    The whole thing gets perfectly bizarre when people start talking about how we need to make peace with out-of-control merchant princes, because we need the votes of their customers. In other words, we need to pander to the voters who think their taxes should be cut while more roads are built.
    How, exactly, is that supposed to work?

  4. > it has provided those low-income
    > consumers with high-quality,
    > well-designed products, taking
    > much of the status insult out
    > of discount shopping.
    You can't be serious? Take just one example: a brand-name hand-held rotary tool. Go buy one each at a high-end tool supplier, Lowes, and Wal-Mart. Note that the model numbers will be something like 2560, 2550, and 2500 respectively although all three will say "Model 2000" on the box. Take all three home and disassemble them. Come back and tell me that Wal-Mart sells "high quality" products. Try the same with a boys polo shirt. Or boots.
    Cranky

  5. I don't agree that Walmart takes the "status insult" out of shopping. Quite the contrary. Their stores are dingy grey and blue, the aisles are crowded, the shelves are jam-packed and tower over the customers.
    What they're doing is very carefully designed to give poor and working-class people the feelings they normally have at the places they're normally at. Not spacious, not comfortable, not relaxed.
    To be poor in American means being made to feel poor. That's what Walmart does inside the stores.
    I'm also skeptical about the low prices, btw. They're predatory sometimes, but this is a massively profitable concern and it didn't get that way by pricing like a charity.

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