Wal-Mart Redux

I was thinking about Keith’s post, and about the larger implications of Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart is alluring on the consumer level, you can buy a vacuum cleaner for $40, that’s unreal! In that sense I can understand why people in rural Kentucky love their Wal-Marts. If you can buy your tires, pants, juiceboxes, cat litter, shampoo, and more all at what appear to be significant savings, why the hell not? The standard bit of boilerplate rhetoric that might be employed here goes something along the lines of, “people are too materialistic these days, consumerism and status anxiety combines to make them want too much stuff” along with some Lou Dobbs populist economic nationalism about how the Chinese are taking manufacturing jobs.

I think there is a great deal of truth to that first statement – people replace cellphones every couple of years now while my parents had the same rotary dial land line phone for 20 years in our basement. There are many other sectors where the same mad consumerism has taken over. But again, let’s look at people with lower socioeconomic status in a place like Kentucky. A great deal of what Wal-Mart sells are staples, things like diapers, or clothing (and we aren’t talking $300 Diesel jeans in Wal-Mart). So your Wal-Mart-shopping Kentuckian is likely to roll his or her eyes at some city slicker like me telling them that saving 50 cents on diapers shows that they are shallow and materialistic.

The problem with Wal-Mart that I think Keith is driving at is that over time the large-scale economic effect of a company like Wal-Mart, with its union-busting, main street-gutting ways is akin to fast food for the economy. In the short-term it appears to be inexpensive, it feels good and can satisfy a legitimate need, over the long run though, its effects, if not properly limited, can be damaging. The combination of driving manufacturing offshore and paying its own employs so little means that a company like Wal-Mart is surely have the net effect of driving down everyone else’s wages.