Is Wal-Mart good for America?

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29 Jun
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This week, Slate hosted an interesting debate between progressive economist Jason Furman and labor-liberal champion Barbara Ehrenreich. The topic was Wal-Mart, namely, Furman's contention that Wal-Mart is, in fact, a progressive success story, having driven down prices more than they've depressed wages.

I hate Wal-Mart and everything they represent. I’m also quite poor and, when I visit the U.S., I never fail to pop in for a quick stock-up. Before you criticize my hypocrisy, you should know that the entire time I am there I’m filled with self-loathing and you couldn’t possibly make me feel worse than I already do. When I finish my Ph.D. and reach the point where I can afford to pay a fair price for goods, I vow never to set foot in their warehouses again.

That said, fair play to Furman for framing the issue in a lucid and reasoned manner. Which is, of course, complete and utter bollocks. While he does have some good points to offer, Wal-Mart remains the quintessential embodiment of everything sick and evil with neo-liberal globalization. Yes, they are one of the world’s largest employers and have indeed managed to depress commodity prices. But there are severe tertiary consequences to this business model.

Wal-Mart competes in a global economy in which they prey upon third-world countries to essentially rape manufacture goods and raw materials far below fair or living wages. Since they employ outside the jurisdiction of U.S. law, they routinely shirk human rights conventions by thrusting unreasonable working conditions upon a desperate population. In return, they are able to export all profits out of their host countries and into the U.S. marketplace, thereby driving down wages beyond the level at which small (and even manyt large) businesses can reasonably compete and further widening the North-South GDP gap.

While this does have the effect of driving down short-term CPI, it markedly lowers our overall GDP by depressing local economies, driving the middle-class entrepreneur out of business, and maintaining a stranglehold on wages. In the process, their largesse affords them a swollen clout with the American government which they wield to manufacture a harmful affect on everything ranging from health care (see Maryland) to national security (see port container inspections). I fail to see how any of this is worth the pennies I can save on the suffering of my fellow global citizens.

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