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Jewish World Review June 8, 2004 / 19 Sivan, 5764

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Consumer Reports


Wal-Mart is an undeserving whipping boy


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | You'd think it rounds up people at gunpoint and buses them to its stores.


You'd think it uses slave labor to staff its army of 1.5 million clerks and cheery greeters or sends goons out at night to blow up Kmarts.


You'd think it has invented everything crass, predatory and stupid about our mass consumer culture, single-handedly creating suburban sprawl, big-box architecture and the McNightmare Roads of Middle America.


If it weren't for the fact that millions of people choose to spend $266 billion a year in 3,500-plus stores on several continents, you'd think no one likes or even tolerates Wal-Mart.


Everyone doesn't hate the largest retailer in human history. But the elite media, the unions, the intellectuals and the upper classes never tire of trashing the low-brow, low-pay, low-price culture of Wal-Mart. Take, for instance, veteran syndicated city develo


pment guru/columnist Neal Peirce. He has discovered yet another crime committed by Wal-Mart: It reportedly has pocketed about $1 billion in government-given goodies, including free or reduced-price land, infrastructure subsidies and tax breaks.


All those who prefer honest, sensible economic development would agree that Wal-Mart, like Sears or Home Depot, should not be bribed or gifted with public money and should pay for its impact on things like traffic congestion. But believe it or not, Wal-Mart didn't invent corporate welfare, either.

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Meanwhile, let's examine what is probably the most widely accepted charge against evil Wal-Mart - that "it destroys communities."


The Wal-Mart haters don't mean that literally, of course. They don't mean "it destroys communities" in the same sense that government urban renewal destroyed whole neighborhoods like East Liberty. They don't mean "destroyed" the way the local governments of Carnegie and Little Washington destroyed the economic life of their main streets 30 years ago by creating one-way streets and idiotic pedestrian malls.


By "destroy," the haters mean that evil Wal-Mart's low-low prices, cunning management and 3.5 percent net corporate profit margin unfairly steal away all the customers in a community, thereby wiping out the indigenous little businesses that can't or won't compete.


You've heard this scary bedtime story. Wal-Mart's victims were benevolent mom & pop grocery, hardware and drug store owners who for generations had thought only about the needs and wants of their community, not their own profit margins.


And until the evil giant came and squashed them, these altruistic local monopolists were keeping their prices charitably low and paying their unionized employees $20 an hour (with full health benefits and profit-sharing, of course).


Sure they were.


No one says you have to love Wal-Mart or have to shop there. But don't buy the populist fairy tales about Wal-Mart's poor victims, its unhappy wage slaves or its unique corporate evilness.


Costco is smaller, that's all. And, in its heyday, the A&P grocery chain was proportionately bigger, more dominant and just as "predatory" (i.e., they too killed off their smaller, weaker competition by cutting prices ruthlessly to serve consumers).


Wal-Mart is popular with the shopping masses, but its reputation has been permanently trashed by mainstream media, unions and anti-capitalist opinion elites who, perversely, see its size and success as proof that it hurts society.


Yet in the last 50 years, Wal-Mart's low-low prices and entry-level jobs have probably done more good for more poor people than all the government's wasteful social welfare programs.


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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald