Jewish World Review Dec. 28, 2004 / 16 Teves, 5765
The Nation magazine, the gloomy, creaking voice of what's left of the American left, is not known for its humor. But "Down and Out in Discount America," its current cover story on how Wal-Mart's famous low prices damage America's poor, is one of the funniest parodies of dumb union economics you'll ever read.
Everyone knows Wal-Mart, which grew to hugeness in Red State America, has lots of political and corporate enemies.
And though its bargains obviously benefit consumers, its size and market power cause some local and national socioeconomic problems as any smart, predatorily competitive $256 billion behemoth with 4,000 locations, 1.5 million workers and 2 percent of the country's GDP will.
But The Nation's Liza Featherstone takes the liberal-left's hatred of Wal-Mart to hilarious new depths.
According to her twisted union logic, Wal-Mart grew into the world's most popular retailer by using low prices to exploit the poor while simultaneously using low wages to create even more future poor consumers to exploit.
It reads like The Onion, but Featherstone couldn't have invented the nuts she uses to document Wal-Mart's evil employment policies and business practices.
One woman, the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit that charges Wal-Mart with massive sex-discrimination against women, "explains" the company's bizarre marketing strategy: "They are promoting themselves to low-income people. That's who they lure. They don't lure the rich."
A retired union hack "explains" the secret of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton's demented genius, which may interest Harvard Business School:
"He figured out how to make money off of poverty. He located his first stores in poor rural areas and discovered a real market. The only problem with this business model is that it needs to create more poverty to grow."
According to Featherstone's working-class conspiracy, however, Bad Old Sam solved that pesky problem of a future poverty shortage by making sure his army of workers would always have low wages and lousy benefits and never become unionized.
Along with her novel indictment of low prices, and her dismissive attitude toward poor women whom she says naively welcome Wal-Marts into their communities, Featherstone spews the usual union bull.
Wal-Mart, she says, has deliberately made "corporate crime an integral part of its business strategy" by "routinely violating" laws governing union organizing and overtime. If only Wal-Mart were unionized like the good supermarket chains - and then forced to pay everybody a "living wage." If only a major political party truly cared about ordinary people and challenged corporate greed, etc., etc.
Of course, if Wal-Mart followed Featherstone's union-made prescription, it wouldn't exist. And the string of 25 made-in-China Christmas tree lights I bought at Wal-Mart would have probably cost me $15, not $4.78.
Unless it really is a clever put-on, Featherstone's desperate diatribe is the worst article I've ever read in The Nation, which, for reasons known only to my psychiatrist, I've been torturing myself with regularly for almost 15 years.
Oh, by the way, on Tuesday night I checked out about 40 employees' cars at the Heidelberg Wal-Mart to see if I could tell how impoverished their owners were.
As Featherstone predicted, I found no BMWs parked in the employee lot, but no taped-up Yugos or rusted pickups, either. Along with a dozen Jeeps, GMC trucks and mini-vans, there was a Jetta, a Mercury Mountaineer and an Audi. Which, like The Nation's unintentional parody, proves nothing.
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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