Wal-Mart — Prince or Pirate?

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The city of Portland, Oregon recently announced that it will be gradually divesting of all of its investments in Wal-Mart (more U.S. cities should do the same).  The town’s City Council no longer sees Wal-Mart as a socially responsible employer because of its long record of abusive labor practices, monopolistic market practices (forcing suppliers to out-source their manufacturing to the detriment of U.S. jobs) and general unethical corporate behavior — citing the recent Mexican bribery scandal.

Wal-Mart is the country’s largest employer.  In 2013 it made over 16 billion dollars in profits.  Yet Wal-Mart costs every community in the U.S. where it operates a store more than a million dollars a year in public assistance benefits because it refuses to pay its workers a livable wage.  This works out to more than $5,800 per employee.  This is a direct subsidy to Wal-Mart, and corporate welfare at its worst.  It’s been a common and long standing practice in the H.R. departments of Wal-Mart to tell new employees to go on public assistance as soon as they start working.  I have a better idea.  Why don’t they just pay these people a livable wage?  Recently Republicans in the congress (Wal-Mart’s usual supporters), in order to stop waste, fraud and abuse in the government, cut the food stamp program.  This had an immediate, negative impact on Wal-Mart’s sales because so many of the company’s customers (like its own employees) have to make use of the program.  This is a case of true “poetic justice” if ever there was one.

Early on the company was a capitalistic wunderkind, a retailing marvel.  Today Wal-Mart is a kind of parasitic, economic cancer (corporate mooch?) — subsidized by every tax payer and every community where it operates, and that is virtually across the whole of America.

Meanwhile the company cites  — with genuine but obviously misplaced pride — a recent company-wide food drive organized to help struggling employees who don’t make enough money working to adequately feed themselves and their families.  Are you kidding me? This is as ridiculous as the Medici family holding a bake sale to feed their imprisoned political opponents (where is Savonarola when you really need him?).  This is a sad and tragic comment — not only on Wal-Mart, but the current state of the business and political climate in this country that such a situation is even tolerated.  It would, you would think, be an embarrassment for the management of any American company (especially one with the stature of Wal-Mart) to have their employees depend on welfare.  But that’s obviously not the case at Wal-Mart.

The surviving members of its founding family, the Waltons — who no doubt think of themselves as a kind of merchant-class nobility (country bumpkins with too much money?), although Bentonville, Arkansas is not exactly Florence during the renaissance, and hardly one of the world’s great cultural and cosmopolitan centers — now collect their quarterly dividends and live mostly in plutocratic splendor in luxury places like Palm Beach, totally immune from any notion or idea, and apparently oblivious to any concern, about what the people who work for their company have to do every day just to survive and try to make ends meet.  This is raw and blatant labor exploitation and not something we should be proud to tolerate in a modern industrial society like the one we all supposedly enjoy today in America.  That some people in this country can have so much, and others who get up and go to work everyday so little is a national disgrace.  Likewise, the people who go out their way every day (conservative politicians and well-heeled business leaders) promoting — with their money and their lobbies, their Citizen’s United claim to corporate personhood — this kind of gross and unfair inequality should, by even the simplest humane standard, be ashamed.

Our present Supreme Court is probably the most dangerous and most partisan, anti-democratic bunch of party connivers ever convened.  It’s not a judicial body by any reasonable standard, but an activist, political arm of the Republican party, and a national joke.  If corporations are people — as the Court maintained in its hallowed Citizen’s United decision — then they have a civic duty, just like any other individual citizen, to act morally and responsibly.  That means they should have to pay their taxes, and obey the same laws that the rest of us have to follow.  They should not be able to use their money to get preferential treatment in the congress and unduly influence the outcome of democratic elections in a way that is anything but democratic.  Again, I emphasize, if corporations are people — then I’m Mick Jagger!

In the late nineteenth century the oil giant Standard Oil had a well earned reputation — and was rightly excoriated by the muckrakers like Ida Tarbell, magazines like McClure’s and the citizens and culture of its time — for its abusive, illegal and exploitative, monopolistic practices.  Wal-Mart today is much the same kind of rogue company, a corporate pariah involved in many of the same greedy, predatory practices — yet many people don’t seem to mind as long as they are not personally impacted.

Wal-Mart could do what is right and raise the pay for its lowest level employees to $15.00 dollars per hour and be a shining example for other companies like Yum Brands (parent of Taco Bell) and McDonalds.  Such a move would cost Wal-Mart roughly 5.4 billion dollars per year.  This cost could ultimately — and no doubt would — be passed along to the consumer.  But who cares if the price of a box of “Mac and Cheese” goes from 68 cents to 69 cents?

Or, that pusillanimous body that we call the U.S. Congress (courageous statesmen all) could just suck it up and vote to pass a law raising the U.S. minimum wage to a livable and equitable $15.00 dollars per hour.  But that’s not likely to happen — and probably too much to expect — given the current corporate and political climate in this country.

I can proudly say that I haven’t been in a Wal-Mart store in years.  And I’ll never again buy anything there.  If I need a new coffee maker I’ll happily go to Target and pay a couple bucks more for the same item.  At least Target gives back some of its profits to the community.

The Money Trader



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