What those 'Low Prices' Cost


I’m starting to feel a little bit of sympathy for Sen. John Kerry. Not because he lost the election. His wealth, his houses, and his safe seat in the U.S. Senate are consolation enough for that. I sympathize with him for having to go through the presidential campaign dragging the paper trail of a 20-year senatorial voting record. I’m starting to realize that if I write this column long enough, like Kerry, I may find myself on the record as taking every side of some questions. But the world keeps changing, and at some point a foolish consistency is just foolish, so here comes another flip-flop.

Twelve years ago, on this page, I mounted a backhanded defense of Wal-Mart against its "small is beautiful" critics. At the time, I identified with the cash-strapped condition that made so many Americans welcome those "everyday low prices." I also pointed out that, by locating in small towns where other businesses were already dying, Wal-Mart provided a common cultural space for middle America’s multiracial proletariat. I suspected that, with Internet shopping then on the horizon, the day might come when Wal-Mart critics would look back at it with nostalgia. Also, as a Southerner with small-town, working-class roots, I had a soft spot for Wal-Mart - as I did for Bill Clinton. For better or worse, Clinton was one of us, and Arkansas-based Wal-Mart, at least in the days of founder Sam Walton, was sort of ours.

That was then. Today I’m ready to join the ranks of all right-thinking people the world over in declaring Wal-Mart an outpost of hell on earth. In fact, the PBS Frontline report that aired last November - "Is Wal-Mart Good for America?" - has me considering a personal boycott of the house that Sam built even though, where I live, that would make life very inconvenient.

WHAT’S CHANGED? I’m still as cash-strapped as ever, but, in the past decade, the world has changed, and so has Wal-Mart. For one thing, while Wal-Mart was spreading like kudzu across rural America, family farms were closing and small-town factories were moving to Mexico. As a result, Wal-Mart has become a primary employer in much of the country. And as cheap and convenient as it may be to shop at Wal-Mart, the chain is a terrible employer. The average pay at Wal-Mart for a 40-hour week would keep a family of four in poverty. And reality is worse than that since so many Wal-Mart workers are part-time. That’s by design because part-timers don’t qualify for benefits until they’ve worked two years.

Also, just as I was writing about Wal-Mart 12 years ago, the company and the country were turning a corner into the era of global free trade. For Wal-Mart, this shift also coincided with the death of the company’s founder and the severing of its corporate links to small-town culture and traditions. As the Frontline report showed in depressing detail, in the early 1990s, with growth at a plateau and stock value declining, Wal-Mart took down all those "Buy American" signs from its stores and got into bed with China.

Yep, China - the country with the slave labor camps and the compulsory abortions. That’s our Wal-Mart. The company even has a corporate office in the industrial center of Shenzhen, China, to maintain relations with its thousands of Chinese suppliers. And the Chinese workers feeding Wal-Mart’s money machine make 25 to 50 cents per hour.

Wal-Mart didn’t cause this situation, of course. It’s only following the logic of the free market. And so are we, as consumers, when we drool over those low prices. The problem is that the logic of the free market is suicidal. As Wal-Mart illustrates, a "low-price" economy inevitably becomes a "low-wage" economy. And when wages sink low enough, workers can no longer afford to buy anything, even at Wal-Mart prices, and the machine grinds to a halt. So far America has postponed that day with low interest rates, federal deficits, and staggering consumer debt, combined with rank exploitation of cheap foreign labor.

It will take a lot of time and struggle to reform the global marketplace around principles of workers’ rights (and environmental protection). But in the long run, that is the only way we can have a decent life for most Americans and real opportunities for the global poor.

In the meantime, despite the inconvenience, I’m doing my shopping elsewhere.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

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