Photo by Leslie Smithn 1492, Christopher Columbus stumbled across America while looking for a new route to exploit the riches of the Orient, and settled for exploiting the bejesus out of the people and resources he found here.
Jump to today, where for $14.92 you can get a pair of Chinese-made Faded Glory shoes at Wal-Mart. There have been 511 intervening years of human discovery and progress, yet the result is an entire world now linked by one constant: exploitation.
But can you beat it? A pair of leather shoes for only $14.92? Or how about these black Wranglers I'm wearing? Can you believe they were $14.94? These are some durable pants, lady! How about 12 rolls of Charmin Ultra for only $6.38? Go on, at that price you can afford to splurge on your ass a little. At that price, you could buy some for your dog's ass.
Philip K. Dick was quite a visionary, but he never saw Wal-Mart coming. Speculative fiction writers imagined bioterror, global warming, famine, cloning and a post-nuclear wasteland, but they never foresaw Wal-Mart, that drab edifice that has so transformed the world and so robbed the future of its luster. Wal-Mart is the Death Star; the Town Killer; the giant radioactive crab in whose gaping maw all souls are ground into pulp; the perfect, unstoppable world-consuming machine that transforms your life into just one more commodity to be bought cheap, used up and discarded.
Is this reading too much like a sockful of negative leftist cant to you? Please note that Herbert Marcuse never used the term "splurge on your ass." This is a whole new school of negativity, one that paints a gloomy picture only because SIGNIFICANT THINGS IN OUR WORLD ARE FUCKING AWFUL AND GETTING WORSE AND IT WOULD DO YOU GOOD TO NOTICE, THANKS.
I am delighted I was born in the United States. I like the freedoms and opportunities I've had. If you look at the good we've done, America's the best thing that's happened to the world. But when a person refuses to look also at the bad he's done, it means he's too arrogant or deluded to ever stop doing bad. Our nation has done a lot of cynical, self-serving stuff, and also things that serve nobody, but are notions that have metastasized perilously far from their original intent.
Did you read "The Wal-Mart Effect," the recent three-part series in the Los Angeles Times by Abigail Goldman and Nancy Cleeland with Evelyn Iritani and Tyler Marshall? While being fair to the Wal-Mart point of view—hey, they're giving value to the consumer!—it painted a chilling picture of a behemoth whose shadow is eclipsing the futures of people around the world. It's good journalism, the kind that makes you long for the days when Americans were capable of being outraged and moved to action by good reporting about bad things.
Wal-Mart's shelves are stocked with values because they are relentlessly hammering their suppliers for cheaper products, using the chain's immense buying clout to play manufacturers against one another to produce ever-cheaper products. "The Wal-Mart Effect" talks about a Chicago fan company where the workers had made $13 an hour; due to pressure from Wal-Mart, the owner now has fans made in China by workers earning 25 cents an hour. In poor countries around the world, people work more hours for less money, always with the threat that Wal-Mart might move their job to another company or country where workers will accept even greater depredations.
Here at home, when a Wal-Mart opens near a town, it has the effect of turning downtowns into ghost towns, as the small businesses (the ones Republicans always claim to be supporting while passing laws favoring corporate giants) are driven under by Wal-Mart's size and ruthless competition. A 1999 study conducted by UC Irvine's Marlon Boarnet and UCLA's Randall Crane found that Wal-Mart destroys 150 jobs for every 100 jobs it creates. They also claimed that if the Wal-Mart supercenter model took hold here, it could mean a yearly loss of $1.4 billion in wages and benefits to Southern California workers. It has also been shown in court that Wal-Mart systematically pressures its already-underpaid store employees to work overtime without pay.
Wal-Mart pits municipalities against one another, to see which will give it the best tax breaks, incentives and eminent-domain seizure of other people's property. If politicians were photons, Wal-Mart would be the black hole that bends light to suck them in. Search the Weekly's archives, I ask you, and read Dave Wielenga and Anthony Pignataro's reportage on Wal-Mart's successfully sordid maneuvers to locate in Huntington Beach, where their advance man was developer George Argyros (now George Bush's ambassador to Spain, where I hope they appreciate the irony of our sending them an ambassador whose rental apartment empire systematically bilked its Spanish-speaking residents), who invested in a new bank in which Felonious Dave Garofalo and other council members were involved, who then voted to approve Argyros' Wal-Mart project.
Wal-Mart pays its employees less, and passes some of the savings on to you. To compete, other businesses lower wages and nix benefits. Consider the California grocery strike and lockout. Though the chains have been showing higher profits and higher worker productivity—and Wal-Mart's grocery-inclusive supercenters have yet to gain a toehold in the region—grocers are making a preemptive strike against their workers, claiming rollbacks are needed to fend off the tidal wave of discounted products sure to come our way. If chains like Ralphs are threatened by Wal-Mart, what hope does a mom-and-pop have?
What we get is a downward spiral, the American Dream in reverse, where people who earn ever-less money turn to Wal-Mart for cheaper products, assuring the exportation of more jobs to ever-cheaper locales, until your S'mores Maker, prescription drugs and DVD player are being made by trained lemurs in a cave somewhere and there's no job left in America, except maybe as collection agents for Wal-Mart. Faded Glory indeed.
This probably wasn't what Sam Walton had in mind when he started his little five-and-dime in Bentonville, Arkansas. What went wrong?
I think it's that Walton only got half the equation right. I've been working with local RV tycoon John Crean on a book of his business philosophy. There are plenty of businesslike details in it, but Crean's essential rule for success consists simply of this: Your success is predicated on treating your customers and employees right. Walton saw to it that his customers got value when they shopped, but his employees and his vendors' employees were treated like just another raw material to be procured on the cheap.
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That's become pervasive in corporate America, where there's no thought given to society, community or anything resembling common interest. If it can't be shown on a ledger, it doesn't matter. In a sense, we're fighting a Wal-Mart war in Iraq, where the guys on top think nothing of squeezing more effort from too few overworked troops with too little training or support. As the great hobo troubadour Utah Phillips told young audiences, "Don't ever let them call you a valuable natural resource—they're gonna strip-mine your soul; theyr'e gonna clear cut your best thoughts for the sake of profit unless you learn to resist."
In Crean's book, I tried inserting a bit about how it might be a good selling point to let customers know your company is one in which employees participate in the success via profit-sharing plans (as those at Crean's Fleetwood Enterprises did). He nixed the line as too Pollyannaish, saying that all most customers really care about is getting the best deal. That's probably too true. Some years back, Walton had a buy-American program at Wal-Mart, and customers weren't willing to pay the little bit extra it took to ensure that U.S. garment and factory workers, their neighbors, were earning a half-decent wage.
Now, shopping at Wal-Mart is like the poor person's version of buying a mink. The rich can pamper themselves with the notion that their personal luxury matters more than the lives of a pelt-load of nice furry animals; the Wal-Mart shopper can get that same guilty pleasure knowing their cheap slacks were made by a mother working 10-hour shifts at a noisy, dangerous machine in a sweltering corrugated-metal super-shed in Costa Rica. Yes, I bought the Wranglers, so who am I to stand outside the door of sin and throw spitwads? Well, we are all sinners. And we all must repent.
We can gripe about greedy bosses until the cows come home, are butchered and served on a bun, but the way success is defined these days, exploiting people is just regarded as part of the CEO's job. Ultimately, it's up to the individual citizen and his or her wallet to see that business is accountable, and that's the essential check on the system that has broken down. Blame our bread-and-circuses leadership and media, blame the concentration of wealth and power that steamrolls over the public good, blame cynicism and resignation, but it still comes down to this: If we acquiesce to the Wall-to-Wal-Martization of our world, that's the world we deserve.