Robert Greenwald’s documentary film on Wal-Mart is being shown at screenings across the nation this week. With personal stories told by former and current employees, customers and neighbors of Wal-Mart, and no shortage of pointed visuals, the film attacks the world’s largest retailer for a number of violations of the moral glue that holds society together. The movie alleges the following moral if not actual crimes against the retail giant.
Wal-Mart has attempted to refute some of the many criticisms against it by putting up a website called walmartfacts.com. I find this movie a great deal more compelling. You should buy a copy of the film, read Wal-Mart’s website, and judge for yourself whether this giant corporation is treating the rest of society fairly, or manipulating it in pursuit of profit.
Now a word about that word, profit. Sometimes people demonize it, as if anyone earning a profit is somehow evil. Startsandfits.com has no problem with people earning a profit on a venture that involves a degree of risk, as they all do. A person who has a great idea that helps others pursue their goals ought to be rewarded financially, and in extremely large sums if their idea is that great, and doesn’t hurt anybody. It is that promise of financial reward that encourages the innovation that propels humanity forward. It’s the essence of capitalism, which for all its faults, is the best system that the human race has come up with for organizing economic activity. Where Wal-Mart runs into trouble is with that little piece about not hurting anybody.
Because the potential to earn a profit is critical to successful capitalism, anything that infringes on an entrepreneur’s ability to profit, however slightly, should be considered only in the most outrageous set of circumstances. Even with this high standard, there are other needs can trump the untempered ability to pursue profit. Protecting the fine-grained, nonexploitative systems of commerce between townsfolk across America is one such reason. James Howard Kunstler has written about how Wal-Mart sacks local economies that grew up over centuries.
We will have to recreate the lost infrastructures of local and regional commerce, and it will have to be multi-layered. These were the people that WalMart systematically put out of business over the last thirty years. The wholesalers, the jobbers, the small-retailers. They were economic participants in their communities; they made decisions that had to take the needs of their communities into account. they were employers who employed their neighbors. They were a substantial part of the middle-class of every community in America and all of them together played civic roles in our communities as the caretakers of institutions – the people who sat on the library boards, and the hospital boards, and bought the balls and bats and uniforms for the little league teams. We got rid of them in order to save nine bucks on a hair dryer.
Just why is it so important to have flourishing local economies if goods are cheaper at Wal-Mart? In The Geography of Nowhere, Kunstler eulogizes the small town main street of Schuylerville, N.Y., which could be anywhere in the country: It used to thrive but is now an empty shell of its former self. In their place, he notes, are “X and Y Corporations,” which have their corporate headquarters in distant cities and thus don’t have an incentive to invest in the places where they do business. The stores do pay local taxes, and they
also furnish a handful of minimum-wage jobs. But what they contribute to the town is far less significant than what they take away: the chance for a local merchant to make a profit, to keep that profit in town, where it might be put to work locally, for instance, in the upkeep of a hundred-year-old shopfront building downtown, or a Greek Revival house on Pearl Street, or in the decent support of a family. But that profit does not stay in town. Instead, it is funneled directly into distant corporate coffers. The officers of the X and Y Corporations, who do not live in Schuylerville, have no vested interest in the upkeep of the hundred-year-old shopfront buildings or the Greek Revival houses there. (They may not even know what the town looks like, or a single fact of its history.) Their success is measured strictly by the tonnage of Cheez Doodles and Pepsi Cola they manage to move off the shelves.
Folks, we are lucky to live in New York City. This is a city where people buy and sell things from local people, in some small way reinforcing the social bonds that tie us all together as humans and members of a society, not simply anonymous consumers. Here, shopping involves jostling through the crowded sidewalks of Herald Square, not the anomie of driving into a sea of parking, alone, and walking into a soulless warehouse where nobody knows your name or cares to learn it. Ours is a city where century old buildings are still economically useful, where strips of small scale businesses are as busy as they were 100 years ago, and where there is not a single Wal-Mart store.
Does that fact make life in New York City a little less convenient? Sure. We can’t get everything at the same store, but have to visit different stores at different times. Does that mean that for a given budget, we can buy fewer things? Yes it does. But how much happier would that extra increment of things make us? Aren’t we happier enjoying the street life and human interaction on the crowded sidewalks of this singular metropolis? If the proliferation of self-storage warehouses is any indication, don’t we have enough stuff already?
Would a Wal-Mart be a commercial success here? Of course it would. It would be mobbed from day one. That’s why Wal-Mart is desperate to open up a store in town. But imagine the consequences to the city. Some number of businesses throughout the city that are doing well will start to do less well. Some number of businesses that are marginally profitable will close. Many of the people employed by these businesses will become suddenly poorer, so much so that they might very well be able to shop only at Wal-Mart, feeding more business into the monster, which as my girlfriend says, seems to spread across the country like a computer virus. Economic forces are compelling Wal-Mart to open here in New York City. It will take political action to keep the monster outside the gates.
- WAL-MART: The High Cost of Low Price
- Remarks in Hudson, NY, January 8, 2005 [Kunstler.com]
- The Geography of Nowhere [Barnes & Noble - a local company since 1917, headquartered at Fifth Avenue and 18th Street, and with its flagship store at that intersection since the Depression]