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Web Letters | The Nation

Web Letter

To answer web letter-writer Andrew Allison's questions [below]:

1. If you follow the growth of Wal-Mart and charted the jobs lost in smaller stores, the number of net new employees is significantly reduced. In this context, I wish more people would have read The Making of the English Working Class or Customs in Common (a shorter book), by E.P. Thompson, which explain the disruption of communities like these when a company like Wal-Mart comes to town.

I would analogize Allison's unexamined assumption to the sort of argument "liberal" free-traders make about how great it is for former peasants who work in factories that employ millions in China and Mexico, and elsewhere. These particular "free traitors" (a more accurate description) fail to see that subsistence farming was better for the health and lives of these peasants than their being forced to live in squalor, no longer able to make their own clothes or grow their own food, etc. And those peasants were in many cases forced to leave their land due to not being able to compete with agribusiness for the sale of their limited output. I am not proposing a Luddite return to the past, however. The way to improve their lives is through trade unions, and tariff policies in each of these nations that primarily benefit workers and their families. A nation should be able to build what it buys and buy what it builds, and that is how growth occurs that is spread through a society. Federalist Paper #11 (written by Alexander Hamilton) explained this quite well; and Henry Ford's revolutionary decision in 1905 to dramatically raise his workers' incomes to buy his cars also applies. These ideas apply with equal force today for any nation seeking to develop itself.

2. Guandong province indeed produces 10 percent of China's exports. And 10 percent of that output from that province does go to Wal-Mart, per Mr.Lichtenstein.

3. The benefit to customers is rather obvious: low prices. But I can bet Allison doesn't want to apply that logic to matters relevant to your his economic interests. For example, there are other benefits to customers in lower prices if we get rid of patent rights and copyrights, too. Or if we get rid of professional degrees and government-sponsored organizations as methods for doctors and lawyers to keep out competition. The problem with lowering prices the way Wal-Mart does is how it affects regular people's lives and wages. That was the thrust of the article and the book. Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickeled and Dimed is a good place to start for this if one is not into textbook-oriented non-fiction.

Simply put, Wal-Mart is evil in its workplace practices. Its technology would be less of a problem if its employees were in unions and better paid, with better benefits. I would have had less problems with factory work lines and machines if, just like in the 1930s, Ford, GM and others simply paid their workers better and provided them with better health, safety and other benefits.

Costco is a much better place to work; its prices are essentially similar for consumers, and of course, its executives and owners earn less than their counterparts at Wal-Mart. Wow. What a surprise... he said with arched sarcasm.

Mitchell Freedman

Poway, CA

Sep 20 2009 - 9:44am

Web Letter

Good article, despite the author's obvious bias. Three questions and a comment:

How many of the 2.1 million "wage slaves" employed by Wal-Mart (and the millions employed by its suppliers) would have jobs absent the company?

Is 10 percent the amount of China's exports that go to Wal-Mart, or of the one-third of that from one region?

What about the benefits to the customers?

The secret of Wal-Mart's success is implied, but not made explicit. The company is, perhaps, the most successful in the world at applying information technology. Its brilliant utilization of technology has (much) more to do with its success than its labor practices.

Andrew Allison

Carmel, CA

Sep 18 2009 - 11:20am