03 March 2009

In Praise of Wal-Mart?

So what if Wal-Mart crushes local businesses, exploits foreign sweatshop labor and treats workers like crap? It's stock is still strong! That's the attitude of one MSNBC market analyst, who notes that the chain's low prices and retail monopoly in many places make it as sure a thing to invest in as you can find in these tough times. Such rosy commentary reminds me of a dystopian vision I once had in which workers everywhere would be paid in Wal-Mart scrip rather than coin of the realm, consolidating the chain's status as the national if not global "company store." Is that scenario more or less likely now?

For everyone with qualms about Wal-Mart's dominance, it seems, there's a free-market fanatic to say, "Well, if you don't like 'em, shop somewhere else." I don't know if that's an option everywhere you find a "Wally World" store, and if it isn't, our theoretical fanatic will probably say that the market or the consumers have spoken. You can see some of that attitude in the reader comments on Charley Blaine's article. That's the poison of consumerism at work; it convinces you that you don't have to take anything into consideration other than the costs and benefits to yourself as a shopper. Speak against that mentality and you're accused of opposing free-market competition -- but if the competition between a local store, or even a relatively local chain, and an entity with resources like Wal-Mart isn't fair by any measure, how free is it? But never mind that, our fanatic says: think of the lower prices! It makes you wonder how much Americans will endure in return for lower prices. I wouldn't want to venture a guess.

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