[...] filmmaker Robert Greenwald has just unleashed a bitter documentary ("Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price") that has been shown in November in some 3,000 private homes, union halls and churches across the United States before its general DVD release. Produced with support from labor organizations (which resent their inability to unionize Wal-Mart), and endorsed by Hollywood comedian-activists Al Franken and Jeaneane Garofolo, Greenwald's film accuses the company of exploiting employees, despoiling the environment, destroying small businesses, and flooding the United States with sweatshop merchandise from abroad.As usual, there is plenty of arrogance directed at the stupid Americans in this and other Greenwald's movies.
Neither Greenwald nor his backers expect to connect with an eager mass audience; it's safe to say more people will visit Wal-Mart stores in any single day than will watch the film over the next 10 years. In fact, all the angry debates over Sam Walton's legacy occupy an elitist, abstract atmosphere utterly disconnected from the real world of shopping and spending.
"Progressive" activists may hate Wal-Mart, but they must recognize that if the company closed tomorrow it would throw hundreds of thousands out of work and make the lives of millions of customers vastly less convenient.
Critics insist they don't want the retail giant to fail: They merely want better salaries and benefits for workers. But even the most rudimentary understanding of economics indicates that paying more for employees leads inevitably to higher prices, leading in turn to less business, less growth and fewer new jobs Â particularly the entry-level jobs our economy so desperately needs.
If critics challenge Wal-Mart's business model as woefully misguided, they should be able to press rival companies to deploy their more enlightened notions, thereby displacing the Bentonville behemoth from its position of dominance.
More recently, Greenwald has focused on unabashedly left-wing documentaries, including last year's "Outfoxed," an angry exposesÃ©" of Fox News Channel Â another profoundly profitable institution that has earned enthusiastic support from the American heartland.The other column by Sebastian Mallaby entitled appropriately Progressive Wal-Mart, disputes many "facts" presented by Wal*Mart detractors in their fight against it and shows how Wal*Mart actually does a better job then governments to improve lives of so called working poor. Mallaby also makes fun of anti-capitalistic elites by pointing out that their critique of Wal*Mart is really critique of the free market system.
In fact, a consistent contempt for ordinary Americans seems to connect both poles of Greenwald's career: In his earlier, populist "Portrait of a Stripper" phase, he attempted to connect with a mass audience by insulting its intelligence; in his more-recent work as a high-minded documentarian, he has portrayed the people as helpless boobs manipulated by evil corporations, and unable to make appropriate decisions about their own long-term welfare.
One of the sponsors of the new film's premiere, Liza Featherstone of The Nation magazine, begins one of her frequent diatribes against her least-favorite company by sniffing: "Wal-Mart is an unadorned eyesore surrounded by a parking lot, even its logo aggressively devoid of flourish." Of course, most middle-class shoppers will care far more about getting decent value for their money than a logo's flourish or a store's architectural amenities.
Intellectuals have always despised the "bourgeoisie" (In the '20s, H.L. Mencken ceaselessly derided the "boob-oisie") for its hard-headed practicality, refusing to recognize that most people simply don't have the luxury to look beyond narrow notions of self-interest and affordability.
There's a comic side to the anti-Wal-Mart campaign brewing in Maryland and across the country. Only by summoning up the most naive view of corporate behavior can the critics be shocked -- shocked! -- by the giant retailer's machinations. Wal-Mart is plotting to contain health costs! But isn't that what every company does in the face of medical inflation? Wal-Mart has a war room to defend its image! Well, yeah, it's up against a hostile campaign featuring billboards, newspaper ads and a critical documentary movie. Wal-Mart aims to enrich shareholders and put rivals out of business! Hello? What business doesn't do that?Both columns underscore one very important point: Wal*Mart represents the free-market system we still enjoy in this country. Most Americans still believe in this system and are not ready to embrace socialism just yet, especially when they see the failed economic models of France and Germany. This makes them less dependent on the government and thus more difficult to control, which is the ultimate goal of the liberal elites.
Wal-Mart's critics allege that the retailer is bad for poor Americans. This claim is backward: As Jason Furman of New York University puts it, Wal-Mart is "a progressive success story." Furman advised John "Benedict Arnold" Kerry in the 2004 campaign and has never received any payment from Wal-Mart; he is no corporate apologist. But he points out that Wal-Mart's discounting on food alone boosts the welfare of American shoppers by at least $50 billion a year. The savings are possibly five times that much if you count all of Wal-Mart's products.
These gains are especially important to poor and moderate-income families. The average Wal-Mart customer earns $35,000 a year, compared with $50,000 at Target and $74,000 at Costco. Moreover, Wal-Mart's "every day low prices" make the biggest difference to the poor, since they spend a higher proportion of income on food and other basics. As a force for poverty relief, Wal-Mart's $200 billion-plus assistance to consumers may rival many federal programs. Those programs are better targeted at the needy, but they are dramatically smaller. Food stamps were worth $33 billion in 2005, and the earned-income tax credit was worth $40 billion.
Set against these savings for consumers, Wal-Mart's alleged suppression of wages appears trivial. Arindrajit Dube of the University of California at Berkeley, a leading Wal-Mart critic, has calculated that the firm has caused a $4.7 billion annual loss of wages for workers in the retail sector. This number is disputed: Wal-Mart's pay and benefits can be made to look good or bad depending on which other firms you compare them to. When Wal-Mart opened a store in Glendale, Ariz., last year, it received 8,000 applications for 525 jobs, suggesting that not everyone believes the pay and benefits are unattractive.
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