Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Wal-Mart does not save you money.

Family gatherings have had a lot of Wal-Mart arguments lately. One of my cousins saw the documentary on them and pissed off his mom by coming home with "Wal-Mart is evil," and now it keeps coming up. And a couple of people say, "Give me one good reason not to shop at Wal-Mart." And I start, and never really get to finish, because, hey, it's my family. I usually get as far as "Well, you pay for health care, don't you?--" before things break down.

So. Rather than compulsively continuing the conversation in my head, as I always do, I figured I'd write it out. I find myself making a lot of economic arguments for what I think are good social policies, these days, because for a lot of people, something just being the right thing to do by your fellow human beings isn't enough. Maybe they don't feel like they've got enough time or care to go around, and I can understand that. Maybe they feel like the world just works that way, and there's nothing productive to be gained by worrying about it. Times are tough. But I think this stuff makes sense even from a perspective where one's own economic considerations are the only considerations at all.

We want a viable system, don't we?

We don't want to get screwed for other people's mistakes, do we?

So. Part one in what will probably be a very infrequent series of what could probably have a very pithy, divisive, fun left-right kind of name that wouldn't help matters but which for now will instead go by the more unwieldy title "Rational, economic, long-sighted arguments for things that are generally dismissed by those concerned chiefly with those criteria as only of interest to the irrational and economically restrictive or short-sighted" follows.

Wal-Mart does not save you money. (This also serves for "Why shouldn't I shop at Wal-Mart?" or "Why should Wal-Mart have to pay its employees health insurance?" or "Why should I buy local when it's cheaper to buy otherwise?")

(1) Wal-Mart employs a lot of people--a lot. They employ the vast bulk of them at about 34 hours--just under the amount at which they'd be full-time employees, and thus mandated to receive any kind of benefits or health care. Or extra pay for overtime.* This means they do have to employ more of them than they would if they actually let anyone working approximately full time be full-time in name as well as deed (which inflates all situations to be detailed ahead far beyond the "necessary" amount). Now, that makes Wal-Mart's costs even lower than they would be, a savings which they pass on to you. How does that cost you money?

If you pay taxes, you support Medicare, public hospitals, and in CA, Medical. You support "Workfare." You support public health clinics. Wal-Mart employees, being almost full time and very low paid, are eligible for all of these programs. These programs don't work very well, as far as getting preventative care is concerned, so when employees have gotten what benefits they can from these programs and still wind up in the emergency room or under hospital care they can't pay for, you pay for their medical coverage a second time.

Wal-Mart has a lot more money than you do. Wal-Mart could pay for it. And they could pay for it a lot more cheaply--decent insurance in bulk cuts medical costs vastly, with access to preventative care--a doctor's visit and some antibiotics now is a lot less expensive than treating a systemic infection from the ER, where care is more difficult and rates are inflated to cover cost.

But they don't. You do!

Edited to add: the estimate is that a single 200-employee Wal-Mart costs an excess $420,750 per year in federal taxpayer dollars, just in the government footing employee public services costs. Now multiply that by the number of Wal-Mart stores. . .

(2) Wal-Mart buys its products in the cheapest ways it can--from outsourced labor overseas. They can then pass those savings on to you, still at an egregious mark-up that makes them fabulous sums of money in profit over their overhead. You buy those products more cheaply than you would if you were buying from local production. How does that cost you money?

You pay all of the middle men who make money transporting goods across the globe. You pay for their trucks, their ships, and the oil that it costs to send them--so you're paying more for those goods than you could. They have much looser environmental regs than the rest of us, so in the more global, spiritual sense, you're paying for it with a hell of a lot more emissions, higher medical costs for people with athsma, environmental damage, higher gas costs, etc. But if you pay taxes, you also pay for unemployment, health care, prisons, etc. And anything that used to be manufactured here but is now being manufactured somewhere else at a lower wage has left a vacuum of jobs. All of the people who had been in those jobs get six months of unemployment benefits and access to poor quality (but expensive to the state!) state services. They generally were performing unskilled labor, so they cannot readily transfer to a new sector. And as all manufacturing is being shipped out, there are no other manufacturing jobs for the newly unemployed to take.

So you are paying for them, too.

Furthermore, a system wherein you import goods--that is, spend money--and do not export--that is, get money--is not viable. Not everyone can own the company whose labor and supplies are coming from outside of the system, or sell their products. So you get things like recessions. Like economic depression.

And then costs for everything else in the society goes up. You pay for all of that, too. And state services you normally enjoy are cut, so your quality of life goes down. And if you don't want that to happen, you get to pay extra to the private sector to make up the gap.

Which costs you still more money.

So. You have saved money on your day to day products. And your taxes have gone up, your costs for services have gone up, your costs for gas have gone up, your state services have been cut, and your quality of life has gone down. Your economy is tanking, unemployment is skyrocketing, and these are all problems that feed themselves.

Wal-Mart is not, by any means, the sole offender, the sole cause, of all of this. Not by a long-shot. But they're a perfect example of the behavior, and they're one of the largest and most egregious offenders. And they have the added benefit as a target of having a bad record where civil/human rights are concerned. The HRC (studying companies and their policies concerning GLBT persons) has ranked them as one of the worst in the country. Women make up disproportionately small numbers of management, and anecdotally are treated very poorly in the workplace. So are minorities.

So while I understand that when it's the difference between not being able to afford basic items you need at all and getting them from Wal-Mart (or Sam's Club, their sister company) there's no question (though I like to think I'd hit the swap-meet and go more second-hand than I do, first, myself), I think there are good, rational reasons to not feed this company. If it's not going to be regulated, and not going to be subject to the same laws of interaction that the rest of us are, then we're reduced to voting with dollars. The more their business grows, the bigger the problems they create are. The less business they get, the less they'll have to buy/employ/grow, the smaller the problems will be.

So Wal-Mart doesn't save you money. And it makes sense to not purchase from them.

I think I feel a little better, now.

*Charming true anecdote: friend who used to work there used to be locked in the building with the rest of the closing shift until as late as 3 am (when they should have been out by midnight), at the regular wage, without breaks, until management deemed their work done. They have since stopped locking the doors, at least.

EDIT: Just wanted to mention, Chris was a jewel and found some numbers for all these things, and linked them from the comments. I was lazy; he is joy.


Doc Nagel said...

Wal-Mart Welfare

Republican Legislator Blames Wal-Mart - Republican Legislator. Nice.

Oh, and outsourcing to China where regulations are lax? We breathe Chinese industrial pollution in the Central Valley. So do your almonds, peaches, canned tomatoes, artichokes, olives, etc.

Turns out we live in the same world as where these other things are happening, and they affect us too. Go figure!

Westside Goth said...

when i hear the wal-mart i think of that one south park episode. good times.