WAL-MART. Speak this hyphenated word, and you'll get an instant response.
To some, the name of the world's largest retailer stands for everything that's wrong with corporate capitalism. Declining wages, suburban sprawl, cheap foreign goods' destroying American jobs, reckless corporate welfare, disappearing unions . . . You name the malady, and there's surely a way to implicate Wal-Mart.
For others, the behemoth's "always low prices" are the gateway to consumer bliss. Where else can you get a $38.76 DVD player or a $42.44 microwave oven? Wal-Mart may be widely reviled, but there's also a reason why it rakes in almost $300 billion a year.
Wherever you stand on the Wal-Mart debate, with anti-Wal-Mart campaigns popping up as fast as Wal-Mart stores (well, not quite that fast; Wal-Mart opens about 275 Supercenters a year), it's clear that the company is a force to be understood.
Though there are many books out there trying to make sense of Wal-Mart, John Dicker's informative and entertaining new The United States of Wal-Mart (Tarcher/Penguin, 245 pp., $18) is one of the best. Instead of merely disparaging Wal-Mart (which seems to have been Dicker's initial temptation), Dicker makes the effort to understand Wal-Mart's appeal. And in doing so, the narrative, which begins in mere bemusement ("We're all Wal-Mart's bitches"), evolves into a more nuanced sort of befuddlement ("Wal-Mart is a lot like the country where it was born -- a little good, a little bad, a lot confusing").
By the end, Dicker looks in the mirror and reaches a surprising conclusion: "The ugly truth is that we've become a nation that values little above a bargain." He writes, "As long as we remain blind to those consequences [of Wal-Mart's practices], we will also remain blind to the costs we pay, not at Wal-Mart but in our own conflicted souls." We have met the enemy, and it is us.
Of course, Wal-Mart is pretty bad, and Dicker doesn't spare the emblematic anecdotes. For one, there's the response of former Wal-Mart CEO David Glass to allegations of child labor in foreign factories. "You and I might, perhaps, define children differently," Glass told an NBC Dateline interviewer, then said that since Asians are quite short, you can't always tell how old they are.
Dateline investigators also found clothing made in Bangladesh sold under MADE IN THE USA signs in Wal-Mart stores.
Then there's the bit about how Wal-Mart refused to sell Jon Stewart's America: The Book, but it sold the anti-Semitic tract The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion (which says that Jews drink the blood of Christian children). Wal-Mart gave the following description: "If . . . the Protocols are genuine (which can never be proven conclusively), it might cause some of us to keep a wary eye on world affairs. We neither support nor deny its message." Considering the extent to which Wal-Mart serves as cultural gatekeeper, this is quite scary.
Wal-Mart's aggressive anti-unionism is legendary, but the company went so far as to close a store after the employees had voted to unionize. In the process, Wal-Mart fired one of the yes-voting employees on the pretext that he had eaten a pre-weighed banana in the checkout line.
Other irritating Wal-Mart traits include locking its workers in overnight; hiring illegal immigrants; foisting its employees' health-care costs on taxpayer-funded programs; and selling so many cheap Chinese imports that it threatens the survival of American manufacturers.
Such appear to be the trade-offs for what Dicker dubs "a near maniacal quest to create costless profit."
Yet to Wal-Mart's credit, the company has found retailing efficiencies, through technology, that benefit the consumer.
The investor Warren Buffett once called Wal-Mart the greatest asset for poor people in America. Dicker finds evidence that numerous low-income people want Wal-Mart in their community. He notes that many of Wal-Mart's 136 million weekly customers probably care little about the company's rap sheet.
Meanwhile, a McKinsey & Co. report credited Wal-Mart as a major source of U.S. productivity gains in the 1990s. Some experts say the company has kept inflation down.
What all this means, of course, is that those who hope to challenge Wal-Mart's ways have a long road. As Dicker writes, "it's one thing for a woman in Manhattan to refuse to go into Starbucks to protest. . . . It's quite another to ask millions of working-class people to stop patronizing a store that stocks everything -- everything -- on their shopping lists, at lower prices."
Truth is, Wal-Mart offers millions of Americans the cheap goods they crave, while discreetly hiding its unpleasant trade-offs behind its implacable yellow smiley face. The appeal, unfortunately, is irresistible.
Yet even if Wal-Mart could be brought down, there are plenty of other big-box discounters waiting to take its place -- spreading sprawl, importing cheap goods, paying low wages. The real challenge, it seems, lies not so much in confronting Wal-Mart as in confronting the trade-offs implicit in Wal-Mart's success.
Ultimately, the issue is both simple and difficult: a choice between value and values, which at some point are bound to conflict. Dicker understands this tension, and, more important, he seems to see that though it's fun to make cracks about Wal-Mart, we should figure out why the material for the cracks exists in the first place.
Lee Drutman, a frequent contributor, is the co-author of The People's Business: Controlling Corporations and Restoring Democracy (Berrett-Koehler).
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