Wake me up the next time a journalist manages to churn out an interesting and/or fair article about Wal-Mart.
The New Yorker's Jeffrey Goldberg tries—but fails badly—in his latest offering. Like much of the mainstream media (the New York Times's Michael Barbaro has a dedicated Wal-Mart beat) he focuses exclusively on the massive retailer's well-worn demerits.
Goldberg is a fair-minded left-of-center writer whose New Yorker pieces on topics from Iraq to organized crime (he guest-hosted Slate's rapid-reaction reviews of "The Sopranos" in 2004) are generally characterized by nuance and a willingness to depart from the Left's conventional wisdom.
But in this piece, he spouts all the old anti-Wal-Mart talking points: the retailer's wages and employee benefits are meager; it wipes out local businesses while driving jobs overseas; it busts unions; it makes babies cry.
Goldberg does offer a new twist by examining Wal-Mart's recent decision to hire Edelman—a Democrat-leaning Washington PR firm—for $10 million per year to "renovate [a] reputation" that writers like Goldberg have worked so assiduously to trash. In one sense, of course, his reprimand of Democratic operatives flocking to Wal-Mart's payroll defies the fundamental narrative of Republicans favoring the retailer and Democrats combating it, as do Wal-Mart's recent crusades for the environment and health care.
But as it turns out, Goldberg merely uses these efforts and the hiring of Edelman as yet another bludgeon against the retailer. He depicts these half-measures as cynical attempts to "co-opt liberals" while suppressing the real truth about the company.
Goldberg just can't bring himself to evaluate Wal-Mart on its merits. He mentions that the retailer recently paired—improbably—with the Service Employees International Union (one of its biggest nemeses) to demand that "quality health care to be made available to all Americans by 2012." Yet he swiftly waves away this partnership as another example of Wal-Mart's invidious co-option strategy, quoting an SEIU rival's criticism.
Likewise, Goldberg dismisses as so much spin an Edelman executive's focus on the "more than one hundred and thirty million people who shop at Wal-Mart each week, who are saving money so they can live a better life." But rather than honestly reckon with the company's attempts to truly benefit millions of working-class Americans, Goldberg demeans one Wal-Mart executive as "angry" for complaining that "Wal-Mart is taking care of the people the Democratic Party says it represents—the poor, the middle class. The Democrats are not taking care of them. We're like Lyndon Johnson's Great Society."
The author likewise derides Wal-Mart's latest plan to provide generic drugs at $4 per prescription as a thinly-veiled stratagem to "take some public pressure off the company on the subject of its medical benefits."
And while Goldberg acknowledges being "impressed" by a new, environmentally-friendly store—featuring natural lighting, motion-sensitive freezers, and the now-ubiquitous (and truly innovative) compact fluorescent bulbs—he disparages the endeavor, in the words of a Sierra Club official, as a cost-cutting, "straight-out business call." The same Sierra Clubber goes on to say that "you can't be a good progressive and support Wal-Mart because Wal-Mart is saving money on energy—that's all they've done so far."
Here, perhaps, is the crux of the issue: nothing Wal-Mart does—no matter how praiseworthy—will ever find favor in the eyes of "progressives" since its motivations will always be assumed to be profit-driven.
But in fact, the very opposite conclusion should be drawn: the company deserves high marks for finding creative ways to make socially-beneficial changes profitable. Far better that the private sector devise efficient ways of improving our environment, ensuring health coverage, and providing affordable prescription drugs—all while furnishing goods at very low prices—than that unions, green activists, or government officials dictate the way they run their businesses.
An excellent example of this disconnect can be found here in San Diego, where the City Council is currently enmeshed in a high-stakes—yet narrow-minded—debate over allowing Wal-Mart and Target to open supercenters—their massive stores where groceries compose more than 10% of all items sold. These supercenters are immensely popular in Middle American towns and throughout the South. Wal-Mart has recently begun opening them in major suburban areas and it now seeks to bring them into urban centers as well.
Unions here have mounted an aggressive and comprehensive assault on the Council—which is divided 5-3 in favor of Democrats—imploring it to prevent supercenters from opening in the City of San Diego.
So I consulted City Councilmember Brian Maienschein to get his impressions on the brouhaha. Maienschein is a young, two-term representative of one of the wealthier and more conservative of San Diego's eight council districts. His stellar reputation for providing excellent constituent services uniquely qualifies him to comment on a proposal that will affect most San Diegans.
Maienschein makes clear that, from a city planning perspective, Wal-Mart's benefits outweigh its costs. He notes that "these stores save shoppers money by providing desirable goods at lower costs. They also provide jobs. By considering many issues such as zoning and traffic, the balance can be preserved." In other words, there's an appropriate role for city government to play, but shutting down supercenters isn't it.
The councilman finds Wal-Mart's "numerous benefits to be more persuasive than any criticisms. They provide goods such as diapers and milk at affordable prices, particularly for those with lower incomes." Fundamentally, he adds, "if someone doesn't like Wal-Mart they can choose to shop somewhere else."
Complicating the matter, according to the councilman, is the alliance between the unions and the traditional supermarkets (here, in Southern California, the big three are Albertson's, Safeway (Vons), and Kroger (Ralph's)). "Each of these groups has its own strong interests and concerns," says Maienschein, yet they've made common-cause against Wal-Mart. The traditional supermarkets—which are unionized and, thus, suffer from higher prices and contentious labor-management struggles (a prolonged strike-and-lockout combination disaffected many San Diego shoppers in 2003-04)—stand to lose significant market share if the big box stores are permitted to sell groceries.
Maienschein describes the struggle as "a complex issue that touches on many competing interests," involving "strong emotions and possible misconceptions . . . that influence how the facts are viewed." Paradoxically, and unfortunately, those councilmembers who represent the city's poorest districts, and whose constituents would most benefit from Wal-Mart's low prices, find themselves in thrall to the unions. For his part, Maienschein politely says of his colleagues "I believe many of them are doing what they think is right. I just happen to disagree with their position."
The councilman also correctly notes the unintended—but highly predictable—consequences of a decision to exclude supercenters from San Diego city limits. As Wal-Mart opens its stores elsewhere in the metropolitan region, "there will actually be more traffic as people have to drive farther to get to Wal-Mart." What's more, all of the "tax revenue [generated by the stores] would be outside of the City's jurisdiction. So the City would get all the traffic and none of the revenue!"
Much to Maienschein's chagrin, when the anti-Wal-Mart ordinance returns to the Council for a second reading in early June, it will likely pass along party lines. Wal-Mart and its supporters will then have to turn to the local initiative process, where the voting public can directly show the unions and the big supermarkets what it thinks of their tactics.
I asked the councilman whether he would support such an initiative. His answer: it would "depend on what [the measure] proposed to do and how it proposed to do it. But of course, based on my vote at the City Council, I would be highly inclined to support it."
If only more lawmakers thought (and acted) more like Brian Maienschein and less like Jeffrey Goldberg...
Michael M. Rosen, TCS Daily's Intellectual Property Columnist, is an attorney in San Diego.