Do Not Pass “Go”

(The title is a lame Monopoly pun.  I apologize.)

Being a good union-loving, tree-hugging, anti-corporate liberal as I am, I have read so many takedowns of Wal-Mart that I can’t even keep track of all the reasons why they are evil.  This essay, however (a few years old, but still excellent) takes a new perspective: analyzing the damage the US economy is incurring from Wal-Mart through political economy, specifically, antitrust law.  The author’s arguments are persuasive, although I would argue that he doesn’t go quite far enough in his rebuttal to those who claim that Wal-Mart’s drastic cheapening of consumer goods has been an unalloyed positive for the poor: too often Americans are characterized as consumers first, and workers only secondarily or not at all, but the reality is that the downward pressure exerted on wages by Wal-Mart (particularly in conjunction with its antipathy towards labor organization) does more damage than a cheap flat-screen can ever, ever assuage.  Economists focus on consumer goods, which have indeed grown less expensive with time; but more necessary financial outlays, for things like housing and transportation (which were removed from the oft-cited Consumer Price Index decades ago, as though they are not among the vital classes of consumption possible), have only increased, while income — particularly for the working class — has stagnated.  Moreover, as production has shifted to lower-cost overseas manufacturing centers, it has only become more and more difficult for the lower strata of society to gain entree to stable employment with a living wage: growth in lower-skilled jobs has been concentrated in areas like food service, retail, and janitorial work — in short, jobs at places like Wal-Mart, which pay so little that employees have no other option than to shop at a place like… Wal-Mart.  And we wonder why the middle class is disappearing.

(Addendum: I’m not suggesting that we should or can necessarily turn back the clock to a 50s-era manufacturing economy, but I think it’s obvious that some kind of remedy is desperately needed, and the first step to any such remedy is to simply acknowledge that wages must rise.  Collective bargaining is deeply imperfect, but it’s also the most effective method yet tried to ensure fair wages.)

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