Magazine article The American Conservative

The High Cost of Low Prices

Magazine article The American Conservative

The High Cost of Low Prices

Article excerpt

[The Wal-Mart Effect: How the World's Most Powerful Company Really Works-and How It's Transforming the American Economy, Charles Fishman, Penguin, 294 pages]

The High Cost of Low Prices

SAM WALTON HAD A DREAM: find out what people want and sell it to them for less. His dream was a variant of Adam Smith's assertion in The Wealth of Nations: "The sole purpose of all production is to provide the best possible goods to the consumer at the lowest possible price." The variation stems from the qualifier "best possible": Walton's obsessive quest never extended to quality. And in the 230 years since Smith penned those famous words, society has learned to question his narrow vision of "the sole purpose of all production."

As books like this demonstrate, Wal-Mart is the elephant in the room that no one is ignoring. Like the blind men who tried to assay the elephant in the fable, many have touched on different aspects of the mega-retailer. Business journalist Charles Fishman's purpose is to synthesize all the critiques into one overarching analysis of "the Wal-Mart effect," that is, how the company "gets those low prices, and what impact the low prices have far beyond Wal-Mart's shelves and beyond our own wallets: the cost of low prices to the companies that supply Wal-Mart, and to the people who work for those companies."

The author frontloads his account with positives about this largest corporation in the history of the world, although here and there he drops the odd discordant note, each of which gets a full hearing beginning with Chapter Four, "The Squeeze." The biggest positives are the two for which Wal-Mart is beloved of blinkered free traders: its deflationary effect upon prices and its relentless promotion of efficiency up and down the chain of production, distribution, and sale.

Wal-Mart's impact on the economy is difficult to assess since it is a notoriously close-mouthed entity, but Fishman has done a fine job of mining what data have been amassed. Fishman uses the insights they afford to move his case studies above and beyond "anecdata" to the level of important conceptualizations of the globalizing economy. The child crusaders protesting at New World Order summits ought to read this book if they want finally to be able to articulate what's wrong with globalization.

Wal-Mart began in Bentonville, Arkansas in 1962 as a single store and has grown to be the world's largest corporation and employer. Target and Kmart opened their first stores the same year; the difference between them and Wal-Mart was, and is, the latter's single-minded focus on offering the lowest possible prices all the time, not just during sales, no matter what it takes. Sam Walton banked on the addictive power of "too good to be true" bargain pricing to grow his business by cannibalizing existing retailers. It has worked-and in the process helped transform America from the workshop of the world into a nation not even of shopkeepers but of shop assistants ("sales associates").

"In 2003," notes Fishman, "for the first time in modern U.S. history, the number of Americans working in retail (14.9 million) was greater than the number ... working in factories (14.5 million)." These are the jobs that Wal-Mart has created; at the same time, "10 percent of everything imported to the United States from China" is sold at Wal-Mart. The company should have a seat at the United Nations. At the very least it should register as an NGO.

A nation's businesses used to favor and protect the home market at the expense of "the colonials." This book demonstrates that the Wal-Mart effect is the most powerful market force expelling jobs and technology from our own country. Not only does Wal-Mart create low-wage jobs that lure further illegal immigrants here to do jobs that Americans could not afford to do even if they wanted to, but it provides a place those illegals can afford to shop. At the same time, it forces American taxpayers to subsidize its low wages by transferring the cost of health insurance to government programs. …

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