I see that Wal-Mart is still struggling to achieve modest growth in the U.S. so I am amazed that it has been so quiet about the most important economic debate since the Great Depression: the one between stimulus (the Democrats) and austerity (the Republicans). I am a progressive Democrat who loves what Wal-Mart has accomplished for this country and has stood up for it with my liberal friends, but I don’t understand this silence.
I admire Wal-Mart for several reasons. It made a huge contribution to breaking the back of inflation during the 1980s and 90s because its prices drove down prices in the whole retail sector. It is the place where ordinary Joe and Janes can get a three-pack of reading glass for $7.89. The company is leading the fight to keep the cost of prescription drugs down by selling effective generics for dozens of medical conditions for $4 per month, forcing drug and grocery chains to follow suit. Criticized in the past, it now offers good healthcare plans to its employees. It has led the movement to reduce excess packaging and to develop green stores. It pays competitive if not glorious wages, trains its employees, promotes from the inside, hires the handicapped, and has lines of people applying when it has job openings.
The big gripe against Wal-Mart is that it fights unions. My reading is that the benefits of unions are overblown. It was the Democratic Party and the New Deal not the unions that brought Americans the eight-hour day, the 40 hour week, the weekend, and most of the other good things that American workers enjoy, the swollen claims of the unions to the contrary.
I have a giant bone to pick with Wal-Mart, however. It is not leading the fight against the efforts of the Republican Party to force austerity on the country and especially on middle and lower-income Americans who are its primary customers. It should be raging against policies that favor wealthy elites against the people it serves. Wal-Mart should be standing on a soap box denouncing the Republican Party for proposing exactly the policies Republicans championed in the 1930s. Wal-Mart should be mobilizing its thousands of suppliers as well as America’s steel, cement, machinery, and construction companies whose plants are idle or under-employed to fight for infrastructure building in America that Republicans mindlessly call “just another excuse for spending.”
Why businesses like Wal-Mart have been supporters of austerity over expansion is a mystery. Austerity is terrible for business. The Republican suggestion that long-term government debt is as important an economic problem as the collapse of private credit that a Republican administration brought on four years ago is preposterous. Smart business people like those who run Wal-Mart should understand this and be outspokenly critical of these Republican priorities, but they hold their peace. Could class solidarity be winning out over more tangible business priorities? That’s what I am afraid is happening.