Archive for Friday, June 4, 2004

Wal-Mart is perfect PC villain

June 4, 2004


The growing effort to demonize Wal-Mart is nothing more than cultural, and increasingly partisan, politics.

Wal-Mart has zoomed to the top of the corporate enemies list among the components of the Democratic coalition.

It symbolizes their complaint with a global economy and reflects a focus on the victims of change rather than its larger number of beneficiaries.

The latest enlistee is the National Trust For Historic Preservation, a nonprofit whose logo could be in Webster's definition of "limousine liberal," a group more concerned about old buildings than middle-class living standards.

It joins organized labor, some black leaders and Democratic politicians and interest groups that think Wal-Mart is undermining American life.

The middle class, which has made Wal-Mart an American success story, thinks otherwise.

Talk is cheap. Joe and Jill Average vote with their wallets.

The trust, whose staff one can only imagine would rather die than shop at Sam's Club, has put Vermont on its list of America's "most endangered historic places" because Wal-Mart plans to expand there.

Combined with the anti-Wal-Mart mentality among organized labor, some black leaders and Democratic politicians, you have the perfect PC villain.

God forbid Vermont's hoi polloi might want to shop for value rather than patronize the politically correct stores.

Just because Vermonters have bizarre political tastes (former Gov. Howard "I Have a Scream" Dean as governor, and socialist Bernie Sanders in Congress) doesn't mean they don't appreciate a bargain.

Wal-Mart is this era's Ford, the company that a century ago reshaped American life. Ford made cars for the Everyman, just as Wal-Mart's prices provide a lifestyle once out of reach to many.

But to opponents, Wal-Mart symbolizes their complaint with 21st-century capitalism. They don't like its non-union pay scales, even though that allows the company to lower costs for customers.

They have an instinctive distaste for bigness, and mourn the small-business casualties that can't compete with Wal-Mart's economics of scale. They also believe, probably rightly, that Wal-Mart helps drive sprawl.

There is also more than a bit of economic and geographic snobbery in play here.

Opponents fail to appreciate that Wal-Mart's size gives it substantial clout in lowering costs nationally because of pressure on both its suppliers and competitors. Moreover, with their urban orientation, they look down on the Arkansas firm that originally concentrated on rural and suburban America. Only recently has it ventured, with mixed results, into many major cities, the last remaining bastion of Democratic power.

In some areas, African-American leaders have made common cause with the unions against Wal-Mart expansion plans, despite their history of complaints that major firms shy away from locating stores in black neighborhoods.

The real irony is that those who have historically claimed to speak for the little guy have gotten so out of whack. It isn't the rich who benefit from Wal-Mart, but the middle class.

There's no conspiracy by Wal-Mart's competitors.

It's just like-minded liberals sharing an agenda.

The head of the Historic Trust is Richard Moe, former chief of staff to Walter "I'll raise your taxes if you elect me president" Mondale.

John Kerry decries Wal-Mart, and his heiress wife says the firm "destroys communities." Nevertheless, they have not dumped the millions of dollars in company stock she reportedly controls.

Perhaps it's that the Kerrys understand free-market capitalism but don't want to choose between the cheap-shot rhetoric and the stock profits.

California's Rep. George Miller promises hearings into Wal-Mart if the Democrats take control of the House and he chairs the labor committee.

Maybe Miller wants to make success illegal.

Miller & Crew apparently think Americans are forced to shop or work at Wal-Mart, rather than take myriad attractive alternatives.

But there aren't lots of unionized, high-paying, lesser-skilled jobs out there for Wal-Mart workers. Miller's view reflects the interests of the 12 percent of private-sector U.S. workers who are union members. How about the other 88 percent?

It is no coincidence that the one Democrat to win the presidency since 1976, Bill Clinton, often noted his home-state company's remarkable success as an example of how to compete in a global economy.

Clinton, almost all of us would agree, was a political genius when it came to understanding and appealing to the American middle class.

Maybe that's why he was so enamored with Wal-Mart. Birds of a feather, or something like that.

Peter A. Brown is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.

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