Why Jason Furman, Walmart Defender, Is A Great New Economic Policy Director for Barack Obama

Barack Obama just nominated economist Jason Furman, 37, a visiting scholar at New York University and former Walmart defender, as his economic policy director. Let's look more closely at this brilliant and independent thinker before we dismiss him out-of-hand for supporting Walmart.

Mr. Furman is the author of a thoughtful 2005 paper titled, “Wal-Mart: A Progressive Success Story.” Mr. Furman argues in this paper that the considerable cost-savings which Walmart extends to its low-income customers by far outweigh the negative impacts of the chain. During a debate in Slate.com in 2006, Mr. Furman argued: “If I heard that Wal-Mart was coming to my neighborhood (in New York)…. I wouldn’t kid myself into thinking that (opposing Walmart's arrival would have) anything to do with helping the poor. If anything, I would feel guilty that I was preventing moderate-income New Yorkers from enjoying the huge benefits that much of the rest of the country already knows so well.”

As I wrote in this blog in 2005, I'm the last lone liberal who is still shopping at Walmart. Here's my very carefully-considered rationale for shopping there:

“My liberal friends hate it that I shop Walmart. They consider Walmart a perfect symbol of the damage caused by globalization. But because Walmart offers millions of working-class shoppers real value for their last dollars, I doubt that even a successful liberal boycott could bring Walmart down. And even then, an outraged public would demand, and quickly receive, a replacement lookalike.

Globalization in its present form is a passing phase anyway, albeit a very destructive one. People hate change. Which is what globalization is, a temporary economic change. Does anyone remember AT&T? Microsoft ? (Perhaps I'm premature….) In today's world, it's only a few years before someone comes up with a better idea. Isn't that the way free trade is supposed to work? Change happens. People hate change. And while they're hating it, they whine about Walmart.

Consider the Canadian Walmart lately in the news. First, all the locals screamed because Walmart's arrival in their town pushed everybody out of their jobs. Now they're all screaming again because Walmart's departure (the store closed to stop unionization) pushed everybody out of their jobs. People hate change.

The question is not how to get rid of Walmart (though its size and profitability make it a convenient scapegoat for liberal anger.) Rather, it's how to make human life more equitable, more socially just, more humane, more environmentally sustainable. And how to empower everyday people, instead of consolidating wealth and power in the hands of CEOs and stockholders.

A walk through a Walmart isn't a walk in a parklike J. Crew or Pottery Barn. Walmart employees and shoppers are the hundred million Americans who work fulltime jobs at hourly wages in order to bring home incomes of less than $20,000 a year. You'll see the disabled, poor, uneducated, homeless, and jobless–everyday Americans–daily facing economic slavery, enduring far more struggles in a month than I meet in a year.

Let's do away with their favorite store! I don't think so.

Their desperate situation isn't the fault of Walmart. If we must assign blame, it's every American's fault. It's just too easy and too convenient to pick on Walmart. And besides, it lets the real culprits–all of us–off the hook. Walmart pays as well or better than its community competitors–why else would people work there? Walmart offers comparable health insurance and promotes from within, which not everyone does. Walmart even lets its employees unionize when that's the law (as in Germany.) It isn't Walmart's fault that America doesn't support unions. But it is our fault. It's also our fault that we haven't demanded universal health care, public transportation, less global adventurism, a responsive government….

Big corporations have many advantages, but they also have disadvantages. Walmart and McDonald's, along with every other big namebrand corporation, are magnets for litigation, protest, innuendo, rumor, and boycott. Walmart has even attracted an anti-Walmart report to Congress; what mom-and-pop store can boast that distinction? Big corporations are the ultimate prize of unions, too, which, though good for their workers, make competing with non-unionized labor at home and abroad challenging. Consider the success of China.

Walmart has a lot of very angry enemies, because its rocket growth shifted a big hunk of profits away from established local businessmen. Of course these displaced people were furious; their very livelihoods, the welfare of their families, were disastrously affected by change–which happened to arrive in the form of the Walmart steamroller. Note I said they were affected by change–not by Walmart. It should come as no surprise, nevertheless, that the injured parties were thrilled to welcome the anti-globalization liberal crowd into their let's-hate-Walmart-club.

But Walmart won't last forever, and not because of any boycott, either. Walmart saw an opening, an economic niche, an opportunity, and jumped into it with all four feet. Their phenomenal success is the rest of the story. Of course they're hated for shoving the old out with the new. People hate change.

Protest has had a great day, but that day has passed (remember change?); resistance is becoming not only futile, but outre. Being against something doesn't work that well anymore, besides making everyone tired and sad. What does work especially well in these times is being for stuff, creating new solutions, working hard collaboratively to make things happen in a hurry.

Someday soon, someone will start up a new global Walmart lookalike that is franchisable only by locals. Or someone will lift and transform Walmart from within. Or someone will think of something else that's even better and more profitable.

Someday, someone will teach us all that we live together on a very small, fragile, interconnected planet. Someone will use the internet to shift our allegiances and money away from nation-states, perhaps toward NGOs serving every interest at every level, from local to regional to international. Someone somewhere already knows what the next great political and economic organizations will be, ones that will respect and serve both people and the earth.

And when these changes come about, much weeping and rending and gnashing of teeth will again be heard in the land. People hate change.

Boycotting Walmart won't bring back the bucolic utopias of yesteryear (which never existed anyway.) It really won't. On the other hand, the first time someone offers me a shopping experience that gives me a comparable value, and even more equity, justice, and sustainability, I will absolutely jump at the chance to disloyally move my money. I just haven't been offered that opportunity yet. So come on America, get with the program.

Until then, you will find me shopping the friendly aisles of Walmart and Sam's Club, in solidarity with a motley bunch that looks a lot like America, getting the biggest bang for our shopping buck–you know, the good old American way.”

Addendum in June 2008: I understand Walmart has madea considerable effort to become more green, and more responsive to and supportive of their workforce. I haven't followed the issue closely. My point is: they still offer me the best values, and still employ my town's least employable workers at locally very competitive wages and benefits. Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. And let's not reject Mr. Furman without taking into consideration that he is an original, profound and independent thinker, which is exactly what we need right now.

Mr. Furman was previously with the Brookings Institution as director of its Hamilton Project, an economic policy project whose advisory council includes many distinguished executives from the business world.

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Hillary’s Concession Speech Was So Characteristically Hillary

I’m afraid I didn’t see in Hillary’s speech what others saw. I thought it mean-spirited–for a concession speech. Mockingly dressed in funereal black, Hillary seemed full of sound and fury, conceding nothing.


Most glaring was what Hillary didn’t say, what any generous endorser of Barack who really wanted to help him would have articulated clearly: I like this man, I respect this man, I trust and admire him, I’ve worked with him and know him and think he’ll make a great president.


Far from giving Barack her wholehearted endorsement, Hillary continued to aggrandize her own status, and left her followers confused. She mentioned Barack's strength, determination, grace and grit, but overlooked the special qualities that gave him his win–his brilliance, his organizational and leadership talents, his judgment, integrity, fine record of service, vision, and patriotism. 


Hillary chose to endorse Barack at her own venue, in front of her own screaming supporters, while all of Barack's other endorsers have courteously shown up at his events. In this instance, the winner, Barack, even had to seek out the miffed loser just to gently ask her for her endorsement. What does this tell us about Hillary? That she's afraid. And when Hillary is afraid, she stops focusing on others, on goodness, on her goals, and mostly just worries about herself.


She hasn't really quit. She's only “suspended” her campaign, not “ended” it. She hasn't released her delegates. And she said loud and clear in her speech, “(N)ever listen to anyone who says you can't or shouldn't go on.” What's wholehearted about that? If she plans to campaign her heart out for Barack, I haven't seen it yet. I hope I do. So far, it all looks like waiting and hoping and being ready for a quirkily different outcome to miraculously appear.


Over and over, Hillary said only that her supporters “must” or “have to” (i.e., against their will and better judgment? kicking and screaming? for no good reason other than that Barack is a Democrat?) support Barack if they're going to realize Hillary’s dream. Hillary so wanted to be a Queen, an Eva Peron, bestowing generous favors upon her twentieth century flock. Barack is so twenty-first-century-beyond such pettiness, so ego-less (but not ambition-less.) 


I am grateful that Hillary didn’t take advantage of this staged opportunity to cry over the nasty black spider who sat down beside her and so rudely spoilt her party. I have no doubt that Hillary, like the rest of us, sheds real tears in private, but not in public yet. That's too bad–her heart is by far her best asset, far better even than her excellent brain. Whenever she's being authentically Hillary–loving, focused on others, lifted out of her fears–she's truly great. But when she's scared, angry and confused (and that's too often), well…she's like the rest of us (not good enough to be president.)


Hillary has never seemed quite comfortable being a woman, nor does she feel comfortable trusting any man, sometimes with good reason. But her lack of of a reliable and completely trusting faith–in herself, in others, in the love that works so brilliantly through her when she lets it work, in God, in life itself–that lack of faith keeps on hurting her and holding her back. I trust she will notice soon how far her faith has carried her already, and trust it more to take her the rest of the way. And I hope she will turn her back once and for all on her insecurities and fears, for we all greatly need Hillary's greatness.


She has been a courageous, pioneering feminist during a confusing time, but her continuing confusion about the whole feminist and gender and leadership thing continues to be shared with the rest of us. I recommend A Woman's Worth, by Marianne Williamson, to help her identify more consistently with her own authentic faith, love, and femininity.


Hillary has fallen far in recent days from her formerly-visionary, mighty-heroine status, to act so small, but it's only temporary. Hers has been an amazing journey, and we've loved watching her grow along with us. Hillary relentlessly stretches and challenges herself, and thus sometimes fails greatly and publicly, always a great test of faith. But even absolute power cannot corrupt absolutely. 


The corruption we're all heir to is the temptation to escape to fear, to veer away from our goal of loving oneness. Fear is the only explanation for Hillary's attempt to hold Barack back, the one person today who can lead us all over that bridge to the 21st century, the bridge she once worked so hard to build. Hillary will find the love necessary to let go of her small need to be “right” about her belief that she could have won the election, and that Barack couldn't, her wish to look back and be able to say “I told you so.” Instead, she will find the faith necessary to support him in accomplishing the goals she's been working toward her whole life.


Hillary's failure to win the presidency was not a failure of sexism belonging to all women everywhere, but a failure of faith that goodness could indeed work consistently through her–not to mention the emergence of an amazing challenger who so far has proved to be a clearer, more consistent channel for positivity. Sexism cannot explain Hillary's loss when her opponent displayed clearly superior leadership traits, and losing like a petulant child has not helped to establish her creds.


With friends like Hillary, so far, Barack hasn't needed enemies. Yes, I’m being churlish, feeling mad and sad that Hillary's speech offered only the minimum required to save her political neck and to further her (indeed selfless) agenda. But Barack needs all of our best help to make the changes we so desperately need to begin. Yes, I need to get over it and find my own faith again.


No doubt, Hillary's speech was her best effort, for now—and to be sure, her best on any given day is impressive, far more impressive than I am capable of on my best days. But I do so hope Hillary regains her faith, strength and loving authenticity, and then uses it to support Barack wholeheartedly. She has grown greatly before. Hillary can be as big as she can be small. I hope she decides to act on her love and her faith instead of on her fears and resentments, for a long long while.


Hillary and Bill have unfortunately cast themselves into the role of Democratic Party “old guard,” a role they once fought hard to overcome in others.Tragically, Hillary isn’t even aware that she's done this. She ran for president so that she could to complete her and Bill's very impressive joint-60s-vision-of-the-future, but Barack has laid out a much more complete, better, stronger and longer-range extension and enlargement of that vision which will take America assertively into mid-century. Hillary's present resistance to Barack's leadership hasn't done her any favors, but perhaps it has done Barack one or two; Barack will have so many world and national “enemies” to deal with from now on, so many fence-sitters to co-opt, that perhaps it's a blessing to have cut his teeth on a very tough old “friend.”


I pray that Hillary will regain the (very feminine) faith, love, and authenticity which brought her to the brink of success. If she will rededicate her many talents in service to Barack's vision, she will greatly serve herself, Barack, America, and the world.



Please send your comments to njcpace@gmail.com. Thank you! 🙂