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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