Arts - Books Buy low, sell out 

'The United States of Wal-Mart' indicts America's consumers along with its biggest retailer

Alternative-press scribe John Dicker (whose book reviews have appeared in the Current) has a message for activists who are fighting a Wal-Mart megastore in their hometown: Think zoning. "That's how you're really going to impress the county or local planning board," he says. "Because they don't really care about our trade deficit with China," or the host of other social ills in which Wal-Mart is a willing accomplice.

Dicker also has a cold bucket of water for Americans who think they are striking a blow for corporate responsibility by refusing to shop at Wal-Mart: Even if you boycott the mega-retailer, "You can be Wal-Mart's bitch because your taxes are going to help support their employees that go on the welfare public dole." In his new book, The United States of Wal-Mart, Dicker estimates the average take-home pay for a full-time Wal-Mart employee is $18,000, one reason more Wal-Mart workers apply for public assistance than the employees of almost any other company. Dicker cites a government study that found a Wal-Mart with 200 employees costs taxpayers an average of $500,000 per year in free and reduced lunches, Section 8 housing, federal tax credits, and other assistance to needy families. Which means that $200 pricetag on the private-label TV you bought for Christmas is heavily subsidized.

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Dicker is the most recent author to take on the Arkansas-based retail behemoth, but The United States of Wal-Mart is refreshing both for its cheeky, breezy language and for its refusal to forge a complex consumer-society problem into simplistic righteous anger. "A lot of people can't afford the luxury of not shopping at Wal-Mart," he says, "so I think that this thing of boycott Wal-Mart is a little too simple." It may be true that Wal-Mart exploits its working-poor customers and employees (it's brilliant, Dicker observes, to open a check-cashing service in the store, because where else would you want to release a bunch of freshly paid poor people), but the company has profited in part by filling a gap that other retailers neglected.

During the civil unrest of the '60s and '70s, says Dicker, "a lot of the mainstream groceries pulled out of the inner city with the white population. So a lot of these communities are underserved as far as groceries go. Because `Wal-Mart is` able to operate on such low margins they can afford to `open stores that serve those communities` and it's a great PR coup. A lot of times I think activists have to take a hard look. Do you really want to make the argument that a Wal-Mart isn't better than a boarded-up factory? That's a losing argument." Wal-Mart is in a sense a symptom of our society's failure to address inequality elsewhere. If community activists want to defeat proposed Wal-Marts, they need to get creative with zoning, environmental, and transportation regulations, but also with viable alternatives for communities that need access to fresh, affordable food and a living wage.

Still, plenty of consumers who can afford to shop elsewhere frequent Wal-Mart's sky-high aisles.

"I agree with Robert Reich, the former secretary of labor. He kind of has this thing like, We like Wal-Mart as consumers; we don't like them as citizens," says Dicker. "A lot of free-market cheerleaders, like Thomas Friedman, say that we vote with our dollar bills. At the same time there's nothing really about consumerism that encourages people to think through their purchasing decisions the way they would in a political campaign. There's no blue book; there's no tag that says 40 percent of the sales price will go to one of the world's richest families."

The United States of Wal-Mart
By John Dicker
Tarcher
$12.95, 246 pages
ISBN: 1585424226
Which is why Dicker does not predict the company's demise. "A lot of people think that Wal-Mart is eventually gonna hit a brick wall in the U.S. and I don't think that that's true," he says. "There's so much room for growth for them in China." And India. And Russia. And they're not finished with us, either. "Wal-Mart has learned that it's still useful to put stores a lot closer together than they thought was possible five years ago," he adds.

Wal-Mart, Dicker writes, is responsible for 2 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product and employs one out of every 115 American workers, but it has been the subject of almost relentless bad press in the past two years. Last spring, a circuit court certified the largest class-action suit in history in which the plaintiffs, 1.6 million women, allege that Wal-Mart systematically discriminated against them. Major newspapers including The New York Times have published reports of underpaid illegal immigrants, union-busting, sweat-shop labor on the Kathie Lee Gifford clothing line, workers locked in the store overnight to force them to work overtime, and, perhaps most damaging, high-profile battles over proposed Wal-Marts in or near sacred grounds in Hawai'i and Mexico.

But the critical coverage doesn't seem to have affected the company's staggering $266 billion in annual sales, prompting Dicker to ask, "Have Americans become crack whores for Wal-Mart?" What is the drug, exactly? A sense of "entitlement to 'cheap,'" Dicker writes in the "Acknowledgments." Dicker acknowledges our complicity throughout the book. News that Wal-Mart screws its workers on their insurance plan or skews its books, periodicals, and music toward conservative content can't quite shake our desire to have more for less. "`T`his sense of entitlement has consequences," Dicker writes in conclusion. "As long as we remain blind to those consequences, we will also remain blind to the costs we pay, not at Wal-Mart but in our own conflicted souls."

By Elaine Wolff


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