united states of wal-mart

I finished reading The United States of Wal-Mart a few days ago, and thought it was a steaming pile of poo.

First off, John Dicker’s writing style irritated me. I’m sure he thought that he was being irreverently hilarious, but the final effect was obnoxious and detracting. A representative quote:

Butler Brothers required Walton, as it required all Ben Franklin operators, to purchase 80 percent of his stock from the company’s warehouses. Walton chafed at this. He started sniffing out other arrangements. Most wholesalers Walton approached were skittish about selling directly to him, fearful of the repercussions from cutting Butler Brothers out of the picture. However, he did persuade an unfortunately named New Yorker, one Harry Weiner, to supply him with satin, elastic-waist panties for two bucks a dozne: 25 percent less than he was paying Butler Brothers.

This from a guy named John Dicker. Nice one, Dickboy. Way to include a passive-aggressive “I hate you meaniehead!” backlash at the bullies who made you cry when you were in grade school (or perhaps college) in your book.

In any case, Dicker clearly has an anti-Wal-Mart bias in his book, and the planks of his platform are described in two chapters. The first chides Wal-Mart for not providing adequate health-care to its employees; the other takes Wal-Mart to task for being fiercly anti-union.

As regards healthcare, I’ll not be too apologetic for Wal-Mart’s actions, although I am of a mixed mind. The fact that Wal-Mart doesn’t provide cheap healthcare to its employees and encourages them to sign up for government subsidies directly affects my wallet, as my tax dollars fund those government safety net programs. This, of course, irks me. On the other hand, one could argue that the healthcare situation in America is screwed up to begin with. It helps to remember that employers weren’t always the main providers of health insurance. Rather, it became a popular perk back during World War II, when the government forbade companies to offer competitive wages (ie, wage and price controls), and so the companies started offering benefits packages to help retain talent. (Further reading on US health insurance history.)

The point is that it is incorrect to argue on moral grounds that Wal-Mart should provide better benefits to its employees. Health benefits are a business decision, and Wal-Mart is simply playing by the established rules. Now you may claim that the current rules suck and should be changed, and you won’t get much argument out of me. However, from a business point of view, I don’t see Wal-Mart as doing anything wrong.

As for the anti-unionism, well, that argument has absolutely no traction with me. Unions were useful once, but as far as I’m concerned, in today’s world, they’re about as relevant as using the French language for business communications. Arguing for unions (and tangentially related, more manufacturing jobs) is evidence of being trapped in a 19th century mindset. Dicker spends a lot of time talking about how Wal-Mart squeezes its suppliers and “forces” them to use cheap, off-shore, non-union labor in order to continually offer lower-priced products. In his mind, this is obviously a bad thing, since it means Americans are losing cushy jobs to Singaporeans, Mexicans, Indonesians, and the like.

From my point of view, this is a GOOD thing. It’s GOOD that we’re losing manufacturing jobs, no matter how well they pay. Why? Because it will force our country to look to the future for employment, not the past. The sooner we move away from the mindset that a manufacturing job is desirable and should be protected, and come to grips with the fact that the your best chances for earning a decent wage comes from higher education and becoming a “knowledge worker”, the better off our entire country is. Let Bangladesh and Turkmenistan fight for our manufacturing jobs. We don’t want them!

The world is in a transition phase right now. For most of human history, our species has been focused on “stuff”, whether it be the making or acquiring thereof. Only in the past, let’s say, 30 years (coinciding nicely with the advent of modern computing) has it become possible for a significant percentage of our species to earn a living based on knowledge, rather than stuff. This breakthrough was only possible with the rapid advancement in technology. At the risk of sounding too Kurzweilian here, technology is only going to get better, faster, and soon, being tied down to “stuff” will be obsolete. Clinging to the old paradigm is about as effective as the dinosaurs hoping that those pesky little mammals would stop eating their eggs.

But enough pontificating here. Dicker’s annoying style, plus his antiquated outlook of our society’s goals translates into my dislike of his book. About the only useful purpose it serves is to be exposed to how a large portion of America thinks, which makes you feel better about yourself that you’re not like them.