Wednesday, April 06, 2005

"What's Good for Wal-Mart is Good for America?"

I indulged academic and journalistic memories of college tonight by sitting in on a free debate co-sponsored by The Economist and The Nation in NYSEC's auditorium. The topic (a very timely one): Is Wal-Mart all that's right with American capitalism or all that's wrong with it? WNYC's Brian Lehrer was there to keep things civil -- which they were.

The debate here happened to fall at a time when Wal-Mart was courting the media with a special two-day event to get its side of the story out there amid all the ongoing "bad press." Following a recent failed attempt to open a new superstore in Rego Park, Queens, their PR office also got a research firm to study how much "opposition" there really is to such a store, and put out a release claiming that 62% of NYers favor letting the world's largest retailer into one of the world's biggest cities.

Wal-Mart has already dominated rural, suburban and "exurban" America. Now, in order to continue to grow and collect earnings for its shareholders, it's expanding or attempting to expand into urban areas, where the company's encountering a lot of opposition, especially when unionized grocery workers have a say, according to The Economist's Ben Edwards, one of tonight's panelists. Speaking on the pro side of the evening's proposition, he pointed out what he called the authenticity of Wal-Mart's advertising campaign, which focuses on what he called "Harriet Housewife" -- a middle-aged lower-to-middle-income woman without a lot of time or money who loves going to Wal-Mart because of its convenience and low prices.

Liza Featherstone and Jon Tasini, speaking for The Nation, countered that those low prices are predicated on boatloads of merchandise from China, where atrocious labor practices keep things cheap all around. They also blamed Wal-Mart for continually flouting labor rules in the U.S., and only getting slaps on the wrist when caught. To stem these problems, they called for more stringent and diligent enforcement of existing laws by government, while also favoring mandated living wages on a local basis.

Edwards and Malanga countered that Wal-Mart wouldn't be such a strong company if the workers didn't like working there, adding that the company has taken successful efforts to drive down turnover, which is already below most retail-industry standards.

Meanwhile, The Nation pair criticized Wal-Mart for having so many of its workers rely on government-funded health care, instead of covering it themselves. Liza pointed out an irony that Wal-Mart seems to be such a Republican darling, yet the company could end up saving even more money on health-care costs by supporting the liberal idea of a single-payer system.

I could go on, but you get the idea: Intelligent points on both sides. Check your C-SPAN listings for an upcoming broadcast of the event.

At the event, I also ran into an acquaintance from college, who happened to sit down in the empty seat next to me. Turns out that after Penn State, she got her master's at Columbia and is now producing business news for NY1.

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