Robert Reich, former labor secretary under the Clinton administration has the best take on the ubiquitious Wal-Mart controversy seen in so many communities lately. Reich's Op-Ed in today's New York Times succinctly summarizes the most relevant issues:
In the eyes of Wal-Mart's detractors, the Arkansas-based chain embodies the worst kind of economic exploitation: it pays its 1.2 million American workers an average of only $9.68 an hour, doesn't provide most of them with health insurance, keeps out unions, has a checkered history on labor law and turns main streets into ghost towns by sucking business away from small retailers.
As Reich goes on the point out, consumers lured by the lowest prices ensure the success of retailers whose corporate values lack a sense of responsibility to the communities in which they operate or the society which they help to construct. As pointed out earlier in this blog, Americans are spoiled by a system of agricultural subsidies which help maintain artificially low food prices. In the same way, Wal-Mart shoppers are spoiled by low prices which are available only by failing to pay workers a living wage without benefits.
Social conscience, something not much talked about anymore in American public discourse, brings Reich to question the current way of thinking about the Wal-Martesque controversies which include globalization, out-sourcing, and sweatshop labor in the clothing and shoe wear industries.
...you and I aren't just consumers. We're also workers and citizens. How do we strike the right balance? To claim that people shouldn't have access to Wal-Mart or to cut-rate airfares or services from India or to Internet shopping, because these somehow reduce their quality of life, is paternalistic tripe. No one is a better judge of what people want than they themselves.
The problem is, the choices we make in the market don't fully reflect our values as workers or as citizens.
Social engineering by wallet and charge card?