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The Wal-Mart Paradox

December 15, 2010

THE OTHER DAY I asked aloud, “What is ethics, really?” I was asking because I don’t know the answer. For now, my ethical home base is, “Persevere. And try to do what seems right.” But this is real life, with tensions, so that can be difficult.

[Y]ou direct us onto a hard road. “Try not to kill anybody”, I have down, but “don’t exploit” is difficult, in my world. [drip, in comments.]

Because, yeah, exploitation is wrong in my estimation.

At the risk of speaking about it on the Spectacle’s terms, with alienated language, from the point of view of consumer… How does one avoid exploiting when affordable clothing, for example, so often comes from sweatshops? We all need the shelter afforded by a good pair of pants, but most lack the energy, time and money to first investigate a garment’s origins, and the money to afford it.

It’s the Wal-Mart Paradox.

Wal-Mart is horrible, right? They destroy local economies with predatory pricing, systematically prevent workers from forming unions, skimp on employee pay and benefits, force down the market for pay and benefits of their competitors, scoff at labor regulations, flood the market with cheap imported goods, blight the landscape with featureless box stores, poison waterways with the runoff from acres of hard-surface parking lots, and so on, and so on.

But they’re cheap! They sell groceries cheaper than the competition. They have $4 prescriptions. You could say that by their actions, Wal-Mart creates a class of people who struggle to afford life’s necessities and entertainments at full price. You know, their clientele.

I expect this is what commenter drip means by, “‘don’t exploit’ is difficult, in my world.” It’s true. And it’s a changing world. Calculations and compromises like these will become a factor for more and more people as the economy goes through it death spasms.

In post Cold War America… prices roll YOU back!

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Jack Crow permalink
    December 16, 2010 7:53 AM

    Syzygy. I was just trying to understand how someone could write this (courtesy of SMBIVA) and not understand how it’s coded with a bunch of if/thens that exclude the bulk of the people to whom it’s addressed:

    It’s riddled with class blinders.

    • December 16, 2010 8:52 AM

      that’s definitely written for people of a certain comfort. “live within your means” isn’t so much a choice, as a cold truth. how can a person not live within their means? what are “means”?

      • December 16, 2010 1:24 PM

        Interesting too that that CFAF post is almost entirely about “buying.”

        Unlike that, this is a great post, Montag.

  2. drip permalink
    December 16, 2010 4:21 PM

    You got what I meant, not that it enlightened anyone likely to visit here. The act of entering this society requires assent to exploitation. I accept that, much as I wish it were otherwise. And the Wal-Mart Paradox is no less real than the the Bronx slave market paradox. where buyers and sellers of labor exploit in service of their means. So, don’t exploit becomes for me a way of life that requires one of those alternate universes. I can’t escape it, so I try not to enhance it needlessly. I don’t shop at Wal-Mart, but I’m not sure Mom’s is the non-exploitive alternative. I try to be generous with those who do what they do to live within their means and thereby contribute unwittingly to the gross exploitation of themselves and others in service of capital. I sure can’t tell them what to do with their money. Man’s gotta eat.

  3. December 16, 2010 8:02 PM

    also worth mentioning, (perhaps): The McDonald’s Corollary

    obesity is bad right? not just bad, but the worst thing to happen to American’s health and health care costs since smoking in public.

    The McDonald’s Corollary is what you see when comparing the price of a lunch of natural, healthy, low sodium, foods including at least one serving of veg and a serving of fruit, with the price of a cheeseburger and a small fry. there aren’t many places you can have a meal for $2.

    something to keep in mind for those who can afford to shop the perimeter (where the produce and fresh foods are kept) of the grocery store. not every parent who takes advantage of a 5 for $3 deal on mac and cheese does so because they’re heedless about their kids’ health.

    • Jack Crow permalink
      December 16, 2010 8:48 PM

      You’ve outlined, succinctly, my abiding problem with the green foodie/vegan/anti-meat Safran Foer movements. I get why people who can afford to make those choices. But their sneering class evangelism…

    • drip permalink
      December 17, 2010 5:41 AM

      From the department of redundancy department, it is better to eat green and buy local if you want to be healthy and possibly less exploitative. But that comes at a cost that people at the subsistence level can’t pay. When you’ve been evicted and don’t have a pot, when you don’t have $500 for a deposit and don’t have electricity, when you can’t get to the dumpsters at grocery stores where they throw out food better than what you can buy at the Qwickee-11-Farm Mart, a Happy Meal looks good. It is still a choice to eat at McDonald’s but it’s harder when you don’t have “means.” Jack is right. Don’t judge. You’re right, too, Montag. Don’t exploit, but it’s a hard road.

  4. February 12, 2011 9:36 AM

    Intersting and well written post. Made me re-examine my original reason or reasons for not having stepped into a Wal Mart for over 15 years.

    Truth be told I originally stopped going because they moved into Sanford and suddenly a whole segment of my own business was snatched away. I own a bike shop. But as it turns out, Wal Mart has actually helped my business by removing my need (read cost of goods) to stock cheap ass bikes that always become warranty headaches. Now I repair the cheap ass bikes and get paid for it. I have made some sizable jingle off of Wal Mart bikes over the years.

    I would love to say that their exploitive abuse of workers and the markets they barrel roll under their thumbs is why I don’t shop there. Unfortunately this is not the case. I just flat out hate going into a store filled with so much cheap crap and watching people suck it up using credit cards that will only feed the debt monster and fill the coffers of people thousands of miles away.

    Economies start at the local level. Wal Mart and the other box stores interfere in this most basic function of a community.

    Yet even I am dealing with a paradox as I actually make more money off Wal Mart than I send their way.

    I could drive myself crazy worrying about the chain of production, money, and who gets exploited to whose benefit. I do what I can to minimize my impact. But people gotta eat. Even the ones in the sweatshops.

    • February 12, 2011 7:38 PM

      yeah, don’t drive yourself crazy. everyone’s gotta eat. when it comes down to it we’re all just creatures out to survive however we can. Wal-Mart is perversely big part of the “ecosystem” us American-types must navigate.

  5. December 12, 2013 7:42 AM

    Isn’t the Wal-Mart Paradox just the Company Store on a larger scale?


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