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Slashing Prices And Communities

Ken Nesmith

Name America’s largest corporation, as ranked on the famed Fortune 500 list. Microsoft, the thuggish master of the popular software domain, or perhaps some other information technology dynamo? No. General Electric, its many hands dipped in everything from credit cards to military-industrial technologies? Some massive energy conglomerate from the ambiguously skewed, awkwardly named industry formerly known as “big oil,” playing their usual dastardly game of petroleum retrieval with governments worldwide, or perhaps creating markets and profits where there are none with some magical trading tricks? Well, almost, but the real winner for today is none of these likely suspects; rather, it is Wal-Mart.

Few institutions better illustrate the internal division and sickened tension that plagues the soul of modern capitalism than can Wal-Mart. It is only a mild stretch to grant Wal-Mart the title of institution. The corporation is a retail behemoth, and is firmly set in the American psyche as a bearer of unimaginably eclectic products and services offered at stunningly low prices.

That fixation on low price is a central part of the Wal-Mart experience. The store’s customers, upon proudly displaying some item they’ve purchased at the great mart to their pals, quickly exclaim with a unique blend of ironic detachment, facetious pride, and an air of almost obligatory disclosure that “I got it at Wal-Mart. It was only N dollars!”

Wal-Street, the unrelated but half-homonymous home of the world’s global trading center, can find no end to its praise of Wal-Mart. Analysts can think of no more perfect investment than this down-to-earth retailer that has demonstrated its ability to deliver growth and profits in good times and bad. It is a common entry on recommended-buy lists, its management virtues are endlessly extolled, and financial writers glowingly detail its successes in statistic-laden investment advice columns as if they were proud parents doting upon a prized child’s successes.

The company’s ruthless efficiency and aggressive management have brought ever-growing profits that consistently beat analysts’ estimates. Its stock has risen 400 percent over the past five years, and even amidst last year’s market restraint, Wal-mart’s stock returned 8.3 percent to investors. They have succeeded in the notoriously tricky business of expanding their offerings of products and services -- from simple retail into the grocery, eye care, hair care, prepared food, and pharmacy sectors. Wal-Mart is now the largest grocer in America, having surpassed Kroger Inc. some time ago. Their pharmaceutical business has enjoyed similar success. In each expansion, they employ a powerful network of real-time inventory information systems and an efficient, flexible trucking fleet to leave competitors scrambling to match their lower prices, usually unsuccessfully. They are the perfect model of the capitalist firm.

But turn the page. Just past the financial advice column is the world news, and here we see that the company’s financial successes are balanced by an equally impressive array of moral failings. We read of workers fired for discussing pay raises, foreign laborers young and old abused mentally, physically, and even sexually as they toil without end for pennies an hour to produce the goods that line Wal-Mart’s aisles; and the fabric of small town life torn under the weight of the blockish cement supercenters that spawn on the outskirts of the city and drain it of its social and economic vitality.

We also read of the grassroots, local efforts to halt Wal-Mart’s entry into various small towns, efforts that while fervent are generally unsuccessful. Yet the same communities that angrily resist Wal-Mart’s presence are the same people who make Wal-Mart the most successful corporation in America. The small towns that lament their death at the hands of Wal-Mart are blind to their own suicide -- it is they who choose to patronize the store rather than local businesses. The potent, understated lure of slightly lower prices deftly silences the acrimonious complaints about Wal-Mart’s business practices and draws shoppers with disturbing ease to its wide, well-lit aisles.

That simple disparity between heartfelt, genuine desires that we likely share -- can many of us honestly profess a genuine passion for shopping at Wal-Mart? -- and the reality that Wal-Mart is making more money directly from everyday consumers than any other corporation reveals a destructive tension that is a more significant force in the collective subconscious of American society than we realize. The conflict between an endless material quest and strongly held values, be they of family, community, religion, personal conviction, or culture, manifests itself today as an assortment of widely varying troubles, for each of which we seek separate solutions. No simple method to relieve the fundamental tension is evident.

Wal-Mart’s financial success is well documented. So is its moral depravity. We profess to dislike it and sometimes fight its very existence, but we shop there anyway. This is a reality that is not encouraging.