So, the people of Inglewood, in their wisdom, have said no to Wal-Mart. Too bad -- for the people of Inglewood, that is.
Wal-Mart will do just fine. It’s No. 1 on the Fortune 500 list and the nation’s biggest employer (next to the government). It’s also Mexico’s biggest employer (again, next to the government).
In addition to a million employees, Wal-Mart has 100 million shoppers a week, and those shoppers don’t have guns to their heads, and they’re not unhappy. Wal-Mart saves people a fortune -- $20 billion a year, according to New England Consulting. And the real number is closer to $100 billion because of the lower prices Sam Walton’s company forces from other retailers. I might add that Wal-Mart has made its investors tidy sums.
In short, this is a classic American success story and a free-market success story. Needless to say, that has won Wal-Mart a lot of enemies.
Who are these enemies? Democratic politicians, union leaders, left-wing pundits, a few right-wing pundits (concerned for localism), snobs, sentimentalists, economic ignoramuses.
Wal-Mart has become like Enron or Halliburton in Democratic rhetoric: a byword for corporate irresponsibility. During the presidential primaries, John Kerry duly engaged in some bashing. He will probably clam up for the general election. (Remember those 100 million shoppers.)
The complaints against Wal-Mart are numerous -- the company is practically blamed for the common cold -- but here are some of the main ones: that it is too big; that it is impersonal; that it pays its employees too little; that it denies them healthcare; that it is nonunionized (true); that it is square (banning racy magazines, for example); that it is vulgar.
Frankly, more than a little snobbery goes into Wal-Mart bashing. This is a store that sells every product under the sun at low, low prices to ordinary folks. Wal-Mart is gloriously, unashamedly, star-spangledly American. I hope it’s not too McCarthyite to suggest that those who despise Wal-Mart are the very ones who may not be so crazy about the United States tout court.
Critics like to contend that Wal-Mart workers live “paycheck to paycheck”; that’s not true. But what is true -- certainly truer -- is the Wal-Mart rejoinder: “We are the store of a great many people who, in fact, live paycheck to paycheck, and need decent products at decent prices.”
As to health insurance, 90% of Wal-Mart employees have it. Fifty percent of those get it through the company, according to a spokesman; the rest get it through their parents (they may be teenagers), through Medicare or some previous employer’s plan (they may be semi-retired), through their spouses -- wherever. The point is, they’re covered.
And Wal-Mart is an opportunity-filled company. It’s a huge employer of the young -- those seeking their first jobs -- and the old (those wanting to keep a hand in before leaving the job market altogether).
It is an ongoing affront to organized labor that Wal-Mart remains nonunionized. The United Food & Commercial Workers has a whole department devoted to Wal-Mart -- to targeting it, unionizing it. The UFCW campaigns as though its very existence, as a union, depended on this effort’s success. So far, Wal-Mart workers have turned them down, a source of great heartburn -- indeed, of panic.
No one should suppose that a Wal-Mart job is a demeaning or a dead-end job. Two-thirds of Wal-Mart managers come from the ranks of hourly employees. Interestingly, the accusations now hurled at Wal-Mart are exactly those once hurled at McDonald’s. Remember “McJobs”? And yet, McDonald’s was -- and is -- invaluable for those wanting to plant their feet on the first rung of the job ladder. From there, they can climb.
Of course, today’s new economy -- the globalized economy -- is not always comfortable for everyone. Brave new worlds never are. “You can’t keep on doing things the old way and still get the benefits of the new way,” economist Thomas Sowell has written. And those benefits, in the case of Wal-Mart, are deeply gratifying: all those employees; all those consumer savings; all those shareholder earnings.
How many other companies do as much for people? How many activists do? How many politicians?
I was raised in a left-wing environment, taught to revere activists and politicians (always on the left, of course). Businessmen were suspect, to put it mildly. But when I grew up, and put away childish things, I realized something that should be obvious: Henry Ford, Bill Gates and Sam Walton are benefactors of mankind. If the people of Inglewood would rather have 60 acres of nothing instead of a Wal-Mart supercenter, that’s their business. But I can’t help feeling that they were badly misled.
Jay Nordlinger is managing editor of National Review.