One might have thought, after the gutting of the Voting Rights Act and the incendiary acquittal of George Zimmerman in the wholly avoidable killing of Trayvon Martin, that a black pundit would wait a while before wielding massa’s whip so enthusiastically against the backs of her racial peers. But, for reasons that she will have to work out with the God she so frequently invokes, Star Parker is relentless in attempting to beat African-Americans into ideological submission. Her selling of the grotesquerie of Republican freedom is a particularly sick joke that is as helpful to black America as the selling of crack cocaine and gangsta culture. Perhaps, as an act of self-preservation, her eager submission to the white plutocracy made sense to her; no doubt, her new life on the right-wing lecture circuit is more comfortable than that of a repeatedly impregnated welfare mother. However, as we shall see in her revolting defense of Wal-Mart’s predatory capitalism, her apostasy makes no sense whatsoever in the world inhabited by those she left behind.
Minimum Wage, Maximum Profits: The Real Meaning of “Family Values”
The double mission of America’s plutocratic propagandists is the suppression of dissent and the manufacture of consent. In the post-2008 climate, any expressions of resistance will not be tolerated by America’s owners. The Occupy Wall Street protestors were demonized and forced to disband; their survivors have been monitored by the FBI; any recrudescence faces the prospect of violent reprisals from a police force armed with military-grade equipment. Other sectors of the plutocracy, while not quite as preeminent as the masters of the universe in Lower Manhattan, have various ways of ensuring that they get what they want, too. In the case of Wal-Mart, economic power can be almost as effective as brute force. When the District of Columbia’s city council voted to require Wal-Mart (and similar big-box stores) to pay its employees at least $12.50/hour as a condition for opening several new mega-stores in our nation’s capital, it set the stage for a true – and rare – David and Goliath drama. At the time of writing, the council’s bill is pending approval by the mayor, and Wal-Mart has threatened to cancel its proposed construction projects. When a similar measure was attempted in Chicago, Mayor Daley vetoed it, and it seems likely that the mayor of D.C. is also going to cave.
Star Parker’s defense of Wal-Mart seethes with righteous indignation that any government would dare interfere in the workings of a red, white, and blue economic miracle. The level of insanity to which she intends to subject us becomes painfully clear in her opening paragraph:
Why, when capitalism has created wealth and eradicated poverty, do left-wing politicians hate it so much? After all, it’s supposed to be the left that cares about the poor. [Emphasis added.]
Since the editors of the Leesburg Daily Commercial are obviously not interested in addressing that question, we will answer it for them with two words that should be of central concern in any decent society: economic justice.
There is no doubt that Wal-Mart’s version of capitalism has produced wealth, although Star Parker studiously avoids providing any details of where it ends up, distracting us with sales figures and emphasizing alleged savings to consumers. Wal-Mart’s profits in the first quarter of 2013 totaled $3.78 billion. That number, though higher than the same quarter of 2012, was actually a little lower than expected, and most analysts explained the “disappointment” as a result of delayed federal tax refunds and the demise of the payroll tax holiday, both of which reduced lower-income customers’ discretionary spending. But while ordinary Americans struggled even to buy Wal-Mart’s bargains, there is no discomfort among Sam Walton’s heirs.
As WalMart1Percent.org reports, the Waltons are the richest family in America, with six members in the top eleven of the Forbes’ rich list. Back in 2007, when they were worth just under $70 billion, their wealth equaled the wealth of the bottom 30% of the entire country. The Waltons’ wealth, boosted by annual dividend income in the billions (all of which is unearned income taxed at a preferential rate), has since grown to $116 billion1, while the post-recession wealth-recovery regularly touted by the Associated Press has most emphatically not gone to the people at the bottom. The Waltons are now worth more than 42% of Americans combined. Whenever Star Parker lectures her readers about “family values,” these are the numbers we need to remember.
With seats on the board and controlling 49% of Wal-Mart’s stock, the Waltons could take steps to share some of that wealth with the associates who make it for them. And it wouldn’t actually cost them much to do it. A 2011 academic study of living-wage policies for big-box retailers found that a minimum wage of $12/hour would yield truly meaningful benefits for low-income workers while having a negligible impact on consumer prices, even if all the extra wage costs were passed directly to customers instead of coming from productivity gains or (gasp!) reduced profits. The study’s authors concluded:
[W]e find that a Big Box Ordinance or similar legislation that raises wages would provide significant, concentrated benefits to workers, almost half of them in poor or near-poor families, while the costs would be dispersed in small amounts among many consumers across the income spectrum. In net, a wage increase for Walmart workers represents a transfer of income to poor and low-income families. Low-income Walmart workers would see a raise of $1,670 to $6,500 per year, while the average Walmart shopper would spend an additional $12.49 [that’s twelve dollars and forty-nine cents] per year.
But the Waltons seem to prefer a system of economics in which the poor remain poor – so poor that they often need to rely on government support to survive, a point to which we shall return shortly. This is a brutal and moronic attitude that turns Henry Ford’s philosophy on its head. Whereas Ford manufactured a consumer durable and decided to create demand for it by paying his workers enough so they could actually afford to buy what they made, Wal-Mart pays its workers poorly so that the only place they can afford to shop is Wal-Mart. And whereas Ford’s high wages had beneficial multiplier effects across the economy, Wal-Mart’s miserliness denies similar benefits to every community it enters. Imagine what might happen if Wal-Mart’s owners decided, like Ford, to pay their associates not just a living wage but a really good wage. But instead of pumping up local economies, which it could easily afford to do, Wal-Mart sucks wealth out of them and concentrates it in the hands of people who already have far more than anyone could ever need. Far from eradicating poverty, Wal-Mart’s brand of capitalism disseminates and hardens it. Star Parker’s charge that D.C.’s living-wage policy will cause the poor to “suffer the most” is not just wrong as a matter of economic analysis, it is morally repugnant.
Profiting from the “Culture of Dependency”
In 2010, Wal-Mart’s CEO, Mike Duke, received $18.7 million in compensation, an amount which was 1,201 times that paid to the average sales associate making $8.81/hour. Although Mr. Duke’s income pales in comparison to the billions received (again, not earned) by the Waltons, this obscene divergence within the company is hidden within the average earnings figures brandished by Wal-Mart’s PR department. (Averages can hide a multitude of sins. The claim that Wal-Mart’s pay rates comport with industry averages elides the massive impact that Wal-Mart has on the entire sector, driving wages down across the board.) One thing you will never hear from the company, or its defenders like Star Parker, is the extent to which the outrageous incomes of the few depend on the government’s willingness to support low-income Americans. No amount of boasting about cost savings for consumers should be allowed to obscure this deeper reality.
A recent study of Wisconsin’s Medicaid program revealed part of this problem. Wal-Mart employees topped the list of “working poor” people enrolled in Medicaid in the state. Given that Medicaid recipients generally also receive subsidized school meals, Section 8 housing assistance, and the Earned Income Tax Credit (to say nothing of food stamps), the study concluded that the 300 employees of a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Wisconsin cost taxpayers at least $3,000 and perhaps as much as $5,815 per year. Naturally, the assistance programs in question are all under attack from America’s plutocrats, who clearly feel no sense of gratitude to the state for picking up their slack. Henry Ford would shake his head in amazement.
In Star Parker’s ludicrous narrative, consistent with the bogus “you didn’t build that” taunts in last year’s presidential election, Wal-Mart’s “business strategy is one of the greatest success stories in American history”:
This mind-boggling growth happened as a result of freedom. The chain’s huge success is the result of delivering products that people freely choose to buy.
Ah, yes. The pixie dust of the free market has worked its magic, as it always does when government gets out of the way. Or not. The taxpayers who subsidize Wal-Mart’s inadequate wages are completely free to retain that portion of their income from the Internal Revenue Service and various state taxing agencies. And they were equally free to instruct their state and local governments to refrain from giving Wal-Mart direct subsidies to assist in the construction of its facilities across the country. In Sharon Springs, NY, local taxpayers surely didn’t mind that Wal-Mart made a deal with an industrial development agency in which the agency would hold the title to the land used for a distribution center, thereby saving Wal-Mart an estimated $46 million in property taxes. Residents of Lakewood, Colorado must have freely chosen to allow Wal-Mart to pay a reduced rate of sales tax at a new Supercenter and could not possibly have objected when the company unexpectedly closed an existing store and deprived the municipality of hundreds of thousands of dollars of expected income budgeted for essential services. (Wal-Mart advocates complaining that D.C. has pulled a “bait and switch” need to be careful not to remind policymakers what to expect from the company itself.)
The reality is that a key part of the “freedom” involved in Wal-Mart’s “success” is a free-ride at taxpayer expense. All those alleged savings to consumers “freely choosing” to shop there take on an entirely different cast when netted against the costs that Wal-Mart is able to externalize and impose on the rest of society. Yet when the propagandists of plutocracy decry a “culture of dependency” in America, this comprehensive social safety net for multi-billion-dollar corporations mysteriously escapes their gaze. Meanwhile, the target of their ire – social assistance to individuals – is directly responsible for a large part of the corporations’ success. These people had better be careful what they wish for. If we start taking them seriously, Arkansas’ aristocrats will be disappointed with their dividend checks.
Ripping the Mask off Small-Business Republicanism
As if to complete her abject submission to the wishes of her plutocratic masters, Star Parker even tries to deny Wal-Mart’s damaging effects on the communities it enters.
Some claim that big discount stores displace small businesses. This is a claim. There is no definitive study that proves this claim.
This kind of ridiculous defensiveness is reminiscent of the problem of anthropogenic climate change, another “claim” that retarded and venal Republican politicians persist in doubting while the Western United States goes up in smoke and Alaskan polar bears drown for want of ice. Reality, no matter how blindingly obvious, is no match for the profit principle. The owners to whom these profits accrue want more, no matter how high the cost to everyone else, and their paid lackeys in politics and “journalism” are happy to aid the cause by fomenting ignorance across the land.
At election time, Republicans are careful to aim their pitch at small-business owners, who respond favorably to the party’s professions of hostility to regulation. In the case of advocacy for Wal-Mart, Star Parker provides a textbook example of how deeply insincere that pitch really is. For Wal-Mart is not just the antithesis of small business; it is the enemy of small business. And when Star Parker says there are no studies to prove it, she is lying through her bloody teeth.
A Loyola University study found that when Wal-Mart moved in to Chicago’s West Side in 2006, promising to bring jobs to a struggling community, 82 local stores closed within two years. Contrary to the company’s PR spiel, Wal-Mart generated no net increase in sales revenue or employment for Chicago. And a nationwide study led by Dr. David Neumark, an economist at the University of California at Irvine, found that each new job created by Wal-Mart destroys 1.4 jobs at competing businesses. Stacy Mitchell, at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, adds that the impact is not just limited to retail jobs, either:
Wal-Mart has played a leading role in pushing millions of manufacturing jobs to low-wage countries, and, unlike independent retailers, which purchase many goods and services, like printing and accounting, locally, Wal-Mart stores provide very little support to other businesses in the community. Studies have found that only $14 of every $100 spent at a Wal-Mart store stays in the local economy.
One part of the United States in which that dark reality is understood is Vermont, a beautiful state with an exceptionally strong sense of community. Vermonters have fought the encroachment of Wal-Mart, and other big-box stores, tooth and nail. Unfortunately, despite many victories, even they have not been able to prevail against the behemoth, and Wal-Mart has finally made some inroads into the state, including a proposed store in the remote (and wonderful) Northeast Kingdom. We salute the people of Vermont for showing the rest of the country what America can be when local democracy remains vibrant enough to resist plutocracy.
Back to the Gilded Age: Reviving the Liberty to Contract
Star Parker’s risible fantasy – successfully transmitted to many a brainwashed newspaper reader – that unbridled capitalism is good for all of us, including the poor, reaches its apogee when she deploys the S-word:
Capitalism has been a great success because it rewards creativity and hard work. Socialism has been a failure because it deprives freedom, stifles creativity, encourages envy and rewards sloth and corruption.
This child-like generalization is standard fare for Parker (her entire column in today’s Leesburg Daily Commercial is a giddy, teenage love letter to capitalists everywhere). How she would explain the “failure” of such “socialist” countries as Norway, Sweden, and Denmark remains a mystery; her approach in the past has been to simply ignore all the counter-evidence and lead the choir of the ignorant in another chorus of American exceptionalism. For Star Parker, and the billionaires for whom she feels such remarkable empathy, the reality that other social and economic models produce better results must be hidden from the American people at all costs, lest they start asking awkward questions.
For the plutocracy to preserve its grossly unjust inequalities of wealth and power, the people must be prevented from fighting back in the only effective ways available to them. The war against collective bargaining, which Wal-Mart exemplifies, is obviously important in this respect, but pales in significance relative to the war against the people’s ultimate safeguard, public policy. Thus, Parker’s central thrust in responding to Washington’s living-wage proposal is that government has no business interfering in the employer-employee relationship when “free people” want to work there.
Why is what the company pays the business of politicians?…[P]eople work at Walmarts because they choose to do so. The company says it gets… more than 25 applicants per job. It doesn’t appear to me that the chain has trouble convincing people to work there.
It pains us to have to remind Star Parker that, in a period of high long-term unemployment (the so-called “jobless recovery”), the supply of labor obviously exceeds demand. The number of people applying for work at Wal-Mart – a ratio that is hardly unique to them – says much less about the desirability of Wal-Mart’s jobs than it says about the condition of the labor market.
Unable to perceive such basic facts due to her intoxication on capitalist spirits, Parker goes on to ask:
What business is it of politicians to tell free people where to shop? What business is it of politicians to deprive people of the freedom to go to a store that sells them products at the lowest prices they can find?
Well, Star, while we’re on the subject of freedom, what business is it of politicians to deprive women of the freedom to control their own reproductive choices? What business is it of politicians to tell people with whom they may fall in love and make a family? What business is it of politicians to violate the consciences of real Christians by forcing them to support the indiscriminate bombing and systematic starvation of civilian populations in foreign lands? What business is it of politicians to listen in on the telephone calls, or read the e-mails, of a free people? Why is Wal-Mart’s freedom to exploit American and foreign workers more important to you than these – and many other – freedoms? Why should the United States revert to the value system of the Gilded Age, in which a fictitious “liberty to contract” was used by a reactionary Supreme Court to strike down all attempts to improve the conditions of working men and women? And why should government subsidize Wal-Mart directly and indirectly and then forfeit any right to impose certain conditions on the recipient of its generosity?
The answer to Star Parker’s stupid questions is that society, acting through the organs of democratic governance, has an interest in the welfare of its people, the state of its economy, the health of its environment, and the impact of commerce on its foreign relations. And the need for public oversight of labor relations is particularly acute in an era of prolonged recession (for ordinary people, not for the Waltons) characterized by an ever-widening gulf of inequality. It is not in the long-term national interest for the economy to continue down its current path of great wealth for a few owners, lording over millions in crushing poverty and a dwindling middle-class. Henry Ford would have understood that. But long before Ford’s version of capitalism created wealth and distributed it in a way the Waltons never will, the founding geniuses of Madison and Jefferson understood that concentrated wealth was inimical to republicanism. And that, of course, is precisely the point here. Wal-Mart presents the United States with a clear choice between the republicanism of the founders, in which power flows from the people, and the plutocracy of the Waltons, in which power is monopolized by a handful of owners. The United States does not belong to the Waltons; it belongs to all the people. When Star Parker urges us to choose the wrong side, she does not just betray the economic interests of her race; she betrays the principles of her country.
- Link removed 10/11/15 due to 404 error. ↩