2007-01-04

wal-mart's peanut butter manifesto and "Slavery 2.0"

Is the world's largest multinational corporation, Wal-Mart, on the decline? Or is it simply riding the political ebb and flow as it tracks a neoconservative agenda to undermine people of color and drive a wedge through the Democratic Party?

Interesting news comes today that a judge in Chelan, WA has declared the building permit illegal for a new Wal-Mart "supercenter" being constructed there.

The mix of reactions from locals in Chelan seems characteristic of other areas in which Wal-Mart has faced opposition. Older or poorer residents look at consumer prices and tend to want access to cheap goods, which Wal-Mart provides. Local retail businesses generally know that they'll be forced into a situation in which they can no longer stay open, resulting from changes in traffic and spending patterns, changes in zoning, etc. Real estate organizations lobby ardently on behalf of Wal-Mart, often in direct opposition to homeowners. Local political officials get paid off and cut corners legally to accommodate corporate plans. Homeowners know that as a supercenter comes into an area, the crime rate tends to rise, the traffic becomes clogged, and the home values tend to fall.

Where we own a home in Austin, news came last month that Wal-Mart had obtain a building permit to open a 220,000 square foot, 24/7 "supercenter" in our residential neighborhood. To place this into perspective, that would become one of the largest "big box" stores in the state of Texas - in our residential neighborhood.

In brief, there is an old shopping center called "Northcross Mall" which was built decades ago when this area was on the very outskirts of Austin. When my wife was a kid here, Northcross was the shopping center of the region, but for several years it has been largely vacant - mostly due to rather harsh policies by its absentee landlord. The city has grown to a point where this neighborhood is now considered "central" and is mostly residential. When I bought a home in this neighborhood 12 years ago, nearby retail properties were mostly in decline; however, several innovative small businesses have worked hard to renovate the area, so that we have a place were neighbors can walk to local businesses. WMT came in, arranged with Austin's city manager to obtain a building permit without a public hearing, the city manger recused herself from further comment on the issue, and now we're going to have semi-trucks driving through our neighborhood to supply a 24/7 superstore. On one side there is the Real Estate Council of Austin, pushing hard to promote the WMT/Clinton agenda. On the other side, there are five neighborhood associations - in other words, the political power of approximately 2500 soccer moms plus their best friends, family, and neighbors, which multiples into about 10% of the city population - looking ahead toward rising crime rates, lower home property values, degraded public schools, etc.

It is interesting to look at the political activity of Wal-Mart. Notably, they spend most of their political funding - more than 80% - on conservative, "Religious Right" Republican candidates. At the executive levels, WMT contributions to RNC exceed their contributions to DNC by approximately a 30:1 ratio. Those candidates tend to represent the bulk of WMT customers, two-thirds of whom come from "Red" states: poor, under-educated, working-class people in rural America. However, there is also a healthy stream of WMT political funding heading toward Democratic leadership, particularly in the Senate, such as Clinton, Ford, Bayh. Clinton in particular was on WMT's board of directors for several years during its major growth period - during its main period of destroying "ma & pa" retail businesses throughout the US, during its main period of undermining laws for employee benefits.

What is intriguing and arguably appalling is how much emphasis WMT has placed on African-American political lobbies. One blantant example is found the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, where WMT with its Democratic party candidates in tow has been systematically acting as a wolf in sheep's clothing to tear apart support for Black voting rights, labor protections, etc. Lee Walker of Heartland Institute argues a racial case for "sell on the downside" case on behalf of WMT:

When a city government steps in and makes it illegal for some businesses to pay less than $10.00 an hour and an additional $3.00 an hour in benefits, it effectively makes it illegal for those businesses to hire many black applicants. Crucial entry-level jobs that would enable young blacks and ex-offenders to start climbing the career ladder to better-paying and more fulfilling jobs will be closed to them.
IMHO, if Walker, et al., do not represent a neo-conservative push toward "Slavery 2.0", I don't know what else would be reasonable to call them.

Looking at the arguments about Wal-Mart, the issues are not about "access to reasonably priced consumer goods" or "protection of a free market". WMT is just about as oppositional to "free market" economics as any entity in the world, considering how their growth in recent years has been built by literally threatening local elected officials into changing laws which support WMT at the cost of destroying existing businesses and communities, not to mention their lobbying against labor protection laws, minimum wage, health care rights, etc. The underlying issue is about how to compel poor people - mostly people of color - to work for less than an affordable living, as the conflict in Chicago exposed so directly.

Admittedly, I am a Green, and in some ways the WMT corporate history of predatory acts have helped to illustrate what I believe are the fundamental and unresolvable flaws of the Democratic Party - racial prejudice being among the foremost. Even so, I am encouraged to find that currently DNC front-runners such as John Edwards and Barak Obama have broken ranks with Clinton, et al., with respect to WMT. The issue there appears to be foreign policy: Clinton arguably has no foreign policy beyond "Let's increase the trade deficit with China" or "Maybe we should invade Iran". Thankfully, other DNC candidates appear to have a more global (read: less self-serving) perspective for the long-run.

If one were to take a counterpoint position, what would be important to consider vis-a-vis WMT in terms of conservative American interests? Notably, WMT is one of the largest employers in the US, and it accounts for a substantive chunk of our foreign trade. Given those measures of strategic importance, it is interesting to review the security risks which WMT faces. For example, while they appear to have built and continue to nurture a solid foundation for political support and a huge base of consumers, they have a systematic weakness in their vendor relations. Quite arguably, a culture of fear has emerged where WMT actively pits one vendor against its competitors, to leverage that fear for lower wholesale pricing. While in the long run their pattern of sublation will most likely expose WMT to antitrust actions, in the short term their vendor policies expose a significant vulnerability to so-called "terrorist" attacks. If a non-state actor were to arrange for systematic delays of the supply chain of vendor deliveries - even on the order of trucks being delayed on the highways by mere minutes - then some of the most essential WMT policies would be triggered and come into play. Effectively the corporation would begin to attack its own internal operations.

Not that I am encouraging such acts, but as a thought experiment, does that risk worry anybody? If some non-state actor were ambitious enough to stage that kind of attack, the most likely outcomes imply that it's time to "stop eating peanut butter" in Bentonville.

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