The weblog of Joshua Drescher

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Review: Wal-Mart - The High Cost of Low Prices.

November 17th, 2005 · No Comments · Movies, Politics, Rants

Overall, the film presented what I would guess was a 3:1 ratio of “misrepresented, questionable bullshit” and “legitimate complaints.” Wal-Mart’s union-busting, for example, is notorious, well-documented and significant. Shining a light on it is important. The same goes for the company’s lackluster ability to respond to complaints about specific issues like “tons of fertilizer in your parking lot is leaking into our drinking water.” Unfortunately, these moments of clarity are BURIED under a mountain of unsubstantiated claims, crazy ranting and EXTREMELY questionable “testimonies.”

For example, there isn’t a SINGLE citation that is presented to back up ANY of the numbers that are routinely splashed up on the screen. When the film moves to China to cover the conditions of sweat shop laborers who produce Wal-Mart products, we’re not given any of the actual audio that would allow someone who actually SPEAKS Chinese to establish whether or not what is being “translated” is at all accurate. All we get is voice-over with the sounds of what I assume is supposed to be sweat shop machinery clattering away and stereotypical “Asian Theme Music” playing in the background. And while they were careful to disguise “Anonymous Wal-Mart Employee #1” in America, the Chinese workers were plainly shown on screen with labels like “Chinese Wal-Mart Employee #1.” So either Wal-Mart is more dangerous than the Chinese government or the filmmakers couldn’t be bothered to ask for anyone’s names while in Asia.

Then, of course, there’s the interview with a man talking about how Wal-Mart “lynched” the bicycle of one of his fellow employees or – and I SWEAR I am not making this up – the “Daily Show” clips that are regularly used to “prove” some point about how evil Wal-Mart is.

In its efforts to condemn every, single part of Wal-Mart, the film routinely takes insane detours pointing out things like the fact that the heirs to Sam Walton’s fortune could donate $10 billion and pull all of Wal-Mart’s employees out of poverty. Then they point out that Bill Gates has donated over half of his fortune to charity and then cut to a shot of the “fortified compound” the Waltons own for use in the event of… well… who knows. Last I heard, not being as generous as the most charitable man in the history of the world isn’t a crime. Hell, not being generous AT ALL isn’t a crime. And yet we get a ten minute tirade about how bad Wal-Mart is because the kids who inherited money from its founder are afraid of dirty bombs and don’t dig charity.

This sort of disjointed, half-formed “argument” is characteristic of the majority of the film’s content. It feels like it was slapped together over the course of a few weekends, just because the filmmakers were bored and Michael Moore wasn’t having a barbeque that month. The whole movie is sloppy and inconsistent and has all the intellectual and professional rigor of bathroom stall graffiti.

That said, there are a few elements that bear SPECIAL criticism.

The film begins with a typical “Wal-Mart Kills Small Businesses” story about a family owned hardware store in a typical Red State small town. There’s nothing surprising about the idea that the presence of a Wal-Mart has a damaging – often terminal – effect on local business, but we’re presented with a fairly drawn out example nonetheless. We even get some Springsteen to show us just how bad things have become because Wal-Mart exists. The camera pans through the family’s parked vehicles, which display “Bush ‘04” and pro-hunting bumper stickers and then heads into the store to introduce us to a cast of professed “conservatives” who are wringing their hands with concern over the impending arrival of a new Wal-Mart.

Clearly, the filmmaker – Robert Greenwald of “Outfoxed” fame – wants the viewer to come away from this (and all of the other scenes) seeing Wal-Mart as a malevolent entity whose impact on the world is deliberately and purposefully wicked. If you take the presented view at face value, Wal-Mart sets up new stores not to increase profits, but rather because they just like being mean.

But within the first few minutes, this message gets muddied by the subjects the film focuses on. The “conservative” folks we were introduced to early on – the Bush voting, deer hunting, America loving paragons of Red State virtue – quickly begin bemoaning the unfair nature of modern competition in the Wal-Mart era and call for things like governmental intervention to fend off the Evil Empire. One member of the local family repeatedly states that he’s “all in favor” of capitalism and is a serious conservative, but that he’d also REALLY like the government to step in and bust up Wal-Mart’s “monopoly.” They complain about subsidies granted to Wal-Mart to encourage development, they express shock – SHOCK – when they hear that their idyllic small town has poor, unemployed people who will not ONLY be anxious to shop at Wal-Mart but to WORK there as well. They can’t believe this is happening to THEM.

For the past decade, Americans have voted non-stop for candidates who pander to massive corporations and favor unfettered markets. They’ve voted for candidates who offer tax cuts, who slash social programs, who hamstring or eliminate outright agencies designed to exercise oversight and control over businesses. And they were happy to do it, so long as it lined their pockets with a few dollars here and there. So what if it poisoned communities and thrust millions of people into deep poverty? The Local Family Business Owner was happy to vote Republican and reap the meager rewards.

Of course, they were STUNNED when the pro-business, laissez faire, anti-regulation, anti-union, anti-welfare agendas they’d supported came back to bite them in the ass when Wal-Mart spread like a swarm of locusts throughout the American heartland, destroying small businesses in the process. And so they sat there slack-jawed, with their “W” hats and their American flags magnet ribbons and they turned – INSTANTLY – into Democrats.

Now, I need to make something clear here – I am a fiscal conservative. I LIKE the “hands off” approach to business that Republicans are SUPPOSED to support. Sadly, most Republicans seem to think that “hands off” really just means “feel free to bend over backwards to help Major Donors succeed” and to the extent that that sort of underhanded cronyism is in play, it’s certainly appropriate to cry foul. But I don’t have a problem with Wal-Mart’s business model overall. I don’t think small businesses – especially ones that operate with “family-only” staffs – are necessarily better or worse than Wal-Mart or anyone else. A poor family shouldn’t be forced to pay more for food and clothing simply because the delusional middle-class in town thinks that a shirt purchased from Grandma Smith down on Main Street is morally superior to one purchased at Wal-Mart and voted to ban anyone who might ever compete with Granny from ever coming to town. Relying on the government to step in and “protect” you from things you find unpleasant is foolish and unfair. Wal-Mart has every right to set up shop anywhere it can acquire land and expecting the government to tell it not to do so in order to protect small businesses that are ill-equipped to compete is short-sighted and wrong.

People need to learn that personal responsibility is the single most powerful tool they have. If you don’t want a Wal-Mart in your community, you need to convince the COMMUNITY that they don’t want one either.

When I was a child, the town I lived in – literally – had one stoplight (though it’s up to four or five now). With the exception of Safeway and a McDonald’s, every business was locally-owned and operated. You bought your gas from a guy named Chuck. You got your car fixed by a guy named Blacky. You bought ice cream from and baseball cards from Ray. You bought hardware and lumber from the same small shop that had served the town for a century. It was a farm community with a tightly-knit populace that was extremely engaged in the entire business of operating the town.

At some point, Exxon noticed that we didn’t have any “real” gas stations in the area and they made a bid to buy a plot of land from the city that sat off of the main street in town. This plot had remained undeveloped for years because people liked the view of an old plantation house that was visible through the small field. As a result, nobody ever TRIED to buy it. Until Exxon.

The town council explained to Exxon’s representatives that building on that land wouldn’t sit well with the community and encouraged them to look elsewhere, but they were determined to build there and that was that. A few months later, the new Exxon opened. It had inexpensive mechanics who competed with Blacky. It had cheap gas that competed with Chuck.

And day after day, it sat empty from the time it opened until the time it closed.

With the exception of people passing through town who didn’t know any better, you never saw ANYONE pull in. As time wore on, the Exxon slashed its prices again and again. Their gas was usually ten to twenty cents cheaper than the local station at a time when gas usually only cost a dollar a gallon to begin with.

And still no one came – for months, for YEARS. Eventually, Exxon chose to shut the station down. Across the street, the local station still operates – privately owned – to this day and it’s the only station in town.

My home town fought and humbled and beat the Exxon corporation – not with the ballot, but with their WALLETS. No one MAKES you buy gas from Exxon. No one MAKES you shop at Wal-Mart. If your community doesn’t want these businesses around, they have the power to stop them by simply choosing not to patronize them.

What makes it hard to achieve that sort of unity when it comes to cheap gas or cheap clothes or cheap food is that choosing to pay more for something “local” is a LUXURY. If local communities stand by and allow their fellow citizens to live in poverty instead of deciding to sacrifice some small amount of their income to additional taxes, that’s fine – but it also means that those poor people will support the Wal-Marts and the Exxons when that time comes. If local businesses choose to pay their employees low wages because local unemployment makes them easy to replace, when Wal-Mart comes to town, those employees will shop there instead and in so doing will help to drive local stores out of business.

The “solution” to the Wal-Mart “problem” is simple – strong, stable, healthy communities that aren’t starving and desperate have the LUXURY of choice. They have the LUXURY of spending an extra ten cents to buy a gallon of gas from someone they know or of spending an extra dollar on socks or a hammer in order to buy from a local vendor. Communities that are controlled by a small class of well-off neoconservatives while other people suffer invisibly do not.

And I’d like to see a movie about THAT.


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