Wednesday, November 23, 2005

John Stossel, "Give Us a Break!"

We just came across a piece defending Wal-Mart that was done by ABC's resident iconoclast John Stossel. Our only response is that John is out of his depth when it comes to social commentary and in trying to get a handle on the Wal-Mart situation he needs to have a better understanding of the economic and social implications of the Walmonster phenomenon.

Our own particular grievance is that Stossel sees an unbridled capitalism as an unquestioned good, even going so far as to give props to John D. Rockerfeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt who, he believes, were unfairly criticized "as evil." Our only reply: "Give me a break!" In defending the robber barons Stossel comments that those who condemned them were rarely "consumers."

This only demonstrates the absurdity of trying to transpose a conversation from one century to another. Consumers weren't in the midst of the complaints against the robber barons but, just as with the case with Wal-Mart, workers certainly were. It also makes little sense to compare the period of aggressive capitalist expansion with the current era of the system's maturation. What might have been necessary 150 years ago doesn't have to be an inflexible feature of the current capitalist model.

Of course Stossel also overlooks the fact that, in response to the early phase of monopoly capitalism, government developed certain policy responses designed to ameliorate the system's rough edges. Anti-trust laws, workman's compensation, social security etc…, were implemented precisely because a totally unfettered capitalism posed dangers that simply weren't acceptable then and certainly are not so today.

Stossel goes on to caricature all of Wal-Mart's opponents as simply envious of wealth: "Wal-Mart's critics act as if economic competition were a zero-sum game-if one person gets richer someone else must get poorer." This is quite simply a straw man. The Alliance is certainly not anti-capitalist.

We believe, however, in a system of competition that allows for a level playing field. A level playing field means that one competitor is not allowed to use the free enterprise system to effectively eliminate competition. If left to its own devices this is precisely what Wal-Mart will gleefully do.

As for Stossel's comments on the Wal-Mart workforce, well he really needs to get better and less biased information. Using the Cato Institute as his guide he says that none of the Wal-Mart workers were "drafted." He continues: "That means that if they're working there, presumably, that was the best job they could get." Undoubtedly!

What the Stossel/Cato argument leaves out is the fact that Walmartization of the retail sector displaces tens of thousands of jobs that did provide the salaries and benefits that the world's largest retailer chooses not to make available to its "associates." Left out as well was the fact that since Wal-Mart has made its foray into groceries in the past decade over 13,000 supermarkets were disappeared, putting an entirely different spin on the "best job they could get" argument.

Maybe if Stossel starts to re-evaluate his position on Wal-Mart, using sources that aren't so ideologically restricted, we will be able to turn on "20/20" in the near future and watch as the show's anchor confronts the Bentonville behemoth with one of his patented-"Give Me a Break"- putdowns. Open your eyes John you're too good for this kind of knee-jerk analysis.