WAL-MART RECONSIDERED. This week, Slate hosted an interesting debate between progressive economist Jason Furman and labor-liberal champion Barbara Ehrenreich. The topic was Wal-Mart, namely, Furman's contention that Wal-Mart is, in fact, a progressive success story, having driven down prices more than they've depressed wages. Attentive readers will know I've a certain amount of sympathy for Furman's argument, which I believe brought a level of empirical rigor and complexity to a debate that had grown contradictory and problematic for liberals. I�m most taken with his willingness to leave the corporate welfare state for dead and champion the usage and expansion of programs like Medicaid.
But enough history. While Furman's take was daring and important when it first emerged, he's ridden it to a level of dogmatism that appears unwise. To read these debating points, he seems to allow no chance that Wal-Mart could do more than it currently does to help their workers, and comes off almost incredulous that critics could question H. Lee Scott's strategy for the company. Scott, after all, certainly knows business better than his critics. And so he does. His business acumen, to be sure, could eat mine for lunch and still require a soup course. But the progressive critique isn't that Scott could do better to help his shareholders or expand his profits, but that his incentives are all off, that there's more to being a good business than simply being a successful one. It's not that Wal-Mart is bad or good, but that they could do more, and instead do less.
In his final response, Furman argues that standards must be raised by the government and that the focus on Wal-Mart is misguided. But the delineation is not near so clear -- who can forget this photo of Wal-Mart's VP looming behind Maryland's governor as he vetoed an anti-Wal-Mart law? It's the Wal-Marts of the world, after all, who're funding the right, stalling the progressive agenda, fighting universal health care, battling progressive taxation, and all the rest. In my talks with union members and others, it's become clear that they understand this, that they're, in essence, trying to turn Wal-Mart into state's evidence, organizing in part to force them to help with certain progressive reforms. And there's evidence that it's working, as when Scott came out for a minimum wage increase to deflect negative attention. But fighting Wal-Mart, forcing them to do better, is part of creating the heightened pressure for government expansiveness that Furman wants. After all, Wal-Mart's low wages and sparse benefits currently offer them a competitive advantage over their more generous competitors. Until those disparities are equalized, Wal-Mart will battle any legislative attempts to flatten the playing field.