Yesterday, as I was driving my daughter to her first ice skating lesson, we somehow got onto the topic of Walmart. “You hate Walmart,” my daughter stated correctly from the back seat. “You can never find anything there.” This was also correct. The layout of Walmart confuses me, and there seem to be random bins full of crap all over the store, not necessarily in the appropriate departments, which cause me to wander all over the building in a muddled haze before giving up, angry and tired. They may have that DVD that I wanted, and it may only be $5, but it is at the bottom of a bin over next to the shoe aisle, so I will never find it.
But it struck me, as we drove along icy roads toward an icy rink, that the layout of the store was not the reason that I hate Walmart, really. And perhaps it was time that my children knew what the real reason was. “It’s true,” I answered her, “that Walmart is not a fun place to shop, and that everything there is cheap and wears out or breaks almost immediately, but that’s not really why I hate it so much.” This intrigued her, and so I suddenly found myself in a place where I had to explain something very complicated to a six year old.
There is, of course, the matter of giant discount stores moving into neighborhoods and forcing other businesses to close with their “unbeatable prices,” causing economic ruin to communities. There is the minimum wage pay to workers and overall poor treatment of employees. There is the fact that the CEO’s salary continues to skyrocket (over $20 million, and that was over a year ago…) while the poor, sad people you see doing the actual work are holding food drives for themselves. But these things are not exclusive to Walmart. Plenty of big box stores move in and drive out local business. Tons of people pay the minimum wage, so really it’s the government’s fault that it isn’t higher, right? And CEOs from pretty much every company make a hugely disproportionate salary when compared to those powerless people lower on the totem pole. So why single out Walmart?
Well, for one thing, Walmart is the biggest. They do the most damage, and they are industry leaders. And they do sort of seem to be the worst. Liberal folks are constantly sharing stories about how Costco and Trader Joe’s pay their employees fairly, to show us all that it can be done, and I mentioned this to my daughter, as well as Ben & Jerry’s famous 5-to-1 salary rule (later changed to 7-to-1, and then later hostilely taken over by Unilever so who knows now…). Ironically enough, when I got home from skating, I saw that one of my conservative friends had posted this article, explaining to my liberal friends why the comparison between Costco and Walmart makes no sense. It was an interesting read, and it made a lot of decent points, like how many more employees Walmart needs because of the wider variety of products. Costco is specialized, Walmart is the modern day general store. Apples and oranges. Except that what the article constantly reiterated, but never quite fully put together, was this idea that low income people can’t afford to shop at Costco, so Walmart needs to keep its prices low, which means it has to pay its workers less. I’ll let you do the math on that one for a minute.
Walmart pays people less than they need to survive, which means the only place they can afford to shop is…at Walmart. It’s a brilliant business model, when you think about it in a purely capitalistic way. I’m sure their board members and shareholders are consistently thrilled. But it’s also pure evil. Evil in a religious sense of course, and evil in a societal sense. And this is what I told my daughter. “Not all bad guys seem like bad guys right away,” I told her. “Sometimes they wave guns around and rob banks, and sometimes they are a lot sneakier and don’t break any laws at all. Sometimes they use the money and power that they have to make sure that they laws let them do whatever they want.” I didn’t get into government corruption with her. I’ll save that for when she turns seven. “When people do things to help themselves and their friends, but it hurts a lot of other people, that’s bad. Those are bad guys.”
“They sound very selfish,” she told me.
“They are pretty selfish,” I agreed. “There are going to be a lot of times in your life when the people around you are going to try to convince you that being selfish is okay. Everything on TV or in magazines is trying to get you to put yourself first. And it’s okay to put yourself first some of the time, but if we want to live in a happy world, we need to put others first, most of the time. And it’s really hard, and a lot of the time we mess it up, and it’s even hard for us to tell when we mess it up, because the people around us are telling us that we did something good, even when it’s bad, but I want you to know that when you start thinking that what you need is more important than what other people need, or even worse that what you want is more important than what other people need, you need to remember that we treat others the way we want to be treated: with love and respect. And that’s why we don’t shop at Walmart.”