Balls to the Wal

Big-boxing a mega-retailer's ears


A "quack" has been defined as someone who's got something good for you, no matter what's wrong with you. That must make documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald a kind of anti-quack. No matter what you think is wrong with the world—environmental degradation, street crime, poverty, outsourcing, racial prejudice, failing public schools—Greenwald knows something that's making the problem worse: Wal-Mart.

In Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, the director of Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism and Uncovered: The War on Iraq, flings an ample supply of feces at the world's largest retailer and hopes that some of it will stick. Some of it does. But a far larger pile, alas, sails from the screen, falls short of its target, and lands with an unceremonious plop on your coffee table.

That's too bad, because there are some solid points in the film, providing genuine grounds for criticism of Wal-Mart. Former managers allege that time sheets were routinely and systematically altered to deprive workers of overtime pay, and that race and gender discrimination were endemic—though with thousands of Wal-Mart stores in the U.S. alone, it's difficult to get a sense of how representative the anecdotes cited really are. Almost as execrable is the company's unapologetic grubbing for subsidies—though even here, the film can't resist stealing a few bases by counting as pure subsidies infrastructure improvements such as roads and, still more bizarrely, all welfare benefits received by Wal-Mart employees, as though these were a cost the store "imposed" on taxpayers by failing to pay higher wages.

But—just as protest organizers eager to max out their count of warm bodies often end up staging putatively "anti-war" marches whose primary message is that Mumia Abu Jamal was framed and genetically modified crops are plotting to strangle you in your sleep—Greenwald dilutes his reasonable points by attempting to indict Wal-Mart for every ill under the sun. 

The single sin for which Wal-Mart catches the most flak is undoubtedly the low wages it pays. And they are low—but critics seem determined to depict them as uniquely awful. Usually, that's done by picking higher-paid grocery workers rather than all retail workers as the point of comparison. (Wal-Mart, on the other hand, engages in a bit of its own distortion by publicizing its high "average" associate wage, which is skewed up by the inclusion of managers.)

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly wage for retail salespersons in 2004 was $9.03. The hourly wage for sales clerks at Wal-Mart that critics have blasted as absurdly low was around $8.50 at the time. In other words, scarcely great, but nevertheless around the middle of the industry range. This adds up, critics note, to an annual income a bit below the poverty line for a family of three. But it's not exactly clear why that is the appropriate standard—except, perhaps, that it conveniently falls just above the annual income of a Wal-Mart sales clerk. Is there some reason that every job—including jobs often held by teenagers or the semi-retired—must be remunerative enough to support a family of three? 

An interesting counterpoint to the dire portrait painted in the film proper comes in a "making of" featurette. Producer Jim Gilliam is explaining that, due to Wal-Mart's "culture of fear," employees were even more reluctant than insiders at Fox News to talk to the documentary crew. "Their jobs were far more important to these people," said Gilliam, "because there was nothing else." Perhaps the obscene profits that drive Wal-Mart's expansion are helping to create still more such opportunities for other prospective workers who have "nothing else." But if that thought occurred to the filmmakers, they don't give any hint of it. 

That's not the only place Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price subtly undermines its own argument. The movie's opening segment visits the small town of Middlefield, Ohio, where small-business owners are kvetching about the looming opening of a new Wal-Mart superstore. ("If Wal-Mart isn't a monopoly, then I don't know what is," one complains—establishing fairly clearly that he doesn't know what is.) The implicit message is that since these are such nice folk, their fellow townspeople ought to be paying significantly higher prices to keep their shops afloat.

Yet the shopkeepers themselves, recognizing that most of them can't compete with Wal-Mart on price, aren't exactly going gentle into retail's good night. "We've been trying to get ready for them for maybe 10 years," one says. "Explain what Wal-Mart does and what we could do different[ly]." In other words, other retailers respond to the threat of Wal-Mart by adapting: trying to bring prices down, offering more specialized or higher quality merchandise or more expert employees to assist shoppers. In the proud tradition of Michael Moore, the claim that closes that poignant opening—that at least one small hardware store was driven under by competition from the superstore—actually turns out to be substantially bogus: The shop closed before the Wal-Mart opened, for unrelated reasons. 

At times the film's indictment of Wal-Mart passes from strained to simply bizarre. At one point, text scrolling over a black-and-white image of a vacant superstore, to somber music, informs us that there are 26,699,678 square feet of empty Wal-Mart in the U.S., "enough room to build 29,666 classrooms and educate 593,326 kids." The argument, insofar as it's possible to extract one, seems to be that subsidies and infrastructure spending on Wal-Mart divert funds from other public services, and that there's no guarantee that the retailer will stick around. But the strange floor-space metric the film invokes is brazenly, even heroically irrelevant to that point. 

Another lengthy segment is devoted to the topic of crime in Wal-Mart parking lots. Here, again, there's a kernel of a reasonable suggestion: People are sometimes assaulted in superstore parking lots, and the company could better protect its customers at low cost by hiring guards to do evening patrols. Of course, people are sometimes robbed and assaulted on the street after shopping at malls, or small mom-and-pop stores, as well. Is it really any more dangerous to do your shopping amid the throngs who drive out to Wal-Mart? Never mind—just listen to the tearful testimony of another (and another, and another) victim of Sam Walton's parking lots of death!

Whatever the merits of the case against Wal-Mart, it seems to be gathering adherents. A recent Zogby poll (though one that's been subject to criticism for bias) found a majority of respondents agreeing that "Wal-Mart is bad for America. It may provide low prices, but these prices come with a high moral and economic cost for consumers." (The work of New York University scholar Jason Furman suggests that it's the other way around: Any wage-depressing effects of Wal-Mart stores are dwarfed by the benefits to low-income consumers of their parallel price-depressing effects.)

Plenty of folk who share that sentiment are on display in the closing montage of Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, which focuses on the efforts of community activists who are fighting to keep Wal-Mart out of their neighborhoods. Watching the cheers of these retail resisters as they learn they've blocked one more big box, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that there's something more at work here than disagreement with the company's wage or health-care policy. The activists seem motivated by an almost religious fervor—and, indeed, often seem to be led by clerics of one denomination or another. (Perhaps, in this age of exurban big-box megachurches, ministers just recognize a competitor when they see one.) One union-backed anti-Wal-Mart group has even launched a where would Jesus shop ad, encouraging people of faith to take their retail dollars elsewhere this holiday season.

The anti-Wal-Mart movement is, in the end, both more and less than the sum of its parts. It is less, in that it seems likely that most critics of the company are—at least initially—motivated not by the full bill of indictment, but by one or two pet issues: An affection for small shops, or a distaste for outsourcing. It is more, in that Wal-Mart has by now, perhaps as a function of its sheer size, taken on a symbolic role as an emblem of necrotizing corporate power that is, in the end, unmoored from the particulars of the charges against it. The same people who complain bitterly about the legal fiction that a corporation is a person have succeeded in thoroughly anthropomorphizing Wal-Mart, until it is no longer a collection of persons and policies, but a kind of malevolent intelligent force—perhaps with its own twisted corporate soul. 

Wal-Mart has become, to put it less poetically, a Schelling point. It attracts the wrath of so many environmentalists, living wage advocates, and sprawl opponents not because it is necessarily the most egregious offender against any of their ideals but because its size and visibility provide them all a common banner under which to rally. That, perhaps, is the final irony and implict message of Greenwald's fill: The faceless corporate behemoth turns out to be a potent force for community.

Julian Sanchez is an assistant editor of Reason. He lives in Washington, D.C.