Fighting the Symptoms – Walmart

by Mark Hahn

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I woke up grumpy because I’m on a business trip. I’m stuck in the middle of an existential office park. I hate living out of a suitcase when it’s not for fun. I hate eating at restaurants by myself.

I scanned through my Facebook newsfeed this morning with my generic complimentary breakfast in the noncommittal hotel dining room. I could be anywhere. Yet another article had been posted slamming Walmart. It was the last straw.

I guess I have less faith in Capitalism than most of my Lefty friends. I just don’t see the solutions we need coming from McDonald’s or Walmart. McDonald’s and Walmart represent the lowest forms of business in this country. The whole point of their existence is to make a profit in very competitive markets. They were not formed for the betterment of our society. If we want things to be better, we need to take the political leadership role ourselves and drive this country in a direction that will make it better for everyone. Whining about Walmart gets us nowhere.

Walmart is not the problem this country is facing. The whole greedy Capitalistic system which gives no support for our working poor is the problem. Sure, organized labor and well-meaning Lefties are up in arms against Walmart, but perhaps the whole bash-Walmart-movement is being subversively fanned by the extreme Right Wing. What better way to divert peoples’ focus from what is really going on than to bog them down in emotionally irrelevant arguments? Letting ourselves become blinded by this misplaced anger against Walmart makes us play right into their hands.

Everyone should already recognize that all low level retail jobs suck. This cuts across all segments. Try raising a family on a sales associate’s pay from any US retailer. If we split hairs, some might be a little better than others, but the difference is hardly night to day. Retail is a brutally competitive market and, for the most part, it comes down to scraping profits from the movement of goods imported from third world countries into our own and relying on the economy of scale.

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At the lowest end of retail, Walmart, hires staff that reflects this. Wages and benefits at direct competitors such as Kmart and Target are only slightly higher, but would hardly be considered a “living wage” by any socially conscious Lefty. So why is all the anger directed toward Walmart and not Target? I think it comes down to simple aesthetics. The Target shopping experience is just more pleasant than Walmart’s. Target has trained buyers to bring in products that make us think it has personality and individuality. Walmart feels like it’s just a warehouse for moving crappy imported stuff directly from China into white trash American homes. Once you strip away the slick logo signage from Target though, how much difference is there really? I can’t remember the last thing I bought from Target that had a “Made in the USA” label on it.

The little bulls-eye Target mascot dog is really cute and makes me smile whenever I walk in. It triggers a distinctly old-time American nostalgic feeling in me. I grew up with my dad’s old RCA Victor record albums that had Edison’s little dog spinning around on the turntable and cocking his head to hear his “master’s voice.” This could be the Target dog except for the ears — dark ears would have distracted from the Target logo painted on the dog’s face. But no matter how clean the commercial design details are executed in a Target store, when you walk into it or any of the other big box retailers, the master’s voice that you’re listening to is that of consumerism.

The article my friend pointed me to had to do with how reprehensible it was that Walmart was helping its employees seek government assistance — like that’s a bad thing! What’s wrong with people? The thing that is wrong with Walmart employees getting public assistance is not that they need it, but that what is available from our government is so crappy!

While it’s pretty hard to normalize and nail down the exact numbers, Walmart employees seem to make roughly 15% less on average than employees working at their direct competitors. Now if you’re a single parent trying to get by on your Walmart paycheck, getting a raise from $11.00/hr to $12.65/hr would certainly be welcome, but it’s hardly what is needed to put you on Easy Street. You’re still going to require public assistance to feed your kids.

If we step back and stop looking for scapegoats, we will see that the big problem is that we have too many working poor in the USA that aren’t being taken care of. If we force all the discount retailers to raise their pay to levels that allow their employees to live comfortably it will force these retailers to significantly raise their prices as well. In the end, this will hurt the poor. Under Capitalism, corporations always look out for themselves. Viewed for what it is, this would end up being a hugely unfair and regressive tax that punishes the poor disproportionally. Very few CEO’s shop at Walmart or eat at McDonald’s. What we need is to tax the rich directly. Raise taxes on the businesses that are currently being given free rein to profit from our labors. These taxes could then be used to fund the social programs that this country needs so badly.

If you want a dose of reality, go to Walmart during school shopping days. The parents there are struggling to get their kids what they need to start school. It gets worse every year. Why isn’t the government supporting young students, especially the children of the working poor? Why don’t kids show up at school and are given everything they need to start learning?

We aren’t going to get rid of the working poor in this country. This is just a fact of life under Capitalism. How we support the working poor as a society is up to us though. We have to take responsibility and not shuck it off on Walmart This country is too rich to fold and the wealthy have too much power to let it fall into revolution, so we just might as well accept it. This doesn’t mean that things can’t be changed though, even if it takes time.

The goals I see that are worth working toward are: ensuring that our citizens have full access to civilized healthcare, have subsidized education all the way through college and that we give support for the working poor in the form of food, daycare and housing assistance. 17% of the British population — primarily the working poor — lives in Council housing. Where is the American equivalent?  All of Europe has socialized medical care. Where are we? Still fighting about how bad the website for Romney (Obama) Care is? We can do much better.

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We need a fundamental change in our social priorities. We need to socialize all the basic benefits that should be coming from living in a modern and prosperous society. As long as we engage in the scapegoating game of blaming Walmart for all our woes we fall right into the hands of Right Wing pigs that exploit us every day. Allowing the rich to continue skimming off the lion’s share of wealth that flows through this country’s economy hurts us all. Walmart is just a  symptom and not the disease.

* * *

Walmart – the experience. I hate it. I hate being there. I hate shopping there. But there are times that most of us just have to do it. When I’m out in the middle of nowhere taking photos and need to buy something, Walmart is often the only option. Depending on what I need and the specific circumstances, I can even feel pretty lucky to find one. My urban friends might not know what it’s like being a hundred miles away from anything, but when you’re there, a Walmart can feel like Mecca.

Walmart cuts across American culture and classes like nowhere else. I like to think of it as an opportunity for an anthropological study of modern America. It can be especially interesting late at night.  Aside from the tweaker moms frantically dragging their little kids around from aisle to aisle, this is when the majority of stocking is done. The means the store is filled with the most employees.

I usually make small talk with the employees. They’re as bored as I am. While trying not to be judgmental, I can’t help but recognize that for many, Walmart was probably their last resort. Let’s face it, no one really wants to work at Walmart. These guys are just lucky to have a job – any job at all. I was there myself at one time. Many would probably be on Welfare if they hadn’t been hired by Walmart.

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Sometimes we talk about how our jobs suck. Our bosses are assholes. The weather is nice. Or we talk about some cool new tech toy made in Asia that they’re selling in the store. We’re all just people and consumers. If things had worked out differently, I could have ended up working here too.

* * *

What I love the most about late night Walmart shopping is the one young loser Goth couple that always seems to come in. You can tell that the whole point for them being here is to get dressed up and trying to freak out the “normals.” I don’t really know where I fit in with this, but I’m friendly and generally say hi to them. What makes seeing them so uplifting is that I can tell that while they’re both total misfits, they were able to each other. No matter what crappy jobs they have, no matter how fat and pimple covered they are, they were able to find love in this world. This makes me happy.

When I see these two smiling at each other and laughing, it makes me smile inside too. Perhaps the guy looks into her eyes and puts his hand lovingly on her tattooed muffin-top. She likes it. Possibly, it changes the world a little when people see that love can exist, even in the endless aisles of Walmart. Love is probably the only thing that lets us totally transcend the normal bullshit of life and become something else.

I picture the couple sitting at home together in some crappy apartment watching Breaking Bad.

The guy goes into the kitchen needing a snack.

“Hey hun, we’re out of Rice Crispies.”

“We also need some milk and eggs. Maybe we should go to Walmart?”

It’s Saturday night and they have nothing else to do.

“What do you think, should I wear my Marilyn Manson contacts?”

“Should I wear my big pants from Hot Topic?”

The two of them then spend a couple hours going through numerous clothing and makeup changes.

The world needs to be shaken up. It would be nice to think that the way we dress can change it.

After their trip to Walmart, I imagine the couple getting back home and putting away their Rice Crispies in their kitchen.

“Did you see that blue haired old lady looking at your snake-bites?”

“Yeah, I thought she was going to piss her pants!”

“They just can’t handle us!”

“I love it!”

“I love you baby!”

“You’re so hot!”

Love is a wonderful thing.

* * *

So on my business trip, I showed up at the worksite. I was told that I needed to be wearing steel toed safety shoes. I asked one of the guys on the floor where I could find them locally. He looked at the ground, kind of sheepishly, and said, “Walmart.”

There is apparently no escaping it!

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I found the Walmart off a winding wooded New England road. Autumn leaves blew across the parking lot. The new Walmart shopping center seemed out of place here in the land of Paul Revere. This is where much of American mythological history was born. The giant Walmart feels like a violation of the land. I walk inside along with all the locals.

I took a few casual photos with my cell phone just to document the bleak loneliness and sameness of the place. I also thought it provided an interesting balance to the existential Marriot I was staying in. It’s hard to decide which is bleaker. I always feel like an imposter at a Marriot. In Walmart I feel like myself, even if I hate it. I can also relate more to the Walmart Goths than the men and women in power suits who stay at the Marriot.

I found the footwear section and tried on all the work shoes. There wasn’t a sales associate in sight. I settled on a pair of basic black shoes that cost $25. Damn, what a deal!

When I got back to the shop floor, I modeled my new shoes for the guys. The snappy-dresser who had flown in from California gave me the thumbs up. He told me they looked really good and that maybe he should get a pair. I told him they’d look great with his Calvin Klein dress slacks. Then I made him laugh quoting Oscar Wilde on the importance of style. The union guys didn’t seem to get the joke.

No one in the facility was wearing American made footwear.

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