Friday, June 08, 2007

Building White Trash Nation

I went to a City Council meeting last Tuesday to speak in favor of a resolution to keep Walmart Superstores out of our local market. The room was packed with Walmart workers bussed in to speak in opposition. Waiting my turn, the woman next to me passed a sign-up sheet on lined notebook paper to me, which they’d signed to confirm attendance.

In addition to employees, there was a contingent of fellow-travelers, all elderly, morbidly obese, disabled or Hispanic, who gave testimony about Walmart’s benefits to the poor and oppressed. They were outraged that the rich, the elite, the big union leaders and the professors (yup, they said professors) wanted to deprive them of the only place they could afford to shop: even if we didn’t need Walmart, they did they said.

Well yes, but how do you explain in two minutes, with the egg time going, that even if Walmart benefited them in the short run on balance it did more harm to them and lots of other people in the long run by driving down wages in competing firms and forcing manufacturing jobs off shore, expanding the class of low wage workers who couldn’t afford to shop anywhere else. Henry Ford paid his workers well so that they could afford to buy Ford cars. Good unionized jobs that paid decent wages grew the middle class. Walmart pays its workers miserably so that they have to shop at Walmart, growing its market share and creating an ever larger class of low wage workers.

Without intervention as far as I can see the cycle will continue until Walmart effectively becomes the government of a nation within the nation with its own separate and unequal institutions. For some time now Walmart has been trying to expand into the banking business so that it can issue pseudo-credit cards for Walmart shopping to customers who aren’t eligible for real ones. It isn’t hard to imagine a dystopian future in which a minority of the population with education and skills, who don’t work for Walmart, its direct competitors or suppliers, get on with business as usual imagining that they still live in America while perhaps 2/3 of the population are citizens of Walmart Nation, shopping at Walmart with their Walmart-issued pseudo-credit cards. This is exactly the sort of privatization I suspect conservatives want.

In one respect this arrangement would be highly advantageous to me. I don’t work at Walmart or at any of its direct competitors. Walmart will not force my wages down or send my job off shore. And I’ll be able to shop at Walmart for bargains subsidized by its low wage employees and sweat shop workers in the third world. That is, after all, the American way. So why am I not happy about it?

I suppose I object to it on moral grounds. It means a lot less utility overall. Mainly I think I object because I am a snob. I don’t like lower class people. I want to live a world where everyone is upper middle class—educated, liberal and articulate. A European style welfare state would go a long way toward creating that world. The money is there: it’s only a matter of redistributing it and providing the education, social environment and services to make everyone a Bo-Bo in Paradise. Instead we’ve chosen to build White Trash Nation so that a very small ultra-elite can enjoy vast wealth and power and much larger class of educated professionals can live high on cheap consumer goods. Walmart has solved the problem of off-shoring service-sector jobs by creating the third world on American soil, an American colony in America for our benefit.

Years ago I went on a Moonie conference in Puerto Rico. The Moonies, trying to buy credibility, provided all expense paid trips to the spectacularly lavish Dorado Beach Resort for academics. Most of us had never seen anything like it. We spent a few hours a day reading one another papers in the customary fashion—I got a publication out of it—and the rest of our time eating, drinking, playing and swimming in the Gulf of Mexico which, on New Years Day, was as warm as dishwater. I’ve always been a bicycle explorer so I rented a bike and pedaled around town. The third world started immediately outside the gate, where the staff who cleaned the place, served us and tended to our needs lived in houses that were, at best, modest. I thought as I biked around that this must have been what Cuba was like before the Revolution and that it was likely why there was a Revolution. I didn’t feel guilty—just embarrassed. I found it distasteful.

It was nice to pig out for a few days but I don’t want to live like that in my own country.

No comments: