Recession seems to have quieted the anti-Wal-Mart crowd

April 28, 2009


FROM JASON’S CHECKBOOK — As recession’s grip persists, it’s no surprise I’ve been hearing less bourgeois bitching about the “evils” of Wal-Mart.

I’ve been arguing with friends for years about the merits of the world’s largest retailer. It seems they have many reasons for hating the big box stores: perceived “unfairness” toward employees, impact on local economies, a classist dislike of the organization’s clientele, and a schadenfreude-esque attitude about Wal-Mart’s success.

But it’s been my contention that Wal-Mart is heroic, that its everyday low prices have done more for the American poor than any welfare initiative. When you can buy a can of corn for $0.79 instead of $1.29 at the local grocery, it saves families an enormous amount.

Estimates show the company saves Americans $12 billion a year.

My wife and I shop there for groceries every week, and end up saving $40 or so each trip on standard groceries. I get savings of five to 10 percent on standard goods like deodorant, video games, and weed killer. Putting that kind of discretionary income back in my pocket is one hell of an economic stimulus plan.

Increasing purchasing power is a good thing. And if you can do it for the lower class, then it’s a doubly good deed.

If you want to talk about really evil corporations, let’s talk about ones like Hollister or Abercrombie & Fitch. Those are corporations that put a premium on peer pressure, and use it to reduce purchasing power by convincing young people that paying more for less is a good thing.

They prey on pre-teenagers, convincing them it’s ok to waste $80 on a single pair of jeans in order to attain social status. They create artificial class divide.

In my mind, creating low prices for toothpaste, bread, milk, underwear, paint, pencils, and plates is far more admirable. It provides inexpensive goods, reduces opportunity cost, and provides jobs. And it’s a hell of a lot better than handing someone a check and inducing a state of welfare dependency, because it creates wealth.

Wal-Mart has often been criticized for being too big for its own good, for “monopolizing too much of the retail industry. But clearly it hasn’t. There are Wal-Mart competitors who carry their own weight: Lowe’s and Home Depot have cornered the hardware industry by providing better selection and supply. Amazon destroys Wal-Mart in online sales by providing a better ‘Net store. Netflix, iTunes, et al are quickly moving to crush traditional on-the-shelf media sales. Target is eating away at Wal-Mart’s clothing sales margins by providing better-quality threads at competitive prices — and that’s an area where entrenched retailers like JCPenney and Macy’s still hold sway.

Wal-Mart might be the biggest, and often has the best deals, but it’s still just the biggest tuna in the economic ocean. It can’t eat all the other fish.

In fact, BusinessWeek reported in November that the great supplier’s advantage is already eroding as sleeker business models evolve.

Wal-Mart isn’t immune to shifting market trends. If consumers demand something better, then Wal-Mart has to change its strategy. Right now, though, the strategy seems to be working. Wal-Mart’s quarterly sales rose 1.7 percent in March while rivals struggled just not to lose cash (and while many retailers, such as Circuit City, close their doors altogether). At the same time, the company actually raised its first-quarter share guidance!

“Wal-Mart’s performance last year would be considered strong at any time and for any retailer, and certainly during one of the most difficult global economies in decades,” CEO Mike Duke wrote to shareholders last week.

“Our U.S. stores are delivering faster checkouts, a friendlier shopping experience and cleaner presentations,” he continued. “We are on the move internationally and today have more stores in more markets. People who have never shopped with us previously are now loyal customers.”

The company created 33,000 jobs in the U.S. last year.

Uber-critics of the Wal-Mart model always paint this weird vision of a future where we all wear gray jumpsuits issued by our local big-box masters, who have usurped the government and turned America into a corporatocracy. That’s just silly. As long as people want something, there will always be someone who can come up with a newer, better idea to provide it than the establishment.

The other complaint that seems most prevalent about Wal-Mart — and this one really gets me — is “how bad” the company is to its workers. This is usually presented in a twin argument: That Wal-Mart does not let its workers unionize, and that the workers are not paid enough to survive.

First: If you want to hurt the poorest of the poor, support unionization at Wal-Mart.

The problem is that pro-union activists don’t look at their track records. They see unskilled labor as a market that demands a living wage, but they don’t look at the failures of their efforts. Ford just posted a $1.7 billion loss because union labor has hijacked its profitability, and the unions can’t stop the plant closures and lay-offs.

Want another example? Just look at the U.S. steel industry. Or how about grocery stores? Prices at grocery stores that use unionized labor are much higher.

I’m not suggesting all unionization is bad. Look at what education unions have been able to do. The problem is that unions tend to work well inside a monopolized market, but elsewhere they only generate massive inflation by creating an artificial wage hike. Too many unions are busily pricing themselves out of jobs, and then wailing when industry fails and begging government for a bail-out.

Wal-Mart shouldn’t be unionized. Shelf-stockers and check-out operators were never intended to earn living wages in part-time, unskilled positions. Upping hourly wages and benefits for unskilled workers might seem like a humanitarian thing to do, but consider the ripple-effect it has on pricing; higher pay means higher prices means less purchasing power for the lowest earners. Lower purchasing power means less consumable utility, which means recession, which means lower purchasing power for everyone, not just the poor.

The average hourly pay at Wal-Mart is just under $10, and is always heads and shoulders above the minimum wage. That’s not bad for the hundreds of thousands of non-skilled workers they employ — who in many cases would not be elsewhere employed.

Wal-Mart has helped me. Wal-Mart has helped you. It has helped the poor, and has generally evened the playing field and slowed class divide. What more can you ask for?

I suppose you could ask for $250,000-a-year jobs for every man, woman, and teen in America, with a free convertible in every driveway and 55-cents-a-gallon gas at the pumps. But does anyone really think that’s realistic?

At some point, the “gimme-gimme” entitlement attitude here in America became the norm, and we all became complacent. We forgot that we became an economic superpower because we worked hard and were competitive.

Further from religion, closer to humanist redemption

April 15, 2009


FROM JASON’S EPIPHANY — It took a huge philosophical earthquake to shake off my early religious indoctrination. But every once in a while an aftershock will catch up with me.

There was one in the car today.

I wasn’t thinking about epistemology, or god, or the meaning of life, or whether there is an afterlife. Some subconscious mechanism just clicked as I rolled down the highway. I felt a deep peace. It was like the four corners of the sky scrolled back and I could see the entire sweep of the universe, and my small situation against its infinite span.

“It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” – Carl Sagan

I felt small and frail.

For those of us who were conditioned like dogs at an early age to believe there is an almighty and judgmental force in heaven, it is very difficult to surrender all that Christian guilt of original sin. Even after you grow up and realize there is no creator god and no eternal reward, there is still a child inside hoping to avoid punishment the whole snake-and-apple fiasco.

“All natural institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.” – Thomas Paine

The dam holding back those worries broke a bit more in my car today. They washed out and dissipated. The release was sudden. Convictions are processes, not states.

I suddenly embraced — not just intellectually but intrinsically — the idea that I am a passing nothingness, in no way special. I will not make a mark on the life of the universe. I was disparate matter and energy for trillions of years before I was born, and in another 50 or so years I’ll revert to that dust and heat again.

And that’s just fine. Who the heck am I, anyway?

“There is no other life; life itself is only a vision and a dream for nothing exists but space and you. If there was an all-powerful God, he would have made all good, and no bad.” – Mark Twain

I grew up in the church, surrounded by people who would tell you that without god there can be no peace of mind. I heard them repeat time and again that non-Christians were constantly searching for something greater than themselves, searching for a god to relieve their tensions, their worries, their anxieties and loneliness.

That’s not true.

Real freedom is knowing that no fickle god is keeping a tally. It’s knowing that you have a few decades to be kind to your fellow humans without the threat of a zealous god standing over you with whip in hand. It’s knowing that your choices can be based on enlightened self-interest, not an ingrained fear.

“A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.”- Albert Einstein

Real freedom is counting the gods that have fallen by the wayside: Jove, Odin, Freya, Gaia, Zeus, Hera, Horus, Ra, Snoopy, Apollo Mithras.

Even now, the number of Americans who self-identify as believers in the Christian god is sloping off. The number of people who think the United States is a Christian nation has dropped to 62 percent (John Adams wrote in 1796 that “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”) Only 48 percent self-identified as being both “religious and spiritual.”

Atheism is slowly growing as the old religions become impotent. The pious pray into empty air and receive no answers, but science yields computers, cheap food, sanitary homes, electricity, cars, men on the moon, and defibrillators.

Nearly 12 percent of the world’s population now calls itself non-theist, though only 2.3 percent call themselves atheist. American Atheists claim that 50 million U.S. citizens do not claim believe in a higher being.

“Religions are all alike – founded upon fables and mythologies.” – Thomas Jefferson.

The old ways are fading away, to be replaced by a beautiful humanism. The reasons are obvious.

People are finding that religion does not offer tangible solutions, but in fact cause strife, war, infighting, division, poverty, and ignorance. Christians are generally just as unhappy as anyone else, enjoying the same divorce and suicide rates. American moderates continue to identify religion as their culture, not their actual belief systems. And nebulous theological feel-goodery is no substitute for real happiness.

Child-molesting priests haven’t helped the believers’ image. Nor have cotton-candy-haired shyster televangelists. Conservative homophobia in the 21 century is coming to be viewed as equivalent to the open racism and sexism of previous centuries. And the more people actually read the bible, the less they are impressed with its open promulgation of violence, oppression of women, and outright prejudice.

As time passes, the testaments become barbarous relics.

“My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures have become clearer and stronger with advancing years, and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them.” – Abraham Lincoln

I’ve been called a pessimist once or twice, and when I was ensnared in the web of Christianity as a child I certainly felt more jaded toward those with whom my views did not align. I was even contemptuous of other Christians whose doctrines did not match mine. There was a certain proprietary jealousy there, and an eagerness to be right all the time at the expense of others.

That was back in my dark ages, and it’s an embarrassing past I’ve been trying to escape.

These days, I am more optimistic, more willing to forgive. Isn’t that ironic? By shedding the trappings of religion I’ve seemed to achieve everything to which the devout aspire. I look more kindly on my fellow man. I am a much better listener, let me tell you. I have found logic — the tool of Satan, many god-fearing folk would say.

Just think what would happen if we traded the words of Jesus for the words of John Lennon. Maybe our collective human mantra should be: “It doesn’t matter how long my hair is or what color my skin is or whether I’m a woman or a man”

Or maybe those of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.: “We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane.”

Rym and Scott vow to close religion threads

May 29, 2008

The guys over at Geeknights have decided to stop the merry-go-’round religious debates until the kiddies can get a grip on the old Flying Spaghetti Monster argument. I think it’s hilarious.

In other news, I’m still fiddling around with

Does being the economic superpower excuse American self-interest?

March 14, 2008

Click to embiggen.

FROM JASON’S SHREDDED NATIONALISM — This depiction of the US appeared a while ago on the Strange Maps blog, but I colored it in Photoshop and I feel that gives me the right to resurrect it. The map labels states with the names of nations that have similar economic output and I find it fascinating.

Not long ago, a Canadian friend of mine referenced this map and asked whether the data excuses Americans for “being so self-interested… It certainly explains a bit, and makes the rest of us feel a bit small,” he wrote. I’ve been beating that question around in my mind for the past three days and doing stupid amounts of research to satisfy my curiosity.

Let’s deal with the premise first. Americans are self-interested. I’ve complained before about Americans’ xenophobia and ignorance of geography. A survey by the Rand Corporation shows only 14 percent of respondents could give a rough estimate of the global population (about 6 billion people at the time). Only 6 in 10 Americans ages 18 to 24 could find Iraq on a map of the Middle East, a 2006 study by National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs found.

The Pew Research Center said last year that 68 percent of Americans know the US has a trade deficit, but only 32 percent knew that Sunni was a branch of Islam. The best educated Americans got their primary news from The Daily Show, that report said. Another non-partisan research group, Public Agenda, found that most Americans did not know who Yasser Arafat was, and the Harris Poll Group had 57 percent of respondents say they “dislike learning about political issues in other countries.”

Still not convinced? Watch Rick Mercer have his way with clueless Americans (including then-governor Mike Huckabee) on Canada’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes:

So back to my Canadian friend’s question — is that American ignorance justified by our economic superiority? Call it childish if you must, but Andre the Giant’s line from The Princess Bride kept ringing in my head as I thought about it: “It’s not my fault I’m the biggest and strongest. I don’t even exercise.”

We are the biggest and strongest, at least as an individual nation. Take a look at Gross Domestic Product information for some of the most advanced countries via the CIA World Factbook:

GDP by purchasing power
US – $13.86 trillion
China – $7.43 trillion
Japan – $4.35 trillion
Germany – $2.83 trillion
United Kingdom – $2.15 trillion
France – $2.07 trillion
Italy – $1.8 trillion
Russia – $2.08 trillion
India – $2.97 trillion
Canada – $1.27 trillion
Australia – $766.8 billion
GDP per capita
US – $46,000
China – $5,300
Japan – $33,800
Germany – $34,400
United Kingdom – $35,300
France – $33,800
Italy – $31,000
Russia – $14,600
India – $2,700
Canada – $38,200
Australia – $37,500

To be fair, the US is outclassed in terms of per capita GDP by Luxembourg, Qatar, Bermuda, Norway, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Singapore — but that gets into some tricky statistical business.

The US continues to dominate as a production powerhouse, and as a single nation it is the superpower. But the European Union with its 27 member nations has already surpassed the US in cooperative production with a combined GDP of $14.45 trillion in 2007. No wonder the Euro is devaluing the dollar so efficiently. So far, we’ve managed to stay ahead by translating technological advances into corporate productivity, the New York Times argues.

No throne is ever 100 percent secure for life, and this is why the pesistent American attitude of unalterable, isolationist superiority and willful disregard of world affairs has me worried. True, the US continues to profit from huge consumption spending but high trade deficits and federal debt are perched to trump that and destroy our meager 2 percent annual growth rate.

That’s why the value of the US dollar is falling so quickly — and why it should be. One of the things that truly irks me about my fellow Americans is an attitude that the US deserves by the sheer force of its reputation to retain its position as the sole, indefatigable superpower. But as other nations reach post-industrial status, there will have to be a major shift in global economic balance.

Take a quiz

It’s intended for children, but I’m curious how well the blogosphere will perform: Try the GeoNet Game.

Christopher Hitchens Illustrated Speech

March 11, 2008

INTELLIGENTLY DESIGNED IN SIX MINUTES BY ANDREW — Christopher Hitchens gets a lot of bad press because of his abrasive personality and thoughts towards organized religion. I, however, still thing they guy is incredibly intelligent and that he makes some great points about the subject.

While he may be angry at times, remember that he only uses words. He has never physically attacked anyone nor he has never promoted outright violence against religion. I believe this is an important point; many theists would like to paint him as an almost religious terrorist, which makes me laugh at the irony of the statement.

The idea that somehow religion has the right to be safe from any criticism or disagreement is absurd. We should be able to discuss religion in an open dialog, free from any fear of retaliation. This idea is the one idea that the Middle Eastern regimes fear most, and it is the one idea that we must fight to protect the hardest.

Anyways, here are some videos by Hitches discussing religion that I thought were very interesting. He discusses the basis of Christianity and how it makes almost no moral sense.

Do Not Call List is permanent now

February 20, 2008

telemarketer.jpgFROM JASON’S JADED LITTLE WORLD — Years from now, when Andrew and I are in some petty little Internet political debate and he challenges me to name one — just one! — tiny shred of good done by George W. Bush, I’ll have an answer ready.

Friday, the bastard-in-chief signed the House’s Do-Not-Call Registry Fee Extension Act of 2007 (H.R.3541) and the Senate’s Do-Not-Call Improvement Act of 2007 (S.781).

In plain English: He helped Whack-a-Mole telemarketers over the head with a shining mallet of privacy.

The Do-Not-Call list was established in 2003, and marketers were banned from calling any U.S. citizens who chose to enroll — at least for three years. After that, you had to sign up or your home phone was fair game again for armies of crapsters hucking insurance, phone services, “special” offers, and pyramid schemes.

Not anymore. Now, once you sign up, that phone number is on the Do-Not-Call list as long as you have it. No more pitches for you, my friend.

Not only is this a win for Bush (though it doesn’t exactly make up for… oh, I don’t know… IRAQ), but it’s also a victory for Alaska Senator Ted Stevens. You might remember him as the strapping young gentleman who thinks the Internet is a series of tubes. Hey, even a broken clock….

For my part, I haven’t been bothered by a telemarketer now in more than four years. Most of the time you’ll find me arguing for a laissez faire approach to government — the fewer laws and the fewer regulations on the economy, the better — but here is one instance where I think government interference has actually been positive.

It pains me to say that.

If you’re an American, you can sign up here.

God, I’m practically humming Stars and Stripes Forever over here.

Election 2008: Charles Barkley, you are America

February 17, 2008

FROM JASON’S POLITICAL SOAPBOX — Sir Charles Barkley is jump-fading away from the Republican party, and that’s worth 3 points.

A few years ago, Barkley drew double-D from liberal politicos for taking a very pro-Republican stance, but now The Round Mound of Rebound is changing teams — like so many other former conservatives — and endorsing Sen. Barack Obama for president.

Friday, he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that the Republican party is full of “fake Christians” who hypocritically judge the rest of America. He couldn’t be more right. That’s why so many, including myself, are turning from the Right and running full-steam this election season for the Left.

BARKLEY: “Hey, I live in Arizona. I have got great respect for Senator McCain. Great respect. But I don’t like the way the Republicans are taking this country. Every time I hear the word “conservative,” it makes me sick to my stomach, because they’re really just fake Christians, as I call them. That’s all they are. But I just — I’m going to vote Democratic no matter what.”

Later, clarifying what he means by “fake Christians”:

BARKLEY: Well, I think they — they want to be judge and jury. Like, I’m for gay marriage. It’s none of my business if gay people want to get married. I’m pro-choice. And I think these Christians — first of all, they’re supposed to be — they’re not supposed to judge other people. But they’re the most hypocritical judge of people we have in this country. And it bugs the hell out of me. They act like their Christians. And they’re not forgiving at all.

Disenfranchised Republicans, fed up with Bushism and the abandonment of praxeological economic conservatism, are turning to Clinton and Obama. I’ve been a Republican for years for practical reasons — the party has traditionally supported small-scale government, low taxation, balanced budgets, open markets, and individual freedoms.

No longer. In the past… um… eight or so years, the party has trampled on those ideals and bloated. Republicans have been disproportionately rocked by scandal. Republicans have made bad power plays. Republicans have waged a foolish and expensive two-front war, and above all, Republicans have made themselves publicly notorious for being anti-science, anti-rationalism (read: pro-religion), and anti-civil rights.

Intellectual Republicans are becoming intellectual Independents and turning to Democrats for help — because as long as both parties are levying huge taxes and pissing money away, you might as well endorse the one that won’t discriminate against the hungry, the poor, the gay, the non-believers, and the disabled.

I’m not endorsing Obama, here — I’m actually much more enamored with Sen. Hillary Clinton’s stances — but that’s hardly the point. When you look at the Democrats, you can’t help but be terrified of the Republican presidential candidates. And Barkley and the rest of America seem to agree.