New Year’s Resolution for 2009

I don’t know what it is, but I’m big on New Year’s Resolutions. I had someone point out to me a few years back that they were just silly because if you really wanted to change something about your life then you should just change it and not make a big deal out of it. While I mostly agree with that, the impetus and milestone that a new year provides are helpful.

Over the years, I’ve made several resolutions that have worked out very well, and some that haven’t worked at all. But, I’ve always learned from them and am glad that I’ve at least tried them.

As I’ve been thinking about what to do for 2009, it keeps getting mixed up with the other bunches of things swirling around in my brain. Namely, I’ve been reading and thinking quite a bit about the economy and the state of how Americans live their lives these days. I’m sure a lot of people are.

But I wasn’t one of the people that went out and bought a house. Nor a car. Nor a boat. Nor, really, did I do anything outstandingly fiscally irresponsible in the last few years. In fact, I’ve managed to clear off a lot of debt and generally run a tighter bank account than I ever have. Which, despite what I assumed as a child, actually allows me more freedom to do crazy things. Holy crap, I’ve turned into an adult!

Having a zookeeper for a wife, I’m even educated enough to make environmentally- and socially-aware choices in my consumption and lifestyle. I’m not perfect by any means, and I’m not quite living the dream (nor do I really want to), but I generally feel good about my life.

So, in that respect, there’s no easy out for me for a resolution.

I keep coming back to the American lifestyle. I think I’m a typical high-mid-income-level American, and I do the typical things associated with that bracket. That’s where all of my reading comes in, and that’s where things will probably start to get a little contentious with you, dear reader.

I think my resolution for 2009 will be to shop at Wal-mart as little as possible. I’m not going to start castigating myself if I have no other options and up there, but if I can make a conscious effort to shop elsewhere then great.

Why Wal-mart? It sounds so silly, right?

Much of what I’ve been reading lately ties back into one central point: the growing stratification of the American classes. That is, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. We’re busy talking about bailouts and mortgage crises and all that, but if you start tracing everything backwards, you end up not at the rich bankers but at Wal-mart.

On the surface it seems like Wal-mart is doing a good thing: it offers deeply discounted prices on almost every item you could possibly need to live in this country. Lower prices mean that people have more money to spend elsewhere, right? What could possibly be wrong with that?

There are entire books written on the subject, and I certainly don’t pretend to be any sort of authority on the subject, but here’s what I’ve learned.

It screws over the workers.
One of the ways Wal-mart keeps prices low is by controlling labor costs — hence why they close down stores that unionize. The living wage for a single person in the US is roughly, depending on your area, $20k/yr. Add a child and that jumps to $35k/yr. Add a second adult that can do child care and it drops to $30k/yr, so let’s use that number as it is in the middle. That’s over $17/hr. The average income for a Wal-mart employee is less than $10/hr. In other words: most Wal-mart employees don’t make enough to live, even if they only shop at Wal-mart.

It screws over the vendors.
This one I can speak of personally, as our company is a vendor for Wal-mart. Doing business with them is a loss-leader for us, as it is with most other vendors. Yes, you read that right: selling product at Wal-mart actually costs us more than it makes us. But, we have to have placement in Wal-mart or many other retailers won’t do business with us.

Boo hoo, right? Our poor little company can’t make any money because our prices are higher than Wal-mart will allow.

Here’s the dirty little secret about our company and so many others: Wal-mart is one of the reasons we no longer have any American production facilities and have moved everything to Mexico and China. We can only cut costs so much before the cost of making the goods in the US is higher than the selling price on the Wal-mart shelves. We want to have production in the US. Quite frankly, our US facilities had far fewer quality-related issues than our other plants. But, we just couldn’t afford it any more.

A skilled laborer gets termed from their unionized production job, where they felt good about having a skill and producing something tangible and were making $20/hr, more than a living wage. They get to go work for Wal-mart where they will make half as much and get to do a soul-crushing retail or stocking job and are a cog in a giant corporate complex. Yay.

I know I’m getting off on a rant, but it really is that simple: if you shop at Wal-mart, you are costing Americans their jobs. All so you can pay 10% less at the checkout line.

But there’s one more thing.

It screws you.
Wal-mart’s prices are artificially low. The problem is that Wal-mart doesn’t sell everything, so there is a gap between “living off of Wal-mart” and not. By keeping prices artificially low, that gap grows as inflation drives the prices of everything else upwards. When someone wants to figure out what a living or minimum wage should be, Wal-mart’s presence artificially deflates that number. That’s stratification.

When you go for your next raise and you get less than it feels like you should, and the reason given is that “cost of living hasn’t risen that much, and everyone is feeling this economic downturn”, you can thank the artificially-deflated cost of living estimate based on shopping at Wal-mart. When you go to make that next big purchase, such as a house or car, and it seems further out of your reach than it used to, you can thank those artificially-deflated prices. You’re feeling the stratification, and it’s just making it harder to get out of that hole.

So, yeah. That’s why my 2009 resolution is what it is. You are welcome to disagree with me, and I can pass on a lot of the material I’ve been reading and you can decide for yourself. But there you go.

By Rick Osborne

I am a web geek who has been doing this sort of thing entirely too long. I rant, I muse, I whine. That is, I am not at all atypical for my breed.