Saturday, August 14, 2010

Wal-Mart: The Global Citizen

As a counterpoint to the progressives who love to hate Wal-Mart, The Economist this week presents the argument that Wal-Mart is a good global citizen.

They don’t couch it in those terms. The article discusses the recent spate of worker activity in South China (the Pearl River Delta, home to Shenzhen and many factories in China). The Economist’s ever-global, ever-capitalist position is that as “pay and protest” rise in China, the whole world stands to benefit. Cheap labor created a working mass and a global economy. It put money in people’s pockets. As they ask for more money, they’ll also spend more money. That spending will be on goods created outside of China as well as inside. Bringing up living standards worldwide benefits the entire world economy. We stayed at the Marriott on the South China Sea, and were one of the only foreign families in the place. China’s people getting richer means they’ll spend more on imports and help the trade balance and the economy in the states.

Further, although Chinese workers have apparently not always been as docile and hard-working as the foreign press makes them appear, state-owned companies have quickly quashed any whispers of dissension. But when citizens complain to foreign companies, the government allows them to yell slogans toward the foreign press to their hearts’ content. Possibly we are watching US foreign policy toward China work itself out - growing capitalism is lessening the oppression coming from a government dictatorship.

When we lived in St. Louis, I stood firmly against Wal-Mart and their practice of exploiting low-income workers across the globe. Mockingly, a friend gave us a Wal-Mart gift card when Lilly was born. As the company already had the money anyway, we redeemed it for children’s t-shirts and iron-on transfers. Their 2-year-old received T-shirts saying “Daddy Hates Unions” for his birthday (and, as I recall, wore them).

Recognizing my limits as an economist, I don’t claim to be sharing anything groundbreaking here. I’m just saying that maybe I can trust the world market a bit more than I thought, and that I may start shopping at Wal-Mart again.

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