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Cagey Drifter
10-29-2009, 11:50 PM
I've found, much to my shock, that this is a controversial statement. Most rebuttals I've heard are-- in my view-- ahistorical, ideologically driven, and the result of knee-jerk reactions against corporations. Someone explain to me in an intellectually honest way how we can blame Wal-Mart for consumerism.

Dorothea Book
10-30-2009, 12:35 AM
I don't think Walmart is responsible for consumerism. But that doesn't mean consumers are either ;)

There are a couple of dates I've seen associated with the onsetof consumerism. One is about 1870 or so with consumer based economic theory (absent in classical political economy from, say, Adam Smith till that point). Another is the postwar period, when the US shifted from a savings-oriented to a high-consumption economy. Both pre-date Walmart.

(Hope that's historical enough?!)

That said, I truly dislike Walmart and almost never shop there. But that's because of their low-wage labor policies which they indirectly encourage among their suppliers by demanding excessively low prices.

emacknight
10-30-2009, 10:20 AM
That said, I truly dislike Walmart and almost never shop there. But that's because of their low-wage labor policies which they indirectly encourage among their suppliers by demanding excessively low prices.

And pass the savings on to you, the consumer!

It sounds like what we're saying is that Wal*mart isn't to blame for low prices, the consumer is.

mswas
10-30-2009, 10:33 AM
The Victorian Era with its fashionable mores is largely responsible. The fashions of high-society such as corsets trickled down with industrialization. Now that corsets were within people's reach they 'had' to wear them. Conspicuous consumption which was once the purview of the upper classes became part of the common classes too. The expectation that people MUST buy things that they don't NEED to adhere to a social convention is the root of consumerism.

Markxxx
10-30-2009, 02:01 PM
mswas makes an excellent point. Look at cell phones, they weren't around ten years ago, yet now nearly everyone believes they are a necessity and they can't live without one.

TheMightyAtlas
10-30-2009, 02:42 PM
mswas makes an excellent point. Look at cell phones, they weren't around ten years ago, yet now nearly everyone believes they are a necessity and they can't live without one.

Ten years ago my boss didn't think I should be reachable 24/7. Now he does. So I need a cell phone.

Fifteen years ago there were payphones on every corner. Now there are whole cities without payphones. So I need a cell phone in case my train is late or I need to call 911.

Twenty years ago I felt perfectly safe driving around in a little Subaru, becuase it was only slightly smaller than the average car out there. Now I have a mid size SUV, because it is only slightly smaller than the average car out there.

Dorothea Book
10-30-2009, 02:47 PM
And pass the savings on to you, the consumer!



Well since I don't choose to shop there (for a variety of reasons) I'm not a direct beneficiary; though as a taxpayer I'm well aware of having the many costs of a low-paid workforce passed on to me through additional need for social services. Just one of the many externalities that the market often passes onto society in general while the producer/retailer/consumer relationship is supposedly innocent of this state of affairs.

A ton has been written on this subject--and I bet a load of SDMB threads as well.

Probably not strictly relevant to the OP though...

ITR champion
10-30-2009, 02:48 PM
The basic premise of this thread, that we can split up consumers and producers and assign blame to one of them, is flawed. Almost everyone who participates in the economy is both a consumer and a producer. Hence if you blame one group, you're blaming the other.

Who's responsible for consumerism? People are. Certainly the super-rich/CEO class deserve more blame per capita, but nonetheless they rarely forced anything on ordinary people. People became focused on material goods because they chose to become focused on material goods.

Voyager
10-30-2009, 03:59 PM
If consumers alone are responsible, then advertisers are wasting a hell of a lot of money. Advertising does create perceived needs and builds demand. Sure, a totally rational person might be able to resist, but none of us are totally rational and advertisers are skilled at playing on these. Sometimes the needs created are actually useful. I can think of several cases where having a cellphone 12 years ago would have really been helpful.

E-Sabbath
10-30-2009, 04:12 PM
I always considered the Sears Roebuck catalog the beginning of consumerism. Mail-Order. Something designed to inspire desire and accessable... just a little bit away.

monavis
10-31-2009, 08:16 AM
In my opinion, it wasn't just consumerism but false economy that got us in this mess; people buying things they couldn't afford,charging them, living beyond their means. Even if one earns a million dollars a year and spends a million and $100.00 they will eventually go in to debt they cannot pay. One has to live under their salary in order to truly get ahead.

This country has a lot of waste,people buy new rather than repair; part of that is the fact that it costs almost as much to repair as to buy new. I drive through a subdivision and am amazed at the amount of garbage people throw out; one block will fill a truck!

Perhaps it is because My first paying job was $12.00 a week, My rent was $9,00 and I had all of $3.00 to use for what ever I wanted or needed. I lived on lettuce and blue cheese and my room mate bought peanut butter and bread and we shared. I then took a job as a Maid and earned $25.00 a week and room and board. I thought I was rich because I could now buy some clothes and gifts.

I also remember in the 50's when my husband got a raise to $5.00 an hour the neighbors thought we were rich! Bread was home made, if bought it was 10 cents a loaf. I could fill the back of our station wagon with food and the cost was$30.00. Now a couple boxes of cereal,and one package of meat costs that!
We raised 7 children,we couldn't do that now. The ratio of salary to necessities are way out of balance,even with 2 people working. If one gets laid off they take the chance of losing everything.

adhay
10-31-2009, 09:57 AM
I've found, much to my shock, that this is a controversial statement. Most rebuttals I've heard are-- in my view-- ahistorical, ideologically driven, and the result of knee-jerk reactions against corporations. Someone explain to me in an intellectually honest way how we can blame Wal-Mart for consumerism.

Wal-Mart is one of thousands of corporations that benefit by and are complicit in maintaining our consumer mentality.

Anyone who wants to understand the transformation of our society from "needs based" to "desire based" needs to see The Century of the Self (http://www.archive.org/details/the.century.of.the.self), a 2005 BBC doc which details the career of Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, the father of modern PR. (Popcorn time, it's a four hour production):)

From the WIKI (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Century_of_the_Self#Overview).
... the documentary shows how by employing the tactics of psychoanalysis, politicians appeal to irrational, primitive impulses that have little apparent bearing on issues outside of the narrow self-interest of a consumer population. He cites Paul Mazer, a Wall Street banker working for Lehman Brothers in the 1930s: "We must shift America from a needs- to a desires-culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. [...] Man's desires must overshadow his needs."
Here's an overview of TCOTC in Entertainment Weekly (http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,1097730,00.html).
His film takes us back to the primal seed of modern marketing: the creation of public relations in the 1920s by Sigmund Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, who drew on his uncle's theories to envision a new kind of human being ó not a rational citizen but an irrational consumer, enslaved by unconscious desires. Curtis uncovers how the 1939 World's Fair, with its famous ''futurama'' visions, was in fact a propaganda stunt of American business; how Joseph Goebbels drew on Bernays' techniques to inspire the masses of the Third Reich; how the psychiatric elite, led by Anna Freud, were co-opted in secret by the corporate boardroom to create a homogenized vision of suburban normalcy.

Have fun.

msmith537
10-31-2009, 10:27 AM
The basic premise of this thread, that we can split up consumers and producers and assign blame to one of them, is flawed. Almost everyone who participates in the economy is both a consumer and a producer. Hence if you blame one group, you're blaming the other.


Not only is the premise flawed, it is nonsensical and I hate the term. What exactly is "consumerism" anyway? Everything created by the economy is ultimately destined to be consumed for use by someone.

What are people "blaming" WalMart for? Providing cheap products to people who would not otherwise be able to afford them?

Or is it a classist disdain of other people's spending habits? Poor people buying junk in bulk because it's cheap? Middle class people putting themselves in crushing debt so they can jocky for social standing and immitate the affectations of how they think the wealthy live?

Dorothea Book
10-31-2009, 10:38 AM
What are people "blaming" WalMart for? Providing cheap products to people who would not otherwise be able to afford them?



No, for driving down wages so that in the wealthiest society in human history large swathes of the working population--not the unemployed population--rely on the social safety net to fulfill many basic needs. It's a question of distribution.

But that's got nothing to do with consumerism for which I don't hold Walmart especially to blame.

If anything Walmart relies on people who are already programmed to consume as much as possible. The experience of shopping there is so unglamorous and demoralizing that if one weren't already hyped up to by more stuff one would gag at the prospect of entering the store. By contrast, Target, though hardly Bloomingdale's or Saks Fifth Avenue, makes one feel as though one has entered a consumer paradise.

Stranger On A Train
10-31-2009, 10:56 AM
If consumers alone are responsible, then advertisers are wasting a hell of a lot of money. Advertising does create perceived needs and builds demand. Sure, a totally rational person might be able to resist, but none of us are totally rational and advertisers are skilled at playing on these.Roger: You can't sell a product without first making people feel bad.
Nick: Why not?
Roger: Because it's a substitution game. You have to remind them that they're missing something from their lives. Everyone's missing something, right?
Nick: I guess.
Roger: Trust me. And when they're feeling sufficiently incomplete, you convince them your product is the only thing that can fill the void. So instead of taking steps to deal with their lives, instead of working to root out the real reason for their misery, they go out and buy a stupid looking pair of cargo pants. --Roger Dodger

The thing is, there is something in human nature that desires to be a consumer. Consumerism--the acquisition of gratuitous and fundamentally unnecessary possessions in response to cultural peer pressure--is a natural human trait and can be seen in every primitive human culture in the form of non-functional jewelry and artwork. Admittedly, in modern society this impulse is supplied and taken to an extreme, but the first thing that non-First World peoples latch onto when they come into contact with Western "consumerist" culture are the most base and often tasteless aspects of it; not medicine, fine art, and gustatory refinement, but instead cheap toys, Schwarzenegger movies, and McDonalds hamburgers.

Curiously enough, even the hyper-reactionary knee-jerk opposition to consumerism ends up resembling and using the advertising tools of comsumerist culture in pursuit of their goals. A few years ago I picked up the magazine Adbusters (an anti-consumerist rag) which, as I read through it, was in every way reminiscent of any Conde Nast publication, including a proliferation of advertisements for "anti-consumerist merchandise" including their own (vastly overpriced) brand of high top sneakers.

There are a lot of things I dislike about highly consumerist culture, including the stupid obsession with oversized and overpriced designer watches with functions that 98% of the owners aren't even cognitively capable of learning to use, but I'd rather this than live in a sea of monotonous blue pyjama'd humanity chanting phrases from Mao's Little Red Book and toiling away for a bowl of rice and fishheads in order to service the state.

Besides, even consumerist culture sometimes produces something of cultural and thematic significance, and it does provide sufficient excess (if fictitious) wealth that allows for sufficient "leisure" to develop novel technologies, craft new forms of art (a small portion of which isn't crap), and advance the bounds of non-applied science to the ultimate benefit of us all.

Stranger

Napier
10-31-2009, 11:08 AM
I argue that consumers are not primarily to blame for consumerism, although the OP statement is so short that it hides various important issues.

We have innate judgement abilities that had probably mostly evolved by the stone age, and now competition between corporate vendors has favored various strategies that exploit these abilities. It is easiest perhaps to consider food in particular. Flavorings is a multibillion dollar industry with several huge chemical plants scattered along the New Jersey Turnpike. Our appetite system helped us allocate physical effort between feeding ourselves on what we could catch and pick versus other activities like building shelter, reproducing, and worshiping little stone figures. Now the flavorings industry spends millions and millions of person hours, year in and year out, on competing for the attention of that appetite system. There are plenty of species that will eat themselves sick and die obese and early, if you make this dedicated a project out of triggering their appetites.

I think the deck is stacked against individual consumers, who struggle and often fail to achieve a wise balance between all the external sources of influence (of which the entire flavorings and related food industries are just one category), and any really sustainable and egalitarian consumption pattern.

Dorothea Book
10-31-2009, 11:53 AM
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The thing is, there is something in human nature that desires to be a consumer. Consumerism--the acquisition of gratuitous and fundamentally unnecessary possessions in response to cultural peer pressure--is a natural human trait and can be seen in every primitive human culture in the form of non-functional jewelry and artwork.

Interestingly enough, of all people, Adam Smith would have disagreed with you.

He didn't believe that (what we would recognize as) overconsumption, consumption for consumption's sake, or conspicuous consumption, were integral to the "Wealth of Nations" and said so quite explicitly. (I wish I had time to excerpt a few passages, but I just don't right now--perhaps someone else can?)

Eighteenth-century Scottish capitalism was based on a savings/reinvestment/production capitalist economy: not on excess consumption--which Smith could not even imagine as a feature of the capitalism he was describing.

Consumption was associated with aristocrats and the old mercantile economy Smith criticized in The Wealth of Nations. Not a middle-class virtue that enhanced national wealth, but an outdated and decadent upper-class vice that squandered it.

I said in brief earlier in this thread, it's around 1870, that consumerism becomes integral to theorizing the economy.

And in any case, in support of what Voyager has said, it's been proved in many studies that the more advertising people are exposed to the more they buy.

Dorothea Book
10-31-2009, 12:00 PM
Addendum to my last: I ought to have said that I said: it's around 1870, that consumerism becomes integral to theorizing the capitalist economy. And, fwiw, the key figure is probably William Stanley Jevons.

Dorothea Book
10-31-2009, 12:08 PM
Only just spotted adhay's post which seems relevant to mine as well.

BrandonR
10-31-2009, 12:45 PM
Well since I don't choose to shop there (for a variety of reasons) I'm not a direct beneficiary;

Sure you are (http://walmartstores.com/Diversity/300.aspx).

"Independent research from Global Insight has shown that Walmart saves the average American family $3,100 each year, no matter where they shop.*"

So regardless of where you shop, Wal-Mart's low prices have forced other retailers to adjust accordingly. Now I don't care for Wal-Mart so I don't shop there either, but the reason I don't shop there is because I find the stores offer low-quality products and are generally unpleasant to shop in. I don't avoid Wal-Mart because they pay their employees crap. I could care less if they pay their employees in seashells, if they're able to find employees willing to work for that wage, good for them. Nobody forces anyone to work at Wal-Mart... Which is why I don't get why employees picket the store and want unions. Don't like your wage? Too bad. Find another job.

Wal-Mart employees make crappy wages because anyone can do their job. It's unreasonable for Wal-Mart to give higher and higher wages to unskilled workers that can easily be replaced with minimal effort and training.

Dorothea Book
10-31-2009, 12:56 PM
Well if your logic is that I pay less whereever I shop because of competition with Walmart you are partly right. But on the other hand, I pay more in taxes because of the social services the low-wage economy requires.

It requires a larger scheme of cost-benefit analysis. And like I've said at least once, it's a) probably been done before at least once on these boards and b) isn't the topic of this thread.

Dorothea Book
10-31-2009, 01:27 PM
[continuation of hijack]Oh, and I should have added that's it's really tendentious to call Global Insight's reports "independent." They are commissioned reports, done for Walmart and endorsed by them (as your own link demonstrates), and the validity of the reports has been contested on multiple grounds.
[/continuation of hijack]

mswas
10-31-2009, 02:12 PM
mswas makes an excellent point. Look at cell phones, they weren't around ten years ago, yet now nearly everyone believes they are a necessity and they can't live without one.

That's sort of true, but the cell phone is different from what I am referring to in one important way. It is replacing a technology that has already become ubiquitous in our lives the telephone. So it's really just an upgrade on something we already use.

The thing about things such as corsets is that their function is purely social. It is conspicuous consumption for its own sake, required not because of its utility but because of an imposed shame if you could not afford one. It existed purely to signify that you were not a member of the classes lower than those who could afford corsets. A cell phone isn't purely a status symbol, it serves a function besides just status.

msmith537
10-31-2009, 02:42 PM
No, for driving down wages so that in the wealthiest society in human history large swathes of the working population--not the unemployed population--rely on the social safety net to fulfill many basic needs. It's a question of distribution.


That's debatable, but since it's not the topic of this thread, I would be happy to debate it in another (or here if the thread is hijacked later on).



mswas makes an excellent point. Look at cell phones, they weren't around ten years ago, yet now nearly everyone believes they are a necessity and they can't live without one.

Bad example. The same argument could be made for an automobile or washing machine or even electricity. They were once luxury items that have become a necessity because of the power and convenience they provide. Sure there is a "consumerist" aspect to cell phones. Some people "need" an iPhone or Blackberry Storm. But in our highly mobile fast-paced society, it is more than just about keeping up with the Joneses or need for acquiring stuff. Not having a cell phone would place many people at a serious disadvantage in terms of being able to effectively communicate.

Napier
10-31-2009, 02:45 PM
I could care less if they pay their employees in seashells, if they're able to find employees willing to work for that wage, good for them. Nobody forces anyone to work at Wal-Mart... Which is why I don't get why employees picket the store and want unions. Don't like your wage? Too bad. Find another job.

Depending on exactly where you draw the line on what constitutes forcing people to work someplace, this isn't accurate.

Regarding many miserable small-time employers, it might be true that people choose to work there for reasons of competition. But Wal-Mart has developed and exercised a systematic way of displacing other stores and picking up the displaced employees whose options have diminished specifically because of what Wal-Mart has done, at least according to some sources. Wal-Mart's success may be somewhat the result of efficient operations, but it is also the result of thuggish employment practices that are so pervasive they even cause trouble for local governments. Which is why I haven't shopped there in 15 or more years, and refuse to give them any money. The several people I know who complain about Wal-Mart's practices still shop there, and suggest that there is noplace else they can get what they want, or noplace else whose prices are nearly so low. So far, there isn't anything I wanted or needed that Wal-Mart has and nobody else does. And, while their prices are low, they're still higher than buying less junk is.

BrandonR
10-31-2009, 03:01 PM
Those are valid arguments, Napier. Still, people working at Wal-Mart are frankly working there for a reason: they don't have specialized skills or education and supply/demand dictates that since they work in such a job that can be staffed by virtually anyone without significant training, the market is going to say their jobs aren't worth that high of pay.

I know that Wal-Mart has a terrible tendency to enter a town and destroy small businesses, and that sucks. But at the same time, it's not like those working at Wal-Mart have no escape or alternatives. Hell, I can barely go a commercial break without seeing a number of technical/vocational schools advertising their services. If people working at Wal-Mart want higher wages, maybe they should aspire to do more than just work at Wal-Mart. At the heart of it, Wal-Mart is a business that just wants to maximize profits. They can't do that by simultaneously slashing prices and giving employees raises. And one reason Wal-Mart is reluctant to change their position is because there are always people lining up to work the jobs for whatever wage Wal-Mart deems sufficient. In that light, there seems to be little sense for Wal-Mart to want to raise wages.

And also, people with low incomes usually have the highest availability of financial aid when it comes to institutions of higher learning... So I feel in many cases, it's their own fault for not applying themselves to get the training or education to get a job that pays a decent wage.

Wesley Clark
10-31-2009, 04:56 PM
Those are valid arguments, Napier. Still, people working at Wal-Mart are frankly working there for a reason: they don't have specialized skills or education and supply/demand dictates that since they work in such a job that can be staffed by virtually anyone without significant training, the market is going to say their jobs aren't worth that high of pay.

I know that Wal-Mart has a terrible tendency to enter a town and destroy small businesses, and that sucks. But at the same time, it's not like those working at Wal-Mart have no escape or alternatives. Hell, I can barely go a commercial break without seeing a number of technical/vocational schools advertising their services. If people working at Wal-Mart want higher wages, maybe they should aspire to do more than just work at Wal-Mart. At the heart of it, Wal-Mart is a business that just wants to maximize profits. They can't do that by simultaneously slashing prices and giving employees raises. And one reason Wal-Mart is reluctant to change their position is because there are always people lining up to work the jobs for whatever wage Wal-Mart deems sufficient. In that light, there seems to be little sense for Wal-Mart to want to raise wages.

And also, people with low incomes usually have the highest availability of financial aid when it comes to institutions of higher learning... So I feel in many cases, it's their own fault for not applying themselves to get the training or education to get a job that pays a decent wage.

A problem is that our economy is changing and many high paying old jobs in fields like manufacturing or professional services (law, engineering, scientific R&D, IT) are being outsourced and the biggest growth in jobs in the US is coming in low wage fields in the service sector. I'm having trouble finding the article, but the most job growth was expected to occur in low wage jobs in service and medical fields.

If I gave you black skin and dropped you off in Alabama in 1820, no matter how hard of a worker or how much education you had you wouldn't be able to make ends meet. The reality is environment plays a role in how you end up financially. Those same walmart workers making low wages would be upper middle class in suburbia in the 1950s due to manufacturing jobs.

Plus I know a retail manager who works at another big box retailer. She says she gets a lot of people with more advanced educations going through the job where she worked.

Spectre of Pithecanthropus
10-31-2009, 07:14 PM
Not only is the premise flawed, it is nonsensical and I hate the term. What exactly is "consumerism" anyway? Everything created by the economy is ultimately destined to be consumed for use by someone.

What are people "blaming" WalMart for? Providing cheap products to people who would not otherwise be able to afford them?

Or is it a classist disdain of other people's spending habits? Poor people buying junk in bulk because it's cheap? Middle class people putting themselves in crushing debt so they can jocky for social standing and immitate the affectations of how they think the wealthy live?I think it's more their sheer size the impact on the economy, both locally and more broadly. Part of this is aesthetic: I'm not saying this includes you personally, but I imagine the reason many New Yorkers would rather die than live in a town like, say, Bakersfield, is the image of a giant box store centered on a many-acres sea of asphalt, and the utter lack of walkability and car-freedom this type of enterprise furthers. Now, I don't know much about the retail business, except that it presumably has never been able to pay its workers terribly well, so I don't want to unfairly single out Walmart in this regard. So it does stand to reason that any retailer needs and depends on a customer base which, in general, is better paid than its own staff. In other words, they need middle and higher earning families to come in and buy much of what they offer for sale. Walmart's pressure on vendors, IMO, is a significant factor in the rush of manufacturing jobs offshore. In a way they're pulling the rug out from under their potential higher-end customers by encouraging the elimination of their jobs.

Also they homogenize their merchandise to the cheapest level. Back when stores like Sears or JCPenney were considered the low end, you could buy a cheap pair of jeans say, usually their store brand. Or you could buy genuine Levis if you wanted to spend more money. Walmart offers only the cheapest alternatives, as if to say a poorer consumer who wants to buy the more expensive article, perhaps by cutting back elsewhere, doesn't matter enough to care about. As a poorer consumer, I would want to be able to choose the sorts of things on which I am willing to spend a little more, or a little less.

Napier
10-31-2009, 10:44 PM
Still, people working at Wal-Mart are frankly working there for a reason: they don't have specialized skills or education and supply/demand dictates that since they work in such a job that can be staffed by virtually anyone without significant training, the market is going to say their jobs aren't worth that high of pay. [...] And also, people with low incomes usually have the highest availability of financial aid when it comes to institutions of higher learning... So I feel in many cases, it's their own fault for not applying themselves to get the training or education to get a job that pays a decent wage.

Supply and demand in a free market may seem to dictate that, but there is little reason that free market forces should be able to dictate much. It's our world, and we can legislate change if we think it wise.
Consider that it is the legal system that punishes property crime and therefore enforces the idea of property, which is nothing more than a license to punish other people who try to use your stuff. It is government that provides a system of legal tender for all debts public and private. This is a big complicated manmade system, but it isn't necessarily natural or inevitable.
Society used to work on the premise that might made right, and people strong enough to, were allowed to do anything they wanted. But this is in the barbaric past, and we have justice, which prevents this kind of abuse.
The abuse, however, has just moved up by one layer of abstraction. People who can gather together enough economic power can move other people around like pawns, ruin their little towns, decide whether they can visit doctors, and more. And they have the governments and legal systems to help enforce their will. Economic influence on government is so completely tacitly acknowledged that nobody doubts it.
I'm very smart and fairly motivated and positive in attitude, but as far as I know these are genetic and/or established by early environment and are in no way a reflection of how deserving I am of rewards. Similar to Wesley Clark's point, we don't all get opportunities to aspire to more than Wal-Mart, let alone to succeed at it.
A hallmark of the intense and ever-increasing consumer economy is the idea that it produces a kind of fairness, where people get what they earn, what they deserve. Ayn Rand explained this pretty cleanly in her small book Capitalism: the New Ideal (hope I remembered the title right), and some of Alan Greenspan's writings when he was so in league with her do too. A further hallmark of this intense consumer economy is the exuberance of the rich and successful. But this has gone way beyond satisfying needs, and for some time has created more needs than it has filled. We are so caught up in this we can't even think straight. I have 100X more crap than I can lift here with me, not counting the house, the barn, and the cars.
So, it's our system, and we can arrange and rearrange it as we see fit, and we should be seeing how abusive it is. I don't know of a replacement for capitalism. As far as keeping people busy and feeding and housing them, it is lousy, but every other system is worse. Regulation and redistribution are important balancing elements, and we should have more. I guess if that gets too weakened, there is still revolution....

Superfluous Parentheses
11-01-2009, 12:21 PM
Wal-Mart is one of thousands of corporations that benefit by and are complicit in maintaining our consumer mentality.

Anyone who wants to understand the transformation of our society from "needs based" to "desire based" needs to see The Century of the Self (http://www.archive.org/details/the.century.of.the.self), a 2005 BBC doc which details the career of Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, the father of modern PR. (Popcorn time, it's a four hour production):)

Yeah, that's a very interesting documentary. There's also a part in it that describes a deliberate tactic of equating free market capitalism with democracy and freedom in general which has turned out to be extremely effective in the US to the point that that even moderate socialism can be described as anti-freedom, anti-democratic and anti-american and people will take it seriously.

Cagey Drifter
11-01-2009, 06:33 PM
Part of this is aesthetic: I'm not saying this includes you personally, but I imagine the reason many New Yorkers would rather die than live in a town like, say, Bakersfield, is the image of a giant box store centered on a many-acres sea of asphalt, and the utter lack of walkability and car-freedom this type of enterprise furthers... Also they homogenize their merchandise to the cheapest level. Back when stores like Sears or JCPenney were considered the low end, you could buy a cheap pair of jeans say, usually their store brand.

I can't but notice that a lot of people single out Wal-Mart but have no apparent qualms with Target. The card that everyone has in their back pocket is the line about worker's rights and insurance, but I honestly don't think their arguments against Wal-Mart would change an iota even if that wasn't an issue. To me, much of the Wal-Mart hate is a thinly-veiled (and probably unconscious) class argument.

Dorothea Book
11-01-2009, 06:41 PM
I can't but notice that a lot of people single out Wal-Mart but have no apparent qualms with Target. The card that everyone has in their back pocket is the line about worker's rights and insurance, but I honestly don't think their arguments against Wal-Mart would change an iota even if that wasn't an issue. To me, much of the Wal-Mart hate is a thinly-veiled (and probably unconscious) class argument.

Do you mean that people who say they hate Walmart because of low wages or (as Spectre said) because of homogenized, cheapened goods actually hate Walmart (if they knew their own hearts) because they hate working-class people or working-class culture?

If so, what evidence do you have for that theory?

DrCube
11-01-2009, 08:29 PM
I can't but notice that a lot of people single out Wal-Mart but have no apparent qualms with Target. The card that everyone has in their back pocket is the line about worker's rights and insurance, but I honestly don't think their arguments against Wal-Mart would change an iota even if that wasn't an issue. To me, much of the Wal-Mart hate is a thinly-veiled (and probably unconscious) class argument.
Stuff White People Like (http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2008/03/05/82-hating-corporations/) was a hilarious blog from a year or two ago:
One of the more popular white person activities of the past fifteen years is attempting to educate others on the evils of multi-national corporations. White people love nothing more than explaining to you how Wal*Mart, McDonalds, Microsoft, Halliburton are destroying the Earthís culture and resources.

...

When engaging in a conversation about corporate evils it is important to NEVER, EVER mention Apple Computers, Target or Ikea in the same breath as the companies mentioned earlier. White people prefer to hate corporations that donít make stuff that they like.

:D I thought it was funny and relevant.

msmith537
11-01-2009, 09:22 PM
Supply and demand in a free market may seem to dictate that, but there is little reason that free market forces should be able to dictate much. It's our world, and we can legislate change if we think it wise.


All the "free market" dictates is that you may sell your goods and services for as much as you can and you are free to buy goods and services for a cheaply as you can find.

The basic tenant of economics is that there is "no free lunch". You can enact legislation that attempts to alter natural market forces, however, you do so at the expense of something else and often there are unintended consequences. If you force wages higher, goods will cost more. If you force rents down, owners are less inclined to maintain their properties and developers are less inclined to develop new ones.



So, it's our system, and we can arrange and rearrange it as we see fit, and we should be seeing how abusive it is. I don't know of a replacement for capitalism. As far as keeping people busy and feeding and housing them, it is lousy, but every other system is worse. Regulation and redistribution are important balancing elements, and we should have more. I guess if that gets too weakened, there is still revolution....

Except that it is easier said than done to "arrange and rearrange" the system. The fundamental problem of any system that tries to circumvent the free market is that those who have the power to shape the market, whether it is government or big business or some combination of both, will typically shape it to favor their own interests.

I firmly believe that people's interests are best served by having choices. Choices between where they can work, what jobs they can work at, and where they buy their goods and services from. I don't think they are served by being forced into a single choice either by government or big business.



People who can gather together enough economic power can move other people around like pawns, ruin their little towns, decide whether they can visit doctors, and more. And they have the governments and legal systems to help enforce their will. Economic influence on government is so completely tacitly acknowledged that nobody doubts it.

Of course there is economic influence on government. Our government is by the people for the people. When the people can't find work or can't pay for goods or services they need, they petition their government for help. Your "little town" is just as reliant on the local corporate headquarters to run their company competantly as they are for the local government to run the town competantly. Probably moreso. The difference is that the company is not responsible to the town like the government is. They are responsible to their shareholders. The company will move its operations to wherever it makes the most economic sense.

The town only exists because there is some economic incentive for people to congregate at that location - natural resources, talent, cheap labor, transportation hub and so on. Since the industrial revolution, the trend has been movement away from small self contained small towns towards large-scale urbanization.

Napier
11-01-2009, 09:56 PM
Msmith537, I think I agree with most of what you say. If you are arguing against legislative control of business, I didn't hear it. If it's unclear, I wasn't thinking about how to make the economy more productive, I was thinking about how to reduce the harm it does many people.

One of your statements is confusing, though - "You can enact legislation that attempts to alter natural market forces...." Are you talking about legislation attempting to cause the market forces to change, like increasing taxes on tobacco to try to reduce consumption? Or are you talking about legislation that attempts to alter the outcomes of market forces, like labor laws about health insurance? And what are "natural" market forces - the tendencies of the marketplace when there are laws that the market likes, like those that establish currency and punish debtors, but no laws that the market dislikes, like those preventing pollution and unsafe toys? What would a "natural market" be?

Dorothea Book
11-02-2009, 09:24 AM
What would a "natural market" be?

Right, Napier. These kinds of debates really come down to what kinds of interventions we like and what kinds we don't. Capitalism doesn't develop and never has developed in a legal or governmental vacuum.

DrCube, my personal favorite "Stuff White People Like" thing is watching The Wire. But Walmart hardly lacks for white customers!

I think, Cagey is right that if there is bias against Walmart by its detractors it's on class grounds rather than race. But there are so many good reasons to dislike this company that haven't got a thing to do with either...

msmith537
11-04-2009, 11:56 AM
Msmith537, I think I agree with most of what you say. If you are arguing against legislative control of business, I didn't hear it. If it's unclear, I wasn't thinking about how to make the economy more productive, I was thinking about how to reduce the harm it does many people.

One of your statements is confusing, though - "You can enact legislation that attempts to alter natural market forces...." Are you talking about legislation attempting to cause the market forces to change, like increasing taxes on tobacco to try to reduce consumption? Or are you talking about legislation that attempts to alter the outcomes of market forces, like labor laws about health insurance? And what are "natural" market forces - the tendencies of the marketplace when there are laws that the market likes, like those that establish currency and punish debtors, but no laws that the market dislikes, like those preventing pollution and unsafe toys? What would a "natural market" be?


A "natural market" as I mean it would be essentially a market where buyers and sellers were free to buy and sell their products without restriction. Note that it may not necessarily be a "perfectly competetive" market (lots of buyers and sellers). Left to their own devices, some industries tend to form natural monopolies (like the cable company).

As for my comment, my point was that when you ennact legislation that changes the market in some way, it may have unintended consequences. For example, after the Enron / Arther Andersen fiasco a few years back, they enacted Sarbanes Oxley (SOX) in an attempt to improve business practices and reporting standards. Well, the problem is that it has create a regulatory environment so complex that companies need to hire even more accountants and consultants to help them navigate the rules. So the question is do these rules actually benefit the economy by reducing fraud and shady accounting practices? Or is SOX just a jobs program for accountants and management consultants that creates unnecessary costs and reduces the competetiveness and flexibility of American firms?

Dorothea Book
11-04-2009, 05:23 PM
For example, after the Enron / Arther Andersen fiasco a few years back, they enacted Sarbanes Oxley (SOX) in an attempt to improve business practices and reporting standards. Well, the problem is that it has create a regulatory environment so complex that companies need to hire even more accountants and consultants to help them navigate the rules. So the question is do these rules actually benefit the economy by reducing fraud and shady accounting practices? Or is SOX just a jobs program for accountants and management consultants that creates unnecessary costs and reduces the competetiveness and flexibility of American firms?

But surely you can't mean that the nonsense that went on at Enron is acceptable? It was fraud. If what you say about SOX is true then the answer is to simplify the regulatory standards--not to reintroduce the laxness that made the Enron scam possible.

Look what deregulating the financial sector has made possible just lately!

Cagey Drifter
11-04-2009, 09:44 PM
Do you mean that people who say they hate Walmart because of low wages or (as Spectre said) because of homogenized, cheapened goods actually hate Walmart (if they knew their own hearts) because they hate working-class people or working-class culture?

If so, what evidence do you have for that theory?

I'm just saying that my theory is that many anti-Walmarters have some unreasonable prejudice against Wal-Mart that they are unable to articulate, so they just find some reason to explain it. For many, it's the worker's wages/benefits thing, for others it's the "cheap junk" argument, for others its the "giant corporation" argument, and for others it's the "killing and mom and pops" argument. Every single one of these arguments can be leveled against dozens of corporations, grocery stores, mass merchandisers, etc. but for some reason aren't. I think that it's because Wal-Mart is not fashionable and its customers are perceived to be low-class, low-cultured, and uneducated-- unlike other companies like for example, Apple, Target, and Ikea. I believe there's a social pressure for certain classes and social groups to hate Wal-Mart, and so people who fall under those umbrellas hate Wal-Mart out of an (unconscious) need for belonging and to represent the ideals of their in-group members.

Dorothea Book
11-05-2009, 09:37 AM
I'm just saying that my theory is that many anti-Walmarters have some unreasonable prejudice against Wal-Mart that they are unable to articulate, so they just find some reason to explain it. For many, it's the worker's wages/benefits thing, for others it's the "cheap junk" argument, for others its the "giant corporation" argument, and for others it's the "killing and mom and pops" argument. Every single one of these arguments can be leveled against dozens of corporations, grocery stores, mass merchandisers, etc. but for some reason aren't. I think that it's because Wal-Mart is not fashionable and its customers are perceived to be low-class, low-cultured, and uneducated-- unlike other companies like for example, Apple, Target, and Ikea. I believe there's a social pressure for certain classes and social groups to hate Wal-Mart, and so people who fall under those umbrellas hate Wal-Mart out of an (unconscious) need for belonging and to represent the ideals of their in-group members.

I'm sorry Cagey but what you've just written is, IMO, based on some very faulty assumptions.

You're assuming that people who say they hate Walmart because of low wages/benefits, and/or dislike of "cheap junk," and/or dislike of giant corporations, and/or dislike of killing mom and pops, don't actually hate any of those practices but only claim to hate them in order to explain some other "unreasonable prejudice" against Walmart of which they are not wholly conscious.

Your reason for this theory is that if people truly hated these practices they would also hate Apple, Target, and Ikea. But that's only one possible explanation for this alleged disparity--and a rather far-fetched one at that.

For example, Apple is not not only not a store, it's also not the dominant player in its market (Microsoft would be a better analogy--and is there any shortage of people who hate them?). Apple also works very hard to portray itself as a company whose products should appeal to non-conformists--and it can do this precisely because it is not the dominant player in its market. Walmart would have a truly uphill battle trying to steal that page from the Apple marketing playbook!

Target and Ikea are not as ubiquitous as Walmart and even the relatively ubiquitous Target doesn't have quite the same impact on mom and pops because of a different strategy of where stores are located. You are right, however, that Target pays workers only marginally better than Walmart does. For a number of reasons Target has--and can have--better PR than Walmart. One reason is doubtless that Target sells goods that seem less like "cheap junk" to a lot of people who shop there. There may well be an element of classism in this distinction. That is, just as Apple presents its identity as non-conformist, so Target goes out of its way to appeal to well-heeled middle-class consumers, presenting its wares as chic and urbane.

But insofar as it's true that many critics of Walmart are middle-class identified and can therefore be taken in by Target's middle-class marketing strategy, it doesn't mean that the anti-Walmart sentiments of these people are illegitimate and not really about low wages or cheap junk or mom and pops at all. It means that some people, simply because they really like what Target has to offer them as middle-class identified consumers, haven't bothered to get the facts about Target's employment practices, etc. The middle-class identification with Target doesn't obviate the genuine dislike of low wages: it merely reveals the hypothetical person in question to be an inconsistent and under-informed political consumer.

Cagey Drifter
11-07-2009, 01:34 PM
but isn't that selective outrage itself a symptom of classism? people who don't shop at Wal-Mart hate Wal-Mart. Which is it-- that they stopped shopping there after learning about practices, or that they never shopped there regularly to begin with? I think a lot fall into the second category. No doubt there are a lot in the first category too-- but I have a very hard time believing that specific political ideology led to a widespread boycott; I'm much, much, MUCH more inclined to believe it had a lot more to do with image and social networks, and people not wanting to be associated among their peer groups with a brand that has such an unfashionable image. Where you shop has a lot to do with personal identity, and shopping at Wal-Mart sends a certain message to others; class-conscious people (e.g. highly educated, well-to-do, liberal) simply don't want that association. Further evidence that this notion has traction, is this amusing but rather cruel website, http://www.peopleofwalmart.com/

Beware of Doug
11-07-2009, 01:51 PM
some people, simply because they really like what Target has to offer them as middle-class identified consumers, haven't bothered to get the facts about Target's employment practices, etc.Maybe Target doesn't pay much better, but what do you know about their employment practices as such? Walmart has drawn criticism for much more than pay rates.

Dorothea Book
11-07-2009, 04:39 PM
True Beware of Doug. Low wages was what I particularly had in mind.

Beware of Doug
11-07-2009, 04:43 PM
Low wages or no, I'd still shop Target over Walmart if Target didn't pull the kind of petty employee-control shit Walmart does.

Dorothea Book
11-07-2009, 05:41 PM
Well that's undoubtedly true for me as well in the sense that I do sometimes shop at Target and Walmart not at all. But I think Cagey has a point that to be completely consistent, at least on the subject of low wages, one would ideally not want to patronize either.

Napier
11-07-2009, 09:22 PM
[...] Which is it-- that they stopped shopping there after learning about practices, or that they never shopped there regularly to begin with? [...] I have a very hard time believing that specific political ideology led to a widespread boycott; I'm much, much, MUCH more inclined to believe it had a lot more to do with image and social networks, and people not wanting to be associated among their peer groups with a brand that has such an unfashionable image. [...] this amusing but rather cruel website, http://www.peopleofwalmart.com/

I stopped after learning about practices.

But you are right not to believe that specific political ideology led to a widespread boycott. There's no widespread boycott. If there were, we wouldn't have Walmart to kick around.

The peopleofwalmart web site is cruel. I get the joke, and sometimes think that way when I see people like the ones they feature, but regret my pettiness as I do. Reveling in it with a website dedicated to laughing at these folks is ugly. The same voice can't decry Walmart's employee practices and laugh at this without being hypocritical.

I speculate you are interpreting these two contrary threads to suggest the criticisms of Walmart are something else in masquerade, whereas these threads more typically represent different people. One imagines that the people taking these photographs were already shopping at Walmart, too.

Dorothea Book
11-08-2009, 11:42 AM
but isn't that selective outrage itself a symptom of classism? people who don't shop at Wal-Mart hate Wal-Mart. Which is it-- that they stopped shopping there after learning about practices, or that they never shopped there regularly to begin with?

I think Napier has already answered this question but I'll say, no, I don't think selective outrage need be classism--at least not in the sense you mean it (revulsion from working-class culture). As I tried to say above, companies like Apple and Target and Ikea do a very good job of marketing to middle-class consumers.

I think the average person who claims to have serious political objections to Walmart genuinely does so.

Cagey Drifter
11-08-2009, 03:05 PM
I think the average person who claims to have serious political objections to Walmart genuinely does so.

That's fair; but I still haven't gotten a good answer to why "serious political objections" espoused by someone would be limited largely to one company. Anyone whose beliefs are so strong as to stop shopping at a store like Wal-Mart for political reasons would surely have brain enough to think about whether other stores that are very similar to it might have the exact same issues, no? Especially when many of the controversial issues are fundamental to the nature of the type of store (mass merchandisers operating on small margins do not want to pay employees a lot, and they make ends meet by selling cheaply in extremely high volume); this stance is a function of business and economic conditions, not part of an overt political platform adopted by the companies. I realize that not everyone may know this, but surely it defies logic to me that the thought wouldn't cross the minds of people who have that strong of an objection to Wal-Mart.

Dorothea Book
11-08-2009, 05:52 PM
That's fair; but I still haven't gotten a good answer to why "serious political objections" espoused by someone would be limited largely to one company. Anyone whose beliefs are so strong as to stop shopping at a store like Wal-Mart for political reasons would surely have brain enough to think about whether other stores that are very similar to it might have the exact same issues, no? Especially when many of the controversial issues are fundamental to the nature of the type of store (mass merchandisers operating on small margins do not want to pay employees a lot, and they make ends meet by selling cheaply in extremely high volume); this stance is a function of business and economic conditions, not part of an overt political platform adopted by the companies. I realize that not everyone may know this, but surely it defies logic to me that the thought wouldn't cross the minds of people who have that strong of an objection to Wal-Mart.

Well how many people do you actually know who have "serious political objections" to Walmart. The ones I know not only don't shop at Walmart, they also do stuff like buy local and organic foods, shop at coops and farmer's markets when they can, buy fair trade products as often as possible, buy hybrid cars, don't use bottled water, etc. etc. Other companies they tend to dislike include Starbuck's, McDonald's, Microsoft, Monsanto, Goldman Sachs, Whole Foods as well as most insurance and pharmaceutical companies.

Now maybe some of those people do give Target a pass without any real evidence that Target is a significantly better employer in terms of wages. Maybe in doing that they make too much of the differences. But what does that really mean at the end of the day? That some companies have a worse PR problem than others while others manage to get away with more.

That may not be a good answer but is I think a relevant one.

Napier
11-08-2009, 07:09 PM
That's fair; but I still haven't gotten a good answer to why "serious political objections" espoused by someone would be limited largely to one company. Anyone whose beliefs are so strong as to stop shopping at a store like Wal-Mart for political reasons would surely have brain enough to think about whether other stores that are very similar to it might have the exact same issues, no?

You are right, and I think singling out WalMart is easy because their behaviors are more visibly and famously mean than others. Plenty of businesses treat people worse, but not many of them are big enough to attract that much attention. It is also pretty painless to avoid shopping there. I have been struck over the years by how many people complain about them but still shop there, and it seemed so obvious to stop I kind of had to.

There are a great many ways we each could do better. I drive a pretty small car, partly to avoid wasting so much energy, but I haven't been motivated enough to get around to the home improvements for the same purpose. When I find out about cruel farming methods I often change what I eat to avoid them - no veal, for example - but I actually think I should probably stop eating other clearly conscious and feeling animals and haven't done it. Lots of contridictions and hypocracies, depending on how stringent we want to be.

WalMart, though, is a pretty easy target, pretty low hanging fruit in the garden of social responsibility.

Dorothea Book
11-08-2009, 08:18 PM
WalMart, though, is a pretty easy target, pretty low hanging fruit in the garden of social responsibility.

I think that is nicely put Napier

Cagey Drifter
11-10-2009, 12:11 AM
WalMart, though, is a pretty easy target, pretty low hanging fruit in the garden of social responsibility.

This is a myth; Wal-Mart is going carbon-neutral, they have low waste distribution system of world class efficiency, they offer a centralized location for shopping... on paper, it would seem like "liberals" should love them. There are no companies anywhere near the size of Wal-Mart that are doing as much as them to be green. The question is: why aren't people applauding their efforts and encouraging them? Encouragement would likely give similar companies and other big name corporations the incentives to do the same. Liberal hate of Wal-Mart seems to me to have everything to do with fear of corporations, and class issues that have nothing to do with actual practices. At the very least, there is absolute willful ignorance of any positive practices that Wal-Mart has instituted.

Rant:
I agree that we should all take steps towards limiting consumption, and to show I mean it, I do more than just about anyone I know towards this-- and not just the stupid, "obvious" (read: unquestioned) shit like buying organic (which isn't all that green if you actually read up on it). I carry around my own silverware and cups everywhere I go to avoid using plastic or styrofoam, and have personally logged less than 50,000 miles on my car in 16 years. But I don't blame Wal-Mart for consumption. That's consumers' faults. They want to pass the blame onto corporations rather than take responsibility for it themselves. And that's exactly the wrong attitude to have, because that means nothing changes. Not shopping at Wal-Mart won't change anything; Wal-Mart serves a demand and if they don't do it, someone else will. Real change involves taking close looks at one's own consumption behavior (instead of just smug, self-congratulatory BS like buying only organic fairtrade soy biodiesel). I'm really tired of people blindly clinging to brainless kneejerk ideologies and talking about them like they're proud of how anti-corporate they are when the reality is they buy just as much shit as anyone else, but just from some other vendor. Most people's "green" strategies are all talk and no substance, and the drivers of their beliefs, in my opinion, are unquestioned ideologies that have little to no basis in reality and deny the complex and often counterintuitive nature of the world and the economics that drive it.

ralph124c
11-10-2009, 07:55 AM
I love the intellectual trashing of "consumerism". I get it-we should all make our own homespun clothes, and eat tofu. To hell with that! The fact is, mass production and efficient distribution have meant a better life for most people. The intellectuals who decry the masses actually having things are all wet-take their trust funded lifestyle away, and watch them howl!
It's a bit like Al Gore, who lives in his 12,000 sg. foot mansion, jets around the world, and has a carbon foot print the size of a town-while he lectures us about the evils of our lifestyle.
Yes, the American people waste a lot-but that is not Walmart's fault.
So get out there, and start recycling-the planet depends on it!:D