Wednesday 19 June 2013

Update. Walmart Doesn't Just Screw The Employee. Walmart Screws You And Me, Too! In the U.S. it takes $2,878,252,644 a year in public services needed to help support Walmart employees.

I don't often venture this far off the topic, as it's usually construed. This is an archaeology blog, first, and a general anthropology blog second. As such, this essay might easily be mistaken as just a social comment from a political progressive, and not an anthropological paper. I call myself a political progressive. But, of course we politically progressive commentators are known to other subsets of this society as 'bleeding-heart liberals,' tree-huggers,' or worse, 'dirty fucking hippies' [in the blogosphere we self-identify as DFHs to keep the language suitable for all audiences, and at the same time to illustrate the chasm between us and those who'd call us that].

So, although this blurt may appear like a quirky Op-Ed in an otherwise 
serious and august news magazine or blog, as many of you are aware anthropology is sometimes seen as an informed critique of ideology and the contradictions of capitalism, as Marx constructed it. In Hegel and Marx's Dialectical Materialism a 'contradiction' can be characterized as a diametrical 'opposition' that exists within an entity. For example, the single most important contradiction in capitalism is that
(a) enormous wealth and productive powers coexist alongside
(b) extreme poverty and misery.
The existence of (a) is contrary to the existence of (b)
Indeed, many Marxist-inspired postmodern anthropologists maintain that their primary role should be to expose the contradictions inherent in a capitalist ideology. Radical postmodern deconstructionists would say it doesn't matter what I say---only what they say matters. Less rigorously political postmodern anthropologists like me talk about 'reflexivity' as a way to work around the empirically supported notion that "an individual's own perspectives are shaped by his or her experiences," thus ruling out absolute objectivity, and replacing it with a "mitigated" objectivity.

[Thanks, Alison, for throwing that lifeline  to those of us still fumbling around in aid of the scientific project.]

So, rather than being merely an 'opinion' piece, I intend this to be an argument, from evidence, against the widely held notion that
a) the super rich deserve to be that way because they create the jobs that you and I can fill so that we can get along in this world,
b) that all of us are the shapers of our own fate, and
c) that the rich and powerful in this country have every right to howl about the less economically successful who, it's claimed, expect handouts that we net taxpayers shouldn't have to support.
[A tip o' the hat to Upworthy for pointing the way to this juicy bit of empirical evidence for my argument. Apparently the Walton family, 49% owners of the publically traded Walmart, are making an obscene amount of money not just off the backs of their unfortunate employees, but you and me as well---even if we never set foot in a Walmart and thereby increase their profits.]

Let's first take a look at the paramount pillar of American capitalist ideology---that every individual, regardless of background is as capable as any other person to make something out of themselves all by themselves, without resorting to the kindness of strangers [i.e. government handouts, startup loans, etc.].

The founder of Walmart was Sam Walton, shown here in his high school graduation portrait. But Walton's success didn't start with Walmart. There was quite a history of Sam's rise from share-cropper's son farmer's son to retailing wizard. The following snapshot of Walmart's progenitor is heavily drawn from the Wikipedia article on Sam Walton. I don't take it as gospel. The references cited in the article convince me that, if one wanted to 'ground truth' the substance of the Wikipedia article it would be easy enough to do so. I invite anyone dissenting from my interpretations to undertake the research to prove me and Wikipedia wrong.
Sam Walton was born ... in Kingfisher, Oklahoma. There, he lived with his parents on their farm until 1923. Sam's father decided farming did not generate enough income on which to raise a family and decided to go back to a previous profession of farm mortgaging where he repossessed farms during the Great Depression [emphasis added].
[Is it just me, or does the phrase "repossessed farms during the Great Depression" leave a seriously bad taste in your mouth?]
[Sam] ... Walton ... attended the University of Missouri as a ROTC cadet [emphasis added].
[I might be going out on a limb, here. Never mind. Been here before. Isn't it the case that your tax dollars fund the university education of cadets in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC)? Everybody takes such 'gifts' for granted, especially given that there's a quid pro quo whereby the Armed Forces get years of service in return. It seems like a fair exchange. Except that we, the taxpayers, pay for the education and the armed services get years of free service. It wasn't very many years before Walton's ROTC experience that soldiers were required to provide their own uniforms and weapons, to say nothing of serving for no pay. So, from the point of view little old me, Walton's experience resembles one of those 'government handouts' that his future lions of business would decry, while we to take for granted his publicly funded opportunity as the natural way of things, given the perceived need for America's hugely expensive military.]
During this time, he worked various odd jobs, including waiting tables in exchange for meals [emphasis added]. 
[This is what's known as 'barter,' and unless it is reported to the US government as income, using the fair market value of the goods or services received, it's illegal (see below). In the late 1930s there would have been no systemic imperative to compel Walton to engage in barter with his employer. There was no shortage of money in circulation and inflation was low (between 0.17% and 2.17% during the four years of his time at Old Miss. Moreover, by that time social security taxes were well entrenched in the economy. Thus, it may well have been bargain made to avoid paying income tax, on Walton's part, and social security taxes on his employer's. More data would be needed before such a conclusion could be supported.] 
Straight from the horse's mouth [the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, that is].
Continuing with the Wikipedia coverage...
Walton joined J.C. Penney as a management trainee ... three days after graduating from college [in 1940]. In 1945, after leaving the military, Walton took over management of his first variety store at the age of 26. With the help of a $20,000 loan from his father-in-law [emphasis added], plus $5,000 he had saved from his time in the Army [emphasis added], Walton purchased a Ben Franklin variety store in Newport, Arkansas.
[Now, good for Sam to have saved $5,000 from about four years of service, leaving at the rank of Captain! Hang on a minit ....  The sum of $5,000 in 1945 expressed in 2013 U.S. dollars would be about $75,650. Hmm. That's a very nice nest egg, even in today's economy! Well done, Sam!!! But, as Ricky Ricardo repeatedly intoned in the revered 1950s television sit-com I Love Lucy, "Lucy, you got some 'splainin' to do!" Sam Walton, you got some 'splainin' to do! In today's U.S. Army, Captains in their fourth year of service are paid $4,951.80/month, or $59,421.60 per annum. So, how in Sam Hill did Sam Walton manage to save the 2013 equivalent of $75,650. That amounts to his saving a year and a quarter's pay in four years. That's impressive! But then, I guess it was pretty hard to spend money in Salt Lake City in the early 40s, living in a house paid for by the taxpayers, even if he was supporting a wife for the last two and a child, too, for the last of four years. Data from
[In 1950] ... [Sam], his wife Helen and his father ... negotiate the purchase of a new location ... on the condition that he get a 99-year lease ... . ... his father-in-law [emphasis added] ... paid the shop owner ... $20,000 to secure the lease [emphasis added].
[I'm pretty sure that's what's known as baksheesh. Most CEOs today would consider it a serious transgression of business ethics. I'm not sure it was ever seen as the proper way to conduct business, here or anywhere else.] 
In 1954, [Sam] opened a store with his brother Bud [emphasis added] ... With the help of his brother, father-in-law, and brother-in-law, Sam went on to open many new variety stores. ... He encouraged his managers to invest and take an equity stake in the business, often as much as $1000 in their store, or the next outlet to open.
[I don't usually resort to innuendo. However, given Sam Walton's dismal record of playing straight with his employees, use of the word "encouraged" in this context might be a bit charitable, if not disingenuous.]
Say what you want about some of my interpretations of Walton's break-making. You can't deny that self-starter Sam Walton SIMPLY COULD NOT HAVE MADE HIS FORTUNE without considerable help from the taxpayers, his father, his father-in-law, his brother, and the store managers whom he 'encouraged' to invest capital in very stores he owned and they merely managed. So much for the pillar of American capitalist ideology---that all of us are the shapers of our own fate, that all we need to succeed is deep-down personal integrity and hard work.

Okay. Where does that leave you and me, who, like Sam Walton, managed to wend our way through the horribly inequitable publicly funded school system and set out to tame the world at the age of 18? Well, unlike Sam, we can't all be in the ROTC and get our university education paid for by taxpayers. We can all get really good grades if we work hard despite the public school system's inequities. However, we're not all going to get free-ride scholarships at public OR private universities. What of us, who are unable to afford a university education, no matter how good we are, no matter how hard-working we are? We're left with just our high-school graduation to flash in front of prospective employers as evidence of our hard-working-ness and desire to better ourselves. Some of us will parlay the high school diploma into a job in the public service. Those who are lucky enough to find employment in federal and state agencies are 'fairly well' taken care of, compared with most in the private sector. But high-school graduates can't all get jobs in the public service, especially in these days of fewer jobs thanks to capitalist economists and their inhumane cuts in government spending. So, we're left to find jobs in the private sector. With just a high-school education, and no hope of getting further education, no matter how much we'd like to be doctors or lawyers, we're a little limited. Some of us can learn a trade. Some of those can get a decent paying job. But we can't all be plumbers and carpenters, electricians and sheet-metal workers. And, oddly enough, not all of us aspire to such jobs. After all, some of wanted to be engineers or computer scientists.

Back to finding work in the private sector with just a high school diploma. Odds are that more of us will work for Walmart than any other private employer, given that it's the largest private-sector employer in the U.S. You're probably also aware that they're one of the most profitable companies in the U.S., if not in the world. Walmart is such a money spinner that it became a publicly traded company. However, the company is not run by the shareholders, in the common use of the term. That's because the Walton family retain almost a 50% interest. That virtually ensures that what the Walton family says, goes.

Ok. It's not good news for this country's capitalist ideology that Sam Walton's pre-Walmart success wasn't his own doing. Worse, the Walton family continues to make obscene profits on the backs of poorly paid and poorly treated employees. That's bad for the ideology, all by itself. But there's much worse. Today we discover that the Waltons and the other shareholders couldn't be nearly as successful if they didn't have considerable help from taxpayers like you and me.

That's preposterous! you say. What could the Subversive Archaeologist possibly be talking about?

Well, I'm talking about a May 2013 report from the Democratic staff of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which is chaired by a Democrat. The report used the nation's most recently collected data on the use of publicly funded social services by working people. I said working people. These are no freeloaders in this report. These data track the employers of those who benefit from social services even though they have jobs. These data relate to people who have jobs at Walmart.

Walmart is also notoriously unkind to its employees. It pays minimum wage, refuses to allow unions in its operation, and even makes it hard for its employees to obtain full-time positions in the company.

These data come from Wisconsin. That state calculated a low and a high estimate for the range and cost of services it provides to Walmart employees. The estimates you see below are for the public cost of providing services to people with jobs AT JUST ONE WALMART STORE having about 300 employees. You'll notice that the lower estimate is $904,542 a year---ALMOST A MILLION FUCKING DOLLARS FOR JUST 300 WALMART EMPLOYEES!!!!---and the upper estimate is $1,744,590 for the same period and the same number of beneficiaries.
From The Low-Wage Drag on Our Economy: Wal-Mart’s low wages and their effect on taxpayers and economic growth. An update to the 2004 report: “Everyday Low Wages: The Hidden Price We All Pay for Cal-Mart.” Prepared by the Democratic staff of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce, May 2013. [Superscripts refer to notes beginning on page 17 and continue through page 19.]
[This next paragraph was added at 01:07 UTC 2013.06.19]
I guess it goes without saying that there are 50 states in the U.S. There are 3,182 Walmart Superstores in the U.S. All employ around 300 employees, and thus those states are likely to bear a similar public burden due to Walmart's low wages across the country and their heinous employee relations. Even at the low end of the Wisconsin PER-STORE estimates, that comes out to $2,878,252,644 paid out of your pockets to help support the employees that Walmart could very easily afford to look after properly.

These data point up two egregious wrongs that are entwined in U.S. capitalist ideology. First, there is a public cost for paying low wages to private sector, indeed any, workers. Second, despite the taken-for granted ideology of capitalism, the super rich get that way only because they create predominantly low-paying jobs. You and I must settle for the low-paying jobs they create and no amount of self-starting, hard-working effort is going to raise our standard of living, with, or without, a public 'handout.'

And finally, the rich and powerful in this country have no earthly right to complain about the less economically successful who, it's claimed, expect handouts from taxpayers when they should be able to get along all right all on their own, regardless of economic circumstances or social station.

Thus, there's only one word for U.S. capitalist ideology. It's


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