Wal-Mart Good for the American Working Class?
Jason Furman argues in Slate that, contrary to what organized labor would have you believe, Wal-Mart is actually good for the working class.
A range of studies has found that Wal-Mart’s prices are 8 percent to 39 percent below the prices of its competitors. The single most careful economic study, co-authored by the well-respected MIT economist Jerry Hausman, found that grocery sales by Wal-Mart and other big-box stores made consumers better off to the tune of 25 percent of food consumption. That doesn’t mean much for those of us in the top fifth of the income distribution—we spend only about 3.5 percent of our income on food at home and, at least in my case, most of that shopping is done at high-priced supermarkets like Whole Foods. But that’s a huge savings for households in the bottom quintile, which, on average, spend 26 percent of their income on food. In fact, it is equivalent to a 6.5 percent boost in household income—unless the family lives in New York City or one of the other places that have successfully kept Wal-Mart and its ilk away.
Where do these low prices come from? Paul Krugman, writing back in 1993, provides an answer: “The most significant American business success story of the late 20th century may well be Wal-Mart, which has applied extensive computerization and a home-grown version of Japan’s ‘just in time’ inventory methods to revolutionize retailing.” Many economists didn’t expect the service sector to contribute much to productivity. Many non-economists still have a hard time believing it has. But Harvard economist Ken Rogoff has the numbers, and they are mind boggling:
[T]ogether with a few sister “big box” stores (Target, Best Buy, and Home Depot), Wal-Mart accounts for roughly 50% of America’s much vaunted productivity growth edge over Europe during the last decade. Fifty percent! Similar advances in wholesaling supply chains account for another 25%! The notion that Americans have gotten better at everything while other rich countries have stood still is thus wildly misleading. The US productivity miracle and the emergence of Wal-Mart-style retailing are virtually synonymous.
All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
The thing to keep in mind, however, is that the people who own Wal-Mart make a lot of money, and they are therefore evil. Let’s never forget that.