Monday, January 21, 2008

Wal-Mart: A Personal Confession

I saw a young woman I know walking out of Wal-Mart this evening. I saw her because I was walking into the store, so I hope she didn't notice me. For years now, I've been encouraging everyone who will listen to refrain from contributing to Wal-Mart's bottom line, since I believe that it is a toxic corporation. Just about any way you slice it, Wal-Mart is bad news: their business practices are bad for communities, bad for competition, bad for workers, bad for the people of the Third World, and bad for the soul!

So why was I shopping at a store I find so loathsome? Well, having broken the extension cord for my car's block heater, I needed a replacement tonight -- it's damn cold in Winnipeg today -- and Wal-Mart was still open after the nearby mall had closed, so I sucked it up and went there. And in the interests of full disclosure, I also bought some hi-liters from the stationery department, since I discovered that the store carried my preferred brand, which I've been unable to find elsewhere for several months now.

While I choose to minimize my shopping at Wal-Mart -- I spent a total of $67 there last year, including sales taxes! -- I long ago decided I wouldn't punish myself in order to avoid the store. So here are my personal ground rules for shopping at the store that Sam built: (1) I will never enter a Wal-Mart store for the sole purpose of saving money, no matter how much I may have to pay for the same product elsewhere. (2) I will go there to purchase something I cannot reasonably acquire from another store, provided I've convinced myself I really need that specific item. (3) I will shop there to get something I need with some urgency, when time is of the essence and other stores are closed. And (4) should I happen to be passing a Wal-Mart store knowing that I need to make a minor purchase, I may stop in if I can convince myself that driving somewhere else would unnecessarily increase my carbon footprint. Frankly, these four personal rules don't leave much room for lavish spending!

So what about my young friend, who I saw leaving the store? Do I judge her negatively for shopping there? Not at all. She's a single mother who needs to make her money stretch as far as possible, so Wal-Mart may well offer her choices she might not otherwise enjoy. While I think that a careful economic analysis would show that this company saves no one a dime in the long run, in the shorter term some people like my young friend may benefit. But I can easily afford to shop elsewhere, so I do. Nor do I look down on the good people who work for Wal-Mart, since they work hard and should not be held responsible for the policies and practices of their employer.

On the other hand, I am troubled by people with privileged incomes who make a habit of shopping at Wal-Mart. I sometimes think union cards should include magnetic chips that set off the store's electronic security devices when a union member walks through the front door. And I will continue to be embarrassed on those very rare occasions, never more than once or twice in a year, when necessity leads me to enter a Wal-Mart store. Simply put, it matters where we shop because, in the end, we make our values real through our economic choices. And values should always trump value, at least when it comes to consumer goods.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Will the Real Bill Clinton Please Sit Down?

Are any other political progressives as weary of the Clintons' campaign tactics as I'm becoming?

In recent weeks, we've been treated to former President Clinton condescendingly dismissing Barack Obama as a "kid" and describing the Illinois senator's campaign as "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen." Then, in Nevada, Clinton accused the Obama campaign of voter supression. His strident tone has been eerily reminiscent of his more noteworthy hyperbole while president, which hardly inspires confidence in the trustworthiness of his patronizing assertions during the present campaign season. I'm surprised that the former president hasn't accused Barack Obama of "a vast left-wing conspiracy" against him and his wife!

It sometimes seems as though the Clintons only appear gracious when they're winning. When they're behind, or even think they're behind, they seem to become paranoid and vindictive. And this attitude betrays a disturbing sense of entitlement on the part of the Clintons: to dominate the Democratic party, as if the divine right of kings had morphed into a party principle, and occupy the White House, as if the presidential mansion were somehow their family home.

Since Barack Obama's strong showing in Iowa, the Clinton campaign has alternated between meanness and condescension, generating a tone that might better be saved for the part of the campaign when the Democratic nominee is actually facing his or her Republican opponent. (And even then, the tone would be questionable.) Indeed, the Clinton campaign seems all-too-willing to adopt a tone and employ tactics we usually associate with the hysterical right-wing of the Republican party. While it is often overzealous campaign workers who indulge in such childishness, sadly, the former president has waded into such antics in a manner that's unseemly for an elder statesperson. If we are learning anything from the current presidential campaign in the United States, it is that the real Bill Clinton no longer seems to be the affable, sensitive leader we remember from the 1990s. Someone needs to tell him that this campaign isn't about him or his tenure as president.

If it were, then present-day liberals would have reason for pause. Bill Clinton may well have been the most conservative Democratic president since Harry Truman, or perhaps even Woodrow Wilson. Indeed, as Paul Krugman observes in his magnificent new book, The Conscience of a Liberal, "On economic issues from welfare to taxes, Bill Clinton arguably governed not just to the right of Jimmy Carter, but to the right of Richard Nixon" (p. 5). And in the senate, Hillary Clinton has hardly been the uncompromising left-wing radical that some feared -- or that some of us hoped for! Only on healthcare does Senator Clinton seem more progressive that Senator Obama, although her credibility on this issue is tainted by her and her husband's failed attempt to reform healthcare in the 1990s.

Although Hillary Clinton would not be my first choice for the Democratic presidential nomination, I sincerely hope she continues to do well. But she will only do well if she and her campaign call off the dogs, take the high road, and return to a focus on the issues and her own record as an elected official. This leads me to ask, "Will the real Bill Clinton please sit down?" His recent performance as a sort of Democratic "Karl Rove" is not helping Senator Clinton and can only undermine the credibility of the Democratic party's presidential nominee, whomever it is.