Wal-Mart: The High Cost of a Low Price / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()
When it comes to the Wal-Mart story, I have an unusual perspective among both movie critics and the “baby-killing, tree-hugging, commie liberals” with whom I most identify. That the largest retail outfit in the world is incontrovertibly a bastion of evil, corporate whoredom is not entirely a closed question in my mind. I grew up in Wal-Mart country, and attended the university 20 miles away from its home office; a university, I might add, that has the Walton family to thank for its athletic facilities, business school, municipal arts center, and a large portion of its endowment fund. Indeed, Wal-Mart is singularly responsible for bringing an unmatched level of affluence to a part of the country that would otherwise be best known for its high rate of rickets. It was Wal-Mart that provided a job that helped me pay my way through that university and ample opportunities (all of which I took) for embezzling my groceries and CDs through my check-out lines (had the store provided an adequate wage, I wouldn’t have had to misappropriate thousands of dollars in merchandise). [Ed. note: Sure.] And it was Wal-Mart that provided those low, low prices that made it possible for my family to affordably stock our mobile homes full of toilet paper and off-brand ketchup.
Indeed, where I grew up, rarely does anyone question the ethical values of Wal-Mart or how it can sustain those low prices. The people responsible for running a corporation capable of sucking the life and economy out of towns all across America are the same people that live next to you or sit across from you at the local Applebee’s; in person, they are decent, churchgoing folks devoid of malice, even if the company for which they work often calls upon them to ignore their Sunday school lessons.
You see, to most Arkansans, fair labor violations and illegal sex discrimination are myths perpetuated by the uppity, Godless coastal people who are envious because they don’t benefit from a $.69 loaf of bread or the ability to get their oil changed and tires rotated while they’re putting their Christmas gifts on layaway. To them, wage violations are an absurd suggestion; first of all, Wal-Mart executives live in the nicest houses in all of northwest Arkansas, and second, in seemingly every store, there is at least one female cashier who redeems her profit-sharing plan after 30 years of ringing up pickles and soda for a cool million dollars or so (never mind the fact the she’s been working for 30 years and is still a fucking cashier or that the large majority of current employees making $7.00 an hour can’t afford to contribute to their profit sharing plans anymore.)
There are others who will admit that Wal-Mart has run into its fair share of legal problems, that it is responsible for killing the Mom-and-Pop stores in America, and that its labor record is not exactly stellar but would contend that, for all the destruction that Wal-Mart causes, the resulting low prices do more good than harm. It is, perhaps, those people that Robert Greenwald is trying to convert in his low-budget documentary, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of a Low Price. The doc, which just became available on DVD and is being screened all around the country in churches, homes, and independent movie houses, explores — mostly through interviews with current and former Wal-Mart employees — the unchecked growth of the retail empire and its detrimental impact on communities in America.
On its filmmaking merits alone, The High Cost of a Low Price is a bland piece of agitprop, no more enlightening than your run-of-the-mill “60 Minutes” segment, inexpertly juxtaposing Wal-Mart commercials with personal testimonials and news clips featuring familiar and not-so familiar talking heads. Greenwald breaks the film up into several sections, each focusing on one of the many corporate evils perpetuated by Wal-Mart’s world domination: low wages, lack of health benefits, the evisceration of small businesses, its gender- and racial-discrimination practices, the almost torturous use of undocumented workers, its union-busting activities, and its use of sweatshops in China and Bangladesh, where workers put in 12-hour days, seven days a week, for $3 a day. The documentary lacks emotional resonance, and never achieves the level of political inflammation we might associate with Michael Moore, but it nevertheless effectively lays out facts and statistics capable of eliciting the sort of frenzied, hyperactive reactions from its mostly progressive audiences that one might expect from screening a Tarantino film at a monastery. In most respects, Greenwald is preaching to the choir (even if the testimonials do come from patriotic Republicans from the Heartland), and though the sermon lacks gusto, it is effective for its intended audience, even if it’s incapable of conversion.
Still, I can’t help wonder if a better documentary might have focused on the less obvious socioeconomic impact or the cultural devastation that Wal-Mart wreaks upon its communities. Large-scale labor violations, unfortunately, can be dismissed as isolated occurrences incidental to employing the nation’s largest workforce; problems with health benefits can just as easily be attributed to the federal government; and the eradication of family-run business a byproduct of capitalism. Unfortunately, Greenwald fails to elucidate the circular damage that low-income shoppers bring upon themselves by taking advantage of those low prices, in the form of higher taxes (for every Wal-Mart store, taxpayers pay an addition $400,000 to cover emergency health care, rent assistance, and educational services the government must pick up to supplement the average full-time Wal-Mart employee’s salary), suppressed wages, and fewer options once the alternatives are run out of town. What’s also not mentioned is the way a Wal-Mart store has of stripping a community of its identity: In exchange for one-stop shopping and lower prices, a town loses the unique qualities that come in the form of local shops and personal, first-name service (an artifact of previous generations in most communities, by this point).
At Wal-Mart, shoppers become part of the mindless herd, shepherded down fluorescently lit aisles and into the long lines behind a cash register, where an overworked, underpaid cashier who doesn’t give a shit about you (and why should he at $7 an hour) rings up your Dr. Pepper and processed foods, collects a large portion of your suppressed wages, and pushes you out the goddamn door, en masse. Why? As one of the documentary’s displaced store owner’s reckons, it’s a question of cheaper underwear versus quality of life: “Once they steal that from you, you can’t get it back at any price.”
Well, maybe eight pairs of Hanes for $19.94 really is worth it?
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba and managing partner of its parent company, which prefers to remain anonymous for reasons pertaining to public relations. He lives in Ithaca, New York.