Is Wal-Mart good for America?

For the moment that seems to have replaced the post 9/11 “Why do they hate us?” as the question that induces the greatest amount of hand-wringing. On Saturday I participated in a debate that was part of a UCLA conference called–yep– “Is Wal-Mart good for America?”

While the vast majority of the organizers, speakers and 500 conference participants were Wal-Mart critics, the climax of the conference was a debate between both Wal-Mart proponents and denouncers. Ted Balaker of the Reason Foundation along with California State University economics professor Glen Whitman argued that Americans benefit from Wal-Mart’s low prices, which give people with lower incomes money to spend elsewhere. The two also said Wal-Mart is successful because it provides services that American people desire and said the company should be untouched by policies limiting its growth or sales “Now that people were getting a better deal buying toothpaste, carrots and soap, they had money to buy other things,” Balaker said. “Policies shouldn’t give (Wal-Mart) any special perks, but policies shouldn’t also give it special problems.” But Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor at UC Santa Barbara, and Jonathan Tasini, president of the Economic Future Group, said Wal-Mart’s low prices come with high costs in other areas, and that despite its smiling image, the company is creating wealth for the rich on the backs of working people.

And here’s another one for the Wal-Mart Foe Hyperbole Watch:

Speaking through a translator, Flora Guerrero, from the Frente Civico pro Defensa del Casino de La Selva, Teotihuacan, Mexico, an organization that argued against Wal-Mart’s construction of a store less than a mile from Mexico’s Pyramid of the Sun, a sacred, historic site, scolded Wal-Mart’s effects in Mexico … “If we ask ourselves is Wal-Mart good for America or good for the world, we say no it is not,” she said. “We see it as a cancer, an economic cancer, a cultural cancer, an environmental cancer.”

And let’s look a bit closer at that Wal-Mart-Mexican ruins controversy. BTW, check out Glen Whitman’s excellent blog, Agoraphilia.