Wal-Mart & "Liberals" Who Spit Back Right-Wing PR

05/25/2011 11:50 am ET
  • David Sirota Newspaper columnist, radio host (AM760), bestselling author

In my upcoming book Hostile Takeover, I write a good deal about how politicians and the Washington pundit class have made an art form out of regurgitating corporate PR and making it sound like economic policy that helps ordinary Americans. As I note, this phenomenon is not limited to just conservatives or the Republican Party - it is everywhere. And today, from "liberal" writer Matt Yglesias, we get an absolutely perfect example of what I'm talking about.

Yglesias takes issue with a recent op-ed by the Progressive Legislative Action Network (PLAN), which points out the gross amounts of government subsidies that Wal-Mart receives. You may recall, Wal-Mart - like other ultrawealthy corporations - receives these taxpayer subsidies, despite government budget deficits, despite cuts to social programs, and despite the fact that the company is swimming in cash.

Yglesias first and foremost misses a huge chunk of the problem. He assumes that subsidies only means what Wal-Mart workers get from low-income programs (more on that in a second). But he's so embarrassingly uninformed it's actually a wonder he would type out an argument before doing basic research. The truth is, as well-documented in Robert Greenwald's movie and as referenced specifically in PLAN's op-ed, Wal-Mart receives millions of dollars of direct subsidies from state and local government. That is, they get huge checks from you, the taxpayer. These are the tax credits, the handouts for infrastructure construction for new Wal-Marts, and all the rest of the benefits euphemistically called "economic development" subsidies.

Next, Yglesias takes issues with those who criticize Wal-Mart for paying its workers so poorly they have to go on low-income programs like Medcaid and welfare. Now just look at how utterly out of touch with real world economic challenges this liberal pundit really is. It is, in a word, nauseating:

"Here's what's happening. You have some people. Once upon a time, they didn't work for Wal-Mart. Then they decided to take jobs at Wal-Mart. Presumably, their previous jobs were worse, or not jobs at all. Wal-Mart jobs don't pay very much money, which makes many of the people who work at Wal-Mart poor. The government, at the behest of decades of liberal agitation, runs programs that provide services or money to poor people. And now liberals are supposed to complain that this amounts to Wal-Mart getting subsidies?"

First of all, no liberals are complaining about the workers who get the government assistance, or about the availability of that assistance to workers - liberals are complaining that Wal-Mart, the wealthiest company in the world, is permitted to pay its workers so poorly that they are forced to go on low-income programs. That is the product of clear policy choices pushed on us by our corrupt political system. For example, Republicans have opposed more stringent workplace/wage mandates on companies like Wal-Mart, allowing the company to essentially use it's size to bleed their employees dry. They have also stopped bills to force Wal-Mart to provide better health care benefits to its workers. The list of such examples is unending.

But perhaps more disgusting and ignorant is Yglesias's argument that Wal-Mart workers "previous jobs were worse, or not jobs at all." For a writer to even make such a blanket statement is beyond silly - it is irresponsible. It means the writer has not ever bothered to actually visit communities that have been decimated by Wal-Mart, or even watch the film at the center of the piece he is commenting on. Because if he had, he would never even think of making such a statement. The truth is, Wal-Mart often comes into town and destroys all sorts of local businesses that provided better jobs than at Wal-Mart. When those local businesses close, many workers are forced to go work at Wal-Mart, where jobs pay far less. Meanwhile, the businesses that do survive are forced to pay workers less to compete with Wal-Mart, which creates an economic race to the bottom.

While folks like Yglesias and corporate apologist Tom Friedman might argue that Wal-Mart's displacement of local business is just the natural order of things, that's also untrue. Remember, as Greenwald's movie points out, the direct taxpayer subsidies that Wal-Mart often gets are not available to small, locally-owned businesses. These small businesses don't have the lobbying clout of Wal-Mart to buy off local governments, and thus they are put an an unfair disadvantage in terms of competing with Wal-Mart. Put another way, taxpayer subsidies actually tilt the scales further towards Wal-Mart, and against small businesses, even though those small businesses are already at a disadvantage because of their smaller size.

The takeaway from Yglesias's piece is clearly disturbing, beyond just his very public display of ignorance on the Wal-Mart issue in specific. What we see is the troubling situation whereby many self-described "liberal" opinion shapers still have no problem regurgitating right-wing spin - spin that is wholly divorced from economic reality in America's heartland. It is reflexive free-market fundamentalism pushed on us by decades of right-wing propaganda, most of which is funded by the same corporations the propaganda defends. And now, as we see, it has so permeated the debate that "liberal" pundits themselves spit it back to us as if it were fact, thus undermining efforts to create a truly unifying, forward-looking progressive movement.

Here's a newsflash for the pundits, the political elites, and the politicians: the corporate PR you are peddling is not fact, it's propaganda designed to perpetuate an economic system that increasingly focuses on doing one thing and one thing only - ripping off ordinary Americans.