I’ve never bought anything from Wal-Mart. I’ve never even been in a Wal-Mart.
When I say this, some people respond with “Good for you!” I demur: I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve been anywhere near a Wal-Mart, excluding 70-mile-an-hour glimpses from the nearest highway. Self-restraint has nothing to do with it.
We don’t have Wal-Marts on Martha’s Vineyard. The closest thing we’ve got to a big box store (I’ve never been in one of those either) is probably Island Cash & Carry, and that’s not close at all. We don’t have fast food either. Before I left D.C., I was grabbing fried chicken at Roy Rogers two or three times a week. Most of the slow food restaurants on Martha’s Vineyard were, and are, too expensive to contemplate, so my culinary repertoire expanded beyond bread. In some ways, I’m certainly better off for living on Martha’s Vineyard, but, again, virtue has nothing to do with it.
Wal-Mart is bad news. I like to think that I wouldn’t shop at Wal-Mart even if there were one within driving distance. Does this make me virtuous? Not sure. On one hand, I’ve got the New England frugal gene. I’m a lousy consumer and I don’t have kids, which tends to up one’s need for stuff, especially cheap stuff. On the other, I figured out a long time ago that “cheap” comes at a price, and that often that price is (a) high, and (b) paid by people who are out of my sight and therefore easy to not-see.
Stuff is often cheap because it’s made by people who are being paid a pittance for their labor. Short-sighted employers — those who see nothing but the bottom line — love cheap labor, unorganized labor, labor that has no recourse and no alternative to taking what the bosses are offering. People in the South once welcomed such employers with tax breaks, cheap land, and cheap labor. They don’t think it’s so great when such employers go overseas or across the border in search of even better perks.
The liberal affluenza, I’ve noticed, loves to hate Wal-Mart. This may be because they, like me, have no occasion to go there. I detect more ambivalence, however, where Amazon. com (to pick another behemoth) is concerned. Amazon is not exactly a poster child for enlightened employer practices. I’ve had a serious grudge against Amazon ever since they threatened to sue Amazon Bookstore in Minneapolis for the use of the name, even though Amazon Bookstore had been using the name for more than two decades before the World Wide Web was invented.
For years I wouldn’t buy anything from Amazon. Finally convenience won out: these days I do patronize it, but as infrequently as I can. To judge by the parcels changing hands at the p.o. in my excruciatingly right-on liberal town, plenty of others do likewise. If you live on Martha’s Vineyard, boycotting Amazon.com is harder than boycotting Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart and other giant retailers of cheap stuff are renowned for cheapskatery: they don’t pay much, and they bend over backwards to keep workers’ hours under the threshold that would require them to offer benefits. I’ve lived long enough on Martha’s Vineyard that this by itself doesn’t shock me: every job I’ve had on Martha’s Vineyard has paid by the hour, offered no benefits, and come with the understanding that as “the season” draws to a close, hours will be cut, sometimes to nothing. The big difference is that, unlike the owners of Wal-Mart and other giant retailers, most Vineyard employers are not rich and getting richer by the minute.
At the same time, plenty of Vineyard workers aren’t any better off than the workers at Wal-Mart. But it’s easier to obsess about Wal-Mart than to think about employment practices closer to home.