As an economist, I could sit up here and rattle off all kinds of facts about Wal-Mart and its impact that would counter what you've just seen. But since the film itself wasn't too concerned with the facts, I won't be either. Save one. The hardware store referenced at the end did NOT close because Wal-Mart moved in. A story in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer details what happened. It was in financial trouble well before Wal-Mart and in fact closed a few months before WM opened. Not only that, the store has since been reopened by new owners and is doing better than ever. The new owners noted that it has more traffic than before thanks to its great location – near a Wal-Mart.
So I could talk about how WM pays well above the average retail wage in most areas it moves into. I could talk about how it does not, contrary to myth, destroy the local businesses in small towns (look at Ogdensburg – Aldi's, Hackett's is expanding, a new Lowe's is moving in). I could talk about how its advances in inventory management and efficiency are a major source of the economy-wide gains in productivity during the 90s, which translated into lower prices for everyone and higher wages for many. I could do all that, but I won't. I'd rather talk tonight about community.
About a year ago, I was on a panel at a community forum in Potsdam, speaking in favor of a Wal-Mart there. Over 100 people showed up, and I'd say about 75% were also in favor. I was there for two hours and I listened. I listened to people talk about how much they wanted Wal-Mart. I heard them talk about the need for more jobs and jobs that paid above minimum wage. Jobs that were indoors in a comfortable setting with the possibility of benefits and advancement. But mostly, I heard them talk about the ways in which Wal-Mart made life easier for those who live on the margins, economically.
I heard a poor young mother of two talk about how much cheaper diapers and kids' clothing were at Wal-Mart and how hard it was for her to make the time to get to Massena or Ogdensburg. She talked about how those few dollars a week saved could add up and mean more to spend on other things for her family. I listened to several women complain about how they couldn't find women's clothing above a size 10 in downtown Potsdam (or Canton!) and even if the boutiques had it, they couldn't afford those prices. For them, Wal-Mart meant being able to find affordable clothes that were reasonably stylish in sizes that were something other than “fashion-model thin.” And I heard a few teenagers talk about how hard it was to find decent jobs and that Wal-Mart might create opportunties for them to get a leg up in the job market and help support their families. In general, the community was saying, with a pretty clear majority, that a Wal-Mart would make their lives better and easier, especially for those for whom a few dollars more in their pockets a week makes a big difference. Let me suggest that this is nothing special to the North Country; it happens, and has happened, all over the country. And let me note that it is THESE voices, the voices of millions of Wal-Mart customers whose lives are improved by its presence, that are silent in the film you've seen tonight.
Let me also suggest that my colleagues and students here at SLU who find Wal-Mart to be so troublesome may well be trapped in the very same “SLU Bubble” of complacency and elitism that they imagine themselves to be breaking out of. Get out and talk to the community and hear what they think. Better yet, talk to the clerical and hourly staff here on campus and hear what they think. Every time I've spoken or emailed in public about my support of Wal-Mart, I hear from dozens of them (privately of course, because they're afraid to speak out, given their lack of power compared to faculty and students speaking out against WM) thanking me for my support and telling me how much their lives would be helped by having one closer.
For those of us with higher incomes and fancy computers and high-speed internet and opportunities to travel, we can shop online at Eddie Bauer and pay those prices. We can stock up when we visit friends and relatives in other cities. But we are the exception. We are the minority. For most of St. Lawrence county, and millions of other people in hundreds of other poorer counties like it across the US and Canada, those options are out of reach. For them, Wal-Mart means jobs, it means lower prices, and it means more choice and quality. For them, those mean just a few more ways to make life on the margin a little better. And it is they whose voices are absent here tonight.
It's easy for us as the well-off minority to worry about protecting that “small-town” feel, or being concerned with every little bit of environmental impact or the aesthetics of big-box retailers (or just how much they offer in benefits). But to allow the concerns that wealth can afford to overshadow the real basic needs of the rest of our community is to live in a bubble, and it comes across to our fellow citizens as the worst sort of elitism.
My challenge to you tonight is to break out of the bubble. Do something really radical and ask real people in real small town communities in St. Lawrence county or elsewhere in North America, or even in poor urban areas, what they think of Wal-Mart. And then do something even more radical: examine your own biases and prejudices and search for some more facts. You might find that although Wal-Mart is not a paragon of perfection and virtue, it, without ever necessarily intending to do so, has made a difference, a big positive difference, in the lives of lots of folks who can use all the positives they can get.