I have defended Wal-Mart on a number of occasions given its new whipping-boy-of-the-left status. However, if it wants to get my further support, it is going to have to take it's nose out of the public trough.
It's hard to find reliable numbers on the total value to Wal-Mart of such subsidies. The leading report is Shopping for Subsidies: How Wal-Mart Uses Taxpayer Money to Finance Its Never-Ending Growth
by Philip Mattera and Anna Purinton was published by a left-leaning
advocacy group and funded in part by one of the very unions trying to
unionize Wal-Mart's work force, which will suggest to some a need for
caution. Yet, even if one applies a substantial discount to Mattera and
Purinton's results, Wal-Mart is still doing quite well at the public
- In a sample of subsidy deals for individual stores, they found
subsidies ranging from "$1 million to about $12 million, with an
average of about $2.8 million."
- In a survey of Wal-Mart regional distribution centers, they found
that "84 of the 91 centers have received subsidies totaling at least
$624 million. The deals, most of which involved a variety of subsidies,
ranged as high as $48 million, with an average of about $7.4 million."
In a very real sense, Wal-Mart thus is in part a creature of big
government. From this perspective, Wal-Mart's recent hiring of
long-time Democratic operative Leslie Datch and significant increase in
contributions to Democratic politicians comes as no surprise. (Of
course, as Timothy Carney has argued,
it may also be that Wal-Mart is now using big government not just to
boost its own growth but as a tool to squash competition.)
Is Wal-Mart becoming the Archer-Daniels-Midland of retail? In fact, the article does not even mention the egregious practice of getting local governments to use eminent domain to clear them a building location. A while back I argued that Wal-Mart was using regulation as a club to pound on their competitors:
Apparently, though I can't dig up a link right this second, Wal-mart
is putting its support behind a higher minimum wage. One way to look
at this is a fairly cynical ploy to get the left off its back. After
all, if Wal-mart's starting salary is $6.50 an hour (for example) it
costs them nothing to ask for a minimum wage of $6.50.
A different, and perhaps more realistic way to look at this Wal-mart
initiative is as a bald move to get government to sit on their
competition. After all, as its wage rates creep up, as is typical in
more established companies, they are vulnerable to competitors gaining
advantage over them by paying lower wages. If Wal-mart gets the
government to set the minimum wage closer to the wage rates it pays, it
eliminates the possibility of this competitor strategy. Besides, a
higher minimum wage would surely put more low-skilled people out of
work, increasing the pool of people Wal-mart can hire (and please do
not bring up the NJ convenience store study that supposedly shows that
higher minimum wage increase employment - no one in their right mind
really believes that demand for labor goes up when the costs go up). I
am not sure what the net effect on Wal-mart's customers would be --
some would have more money, from higher wage, and some would have less,
from fewer hours or due to being laid off.
I have defended Wal-mart in the past,
but I am going to stop if they become the new auto or steel industry
and use the government to protect their market position. Already they
are losing my sympathy with their whoring for local relocation subsidies and eminent domain land grabs.
If Wal-Mart wants to seek public funding for its business and impose regulation on its competitors, and thereby make itself a semi-governmental entity, then I am no longer going to have any sympathy for them when governments want to single them out for special regulation, no matter how bone-headed the regulation may be.