The big, fat Wal-Mart handout

Watching Robert Greenwald’s Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices was my 15-year-old son’s idea. I’d purchased the movie weeks ago but didn’t watch. I suspected the content would be fairly predictable, another leftist bash documentary.

But how could I disappoint a teen more interested in social reform than in pressuring me to buy an iPod or an Xbox 360?

The film surprised me. It held my son’s attention for 95 minutes, through lengthy footage of former Wal-Mart employees and activists.

It also demonstrates genius in devising rhetorical strategies that transcend America’s “liberal” and “conservative” chasm.

There’s no Bush bashing. No intellectuals whining about corporate evils and s-s-s-socialism. Instead the film’s appropriate for a largely conservative audience, as if the filmmaker’s been absorbing George Lakoff’s tome, Moral Politics. Lakoff equates conservative world views with a “strict father morality"—which views life as difficult and the world as “fundamentally dangerous.” Liberals ("nurturant parents") acknowledge the world’s evils and fend them off through loving intervention and observance of family and community responsibility. While liberals value cooperation and self-fulfillment, conservatives value “competition” as a key moral condition that equips people for life’s challenges.

“If competition is a necessary state in a moral world—necessary for producing the right kind of people—then what kind of a world is a moral world?” Lakoff writes. “It is necessarily one in which some people are better off than others, and they deserve to be. It is a meritocracy. It is hierarchical, and the hierarchy is moral.”

Greenwald turns this value on its head, showing exactly how Wal-Mart flouts the idea of competition, driving small businesses into the ground not by fairly offering a better product at a lower price but by taking taxpayer hand-outs. Wal-Mart relies on taxpayer subsidies, not available to small businesses, to open new stores, raking in more than $1 billion in subsidies for land, infrastructure and low-cost financing.

Since many Wal-Mart workers live below poverty level, they qualify for social programs—food stamps, subsidized housing. This leads to another kind of taxpayer subsidy. Since the hugely profitable corporation won’t pay a living wage to workers, taxpayers foot the bill for health care, housing and even food. (For the stats, see

Simply put: Wal-Mart’s financial success wouldn’t be achievable or sustainable in a truly free market. In this film, Wal-Mart emerges as the pinko-totalitarian, reverse Robin Hood anti-hero that conservative, God-fearing Americans love to loathe.

This documentary seems ideal for religious gatherings, as it features people of faith being interviewed about their Wal-Mart jobs and includes an interview with a devout Christian who’s actively fighting the company that touts religious values while making a mockery of them, in her view.

Filmmakers cite Bill Gates’ contribution of 58 percent of his wealth to causes like health care, education and information access. The Waltons give 1 percent back to the community.

In Bangladesh, 189,000 women sew garments for Wal-Mart in sweatshop conditions, working 14 hours per day at 13 to 17 cents an hour. Make a mistake? Get beaten. Women are shown brushing teeth with their fingers because they can’t afford toothbrushes.

Filmmakers interviewed a 21-year-old Chinese woman who works long, sweaty shifts making Wal-Mart toys for $3 or $4 per day. If given the chance, she says she’d like to talk to American shoppers.

“I would say to them: ‘Respect-able Wal-Mart customer, do you know why you can buy such a cheap toy from Wal-Mart? That’s because we workers work all day, every day and night here.”

My son was grim.

“No wonder they hate us,” he said.