The big bad

Let’s deal with the size issue in one obit-like paragraph:

Wal-Mart is the most giant corporation in the world. It’s the largest retailer, grocer, private employer and jeweler, and—oh yeah—it owns the nation’s largest trucking fleet. The company is also the richest one in the world, employing one out of every 115 Americans. If Wal-Mart were a sovereign nation, its gross domestic product would be larger than that of 80 percent of the world’s countries.

Phew, that’s a lot of large. But does big have to be bad? It’s a good question for Sacramento citizens to ponder right now, since a Wal-Mart Supercenter may be plunked into Downtown Plaza soon, despite some indications to the contrary.

A just-published paperback by occasional SN&R contributor John Dicker may help inquiring minds find the answer. The United States of Wal-Mart—which doesn’t pretend to be neutral about the retail giant everybody loves to hate—is a compelling and irreverent read that provides everything a reader ever wanted to know (and then some) about the empire that Sam Walton built.

It details Walton’s personal story: his storied childhood; his retail rise; and his most triumphant victories over Sears, Kmart and JCPenney. Readers get a good feel (satirical stereotypes notwithstanding) for what the Wal-Mart ethos is really all about—the down-home, thrift-rules philosophy (everyday low prices!) that Walton managed to steep deep down into his company’s stew.

The United States of Wal-Mart was clearly written by an author who is both horrified and fascinated by his subject matter. The book is broken into two parts. The first, “Size Matters,” credits much of Wal-Mart’s success, interestingly, to its vast and intricate data-mining operation. The mega-corporation’s database carries virtual oceans of information, the better to wipe out costs and competition. Wal-Mart owns the largest satellite and computer systems outside of government and is ultra-adept at using this advantage when it comes to buying, stocking and sell-sell-selling. In “Size Matters,” Dicker also touches—perhaps not enough—on how Wal-Mart, with its $256.3 billion in annual sales worldwide, is the muscle behind the push for globalization, siphoning off good manufacturing jobs from industrialized countries to developing nations.

The second half of the book, “The United States of Wal-Mart,” puts a focus on Wal-Mart’s influence from a political and cultural standpoint. The company is the second-largest corporate political-action committee in the country, giving mostly to Republican candidates, especially President George W. Bush. So, its political influence is strong. Dicker examines its cultural influence based on what it does and doesn’t allow on its shelves. But it’s oversimplifying to label Wal-Mart a flat-out censor, warns Dicker. Better to ask a question: “Are Wal-Mart’s conservative tendencies shaping the larger culture in its own image?”

What’s the future for this massive company? According to Dicker, it’s more growth and more controversy. Famous for its union-busting ways and what Dicker calls “everyday low wages,” Wal-Mart’s 2002 plan to enter California with 40 new Supercenters was the real spark that ignited, in Southern California, the longest and most bitter grocery-worker strike in recent history.

There is no denying, at least for now, that the Wal-Mart cheap-and-homogenous ethos dominates, to a near-religious degree, in populist America. We’ve become crazy for a good bargain. After all, writes Dicker, “How do you convince a poor person that a $28 DVD player sucks?” Still, the author wants to know: Why is it that all we Americans can agree about, at this pivotal point in history, is our right to “everyday low prices”?