January 20th, 2013Walmart: Well Might We Rue the Dayby Joseph Pearce

I note that the thorny issue of whether we should feel comfortable shopping at Walmart has raised its thorny head on the Ink Desk. This being so, I thought I'd weigh in with my own contribution to the controversy.

A few years ago, I gave several talks to a retreat of priests, one of which was on the issues raised in my book, Small is Still Beautiful. At the end of the talk one of the priests responded that he had a good Catholic family in his parish who homeschooled their large family. He told me that they were unapologetic about shopping at Walmart and apoplectic towrds those who condemned them for it because they were struggling to make ends meet and Walmart was the most affordable place to shop. He asked me how I would respond to that family. I responded by saying that, as a subsidiarist, I respected the family's right to shop wherever they thought it most prudent from the perspective of their family's needs. If it was the only place that they could afford to shop, how could they afford to shop anywhere else? I did, however, raise a few questions that such families should ponder.

First, we all need to overcome our addiction to gadgets, to the technological trinkets that all of us feel that we cannot live without. Do we need television? If so, why? In what ways does it benefit our families, if at all? The same question should be asked of all the techno-ephemera with which we fill our lives. This is an important question. If we are not careful we will find that we are treasuring these things too much and, as Christ tells us, where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. Our gadgets might become godgets, idols of our materialism. 

Why is all this relevant to our discussion of whether we should shop at Walmart? The answer is that we should get used to spending a greater portion of our family budget on essentialfinal  e healthy food, and less on those things that are not essential. Such a reorientation of our family budgets might enable us to choose more freely with regard to where we shop.

Another point to ponder is the extent to which shopping at Walmart today might make our children worse off tomorrow. Walmart sources almost all of its products from China and the Pacific Rim, contributing significantly to the destruction of America's manufacturing base. If we save a few bucks today but deprive our children of a job ten years from now, it's a false economy and a myopic mistake. In order to illustrate this point, I'd like to recount a story that a parent of two young children told me. He let his children loose in the toy department of Walmart and told them that anything they could find within five minutes that was made in America he would buy for them. Five minutes later the only thing that they had found that was made in the United States was, believe it or not, an American flag (even this surprises me)! I find this exercise a little cruel on the children but it provides a valuable lesson. Myopia is not a virtue. Well might we rue the day that we sold our future by shopping at Walmart.

And one final thought to ponder. The dollar in our pocket is the most powerful vote we have. We can change the world much more effectively by spending virtuously than by voting for Tweedledumb or Tweedledumber in elections.    

What are your thoughts on the subject?

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  • January 21 2013 | by Harry

    I don't see where the bit on tv came from, and you didn't suggest an alternative from where the family can buy food before becoming bankrupt/starve - nor did you address what becomes of those unfortunates who work at WalMart were they to lose their jobs. Actually I don't think a single word you wrote would be in any way helpful to a family in their situation.
  • January 22 2013 | by Micha Elyi

    <blockquote><i>First, we all need to overcome our addiction to gadgets...</i>
    --Joseph Pearce</blockquote>

    ...wrote the man on his Internet blog.

    By the way, demanding that someone give up gadgets is a non-sequitur, not an argument against shopping at Walmart, Target, Home Depot, Lowes, 7-Eleven, the big-box grocery or the national chain drugstore. (In your essay, Walmart is your proxy for all mass merchandisers.) Ok, so the family gives up gadgets. The national chain stores you find so horrible may still be the place "they (think) it is most prudent from the perspective of their family's needs" to shop.

    <blockquote>[W]<i>e should get used to spending a greater portion of our family budget on essentialfinal e </i>(sic)<i> healthy food...</i></blockquote>

    You're advocating a reduction in the standard of living. This may be of no notice to you, your standard being already quite high perhaps, but will certainly be noticed by the struggling family mentioned by the preist.

    And when the standard of living falls for the poorest among us, a fall for the next poorest, and the next poorest, and so on all follow.

    <blockquote><i>Another point to ponder is the extent to which shopping at Walmart today might make our children worse off tomorrow. Walmart sources almost all of its products from China and the Pacific Rim, contributing significantly to the destruction of America's manufacturing base.</i></blockquote>

    Has the economic autarky you advocate ever led to prosperity? No. Rather, it has kept the poorest dirt poor. (Example: India, prior to Rajiv Gandhi.) And you're reversing cause and effect in order to bash Walmart. when they buy goods made in China it's because America's manufacturing base won't supply equally priced goods. (Do you really thing Walmart wants to pay to ship goods all the way from China?)

    A bottom line fact that no advocate of distributism or small-is-beautifulism cannot escape is that if mass production exists, then mass merchandisers are necessary. We cannot all live by dining on artisanal cheese off handmade plates while seated at handmade tables. Those are luxury items (when they're not junk produced by the barely skilled) for a reason.
  • January 22 2013 | by Richard

    I might ask, how much of the food in Wal-Mart is produced in China? The situation you present is a family strapped for cash, needing to feed many mouths, but then you jump to Chinese-made TVs and a political statement.

    One need not shop at Wal-Mart for everything. One ought to shop where one's resources are prudently expended. One may choose to shop as a signal to the market to not manufacture in China.

    By the way, Wal-Mart is not a manufacturing company. They merely deliver products to the market and make choices based on product demand. Don't blame Wal-Mart for opressive conditions in China. It's their shoppers who buy them, and thus indicate they are desired items who provide the signal to Wal-Mart that there is exonomic benefit in providing the logistics and retailing for those products.
  • January 22 2013 | by DJ Hesselius

    The people who live in China and make things for Wal-mart (and other stores as well) are human beings too, just as the folks down at the Mom and Pop shop. Don't they deserve to have jobs and put food on their families tables too? And what of all the import jobs Wal-mart has helped to create? If the concern is over the lost manufacturing jobs, then maybe we should turn our attention to the robots that "man" many of our manufacturing facilities here in the US (robots that doesn't need health care benefits and penions), and less on the illegal immigrants, Chinese, Mexicans, etc
  • January 22 2013 | by God Bless America

    Interesting -- which come first, the chicken or the egg ? Do large families just keep having children without regard to economic factors, or should they consider things like paying more for "made in USA" in order to preserve a nation that is the Last Best Hope -- and in the process have fewer children to be able to afford to do so ? If America goes down, where will their numerous children and grandchildren be ? Or is suffering in a world without America the price people must pay for having large families ?
  • January 22 2013 | by humblewriter

    I was raised in the 1950s. I have known many many large families (pre-contraception days) who did not starve but managed to eat a balanced simple diet without all the food additives, etc. Obesity was not a common thing. Food prices were in a reasonable propotion to wages: check out the percentage of income that a family now pays for food--you will see a tremendous jump. Why is this? Why is food so darn expensive? Perhaps we should be asking that question. Perhaps we are paying for a lot of fancy packaging and convenience foods. Like many girls from my era, I took Home Economics and we learned how to save and stretch and still provide good healthy organized meals. I don't think they do that anymore. Among all the families that I have known that had many children, we all almost never SHOPPED. It was a once-year-back-to school at JC Penny or Sears. Affordable. Then, those clothes were HANDED down. There was none of this every drop of the hat buying something IN FASHION because everyone else has it. In fact, everyone ALWAYS inherited big brother or big sister shoes and clothes and life went on and no one suffered emotional loss of decreased quality of life. In fact, we really never worried about any of this. As far as toys and gadgets, well, we had sticks and other gadgets that motivated our imaginations. And we ran barefoot in the summer and played baseball on the sandlot. None of us grew up to be mass murderers and all of us have been good citizens. Perhaps we should be talking about some of these things. Where there is no demand, there is no market. I think the flaw lies with all of us in our misguided consumerism and our endless search to entertain ourselves.