Obama Top Economist Likes Wal-Mart and Sees Improved Worker Living Standards

(p. C1) Acting quickly after securing his party’s presidential nomination, Barack Obama picked a well-known representative of Bill Clinton’s economic policies as his economic policy director and signaled this week that the major players from the Clinton economics team were now in his camp — starting with Robert E. Rubin.
Senator Obama, Democrat of Illinois, hired Jason Furman, a Harvard-trained economist closely associated with Mr. Rubin, a Wall Street insider who served as President Clinton’s Treasury secretary. Labor union leaders criticized the move, and said that ”Rubinomics” focused too much on corporate America and not enough on workers.
. . .
(p. C4) Mr. Furman, who served for a while as a special economic adviser in the Clinton administration, has taken some controversial positions. He argued in 2005, for example, that Wal-Mart, despite its conflicts with organized labor over pay and health insurance, was a good business model.
More recently, he argued that while the typical worker suffers from inadequate income, that worker’s living standards, broadly measured, are higher today than those of their counterparts 30 years ago — an argument in dispute among economists.
. . .
Until now, Austan Goolsbee, an economist at the University of Chicago, had been Mr. Obama’s chief economic adviser. He remains an unpaid adviser. He said he was not a candidate for Mr. Furman’s full-time job because of his university duties.

For the full story, see:
LOUIS UCHITELLE. “Union Critical of Obama’s Top Economics Aide.” The New York Times (Thurs., June 12, 2008): C1 & C4.
(Note: ellipses added.)

Wal-Mart Designs Health Care Around the Needs of Consumers


LedlieAliciaWalMartHealth.jpg “Alicia Ledlie, senior director of health business development for Wal-Mart, said walk-in medical clinics would look like the mockup behind her, in a warehouse in Bentonville, Ark.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. C4) Moving to upgrade its walk-in medical clinic business, Wal-Mart is set to announce on Thursday plans for several hundred new clinics at its stores, using a standardized format and jointly branded with hospitals and medical groups.
. . .
Walk-in medical clinics are a growing industry, with numerous competitors that include big-box retailers, drugstores and even grocery chains around the country. Industry executives say 1,500 to 1,800 clinics will be open by the end of the year.
Propelled by the drugstore chains CVS and Walgreens, by far the biggest sponsors of the clinics to date, more than 700 clinics have opened in the last 15 months. But the business model is unproven so far.
Few, if any, clinics are profitable, according to industry analysts, and only a handful have broken even on daily operations. Most have been open a year or less, and executives say it takes up to three years for a clinic to become profitable enough to recover start-up costs.
Medical societies are inclined to be skeptical of the clinics. The American Academy of Pediatrics opposes them, saying they add to fragmentation in the health care system.
Dr. Edward Zissman, a pediatrician in central Florida, said he had qualms about hospitals that hook up with the clinics. “Putting their name on a product that I don’t think has the highest quality,” he said, “is going to cost them dearly with physicians.”
The American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Medical Association have set forth principles for clinics to observe, including sending patients’ medical record to their doctors and finding doctors for patients who do not already have them. Most states require varying degrees of physician supervision of the clinic nurses. Clinic operators say they are complying.
Many patients have said they like the convenience of the walk-in clinics’ weekend and evening hours, the short waiting times to see a nurse practitioner, and the posted price lists for a limited menu of care like tests and prescriptions for sore throats and ear infections and seasonal flu shots.
. . .
“The clinics are the latest big example of how you could think about consumers and what their needs are, rather than a health care system exclusively designed around the needs of providers,” said Margaret Laws, director of an innovations program at the California Health Care Foundation, an independent group that finances health policy research.



For the full story, see:
MILT FREUDENHEIM. “Wal-Mart Will Expand In-Store Medical Clinics.” The New York Times (Thurs., February 7, 2008): C4.
(Note: ellipses added.)



WalMartMedicalClinicDesign.jpg “The design of the Wal-Mart medical clinic is intended to look like a doctor’s office, complete with the usual medical hardware.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

Why New York City Needs Wal-Mart

 

(p. 7)  . . .  an enduring mystery of the retail economic world: why don’t people in New York City want a Wal-Mart in Midtown?

Manhattan is the most underserved market I have ever seen for retail customers. There really is nowhere for bargains on ordinary household goods and groceries in the whole borough. Yes, I know unions hate Wal-Mart. But not every New Yorker is in a union, and every New Yorker needs food and paper towels. (I, by the way, am a member of three unions: the Screen Actors Guild, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and the Writers Guild of America, West. How many unions is Mayor Michael Bloomberg in?)

Don’t the consumers deserve a break, too? I know Wal-Mart is not hip, slick and cool. It’s for people who have to live within a budget, not for people who see movies with subtitles and have houses on Martha’s Vineyard (or would like to). But don’t working-class people deserve bargains on their daily bread?

To keep Wal-Mart out of New York — or my home, Los Angeles — is simply to inflict a snobby class prejudice on working people. Why they and their representatives put up with this classist, ”let them eat Whole Foods” nonsense is yet another mystery, and one that could be solved if politicians really cared about consumers.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

BEN STEIN.  "EVERYBODY’S BUSINESS; Assorted Mysteries of Economic Life."  The New York Times, Section 3  (Sun., May 13, 2007):  7.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

 

Investor Wally Weitz Defends Wal-Mart

 

(p. 1D)  Weitz was able to deliver good news to about 200 shareholders in his investment company, Wallace R. Weitz & Co., at the firm’s annual meeting at the Scott Conference Center in Omaha.

The flagship Value Fund grew 18.3 percent in the fiscal year ended March 31, compared with the Standard & Poor’s 500’s 11.8 percent. The Value Fund accounts for more than $3 billion of Weitz & Co.’s $6.5 billion in assets.

. . .

(p. 2D)  Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is among the companies Weitz has invested in, and one investor asked about controversy that company has faced in recent years. Weitz said a lot of negative publicity has resulted from Wal-Mart’s huge scale, its ability to obtain less expensive products overseas, its efficient use of technology and its low prices driving competitors out of business.

Low prices that discount stores offered years ago brought them similar criticism, he said.

"It’s one of those progress things," Weitz said.

 

For the full story, see: 

Joe Ruff.  "Weitz not interested in Buffett position."  Omaha World-Herald  (Wednesday, May 23, 2007):  1D-2D.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)

 

Anti-Wal-Mart is Anti-Free-Choice

     Source of logo/header:  http://www.muddycup.com/mudlane/img/header.jpg

 

The article excerpted below reveals the soul of much of the anti-Wal-Mart movement.  It is not anti-big; it is anti-competition and anti-free-choice.

 

How in the world did a guy who started his first coffee shop on Staten Island six years ago and now runs five others in far-flung Hudson Valley towns become the moral equivalent of Wal-Mart and Starbucks? “Well, it’s now official,” he announced last month on the Web site that promotes his Muddy Cup coffeehouses. “I am now head of the evil empire.”

. . .

And now the talk of New Paltz has to do with something far more important than mere marriage — coffee. More specifically it’s whether Mr. Svetz is plotting an act of entrepreneurial imperialism by presuming to open one of his Muddy Cup coffeehouses next door to the ultimate green icon in town, the funky 60 Main coffee shop operated in conjunction with the nonprofit New Paltz Cultural Collective.

. . .

Little did he know. As word filtered out he began receiving a blizzard of e-mail messages from 60 Main proponents, reacting to an urgent appeal from the collective. The messages threatened a boycott and told him to stay home. “If we can stop Wal-Mart we can stop you,” said one.

“We do not want to become yet another small town taken over by huge corporations,” read another.

. . .

Mr. Svetz is still stunned by the whole thing, particularly his sudden status as a giant corporation. He says that just as lots of bars coexist in town, several coffee shops can too. Maybe he’s right. Maybe he’s not. He’s not Wal-Mart, but maybe it’s fair to ask how many artist-friendly coffeehouses the village can support. But it’s hard to argue when he says that even in New Paltz, businesses generally have to compete to survive, not find a way to build a Berlin Wall around town.

“When a community starts building walls and saying you don’t belong here or you don’t think like we do, that can’t be a good thing,” he said.

 

For the full story, see: 

PETER APPLEBOME.  "Coffee Puts Laid-Back Town on Edge."  The New York Times, Section 1  (Sun., March 4, 2007):  21. 

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 

Wal-Mart Improves Life in Mexico

   Source of graphic:  online version of the WSJ article cited below.

 

(p. A1)  JUCHITÁN, Mexico — For as long as anyone can remember, shopping for many items in this Zapotec Indian town meant lousy selection and high prices. Most families live on less than $4,000 a year. Little wonder that this provincial corner of Oaxaca, historically famous for keeping outsiders at bay, welcomed the arrival of Wal-Mart.

Back home in the U.S., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is known not only for its relentless focus on low prices but also for its many critics, who assail it for everything from the wages it pays to its role in homogenizing American culture. But while its growth in the U.S. is slowing, Wal-Mart is striking gold south of the border, largely free from all the criticism. Like Wal-Mart fans in less affluent parts of America, most shoppers in developing countries are much more concerned about the cost of medicine and microwaves than the cultural incursions of a multinational corporation.

That fact is making Wal-Mart a dominant force in Latin America. Wal-Mart de México SAB, a publicly traded subsidiary, is not only the biggest private employer in Mexico — it’s the biggest single retailer in Latin America. Sales at Wal-Mex, as the Mexican unit is called, are forecast to rise 16% to $21 billion this year, representing a quarter of Wal-Mart’s foreign revenue. International revenue soared 30% to $77.1 billion, accounting for 22% of Wal-Mart’s sales, in the fiscal year ended Jan. 31. Wal-Mex profits are forecast to grow 20% to $1.3 billion this year.

. . .

(p. A14)  In Mexico, Wal-Mart has been a counterweight to the powers that control commerce. One of the most closed economies in the world until the late 1980s, Mexico was dominated for decades by a handful of big grocers and retailers. All were members of a national retailing association called ANTAD, and cutthroat competition was taboo. At the local level, towns are still hostage to local bosses, known here as caciques, the Indian word for local strongmen who control politics and commerce.

. . .

In recent months, as rising prices for U.S. corn pushed up the price of Mexico’s corn tortilla, a staple for millions of poor, Wal-Mart could keep tortilla prices largely steady because of its long-term contracts with corn-flour suppliers. The crisis turned into free advertising for Wal-Mart, as new shoppers lined up for the cheaper tortillas.

Wal-Mart also overcame a Juchitán cacique, or local boss: Héctor Matus, a trained doctor who goes by La Garnacha, the name for a fried tortilla snack popular in town. Dr. Matus, 55, owns six pharmacies, stationery stores and general stores. He has also held an array of political posts, including Juchitán mayor and state health minister. As town mayor from 2002 to 2004, he says he blocked a national medical-testing chain from opening in town because it meant low-price competition to local businessmen doing blood work.

But Dr. Matus couldn’t persuade local and state officials to block Wal-Mart, and he is feeling the pinch. Sales are off 15% at his stores since Wal-Mart arrived, and he is now lowering prices in response. Even so, he’s still more expensive. A box of Losec stomach medicine costs 80 pesos ($7.30) at one of Dr. Matus’s stores, marked down from 86 pesos. The price at Wal-Mart is 77 pesos ($7.20).

Dr. Matus isn’t happy about the competition. "I could still kick them out of town, because I know how to mobilize people," he said, sitting in his living room surrounded by pictures of him with leading Mexican politicians dating back to the 1970s. Despite his bravado, town officials say Wal-Mart is staying. "The ones who have benefited the most [from Wal-Mart] are the poorest," says Feliciano Santiago, the deputy mayor. "I hope another one comes."

. . .

Gisela López, the 31-year-old head of billing at the Juchitán store, benefited from the retailer’s system of promoting from within. Raised by her uneducated, Zapotec-speaking grandparents, Ms. López earned a computer degree at Juchitán’s small technical college and then left for the booming northern city of Monterrey in search of opportunity.

Lacking connections, she couldn’t find the office job she dreamed about, and took a job at one of Wal-Mart’s stores. After three months, Ms. López made cashier supervisor, and later moved over to the billing department. When Wal-Mart opened a store in Juchitán, Ms. López jumped at the chance to move home — and was promoted to billing chief in the process.

"It’s a very different place to work, because you can succeed by your own effort," says Ms. López, whose $12,000-a-year salary now puts her in Mexico’s middle class.

Ms. López’s story of economic mobility is a rare one. Most of her childhood friends don’t have steady jobs, she said. The success stories are friends who inherited jobs from their parents at the state oil company’s big refinery in Salina Cruz, about an hour away.

 

For the full story, see:

JOHN LYONS.  "SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY; In Mexico, Wal-Mart Is Defying Its Critics; Low Prices Boost Its Sales and Popularity In Developing Markets."   The Wall Street Journal  (Mon., March 5, 2007):  A1 & A14. 

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 

WalMartJuchitanMap.gif MatusHector.gif LopezGisela.gif Source of map and images:  online version of the WSJ article cited above.

 

Preventing Creative Destruction Slows Economic Growth

 

GrowthRatesUS-Eur-JapanGraphic.jpg   Source of graphic:  online version of the NYT article cited below. 

 

It would be interesting to explore why the gap in growth rates was smaller last year than previously.  Was it a statistical fluke?  Or did the U.S. labor market become somewhat less flexible?  Or maybe the job market in Europe and Japan became somewhat more flexible? 

 

FOR more than a decade, many American economists have pointed to Europe and Japan as prima facie evidence that layoffs in the United States are a good thing. The economies in those countries were not nearly as robust as this country’s. And the reason? Too much job security in Europe and Japan, the economists said.

American employers, in sharp contrast, have operated with much more “flexibility.” Hiring and firing at will, they shift labor from where it is not needed to where it is needed. If Eastman Kodak is struggling to establish itself in digital photography, then Kodak downsizes and labor moves to industries and companies that are thriving — software, for example, or health care, or Wal-Mart Stores or Caterpillar.

This shuffling out of one job and into another shows up in the statistics as nearly full employment. Never mind that the shuffling does not work as efficiently as the description implies or that many of the laid-off workers find themselves earning less in their next jobs, an income roller coaster that is absent in Europe and Japan. A dynamic economy leaves no alternative, or so the reasoning goes among mainstream economists.

“Trying to prevent this creative destruction from happening is a recipe for less economic growth and less productivity,” said Barry Eichengreen, an international economist at the University of California, Berkeley.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

LOUIS UCHITELLE.  "ECONOMIC VIEW; Job Security, Too, May Have a Happy Medium."  The New York Times, Section 3 (Sun., February 25, 2007):  5.