Debating Wal-Mart

In Slate, exchanges between Barbara Ehrenreich and Jason Furman on whether Wal-Mart is good for the working class and for Wal-Mart workers.

[Furman] Maybe you’re ready to grant my point that Wal-Mart’s low prices are great for the 298 million Americans who don’t work there. But what about the 1.3 million Americans who do work for Wal-Mart? Here the evidence is murkier, in part because Wal-Mart refuses to release the data on its wages and benefits that could clear up a number of questions. What we do know is that its wages and benefits are about average for the retail sector—which is to say, not so great. It is harder to quantify other aspects of the job, like the quality of the work, the number of breaks, the prospects for advancement. You should let me know how you think it compares.

Studies have reached conflicting conclusions about the impact of Wal-Mart on local labor markets, with some finding that it creates more jobs than it displaces and others finding that it reduces jobs and nominal wages. Personally, I don’t put a huge amount of stock in any of these findings because I believe that Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve decide the total number of jobs nationwide. If anything, the greater competition and productivity growth associated with the growth of Wal-Mart may have played a role in allowing the Federal Reserve to tolerate the high level of job creation in the 1990s.