Walmart, the corporation everyone loves to hate (even other corporations), is a bit of a low-hanging fruit, and I wouldn’t, in the interest of originality, even make them the subject of my first post if their latest PR gimmick wasn’t grating at my soul once again by rearing its ugly head, this time in the pages of The Washington Post.
In last Friday’s Wonkblog (since repeated on cue by dozens of other outlets) professional Wonker and ex-Brookings Serious Person™ Christopher Ingraham did what most media economists do these days - he posted something superficially benign yet pseudo-provocative under the guise of insight to make some wishy-washy point about something something jobs.
“Harvard is less coveted than WalmartLOL” is solid linkbait to be sure, but it’s an even better ideological meme, playing both to liberal and conservative snobbery, giving us some cocktail party fodder, and possessing that Gladwellian counter-intuitive twist our idle educated classes love to read at the expense of critical thought. Now, this would be harmless enough if it wasn’t, in fact, also a terribly corrosive and overwrought bit of corporatist propaganda that just won’t, for the love of Christ, go away.
Indeed, Ingraham is not only NOT the first person to repeat Walmart’s own applicant figures as fact, nor is he the first person to give these applicant figures the “harder to get into than Harvard” spin -- he isn’t even the first person to do so in reference to this exact same NBC-4 news story (Business Insider wrote, more or less, the same post last November) This isn’t beating a dead horse, it’s exhuming the corpse of a four-month-dead horse and pulling a Weekend at Bernie’s to look cute.
The conclusion isn’t the problem, the entire premise is.
Those discussing in the comment sections and on Twitter focused on the post’s (and subsequent reposts’) methodology and whether or not it was sound to “compare” the two. Of course it isn’t, but this whole line of discussion is a silly distraction. The core problem everyone seems to be missing is this:
The one real data input we have, applicant numbers, is entirely pulled out of Walmart’s ass.
There’s no corroborating evidence or third-party analysis of any kind as to how many people applied for these jobs. And why the press wouldn’t think Walmart would have, at least, a slight incentive to manufacture employment demand is shockingly dense to say the least. But when the world’s largest corporation asserts similarly flattering numbers we blindly accept it prima facie. This is a company that the "liberal media" routinely acknowledges commits widespread wage theft, casual environmental destruction, and old-school union-busting, and has been caught red-handed making an entirely fake blog starring entirely fake couple “Jim and Laura" on an entirely fake "road trip". But why, on this matter, have they either uncritically repeated or entirely ignored what is such an obvious self-serving pseduo-statistic?
Motive for bullshit
Walmart is waging dozens of regulatory (aka public image) battles across the United States, namely in major markets like San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and D.C., where they have been or were effectively banned. As their growth in rural and suburban areas has slowed, they have no place to turn but these urban markets, where factors like a snobbier yuppie class and the fading, but still potent, vestiges of worker protection must be mitigated in new and more sophisticated ways in order to maintain previous growth models.
As such, having long given up any Whole Foodsy nice guy angle, Walmart’s play over the past few years has been that of reluctant job provider. The Jack Bauer of working class employment: a rightwing cartoon liberals mock at cocktail parties but who - at the end of the day – they secretly appreciate and know to be a necessary evil. A crucial, if not axiomatic, part of this strategy is the image of a desperate working class lining up in droves for a job, any job, their feckless leaders (corporate or public) have failed to provide. An image, that while perhaps true, is entirely painted, maintained, and curated by the one party most in need of its effect: Walmart.
Evidence for Bullshit
1) Buried within the initial reports of Walmart’s “hiring center” openings (and later ignored altogether) was that the D.C. Mayor, through the city’s “One City One Hire” program, was “prescreening” a number of candidates and sending to Walmart those they deemed “prequalified”. Put another way: the Mayor’s office was actively recruiting people to go apply at Walmart so the Mayor - who in the last month alone had pissed off his base, the unions, and city council by killing the popular living wage bill - could scrabble to cover his ass. So, even if the cartoonishly high number of 23,000 was "accurate", it could not be said that it was, at all, an honest reflection of employment demand.
2) Walmart releasing obscenely high applicant numbers (5 figures) has happened four times in recent history and each of those times it occurred in the midst of a volatile political fight in a large urban market, almost always in reference to a "new opening" outside of that fight but geographically proximate (see: same media market) to it.
And now "23,000" applicants for two Washington D.C. area stores after the city council took years to win over and their broader D.C. metro expansion still very much in doubt.
3) Disparate repetition of the exact same (ostensibly novel) factoid or story over many years and many publications is evidence of a coordinated messaging campaign. A bit of historical context first: The “huge job demand” trope’s most effective vehicle, the “Walmart is more selective than Harvard” meme, was first coined by Obama's current Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, Jason Furman, in his 2005 paper “Wal-Mart: a Progressive Success Story” and hasn’t left us since. Its biggest pusher being the American Enterprise Institute economist Mark Perry, who has used it at least a dozen times over the past seven years to deride Walmart’s naysayers, most notably in an entirely unironic 2013 post advocating that Walmart receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
This is not a joke, read it here.
Indeed, evidence for both the trope ("demand for Walmart jobs is high") and its preferred meme vehicle ("Walmart's harder to get into than Harvard") have been appearing in the press repeatedly for years:
Hell, even Colbert helped spread this meme last year.
Again, one would think that a $470 billion corporation whose entire growth strategy (urban penetration) is contingent upon increased public approval ("Walmart means jobs”) would be met, when presenting "data" that supported these aims, with a bit more incredulity. But once it's taken hold, once it's been solidified by the establishment arbiters of truth and morphed into meme form, it's simply accepted as fact - even, most depressingly, by those ostensibly opposed to the meme's broader effect.
And that's the brilliance of the “job demand” trope and why it’s spread entirely unchecked. It isn't, on its face, necessarily pernicious or far-right in its bent. Rather, it plays wonderfully into a typical lefty economic “Oh, dearism”: a term coined by British social critic and documentarian Adam Curtis to describe the helpless and impotent navel-gazing by liberals toward any vague evil too obscure or too big for us to do anything about. The image of Walmart as a terrible but necessary “job creator” simply filling an urgent need caused by some abstract and uncontrollable “jobs crisis” – never once allowing for the possibility that the Walmarts of the world and their shit labor standards are, in fact, the real “jobs crisis” – is the brilliant intellectual coup at work here. It abstracts, it removes the problem from the realm of the human, from the democratic. The problem isn’t anyone’s fault, it’s just “jobs”. In this moral hamster wheel all that matters is getting, maintaining, and being grateful for the privilege of selling one’s labor to anyone so long as the alternative is poverty. Rights and collective action and justice are boutique niceties of a time past because, after all, didn't you see how many people lined up for a job at that new Walmart?