In recent decades, Walmart has come to represent the epitome of capitalist success: The company’s founder, Sam Walton of Oklahoma, was a self-made billionaire and a retail pioneer who built his business on rock-bottom prices.
But for many of Walmart’s workers, the company illuminates the darker side of capitalism: The company does nearly $500 billion in worldwide sales each year, but its low prices are made possible by cheap, overseas production and hourly workers’ paltry pay. Walmart is the largest private employer in the U.S. About 1.5 million Americans work for the company, which is equivalent to roughly 1 percent of the U.S. workforce. In fact, the only larger American employer is the federal government. But while Walmart provides plenty of jobs, it squeezes both its employees and suppliers to the extremes.
While the company’s economic impact is historic and undeniable, a recent debate, put on by Open to Debate formerly known as Intelligence Squared U.S. in New York, asked whether Walmart’s existence is something that leaves Americans better off. John Tierney, a contributing editor of City Journal, and Richard Vedder, an economist at Ohio University who wrote 2006’s The Wal-Mart Revolution: How Big-Box Stores Benefit Consumers, Workers, and the Economy, argued in favor of the retailer. Making the case against Walmart were Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Amy Traub, from Demos, a left-leaning research and advocacy group.*