On Walmart, And Who Bears Responsibility For the Poor

by ChrisHallquist2 min read27th Nov 2013512 comments


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Note: Originally posted in Discussion, edited to take comments there into account.

Yes, politics, boo hiss. In my defense, the topic of this post cuts across usual tribal affiliations (I write it as a liberal criticizing other liberals), and has a couple strong tie-ins with main LessWrong topics:

  • It's a tidy example of a failure to apply consequentialist / effective altruist-type reasoning. And while it's probably true that the people I'm critiquing aren't consequentialists by any means, it's a case where failing to look at the consequences leads people to say some particularly silly things.
  • I think there's a good chance this is a political issue that will become a lot more important as more and more jobs are replaced by automation. (If the previous sentence sounds obviously stupid to you, the best I can do without writing an entire post on that is vaguely gesturing at gwern on neo-luddism, though I don't agree with all of it.)

The issue is this: recently, I've seen a meme going around to the effect that companies like Walmart that have a large number of employees on government benefits are the "real welfare queens" or somesuch, and with the implied message that all companies have a moral obligation to pay their employees enough that they don't need government benefits. (I say mention Walmart because it's the most frequently mentioned villain in this meme, but others, like McDonalds, get mentioned.)

My initial awareness of this meme came from it being all over my Facebook feed, but when I went to Google to track down examples, I found it coming out of the mouths of some fairly prominent congresscritters. For example Alan Grayson:

In state after state, the largest group of Medicaid recipients is Walmart employees. I'm sure that the same thing is true of food stamp recipients. Each Walmart "associate" costs the taxpayers an average of more than $1,000 in public assistance.

Or Bernie Sanders:

The Walmart family... here's an amazing story. The Walmart family is the wealthiest family in this country, worth about $100 billion. owning more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of the American people, and yet here's the incredible fact.

Because their wages and benefits are so low, they are the major welfare recipients in America, because many, many of their workers depend on Medicaid, depend on food stamps, depend on government subsidies for housing. So, if the minimum wage went up for Walmart, would be a real cut in their profits, but it would be a real savings by the way for taxpayers, who would not having to subsidize Walmart employees because of their low wages.

Now here's why this is weird: consider Grayson's claim that each Walmart employee costs the taxpayers on average $1,000. In what sense is that true? If Walmart fired those employees, it wouldn't save the taxpayers money: if anything, it would increase the strain on public services. Conversely, it's unlikely that cutting benefits would force Walmart to pay higher wages: if anything, it would make people more desperate and willing to work for low wages. (Cf. this this excellent critique of the anti-Walmart meme).

Or consider Sanders' claim that it would be better to raise the minimum wage and spend less on government benefits. He emphasizes that Walmart could take a hit in profits to pay its employees more. It's unclear to what degree that's true (see again previous link), and unclear if there's a practical way for the government to force Walmart to do that, but ignore those issues, it's worth pointing out that you could also just raise taxes on rich people generally to increase benefits for low-wage workers. The idea seems to be that morally, Walmart employees should be primarily Walmart's moral responsibility, and not so much the moral responsibility of the (the more well-off segment of) the population in general.

But the idea that employing someone gives you a general responsibility for their welfare (beyond, say, not tricking them into working for less pay or under worse conditions than you initially promised) is also very odd. It suggests that if you want to be virtuous, you should avoid hiring people, so as to keep your hands clean and avoid the moral contagion that comes with employing low wage workers. Yet such a policy doesn't actually help the people who might want jobs from you. This is not to deny that, plausibly, wealthy onwers of Walmart stock have a moral responsibility to the poor. What's implausible is that non-Walmart stock owners have significantly less responsibility to the poor.

This meme also worries me because I lean towards thinking that the minimum wage isn't a terrible policy but we'd be better off replacing it with guaranteed basic income (or an otherwise more lavish welfare state). And guaranteed basic income could be a really important policy to have as more and more jobs are replaced by automation (again see gwern if that seems crazy to you). I worry that this anti-Walmart meme could lead to an odd left-wing resistance to GBI/more lavish welfare state, since the policy would be branded as a subsidy to Walmart.

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