Saturday, November 08, 2014

No Coupons Required

As goes Wal-Mart, so goes the United States.

Perhaps that’s the best sum-up of last week’s mid-term and gubernatorial elections. 

How do I know?

Wal-Mart stock is trading at nearly $80 a share and its revenues increased more than 16 percent from 2010 to 2014 to just over $476 billion.[i] 

Who knows, maybe they’ll cross the $500 billion mark this year, which is another way of saying half a trillion dollars if you're suffering from innumeracy.

That might not be too surprising because, according to the company’s latest annual report, its nearly 5,000 U.S. stores serve about 140 million customers every week,[ii] nearly half of the country’s population.  More than 70 percent of the company’s revenues – about $279 billion – is made right here, in the good ole’ USA.

If you bought Wal-Mart stock when President Obama was first inaugurated, in January 2009, and you still own it, you’re doing okay.  It’s up about $30 a share since then.[iii] 

So for all of Friday’s news about how the unemployment rate is below 6 percent – another way of saying Americans were so stupid they traded in the Democrats for the Republicans – Wal-Mart’s numbers tell a very different story.

Americans are worried!

They’re shopping Wal-Mart because they fear the paycheck they received last week won't be there next week, next month, even next year.

Even if they’re aware of Wal-Mart’s negative stories, their immediate anxiety is they’ll be nickel and dimed – by their employer.

Plus, as Barron’s Gene Epstein reports, there’s been little wage growth in the United States and there remains a dearth of men working, especially those between the ages of 25 – 54.[iv]

I’m no Wal-Mart fan.  But my travels with Tribune Media Services, peddling comics, columns, crossword puzzles and news services, over the course of 13 years, taking me to 40-odd states and a lot of small towns, showed me its power:  Wal-Mart changes the economic fabric of small towns and cities.[v]

But, you know, I’m not so proud to say I’ve never shopped Wal-Mart either.

It’s had products our household needed that no one else offered, from a particular size drip pan for our stove to diapers that fit my sons when they were babies.
I didn’t like going there.  The place gave me the heebe jeebes.  But I always noted the parking lot was full.

So for all the whining from the liberals, whether they’re friends or commentators in the press, about last Tuesday’s results  – and for all of the celebrations from the conservative ones – everyone missed the boat.

Wal-Mart won the election.

I’m worried.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Politics of You, Me and Us

My 12-year-old precocious son asked me about last night’s election results, just before he went off to school today.

In particular, he asked about my party affiliation.  When I was 18, I said, I registered with the Democrats but soon, thereafter, realized that was a mistake. 

“Because you thought they were a little nutty,” he asked.

“Maybe,” I replied. “But it didn’t make me run into the arms of the Republican Party either.”

Then I said I’m with the Democrats when they talk about civil and human rights but I’m with the Republicans when they talk about money.

“So, really, I’m more Libertarian,” I said.  

What I didn’t tell him – because time was running short – was that I also support same-gender marriage and women’s reproductive rights. 

Elections are pictures of a moment in time.  People vote for whom they vote for many reasons.

Part of it might be because they read up on the issues, deciding one candidate fits their views better than another.  Some of it, as Wall Street Journal op-ed columnist Joseph Epstein[i] suggests, might be due to circumstances few consider – family, parents, siblings, how they were brought up, where they live, what they do, the education they received.

So we might consider – outrageous as it might seem – that we’re all brainwashed or, if you prefer in this digital age, hardwired, for certain beliefs long before we leave the confines of where we grew up.

Matt Miller, a columnist I once syndicated, and a candidate himself recently for U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman’s seat, taught me one of the best lessons about why one politician is elected over another:  It’s all in the looks.

Turn down the television’s volume when they’re debating or when their ads appear, he said, and it’ll allow you to better study their facial features and expressions, telling you whether they’re happy or angry.

As I recall, he said, the happy ones tend to hold an advantage.  Not always, of course.  But often.

So perhaps it was Martha Coakley’s face that led to her second significant defeat in a statewide contest.  It’s narrow and constricted, not warm enough to win. 

And while you might think that’s sexist, Coakley’s facial disadvantage was the same one that hindered Charlie Baker four years ago when he tried to unseat Gov. Deval Patrick. 

I hope the politicians assembling in Washington and the country’s state capitals in January follow the lesson my mother taught me:  Hold any political view you want, but, remember, life’s solutions are found in the middle.

As for Matt Miller, unfortunately, he didn’t secure his party’s nomination for Waxman’s seat.

I came to know Matt during my time at Tribune Media Services and always found him to be one of the smartest commentators we syndicated.  He’s a centrist Democrat, a former Clinton White House staffer and would have been a solid operator not only for his party but also when it came to working with Republicans. 

His defeat sheds light on the kind of politics those elected must hold.  It illuminates us.