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May 29

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Walmart’s unsurprising bribes

Bribery is as American as apple pie.

By Donald Kaul

Donald Kaul

I’ve never been a great fan of Walmart.

I like little towns, towns where Main Street is lined with small shops and stores — drugstores, hardware stores, a café where you can get breakfast or lunch, maybe a clothing store or two — that kind of little town. In its heyday, it was a place you could go to shop and meet friends by accident, perhaps sit down with them for a cup of coffee. It was a business district of angle parking, no meters. Main Street was charming.

Once there were thousands of places like that in this country — not exactly thriving perhaps, but surviving. Then Walmart and its imitators came along and started planting big box stores just beyond the city limits, where taxes and land costs were negligible.

By taking advantage of the economies of size and computerized inventory control, they were able to undercut the poor townies on price, variety, and convenience. Almost instantly the economic vitality of those little towns was sucked out of them, as though a tornado had gone up one side of Main Street and down the other.

The big-box tornado left in its wake little ghost towns comprised of crumbling buildings with empty storefronts, some of them boarded up.

"The United States of Walmart," an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.

I hate that. I think the cost of the loss of that small town culture is far greater than what we gain by being able to buy cheap toilet paper.

But that’s me. I’m a Romantic, moreover one who can afford to pay a little more for toilet paper.

Walmart represents Progress, the God we worship above all others in these United States of Capitalism. Kill the competition, slash prices, break the unions, lobby against the minimum wage, make a lot of money, then make a lot more but don’t share it around. That’s what we do, who we are. If you don’t like it, move to Canada.

That said, I’m not altogether happy with the fact that so much is being made of Walmart bribing its way into choice locations in Mexico. From all reports, those are the rules they play by down there. I can’t put too much blame on Walmart for playing by them.

Particularly because we play by the same rules up here. Bribery is as American as apple pie. It’s as ingrained in our Constitution as freedom of speech. As a matter of fact, it is freedom of speech — and if you don’t believe me, ask the Supreme Court.

The Court has ruled that you really can’t keep rich people, corporations, or unions from putting as much money as they want into a political campaign, so long as they do it in a phony, indirect manner.

So the Republican primaries have seen (in Newt Gingrich’s case) a billionaire stepping up to fund an entire campaign, or (in Romney’s case) many millionaires bonding together to pony up a bursting war chest to destroy political opponents.

And you ain’t seen nothing yet. The 2012 elections will bring into the political system cascades of dollars from both parties.

You think all those political donors are giving hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars because they want good government? If so, I’ll bet you still clap for Tinker Bell.

Those people want something back for their money — and if history is any guide, they will get it, with interest.

So why isn’t that a form of bribery? Because the Supreme Court says it isn’t, I suppose. The Court thinks it’s free speech.

But it looks like bribery, it walks like bribery, and it talks like bribery. It even smells like bribery. I say it’s bribery.

So don’t get all hot and bothered about Walmart laying a few bucks on some Mexican officials. They’re merely doing things the American way.

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. otherwords.org

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