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Friday, July 3, 2009

Wal-Mart Does Not Believe in Altruism, It Believes in PROFIT

The largest retailer in the world made a surprise announcement this week. Wal-Mart said that that it supports the White House's proposed health care reform that would require employers to provide health insurance to their workers. Many companies including Wal-Mart—the nation's largest private employer—have long opposed a mandate in fear of the cost burden it could bring to their businesses. So why would Wal-Mart change its mind?

A responsibility in my previous job was to develop the marketing strategy for our Wal-Mart efforts. The most important thing I learned about the retailer was that there isn't a manager at Wal-Mart that wouldn't run over their own grandma to gain one more market-share point or to get rate that was lower then the competition. I don't say that as a knock, this is why the company is so successful.

The reason for Wal-Mart's change is simple they either think the government program will give them a competitive advantage against the competition, or they think it will wipe out an advantage that the competition has,otherwise they would not get involved. You see Wal-Mart does not believe in altruism, they believe in PROFIT:

Everyday Low Politics Wal-Mart buys protection by selling out its competitors.

Corporate America's cheerleading for more government involvement in health care now includes Wal-Mart, that liberal paragon of social irresponsibility. The discount giant's ex-critics probably ought to be more skeptical, given that this seems to be anticompetitive special pleading in progressive drag.

This week the nation's largest employer blessed an employer mandate, aka "pay or play." This would require businesses that do not offer "meaningful coverage" -- i.e., government-approved -- to pay some percentage of their payroll to a federal insurance plan. This mandate is one of the more controversial policies in the Democratic health package, and Wal-Mart's endorsement will help it along, or at least give liberals political cover against business criticism.

Another way of putting it is that Andy Stern finally got his man. Wal-Mart CEO Mike Duke was joined in his show of support by Mr. Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union and probably the most influential U.S. labor leader, as well as by John Podesta, President Clinton's former chief of staff now running the leftward Center for American Progress. Both organizations regularly assail Wal-Mart. The SEIU, having failed in its drive to organize Wal-Mart stores, went on to help fund a harassment group called Wal-Mart Watch. The Podesta outfit provides ammunition for critics about the retailer's supposedly skimpy benefits -- especially health coverage -- and other corporate-greed outrages.

Then the fog of politics set in. Wal-Mart hired Leslie Dach, another former Clinton operative, to give its public image an extreme makeover. It has since rolled out green programs (most of which save it money in any case), and in 2007 the company joined with organized labor to call for universal health care by 2012. Two years before, it plumped for a higher minimum wage.

The employer-mandate endorsement falls into the same self-interest department. A boost in the minimum wage helps Wal-Mart because most of its workers already earn well over the wage floor, and it hurts smaller, less-profitable competitors that can't afford to pay more. On health care, an employer mandate will also reduce the margins of their rivals. This is especially true for businesses of a slightly smaller size that cannot insure on the same scale or currently don't reach the 55% of the 1.4 million Wal-Mart employees who are insured through the company. (Another 40% or so are covered by spouses or the likes of Medicaid.)

The Wal-Mart-Stern-Podesta troika made sure to specify that "shared responsibility" must be "fair and broad in its coverage," with an emphasis on the latter. The Mom & Pop stores that liberals accuse Wal-Mart of running out of town may get hit hardest. Democrats say they'll exempt certain small businesses, size details to be determined. But if the mandate is limited to large employers, it won't reduce the number of uninsured. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 99% of firms with more than 200 workers provide health benefits, only 62% of smaller firms.

Businesses are also largely indifferent whether compensation comes in the form of wages or benefits, so an employer mandate -- an indirect tax on employment -- may cause wages to rise more slowly. Or it may simply mean fewer jobs. In a 2007 paper, the economists Katherine Baicker of Harvard and Helen Levy of the University of Michigan estimate that 0.2% of all full-time workers and 1.4% of uninsured workers would lose their lobs because of an employer mandate. Most at risk are the 33% of the uninsured earning within $3 of the minimum wage. Thus many of the same people who shop at Wal-Mart because of its low prices -- and who Democrats claim to speak for -- would be worse off.

An employer pay-or-play tax is not only a revenue grab to fund government health care, but it is also meant to transfer the choices about coverage to government from consumers. Businesses are going along with this and other gambits in part because of a prisoners' dilemma: They're terrified of being shut out of Democratic health negotiations lest they get stuck with the bill. Wal-Mart may also be trying to pre-empt an employer mandate the Senate is considering that would target companies with predominantly low-wage, low-skilled or entry-level work forces.

Other big businesses are also trying to buy protection or some political reprieve. Big Pharma recently promised to reduce the cost of prescription drugs by $80 billion over the next decade, and the physician, hospital and insurance lobbies have made similar offerings. Yet the political class is simply pocketing these concessions and demanding more, hastening the day when government controls most U.S. health dollars -- and the businesses become the equivalent of utilities.

Mr. Stern has been clear that his major goal all along has been to pressure Wal-Mart into endorsing government health insurance. As for Wal-Mart's executives, please don't come running for help when Mr. Stern returns for his next political payoff.

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