I really liked Megan McArdle’s column and Jason’s post about it this morning. They both nicely illustrate how a lot of the resistance to Walmart and McDonald’s in particular is caused by classism. Just to add to this line, I sometimes hear critics of Walmart etc. ask something like “Well, would you want your child to work at McDonald’s or Walmart when she entered the workforce?” I guess the expected answer is no, (though as an aside, this isn’t so clear to me. It depends on her other options). Yet I wonder if it’s really the low wage that people think is the problem. Now ask, would you want your child to work at that wage at a gluten-free pancake house, or at a small independent clothing store, or as freelance technology writer?
This is all just anecdotal, but I’m guessing that some critics’ problem with people working at Walmart for lower wages isn’t that people receive low wages but that people are working at Walmart, and that’s seen as a bad job to have. Even if the wages are the same, working at Walmart isn’t the same kind of retail job as the hip independent clothing store downtown. McDonald’s is a different kind of food service than the gluten-free pancake house even if the pay and benefits are equivalent.
Some political philosophers have made this point explicitly (e.g. here and here). They argue that principles of justice apply to the content of our labor as well as the compensation we receive for it. If so, then some jobs could be unjust at any wage. Maybe something like this explains the resistance to Walmart, but if so then these distinctions tend to get lost in the policy debate. And if popular critics of Walmart and McDonald’s are concerned with the deskillng and hierarchical nature of some jobs, then they should focus on that and they should also be critical of high paying jobs with these properties.
In any case, if the problem is wages, then why focus on Walmart and McDonald’s? Even if the reason for concentrating on Walmart and McDonald’s is to advocate for large-scale policy change that addresses all low wage jobs, this doesn’t explain why one would single out these companies and industries in particular. Why not just advocate for your favorite way of addressing poverty (I’ll say it again—basic income!)
As McArdle suggests, another possible reason for focusing on these industries is that the authors of this criticism and their audiences are not too concerned about companies like Walmart and McDonald’s. But I’d bet that at least some policy analysts, magazine writers, and their audiences do benefit from other low paying industries such as farm workers, childcare providers, and local small businesses. Is it just a coincidence that those workers receive less of our attention?
And if it’s true that classism explains why people turn their attention to Walmart and McDonald’s in particular, then one concern about this trend is that singling out these workers could further entrench the difficulties associated with having these jobs. Namely, this trend could stigmatize certain kinds of low-wage work. If so, then specific concern for Walmart and McDonald’s workers could actually be harmful to them.