Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Would Jesus Hate WalMart?

The local Catholic Church here in El Paso is a large purveyor of the politically liberal Social Gospel. While I admire many of their aims and goals, I am critical of much of their rationale, as I have written about before. I warn my friends in this movement that I learned a hard lesson when I left the Christian Faith. I learned that I must not hold on to any Dogmas or Ideologies as matters of unshakable conviction. I am a mere human, and prone to fail as mere flesh will, but I do my best to remember that lesson. I enjoy conversations with friends on controversial topics. My secret to keeping my sanity is that I am not offended if I am shown to be wrong. If I claim not to have Faith in any Dogmas, be they religious, political, social, whatever… I must be willing to change my mind on a position if I am presented with convincing evidence. I remind myself that when I am in a heated discussion, I have to have the attitude whereby I am happy to be shown to be wrong. I rejoice in it! I want people to show me where I am wrong! I have learned that I will never grow as a human, I will never continue on my path to maturity if I am never corrected in my thinking, and if I am not willing to concede when I have been corrected.

But see, there is a problem. I have been burned in my life. When evidence or logical reasoning is not available, people will resort to other tricks to convince me that they are correct. I have learned what those tricks are. Over forty years of Christian belief has given me lots of practice at spotting propaganda. As somebody who very recently left the Christian Faith I spent most of my life subjected to bogus argumentation, illogical reasoning, willful ignorance, and sometimes just good old-fashioned bald-faced lies. I often wonder if a person can more easily discern when they are being subtly manipulated and propagandized by various media if they have de-converted from religious Faith. I never took any college courses in advertisement or subliminal manipulations in those advertisements. I am sure I don’t know everything, but I am also sure that leaving Christianity has given me a good headstart.

My friend R---- is, as I have written about before, a Catholic activist for Social Justice. I understand that Social Justice means many different things. I think most everybody wishes for Social Justice, but the problem is that everybody defines it differently. One aspect of Social Justice advocated by R----, if I understand her correctly, is that every human should receive their ‘Fair Share’ (however that malleable term may be defined), and this involves those of us who are more fortunate, to live a more frugal and generous lifestyle. This also means that Big Business is typically (though not always) greedy and corrupt to the core, and the Biggest business of all is the easiest target of all – WalMart. If ever R---- reads this, I do hope she will correct me if I am misrepresenting her opinions, but I do know that this is a view that is common among those in the Catholic Church who advocate for Social Justice. Poverty is a virtue, and Wealth is a sin.

The other day, R---- forwarded this poster to my email. This poster, courtesy of FrugalDad.com, demonstrates The Weight of WalMart! Take a gander:

Walmart Infographic

Source: http://frugaldad.com

The propaganda behind this poster seems obvious to me. I initially started my critique of the poster by checking the sources listed on the bottom of the poster, but on further reflection, I believe that is irrelevant. I know next to nothing about economic theory, and I do not need to start chasing down and reading source material to see that the flaws in the presentation are right on the surface, and plain for all to see if only we apply a little critical reasoning. Even if every number and figure on this poster is correct (and I will assume they are), this poster is full of the same emotional triggers and dirty tricks used by the best snakeoil salesmen, televangelists, and other greasy hucksters. In saying this, I am not saying this to denigrate R---- or any of her friends in the Social Justice mindset. I rarely view things the same way that R---- does, but I know that her heart is in the right place.

Before I go on, please keep in mind that this poster was forwarded to me by a Christian who advocates the Social Gospel. The makers of the poster, FrugalDad.com, are not affiliated with the Catholic Church or any other religious organizations that I can tell. My critique is with the poster, but it uses arguments and logic commonly used by the Social Gospel Christian.

Of the 6 major bullet points on the poster (Revenue, Competition, Geography, Manpower, Trade, and Welfare) not a single one makes a direct negative charge against WalMart. Much of the implied negativity is in the pictures and analogies that are used. All negativity is only subtly implied, and never directly stated. This poster works completely and exclusively on the emotional level. The power of the message is from the emotional pull of the caricatures and cartoons. That is must my first red flag, and I have learned that at this point I must begin to be critical!

In the poster, WalMart is caricatured as a slug-like Jabba the Hutt, sitting on and fully engulfing the entire planet under the folds of his sluggish body. WalMart the Hutt’s face is the drowsy and drunken face of a glutton, relaxing for a nap after its fifth serving of Thanksgiving turkey. Underneath we read:

Walmart is more than Earth’s largest retailer. The finances, footprint, and personnel of this behemoth dwarfs entire industries and countries. Walmart’s epic 400+ billion annual revenues eclipse the GDPs of more than 170 countries, and its 2,100,000 employees would form the second largest standing army on the planet.

With the change of just a couple of trigger words, there is nothing negative implied in this paragraph. In fact, much of the text from this entire poster can be used in a pro-marketing presentation inside WalMart headquarters. But the implication is made by the use of the grotesque WalMart cartoons and the choice of negative analogies and comparisons. The first implication is that Big = Bad. Big = Corrupt. Big = Greedy. Big = all-consuming. This is never stated, but it is to be understood. Also, why is the workforce of WalMart compared to a standing army? Why is that comparison chosen if not to draw a negative inference from the largely pacifistic Christian of the Social Gospel.

Let’s look at all six bullet points in this poster:

1) Revenue. Another cartoon shows Jabba the WalMart glutton as he stuffs himself with cash. Are all WalMart executives greedy SOBs? Maybe they are. I have no way of knowing. But that is irrelevant to my critique.

Walmart’s 2010 revenues were bigger than the revenues of America’s largest oil company, largest manufacturer, and largest pharmaceutical company. Even when combined, the revenues of Chevron, General Electric, and Pfizer still total less than Walmart’s. If revenue were Walmart’s national GDP it would be the 25th LARGEST ECONOMY IN THE WORLD.

Again, nothing negative is stated. It is merely implied that Big is Bad. It seems to me that the Social Justice Christian believes our economy to be the same as that of 1st century Palestine. Isn’t one of the flagship Scriptures of the Social Gospel one of the sermons in the Gospel of Luke, as preached by Jesus himself?

Luke 6:20-26
20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said, Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh.
are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man's sake.
23 Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy: for, behold, your reward is great in heaven: for in the like manner did their fathers unto the prophets.
24 But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation.
25 Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep.

Jesus was assuming an economy of conserved wealth. Capitalism did not yet exist. Wealth, be it in the form of prosperity or poverty, was a conserved property. If somebody like Zacchaeus had money, it was because he swindled it from somebody less clever than he. If Lazarus was poor and allowed dogs to lick his open sores, it was because the Rich Man had the limited money that could have been shared with Lazarus. Only a fixed amount of wealth existed in the world, and there was not yet any means of creating wealth. That is why Jesus told the poor that their day of happiness would one day come. He told them that the rich may be presently rejoicing, but they would soon suffer and their stripped wealth would soon pass to the more virtuous poor. It seems to me that the makers of this poster, and many Social Justice Christians for that matter, believe that we are still living with an economy that Jesus preached about – an economy of limited and conserved wealth. If WalMart is huge, it must be because they are greedier than Chevron. If Chevron is larger than Pfizer, well so much the better for Pfizer – not that 67.8 billion in revenue makes Pfizer any paragon of virtue.

This same false assumption permeates the poster.

2) Competition. WALMART IS EARTH’S LARGEST RETAILER, with 5x the sales of the second largest U.S. retailer Costco, and 10x the sales of the largest online retailer Amazon. Not stopping there, Walmart is also the largest grocer in the United States, with $129 BILLION IN GROCERY SALES ALONE.

Blanket statements that I assume are correct, and are in themselves emotionally neutral. But coupled with a cartoon of Jabba the WalMart stuffing himself into a shopping cart, while terrifying helpless and tiny Costco in his modest shopping basket, and inconsequential, thumb-sized Amazon, strolling by almost unnoticed. Costco and Amazon may be threatened by the terror of WalMart, but if WalMart did not exist, you can bet that Costco would be the Big Business target of the Social Justice Christian – simply because they would be the biggest game in town. Don’t be fooled by the cartoon of diminutive little Amazon; the makers of this poster think they are also too big and threatening.

3) Geography
Lined up side by side, Walmart’s warehouses would COVER ALL OF MANHATTAN’S 880 MILLION SQUARE FEET. 60% of the U.S. population lives within 5 miles of a Walmart. 96% LIVES WITHIN 20 MILES OF ONE.

You know, it occurs to me that I can easily replace the word Walmart with Catholic Church, and after tweaking the numbers a bit to keep it accurate, I could make the same point. In fact, the same holds true for most of this poster. Instead of Jabba the Walmart cartoons, I could Photoshop a silly papal hat on its head, call it Pope Benedict the Hutt, and make absurd comparisons and analogies to demonstrate the size of the world’s largest, most dominant religion, and Christendom’s most pervasive denomination. It would make just as much illogical sense as this poster does.

WALMART’S 2,100.000 EMPLOYESS WOULD FORM THE 2ND LARGEST ACTIVE MILITARY IN THE WORLD, equaling the combined armies of North Korea (1.1 million) and Russia (1 million) Walmart’s 8,000 delivery drivers burn 118 MILLION GALLONS OF FUEL EACH YEAR. Spilled, Walmart’s oil slick would cover an area OVER 1/2 THE SIZE OF BP’S GULF DISASTER, and OVER 4X THE SIZE OF THE EXXON VALDEZ SPILL IN ALASKA.

This is the biggest non-sequitor and illogical leap on the whole poster! Why are WalMart employees compared with a standing army? What makes an army, in particular, the most logical point of comparison? It is because this poster works solely on an illogical and emotional level. WalMart = Armies. Armies = War. War = Bad. Trucks = Oil. Oil = Spills. Spills = Bad. Why not use another comparison? How about - WalMart employees number about 10X the total number of Peace Corps volunteers. WalMart trucks delivered 5X the supplies to post Hurricane New Orleans than the National Guard and 10X more than Salvation Army relief workers. (NOTE – I am making these numbers up for demonstration only) Why not use those or similar comparisons? Because on an emotional level, Peace Corps and Relief Workers = Good. But it is imperative that WalMart be evil. Comparing the number of employees to standing armies and oil spills is about as relevant as comparing them to the number of leaves that fell in my yard last night. FrugalDad, the maker of this poster pulls a similar stunt in another poster in which he compares the aggregated size of Butterball turkeys eaten by gluttonous Americans to the unrelated size of the Tunguska bolide or an atom bomb. These are in no way natural comparisons.

Walmart is the largest U.S. importer of Chinese goods. (15% OF ALL U.S. CHINESE IMPORTS ARE WALMART’S)

Again, this is more of equating size with moral virtue. Like a filler-song on a classic rock album, this lame bullet-point is placed in next to last place. But we finish this thing off with a bang:

If Walmart were a national economy, they would rank 1st in the world for income inequality: CEO MICHAEL DUKE MAKES MORE IN AN HOUR THAN HIS SALES ASSOCIATE WILL IN A YEAR. The Waltons are the 2nd wealthiest family on earth; yet, 20 BILLIONAIRES DONATE MORE THAN THEIR PALTRY 2% CONTRIBUTION.

Under this are more caricatures meant to pull emotional triggers. Jabba the WalMart is a big, pipe-smoking Daddy Warbucks, staring down at the tiny, shriveled, discolored, employee. The calandar is set to December, which I suppose is meant to symbolize (in a clumsy way) Christmas. I think WalMart Warbucks is not handing out any holiday bonuses this year. What a miserly Scrooge!

I have always been baffled by the argument that the Social Justice Christian gives concerning this thing they call ‘income equality’. I confess, I make a very good living. I am one of the lucky ones I guess, and am fortunate to have a well-paying job in this tough economy. I want to understand, but these demands for ‘income equality’ leave me completely dumbfounded. The figure given for a ‘Full-Time Associate’ of WalMart is given as $13,650 per year (or as they state $6.50 per hour). First off, considering the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, with regional variations, I am mighty skeptical of that figure for a full-time associate. Dividing $13650 by 52 weeks per year and 40 hours per week gives $6.56 – a truly full-time employee who takes no unpaid time off. I am sure I could dig up something closer to the truth if I did some snooping around, but that is all really a rabbit trail for another day. Let us suppose for argument’s sake that this figure is correct. Let us suppose the worst-case scenario: that all 2,100,000 WalMart employees are working at an average of $13,650 per year ($6.50 per hour) and the CEO is hoarding a crooked, greedy and gluttonous salary of $35 million per year ($16827 per hour). In fact, let’s make the scenario even worse by supposing the top 100 WalMart corporate executives all conspire against their exploited employees and each earn $35 million! Let’s make all the 100 top WalMart executives as greedy, evil and corrupt as these cartoons want us to believe. Let us now give in to the demands of the Social Justice Christian, and live in a world of income equality. All 100 top executives miraculously have a change of heart, and decide to work for the entire year salary free, and further, to distribute their earnings to all their employees. What could be more fair, just and equitable? Imagine the entire WalMart board of directors becoming as generous as possible, living off their ill-gotten savings, and passing their continued earning to their underpaid employees. What more could they possibly do? How much more generous could they possibly be? It is the dream of the Jesus himself, the preacher of the sermon on Social Justice, to have the rich become poor and the poor become rich. The problem that the Social Justice Christian never seems to notice, however, is the total number of employees that this CEO salary must be distributed to. The math is easy enough: 35 million dollars CEO salary, multiplied by 100 for his hypothetical evil cronies is 3.5 billion dollars. Divided by 2.1 employees, this comes out to an annual salary increase for each employee of 1667 dollars. If, hypothetically, not just the CEO, but one hundred top WalMart executives earned $35 million annually, and then all one hundred decided to live for one year without any salary, the total benefit to the average WalMart employee would be a salary increase of a paltry 80 cents per hour. The average WalMart employee would still be scraping by at $15,317 annually before taxes! So how exactly is 'income equality' supposed to be beneficial to underpaid WalMart cashiers, shelf stockers and truck drivers?

This is admittedly a very simplistic picture, as it ignores the many adverse corporate effects an unsalaried executive board would have. But, for the life of me, I cannot understand the fixation on ‘income inequality’. We are not living in 1st century Palestine. Jesus is not here to bless the poor and pass woe on the rich. The simple math tells me that it matters little what my boss, or their boss, or anybody higher up on the corporate ladder is earning. In contrast to Jesus’ preaching, their pay has little reflection on my pay. I am not saying there are not genuine abuses, poor and exploited workers, greedy SOB corporate bosses and the like. But this poster, and so many of the Social Justice crowd would have me believe that the solution to our economic problems is a simple matter of income equality. Sorry, I am just not buying it.

My critique of this poster is not a vindication or of Captalism, corporate greed or any of our other economic ills. I am certainly no economic expert, and I am learning, slowly, about how all this works. I also know that this country’s preferred economic system, Capitalism is a human invention, not a dogma to be defended at all costs, and I am well aware of its strengths and weaknesses. With that said, I also think I understand how propaganda works, and I think I know the difference between reasoned and logical argumentation, and presentations designed to manipulate my feelings and emotions. That is where my critique lies. I hope you understand my intentions in writing this critique.


D'Ma said...

I have a really hard time with this, too. While I can appreciate a social gospel I don't understand denigrating people who have worked hard, or even gotten lucky for that matter, because they have more.

The first thing I noticed about that donations bit was that they lumped the Waltons together. As if they were comparing the Walmart Corporation to other individuals. I'm sure if you looked at the companies of these other individuals they would appear to be stingy as well. But how much do the Waltons as individuals give? Maybe only 2% still, I don't know, but that 2% is more than a lot of others.

Then the thing about the army is really just ridiculous. What is WalMart trying to do, forming it's own army? If they really organize we'll all be in trouble.

I've complained a bit about WalMart killing the "little man". I've championed the cause of people buying locally. But I also know that WalMart provides affordable groceries for folks who are on a budget and jobs. A.lot.of.jobs.

Larry, The Barefoot Bum said...

I have to disagree with a fundamental premise of your analysis. I don't think appeal to emotion is bad in and of itself. Without emotion, broadly construed, I do not believe we could distinguish between any states of affairs. I argue that all moral judgments are fundamentally emotional. To merely say that the poster appeals to emotion is not by itself a criticism.

I do not deny the importance of reason. If we have a negative view of some state of affairs, we must always ensure that the state of affairs actually obtains in reality before we move to correct it, an exercise that demands the use of the most unemotional, disinterested reason. We cannot say that Jones is a murderer simply because we dislike him; we must actively set aside one emotional reaction to Jones to determine with the coolest rationality whether he has actually murdered someone; only if we so determine may we dislike him because he's a murderer. The problem with emotionality comes not from its presence; the problem with emotionality comes from its misapplication.

The poster can be read in (at least) two different ways, each referencing a different enthymeme. First, we can read it as referencing the enthymeme that Wal-Mart is an evil. The poster then goes on to demonstrate that if Wal-Mart is bad, it is truly an enormous evil. Alternatively, we can read it as referencing that big corporations are evils. If big corporations are evil, then because Wal-Mart is truly a big corporation, it is therefore an evil.

Although not explicitly stated, neither enthymeme seems at all covert. If a reader were to come to the poster with a firm contrary opinion to both premises, I cannot see how the poster could effectively manipulate her into changing her mind.

Larry, The Barefoot Bum said...

You have explicitly decided not to assert that the poster misrepresents the underlying facts, but another valid criticism might be that it uses some logical fallacy, such as an cherry-picking facts or other errors of logic or argumentation, to unjustly attribute some quality to Wal-Mart about which readers generally have negative feelings. I do not, however, believe the poster actually does so. The poster establishes that Wal-Mart is enormous, which is true. Indeed Wal-Mart is so enormous that its workforce deserves comparison to the sine qua non of enormous organizations: the national militaries of global super-powers. If the believes that big corporations are bad, then Wal-Mart justly establishes that Wal-Mart justly deserves the reader's condemnation. (The poster also establishes that, compared to other billionaires, which seems the exactly apt comparison, the owners of Wal-Mart are especially stingy.)

Now you might disagree that big corporations are bad. You might disagree that Wal-Mart is inherently bad (and therefore its size is irrelevant). Indeed, I suspect that you found the poster especially unpersuasive precisely because you lack those prior positions. However, I believe one must view the poster with active uncharity to view the poster as attempting to prove these positions: as you note, the poster fails to offer even the attempt of a proof; it merely takes these positions for granted. What of it? No author can recapitulate all of human ethical, political, and social thought from the beginning of recorded history; in even the largest work, she must take something for granted.

It is wrong to use an appeal to emotion inappropriately, but an appeal to emotion is not by itself wrong. The poster, I think, does not use emotion inappropriately.

It is wrong to covertly take a premise for granted and it is wrong use an argument to attempt to prove a premise taken for granted, but taking a premise for granted is not by itself wrong. The poster, I think, does not try to prove the premises it takes for granted.

I cannot identify any criticism in your post that identifies any actual wrong in the poster. You show that it is an appeal to emotion, but you do not show that it uses emotion to convince the reader of a false conclusion. You show that the poster takes a number of positions for granted, positions with which you are entitled to disagree, but you show neither that the premises are unacceptably covert nor that the argument is circular.

It is entirely legitimate for you to argue against the underlying premises: perhaps it is not the case that Wal-Mart is inherently bad (and thus its size is irrelevant); perhaps it is not the case that big corporations are inherently bad (and thus Wal-Mart's size is irrelevant), but to criticize an argument or effort at persuasion just because it fairly endorses a position with which you disagree does not seem legitimate.

Larry, The Barefoot Bum said...

I apologize for the errors in the preceding posts. My meaning should be clear, but if it is not, I will be happy to correct the errors.

HeIsSailing said...

Thank you Larry, for your well expressed commnents. You are correct - minds are changed in large part by emotional and polemical arguments. I understand that, and you have reminded me that I should have expressed that a little better. This particular WalMart poster, however, reminded me of the cheap tactics used by televangelists - not just some emotion, but total emotion with no substance. Thanks again for your comment.

HeIsSailing said...

DMA, I am also suspicious about that 2% bit, and I thought about hunting that source down. When something looks fishy like that, there is some often times some detail or footnote that is being left out, and the figure is being quoted on a technicality. But in the end I did not bother, simply because I wanted to express my dislike for the raw emotional manipulation that this poster was engaged in.

Personally, I have nothing against Walmart, but nothing for it either. I laugh when I climb our local Franklin Peak in the middle of El Paso, and the largest man-made structure that I notice from up there is the WalMart parking lot! I personally do not shop there but only because I do not like crowds. If I want something made on cheap Asain slave labor, I will usually visit the local KMart instead ;-)