March 23, 2004

Half-Formed, Non-Commital Commentary on Socioeconomic Stratification in America
Today, Fortune magazine’s famous 500 companies were making news in print and broadcast outlets. Number 1: Wal-Mart, with greater than $240 billion in profits (according to NPR’s Marketplace program), apparently somewhere in the neighborhood of 2.3% of the gross national product last year. Compare these huge numbers with articles about Wal-Mart’s union-busting, employee-cheating behavior (like this recent one from the local news-mag, City Pages) and tell me what you think. It seems to me that Wal-Mart is operating on a business model that treats cash-strapped people as a market niche; a helpless market niche. By using its national weight to influence prices and drive out local retailers, Wal-Mart can attract customers who need to save money above all things. By quashing attempts for worker organizations and cheating employees out of overtime or–as in last year’s high-profile case–even legal wages, Wal-Mart (one of the largest employers in the Union) also manages to create a viable customer base out of its own staff; they’re paid so little that they have to shop at Wal-Mart, the theory seems to be.

Does Wal-Mart have to pay its employees so little to maintain it’s low, low prices? Where exactly is that $200 billion, then? Which 200 billion dollars are getting measured?

For the middle range, there’s this article at Salon.com about the horrors and trials of a midlist author. My feeling as an ultra-mega-very-way-bottomlist author is that anyone who’s been paid a $100,000 advance for a book and then weeps over missing the very bestest prize of being stacked five-high in an airport convenience store is lacking perspective. I’ve no doubt that the brutal world of publishing can knock the perspective right out of someone, but it seems to me that an ability to not take rejection personally is requisite for a writer. When the author bumps into her successful friend and is told that the Times bestseller list does not heal all wounds, the author seems to miss the point. She complains that all of the publishing industry’s money is going to a few stand-out, breakthrough writers at the top, and that for her to have to give up full-time writing is defeat. Alas, she must get a job.

Just this weekend I was at a local reading and signing event for (full-time) sci-fi writer Richard Morgan, and he made it very clear that anyone who complains about getting to write full-time is a daft brat. It’s the dream. Seems to me, then, that getting to write at all, that being read at all, must still be pretty damned sweet. I think it is, anyway.

There’s a certain congruence between these articles, nonetheless. There’s a suggestion that money defies gravity–that it floats upward instead of trickling down. There’s the idea that we should be rich someday (in the Salon article) and that making the most money is the point (in the Fortune listing). Nevermind the notion that working at what you love, even if you have to work at something else, too, is pretty nice.


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