Walmart and Downton Abbey: Rampant Inequality and Detachment from Reality

November 29, 2013 | | The Guardian |

I'm not exactly sure what it is about the hit British TV series, Downton Abbey, that has enthralled so many of us. The scenery is great, Lady Mary's wardrobe is just fabulous, but there are plot holes so huge one could drive Lady Edith's car through them. I suspect the fascination it provokes has something to do with nostalgia – a hankering for a simpler time, when everyone knew their place and where the classes, though separate and unequal, were at least able to be polite to one other. Whatever it is that we find so charming about the series, however, we should try to keep in mind that the rampant inequality it celebrates is not something we should be hankering after.

America has its own real-life upstairs/downstairs thing going on at the moment, best embodied by the Walton clan, who own the lion's share ofWalmart Stores, Inc. Walmart is the single largest private employer in America with a work force of some 1.3 million. Each of the four Walton's who have an interest in the stores increased their net worth by $7bn last year alone. Meanwhile, the company's sales associates, who make up the bulk of the work-force, earn an average of $8.81 per hour – less than the federal poverty level for a family of four. [...]

With so many workers in America today being paid so little that they can't even afford to buy food, it's no wonder that even low price stores like Walmart are suffering a decline in sales. For now, however, the company seems content with the Downton Abbey model of doing business, where the top 1% get to monopolize the wealth and the long suffering workers are expected to keep a stiff upper lip about it.

The problem with this economic model is that it tends to crash under its own weight. As Nobel prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, wrote last year in Vanity Fair, if people like the Waltons (aka the 1%) are to survive and thrive, they should have the sense to know that "there would be no top of the pyramid without a solid base." The best thing the top brass at Walmart could do to preserve their own privileged status would be to raise wages for their workers. A recent study by the progressive thinktank Demos illustrated that the company could afford to pay its workers an additional $5.83 an hour (pdf), enough to bring their wages just above the poverty level, simply by ending the company's share-buyback program. This way prices could stay as they are but sales would increase as more workers would have more money to spend.

Even the dowager countess could get down with that scenario. So far, however, the Walton's and their ilk have resisted such a move at every turn, preferring instead to loll around in smoking jackets a la Lord Grantham does while his estate collapses around him. Hopefully the workers, who have more to fight for, will not be so foolish or complacent.

Read the full brief: A Higher Wage Is Possible