Walmart's Hand on the US Budget: Thanks (for nothing) Barack!


No wonder liberals are so easy to lampoon. Can you imagine the donning of sackcloth and ashes that would have occurred if George W. Bush had announced that his new budget director was a Walmart executive? Hands would be wringing from Beverly Hills to Cambridge, MA. But I guess it’s okay when Barack Obama does it, because I’ve heard nary a peep over his nomination of Sylvia Mathews Burwell to succeed Jacob Lew as head of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the agency that develops the president’s budget and evaluates the effectiveness of executive branch programs.

To be fair, Burwell has only headed the Walmart Foundation since 2010. Prior to then, she the president of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Development Program. She was briefly the chief operating officer for the Gates Foundation, but she bolted to Walmart when she was passed over for the CEO’s position. She also has some OMB experience; she worked with the agency under–you guessed it–Bill “Bentonville” Clinton. It’s hard not to see the Clintons’ fingerprints all over Obama’s choice to let her head the OMB.

Let’s cut through some major backpedaling. Surely Burwell’s nomination is fine because she headed Walmart’s charitable arm, not its retail wing. No, it’s not. The Walmart Foundation appears to be the nation’s largest corporate charity–until you parse it. By total giving, maybe, but remember that Walmart is the world’s largest retailer and, worldwide, its revenue stream is second only to Dutch Royal Shell. One would expect someone with more revenue to give more in absolute terms, but if we adjust for size, Walmart is as cheap and shoddy as the goods it sells. It gives a parsimonious .5% of pretax profits to charity, about half of what its retail competitors give, and cheapskate stuff by the standards of small fry such as Ben and Jerry’s, the Body Shop, and Patagonia, which give 10% upfront. The corporate average is around 5.0%. Walmart’s largess works out to about $25,000 per store–hardly Santa Claus numbers.

Who gets the dough is also less than meets the eye. Walmart occasionally does the right thing. It outshined the Federal Emergency Management Agency during Hurricane Katrina. But let’s not get carried away; that was an anomaly–and it happened before Burwell came aboard. All charitable donations must be approved by Walmart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, and its list of approved donors breaks down into benign groups such as the Red Cross, and those that list rightward: the Salvation Army, evangelical churches, youth ministries, abstinence programs, and rightwing think tanks and non-profits such the Cato Institute, the Evergreen Freedom Institution, the Heritage Foundation, and the National Right to Work Defense Foundation. Walmart also spends much more freely on non-deductible efforts such as Republican PACs, antiunion campaigns, and the tawdry Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that sandbagged John Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid. All of this is to say that Walmart is about as charitable as an executioner granting a last cigarette to the man he’s about to shoot. Stay tuned for Wednesday’s column to see why Walmart takes more out the economy than it ever puts back.

Walmart is what’s wrong with the American economy, not part of the fix. Liberals need to take the stars from their eyes and realize that Obama is not on their side; he’s as big a fake as Bill Clinton (who ought to play the Wizard of Oz in the new movie). Liberals–and those of us who’ve moved beyond them–should stop pretending that Barack Obama is the next coming of Martin Luther King, and vigorously oppose Sylvia Burwell’s appointment to the OMB. Force Obama to appoint someone to the OMB post that will write a budget that puts workers first–a task that can’t be accomplished by putting a sheen of respectability on a corporation that exploits them.  

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