Coming Clean: An Open Letter to Mike Rowe

Dear Mike,

I saw your ad for Walmart the other day, lauding the “beauty” of work, and how Walmart will soon be reinvigorating a stagnant American manufacturing sector. I also read your statements in response to the national outrage it caused. You seem to be missing the point, Mike. Either that, or you are purposefully ignoring it, I can’t figure out which; but considering that Walmart probably paid you millions for your endorsement, and that they carry your American-made “Dirty Jobs” cleaning products, I have to imagine that maybe there are certain facts that you’d rather not get into.

Like cost. You informed us that, “Walmart has committed to purchase 250 billion dollars of American made products over the next decade.” That’s amazing, Mike; it really is. Because globalization and its introduction of billions of workers into the labor market has caused a major reduction in the cost of labor, the natural result being outsourcing production to third world nations and subsequently the decline of manufacturing in the United States. I know we’d all like to blame greedy corporations for this, but as you and I already know, jobs are always “lost” when the private sector faces technological advances and when generous trade agreements are enacted. Trade is good. So is technology. And the bottom line for any corporation is to make money; Walmart is no different.

Which begs the question…if Walmart has committed itself to such a large purchase of American goods, wouldn’t it be taking a major financial hit in order to do so? I mean, that’s the argument, am I right? Isn’t that why Walmart pays $8.25 an hour, because it’s too expensive to do otherwise? Clearly, $8.25 an hour isn’t enough to live on, not even for a full-timer. Heck, $10 an hour is barely enough to get by, even for a kid living at home, much less for an adult that has faced sudden unemployment and is compelled to take a retail job until “the economy improves.” It’s a wonder that Walmart can afford to pay $8.25 an hour and still keep its doors open in any one of its over 4,800 stores nationwide; and yet, it does. Because luckily for Walmart, the American tax payer subsidizes their cheap labor through the welfare state. It’s our dwindling, hard-earned tax dollars that provide the food stamps and Section 8 to underpaid workers, and that artificially keep the demand for fair wages down.

But I digress. That Walmart has agreed to take on such a huge financial hit can only mean that it’s not such huge financial hit at all; that somehow, it is still possible to purchase expensive American goods and make a profit, because no corporation would do it otherwise. On February 8, 2014, “Romeapple” asked you if it wasn’t hypocritical of you to support a behemoth retailer that is largely stocked with products made in China, thus robbing American workers of potential jobs. Of course “Romeapple” asks this because he/she doesn’t understand the effects of a technologically-driven, globalized world; that it’s just a natural occurrence, that similar fluctuations have happened before and they will happen again, and that the results are progressive for all. Instead of pointing out these unpalatable realities, you simply asked if we shouldn’t be happy to see manufacturing return to the US, that, “Whatever else you might think of the company, can you really root against an initiative like that?”

Well that depends, Mike. If Walmart stocks its shelves with Chinese products, it’s because those products are the cheapest to make and therefore the cheapest to buy. The low wages paid to Chinese workers is a major factor in keeping those costs down. Considering that the American worker cannot sustain himself on $8.25 an hour, should Americans be willing to work for $2 an hour as long as manufacturing were to be “reinvigorated” in the US?

You argue that, “Walmart is going to buy a quarter trillion dollars of American made goods in the next ten years and put those goods on their shelves. The only question is whether or not Americans will support that effort.” The “only” question, Mike? Again, how will Walmart afford it? It’s pretty obvious that only the firms that will keep their wages the lowest will produce products cheap enough to find themselves on Walmart’s shelves. And then you dump the responsibility of “supporting” this effort on the American people. That’s a little harsh, ain’t it, Mike? Considering that it’s the American factory workers who will possibly be working for even lower wages, and that other Americans will be on the hook to kick in the welfare benefits these workers are going to need to get by?

You’re right when you say that there is nothing “inherently wrong” with being big in business, I agree; however, there is something inherently wrong in creating billions of dollars on the tax-payer dime. I believe in capitalism and I’m all for big business, but I also believe that big business should pay for its own labor; and that the American middle class, so long the cash cow for every special interest in the book, should not be compelled to make up the difference for a corporation’s low wages anymore. After all, going into business is a choice, not an obligation. If a firm cannot pay its own costs and remain solvent, it shouldn’t be operating. That’s called “free market.”

Like North Carolina’s Governor Pat McCrory, who boasts how his policy to cut unemployment benefits has actually lowered the unemployment rate in his state, you aren’t giving us the whole picture; North Carolina’s numbers don’t reveal the effect his policy has had on underemployment, or on the number of North Carolinians who have “graduated” from unemployment benefits to welfare benefits because there is no other alternative; or even, on the number of people who have simply dropped out of the job market completely. Similarly, your argument doesn’t address the fact that unless we raise the minimum wage and provide wages comparable to the cost of living, low prices will mean low wages and that “reinvigorating” the manufacturing sector in the United States will mean working longer and harder for less.

And that’s what’s most surprising to me, Mike. And also what is most disappointing. You are blessed to be a celebrity that is widely considered the voice of the American blue collar worker, and yet, I have never heard you advocate that he be paid a fair wage. Why not, Mike?

After all, if work is “beautiful,” then it should be rewarded. Handsomely.

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