Saturday, July 01, 2006


One of the bookmarks on my menu of daily stops is Slate, which replaced Salon but might find itself deleted soon. It currently features a "debate" about Wal-Mart between Jason Furman, described there as "a visiting scholar at New York University's Wagner Graduate School of Public Administration" and Barbara Ehrenreich, author of "Nickeled and Dimed" for which she took a job at Wal-Mart.

Here's where the piece started going off the rails - Jason Furman in the first installment of this back-and-forth writes:

I myself have never worked at Wal-Mart, and I can only remember shopping there once.

and, later in the same installment:

The single most careful economic study, co-authored by the well-respected MIT economist Jerry Hausman, found that grocery sales by Wal-Mart and other big-box stores made consumers better off to the tune of 25 percent of food consumption. That doesn't mean much for those of us in the top fifth of the income distribution—we spend only about 3.5 percent of our income on food at home and, at least in my case, most of that shopping is done at high-priced supermarkets like Whole Foods. But that's a huge savings for households in the bottom quintile, which, on average, spend 26 percent of their income on food.

No, Jason, it doesn't mean much. Especially since you manage to eat so much better than the rest of us and keep your expenditures at 3.5 percent. And, in return, your analysis doesn't mean much to me, because, yeah, I'm spending more than 3.5 percent of my income on groceries, and if I were doing it at Whole Foods, it would be quite a bit more than that.

This is what is known in the trade as a "thumbsucker," in which some writer sits in his office and meditates upon the world. Furman has done some economic studies. Ah. I see.

Ehrenreich is apparently no less out-of-the-demographic than Furman, but at least she's put in the real-world research:

We both want higher wages and more generous government social programs; we both voted for Kerry; we're both in the upper-middle class or pretty close. The difference, I think, lies in our mental ZIP codes. Where you see some unfortunate, but not really all that bad, numbers, I see human crises, and I see them in my extended family and my network of friends as well as in the letters I get from readers: The car that gets you to work breaks down and is going to cost $200 to repair. The baby gets sick so you miss a day's work and face the possibility of losing your job. Your back goes out and you can't scurry around the floor picking up tossed merchandise any more.


This is a polite way of telling Jason he doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. And much as I get tired of shout-fests and debates that degenerate into abuse, I think if she'd been a little more direct, I wouldn't be deleting Slate from my daily bookmark menu.

1 comment:

Teacher in Vt said...

I was really excited when I saw that debate begin at Slate but you had more stamina than I had. I loved Nickel & Dimed along with other Ehrenreich articles I've come across (I think she writes for the NYTimes but I stumble across her somewhere every few months).

The debate jumped so quickly to the theoretical and oblivious that I tried to read a couple back and forths before giving up.

For the record, Salon and Slate are both on my daily stops but they take up much less of my time than they did a year or two a go.