WalMart

Commissary Cheap

Most of the veterans I follow on Twitter are pointing to this WaPo story on DOD’s failure to eliminate commissaries on bases as an example of the worst of DOD bureaucracy.

Three summers ago, Richard V. Spencer, a retired investment banker who serves on a Pentagon advisory board, proposed shutting down the commissary at Camp Lejeune and every other domestic military base, a step that would save taxpayers about $1 billion a year.

He called several large retailers to see if they would be willing to take over the markets. None were, but Wal-Mart, which has stores within 10 miles of most U.S. bases, proposed offering equivalent discounts to troops, their spouses and their retired brethren. He figured other national chains would follow suit.

When the Defense Department bureaucracy that runs the commissaries learned of Spencer’s plan, it sounded an alarm among allies in industry and in Congress. A trade group whose mission is to represent companies that sell goods in military stores fired off a letter to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, warning him it would be “ill-advised” to make major changes. Senators and representatives dispatched similar missives. So did veterans groups. As the correspondence stacked up in his inbox, Gates summoned Spencer and other members of the Defense Business Board.

“Richard, my fax machine is vomiting letters of complaint,” Spencer recalled Gates telling him. Worried that congressional anger would doom other Pentagon cost-cutting initiatives, Gates told Spencer to drop his commissary plan.

Maybe it is, but there are several things not being discussed.

First, the article points out that the commissary benefit is worth $4,400 a year to every military family. Most of those families are getting paid pretty low wages for a job that can kill you — $28,000 for a Corporal or Specialist with 4 years of experience. Is it any wonder that some in the military are defending this benefit?

Then there’s the shock that retired investment banker Richard Spencer (who probably hasn’t had to live on $28,000 a year for a very very long time, if ever) had when he discovered the commissary’s books can’t be audited.

What little that arrived stunned him. The agency’s antiquated financial systems, he learned, are not compliant with the federal government’s accounting standards.

That is a problem. But you know what? I’m far, far more concerned that NSA’s antiquated financial systems are also not compliant with the federal government’s accounting standards (apparently neither are a number of other intelligence community components), and not just because the dollars involved are far larger. I don’t have to worry about unaccounted Cheerios on a commissary shelf starting a new war or reading my email via some off the books program that evades Congressional scrutiny because its budget does.

Then there’s the assessment that retired investment banker Richard Spencer made that DOD isn’t very good at running supermarkets.

Its workforce was bloated compared with other retailers.

[snip]

Spencer also discovered that the agency’s annual subsidy did not include other hidden costs. Commissaries don’t have to pay rent. Security services, when needed, are provided by military police.

It didn’t take Spencer long to come to a basic conclusion: “Running a chain of grocery stores is not a core competency of the Defense Department.”

He thought about proposing that a private company be hired to run the stores. But when he called up several large national retailers, including Wal-Mart, Costco and three grocery chains, he got the same response. “We don’t want this,” he recalled being told. Too many employees, they said, and they would be unable to lure non-military customers onto access-controlled bases.

He’s comparing commissaries, of course, with WalMart. Which has been getting a lot of press this year for its difficulties stocking shelves, in part because it has cut staff so thin that there aren’t enough people to get all the merchandise onto shelves.

Maybe, when consumers have the leverage to make demands, they prefer shopping in place with better service than WalMart? Maybe that, like better healthcare, is one of the reasons people will risk their life to join the military?

But here’s the funniest part of this story. The Administration is, as we speak, making a sustained argument that commissary employees are “sensitive” employees. It argued–really!–that because a commissary Assistant Manager knew how much Gatorade and sunglasses commissary customers were buying (potentially reflecting knowledge of upcoming deployments)–he should lose all Merit Board protection as a sensitive employee.

Now I, of course, thinks that’s a load of horse dung. Nevertheless, it is the horse dung the Executive is peddling. And so long as it is peddling that horse dung, it seems incumbent upon the Executive to keep this nice perk around.

It may be that the billion we’d save by shutting down commissaries would be a net savings once you adjust for the higher wages you’d have to pay lower-ranking service members in exchange. It may be the commissaries are hopelessly unwieldy.

But I’m very skeptical that this perk — and not the much bigger ticket waste — is the first thing that should be cut to save money.

No, Arkansas, Medicaid Is Not an “Entitlement.” It’s a Giant WalMart Subsidy

Arkansas, the home state of WalMart, just passed a law that will require “individuals” (by which it appears to mean biological humans) registering for Medicaid under ObamaCare’s expanded coverage to sign a document acknowledging that Medicaid is not an “entitlement.”

The Arkansas state legislature has officially passed legislation to use Medicaid expansion dollars to buy private insurance for some 250,000 state residents.

The bill used to do so contains one of the more unusual provisions I’ve ever seen in  health-care legislation. It requires those enrolling in the Medicaid expansion to acknowledge that they’re not enrolling in an entitlement program. The relevant section:

(i) An eligible individual enrolled in the program shall affirmatively acknowledge that:
(1) The program is not a perpetual federal or state right or a guaranteed entitlement;
(2) The program is subject to cancellation upon appropriate notice; and
(3) The program is not an entitlement program.

As a reminder, WalMart was involved in the design and passage of ObamaCare. The way in which Medicaid got expanded — in which the only way an employer can fulfill its obligation to provide health insurance for employees free of cost is to ensure they all make less then the 138% of federal poverty level that would qualify them for expanded coverage.

It has been clear from the start that WalMart had every intention of using that loophole to get free coverage for a significant portion of its 1.4 million American employees. And why not? It was a strategy WalMart was already using.

Since then, WalMart has been — as I predicted — made the moves necessary to ensure its workers are poor enough to get that freebie, largely by shifting more of them to part time work.

To a significant extent, this built-in reward for employers that keep their employees in poverty was all designed with WalMart — which was on Obama’s advisory committee — in mind. The Medicaid expansion, which, if you ignore the way it incents companies to keep employees at poverty wages, is an really important benefit of ObamaCare, is also a huge federal subsidy for Arkansas’ largest company.

So, no. Medicaid, especially in Arkansas, is not an “entitlement.” For legal individuals like WalMart, its actually a giant form of corporate welfare.

Maybe WalMart should also have to sign a form when its employees register, certifying that it knows it’s the biggest welfare queen ever created?

Walmart Takes Advantage of Health “Reform” It Championed

On September 9 and 11, 2009, I noted a dangerous aspect of the Senate health insurance reform plan (which I called MaxTax, after Max Baucus) that would ultimately become ObamaCare: it would give Walmart and all other low-wage employers an incentive to keep its employees in poverty.

It was the only way to get them health insurance for free.

The MaxTax offers this one, giant, out for corporations.

A Medicaid-eligible individual can always choose to leave the employer’s coverage and enroll in Medicaid. In this circumstance, the employer is not required to pay a fee.

In other words, the one way–just about the only way–a large employer can dodge responsibility for paying something for its employees is if its employees happen to qualify for Medicaid. Under MaxTax, Medicaid eligibility will be determined by one thing: whether a person makes less than 133% of the poverty rate. And who has the most control over how much a particular person makes? Their employer!

So if Wal-Mart wanted to avoid paying anything for its employees under MaxTax, it could simply make sure that none of them made more than $14,403 a year (they’d have to do this by ensuring their employees worked fewer than 40 hours a week, since this works out to be slightly less than minimum wage). Or, a single mom with two kids could make $24,352–a whopping $11.71 an hour, working full time. That’s more than the average Wal-Mart employee made last year. So long as Wal-Mart made sure its employees applied for Medicaid (something it already does in states where its employees are eligible), it would pay nothing. Nada, zip. Nothing.

Saturday, HuffPo mapped out what I, too, have been watching. Walmart is making the changes necessary to prepare to do this–charge you and I for health insurance for its employees (actually, more of its employees, as it already uses this approach where it can), all premised on the legal poverty Walmart imposes on its workers–by kicking precisely those employees who will qualify for Medicaid off Walmart insurance.

Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, plans to begin denying health insurance to newly hired employees who work fewer than 30 hours a week, according to a copy of the company’s policy obtained by The Huffington Post.

Under the policy, slated to take effect in January, Walmart also reserves the right to eliminate health care coverage for certain workers if their average workweek dips below 30 hours — something that happens with regularity and at the direction of company managers.

[snip]

Labor and health care experts portrayed Walmart’s decision to exclude workers from its medical plans as an attempt to limit costs while taking advantage of the national health care reform known as Obamacare. Among the key features of Obamacare is an expansion of Medicaid, the taxpayer-financed health insurance program for poor people. Many of the Walmart workers who might be dropped from the company’s health care plans earn so little that they would qualify for the expanded Medicaid program, these experts said.

“Walmart is effectively shifting the costs of paying for its employees onto the federal government with this new plan, which is one of the problems with the way the law is structured,” said Ken Jacobs, chairman of the Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

I hate to say to the boy wonks who poo-pooed my concerns in 2009 I told them so. But I told them so.

What HuffPo doesn’t mention in its piece on this, though, is that this is all presumably by design.

Walmart, after all, was one of the partners behind the push for ObamaCare. In fact, as things started to drag in summer 2009, WalMart partnered with Center for American Progress and SEIU to try to nudge the process along. While the letter signed by the heads of all three organizations preaches of “shared responsibility,” it also talks of removing “the burden that is crushing America’s businesses” and an employer mandate that does not “create barriers to hiring entry level employees” (as workers forced into part time unskilled positions are sometimes facetiously called).

Walmart gave ObamaCare a lot of credibility back in 2009. It was clear then what the payoff was going to be. And they’re cashing in now: by making the poverty wages they pay their employees the trick to get us to pay their employee health insurance, rather than the billionaire Waltons who can afford it.

I guess that’s what Walmart believes constitutes “shared responsibility.”

Update: In other “I told you so” news, Liz Fowler–the former Wellpoint exec who wrote this legislation for Baucus–is headed back to industry to cash in.

Bangladeshi Garment Fire: Downstream Effect of a WalMart Economy?

One of the things hot on the nets yesterday was Peter Suderman’s pushback against the anti-WalMart action that has been progressing over the last week, culminating in organized protests at numerous stores across the country on Black Friday. Even Alan Grayson got in on the WalMart Thanksgiving protest mix.

But Suderman, loosing followup thoughts after an appearance regarding the subject on Up With Chris Hayes caused a storm. Here is a Storify with all 17 of Suderman’s Tweet thoughts. Suderman, who is a Libertarian and certainly no progressive, nevertheless makes some pretty cogent arguments, and the real gist can be summed up in just a few of the Tweets:

So the benefits of Walmart’s substantially lower prices to the lowest earning cohort are huge, especially on food.
**********
Obama adviser Jason Furman has estimated the welfare boost of Walmart’s low food prices alone is about $50b a year.
**********
Paying Walmart’s workers more would mean the money has to come from somewhere. But where?
**********
Raise prices to pay for increased wages and you cut into the store’s huge low-price benefits for the poor. It’s regressive.

Suderman goes on to note that WalMart workers are effectively within the norm for their business sector as to pay and benefits.

My purpose here is not to get into a who is right and who is wrong, the protesters or Suderman, I actually think there is relative merit to both sides and will leave resolution of that discussion for others.

My point is that the discussion is bigger than than simply the plight of the WalMart retail workers in the US. WalMart is such a huge buyer and seller that it is the avatar of modern low cost retailing and what it does has reverberations not just in the US life and economy, but that of the world. Ezra Klein came close to going there in a reponse piece to Suderman’s take:

But Wal-Mart’s effect on its own employees pales in comparison to its effect on its supply chain’s workers, and its competitors’ workers. As Barry Lynn argued in his Harper’s essay “Breaking the Chain,” and as Charles Fishman demonstrated in his book “The Wal-Mart Effect,” the often unacknowledged consequence of Wal-Mart is that it has reshaped a huge swath of the American, and perhaps even the global, economy.

Not “perhaps” the global economy Ezra, definitively the global economy. WalMart sets the tone for high volume Continue reading

Emptywheel Twitterverse
bmaz @TimothyS That is pretty cool.
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bmaz RT @gideonstrumpet: This is what happens when you unquestioningly hew to the State time and time again. Absolute power leads to hubris.
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bmaz RT @chrisgeidner: LOL, both defense lawyer Mark O'Mara & Jeffrey Toobin say we're close enough to a result that we should stop speculating.…
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bmaz @BlanksSlate I absolutely want the material released, but properly. and through the court.
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bmaz .@BlanksSlate Who in their right mind would try that though without going through the court? McCulloch is just a malignant asshole.
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bmaz @AllThingsHLS @JimmySky This matter has been a total cockup by Ferguson, SL County and MO authorities from the get go all the way thru now.
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bmaz @armandodkos @Jonssonville It is a violation to release GJ material w/o court order. Also HAVE to give interested parties chance to object.
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bmaz @armandodkos @Jonssonville Putting it kindly.
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emptywheel @joshgerstein Yeah, I got corrected (thanks). Still.
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bmaz This is idiotic RT @Jonssonville SLC prosecutor will release records if no indictment, even w/o judge's approval http://t.co/GFJM15Wh5I
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emptywheel @scareduck At least would be less likely to incite riots--though maybe they don't want to ruin Christmas shopping.
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