On Tuesday, the Public Broadcasting Service ran a scathing attack on Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, on its "Frontline" series. The title of the program was, "Is Wal-Mart Good for America?" Although never stated explicitly, it is clear from the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of the company that the answer clearly is "no."
I watched this program with special interest. In fact, it was the first PBS program I'd seen in some time. I'd stopped watching shows like "Frontline" long ago because of their heavy liberal bias. But I thought perhaps this one would be different because I had been extensively interviewed for it.
Over several hours at my house, I patiently explained to Hedrick Smith, the chief correspondent and producer of the program, that the main beneficiaries of Wal-Mart's low-price policy are the poor, who could now afford products that would be out of their reach but not for Wal-Mart, improving their lives and raising their standard of living.
I was trying to make the same point that the great economist Joseph Schumpeter made about the Industrial Revolution. In his book, "Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy," he said, "The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens, but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort."
I also pointed out to Smith that Wal-Mart, all by itself, was responsible for a significant amount of the productivity miracle we have seen in this country over the last decade. In a 2001 report, the McKinsey Global Institute, a respected think tank, concluded that Wal-Mart's managerial innovations had increased overall productivity by more than all the investments in computers and information technology of recent years.
Wal-Mart's innovations include large-scale (big box) stores, economies of scale in warehouse logistics and purchasing, electronic data interchange and wireless barcode scanning. These gave Wal-Mart a 48 percent productivity advantage over its competitors, forcing them to innovate as well, thus pushing up their productivity. The McKinsey study found that productivity improvements in wholesale and retail trade alone accounted over half of the increase in national productivity between 1995 and 1999.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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