Bangladesh is half a world away from Bentonville, the Arkansas city where Wal-Mart is headquartered. This week, Wal-Mart surely wishes it were farther away than that.
Over the weekend, a horrific fire swept through a Bangladesh clothing factory, killing more than 100 workers, many of whose bodies were burnt so badly that they could not be identified. In its gruesome particulars — locked doors, no emergency exits, workers leaping to their deaths — the blaze seems a ghastly centennial reenactment of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, when 146 workers similarly jumped to their deaths or were incinerated after they found the exit doors were locked.
The signal difference between the two fires is location. The Triangle building was located directly off New York’s Washington Square. Thousands watched the appalling spectacle of young workers leaping to the sidewalks 10 stories down; reporters and photographers were quickly on the scene. It’s not likely, however, that the Bangladesh disaster was witnessed by anyone from either the United States or Europe — the two markets for which the clothes made inside that factory were destined. For that, at least, Wal-Mart should consider itself fortunate.
The Bangladesh factory supplied clothing to a range of retailers, and officials who have toured the site said they found clothing with a Faded Glory label — a Wal-Mart brand. Wal-Mart says that the factory, which had received at least one bad report for its fire-safety provisions, was no longer authorized to make its clothing but one of the suppliers in the company’s very long supply chain had subcontracted the work there “in direct violation of our policies.”
If this were an isolated incident of Wal-Mart denying responsibility for the conditions under which the people who make and move its products labor, then the Bangladeshi disaster wouldn’t reflect quite so badly on the company. But the very essence of the Wal-Mart system is to employ thousands upon thousands of workers through contractors and subcontractors and sub-subcontractors, who are compelled by Wal-Mart’s market power and its demand for low prices to cut corners and skimp on safety. And because Wal-Mart isn’t the employer of record for these workers, the company can disavow responsibility for their conditions of work.
This system isn’t reserved just for workers in faraway lands: Tens of thousands of American workers labor under similar arrangements. Many are employed at little more than the minimum wage in the massive warehouses in the inland exurbs of Los Angeles, where Wal-Mart’s imports from Asia are trucked from the city’s harbor to be sorted and packaged and put on the trucks and trains that take them to Wal-Mart stores for a thousand miles around.
The warehouses are run by logistics companies with which Wal-Mart contracts, and most of the workers are employed by some of the 200-plus temporary employment companies that have sprung up in the area — even though many of the workers have worked in the same warehouses for close to a decade. Last year, the California Department of Industrial Relations, suspecting that many of these workers were being cheated, charged one logistics company that runs a warehouse for Wal-Mart with failing to provide its employees with pay stubs and other information on their pay rates. Wal-Mart itself was not cited. That’s the beauty of its chain of deniability.
A small band of these warehouse workers has been demonstrating for the past couple of months to bring attention to the bizarrely contingent nature of their employment and the abuses that flow from it. Their numbers were augmented Friday by actual Wal-Mart employees in stores around the nation, calling attention to the everyday low wages and absence of benefits that the vast majority of the company’s 1.4 million U.S. employees receive.
Other discount retailers — notably Costco and Trader Joe’s — pay their workers far more, train them more extensively, have much lower rates of turnover and much higher rates of sales per employee, according to a Harvard Business Review article by Zeynep Ton of the MIT Sloan School of Management. Costco is a very profitable business, but Wal-Mart maintains an even higher profit margin, which it achieves by underpaying its employees. The conservative economic blogger Megan McArdle estimates that if Wal-Mart held its profit margin down to Costco’s level, its average worker would make about $2,850 more each year — a considerable increase in a sector where workers’ earnings average less than $25,000 a year.
But Wal-Mart neither pays its own nor takes responsibility for those who make and move its wares. For America’s largest private-sector employer, the emergency exits are always open.
By: Harold Meyerson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, November 27, 2012
There are many, many reasons not to participate in Black Friday. Maybe you like sleeping in and spending time with family more than lining up in a mall parking lot at 2 a.m. Maybe you object on humanitarian grounds to the ever-earlier opening times, which force employees of big-box retailers to cut their holidays short by reporting to work in the middle of the night. (Or, increasingly, on Thanksgiving itself.)
But among the most potent reasons no sane person should participate in Black Friday is this: It is carefully designed to make you behave like an idiot.
The big problem with Black Friday, from a behavioral economist’s perspective, is that every incentive a consumer could possibly have to participate — the promise of “doorbuster” deals on big-ticket items like TVs and computers, the opportunity to get all your holiday shopping done at once — is either largely illusory or outweighed by a disincentive on the other side. It’s a nationwide experiment in consumer irrationality, dressed up as a cheerful holiday add-on.
As Dan Ariely explains in his book, Predictably Irrational, “We all make the same types of mistakes over and over, because of the basic wiring of our brains.”
This applies to shopping on the other 364 days of the year, too. But on Black Friday, our rational decision-making faculties are at their weakest, just as stores are trying their hardest to maximize your mistakes. Here are just a few of the behavioral traps you might fall into this Friday:
The doorbuster: The doorbuster is a big-ticket item (typically, a TV or other consumer electronics item) that retailers advertise at an extremely low cost. (At Best Buy this year, it’s this $179.99 Toshiba TV.) We call these things “loss-leaders,” but rarely are the items actually sold at a loss. More often, they’re sold at or slightly above cost in order to get you in the store, where you’ll buy more stuff that is priced at normal, high-margin levels.
That’s the retailer’s Black Friday secret: You never just buy the TV. You buy the gold-plated HDMI cables, the fancy wall-mount kit (with the installation fee), the expensive power strip, and the Xbox game that catches your eye across the aisle. And by the time you’re checking out, any gains you might have made on the TV itself have vanished.
Implied scarcity: This is when a store attempts to drum up interest in an item by claiming “limited quantity” or “maximum two per customer,” which makes us think we’re getting something valuable when we may not be. It’s a staple of deceptive marketing, and at no time in the calendar year is it in wider use than on Black Friday. (There is also actual scarcity on Black Friday — when stores carry only a 50 or 100 of an advertised doorbuster item — which also introduces a risk that you’ll be 51st or 101th in line and waste your time entirety. Both are bad.)
Confirmation bias: As Derek Thompson points out, many shoppers neglect to factor in the non-cash costs of their Black Friday trip — gas, parking, warranties, and rebates. (To say nothing of the vacation time lost to waiting in lines.) Shoppers want to believe they save money by going out on Black Friday, so they use only their per-item savings in calculating the benefits of their trip. But on a net basis, it’s often not a very good deal.
Irrational escalation: This behavioral quirk is also known as the “sunk cost fallacy,” and it means that people are bad at knowing when to give up on unprofitable endeavors. This happens a lot on Black Friday. If you’ve already made the initial, bad investment of getting up at 2 a.m., driving to the mall, finding parking, and waiting in line for a store to open, you’ll be inclined to buy more than you initially came for. (Since, after all, you’re already there, and what’s another few hundred dollars?)
Pain anesthetization: One of my favorite pieces of shopping-related research is a 2007 paper called “Neural Predictors of Purchases” [PDF] which used fMRI scans of shoppers’ brains to show how deeply irrational the purchasing process is. Researchers found that if a shopper saw a price that was lower than expected, his medial prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for decision-making) lit up, while higher-than-expected prices caused the insula (the pain-registering part) to go wild. That brain activity had a strong correlation to whether or not the shoppers ended up buying the products or not.
Economists typically think of consumer choice as dispassionate cost-benefit analysis by rational market actors — a bunch of people saying to themselves, “Will having this $179.99 TV now create more pleasure than having the $179.99 in my bank account to do other things in the future?” — but the 2007 study shows that shoppers don’t actually behave that way at all. In fact, they’re choosing between immediate pleasure and immediate pain.
That explains why, on Black Friday, retailers pull out every trick in their playbook to minimize the immediate pain of buying: instant rebates, in-house credit cards with one-time sign-up discounts, multi-year layaway plans, and the like. The problem, of course, is that those methods of short-term anesthetization often carry long-term consequences — like astronomically high interest rates and hidden fees.
Post-purchase rationalization: When we’ve bought something expensive, we tend to overlook its flaws or defects in order to justify our decision. On Black Friday, the investment is more than just financial — we’ve emotionally invested in the post-holiday ritual of standing in line with friends or family and enduring cold, dark misery for the shot at cheap electronics. That excess investment leads to excess rationalization, and coupled with a return/refund process that is a nightmare at many big-box retailers, it leads to people owning a lot of things they’re not very happy with.
In short, if shopping on the other 364 days of the year is the behavioral economist’s version of bringing a knife to a gunfight, going out on Black Friday is going to that same gunfight with a knife made out of Play-Doh. Between retail tricks and your own cognitive flaws, you have almost no chance of actually saving money or making rational decisions. (Plus, you might get trampled.)
Of course, just by telling you to stay home on Black Friday, I may be triggering your reactance bias (the tendency to do the opposite of what someone tells you) and making you want to go bargain-hunting even more. In which case, good luck. You’ll need it.
By: Kevin Roose, Daily Intel, November 22, 2012
Bank of America Corp., under pressure to raise capital and cut risks, is severing lines of credit to some small-business owners who have used them to stay afloat.
The Charlotte, N.C., bank is demanding that these customers pay off their credit line balances all at once instead of making monthly payments. If they can’t pay in full, they are being offered new repayment plans for as long as five years, but with far higher interest rates than their original credit lines had.
Business owners complain that BofA’s credit squeeze is abrupt and could strain their small companies and even put them out of business. The credit cutoff is coming at a time when the California economy can’t seem to catch a break, and bucks what the financial industry says is a new trend of easing standards on business loans.
One such customer, Babak Zahabizadeh, was told in a letter that the $96,000 debt carried by his Burbank messenger service must be repaid Jan. 25. A loan officer offered multiple alternatives over the phone that Zahabizadeh called unaffordable, including paying off the debt at 12% interest over two years. That’s about $4,500 a month, nearly 10 times his current interest-only payment.
Zahabizadeh, known as Bobby Zahabi to his customers, said he has cut the staff of his Messengers & Distribution Inc. to 80 from 200 to nurse his business through tough times.
“I was like, ‘Dude, you’re calling a guy who’s barely surviving!’ ” he said. “My final word was that I can double my payment — but not triple or quadruple it. I told them if they apply too much pressure they’re going to push me into bankruptcy.”
The capped credit lines stem from a corporate overhaul launched by Brian Moynihan, who became Bank of America’s chief executive in 2010. He promised to address losses caused by loose lending and rapid expansion by reining in risks and shedding investments deemed non-core.
BofA spokesman Jefferson George said a “very small percentage” of small-business customers have been affected by the changes. He would not provide exact numbers except to say it wasn’t in the hundreds of thousands. Some of the affected businesses had been customers of other banks that Bank of America acquired, but most were BofA customers from the start, George said.
“These changes were explained in letters to customers, and they were necessary for Bank of America to continue prudent lending to viable businesses across the U.S.,” he said.
The bank still has 3.5 million non-mortgage loans to small businesses on its books. The affected business owners were notified a year in advance that their credit lines were being called, George said, although Zahabi and several others said they had not received the early warnings.
The changes also include added annual reviews of borrowers and annual fees, and often reductions in the maximum amount of credit. George said the aim was to reduce Bank of America’s risks and to bring the loan terms in line with more stringent standards imposed after the 2007 mortgage meltdown and 2008 credit crisis.
Scott Hauge, president of the advocacy group Small Business California, called the credit cuts “a tragedy” for longtime BofA clients left vulnerable by years of struggle in a sour economy.
“If small businesses are going to lead the way out of the economic doldrums we now face in this country, they must have access to capital, not only to hire more people but to protect the jobs they are currently providing,” Hauge said.
Bank of America was a leader in the banking industry’s abortive attempt to impose debit card fees. But it appears to be a laggard in tightening business lending standards. Most other banks, having tightened lending standards in the aftermath of the financial crisis, had eased credit last year as competition for small-business customers heats up, bank analysts say.
“Everyone … is targeting commercial and particularly small-business lending as the real focus area for growth,” said Joe Morford, an analyst in San Francisco for RBC Capital Markets.
While Bank of America is advertising its own commitment to small businesses, it needs to send another message to its government supervisors because it has less of a capital cushion against losses than major rivals, said FBR Capital Markets bank analyst Paul Miller.
Restricting credit lines “is a way to show the regulators they are serious about addressing risks,” Miller said. “Bank of America is under great pressure, especially with another round of [Federal Reserve] bank stress tests coming up, as the regulators say: ‘We want you to tighten up.’ “
The analysts said all banks monitor business customers and restrict credit on a case-by-case basis. But they said they were unaware of any other large bank systematically capping credit at this time.
Customers interviewed by The Times said they could understand how the turbulent economy might result in some restrictions. But they complained that the credit cutoffs threatened to undo businesses they shepherded through the downturn by slashing costs, hoping to expand when brighter days return.
Several small-business owners indicated that they had nearly used up all the available credit on their Bank of America lines. However, George said maxing out the lines wasn’t a major factor in the bank’s reevaluation of the credit terms.
Kathleen Caid’s Antique Artistry Studio in Glendale sells elaborately beaded, Victorian-style shades that she makes for lamps, chandeliers and sconces. She said she had understood that her $85,000 credit line would remain in place “as long as I wasn’t in default,” and she hadn’t missed any payments.
Caid and her husband, Tim Melchior, a video producer with a Burbank media company, insist they are not in serious financial trouble despite having laid off her eight full-time employees and downsized her business space by two-thirds during the recession.
Yet Bank of America says that her credit-line debt, totaling $80,000, is due in May.
“I wouldn’t have run it up if I knew what was in store,” she said, adding that she would be speaking to an attorney and other banks about her options.
By: E. Scott Reckard, Los Angeles Times, Jamuary 3, 2012
The number two Senate Republican, Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl (R), last week decried attempts by Senate Democrats and President Obama to pay for a payroll tax cut extension with a surtax on millionaires. Despite the fact that payroll tax cut extension would keep an extra $1,000 in the pockets of the average American family, and despite the fact that the millionaire surtax would hit relatively few households, Kyl said he could only support extending the tax cut for working Americans if it was accompanied by massive tax cuts for the wealthy.
This morning on Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace asked Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) what he made of characterizations of the GOP as the party that defends millionaires, given that more than half of McConnell’s caucus has repeatedly voted against a tax cut for the middle class. McConnell laughed at the assertion before saying the GOP is “not here to defend high-income people.” As proof, McConnell told Wallace that the Republican plan took such drastic steps as to prevent millionaires from receiving unemployment benefits or food stamps:
WALLACE: Why are so many Republicans, including more than half of your Senate Republicans, why are they voting against the payroll tax cut?
MCCONNELL: Well the president’s comments, it’s hard not to laugh, because four out of five of the people they’re targeting, of “the rich people” they’re targeting, are actually business owners who create jobs. Look, we’re not here to defend high-income people. In this bipartisan package that we’re just discussing, we make sure millionaires don’t get unemployment, don’t get food stamps. [...] It doesn’t do anything for millionaires, in fact, it goes after them on the benefits side.
McConnell’s assertions seem belied by the facts. Though he insists the payroll tax cut extension will pass, it was the GOP that opposed paying for it through a small surtax on the wealthiest Americans. It was the GOP that opposed any move to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans in efforts to reduce the deficit — leading to the first credit downgrade in American history and ultimately dooming the super committee. It was his party that nearly shutdown the government in April over the same issue — even though the wealthiest Americans are paying historically low tax rates.
And while McConnell claims the GOP plan “goes after” millionaires “on the benefits side,” it “goes after” low- and middle-income Americans “on the benefits side” even harder. While the GOP opposes any tax increase on millionaires, the House plan to extend the payroll tax cut guts unemployment insurance — one of the most effective means of economic stimulus the government has — reducing the number of weeks one can remain on the program from 99 to 79, and then from 79 to 59.
McConnell’s claims that “four out of five people” Democrats are “targeting” are actually “business owners who create jobs” is equally laughable. NPR last week tested that claim, asking Republican Congressional offices to help them find business owners who opposed the millionaire surtax. Unsurprisingly, since only 2 percent of those with business income would be affected by the surtax, the Republican offices and business lobbying groups couldn’t find anyone for NPR to talk to.
By: Travis Waldron, Think Progress, December 11, 2011
Memo to Alabama: George W. Bush was right.
The former president, making a too-late push for what could have been a game-changing, bipartisan immigration reform law, noted that immigrants now here illegally make an important contribution to the economy. They do the jobs Americans can’t or won’t do.
Opponents disagreed, arguing that the undocumented workers were stealing jobs that should go to Americans—jobs like picking fruit for low wages in the hot sun. That was a questionable claim when the economy was better, but as Alabama farmers are now learning, Bush’s statement is correct even now, when Americans are working for far less pay in jobs for which they are way over-qualified, just to have a job.
In June Alabama passed a draconian immigration law—most of which is still in place, even while courts decide its constitutionality—that has driven many immigrants from the state. The result has not been a wave of grateful unemployed teachers and skilled workers, eager to be underpaid for difficult manual labor. Instead, at the San Francisco Chronicle reports:
The agriculture industry suffered the most immediate impact. Farmers said they will have to downsize or let crops die in the fields. As the season’s harvest winds down, many are worried about next year.
In south Georgia, Connie Horner has heard just about every reason unemployed Americans don’t want to work on her blueberry farm. It’s hot, the hours are long, the pay isn’t enough, and it’s just plain hard.
“You can’t find legal workers,” Horner said. “Basically, they last a day or two, literally.”
There are a number of lessons here. One is that there are surely elected officials and people in the business community who are using the recession to roll back all kinds of hard-fought rights for workers, cutting pay, eliminating job security, and drastically reducing or zeroing out benefits. Another is that while Americans don’t want to do farm work for low wages, they also don’t want to pay higher prices for food harvested by workers paid a decent salary. That’s not an argument for abusing undocumented workers, but it’s also not an argument for scaring foreigners out of the state so locals can have their bad jobs.
What’s remarkable is that some of the same people who scream about illegal immigrants taking American jobs here in the United States are quieter when it comes to foreigners abroad taking what could be American jobs here. Outsourcing of manufacturing jobs increases corporate profits, but adds to the unemployment rate domestically. Those are jobs American will do. If that anti-immigrant worker crowd is genuinely concerned about retaining U.S. jobs, they should focus on bringing back the outsourced jobs—not evacuating the foreign workers.
By: Susan Milligan, U. S. News and World Report, October 24, 2011