Government and Walmart Clerks

American Productivity vs. Big Government

Saturday I visited the local Post Office to get my young daughter another passport and then Walmart to get my older one another car battery. The differences were striking. Here were the two institutions that most exemplify what the left cherishes and loathes, but my experience was exactly the opposite.

The U.S. Post Office, though supposedly now a quasi-independent business, is still very much an organ of the state, right down to the metal detectors guarding its gateway. Here highly paid yet surly clerks work short hours and queue their patrons into a never ending waiting line. The State Department shares the space so that we can apply for a passport locally, but they charge dearly for the privilege. A passport, basically a paper booklet which the customer is forced to write and illustrate himself, costs $60. The government’s only responsibility is presumably to verify and record the citizen on a federal database, an operation that should take a fraction of a second these days. In our statist reality, it takes up to six weeks, though for an extra $60, they will try to do it in only three.  You don’t “get” a passport locally. You can only “apply” for it.

The same kind of higher intelligence that will soon be running our health care and forcing air travelers to pose for nude pictures, decided a few years ago that because one or two children had been spirited out of the country by a foreign parent without the consent of their other U.S. citizen parent, it would be worthwhile to subject all children to extreme passport precautions, probably costing millions of citizen hours per year. So both parents must appear in person and take a sworn verbal oath. The minor must also appear at the same time, a time which normally must be right in the middle of school and work hours, since like most government clerks, they usually close shop at 4 pm. However, this was a special passport Saturday, when they gave citizens the rare privilege of apply on a weekend, though of course only for two early morning hours.

The woman who helped us was the same marginally rude clerk who the day before implied my wife was a criminal for “altering” my daughter’s old passport by mistakenly running it through the wash. It was still quite legible but apparently not good enough. Damage or loose your child’s year-old passport and you must do the entire process all over again. Easy replacements for already-vetted children would be too grave a risk for our timid masters. Safety at all costs is their motto, and they really do mean at all costs since the government now consumes more than a quarter of our GNP wealth and the left seems intent to make that 100% ASAP.

Confronted with the new application, our steadfast but not too bright clerk failed to even remember my wife or the washed passport from the previous day (and Salem NH is not a teeming metropolis with thousands of aspiring travelers daily). Our clerk was mostly satisfied with us, our money (including $25 additional for the privilege of applying at the post office), and our application (filled out in the required black ink of course). However the photos taken at the drug store next door were not very good in her opinion. Fortunately after a just a bit more groveling and wasted time, she benevolently consented to the photo rather than requiring us to get another set and wait in the growing line a second time.

Walmart is almost as big an organization as the government and they aim for low cost efficiency, which means you mostly must help yourself. So I was surprised while examining the car battery display, when the automotive clerks jumped to my aid unbidden, looking up the correct battery for my Daughter’s Toyota, looking up the correct wiper blades for my wife’s Honda and even getting a jumper cable for me when I failed to find it myself. The battery cost only $77, less than even a six-week-delay passport. I was going to take it home and put it in myself, then haul back the old one for what I believe is government mandated recycling to stop me from maybe poisoning the environment with lead. But the ever helpful Walmart people, who probably earn less than half what similar government workers do, suggested that if the car started (which it did), I could bring it in and they would do the swap without charge while I waited. I did and they did, and though I had to wait thirty minutes for a ten minute operation, I was still pretty happy. Like the State Department, Walmart automotive tracks its customers with a database. But their database was not weeks away in some Washington office, it was close up and personal in the form of wireless hand held terminal, so the clerk can come to you. There were problems, including a terminal software crash, but they still quickly and cheerfully got my transaction completed on another.

Not everyone at Walmart’s automotive department that day was as happy. Another customer was trying to buy a new tire and get it mounted on his old rim, which he had dismounted and brought along. His plan was to take it back to his vehicle and then drive back to get the opposite tire replaced so that they matched laterally as recommended. He was a bit hyper and demanding, and though the store people tried to accommodate, the behind the scenes manager eventually denied the transaction because Walmart either cannot or will not mount a single tire, presumably because unmatched tires can be unsafe. This may well be required by government regulation, but I don’t really know. It might also be a liability issue, where Walmart’s insurers demand what I see as excessive safety guarantees. If so, the problem still springs from the same “progressive” spirit that dominates modern government, for product liability lawsuits and lawyers are just another symptom of the nanny state.

Anyway, I used Walmart that day both for my daughter’s car and my wife’s birthday gifts. You’re probably thinking, “How declasse!” My late mother would probably have turned over in her grave, except that she was cremated. She was a progressive liberal of the “buy American” school and Walmart is China’s U.S. outlet. That bothers me a bit too, but for different reasons.

My mother thought she was saving America by boycotting Walmart. By spending on American goods sold by main street small business, she was helping middle America rather than massive corporations and foreigners. As I see it, no man or country is an island and such isolationism ultimately weakens our country by allowing us to ignore a changing environment until it is too late. Sure, I might help some deserving fellow citizens by shopping elsewhere, but I would be encouraging them to continue down a dead end path toward long term oblivion. If Walmart is less expensive, that is market forces trying to tell us something and to ignore the message may be to delay but intensify the ultimate seismic  destruction that will ensue when the earthquake finally occurs. Plus by purchasing more expensive alternatives, I am weakening myself and I’m an American too.

So it is difficult to see how gifting some of my wealth unnecessarily to other deserving Americans does much good for our national wealth even in the short run. I believe economists generally acknowledge that importing cheap goods tends to benefit the importing country more than the exporter. Which reminds me of the side issue that such gifting is pretty much the entire agenda of most politicians and especially liberal progressive ones.

As I see it, the possible problem with Walmart is that we are accumulating debt to exporters like China, that America is not living within its means, that maybe we are already less wealthy than our luxury lifestyle implies, and that we are living on borrowed time and money. If so, the answer is not to transfer my wealth to a less productive American manufacturer or store keeper. The answer is to invest that wealth more productively rather than spend it on imported luxuries. That is why it seems critical that government stays out of the way of investors and entrepreneurs, even if wealthy. That means low taxes, even on the rich, and minimal regulation. Less regulation has the happy effect of lowering government costs and taxes.

Protect people with too much government regulated safety and you may trade a very few short-term positive outcomes for an eternity of eventual poverty. Poverty is the greater risk, but we rich Americans are allowing ourselves to forget this reality.

Steve Simonoff  Unpopular Ideas