Friday, December 18, 2009

The Politics of Shopping

Political satire has been part of our national fabric from the start. Among its prime practitioners have been Mark Twain and Will Rogers.

Nowadays, anyone who watches a late night talk show is fed a diet of political humor. Even the NY Times recognizes the mass appeal of these comedic forays by highlighting several jibes on page 2 of its Sunday Week in Review section. But these humorous darts mostly come in the form of one-liners.

Saturday Night Live engages in sketches with dead-on skits and caricatures, from Bush 1 and 2 to Sarah Palin and Hillary. Its send-up of the “accomplishments” to date of the Obama administration has done more to signal the ineptitude and disappointment of the current regime than any Republican attack.

Two of the more frequent and noteworthy satirists are Jon Stewart of The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report. Having covered retailing for more than three decades, I was particularly fascinated by a segment of Colbert’s interview Wednesday night with retired NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw. Talking about the state of civility in our national discourse, the two had the following exchange:

Brokaw: The fact is we can’t get through the profound changes we have over the short term or (on) the long term basis if everything becomes a food fight of some kind.

Colbert: We’re divided everywhere, sir. We’re divided along liberal and conservative, gay and straight. There’s conservative and liberal bulk shopping. Sam’s Club is conservative and Costco is liberal. That’s a wonderful country when we can divide ourselves along our shopping habits. (To see the full interview, link to http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/258584/december-16-2009/tom-brokaw.)

Colbert’s right. Costco is viewed as more liberal than Sam’s. Management, specifically Jim Sinegal, CEO of Costco, repeatedly has resisted Wall Street’s exhortations to reduce salaries and benefits to make them more in line with the rest of the retail industry. Wal-Mart, corporate parent of Sam’s Club, has become more worker-friendly over the last half-dozen years. But it will never be mistaken as a benefactor of labor, even with its recent advocacy of mandatory health care insurance for all.

Here’s an excerpt on Costco from a US News & World Report article from October:

Pushing low prices, though, isn't what really sets Sinegal apart. He also has a habit, which sometimes irks stockholders and almost certainly annoys his competitors, of taking excellent care of his employees. Eighty-six percent of them get healthcare and benefits, even though half are part-timers, and the average wage is $19 an hour. And Costco hasn't had any layoffs in the recession. Why such generosity?

"It's really pretty simple. It's good business. When you hire good people, and you provide good jobs and good wages and a career, good things are going to happen," Sinegal says. "We try to give a message of quality in everything that we do, and we think that that starts with the people. It doesn't do much good to have a quality image, whether it's with the facility or whether it's with the merchandise, if you don't have real quality people taking care of your customers." (The full, short profile, part of the magazine’s feature on America’s Best Leaders 2009, can be accessed at http://www.usnews.com/articles/news/best-leaders/2009/10/22/jim-sinegal-costco-ceo-focuses-on-employees.html.)

He might have been going for the laugh line, but Colbert was right. Costco and Sam’s are different.

“Many a truth said in jest,” it has often been stated. Words the political satirist lives by. Or possibly by those of George Bernard Shaw: “My way of joking is to tell the truth. It’s the funniest joke in the world.”

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