Accused of paying its workers too little, Walmart has responded in the most 2014 way possible: by being snarky on the Internet with a "fact check." Unfortunately, it is longer on snark than on facts.
Walmart rep David Tovar recently took a digital red pen and marked up a New York Times opinion column by Timothy Egan that suggested Walmart could help fix America's income inequality problem simply by raising wages for its low-paid workers. It was a fun idea with a lot of viral potential, and way cheaper than actually paying a living wage.
So. Hilarious. At least to right-wingers: The Wall Street Journal's in-house rape apologist James Taranto called it "devastating." NewsBusters called it not just "devastating" but also "spirited." Tucker Carlson's Daily Caller called it "EPIC."
In the face of such success, it seems almost unsporting to fact-check Walmart's fact-check -- almost, but not quite. (Tovar's full fact-check can be seen at the end of this story.)
Egan accused Walmart of draining U.S. tax coffers because its workers make so little that they have to go on food stamps and other public assistance to make ends meet. "We are the largest tax payer in America," Tovar countered. "Can we see your math?"
Actually, we would like to see Walmart's math, because Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Apple and Wells Fargo paid more in taxes than Walmart, according to a January study by 24/7 Wall Street. That study used 2012 data in some cases, but fresher numbers haven't changed the picture much, according to HuffPost's review of company financial reports. It could be that Tovar meant that Walmart has the biggest U.S. tax bill, but that would also not be correct -- Apple paid more in U.S. taxes than Walmart in the latest fiscal year. Wells Fargo, too, if you count deferred taxes, as the bank does, taking a hit to earnings.
Walmart spokesman Kory Lundberg said in a phone interview that the company was looking into the discrepancy.
Walmart does pay a lot in taxes, for sure -- more than $6 billion in U.S. federal taxes alone in its latest fiscal year. But by not paying its workers a living wage, which does force some unknown number of them onto public assistance, its policies also arguably eat into a lot of tax revenue. A recent study by Americans For Tax Fairness estimated that Walmart workers cost the U.S. government $6.2 billion a year. The group also estimated that Walmart and its founding Walton family cost the government another $1.6 billion in tax revenue through various tax loopholes.
Walmart has repeatedly disputed the ATF's $6.2 billion number, and Tovar did so again in his fact-check. Trouble is, Walmart never offers any numbers of its own. Tovar claimed, "We see more associates move off of public assistance as a result of their job at Walmart." But that is not a particularly informative statement. "More" than what? Do more associates move off of public assistance than move on to it? How many move in each direction annually? Tovar's link takes you to one person's story in a YouTube video -- which, thanks, but without hard numbers, this is not so much a fact-check as it is an unsubstantiated assertion.
Walmart's Lundberg said the company has studied the number of its workers who are on public assistance, but declined to share its data.
"There are people that come to Walmart on public assistance, and through their job at Walmart, we see that most are able to move off of it within a couple of years," he said.
Regarding a 2013 study by House Democrats that estimated that one store in Wisconsin costs taxpayers nearly $1 million per year in assistance, Tovar claimed the fact-checking website Politifact has declared it "mostly false." But Tovar's claim is mostly misleading -- Politifact was addressing an Ed Schultz segment on MSNBC that cited the study, not the study itself.
Tovar also claimed that the company pays hourly employees $12.91 an hour, and that this figure does not include the pay of any store managers. But Walmart's pay figure has not changed much from what it was in previous years, when it did include some store managers who are paid hourly.
In a phone interview, spokesman Lundberg conceded that the latest figure does include some department managers who are paid hourly. Tovar's fact-check is not factual.
Egan's column cited a November 2013 story by Fortune reporter Stephen Gandel, which argued that Walmart could "give workers a 50 percent raise without hurting shareholder value." In his "fact check," Tovar questioned the credibility of Gandel, an established journalist, without offering any reason to do so. He suggested that we should instead listen to Jason Furman, chairman of President Barack Obama's Council Of Economic Advisors, as if Furman had recently written something that countered Gandel's argument.
Tovar did offer a link to an unrelated piece by Furman from 2006 about how Walmart helps the poor by letting them buy cheap stuff. Furman's piece was flawed -- Walmart could probably also help the poor by giving them better wages -- but, more importantly, it has no relation to Gandel's argument.
In the past, Walmart has also pointed to a 2005 paper by Furman that calls Walmart a "progressive success story." But in that paper, Furman also wrote that Walmart "does not pay enough for a family to live the dignified life Americans have come to expect and demand" and that the company had tried to shred the social safety net on which many of its low-paid workers rely.
Tovar did not dispute a recent Lake Research Partners survey that found Walmart has a 28 percent disapproval rating among Americans. Instead, he used math to point out that this result means that Walmart has a 72-percent approval rating. He did not mention that rivals Target, Costco and Amazon have far, far higher approval ratings than Walmart.
Tovar also rather desperately tried to co-opt some of the corporate goodwill that has been accumulated by Starbucks over the years, by marking up an Egan sentence about Starbucks' OK pay and benefits to make it look as if Walmart offers OK pay and benefits, too.
Tovar wrapped up his rebuttal by suggesting that Egan write a different story. This story would be one about how Walmart is helping bring back the American Dream by buying more U.S.-made goods -- which is pretty ballsy, after Walmart has spent decades helping to wreck America's manufacturing base by selling us cheaply made foreign goods. This alternative story would also explain how Walmart is "expanding training, education and workforce development programs," all stuff that Walmart says is more important than just paying a boring old living wage.
This is the standard corporate objection to raising wages: We're not going to pay people more now, we're going to train them so they can earn more in the distant future. But you can't eat education, or pay your mortgage with a workforce development program. Why can't low-wage workers have some of both?
I'm going to have to declare Walmart's fact check "Mostly Bullshit."
Here's Tovar's response in its entirety: