Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Is Hyman on Drugs?

Hyman recently touted Wal-Mart’s announcement that it was discounting prescription drugs to prices as low as $4. This is an example, he claims, of the wonders of the free market, and that it’s bad old liberals who are spoiling the fun by, among other things, trying to force Wal-Mart employees to unionize even though they don’t want to.

A few facts:

The Wal-Mart discount on drugs is limited to handful of states.

Only a few of their medications are discounted significantly. Those who choose to go to Wal-Mart to get their prescriptions will likely be surprised when it turns out their particular medications aren’t part of the discounts.

Many discounted medications are already incredibly cheap, particularly basic antibiotics.

The same conservatives who praise Wal-Mart for limited discounts on certain medications have opposed allowing the government to do the same thing they praise Wal-Mart for: bargaining for the best price for medications.

As for Hyman’s predictable union bashing, he’s simply making stuff up. According to him, Wal-Mart employees are just so gosh darn happy and satisfied that they have no desire to unionize. (To see what it’s *really* like to be a Wal-Mart employee, read Barbara Ehrenreich’s chapter on it from Nickel and Dimed.)

What that fails to explain is why Wal-Mart managers are given extensive training in how to stop unionization in their stores.
There have been plenty of people who’ve tried to unionize at Wal-Marts, but have been stopped through strong-arm tactics of Wal-Mart brass.

This is crucial, since this point is absolutely central to Hyman’s argument. His argument weakens considerably, at least in its popular appeal, if he admits the reality that Wal-Mart employees *have* been trying to unionize and have been stopped. To caricature unions’ attempts to represent Wal-Mart employees as solely self-interested, he’s forced to float the canard that the employees have no interest in joining a union.

Of course, he *could* argue that unions are bad, despite the fact that many employees belong to them and many more want to join them. But that would be an argument that would require some subtlety of thought and wouldn’t be nearly as clean and neat as just saying unions are trying to seduce innocent, satisfied employees.

Ironically, one of the main motivations behind the drive to unionize is the need for better health insurance. Currently, Wal-Mart employees are often
forced onto government healthcare rolls because they don’t make enough to be covered by the company that employs them.

So in a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul, Wal-Mart can offer discounts on a select number of drugs in part because they slash labor prices through not paying their employees a living wage.

If that’s Hyman’s idea of the wonders of the free market, he can keep it.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 4.78


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