James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

Wal-Mart and rent seeking

July 1, 2009

Government intrusion into the marketplace has so many unintended and unforeseen consequences — like Wal-Mart (!) coming out in favor of government mandate that employers provide health insurance. Why? Here is how a flabbergasted Heritage Foundation explains it:

Why would Wal-Mart – the nation’s largest employer – endorse such an idea. Simple: It would cripple many of their competitors. Much ink has been spilled on the effect Wal-Mart has on small retailers. Wal-Mart’s large size enables them to extract low prices from manufacturers, and that – combined with efficient, computerized inventory operations enables them to undercut – and sometimes drive out of business – small “mom-and-pop” retailers.

An employer mandate to provide health insurance would enhance Wal-Mart’s cost advantage. Wal-Mart has 1.4 million U.S. employees, and can negotiate a health insurance contract for them all at once. As a large multi-state employer, they can self-insure and provide coverage under federal ERISA regulations, which exempts them from costly compliance with most state health insurance regulations.

Wal-Mart’s small competitors have neither of these advantages. Employers with less than 20 employees often pay more than twice as much per employee for the same coverage, and small employers must comply with sometimes-onerous state regulations.

Supporting the employer mandate is just another way large business can harness the forces of government to hobble their smaller competitors. The employer mandate would impose much higher costs per employee on small retailers than it would on Wal-Mart. They would have to charge higher prices to compensate, which would put them at a substantial competitive disadvantage. Many of these small retailers would be forced out of business.

And the befuddled Michael Cannon of the  Cato Institute has a moment of clarity:

A couple of years ago, I shared a cab to the airport with a Wal-Mart lobbyist, who told me that Wal-Mart supports an “employer mandate.”  An employer mandate is a legal requirement that employers provide a government-defined package of health benefits to their workers.  Only Hawaii and Massachusettshave enacted such a law.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  Wal-Mart is a capitalist success story.  At the time of our conversation, this lobbyist was helping Wal-Mart fight off employer-mandate legislation in dozens of states.  Those measures were specifically designed to hurt Wal-Mart, and were underwritten by the unions and union shops that were losing jobs and business to Wal-Mart.

But it all became clear when the lobbyist explained the reason for Wal-Mart’s position: “Target’s health-benefits costs are lower.”

I have no idea what Target’s or Wal-Mart’s health-benefits costs are.  Let’s say that Target spends $5,000 per worker on health benefits and Wal-Mart spends $10,000.  An employer mandate that requires both retail giants to spend $9,000 per worker would have no effect on Wal-Mart.  But it would cripple one of Wal-Mart’s chief competitors.

Comments

When you go in Wally world and see all the signs that say “unbeatable”, now you know why…………

Posted by Litl Guy in VA | Report as abusive
 

The plan that is most likely be passed excludes employers with 25 or less employees from the mandate.

Posted by carole | Report as abusive
 

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
  •