Thursday, December 2, 2004

33. Is there reasoning in fate?

The holiday season brings imagery of magic and miracles. From the holiday spirit to religious tradition, the season is filled with stories of warmth and comfort. The season is also filled with holiday masterpieces, such as "A Christmas Carol," "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Miracle on 34th Street," that tempt the magical romance of destiny with the miraculous mysteries of life.

The idea of destiny is a problematic one, full of notions, misgivings and ideas- each as plausible as the next. This debate, the idea of fate and destiny versus personal choice and free will, makes for fascinating conversation with family and friends. Good-natured dialogue, the sparring over meanings and reasons attributed to fate are fun to postulate and consider.

It is impossible not to consider fate, especially when just the other day I left fifteen minutes late for work only to pass a serious accident in my path that looked to have occurred ten to fifteen minutes prior. Immediately my thoughts turned to, "What if I would have left on time," and "Why was I running late on this day, of all days?" Sometimes there is guilt, "Would things have turned out differently if I wasn't late," for I thought maybe my influence on the situation would have changed things. Maybe I would have slowed down one of the drivers, altering the split-second coordination of the event. Conversely, maybe I would have made things worse. I can go back and consider things like the time I went to bed, how long it took to let my dogs out, etc. But maybe, in the end, the accident was a matter of destiny for the drivers involved?

The insinuation of fate makes up the popular phrase, "everything happens for a reason." So often, and in a variety of situations, the phrase is used to account for an unpleasant occurrence. And the phrase is somewhat synonymous to "God works in mysterious ways," for inevitably it is only God that has knowledge of the reason behind the unpleasant occurrence. Regardless of responsibility, the phrase aims at providing comfort and reassurance- to mark the event minor in the grand scheme of things. So, if for example, someone loses his or her job, the response that everything happens for a reason both, takes away some responsibility and proposes that greater opportunities remain ahead. It can definitely make someone feel better, but is it accurate?

The rebuttal to this reassurance is that unpleasant things often happen and then we find the reason (i.e. cause and effect) or, subsequently, note the insignificance of its occurrence. Hence, in the example above, the reason is probably not the destiny of better opportunity, although that may certainly happen, but rather the reality of layoffs or poor performance. That does not, however, mean that there is not anything good that may come of the situation. Perhaps the person who lost his job was under too much stress, and his or her health was suffering, or his or her marriage was under duress. To me, that is finding a "silver lining," not the composition of destiny.

There is always a traceable (although perhaps unknown) sequence of events that act as the perceived determination of fate. Consider President Kennedy's assassination. His assassination, both the act of, and the events leading up to it, contained numerous events that necessarily fell perfectly into the hands of fate. But the question is- if he were not murdered that day in Dallas, would he have been murdered the following week in Washington, or the next month in Chicago? Of course, we are never to know whether fate could have been altered, or if he was destined to be assassinated.

The same is also true in reverse, as sometimes an occurrence is held accountable for a sequence of events which it may or may not actually be responsible for. In this case, an event takes place and fate revolves around it. However, the key is that each event sets into motion another event, like a large decision tree- with differing paths dependent on the outcome of each individual event. The possibilities grow exponentially. The movie "The Butterfly Effect," brilliantly illustrates this point when as single events are altered, the entire outcome is changed. The main character in the movie repeatedly attempts to change the one event that would bring about his desired outcome- and, as he discovers, the possibilities are many and sometimes even tragic.

It may be impossible to ever know the truth of fate. And rather than subscribing in the allure of destiny, skepticism magnetically consumes my nature. But things do happen for a reason, and the question is, "Does the attributed reason precede or follow the event?" Whereas preceding reasoning relies on facts, or at least consistent interpretation, reasoning following the event is dependant on hope and faith. That said, admittedly, there have been many times in my life that I needed to hear the reassuring reason of hope- even if I only accepted it for a short period of time.

32. Wal-Mart- Genius or dangerous?

The retail giant known as Wal-Mart has become the icon of capitalism. Having studied Wal-Mart both through formal education and independent research, such as magazine articles and semi-documentaries, I remain, admittedly, an amateur on the topic- for Wal-Mart's economic impact is an entrenched web of complicated study. At their best, they are genius, innovative and committed; at their worst, they are arrogant, dangerous and unethical. Communities across the country, and increasingly internationally, carefully consider and debate the benefits and consequences of having a Wal-Mart in their area.

Wal-Mart's genius lies in at least two areas- ideology and logistics. Wal-Mart's recognition of its place in the retail market was brilliant. Though an immense undertaking, Wal-Mart recognized that its philosophy of low prices could be achieved through expert logistics, state-of-the art inventory systems, purchasing power and self-promotion. Regarding itself as a consumer advocate- fighting to ensure the lowest prices for its customers- Wal-Mart embarked on a campaign to lower its costs in every aspect of business. This was accomplished through efficient inventory management and advanced distribution systems, which is commendable; however, the other end of the equation is squeezing suppliers and, even its own labor force, out of every penny imaginable. Wal-Mart, in its obsession to lower costs, was described by Business Week as, "a cult masquerading as a company."

The trickle down theory of Wal-Mart's competitive pricing is manufacturing outsourcing, the closure of local small business and low wages for employees. The retail equivalent of lean manufacturing, Wal-Mart eliminates every bit of waste out of its suppliers, local economies and employees. It cares not how it happens; just that it does happen. When suppliers can no longer be profitable with American workers, Wal-Mart discreetly suggests oversea manufacturing. As for the lost American jobs, well at least the unemployment checks will go a bit further. Competing local businesses, according to the CNN report, lose 25% of its business the day a Wal-Mart opens in its area- and many close their doors within three months. Wal-Mart considers this the price of capitalism. Wal-Mart preys on the local economy by offering low paying, low benefit jobs to the community which it has disrupted. For this, Wal-Mart has been continuously attacked for not paying overtime, sexual discrimination and the employment of illegal immigrants. In the same context, Wal-Mart remains union-free in each of its 3000 American stores. Workers quickly learned the cost of trying to unionize when in 2000, Jacksonville, Texas meat cutters voted in a union- only to have Wal-Mart start buying pre-cut meat eight days later.

Wal-Mart claims to be a consumer advocate, that is, your voice in demanding cheaper prices. While the argument could be made that Wal-Mart does achieve this, the question is at what cost. For are its consumers not the wife of man whose manufacturing job was shipped overseas, not the sister of a third-generation local business owner that had to shut down after 80 years of local ownership and is it not the daughter of a Wal-Mart employee that is paying a large percentage of his or her wages for health insurance?

In Wal-Mart becoming the world's largest retailer, success has bred arrogance- steadfastly displayed by its CEO, H. Lee Scott, Jr., in the CNN documentary. All too typical, and despite heavy litigation against his company, Scott denies every ounce of criticism directed toward his company- whether political, social, economical or cultural. In the interview, he even denied the message of a commercial that his company put out- even though it was an obvious response to recent social critiques. To not acknowledge Wal-Mart's impact on communities, American jobs, or its employees, erases any hint of creditability in anything he might expound on- even when he offers valid perspectives.

From the interview with Scott, it is obvious that Wal-Mart has no intention of changing who they are- which is both admirable and appalling. They will continue to invade communities, force manufactures overseas and fight any and all employee representation. Wal-Mart is judged, however, by the people- they are the ones that ultimately decide if a company does or doesn't succeed in their community. If you think Wal-Mart does more harm than good- then don't shop there, it is as simple as that.

For me, while I appreciate aspects of their business, it comes down to trust and, frankly, I think they would do just about anything to make a profit. I agree with Business Week, the company does have some cult-like aspects within it, and it does appear to be a propaganda machine. As an example, I believe disingenuous titles are always the foundation of deception; Wal-Mart calling its employees "associates," is like calling the Patriot Act, patriotic. Nothing could be farther from the truth.