It’s really no exaggeration to call this the most spectacular and grimly hilarious irony of the current era of U.S trade and globalization policy:  Wal-Mart is running into big-time trouble because it can’t cut even its rock-bottom prices low enough to make them affordable for its low-income-dominated customer base.

A little skeptical about the irony claim?  Think about how Americans have debated trade and globalization policies since these issues became major news — certainly once the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into the spotlight in the early 1990s, and even back to the late 1970s, when high value imports from Japan began threatening advanced U.S. manufacturing industries like steel and autos.  Perhaps the most effective counter to demands that these imports be curbed somehow was the claim that, whatever harm they inflicted on domestic producer industries and their employees, consumers benefitted hugely from lower prices.  And nowhere was the argument made more powerfully than in the case of labor-intensive consumer goods imports like garments offered in abundance to low-income Americans by Big Box retailers like Wal-Mart (which not so coincidentally were powerhouse lobbyists in favor of more import-friendly trade deals).

Trade policy critics tried to point out the limits of this rationale — especially noting that even the lowest prices were scant consolation to those desperately needing any income at all because their jobs had been destroyed by imports, or because their wages had been driven way down as job losses in high-value manufacturing pumped up the labor supply in the rest of the economy and created an ever stronger buyers’ markets for their labor.

To no avail, however.  The import- (and offshoring-friendly) trade policies and deals modeled on NAFTA kept coming, and the “cheap imports” claims held sway — largely because so many Americans were able to substitute unnaturally cheap credit for smaller paychecks, especially during the last decade.  The resulting debt explosion of course led directly to the entire world’s near financial and economic meltdown.  Yet the cheap imports argument remains a mainstay of the globalization cheerleaders and the offshoring lobby.  Check out this recent Wall Street Journal op-ed for some evidence:   And the claim is still swallowed by entirely too many American political leaders and by the Mainstream Media — which has always strongly supported the standard trade liberalization agenda.

But last month, it should have became glaringly obvious that a cheap imports-based economy not only was disastrous for the economy as a whole, but was becoming so for the Big Box retailers themselves.  What other conclusion can be drawn from a May 19 report that Wal-Mart’s biggest problem in this miserable economic recovery is its customers?  According to correspondent Krystina Gustafson, the world’s Number One retailer has suffered through five straight quarters of declining same-store sales largely because its low- and middle-income customer base is “facing stagnant wage growth and simply can’t afford to spend on discretionary items—or in some cases, food.”  As a result, Wal-Mart’s tried-and-true strategy of repeatedly cutting prices is no longer so effectively squeezing revenues — much less profits —  out of this solidifying stone. 

Nor is Wal-Mart succeeding at replacing foreign consumers with U.S. customers in its business model — especially in the super-low-wage countries like China that it’s relied on so heavily for product.  Their incomes still aren’t even remotely adequate, and the Wal-Mart model has rubbed many foreign cultures (and powerful foreign retail interests) the wrong way.

Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton was no saint, but he did attach importance to selling U.S.-made products.  It seems high time for his heirs to recognize that Wal-Mart will keep foundering until it starts valuing a critical mass of its countrymen as decently paid workers as well as customers — and starts lobbying for trade policies that can stop importing so many foreign goods, cheap or otherwise, and start importing much more offshored production and many more  living-wage jobs.