How Uncertainty Killed the Fun at Walmart

I’m going to try to stick to my resolution not to make dissection of Peggy Noonan columns a weekly habit–even if I have to start a chapter of Noonanholics Anonymous–since it’s like shooting magic dolphins in a barrel. But today’s Peggy includes a bit of strangely masticated conservative economic “thinking” that’s worth some attention.

The column is mostly an extended extrapolation from the patently false premise that Barack Obama is entirely responsible for the fiscal alarms that have periodically roiled Washington ever since Republicans won the House in 2010 and started looking for hostages to their agenda. But never mind; that’s just Peggy showing she’s too big a pundit to need petty things like facts. Here’s the interesting part:

[G]overnment by freakout carries a price. It wears people down. It doesn’t inject a sense of energy, purpose or confidence in those who do business in America, it does the opposite. The other day I was in a Wal-Mart in southern Florida. It was Sunday afternoon on a holiday weekend but even accounting for that the mood and look of the place was different from what it was two and five years ago. Then, things seemed dynamic—what buys, what an array of products, what bustle in the aisles. This time it seemed tired, frayed, with fewer families and scarcer employees. It looked like a diorama of the Great Recession. What effect do all the successive fiscal cliffs, ceilings and sequesters, have on public confidence? On the public’s spirit? They only add to the sense that Washington is dysfunctional and cannot possibly help us out of the mire.

Allow yourself a few minutes of chuckling over the spectacle of Peggy Noonan wandering around a Walmart–something she apparently does every few years to get in touch with the peasantry–and focus on what she’s saying here. Fiscal uncertainty has made the scene at Walmart “tired” and “frayed.”

Now there’s a much less ethereal explanation for Walmart’s troubles: the payroll tax increase that Republicans accepted without a peep on January 1 took a bite out of purchasing power, aside from the fact that Walmart shoppers tend to be folk struggling to get along. The overall phenomenon is called “sluggish consumer demand,” which means low-to-moderate income families don’t have enough money. That’s a slightly more tangible and immediate problem than any emotional or spiritual crisis Walmart customers might experience from reflections on the failure of Barack Obama to reach out to Republicans for long-term federal spending cuts, which is what Noonan talks about in the remainder of her column.

Maybe during her next trip to Walmart–scheduled, I suppose, for 2015 or so–Peggy could talk to some actual shoppers instead of projecting her peculiar form of Beltway angst onto the ladies and gentlemen trying to figure out how to clothe and feed themselves and their children. Just an idea.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.