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Good and growing

National | Wal-Mart becomes the world's largest company, tax cuts help raise incomes, and other business news

Issue: "Guns & Poses," April 13, 2002

Good guys finish first Wal-Mart, the discount retailer that carved out a niche in small-town America by selling everything from toothpicks to tires, is now the largest company in the world, according to the latest Fortune 500 list. With $220 billion in revenues, Wal-Mart this year overtook oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp. in the rankings. Capital Research Center president Terrence Scanlon notes that Wal-Mart is a company "with a moral code, which is somewhat unusual for a large corporation." The firm's music-sales policies are a good example: Despite withering cries of censorship from the left, Wal-Mart has held firmly to a policy against carrying music with excessive sexual or violent content-even negotiating with record companies and artists to "bleep" or airbrush out offensive language and cover art. Mr. Scanlon said the firm's record of corporate philanthropy also sets an important standard: "They're generous and they give at the local level ... which is good because it means smaller charities can receive contributions." John Walton, son of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, has donated millions to school-choice initiatives such as the Children's Scholarship Fund, which pays private-school tuition for low-income children. The firm is also a leader in giving to Christian charities. Sam Walton also believed in giving to his employees, and was one of the first entrepreneurs to offer such perks as stock options and profit sharing. Mr. Walton died in 1992, but his company today employs 1.3 million people at 3,500 facilities in the United States, Mexico, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, China, and Puerto Rico. Making more Bad news for Bush-bashing Democrats: Americans are earning more in part because of the president's conservative tax policies, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) reports. Personal income increased by about $50 billion (0.6 percent) and disposable personal income (DPI) increased by $9.5 billion (0.7 percent) in February. Both figures mark the third consecutive monthly hike since November. BEA analysts credit the DPI rise in part to a decrease in personal tax and non-tax payments, including the new 10 percent tax bracket and a reduction in net "nonwithheld" taxes. The steady rise in personal income "vindicates the Bush administration's tax cuts that were put in place as the economy was slipping into a recession," said Johns Hopkins University economics professor Steve Hanke. "They also show just how nonsensical the arguments thrown up against cutting taxes were. Indeed, the cuts were just what the doctor ordered." Tracking deadbeats Utilities customers who skip out on their bills soon won't be skipping far. The risk management firm Equifax announced last month that it will house and manage the National Consumer Telecom & Utility Exchange (NCTUE), a new credit-reporting service that will offer utilities the same financial risk data currently used by telecoms to measure new customers' creditworthiness. In addition to flagging high-risk accounts, NCTUE will offer "skip tracing" to gas, electric, water, and cable companies. That means a subscribing utility wishing to recover an unpaid account balance will be able to query Equifax to learn whether a deadbeat customer has applied for new service elsewhere. Equifax will then provide the utility with the customer's new physical address, adding a technology-based twist to an old saw: You can run, but you can't hide. Pay up There's still no such thing as a free lunch. Increasingly, online businesses are charging fees for access to critical content. For example, the once-free online investment adviser Motleyfool.com now charges $29.95 a year for access to its discussion boards. Banks that once offered online bill-pay services at no charge now charge $5 and up. Even the rebel music download service Napster will soon charge admission. Analysts at tech research firms like Forrester Research, Inc. say such free Web perks as news and e-mail are likely to hang around for awhile. But even some of those are going away: For example, the search engine company Alta Vista ended its free e-mail service in March.

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