retail news in context, analysis with attitude

MNB noted on Friday that the Chinese government reportedly has drafted the proposal that would require customers to pay for disposable plastic bags obtained at retail venues and mandating certain standards for plastic bags. The story was attributed to China Retail Now, which reported that stores violating the rule – which could go into effect as soon as June 2008 – could be fined thousands of dollars.

Well, the rest of the story (with apologies to Paul Harvey) comes via Salon, which reports that a story on Al Jazeera says that in banning the plastic bags, China also has closed a plastic bag factory, which left 20,000 people unemployed.

The story says: “The people of this village lost their farmland when the plastic bag factory opened up just down the road, but that was alright because they were promised a livelihood, now they've lost even that, and they have nothing, and all in the name of environmental protection. It's the dilemma China faces, if it protects the environment, it damages the economy, and for a developing nation, it's a big risk to take.”

Just as an aside, Salon also takes note of the correspondent who filed the story on the Arab network – Tony Cheng – and writes, “Sporting a posh English accent, a Chinese surname, and an Arab employer -- it's hard to get more global than that.”

• Okay, MNB expected that the saga of Tom Coughlin, the convicted felon who used to be vice chairman of Wal-Mart was over. But a column by Ann Woolner on Bloomberg.com forces reconsideration…

Coughlin, you may remember, pleaded guilty to stealing cash, gift cards and equipment from Wal-Mart, and was sentenced to community service, five years’ probation, a $50,000 fine, and ordered to pay $400,000 restitution. He is currently serving 27 months of home detention on his Arkansas ranch, having avoided jail when his lawyer argued with the defense contention that Coughlin was too old and sick to go to jail.

Woolner’s column reads, in part:

“If Thomas Coughlin…has learned anything from his encounter with the law, it is how to manipulate the justice system.

“For one thing, because of poor health he gets to stay home and avoid even the most accommodating of white-collar prison camps, as those un-jails are dubbed.

“Then there is his notion of community service. Less imaginative felons wind up collecting highway trash. Coughlin goes to a party.

“It's true. Coughlin persuaded his probation officer to let him count as community service the hours he spent last month schmoozing with old hunting buddies at a banquet for the National Wild Turkey Federation, local chapter … Coughlin got to count not only his time at the banquet, but time spent attending planning meetings and rounding up auction items.

“No spooning out soup to the homeless for this millionaire.

The sheer pleasure of being out of the house and among the 350 banquet-goers was itself a bonus. Except for approved forays, he and his ankle bracelet are spending his 27 month sentence within 10 feet of his house, which sits on a 2,000-acre ranch near Centerton, Arkansas.”

That’s pretty great writing. Even-handed, but making a sharp point.

And then, Woolner gets even better. She writes about the fact that Coughlin’s ill-health was largely responsible for keeping him out of jail:

“The thing of it is, Coughlin's ailments are largely self- inflicted … At 6 feet 4 inches, he weighs 330 pounds, an appeals court pointed out last year. He suffers from severe pulmonary hypertension, high blood pressure, type II diabetes, double vessel coronary arrhythmia, sleep apnea, knee and back pain and obesity. There have been times when his heart has stopped pumping, almost killing him, and in 2003 a defibrillator was implanted in his chest.

“For 25 years, doctors told Coughlin to lose weight, advice he all but ignored, according to the court's review of the record.

“I'm not saying his sentence should overlook his poor health or subject him to conditions likely to kill him. There is no death penalty for stealing, nor should there be. And he surely never meant to make himself as sick as he is.

“But the situation does call to mind the story about the defendant who killed his parents and then threw himself on the mercy of the court because he was an orphan...”

Woolner goes on:

“When you think of a place where someone suffering from heart disease and diabetes might go to safeguard his health, a banquet doesn't immediately leap to mind.

“In fact, if overeating is his problem, is Coughlin better off serving time at home, with a handy refrigerator, than in prison, where not even Club Fed earns stars for haute cuisine?”

Bulls-eye.

KC's View: