At Wal-Mart a Microcosm of U.S. Inequalities: Jeffrey Goldberg

Last week, in a column about the new billion-dollar Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, I mentioned an economist’s estimate that the heirs of Sam Walton, the founder of Wal- Mart Stores Inc., are collectively worth about the same as the bottom 30 percent of all Americans. Alice Walton, who founded the museum, is herself worth about $21 billion.

This imbalance wouldn’t seem so stark if Wal-Mart, whose stock makes up much of the Walton family’s wealth, hadn’t made itself into the world’s largest retailer in part by paying its workers so poorly, and by providing them with only the stingiest health-care benefits -- or none at all.

After the column appeared, I received many e-mails from Wal-Mart workers. Most noted the dissonance between their lifestyles and that of Alice Walton and her siblings.

There were also some criticisms of the column. Felix Salmon, a blogger, took issue with the statistic showing that the six Walton heirs are worth more than the bottom 100 million or so Americans.

He wrote: “This sounds outrageous, until you stop for a second and take note of the fact that Jeffrey Goldberg, individually, has a net worth greater than the bottom 25% of all Americans. According to the latest data we have, 24.8% of American households had zero or negative net worth -- add them all together, and get zero. Jeffrey Goldberg’s net worth, it’s safe to say, is greater than zero.”

Categories of Wealth

Although it’s true that I have a net worth, and that I might very well be in the 2 percent (based on an exhaustive analysis of my checking account and my anemic 401(k), I don’t believe I would qualify for membership in the 1 percent), I’m not sure that Salmon’s implicit argument -- that Alice Walton, like Jeffrey Goldberg, is rich, so what’s the big deal? -- would carry weight with those who recognize the existence of different categories of wealth.

And it seems as though Salmon is inadvertently buttressing the argument, made by the Occupy Wall Street movement among others, that something is awry in the U.S. when a quarter of all Americans have no net worth at all and Alice Walton has $21 billion in inherited wealth.

Salmon makes other, more interesting points. He questions whether Walton could influence Wal-Mart (WMT)’s management to raise wages. “Maybe she could; I’m not convinced,” he writes. “But here’s the thing: In what way does building a beautiful museum prevent her from doing just that? The only way, it seems to me, is if we’re in some kind of zero-sum game, here, where the alternative to building the museum would be for Walton to take the money she would otherwise have spent on Crystal Bridges, and give it directly to Walmart workers.”

I don’t know what prevents Walton from arguing on behalf of Wal-Mart’s underpaid women (underpaid, according to one study, even in relation to their male colleagues). I have no doubt that Sam Walton’s daughter could get herself a respectful hearing with current management. But I’ve never heard even the faintest suggestion that she has taken an interest in the lives of the people who work at her father’s stores. If she sponsored an art museum as well as a network of day-care centers for Wal-Mart employees, or a fleet of mobile dental clinics, well, I don’t think my complaints would have quite as much salience.

Giving Something Back

To my surprise, not even her art museum seems to take an interest in the lives of Wal-Mart employees. I asked the museum’s executive director, Don Bacigalupi, if he planned to provide local Wal-Mart workers with opportunities to learn more about art.

“We’re certainly delighted to welcome professional visitors from all over the workforce here in northwest Arkansas and elsewhere,” he said, “but I don’t know how to answer the question.”

I explained further, asking if he would institute cultural programs that might give something back to the workers who make Wal-Mart so profitable.

“No,” he said. “Our populations are people who work in all kinds of industries. They are all welcome to come.”

Indifference to Wal-Mart, even a kind of disdain, permeates the museum. At the gift shop, which sells Alessi sugar bowls for $90, wine and cheese totes for $61.95 and handmade belts for $850, I noted to a saleswoman that most of the shop’s offerings seemed beyond the reach of Wal-Mart employees.

“Well, this isn’t a Wal-Mart,” she said. Maybe, I suggested, the museum should open a mini-Wal-Mart on site with more affordable Chinese-made decorative items.

“That would be terrible,” she said. “This isn’t a place for commercialism.”

After I left the museum, I visited a couple of nearby Wal-Marts to see what the rank-and-file thought of Alice Walton’s vanity project. At the Springdale, Arkansas, Wal- Mart, I couldn’t find a single employee who had visited the museum, or was contemplating visiting it. One worker I met in the parking lot said that the museum wasn’t meant for Wal-Mart workers. Others were resentful. One middle-aged woman noted how odd it was that the Wal-Mart heirs could spend so much on paintings but Wal-Mart workers couldn’t get health-care benefits. “Merry Christmas,” she said.

Many Wal-Mart employees I spoke to had only the foggiest understanding of the relationship between their labors and Alice Walton’s wealth. A 21-year-old part-time employee I spoke to had no idea who Alice Walton was. I explained that she was Sam Walton’s daughter, and that she and her siblings owned roughly half the company. “Half of Wal-Mart?” he asked, a look of shock on his face. “Man, they must be millionaires.”

(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own. This is the second in a two-part series.)

To contact the writer of this article: Jeffrey Goldberg at goldberg.atlantic@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.

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