How Alice Walton has improved America

December 13, 2011

Jeffrey Goldberg is on something of an anti-Walmart campaign — and there’s nothing particularly wrong with that. There’s a lot of things to dislike about Walmart, including the fact, as Goldberg notes in his latest Bloomberg View column, that its stores don’t have windows. But having decided that he doesn’t like Walmart, Goldberg is attacking the company and its founding family on grounds which don’t stand up to scrutiny.

For instance, take this seemingly damning statistic from Goldberg’s column:

In 2007, according to the labor economist Sylvia Allegretto, the six Walton family members on the Forbes 400 had a net worth equal to the bottom 30 percent of all Americans. The Waltons are now collectively worth about $93 billion, according to Forbes.

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 you get zero. Jeffrey Goldberg’s net worth, it’s safe to say, is greater than zero. And while it’s definitely a bad thing that one in four Americans have no net worth at all, I don’t think you can really blame Walmart for that. Indeed, Walmart saves money for poor Americans — while it might not be a great employer, there are many more poor Americans than there are poor Walmart employees. From a financial perspective, Walmart has been a decidedly positive force in terms of bringing down the cost of living for those on extremely limited budgets.

Goldberg’s thoughts, on the other hand, are in a higher place. The main subject of his column is the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, in Bentonville — a museum which Goldberg (or at least his headline writer) considers “a moral blight”.

What makes Goldberg say that? Well, while the museum itself is beautiful, he says, and contains much beautiful art, the “American landscape has been systematically disfigured by thousands of hangar-sized warehouses bearing the Wal-Mart name”.

This might be true — although to be honest I can’t recall ever seeing a Walmart erected anywhere particularly beautiful; they tend to pop up, in my experience, in vast and dreary expanses of exurbia. But even if Walmart is a beauty-destroying monster, that hardly makes Crystal Bridges equally monstrous.

Warming to his theme, Goldberg notes that the messages of Norman Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter” and Jacob Lawrence’s “Ambulance Call” stands in contrast to, respectively, the way that Walmart treats its female employees, and the way in which it’s denying many of them healthcare coverage.

Does Goldberg celebrate the fact that these messages are being displayed for perpetuity in the town where Walmart has its headquarters, and might somehow serve to remind Walmart’s executives of the broader American context in which they’re making their decisions? He does not. Instead, he thinks that this art does not deserve to be in Bentonville at all:

I’m not begrudging Alice Walton her inherited wealth. What I am begrudging are her priorities. Walton has the influence to help Wal-Mart workers, especially women, earn more money and gain access to affordable health care.

But her response so far to the needs of the people whose sweat pays for her paintings is a simple one: Let them eat art.

Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth. Firstly, it’s not clear that Alice Walton does have a lot of influence within Walmart’s senior managerial ranks. Could Walton really help Wal-Mart’s workers earn more money and get better healthcare? Maybe she could; I’m not convinced. 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 a 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.

Except, Goldberg says quite explicitly that he doesn’t begrudge Walton her wealth. Does he want her to give it away or not?

Let’s say that Walton has spent a total of $1 billion on this museum. According to its latest annual report, Walmart has 2.1 million “associates”: if you shared $1 billion between them, that would be an investment of $476 apiece in giving them more money and better healthcare on an ongoing basis. Even if you could somehow manage to use 10% of that value every year on a sustainable basis, that’s less than a buck a week.

Walmart is a public company, now — it’s owned by hundreds of thousands of individual and institutional shareholders. (Goldberg himself is probably a beneficial shareholder somehow, through a pension plan or insurance policy somewhere.) Walmart has been good to Alice Walton, and she’s giving back to Bentonville and to America by building a fine museum in a part of the country which is relatively starved for cultural goodness. Her impulses and her museum are admirable, whatever you think of Walmart.

When the East Coast liberal elite, in the form of Jeffrey Goldberg, sneers at Walton’s generosity and calls her museum a moral blight, that only serves to make us seem even more elitist and out of touch. It’s pretty clear that Goldberg would have preferred Asher Durand’s “Kindred Spirits” to have remained in New York, rather than being moved to Bentonville — maybe we have finer aesthetic sensibilities up here, and therefore the painting would be better housed in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. I’m sure that Stephen A. Schwarzman, for one, would like that.

But Arkansas is America too. And it’s fantastic that a wide range of exciting American art — including the likes of Jenny Holzer and Kara Walker — is being displayed in the heart of Red State America. Well done to Alice Walton for making that happen. Arkansas is a better place, now, thanks to Crystal Bridges, and Walton deserves our thanks. Not brickbats.


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