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New book demeans Sam Walton

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George Packer is a highly regarded political writer. His work appears regularly in The New Yorker magazine. He has written several books, most notably Assassins’ Gate, recognized as one of the 10 best books of 2005 by The New York Times.

George Packer is a highly regarded political writer. His work appears regularly in The New Yorker magazine. He has written several books, most notably Assassins’ Gate, recognized as one of the 10 best books of 2005 by The New York Times.

 As well, he is the author of two novels and a play that ran off-Broadway for five months in 2008.

His most recent book, released earlier this year, is The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. It tells the story of the unraveling of America, offering a thesis that "American democracy is beset by a sense of crisis." The book takes the position that "seismic shifts during a single generation have created a country of winners and losers, allowing unprecedented freedom while rending the social contract, driving the political system to the verge of breakdown and setting citizens adrift to find new paths forward."

Packer faults the United States for many issues, on many levels. He finds fault as well with many of the individuals he believes share responsibility for America’s decline. One of those is Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, the world’s largest corporation and, of course, America’s leading retailer. Though reading the piece about Walton does not enlighten the reader as to Packer’s relationship to the Walmart founder — Did he know him? study him? merely read about him? — he faults Walton for many of his business practices, condemning him for his business principles, business ethics and, well, simply for being Sam Walton. Some samples:

• Packer spends some time establishing the fact that Walton was tight with a dollar. He writes that Sam had a "cautious attitude toward money. He was just plain cheap. Even after he became the richest man in America … he’d stop to pick up a nickel off the ground. He never liked showy lifestyles. Honesty, neighborliness, hard work and thrift — those were the bedrock values."
• As well, the author attempts to describe him, both physically and ethically. "He was small and wiry, with a face like a good-natured bird of prey, and he always wanted to win."
• Packer speaks of Walton’s business philosophy. "Buy low, sell cheap, high volume, fast turn. That became Sam’s whole philosophy. People were cheap. They’d never pass up a rock-bottom price."
• The writer dwells on the way Walton approached his business. "He left his family on vacations to go check out stores in the area where they were staying. He scoured the competition and hired away their best men with offers of investment stakes in his franchises. He squeezed every penny out of his suppliers. He never stopped working."
• But always Packer returns to Walton’s regard for money. "He was so cheap that he kept the sign [on his discount stores] to as few letters as possible: The new store was called ‘Wal-Mart.’ "

Throughout the 1970s Walmart doubled its sales every two years, aided, no doubt, by Walton’s philosophy of  "entrepreneurship, free enterprise, risk — the only ways to improve other people’s quality of life."

As the years passed, Packer’s picture of Sam Walton grows darker, imperceptibly at first, then dramatically. He describes the Walmart discount stores as "big as airplane hangers, no windows, with giant parking lots paved over fields and trees, situated away from the center of town to attract sprawl. Sophisticated computers kept minute-by-minute track of every item of stock that was ordered, shipped and sold."

Finally, inevitably, suggests Packer, Walmart grew to become America’s largest retailer, and Sam the country’s wealthiest citizen. Still, Packer tells us that "he was as cheap as ever — he still got a five-dollar haircut in downtown Bentonville and didn’t leave a tip. He and his company gave almost nothing to charity. But every year each Wal-Mart store would hand out a thousand-dollar college scholarship to a local high school senior, and somehow that bought better publicity than generous corporate philanthropy."

Where’s all this leading? To the conclusion that these and other Walton business practices led, indirectly but inexorably, to the unwinding of America. Along the way, the writer accuses Sam Walton of putting Main Street retailers out of business, of underpaying Walmart associates, of crushing the unions and the Walmart employees who tried to organize them, of driving American manufacturers overseas or out of business by demanding killingly low prices.

In the end, Packer offers the, to the author, crushing indictment that the surviving Walton family members, six of them, "would have as much money as the bottom 30% of Americans." And he concludes: "Over the years, America had become more like Wal-Mart. It had gotten cheap. Prices were lower, and wages were lower. There were fewer union factory jobs, and more part-time jobs as store greeters." He bemoans the fact that "many consumers regarded Walmart and its vast aisles of crappy, if not dangerous, Chinese-made goods with horror," while lamenting the fact that "stores like Macy’s, the bastions of a former middle-class economy, faded out, and America began to look once more like the country Mr. Sam had grown up in."

It’s not easy to comment on these allegations. Or the suggestions that the decline of America can be laid, in part, at Sam Walton’s door. He was a businessman. And America was built on the backs of businessmen like him. To call Packer’s assertions unfair would be to understate their misrepresentation. If Sam Walton wasn’t perfect, who is? More to the point, the way he practiced retailing is the way that all retailing pioneers have practiced retailing in America since the days of Sears, A&P and McDonald’s. It is why retailing is our most important industry.

The real questions that emerge here are these: Do Packer’s other profiles in The Unwinding emerge so maligned as that of Sam Walton? More to the point, so falsely maligned? And why has George Packer’s book emerged as a New York Times best-seller?


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