Alice Walton Says: Let Them Eat Cake

In General Interest by Jonathan Tasini4 Comments

So, what would you do if you were, along with your mommy, the richest woman in the world, but your workers either can’t afford health insurance or have to pay through the nose to get pathetic insurance and, as a matter of policy, your CEO tells the world that your company doesn’t expect its pay to allow workers to provide for their families? Simple answer: if you’re Alice Walton you buy a painting for more than $35 million. I mean, that’s the reaction of a normal human being, isn’t it?

Yes, the tale of the Walton family seems to get even stranger. Buried down in the metro section of the New York Times today is the news that dear Alice—who is tied with dear Mother for the 13th spot on Forbes magazine’s list of the wealthiest people in the world with a mere $18 billion—bought an Asher B. Durand painting called “Kindred Spirits”(hey, don’t feel bad, I had no idea who this Asher person was either). The painting will be displaced in the Walton’s museum which will open in 2009 in Bentonville.

Oddly, even The New York Times seemed to have caught some spiritual vibe that these Waltons are very twisted—this very same day Paul Krugman has a column entitled “Always Low Wages. Always.” His column compares General Motors to Wal-Mart. Krugman points out that Wal-Mart is now the “widely emulated business icon,” replacing GM, which just had its bonds downgraded to junk status.

His thought is not a new one: GM workers could attain a middle-class life style on the wages and benefits the company provided in return for the sweat of the people who turned out their cars; Wal-Mart workers don’t have anywhere near that security. Not everyone is doing poorly at Wal-Mart, Krugman writes: “In 1968, the head of General Motors received about $4 million in today’s dollars – and that was considered extravagant. But last year Scott Lee Jr., Wal-Mart’s chief executive, was paid $17.5 million. That is, every two weeks Mr. Lee was paid about as much as his average employee will earn in a lifetime.”

By the way, Krugman’s column forgets to mention that it was the labor movement that brought good benefits to GM workers, not some good-citizen impulse by GM. Before GM was unionized , an auto job was a pretty crappy thing to have, as were other industrial jobs. Krugman’s conclusion that “there’s no easy way to reverse that change” is only half right: the political and legal climate does make it impossible for workers to unionize but, what he neglects to say is that there is a straightforward path to middle-class jobs: if there was mass unionization, Wal-Mart and other low-paying jobs would turn from the pre-GM type slave-wage jobs into work that provides a more sane and economically-viable standard of living.

Anyway, back to our heroine. So, while Alice is splurging on art—a splurge made possible by the cash earned for her by her poorly-paid workers—most of her workers can’t even pay for health insurance. In this context, I also can’t help but note the ironic title of the painting—would any Wal-Mart worker, all of whom collectively help finance Alice’s artistic dabbling, see her as a kindred spirit? Doubt it.