Thursday, June 30, 2016

Planes and Automobiles Travel Edition

On the plane ride home from Omaha last Sunday, I looked over the paper being studied by the woman sitting next to me. It was a primer on how to fly an airplane. Amused, I asked if she was the “go to” person in case of pilot failure. She smiled back awkwardly, acknowledging my lame joke.

I thought back to the time I sat in the co-pilot’s seat of a single engine plane and wondered if I would be able to save all on board if an emergency disabled the pilot. It was back in 1981. Along with seven New York-based security analysts I had flown to Tulsa to rendezvous with a Walmart air taxi that would ferry us to Bentonville, AR, for the company’s annual meeting weekend.

I was the last to board. The only vacant spot—the seat to the right of the pilot. I was both anxious and exhilarated. I masked my emotions, joking with the pilot I was ready to take over if needed. I was determined to study his every move, just in case.

And then it happened—in the middle of our conversation his voice went soft and he was talking with the tower. We slowly started taxiing. Wait a minute. I didn’t see him touch anything. His hands weren’t on the yoke. How could he be talking and moving the plane so...effortlessly? We just rolled to the top of the runway and zoomed into the air.

I had no pretensions I would be able to take over in an emergency. Instead, I prayed, silently of course, that nothing would happen to the pilot. As I’m here to relate this story, nothing did.

Who said prayer doesn’t work?

Prayer might be needed on the roads this weekend as AAA is predicting 36 million Americans will travel by car through July 4. 

With gas prices at an 11 year low, 40% lower than a year ago, Americans are once again demonstrating they have no memory of the ebb and flow of gas prices and no consideration for the environment. How? By rushing out to buy SUV’s and other gas guzzlers and by abandoning hybrid and electric car alternatives.

The other week at my Ford dealership I asked if they had another C-Max in for service. No, because they weren’t really selling too many of them anymore since gas prices had moderated, the service agent said. His comments were backed up by a recent New York Times article:

Too bad. We’ve driven our C-Max a little more than 60,000 miles in three years. We generally get 50 miles per gallon. It feels good to visit the gas station as little as we do.

Updating another one of efforts to reduce our carbon footprint, our solar panels saved almost 7,000 kilowatts during the first year of operation.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Crystal Bridges Was Worth the Trip But the Real Treat Was Revisiting Walmart's Bentonville

I returned to Bentonville, Ark., last week. Ostensibly, the impetus for the visit with Gilda to the hometown of Walmart, a side trip to our stay with our daughter Ellie’s family in Omaha, was to see Crystal Bridges, the magnificent museum of American art underwritten by Alice Walton, daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton. It was well worth the trip. 

But let’s not kid anybody. I was equally, if not more, interested in retracing my past as a chronicler of Walmart’s growth while editor and publisher of Chain Store Age than looking at other people’s artifacts, as splendid as they are.

With each landmark we drove or walked by as we entered Bentonville I informed Gilda of its pedigree. Inside a Walmart superstore Gilda marveled at the extensive crafts department. It was a remnant of Sam Walton’s devotion to his wife Helen’s interest in crafts, I told her, a dedication that at one time led to a small chain of craft stores named in her honor. Alas, Sam’s gesture had a bottom line requirement. Poor results shuttered the budding chain. The crafts department, though, has stayed within Walmart stores even as other discounters discontinued the merchandise and let chains like Hobby Lobby, Michaels or Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts take the business.

I first came to Bentonville in 1981 when Walmart had less than $3 billion in sales. The last time was 20 years ago. Bentonville was a typical sleepy southern town when I first visited as part of Walmart’s annual meeting weekend. Even back then Walmart was important to Wall Street, seen as a backwoods upstart to Kmart’s national dominance. 

Nothing like today, of course. For 2015, Walmart sales were $485.7 billion, Kmart’s a mere $10.2 billion. Bentonville has grown up with Walmart. Back in 1960, two years before the first Walmart opened, Walton’s Five and Dime store was a focal point on the town square. Bentonville boasted just 3,649 residents. Today there are more than 41,725.

The River Grille restaurant can match its aged steaks against any big city establishment. All forms of exotic fare can now be had along Bentonville’s and the surrounding towns’ byways.

For my first visit I flew into Tulsa, OK, to rendezvous with one of Walmart’s single propeller corporate planes that would ferry me and seven financial analysts to Bentonville. At Bentonville’s newer airport jet service is standard.

My first two visits centered around the company’s annual shareholders meeting. They were more like revival meetings than staid financial requirements for a public company. About a thousand shareholders and store associates attended the Friday morning meetings in an auditorium in the corporate office complex (these days some 18,000 gather in the field house of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville). 

Officially, the meeting was called for 10 am but if you showed up then you’d have missed the show which began around seven with Sam regaling the audience with down home humor and anecdotes about his daily visits to stores. Often he would call out an attendee by name to welcome her or him to the meeting, to encourage them to bring the Walmart enthusiasm back to their comrades in the aisles.

When the official business ended around noon it was time for a box lunch. Buses took everyone to Sam’s house, a Fay Jones construction along a creek a mile or so from headquarters. (Fay Jones was a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright.) The store associates would sit on a grassy knoll in front of the house and then gingerly walk through Sam’s residence, oohing and aahing at the architecture and their glimpse inside the home of Miss Helen and Mr. Sam, as they were known.

After lunch the press and analysts would go on a tour of stores with Sam and other executives. That evening Walmart would host a concert by a well known country western star. Tom T. Hall performed one year, I recall.

Every Saturday morning throughout the year Sam convened a managers meeting. Another 7 am start. A typical meeting could last well past noon unless an Arkansas Razorback football game was scheduled. 

For the annual meeting weekend the analysts, press and visiting store associates were invited to witness the Saturday session. Sam would review each store’s merchandise sales, highlighting weekly product winners. Most importantly, he stressed the payroll to sales ratio. No negative deviation from corporate standards went unnoticed and no further negative deviation would be tolerated.

After the abbreviated meeting ended at noon and the store associates were sent back home, it was time to play. For Sam, that meant leading a canoe trip down the Elk River (at least I think it was the Elk River along the Missouri border). As I don’t know how to swim I demurred the invitation to canoe that first year. Sam wouldn’t hear of it. I was dragooned into his navy. 

At the end of several hours on the river, which I fortunately never fell into during my two years attending the weekend festivities, all the participants dined on a mulligan stew prepared by Sam’s daughter, Alice.

Much has been written about the brilliance of Sam Walton. To me, his most telling trait was that he didn’t come off as a know-it-all. He constantly asked questions of customers, associates, the media. He had a knack of making everyone feel important, that he could learn something from them. 

That first trip to Bentonville I was flattered to hear him praise Chain Store Age during the Saturday morning executive meeting, saying he always learned something from its articles. The day before, during a bus tour of Walmart stores and their competitors, I sat near him. I was 32 and, though editor of CSA, had been reporting on the retail industry for less than five years. Sam kept asking for my opinion on how each store looked, how his competitors were doing, how he could make Walmart better. He did the same thing a few years later in San Diego after a cocktail party during a discount store industry conference. He asked me what I thought about Price Club (what we now know as Costco). I sheepishly admitted I hadn’t yet been to Price Club but went there the next day, sneaking in without a membership card. Sam, however, was thinking a lot about it. Two years later, Walmart launched Sam’s Club.

In the Walton 5-10 store that has been transformed into a Walmart Museum, Sam Walton’s red Ford-150 pickup truck has a prominent spot. The first time I saw that truck was early on a Sunday morning of an annual meeting weekend. My body aching from paddling the day before, I was awakened by a pounding at the door of my Bella Vista condominium unit arranged by Walmart. I opened the door to see Sam in tennis whites standing in front of his pickup. He had mistakenly knocked on my door instead of that of his tennis date, the owner of a Mexican retail chain he wound up buying a few years later. (FYI, Sam was a highly ranked tennis player in Arkansas.)

Also inside the Walmart Museum is Sam’s paneled corporate office, reassembled to look exactly as it appeared on the day he died in April 1992. On the floor next to his chair are two stacks of publications. Atop one stack is Discount Store News, a sister publication of Chain Store Age. Atop the second stack—Chain Store Age with a cover photo of Sam holding a cup of coffee while he listened to some store associates. Perhaps I’m dreaming, but I seem to recall taking that photo several years before, before illness sapped then silenced his vitality. 

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Living in a Bubble Apart From the Average Joe

I live in a bubble.

Bill Maher, the comedian-cum-political pundit, often castigates Republicans for living in a bubble, for not recognizing bigotry and old fashioned stupidity, among other blindnesses.

I live in a bubble as well, for I am among the most educated in our society and live among similarly learned folks in the media, entertainment, business and culture capital of the United States, if not the world. (My bubble has smaller spheres in other parts of the country—Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Omaha, Austin, Tucson, and other cities where liberals reside.)

Like most intelligent, honest thinkers, I believe Donald Trump is not fit to be president of these United States. It is not just because he is a racist, a misogynist, a bully, etc. It is because he lacks depth of understanding the complexities of national and international issues, how they can be related and the consequences of half-baked actions. 

I live in a bubble because I don’t fully understand or wish to accept that too many of my fellow countrymen outside my bubble have displayed a preference for a boob and bigot rather than a competent politician from either party.

Inside my bubble fellow bubbleheads read The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and other opinion making publications. Few articles praise the possibility of a President Trump.

I wonder how many people inside my bubble recognize how different we are from the rest of the country.

About a dozen years ago at a party for friends moving to Manhattan, I listened to several acquaintances bemoan their paycheck to paycheck existence. After their mortgage, car payments, country club membership dues, winter ski vacations, summer homes/rentals in the Hamptons, high municipal and school taxes and possibly private school tuitions, hardly any money from their six to seven figure salaries was left over, they lamented. It was, they all agreed, difficult to live a “middle class life” in Westchester. 

Not being too politic I quickly pointed out they were not middle class, by any stretch of the imagination, at least according to generally accepted economic principles. Yes,  they might have felt emotionally like cash-strapped middle classers, but only because the choices they made left them struggling to balance their “wants” against their “needs” and disposable income.

My bubblehead cohort does not begrudge the influx of immigrants, legal or illegal. We need them to clean our homes, tend our gardens, nanny our children and grandchildren, build our home expansions, serve us caramel macchiatos and bus our tables after dinner out. 

We seldom think about the jobs they hold on assembly lines or slaughterhouses or on industrial construction sites, jobs that have been lost to a home-grown generation of blue collar workers. And we don’t dwell on the jobs that have been lost when plants close and production is shipped overseas. Yes, we feel bad for the displaced workers in cities and towns far removed from our bubble sites, but all we really care about is being able to buy what we want when we want it at the lowest possible price. 

We’re not selfish. Just indifferent. 

According to Charles A. Murray, a libertarian political scientist, author, columnist, pundit and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, inside my bubble we are isolated and insulated from the average white American. While I can’t think of any of my professional and personal acquaintances without college and perhaps post-graduate degrees, only 30% of white American men have four year college degrees, says Murray. 

My bubble won’t burst easily, if at all. But it’s instructive to recognize its existence.

(Take this quiz to gauge if your bubble is isolated and insulated from the majority of Americans: I scored a 39, which means I’m a first-generation upper-middle-class person with middle-class parents.)

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Political Potpourri: Wedge Issues, Romney, Bridgegate, Trump as Candy Man, Couturiers

In the wake of the Orlando massacre, another wedge issue has moved to the forefront in defining the race for the presidency as well as campaigns for control of the House and Senate: gun control, specifically, the ability to deny the legal sale of firearms to those on the Do Not Fly and Terrorist Watch lists or to those with mental health issues. A subsidiary issue is the availability of assault rifles such as the AR-15 to the general public. The Orlando shooter, as well as the San Bernadino shooter and other mass killers, used an AR-15 rifle.

Wedge issues this year include abortion rights, Planned Parenthood, the Supreme Court, immigration, income inequality, same-sex marriage, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Islamic terrorism, campaign finance, and the minimum wage. 

The essence of each wedge issue can be summed up as the forces of fear and bigotry vs. the forces of hope and tolerance.  . . .

The Democrats’ best friend in this election might be Mitt Romney. The 2012 Republican standard bearer has been vocal in his antipathy, even animosity, toward Donald Trump. If he can sway fellow Mormons to withhold their votes for Trump, Hillary Clinton could win some Mountain States that are a challenge to any Democrat (

But Trump’s negative coat tails might not paint the Senate blue as Mormons and other anti-Trump voters might prefer to keep the Senate red as a counter-balance to a liberal president.  . . .

Just when you think this election season can’t get any weirder two reports this week evoked Watergate memories. First came word that Democratic Party files had been breached, not physically as in Watergate but electronically. Not by Republicans but by Russians who wanted to gather data on Trump.

Second, the spirit of Rosemary Woods lives on.  The 18-1/2 minute gap in Richard Nixon’s White House tapes, allegedly created by an inadvertent contortion Woods performed at her secretarial desk while transcribing them, possibly has been matched by lost or erased emails and texts from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, communications linked to the investigation into Bridegate, the allegedly illegal disruption of traffic across the George Washington Bridge to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie’s reelection bid.  . . . 

Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans want to reduce tax rates, especially for the wealthy. They also profess a desire to return to simpler times, as life was in the 1950s. They lambast Democrats for wanting to impose higher taxes on the rich. Elizabeth Warren, says Trump, wants to impose a 95% income tax rate. 

Sounds Draconian, until you realize that back in the 1950s under President Eisenhower, when unions were strong and  the middle class grew, the top effective tax rate was 91%.  . . . 

Trump is not alone in issuing damning statements about Hillary Clinton. The other week on NPR I heard U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.—one of the three female House members who prefer to be called “congressman”) attack Clinton, saying she lies and cheats while “Trump is a candy man” who gives people what they want.

I seriously doubt Blackburn knows that “candy man” is street talk for drug dealer. It would be an appropriate description for a candidate who is trying to dupe the electorate. . . 

Should Hillary Clinton win the presidency, the most negatively impacted group would be couturiers. After eight years of stunning gowns, dresses and ensembles showcased by first lady Michelle Obama, fashionistas would no longer have a White House muse to clothe. There are, after all, just so many variations on the tuxedo Bill Clinton can be expected to wear.

Your election witticism of the day, courtesy of

Don’t buy a single vote more than necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide. —Joseph P. Kennedy

Thursday, June 9, 2016

It's Over But Don't Begrudge Bernie Another 15 Minutes in the Spotlight

The political world anguishes over Bernie Sanders’ next move. Will he accept reality and, figuratively at least, hug and embrace Hillary Clinton as the Democratic Party’s not just presumptive but inevitable presidential nominee? Or will he continue to soldier on, less a Don Quixote-like figure, more a Sancho Panza, cleaning up a mess his alter-ego has created.

Sanders has defied the odds. Like Donald Trump, nobody thought he would achieve what he has. Trump, however, is the consummate personal optimist. I don’t see Bernie believing he would have such success when he set out on his anti-Hillary crusade a year ago. After all, he had not even joined the Democratic Party back then.

So why doesn’t he drop out already? Is it loyalty to the millions who supported his candidacy with small donations, volunteer work and votes? Is it steadfastness to the ideals of his campaign and a hope to influence the party platform and maybe the selection of a vice presidential candidate?

I’m no psychoanalyst, but maybe, just maybe, it is because he really is like every other politician. He enjoys the attention. He enjoys the limelight. The power he never had in Washington, the spotlight—though much dimmer—that he enjoyed as mayor of Burlington, VT. Maybe after he’s “seen Paree,” as the lyric goes, he just doesn’t want to be relegated back to the farm. He’s Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, wanting some respect and bemoaning he could have been a contender if only that darn Hillary wasn’t there and her superdelegate union bosses weren’t throwing the fight her way.

It is all about ego. How often had he met one on one with a sitting president before Thursday? How often had he been on Face the Nation or Meet the Press or the evening news almost every night. How often had he joked around, then got serious, with the likes of Stephen Colbert or Bill Maher?

Yes, the attention is mesmerizing. So don’t begrudge him an extra 15 minutes of fame. He deserves it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Trump & the GOP: The Political Embodiment of the Fable of The Scorpion and the Frog

As they try to come to terms with the outrageous, bigoted, xenophobic, misogynistic, unconstitutional ravings of their presumptive presidential candidate, Republican Party leaders would do well to read the children’s animal fable “The Scorpion and the Frog.” (For those not familiar with the parable, the tale goes thusly: a scorpion implores a frog to carry it across a river. At first the frog rejects the idea, fearing it would be fatally stung. After the scorpion explains it wouldn’t do such a thing as it would then drown, the frog agrees. Halfway across, the frog is indeed stung. Before it dies it asks the scorpion why would it doom both of them. Because, replies the scorpion, it is in its nature to sting, regardless of the consequences.)

Donald Trump’s strained, symbiotic relationship with his current party’s establishment—which hopes to control him—is the embodiment of the fable. Despite their often stated distaste for him, the party elite is willing to carry Trump on its back as they navigate the election waters. But, just as the scorpion stung the frog and drowned both of them because it was in its nature, there is little doubt Trump will continue to make flagrantly divisive statements that may well sink GOP efforts to appeal to a base broader than angry white men and women.

Trump has promised a major rip-roaring speech early next week to expose both Hillary and Bill Clinton’s warts. For sure the speech will be colorful and entertaining. He is, after all, a master showman. But as two of the most heavily vetted public figures of the last quarter century, the Clintons have survived years of congressional and special prosecutor scrutiny. It would indeed be news if Trump revealed any new scandals beyond the rumor and innuendo that are his stock in trade. 

On the other hand, can a man currently defending himself in court for allegedly fraudulently bilking desperate, needy consumers into paying thousands of dollars to Trump University accuse the Clintons of engaging in get rich quick schemes? Bernie Sanders, a socialist, might legitimately question Hillary’s fees for Wall Street speeches, but Trump is a capitalist. You would think he would applaud her ability to squeeze as much lucre from the fat cats.

Can a man who cheated on two wives chastise another for infidelity?  Let’s keep in mind two points: Hillary never committed adultery, and many of the holier-than-thou crowd who tried to remove Bill from office wound up admitting they strayed from their marriage vows. 

Can a man who four times had to seek bankruptcy protection for his companies be expected to lecture on business acumen and vitality? Bill, after all, wiped out the deficit he inherited from his Republican predecessors and left a surplus. The stock market enjoyed boom times during his term of office, the budget was balanced, the economy was robust.

Can a man who lauded Putin and Kim Jong-Un, who suggested nuclear proliferation is acceptable, who would undermine longstanding bi-partisan international alliances, opine on foreign affairs? Beyond what is written for him, does he know the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims? Does he understand the complex world of Eastern Europe and its relationship with Russia, or the rising threat of nationalist parties throughout Europe? Does he have a plan for the Southern American hemisphere beyond building a wall? 

Can a man who makes racist statements, who claims not to know who David Duke is and who does not disavow the Ku Klux Klan, who evaluates women by their physical appearance, who makes fun of the handicapped, credibly claim to be a unifier? 

Regrettably, to the rank and file Republican voters who chose him in the primaries, Trump’s inadequate resume will make no difference. Nor will it make any difference to the Hillary haters. 

The sadness in all this is that it won’t make any difference to almost all of the leaders and elected officials of the Republican Party. Few if any will listen to South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham’s lonely voice of reason.

“This is the most un-American thing from a politician since Joe McCarthy,” Graham said of Trump’s attack on Federal Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel. “If anybody was looking for an off-ramp, this is probably it. There’ll come a time when the love of country will trump hatred of Hillary.”

If Hillary had made comments as explosive as Trump’s Republicans would be falling over each other as they rushed to microphones to declare her unfit for office. But, as Thomas L. Friedman pointed out in his Wednesday New York Times column, they have abandoned any principles they might have had:

“It (the Republican Party) is just an empty shell, selling pieces of itself to the highest bidders, — policy by policy — a little to the Tea Party over here, a little to Big Oil over there, a little to the gun lobby, to antitax zealots, to climate-change deniers. And before you know it, the party stands for an incoherent mess of ideas unrelated to any theory of where the world is going or how America actually becomes great again in the 21st century.”

(There have been numerous articles imagining what the first 100 days of a Trump administration would look like. Here’s one I recommend for your reading pleasure, or rather, discomfort:

If you have more time, listen to Leonard Lopate of WNYC interview Philippe Sands, an international lawyer and professor of law at University College London, on the subject of genocide and crimes against humanity ( Among the more interesting points Sands noted was that Hitler and Hans Frank, the former’s personal lawyer from 1928 to 1932, laid the groundwork for the Third Reich by challenging the authority and objectivity of Germany’s courts and judges. Sound familiar?)

Here’s you political witticism of the day, courtesy of

“We stand today at a crossroads: One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other leads to total extinction. Let us hope we have the wisdom to make the right choice.” —Woody Allen