Let’s Take Up a Collection for Bill Maher . . .

. . . and get him a newspaper subscription.

Bill Maher is of course wrong about everything he has ever said from the moment he learned to speak, and correcting him would be a full-time job for a very large staff. But his recent denunciation of a one member of a philanthropic family that gave away the better part of $1 billion as a “deluded nitwit” bears some examination. Mr. Maher, according to the transcript:

Fifty years ago, America’s biggest employer was General Motors, where workers made the modern equivalent of $50 dollars an hour.  Today, America’s biggest employer is Walmart, where the average wage is $8 dollars an hour.  Which means you can share a room in a transient hotel with a drifter who cuts his toenails with a machete.  

And Walmart released their annual report this month, and in it was the fact that most of what Walmart sells is food.  And most of their customers need food stamps to pay for it.  Meanwhile, Walmart’s owners are so absurdly rich that one of them, Alice Walton, spent over a billion dollars building an art museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, 500 miles away from the nearest person who ever would want to look at art.

And she said about it, “For years I’ve been thinking about what we can do as a family that can really make a difference.”  How about giving your employees a raise, you deluded nitwit?

A few things: Mr. Maher should think very seriously about subscribing to his local newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, which is a terrible newspaper but one that nonetheless reports the occasional fact, including the fact that the museum located “500 miles away from the nearest person who ever would want to look at art” has welcomed more than 1 million visitors. In fact, the annual attendance at the museum in Bentonville, population 39,000, is about half that of the museum of art in Los Angeles, population 9.9 million: 650,000 a year vs 1.3 million a year.

It is also not clear how giving Walmart employees a raise would alleviate the condition of its customers who use food stamps. Perhaps Mr. Maher has in mind some magical transitive property.

As for Alice Walton’s simply ordering Walmart to give its employees a raise — it’s not clear how that would work. She does not sit on Walmart’s board, nor is she employed in any executive or managerial role in the company — or, so far as the public record shows, any role. At last check, she owned about 10.5 percent of the company — a splendid fortune, to be sure, but not one that puts her in a position to impose her will on the company’s day-to-day operations. The Walton family and associated insiders own a majority of the shares in the firm, but even assuming that they were of one mind on any particular issue, such not-inconsequential players as Vanguard and Warren Buffett’s company get a say, too, and the non-Walton shareholders have been a little antsy of late. My recollection is that the Los Angeles Times has a financial page, with lovely typography. 

Our great museums are the pride of our cities, from New York to Philadelphia to Fort Worth. The people of Bentonville apparently are interested in that sort of thing, too: After all, they are a third more likely to be college graduates than are residents of Los Angeles, and they make a quarter more money before one even takes into account the cost-of-living differences. Being better-educated and richer than Angelinos or New Yorkers, the people of Bentonville no doubt desire to have cultural institutions of their own, and Alice Walton, being an apparently generous sort, has obliged. 

It is difficult for me to imagine what goes through somebody’s head when they decide to abuse a family for giving away $1 billion to the cause of art and culture. There should be a word for whatever is one step beneath petty.

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