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OPINION | REX NELSON: More academic claptrap

by Rex Nelson | May 12, 2021 at 3:18 a.m.

I know a little bit about academia. My son is working on a doctorate in government along with a law degree at the University of Texas. He likely will spend all or part of his career in higher education.

I spent five years in higher education, serving from 2011-16 as president of Arkansas' Independent Colleges & Universities, the association of the state's 11 private four-year institutions. My bosses were all college presidents.

As one who can identify academic claptrap, a recent story about Bentonville by Stephanie Farmer, an associate professor of sociology at Roosevelt University in Illinois, had a style that was immediately recognizable.

Farmer's piece was published by Jacobin, a socialist quarterly based in New York. It was founded in 2010 by Bhaskar Sunkara, a former vice chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America and the author of "The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality."

Under the headline "Walmart's Company Town of Bentonville, Arkansas," Farmer writes: "In its rise as the nation's largest retailer, Walmart has pushed millions into the grinder of working poverty--employed but lacking a living wage, health insurance, job security, dignity and a voice in the workplace--while decimating the community fabric of many suburbs and small towns. But while recently visiting my mother in Bentonville, Arkansas, my husband and I were astonished to discover that the Walton family is also building a professional-class urban utopia in and around its headquarters.

"The Waltons are using their charity, the Walton Family Foundation, to bankroll the conversion of small-town Bentonville into a playground for Walmart's management class and supply chain vendors, with expansion of the arts, foodie culture, education, transportation, and mental and physical health associated with the consumption norms of a professional-class labor force."

I've long heard that old canard about Walmart "decimating the community fabric," even from those who aren't socialists. What Sam Walton actually did was make goods affordable for hundreds of thousands of low-income Americans--many of whom live in rural America--who couldn't afford those products before. Because of Walmart's price structure, the quality of life in rural America became better, not worse.

Anyone who understands the history of American retailing realizes that if Walton hadn't come up with the idea, someone else eventually would have. I'm selfishly glad it happened in Arkansas and that this historically poor state is now reaping the benefits of one of the great success stories in the history of capitalism.

My father was a small-business owner in a town where Walmart placed a store. His business, with its higher-priced goods, continued to flourish because of enhanced customer service that people couldn't get from a big-box store. Across America, smart business owners adjusted. Those who didn't were replaced by others. That's the beauty of capitalism.

Farmer describes the Walton Family Foundation as a "tax shelter in which the Walton family stashes its financial largesse to avoid paying Uncle Sam. In turn, the foundation uses the Waltons' sheltered fortune to finance public improvement projects that are intended to attract skilled workers to Walmart's headquarters region as it shifts to e-commerce retailing."

I wouldn't expect a socialist to consider the fact that members of the Walton family have determined that they can spend the money more wisely than Uncle Sam. If that money were going into some sort of private club, I could understand the criticism. The projects I've visited have been open to all, making northwest Arkansas one of the most desirable places to live in the country. It's also among the fastest-growing areas, a place people want to live rather than being forced to live.

Farmer sneers at the idea of anyone actually wanting to live in Arkansas, writing about vendors being "required to migrate to the hinterlands" and noting at one point that Bentonville "feels empty, and ersatz--at best, like a chintzy old-school diorama of New Urbanist professional-class consumption norms, and, at worst, some simulated bourgeois enclave culled from a 'Black Mirror' episode. ... While Bentonville claims to be a mountain-biking mecca, the smell of weed that often accompanies mountain bikers was nowhere to be found in the two weeks we spent in Bentonville. And the nachos sucked."

Really? I had to check at this point to make sure this wasn't a parody. Alas, Farmer appears to be serious.

She writes: "The foundation's landscape designers crafted the 300-acre Coler Mountain Bike Preserve into a network of biking and hiking rails and tree canopies. Visitors can refresh themselves at Airship Coffee, an open-air cafe and beer garden in the Arkansas architecture vernacular, featuring locally brewed beers and kombuchas, or stretch out on the yoga platforms dotting the natural landscape.

"The road-bike infrastructure in Bentonville is top shelf compared to that of any other city in the United States. Landscape designers have turned their attention toward building an interconnected string of green spaces so that residents can traverse the city under a tree canopy or have dotted community-center spaces to have a picnic, stage impromptu performances or scale outdoor climbing walls."

And that's supposed to be a bad thing? Farmer can head back to Chicago in search of marijuana smoke and decent nachos. Me? I think I'll plan to a trip to northwest Arkansas.


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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