Family Dollar and Libertarianism

ACORN Dollar Store Workers United Dollar Stores

New Orleans      Working with Dollar Store Workers United and a study that ACORN and its partners at Georgia State University completed and will release soon, I monitor Dollar General, Family Dollar, and Dollar Tree (which owns Family Dollar) somewhat closely, so of course I read the obituary recently on the passing of Family Dollar’s founder, Leon Levine.  These are dollar stores by definition so the headline on his death was unsurprising, saying he “made a billion one dollar at a time.”  I also wrote a book, Citizen Wealth, that, among other things, focused on businesses that concentrated on making their money, often predatorily, in low-and-moderate income neighborhoods.  I didn’t concentrate in the book on dollar stores, concentrating on other exploiters, but maybe I should have because they have exploded in recent years with 8000 Family Dollar locations alone, and even more Dollar Generals.

All of the obits of Levine include his semi-rags-to-riches story.  He started the chain in Charlotte, North Carolina with $6000, half from his own pocket in 1959, going public around 1970, and selling out for $9 billion in 2015, when he and his family pocketed about $1.4 billion.  He made no secret that he located his stores where he could sell to poorer families, because that was, and remains, the business model.  These were small-box stores, and most of us know that they have everything under the sun inside, priced as low as the quality, and stuffed to the gills, usually blocking the aisles.  “He often told interviewers that he picked their locations by looking for oil stains in parking lots, which he thought signified the leaky cars of the poor.”  Knowing that now and thinking back over all of the cars that I have owned over the years; I now feel lucky he didn’t open a store in my front yard.

Except perhaps in hometown papers, where Chilon of Sparta’s dicta to “not speak ill of the dead” prevails, it’s not unusual in reading obits that scandals or controversies in their careers are prominently included.  It is kind of unusual that a whole column would be devoted to the various opinions about whether dollar stores are good or bad for the poor or in the Times’ writer’s words, “something less than a happy tale of capitalism functioning well.”  My point is not that this is tacky, but that it is unusual, since major papers obits are filled to the brim with glowing reports of the rich, for example read the Wall Street Journal for proof almost any day, but never mention how exploitive by definition many, if not most, have been.  Trust me, when private equity moguls pass, there will hardly be a paragraph in their obits about how they produced no value and wrecked catastrophic ruin.  Why they wait for Levine’s obit to explore the ruins of predatory capitalism just seems odd, even though they are careful to quote the New Yorker and their own Sunday magazine as sources.

Going down this rathole, they pull out Howard Levine, Leon’s son, to defend the business model.  He also defended “the goods Family Dollar chooses to sell; the company, he said, is attentive to what shoppers want.  ‘We’ve tried to sell more healthy foods, so to speak, and our customer doesn’t buy that sort of stuff,’ he said.” I recently interviewed someone on Wade’s World about the contradictions in the law about selling synthetic drugs.  The guys that sold the stuff, when asked if they cared about the impact their stuff had on their customers and how they used it, replied that they were “libertarians,” so in essence it wasn’t just the “buyer beware”, but “the buyer who cares?”  Somehow, whether dollar stores or drugs, we’ve managed to attach a philosophy that sounds like something for a reality that is about nothing, except just standard operating procedure rapacious capitalism.

Leon Levine seems to have made no illusions about what he was doing.  He created a foundation for example that gave money to antipoverty programs, which has to be some kind of personal recognition about what he had done, even though lacking regret.  Some readers and reporters can hold their noses about dollar stores, meanwhile they continue to grow and expand everywhere, a sorry statement about our economy, society, and politics.