Tag Archives: Wall Street Journal

Buying Everything You Need at the Dollar Store

Brian Killian / Getty Images for Procter & Gamble

“Dol­lar Gen­eral is ex­pand­ing be­cause rural Amer­ica is strug­gling.”

Sarah Nassauer‘s latest story in the Wall Street Journal, “How Dollar General Became Rural America’s Store of Choice,” profiles the discount chain’s rapid growth in areas where residents have little choice in where they shop locally for basic essentials. For those who live forty miles out from the nearest Wal-Mart, the local Dollar General is often the only game in town for daily necessities, from soups to socks to shower curtains.

As discount chains become lifelines for more and more cash-strapped Americans, stores like Dollar General are proliferating — and profiting — as the market “adjusts” to meet the single-serve needs of rising income inequality.

The local Dollar General store, built on a rural highway and surrounded by farmland, sells no fresh meat, greens or fruit. Yet the 7,400-square-foot steel-sided store has most of what Eddie Watson needs.

The selection echoes a suburban drugstore chain, from shower curtains to breakfast cereal, toilet paper, plastic toys and camouflage-pattern socks. Refrigerators and freezers on one wall hold milk, eggs and frozen pizza.

Many items are sold in mini bottles or small bags, keeping costs lower than a trip to the Wal-Mart Supercenter down the road. The two registers are staffed by one cashier, except during rush hours after school and after work.

“It’s just closer,” said Mr. Watson, a 53-year-old construction worker who filled his cart with cans of chicken soup, crackers, cold cuts and toilet paper.

While many large retailers are closing locations, Dollar General executives said they planned to build thousands more stores, mostly in small communities that have otherwise shown few signs of the U.S. economic recovery.

The more the rural U.S. struggles, company officials said, the more places Dollar General has found to prosper. “The economy is continuing to create more of our core customer,” Chief Executive Todd Vasos said in an interview at the company’s Goodlettsville, Tenn., headquarters.

“We are putting stores today [in areas] that perhaps five years ago were just on the cusp of probably not being our demographic,” he said, “and it has now turned to being our demographic.”

Sales at the store are up 17% so far this year compared with last year, a spokeswoman said.

On a recent weekday, Jackie Buchanan pulled up to the store astride a forest-green Craftsman riding mower, to buy shampoo and lawnmower-carburetor cleaner. “I’m just one mile down the road,” said Mr. Buchanan, 51, who is unemployed.

Robin Swift, 48, arrived to buy after-school snacks rather than drive 10 miles to the Wal-Mart. “It’s a small town,” she said, “and we don’t have another choice.”

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The Art of Humorous Nonfiction: A Beer in Brooklyn with the King of the A-Heds

Barry Newman, in the monastic republic of Mount Athos, in the 1980s.

Mary Pilon | Longreads | August 2015 | 10 minutes (2,724 words)


“Why wait until the next story about coagulated fat in sewers comes along when you can read this one now?”

“All the world’s Grape Nuts come from a dirty-white, six-story concrete building with steam rising out of the roof here in the San Joaquin Valley.”

“With a WeedWacker under his arm, Dan Kowalsky was at work trimming the median strip of U.S. Route 1 in suburban Westport, Conn., when he was asked, above the din: Why not use a scythe?”

For 43 years, this is how Barry Newman has opened his stories. As a staff reporter at The Wall Street Journal, Newman developed a niche as the “King of the A-Hed,” the front page, below-the-fold feature story that had become one of journalism’s more peculiar corners since its inception in the 1940s. On a front page filled with the dryness of the bond market, the gravity of war casualties or the enduring egotism of Wall Street, the A-Hed was an homage to the ridiculousness of the world, a favorite among readers, reporters and editors, its existence constantly under threat. Read more…

The Roots of the Greek Debt Crisis

The crisis in Greece is getting worse. Its people on July 5 voted against the terms of the most recent bailout deal in a referendum, rejecting austerity. If a new deal isn’t reached soon, its government won’t be able to pay its debts and will run out of euros, which many expect it will mean exiting the euro zone. This 2010 Michael Lewis classic for Vanity Fair, “Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds,” helps explain the current situation:

For most of the 1980s and 1990s, Greek interest rates had run a full 10 percent higher than German ones, as Greeks were regarded as far less likely to repay a loan. There was no consumer credit in Greece: Greeks didn’t have credit cards. Greeks didn’t usually have mortgage loans either. Of course, Greece wanted to be treated, by the financial markets, like a properly functioning Northern European country. In the late 1990s they saw their chance: get rid of their own currency and adopt the euro. To do this they needed to meet certain national targets, to prove that they were capable of good European citizenship—that they would not, in the end, run up debts that other countries in the euro area would be forced to repay. In particular they needed to show budget deficits under 3 percent of their gross domestic product, and inflation running at roughly German levels. In 2000, after a flurry of statistical manipulation, Greece hit the targets. To lower the budget deficit the Greek government moved all sorts of expenses (pensions, defense expenditures) off the books. To lower Greek inflation the government did things like freeze prices for electricity and water and other government-supplied goods, and cut taxes on gas, alcohol, and tobacco. Greek-government statisticians did things like remove (high-priced) tomatoes from the consumer price index on the day inflation was measured. “We went to see the guy who created all these numbers,” a former Wall Street analyst of European economies told me. “We could not stop laughing. He explained how he took out the lemons and put in the oranges. There was a lot of massaging of the index.”

Which is to say that even at the time, some observers noted that Greek numbers never seemed to add up. A former I.M.F. official turned economic adviser to former Greek prime minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis turned Salomon Brothers analyst named Miranda Xafa pointed out in 1998 that if you added up all the Greek budget deficits over the previous 15 years they amounted to only half the Greek debt. That is, the amount of money the Greek government had borrowed to fund its operations was twice its declared shortfalls. “At Salomon we used to call [the head of the Greek National Statistical Service] ‘the Magician,’ ” says Xafa, “because of his ability to magically make inflation, the deficit, and the debt disappear.”

In 2001, Greece entered the European Monetary Union, swapped the drachma for the euro, and acquired for its debt an implicit European (read German) guarantee. Greeks could now borrow long-term funds at roughly the same rate as Germans—not 18 percent but 5 percent. To remain in the euro zone, they were meant, in theory, to maintain budget deficits below 3 percent of G.D.P.; in practice, all they had to do was cook the books to show that they were hitting the targets. Here, in 2001, entered Goldman Sachs, which engaged in a series of apparently legal but nonetheless repellent deals designed to hide the Greek government’s true level of indebtedness. For these trades Goldman Sachs—which, in effect, handed Greece a $1 billion loan—carved out a reported $300 million in fees. The machine that enabled Greece to borrow and spend at will was analogous to the machine created to launder the credit of the American subprime borrower—and the role of the American investment banker in the machine was the same. The investment bankers also taught the Greek-government officials how to securitize future receipts from the national lottery, highway tolls, airport landing fees, and even funds granted to the country by the European Union. Any future stream of income that could be identified was sold for cash up front, and spent. As anyone with a brain must have known, the Greeks would be able to disguise their true financial state for only as long as (a) lenders assumed that a loan to Greece was as good as guaranteed by the European Union (read Germany), and (b) no one outside of Greece paid very much attention. Inside Greece there was no market for whistle-blowing, as basically everyone was in on the racket.

And in this essay published in mid-June, Wall Street Journal correspondent Matina Stevis shares her feeling of impotence as she watches her country struggle.

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Can a Reporter Go a Whole Day Without Learning Who Won the Super Bowl?

A hundred and fourteen million Americans watched the Super Bowl on the first Sunday of this month. That same day, just over a hundred people embarked on a different kind of game, an annual, loosely organized showdown called Last Man. Last Man is the battle to be the “Last Man in America to Know Who Won the Super Bowl;” its players call themselves “runners” and report their “deaths” on Twitter. The whole thing is strictly run on the honor system. Below is an excerpt from a recent New Yorker story by Reeves Wiedeman about Last Man:

Monday is the most difficult day, and within twenty-four hours, half of the runners had been eliminated. Just getting to work was a problem. (Did you glance at the Captivate screen in your office elevator? You died.) “I think the slushercane helped,” John Carney, a reporter at the Wall Street Journal and a Last Man competitor, said, of the wintry mix in New York the day after the Super Bowl. “I had to keep my eyes down, watching my step. No danger of accidentally seeing a newspaper.” Survival, he said, requires “intense eye discipline.” Getting to his desk near the Journal sports department required passing innumerable copies of the day’s paper, which had the result printed across the top of the front page. He recruited nearby coworkers to alert him to possible danger—the newsroom has enough televisions to make a Best Buy manager envious—and when an editor from another desk walked by wearing a Patriots jersey, a friend warned Carney not to look up. At one point, Carney had nineteen unread text messages and eighty-six unclicked e-mails. (A Journal colleague writes, “Are you making clear there’s no way Carney could have been doing his job effectively while avoiding all news services?”) On Tuesday, he was looking at the Pragmatic Capitalist, a Web site that typically offers “Practical Views on Money & Finance” but that day had an article titled “Game Theory Cannot Rationalize Seattle’s Super Bowl Loss.” (“It all makes me wonder if Carroll wasn’t suffering from a severe case of recency bias.”) Death by game theory.

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle users, you can also get them as a Readlist.

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle users, you can also get them as a Readlist.

Sign up to receive this list free every Friday in your inbox.

* * *

Read more…

How ‘Shawshank Redemption’ Keeps Paying, 20 Years Later

“Shawshank” only began to get moviegoers’ attention after the Oscars, where it received seven nominations (but won no awards) and promptly was rereleased in theaters. The second run grossed an additional $10 million and primed it for its debut on home video, which at the time was still a robust revenue source.

If Andy Dufresne was the movie’s on-screen hero, off screen it was Ted Turner, whose Turner Broadcasting System had acquired Castle Rock in 1993. His TNT channel took the cable-broadcast rights to the film in 1997 and made “Shawshank” an anchor of its “New Classics” campaign.

Over the next few years, TNT and other Turner channels ensured that “Shawshank” never again would suffer from a lack of exposure. “Mr. Turner, bless his heart, chose to show the movie every five minutes,” Mr. Darabont said.

Russell Adams, in the Wall Street Journal, on how a movie that failed to perform at the box office became a huge money maker anyway.

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More on Hollywood in the Longreads Archive

The Last Living Recipient of VA Benefits from the Civil War

Ms. Triplett’s pension, small as it is, stands as a reminder that war’s bills don’t stop coming when the guns fall silent. The VA is still paying benefits to 16 widows and children of veterans from the 1898 Spanish-American War.

The last U.S. World War I veteran died in 2011. But 4,038 widows, sons and daughters get monthly VA pension or other payments. The government’s annual tab for surviving family from those long-ago wars comes to $16.5 million.

Spouses, parents and children of deceased veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan received $6.7 billion in the 2013 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. Payments are based on financial need, any disabilities, and whether the veteran’s death was tied to military service.

Those payments don’t include the costs of fighting or caring for the veterans themselves. A Harvard University study last year projected the final bill for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars would hit $4 trillion to $6 trillion in the coming decades…

A declaration of war sets in motion expenditures that can span centuries, whether the veterans themselves were heroes, cowards or something in between.

Michael M. Phillips, writing in the Wall Street Journal. Phillips profiled Irene Triplett, the last living recipient of VA benefits connected to the Civil War. According to Phillips, Triplett, who is 84, “collects $73.13 from the Department of Veterans Affairs, a pension payment for her father’s military service—in the Civil War,” which ended in 1865.

Read the story here

More stories from The Wall Street Journal

Photo: Library of Congress, Flickr

The Lobotomy Files: A Longreads Guest Pick By Nicole Greenfield

Nicole Greenfield
Nicole Greenfield is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York.

I must admit it was the photo of 90-year-old Roman Tritz, clear blue eyes and a blank stare to the camera’s side, that initially drew me into one of my favorite longreads of the week. But the photo didn’t prepare me for the truly harrowing nature of Tritz’s story, a deeply personal look into one of the thousands of forced lobotomies the U.S. government performed on World World II veterans, the details of which are uncovered for the first time in this multimedia feature. The in-depth, but straightforward reporting of such a horrendous trend, performed in the absence of answers, begs all kinds of questions. How could this happen? And, importantly, could it happen again? For it’s impossible not to connect Tritz’s struggle and the stories of veterans today also suffering from PTSD, also without adequate assistance, also afraid, also wondering, as Tritz himself did pre-operation, “Does anybody really care?” This is one that will stick with me for a while.

The Lobotomy Files

Michael M. Phillips | The Wall Street Journal | December 13, 2013 | 48 minutes (12,000 words)


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