There was sad news, at least for me, in the Gazette last week: that both Colorado Springs–area Sears stores will be closing down in March, along with the store in Pueblo. Given the Sears Corporation’s ongoing financial challenges, I suspect it is only a matter of time before Denver-area stores close as well. So, if you really want to go shopping at the iconic 125-year old store anywhere in the U.S., I suggest you do so soon, as Sears may well soon go the way of Borders Books, Enron, and many more, but for a silly reason.
For many people, particularly those of a certain age, a trip to Sears was something fun. As a tool guy myself, I bought lots of stuff at Sears, including most recently a new lawnmower. I really liked the major brands that Sears owned, such as Craftsman tools and Kenmore appliances. Well, if you want a Craftsman screwdriver, head over to Lowe’s, as they now sell that iconic brand. Want a Lands’ End shirt? You need to look elsewhere, as the CEO of Sears, a gent named Eddie Lampert, sold that brand in what Fortune Magazine called “…selling off the crown jewels” of the company.
As with any complicated financial story, there are many reasons Sears is going down the tubes. Sears owns K-Mart and that hasn’t been going well (cough…Colo Springs stores closed … cough), and there are lots of issues related to local business climates and such, but for Sears, there is one overriding reason for failure: CEO Eddie Lampert.
Mr. Lampert has a strong background in hedge funds and other mysterious and (at least to me) money ventures of dubiously honesty. But that alone would not shut down Sears and cut off my access to my favorite power tools. No, it took much more from Mr. Lampert to run what once was the biggest retailer in the country into the ground. And the 68,000 Sears employees that are likely to soon lose their jobs would be right in complaining loudly to Ayn Rand.
Yup, Ayn Rand.
It seems Mr. Lambert (like much of the farther-right GOP) is a devotee to Ms. Rand’s philosophy of “objectivism,” as outlined in her largely unreadable (again, to me at least) books. The fancy explanation of what objectivism is reads like a text book: "the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” It can be said much more simply though: being selfish and greedy is a good thing. Ms. Rand argued, among other things, that companies should be run by selfish people, because their greed would, thanks to the mysterious “invisible hand of the market,” cause those companies to become wildly successful and profitable.
So, Mr. Lambert decided to prove the value of objectivism when he bought Sears. He’d prove that the oft-maligned Ms. Rand had been right all along. Only five short years ago, Mr. Lambert reorganized the company so that each sub-unit of the overall business could function as its own stand-alone business entity, competing against the other divisions in Sears. Mr. Lambert argued that this would create, through greed and selfishness, a number of very successful divisions within the overall company, profits would soar, and all would be well in the land of Sears.
Alas, the experiment failed, horrifically and widely. It turns out that when you, say, empower the people selling washer/dryers, it’s not in their self-interest to help out the people who sell TVs on the other side of the store. Thus, each division operated in a setting of economic warfare with all the other divisions. The notion of doing something for the common good, like funding an advertising campaign to bring generic shoppers in the door, is lost, as someone shopping for towels is no good to the tool people. Unless, of course, you look at the overall common good of the larger corporation. But Mr. Lambert didn’t think that way, and so I can’t buy Sears or Kmart items in Colorado Springs after March, and Denver, they’ll come for you next.
I believe that Thomas Jefferson was right, when he posited that people are basically good. And Hamilton was right when he said that we could be selfish too. The key for those gents was to create a government that honors what is best within us, while controlling the more selfish impulses of the human family. Mr. Lambert and his team, awash in Randian nonsense, missed that message, and as a result, hundreds of our fellow Coloradans will soon be looking for new jobs. But don’t worry about Mr. Lambert, he’s got about $2B left, he should be ok. Whew!
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.