WASHINGTON: In 1859, when Manhattan still had many farms, near the Battery on the island’s southern tip The Great American Tea Company was launched. It grew, and outgrew its name, becoming in 1870 The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, which in 1912 begat the first A&P Economy Store, a semi-modern grocery store.
By 1920, there were 4,500 such stores; by 1930, 15,000. In 1936, in Braddock, Pennsylvania, A&P opened a “supermarket.” By the 1950s, A&P was, briefly, what Walmart now is, the nation’s largest retailer, with a 75 percent share of America’s grocery business. A&P was, however, about to learn that Karl Marx was right.
In “The Communist Manifesto,” Marx testified to capitalism’s transformative power: “All that is solid melts into air.” Sixty-eight years after he wrote that, in 1916, in Memphis, just as Henry Ford’s Model T was making personal mobility a universal aspiration, and that aspiration was making suburbs practical and alluring, the first Piggly Wiggly opened.
This was the beginning of self-service grocery chains. Hitherto, shoppers handed their grocery lists to clerks, who plucked the goods from shelves. Soon shoppers were pushing carts along aisles lined with goods enticingly packaged to prompt impulse purchases.
A&P flourished when people went downtown to shop. As new suburbs spread, A&P’s stores were old and distant. A&P filed for bankruptcy in 2015. By Novemer 25, 2016, its last stores had closed.
Last week, Kroger grocery chain’s lowered earnings forecast caused a 19 percent drop in share prices, which had already declined 12 percent in 2017. This was before Amazon announced that it is buying the Whole Foods grocery chain—more than 460 stores in 42 states, Canada and Britain—for $13.7 billion, which is approximately how much Amazon’s market capitalization increased after the Whole Foods announcement.
Whole Foods, like Kroger, had been experiencing difficulties from competitors and expanding consumer options. The Wall Street Journal reports: “Consumers are buying more of their groceries outside of traditional supermarkets. Online merchants, discounters and meal-kit delivery services are all grabbing market share.”
Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Iron Law of Emulation—competitive branches of government adopt their rivals’ techniques— applies to the private sector, too. Neil Irwin of The New York Times writes of Amazon: “The online retailer is on a collision course with Walmart to try to be the predominant seller of pretty much everything you buy. Each one is trying to become more like the other—Walmart by investing heavily in technology, Amazon by opening physical bookstores and now buying physical supermarkets.” Something similar, says Irwin, is happening in “nearly every major industry,” benefiting “the biggest and best-run organizations, to the detriment of upstarts and second-fiddle players.”
In the accelerated churning of today’s capitalism, changing tastes and expanding choices destroy some jobs and create others, with net gains in price and quality. But disruption is never restful, and America now faces a decision unique in its history: Is it tired—tired of the turmoil of creative destruction? If so, it had better be ready to do without creativity. And ready to stop being what it has always been: restless.
Americans just now are being plied with promises that the political class can, and is eager to, protect them from the need to make strenuous exertions to provide for themselves in an increasingly competitive world. If the nation really is ready to sag into a rocking chair, it can while away its days and ward off ennui by reading the poet Philip Larkin.
“It seems, just now,
To be happening so very fast.”
Those lines are from Larkin’s 1972 poem “Going, Going,” his melancholy, elegiac lament about the pace of what he considered despoiling change that was, he thought, erasing all that was familiar in his England. The first line of Larkin’s final stanza is: “Most things are never meant.”
This is a profound truth: The interacting processes that propel the world produce outcomes that no one intends. The fatal conceit—fatal to the fecundity of spontaneous order—is the belief that anyone, or any group of savants, is clever and farsighted enough to forecast the outcomes of complex systems. Who really wants to live in a society where outcomes are “meant,” meaning planned and unsurprising?
In his poem, Larkin explained why he wrote it: He was feeling “age, simply.” He was 49.
Soon America will be 241. It is too young to flinch from the frictions—and the more than compensating blessings—of a fast-unfolding future.
© 2017, WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP