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Wal-Mart

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Interviewer: You pointed out that in the 1990s Walmart emerged as the nation's largest employer, whereas it had been General Motors in the 1970s. What is the significance of that?

Eric Foner: The shift from General Motors, the great automobile manufacturer, to Walmart as the largest employer in the country, which took place in the nineties, symbolizes the way the whole economy was shifting toward a service economy, a retail economy, and de-industrialization, as well as the continuing decline of manufacturing in the United States due to globalization, the shifting of jobs overseas in search of cheap labor, and the increasing importation of manufactured goods into United States. So really in the 1990s there was a great deal of talk of a new economy. To some extent this was based on the Internet, computerization, and high-tech business. But, actually, high-tech didn't employ anybody. Microsoft, the biggest high-tech company, employed roughly about 20,000 people, or something. You know that General Motors at its peak had employed hundreds of thousands. So what you saw was a shift from a manufacturing base toward a service, retail, and consumer economy. The problem with that, of course, was that the manufacturing jobs were very well paid and had strong union protections, pensions, and health benefits, and many of the jobs in this newer area were low-paying and offered very few benefits, so this became a problem for the American standard of living.

Rights revolution at the end of the 20th century

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Interviewer: You write that at the end of the twentieth century, the conservatives and proponents of the rights revolution converged on an individualist view of freedom. Would you comment on that?

Eric Foner: By the end of the 1990s, it seemed that a sort of individualist view of freedom had triumphed, bringing together veterans of the sixties, who had talked about "do your own thing" and the "right to have your own lifestyle," like getting the government out of personal affairs and personal matters, and many conservatives who wanted to get the government out of economic and environmental regulation. Many of them were Libertarians, who also thought that the government shouldn't try to regulate personal behavior. The result of the impeachment of President Clinton symbolizes this: despite the very avid attempts by Republicans to remove him from office because of his sexual misbehavior, most Americans seemed not to have cared very much about what he had done. They thought it was a private matter; they thought his behavior was open to criticism, but they didn't see it as a major political crisis because the idea of personal liberty, that there were private matters in which nobody should meddle, had really become dominant in the country. The one dissenting group in this view was sometimes called "Christian conservatives," or "moral conservatives," who felt that the government did have an obligation to impose a set of moral standards and moral behaviors on the population, but most people didn't seem to want the government to be doing that.