Monday, April 19, 2010

21st Century Jeffersonians Must Fight the Big Box Retailers

One of the clearest battles being waged today between 21st Century Jeffersonianism and the ever-present forces of Hamiltonianism is the constant struggle between local and independently-owned businesses and corporate big box retail establishments. In this struggle, the 21st Century Jeffersonians must be the ally of the former and the fervent enemy of the latter.

Every year, a larger percentage of America's economic activity is controlled by big box general merchandise stores like Walmart and Target, as well as more specialized establishments like Home Depot, Fry's, and Kohl's. Independent, local, and family-owned venues are under siege, their number declining every year. If we don't change our ways, these pillars of local communities will eventually vanish altogether, and every place in America will essentially look like every other place. Community identity, crucial to 21st Century Jeffersonianism, will be dealt a possibly fatal blow.

When the corporations try to muscle their way into local communities, usually against the express will of the citizens living there, they attempt to persuade local leaders that their big box establishments will actually be beneficial to the community. They claim they will create jobs, increase local tax revenue, and increase consumer choice by offering a wider variety of products. All these claims are false, as can be seen from the evidence.

Take the claim of increased numbers of jobs, for instance. A 2005 study conducted by economists from the University of California, Clark University, and Cornell University studied the impact of Walmart stores on more than 3,000 counties across the United States. The study revealed that each new Walmart resulted in the overall loss of 150 jobs in the community, because each new job at the Walmart store resulted in 1.4 jobs being lost at local stores.

And it's not just jobs. A 2004 study of the economic impact of independent and locally-owned stores vis-a-vis corporate chain stores in Chicago revealed some interesting facts. For every $100 spent at a locally-owned store, $68 dollars in additional economic activity was generated. By contrast, for every $100 spent at a corporate chain store, only $43 dollars in additional economic activity was created. Clearly, if a community wants to protect its local economy, it should post giant "Keep Out!" signs whenever Walmart of one of its imitators comes knocking.

Nor does the claim that big box retail boosts local tax revenue hold water. For one thing, big box retail establishments result in significant increases in public works costs, as new roads and water and sewage systems are required to accommodate them. The big box establishments are far less efficient in their use of such public works than traditional, more compact business districts, such as a "Main Street" with independent and family-owned businesses. Furthermore, the construction of big box retail results in a decline in nearby property values, thus reducing local tax revenue from those sources. Overall, the more a local economy is dominated by big box retail, the lower the municipal government's tax revenue is going to be.

But beyond the need of small towns and neighborhoods to protect their local economies, there are deeper issues involved in the fight against corporate big box retail. One need only wander through innumerable towns across America and see abandoned Main Streets, the windows of once-thriving family-owned businesses permanently shuttered, to see the massive social cost America pays for the alleged "convenience" of big box retail.

The story is the same in all of them: a Walmart or Target came to town, often after overcoming the organized opposition of the people by effectively bribing local town councils. They quickly reduced prices to such an extent that local and family-owned establishments were driven out of business, then raised prices back to where they were before. Some time later, the local economy effectively dead and sales therefore dropping, the big box corporation cut its losses and closed the shop. Having sucked away the wealth of the area like a giant vacuum cleaner, the big box corporations left a once prosperous community effectively destroyed. The barbarians who looted and destroyed the Roman Empire could scarcely have done a more effective job.

It is the small town and the neighborhood, with a strong sense of identity and a feeling of local pride, where the greatest strength of 21st Century Jeffersonianism is to be found. They must be defended, and nothing poses a greater danger to them than corporate big box retail. We must spend our money at the cherished independent and family-owned businesses, completely boycott chain big box retail establishments, and organize ourselves in order to prevent them from opening new big boxes. Unless we do, all our local communities across the country, the source for what makes our country unique, will eventually fade away into a postmodern morass of Walmarts, worse than the nightmares of the most fanciful dystopian science fiction writer.

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