May 24, 2004

WM Endangers Vermont

The ENTIRE state of Vermont has been labeled "endangered" by the National Trust for Historic Preservation because WM plans to open 7 supercenters in the state. Before reading further, just think about it for a minute, because with this report, we have evidence of a clear divide in values at the margin, and must choose between status-quo economy and status-quo local culture.

Here's a news release, and an CNN/Money article. From the former:

During the 1990s Wal-Mart located three of its four Vermont stores in existing buildings and kept them relatively modest in size. Now, however, the world’s largest company is planning to saturate the state – which has only 600,000 residents – with seven new mammoth mega-stores, each with a minimum of 150,000 square feet. Theses potential new stores may be located in St. Albans, Morrisville, Newport/Derby, St. Johnsbury, Bennington, Rutland, and Middlebury. Wal-Mart’s plans are sure to attract an influx of other big-box retailers. The likely result: degradation of the Green Mountain State’s unique sense of place, economic disinvestment in historic downtowns, loss of locally-owned businesses, and an erosion of the sense of community that seems an inevitable by-product of big-box sprawl.
What I find amazing about the article is the necessary assumption of these activists that people are either powerless or dumb. Instead, I think it's clear that activists want to increase their own power over their opponents--not the power of people whose values differ from theirs.

On the one hand, WM is alleged to enter communities with promises of jobs and economic freedom (and otherwise really doesn't talk with activists), but actually destroys local economies, ecologies, and cultures. People shop there because its cheap, but they are actually hurting themselves.

On the other hand, to counter these ill effects, activists insist that Vermont communities (i.e. local government officials) should have far greater power over the placement and design of big-box stores--to turn mammoth into mom and pop--and should be able to block them if not deemed necessary.

The case seems airtight. Activists frame the debate as, "there's a problem coming--WM--and we're here to fight for you against it." They're very convincing, but to me there are two ways to look at this.

1) Without effective political coercion, WM will destroy people's higest values. (People are powerless)

2) The majority of people are dumb, and need to be protected from themselves. (People are dumb).

Activists usually argue in terms of 1, but sometimes resort to 2. I cannot accept the caretaker view of government, nor do I think people are powerless.

But lack of power in the people cannot be the activists real argument. If WM were hurtful to localities, and people were committed to communities but powerless to stop entry--not dumb--then any new supercenter would close down in short order, as people refused to shop there. The flourishing of harmful supercenters requires that people be dumb, not powerless.

Hence, that people lack power is not valid a reason to give local governments greater power.

Modeling or labelling people as either powerless is just a ploy to shift explicit power to government. Labelling people as dumb does not make their judgements about social change any less important.

But what if a WM supercenter doesn't really destroy communities, as the activists allege? (They don't actually name any devastated regions). What kinds of effects will greater local government powers have?

Greater government powers will preserve the status quo ecology and geography--what activists value--at the expense of the economy--what non-activists value.

There are tradeoffs here, and differing opinions between activists and non-activists about the values of the tradeoffs at the relevant margins.

Posted by Kevin on May, 24 2004 at 12:38 PM | TrackBack

Comments & Trackbacks
bergerblog wrote in Vermont and Wal-Mart:

Another eminently reasonable alternative would be for those communities targeted for Wal-Mart expansion to vote on whether they want a Super-Store. Some communities would presumably vote "no"; (maybe) others would vote "yes". Vermont's quaintness woul...

-- May 24, 2004 01:27 PM

Always Low Prices -- Always. wrote in Defending the Activists:

In "WM Endangers Vermont", Kevin talks about the attitudes and arguments of anti-WM activists, and that it comes down to either "people are powerless" and "people are dumb". Furthermore, Kevin suggests that the "people are powerless" argument isn't a r...

-- May 24, 2004 01:43 PM

BartCopFan wrote:

I disagree. I suspect people do not want the a) construction of a behemoth SuperCenter in their "quaint rural" wahtever environment, and b) do not want to have the radically altered landscape primarily promote the benefit of an outsider Southerner like Sam Walton's trust. Their are easily a hundred reasons to be opposed to this. It does you and your blog no credit to assume Vermont hates low prices. Indeed, assuming three of the seven SuperCenters are profitable, or more, local governments wil have little more power - though certainly more revenue. The power will go to the shareholders - whose values radically contradict the society of Vermont, founded by abolitionists and individualists. WM need not destroy the community to have a damaging effect on local culture and economies. Nor does Walmart's excessive power mean that opponents believe people to be powerless. You ought to give the opposition more credit.

-- May 24, 2004 03:29 PM

Kevin Brancato wrote:

I freely admit the many Vermonters want low prices--ceterus paribus, and even with other costs accruing. I deny that Vermonters have homogenous desires that can represented by an abstraction called the values of society.

I also reaffirm that NTHP thinks Vermonters are currently politically powerless to stop WM--otherwise, Vermont would not be "endangered" at all. The people would simply use the power that they have in private and political action to render WM's action's fruitless. Since the people cannot currently do this--except by refusing to shop there en masse--I submit that the people are politically powerless to stop WM from entering and succeeding.

I readily admit that we're talking about margins here. NTHP says enough WMs already exist in Vermont, and that local governments should be given far more power than they have now to change the character of all big-box entrants. This is the only power I was concerned about; and this power is a change in the fundamental rules of the economic order--giving more power over real estate and development to locally elected officials and those with their ear, and less to those who want to develop.

There are big, long-term tradeoffs involved, across time and across people with highly different values about political and economic order.

What NTHP wants is to increase its political control--which I don't blame them for.

But their call is not just for a simple policy change, like how much to spend on police or schools. Their call is to modify who gets to make final decisions--powers which currently reside largely in the hands of developers. NTHP wants to change the rules--rules that have served Vermont very well until now--because of a single outcome we do not like.

This, I oppose.

Your other points are very well taken.

-- May 24, 2004 05:22 PM

Daniel W. Drezner wrote in A landmark too far:

The National Trust for Historic Preservation describes itself as "the leader of the vigorous preservation movement that is saving the best of the country's past for the future." Yesterday they declared the eleven most endangered historic places in the ...

-- May 25, 2004 02:54 PM

The American Mind wrote in Kerry's House of Ketchup #13:

Kerry speaks. With Memorial Day festivities approaching what better addition to the brats, hot dogs, Italian sausage, and hamburgers...

-- May 27, 2004 02:24 AM

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