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