Thursday, October 6, 2005

Casting Off Your Chains

By Mitchell

Andrew at Shrine of the Holy Whapping has an extremely provocative post entitled, "Why Walmart is Communist." It's an analysis of how giant corporations are to be viewed in light of papal encyclicals such as Rerum Novarum.

Leo XIII's problem with Communism was not so much with the state-ownership of these means of production, as the centralization of these means of production in one place--ie, not in the hands of the workers themselves.

My problem with Walmart is that it centralizes the ownership of the means of production (factories, services, and above all retail shops).

In other words, non-Communist systems can fall into the error of Communism,
when they deprive the average worker of the opportunity of running his own business, shop, production facility, etc.

Again, Andrew isn't calling Walmart Communist; rather, it's a case of falling into the same trap as Communism, one that reduces the employee to the status of being a wage slave with little or no hope of becoming their own boss by owning a business.

This kind of thinking can be a tough sell, as I discovered once in making the comment that today's CEOs had been substantially influenced by the Marxist teaching that they would have undergone at college campuses in the 60s and 70s, which was reflected in the dictatorial, cult-of-personality way in which so many modern corporations are structured and run. A lot of people laugh at you when you frame the argument in that way, but as Chesterton pointed out, big government and big business often work together in an unholy alliance that squeezes out the little guy - the worker, the average citizen.

The Star Tribune touched on this in an article Sunday (registration required) posing the question of how a neighborhood - in this case, Grand Avenue in St. Paul - deals with the influx of national chains into a thriving business district comprised mostly of local retailers (accurately described in the article as "quaint shops, cozy taverns and bustling restaurants."). As Grand Avenue thrives, the value of the land skyrockets and property taxes force many of these retailers out:

Ron Johnson, owner of Bober Pharmacy on Grand, estimates that his annual property tax bill has nearly tripled to $35,000 from $12,000 over the past 12 years because of rising property values. Several blocks away at Zimmerman's Dry Goods, owner Allan Brill is paying $12,000 a year in property taxes for 1,700 square feet -- up from $4,800 just five years ago.

"Not many retail organizations can survive the meat grinder of Grand Avenue," said Karl Benson, the general manager of Cooks of Crocus Hill, which has a kitchenware shop and cooking school on Grand. "The cost of doing business [on Grand] is very high and the independents are being driven out."

One proposal being offered is a one-year moratorium on development along the avenue, which would give the city time to craft a response to what many locals see as a threat to the unique character of the street:

One idea is to create a city ordinance that bans all "formula businesses," which includes retailers or restaurants that sell standard products and adopt standardized uniforms, architecture and methods of operation. Several cities on the West Coast have adopted such ordinances, though they usually are restricted to restaurants. In San Francisco, neighborhood residents can request a public hearing whenever a formula business applies for a license.

Now, there are two sides to every story, and this one is no exception. Many of the retailers, such as Pier 1 and Restoration Hardware, are fun stores that often add to the character of a shopping district. And then there are the benefits of having a large national chain as a neighbor:

For instance, the Chico's women's clothing store at Grand and Oxford is part of a national chain based in Fort Myers, Fla. Yet the store has operated its Grand Avenue store for 13 years and its owners, Rick and Danna Atherton of St. Paul, give $80,000 to $100,000 a year to local charities.

The Ace Hardware at 650 Grand is part of a chain, but longtime area residents consider it a vast improvement over the deserted gas station that was there before. A row of purple and red geraniums lines the front of the store, and each holiday season manager Kent Eernisse brings live reindeer into the store.

Which means, as is usually the case, that there is no easy answer to this question. In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I once lived one block off of Grand Avenue, and so I'm quite familiar with the neighborhood in both its pre- and post-redevelopment eras. It's a great place to be, and I don't for a moment discount the improvements introduced by the chains.

On the other hand, I also miss the local retailers, such as Odegard Books, that provided opportunity and selection not generally found in the cookie-cutter uniformity of the chains. And many of these places have gone out of business not because of lagging sales or desertion by their customers, but because the tax situation made it impossible for them to cut it financially. So maybe that makes it a political problem after. But no matter how we look at it, it appears to be destined to have a political solution.

My sympathies, as well as my Distributist leanings, favor the restrictive legislation against the national chains. However, how does one answer the question as to the good deeds that the chains have performed, using resources that local retailers might not be able to provide? I'm open to ideas.

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