Point Austin: Thinking Outside the Box

Stacy Mitchell examines the megaretail culture and the tools required to dismantle it

Point Austin
My favorite anecdote in Stacy Mitchell's new book, Big-Box Swindle, is self-referential. Discussing the buying power of the major bookselling chains, which has begun to directly influence even which books get published, Mitchell cites parenthetically her own experience.

"Publishers may also self-censor books they believe the chains would dislike," Mitchell writes. "More than one publisher rejected this book on those grounds. 'I thought this was an excellent proposal,' one editor replied by e-mail, '... but the problem is the obvious one: the exposure of Barnes & Noble and Border[s]. Our publisher shut it down immediately – didn't want to bite the hand that feeds it, etc. I hope you're able to find someone willing to tough this out; as I say, it seems a fine and important book.'"

There remain some publishers willing to fade the book-chain heat; we have Beacon Press to thank for Mitchell's indeed fine and important book. Subtitled The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America's Independent Businesses, Mitchell's Big-Box Swindle is a historical, economic, and political study of the major international chain-store corporations and their long-term debilitating effects on local economies and communities. Mitchell traces the development of the chains' growing power over the last century, accelerated over the last 30 years by tax and regulatory changes effectively subsidizing exploitative big-box development (and redevelopment) at the expense of local, independent businesses built at human scale with sustainable finances and deep community roots.

Perhaps more importantly, drawing partly on the experience of the Austin Independent Business Alliance, Mitchell also traces the growing network of citizen and business activism aimed at counteracting the power of the chains and communicating the value – in economic, political, and cultural terms – of locally owned businesses. "This explosion of activity," she writes hopefully, "may well herald the beginnings of a sea change in our priorities as a society."

Corporate Welfare Kings

Although chain-store developers and defenders reflexively cite "free enterprise" and "consumer choice" as the foundations of their explosive domination of the retail market, Mitchell demonstrates exhaustively that "to a scandalous degree," the monopolistic expansions of Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot, Lowe's, and their ilk "are a product of public policy, not simply consumer choice." She describes the massive Fifties-era tax breaks (and public infrastructure) that fostered the sprawling development of disposable shopping malls, the "Geoffrey Loophole" that allows external corporations to dodge local taxes, followed by state and local development subsidies provided by officials seduced or bullied into a race to the bottom with neighboring communities. ("Since the early 1990s," she notes, "Wal-Mart alone has grabbed over $1 billion in local and state subsidies to fund construction of its new stores and warehouses.")

The companies' structural abuse of labor, here and abroad, is also well-known. Yet a prime example of government "regulation" was the deal Wal-Mart negotiated with the Department of Labor after being caught violating child-labor laws: a small fine, advance notice of any inspections, and a promise not to misbehave again. (The feds were eventually shamed into abandoning this sweetheart arrangement.)

The subsidies are inevitably justified by citing the increased tax revenues and jobs that supposedly follow the big-box retailers, but as Mitchell demonstrates again and again, citing numerous economic studies from across the country, both the tax income and the jobs are inevitably recycled from other, mostly local retailers (where the sales income had directly contributed to the local economy instead of corporate headquarters). Moreover, most of the jobs brought by the megaretailers are low-paying, high-turnover employment requiring its own public subsidies from various social services, while the jobs steadily eroded from local retailers tend to be better-paying, neighborhood employment serving to strengthen community involvement and citizenship.

In a chapter titled "Sometimes Low Prices," Mitchell even chips away at the megastore myth of storewide bargains, because as often as not, the reputation of substantial consumer savings is built on loss leaders or even predatory pricing designed to muscle out local competition. When you add the public expense of dedicated infrastructure, sprawling traffic, and all its consequent waste and pollution, the smiling political deals to lure in big-box retailers begin to appear no bargains at all.

Escaping the Box

Yet in the short term, as citizens we can expect help from our public officials in fending off these retail predators only if we can build the political movements that empower elected leaders to reject corporate economic bullying. The final chapters of Big-Box Swindle recount the success of local initiatives to reclaim economic independence and to stand up to the power of the megaretailers. Among Mitchell's several inspirational examples is recent Austin history, where she points to the city's experience in promoting the 2nd Street District and its inclusion of a substantial majority of local businesses in preference to chains, as well as the organizing and marketing activities of the Austin Independent Business Alliance. She is perhaps a bit starry-eyed about these still fledgling efforts, which are unlikely to prosper in Austin without a firm and continuing commitment to effective, sustainable mass transit, among other things.

But Big-Box Swindle recounts numerous successful local efforts, across the country, to organize neighborhoods, network local businesses, and stiffen the spines of politicians to withstand the arrogant expectations and demands of corporate behemoths whose only allegiance is to their CEOs and stockholders. Despite the hired-hand sensibilities of too many politicians and the reflexive propaganda of corporate-chain media, a market economy is not an abstract financial system under which "competition" determines that the most reward flows inevitably to the most economically powerful. Markets are made by men and women, citizens all – and an economy is meant to serve the community, not the other way around. If we can create public movements built upon that simple understanding, we can unchain our homes and communities from the rapacious economic, environmental, and political exploitation physically embodied in the architectural and political brutality of Big-Box Culture. end story

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Wal-Martbig-box retail, Stacy Mitchell, Big-Box Swindle, Wal-Mart, Austin Independent Business Alliance

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