Small town virtues

A listserv that several RBCers belong to has had a discussion  about why the ancient meme that cities are evil, unAmerican congregations of overeducated snobs, while folks in small towns are decent, commonsense types who look out for each other and embody real virtue, persists. To the point that no candidate for office boasts about a city childhood, but people like Rick Perry seem to think they gain stature by going on about their small-town origins.  A parallel discussion has been reflecting on why small business seems to get the same privileged pass, and whether it should. No-one has invoked the name of George Babbitt yet, but he’s in the wings.

Sara Robinson gave me permission to post the following from that list about her home town of Bishop, CA:

In my mind’s eye, I can walk up and down Main Street of my hometown as it was 30 years ago and easily name 50 thriving small businesses, each of which was supporting at least one middle-class family, often two or three  (and I can usually name the families, too, because one of them was mine). On the profits they made from these businesses, these families were able to own nice middle-class houses, send their kids to college, take vacations, buy new cars, and generally live the American Dream as we understood it then.

Several things happened to put an end to that. First, K-mart moved into town, and in short order shut down several of the sporting goods stores, at least one book store, one family-owned pharmacy, two hardware stores (one of which had been in business since 1888), the local dairy, and a couple of dozen other core businesses. The result was a significant loss of middle-class, independent jobs, which were only partly replaced by the deeply inferior $6.50/hour jobs offered at the new store.

The next was that the Berlin Wall fell, which led two years later to the closing of the Union Carbide mine that was the biggest employer in town. Seven hundred union jobs in a town of 5,000 — poof. Suddenly, the US decided that having a domestic source of strategic metals like tungsten, molybdenum, and vanadium was no longer a security necessity; now, was OK to depend on Russia and China for these things, especially if their miners got paid a quarter what ours did. Losing the mine and the related jobs also cost us another big chunk of Main Street.

This one-two punch set the stage for the third plague, which of course was the meth epidemic that came along just after the mine closed.

In my small-town experience, big corporations give (as Carbide did for 50 years) and big corporations also take away (as both Carbide and K-Mart did in the late 80s). But the ultimate effect was to turn my town from a comfortable, optimistic middle-class American town to a working-class trailer-park meth-fueled hell where nobody can get a job that pays a living wage unless they’re running a lab in their garage. “Home” as I knew it has been gone for 20 years.

Yeah, small businesses can be parochial and narrow in their view of their own interests. But they’re also working in an environment where they’re having to follow regulations designed for much bigger companies, are operating on much thinner margins, and are being dogged by big businesses that are able to munch them whole. It’s a vastly more hostile environment than the one that obtained in decades past; I don’t wonder that it made them mean. Middle-class America was rooted in a rich small-business economy: the two go together. And based on what I saw in Canada (a country that goes way out of its way to encourage people to start small businesses and help them thrive), I doubt we’re going to see a real middle-class renaissance until we make small, independent businesses more viable once again.

The place I grew up couldn’t be more different from the Bishop of Sara’s childhood, but as I read her post I realized it was the same in many important respects.  Along Third Avenue in Manhattan, within two blocks north and south of 30th St., were several dozen retail stores, all family-owned, plus a large commercial hardware store and an A&P that passed, in New York of the period, for a “supermarket”.   I was known by sight if not by name to almost all these merchants and could go to and fro along that busy big-city street in complete safety.  The shoe repair/newsdealer/hat cleaner  (men’s hats (i) were worn and (ii) needed to be cleaned and reblocked from time to time) was run by Messr’s (or Signori) Petrillo and Fabrizio; Petrillo knew I was only allowed to buy one comic book a day and enforced the rule, but Fabrizio was a pushover and would let me get out with two at a time.

Outside the A&P  there were usually two or three perambulators with babies in them (strollers, and urban paranoia, were still to come), the proprietors inside shopping. My mother brought our Irish Setter, who parked under the pram and though she had no use for me (I had arrived after she was ensconced in the family), recognized that I belonged to Mom and had to be protected, so people who reached towards me to pinch my cheek or try to get a smile and a gurgle were warned off by a serious growl from below.

Mr. and Mrs. Schindler’s little grocery store ran a tab for us: you would ask for stuff on shelves that filled the wall to what must have been a ten-foot ceiling, and Mr. Schindler would expertly grab a box of cornflakes with a long pole with tongs at the far end , lift it off a high shelf, and drop it to his other hand.  With the order on the counter, he would write the prices on a paper bag, total it, make a note, and put the groceries in the bag. I never heard a dispute about the monthly bill, and no-one ever signed for anything.

Every stop in every store entailed a few words of chat, though I didn’t know the owners’ families as Sara did (New York doesn’t work that way).

Bishop’s K-Mart, and real supermarkets, and Wal-Mart all sell stuff for less than the small-scale retailing system they suffocate possibly can, and probably save a lot of shoppers’ time that would be spent going to the butcher, the baker, the toy store, the greengrocer, etc.  [Though, now that I think of it, my parents probably saved a lot of time after I was about eight because they could send me out to shop for this and that, and for a kid, it was entertaining just to go to the liquor store to cash a check for Dad. Of course it was probably illegal for me to enter the liquor store…] If the quality of life is measured by how much stuff we have, we are well out of that inefficient world; I certainly have more power tools than my Dad did, and I consume more housing and vehicles: obviously life is uncontroversially better when GDP is higher, and when the Chinese and Vietnamese make us cool stuff cheap. More stuff is what it’s all about, right? If you have more stuff, who cares if daily life (like shopping) is deracinated, isolated, and sterile?

The big stores that sell me stuff cheap have even figured out a way to imitate the unrehearsed social intercourse of family-scaled retail.  At the local Safeway, and Fry’s, and Best Buy, staff who are complete strangers greet me walking down an aisle with “Hi! How are you doing?” in a creditable imitation of the way people who know each other enough to care about the answer interact.  At the Safeway checkout, the clerk always asks “did you find everything you wanted?” [though they never seem the least bit interested if I tell them about something they’re out of] and then offers “help out to your car?”  This one puzzled me as I do not look especially frail, have just pushed the same load of groceries around the store in a wheeled cart by myself, and there are no steps between the counter and my car; I asked about it and was told the clerks are instructed to ask everyone, and indeed they ask my very fit students too.  Of course the effect of this robotic pseudo-friendliness is exactly the opposite of Mr. Fabrizio’s bending the comic book rule. The “hi’s” and eye contact at Best Buy are actually uglier; this distasteful little fakery is put on because it has been shown that people are less prone to shoplift if someone has made eye contact with them and uttered some sort of greeting.  I have started reassuring these folks “don’t worry, I’m not planning to steal anything!” but they don’t seem pleased to hear it; indeed some give me an unmistakable fish eye.  Odd.

None of the value whose loss Sara and I regret has any presence in economic data. K-Mart sells more, at lower prices, than the mishmash of small retailers writing prices on paper bags, creative destruction holds sway and efficiency increases, end of story.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

54 thoughts on “Small town virtues”

  1. I have to say, this clarifies a lot for me. Because I’m totally perplexed at why I would want to do business with people who know me as a person. Faceless bureaucracies are soothing; real people are annoying. Nothing’s more likely to chase me out of a shop never to come back than a sales clerk or proprietor who actually wants to have a conversation with me.

    1. “Robotic pseudo-friendliness”. Perfect. Not only this, but it almost seems designed to humiliate. Now, having just watched Downton Abbey, and Mr. Crawley’s well-intended yet blundering treatment of his footman,I’m reminded that not all humble service ought to be considered humilating (even at a low wage) and to consider it so might well put one in the position of humiliator. Yet so many low-wage jobs abound, one can go from the gas station to Target, to the grocery store, to the mall, to Radio Shack, to restaurants, all secure in the knowledge that no one is getting much more than minimum wage, few have proper health care, and job security is non-existent.

  2. K-Mart could not have gotten a purchase in Bishop if the people who lived there and had patronized the bookstores and the sporting goods stores and the hardware stores and so forth hadn’t been willing to move their busines to K-Mart. Maybe what these stories show is that we really can’t rely on each other, that we’re so short-sighted that we go for the cheap prices and forget all our local ties. Maybe there’s something else going on, but I can’t help thinking “the fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

    1. One of the things i remember from high school (back when we rehearsed for nuclear war in the halls) is that capitalism included the notion that people would act in their own “enlightened self interest”. As our country has right-wingified into a place where the only way to measure virtue is with money, the “enlightened” part of self interest has dwindled. Now, we have become such simpletons that the only way we can decide what to do is based on price or profit.

      Of course, that’s the goal, isn’t it? Make us sufficiently impoverished that we cannot afford to support we have to choose the lowest priced alternative because that is all we can afford. I may love Mr Smith at the grocery and want to support him and his family but, if I cannot afford to feed my family, then I will do what I have to to feed my kids.

      It would require actual thought to realize that putting him out of business means that I will eventually pay more taxes for cops because he is going to have to rob my house to buy food now that he has been forced out of business. It requires sophistication not taught in schools or on tv to realize that the extra price of supporting local families might be less that the external costs of dealing with their failure.

      And don’t even get me started on the exporting of money and profit from my town to Walmart HQ!!

  3. I assume that more than a few RBC readers are familiar with Tom Slee’s No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart: The Surprising Deceptions of Individual Choice. Slee explains how with Wal*Mart or K-Mart, as in prisoner’s dilemma, each player choosing freely and acting in his or her own self-interest leads to an overall outcome that is worse for all players.

  4. Do you think that the Best Buy employees are told that the purpose of the fake friendliness that they are required to exhibit is for the purpose of limiting shoplifting? If not, then that would explain the fish eye they give you.

    1. When I was a 7-11 employee, we were certainly told why we were doing the eye-contact greeting.

  5. K-mart gets a foothold in Bishop for the same reason that no one breaks the bank at Caesar’s Palace. Capital. They can afford an advertising blitz that exceeds the yearly take-home of one of those small stores, and promotional pricing ditto. And they have a lock on distribution. (One of the local hardware stores here went out of business, not so much because it failed to show an operating profit as because its volume dropped below a major distributor’s minimum-order requirement. Interesting how computerization and the internet were supposed to make long-tail distribution so much easier, but minimums keep going up.)

    But there’s another story about small towns (whether embedded in cities or not) that helps explain how the prisoner’s dilemma plays out, and that’s mobility. When everyone stays in the same town or region, the local stores are familiar, and people run tabs or make sure to get that special item. But when everyone moves, it’s the big box stores that are familiar, and the family-owned places that are offputting. (When I lived in New York, the servers at the sandwich place just north of grand central or the pizza joint around the corner would have my order halfway finished by the time I got to the counter, just the as the servers at the diner here in central nowhere bring my spouse the diet soda with lots of ice and me the one without. But it took five years, and our kids going to the same daycare, for me to start buying at the local stationery store instead of the big office-supply box outside town. If I were only here for five years, it would never have happened.)

    1. I live in a medium sized semi-rural/semi-exurban town. There are three restaurants in town that fall into the broad category of northern Italian. Two of them of locally owned. The third is an Olive Garden. The prices are comparable in all three. The two local outfits have far better food. I can walk into the two local places any night of the week and get seated promptly. There is often a line literally out the door to the Olive Garden.

      I understand the appeal of the chain when on the road. I don’t have the time to investigate the interesting local eateries and I don’t want to chance getting a bad one. I want to refuel and get moving again. A chain is usually reliably predictable. But in your own town? It is hard to interpret this as anything other than ovine response to marketing.

  6. Actually, Paul, K-Mart beats downtown because of the automobile economy. Historically, selling retail meant selling small quantities that could be carried home on foot. That meant break of bulk at warehouses and transportation of small lots to many retailers.

    With the automobile, shoppers could carry heavy loads, which meant that they could in effect shop at a wholesale outlet – that’s effectively what a K-Mart or a supermarket was.

    Wholesale of course is cheaper than retail because the sellers’ transportation costs to the consumer are eliminated – consumers bear their own transportation costs. A Wal-mart is its own warehouse. One grocery chain even makes the point explicitly – Shoppers’ Food Warehouse.

    The process has continued with Wal-Marts and Targets and ever-growing mega-stores serving ever-larger cars (and trucks and SUV’s) that take ever-larger loads of stuff back to ever-larger houses with ever-more-capacious fridges and freezers in ever-more distant suburbs.

    All this was made possible by federal and state policies that subsidized auto travel and destroyed urban and suburban public transportation. Once a family needs to have two cars, the downtown of any town is dead.

    1. right you are – driven by car subsidys.
      would add, they can afford longer hours; you need something late at night that mom and pop shop ain’t open
      as to employee friendlyness – I always assumed the opposite; places like Kmart have hostile, underpaid employees precisely to show you, the shopper, that you are helpless and have to take what kmart dishes out

  7. This is not a story of local residents taking their trade to the big-box store. Bishop’s economy is based on the transient business of people visiting the Eastern Sierra Nevada to hike, fish, and ski. (It was an agricultural and mining town before that, but the agriculture died off when Los Angeles took the water.) These visitors had no loyalty to the middle class lifestyle of family retailers, and have no reason to lament its passing except in the abstract.
    Both of the shocks mentioned in this post (big box stores and the mine shutting down) were external, and eventually happen in any place with a non-diversified economy. I’ll go out on a limb and speculate that most small towns are not diversified, so most small towns eventually crash. But I’m at a loss to explain why such a story should be privileged in political discourse.

    1. It’s because the Boomers are the dominant political class right now, and they grew up in that type of environment (one where, I might note, foreign competition was largely non-existent due to the lingering effects of World War 2). They’re getting nostalgic in the face of economic and societal change (my mother is the same way).

      More generally, people seem to be less willing to simply abandon entire towns anymore, like what would happen when mining booms panned out in the late 19th century. If the economic basis for a town collapses, people should realistically move somewhere else (and many do).

      1. I don’t think this is unique to Boomers. The political power of the story of the good life turning to dust and people being displaced is not new (Grapes of Wrath comes to mind). I can see why the electorate in a small town might find it important to vote for a local candidate over someone who’s only lived there 20 years, but the idea that simply being from a small town, and thus potentially subject to displacement, should be a compelling personal story to anyone who isn’t from a small town. Maybe it’s aspirational, like shelter magazines, or vicarious, like college football. It still confuses me.

    2. Bishop was fortunate to have a strong tourism sector to fall back on; without it, things might have been much worse after the mine closed. To their credit, the city leadership made heroic efforts through the 90s to expand on that, and enjoyed some success at it — which may, in fact, be why you first thought of it as a tourist town. It is, now. But in its better days, tourism was just the icing on a far more diversified cake.

      And it’s problematic, because (as you note) transients on their way to Mammoth or Yosemite are ephemeral. They only patronize a few kinds of businesses like restaurants, gas stations, and motels; and, as someone else pointed out, they’re more likely to stop at K-Mart for their sundries because it’s familiar. The miners lived in town full-time, where they bought tools and groceries and cars and shoes for their kids, and had the kind of relationships with the local merchants that makes for some pretty rich social capital as well as a strong tax base. (It’s probably also worth noting that the local stores generally carried higher-quality merchandise than K-Mart does; when those stores went away, so did that better class of stuff.)

      The other problem with tourism is that it’s far more vulnerable to economic downturns. When things get tight, vacations are the first thing to go. (OTOH, when things get tight, people also stop taking faraway trips and decide to drive up and camp in the Sierra instead. So there’s that.) There’s also increased exposure to the vagaries of weather: Mammoth Mountain Ski Area is the single biggest tourist draw in that part of my old woods, and a snowless winter can send Bishop’s economy reeling. This was true even when Carbide was there, but the mine’s revenue gave the town enough economic ballast to tough those years out. We’re now looking into a future that promises more dry winters, and no such fallback support.

      1. It sounds like you have a better feel for it than I. My first trip to Bishop was 1969, on the way to South Lake. I get back there every few years, but not enough to note the changes to which you are you’re referring. I remember the movie theater being in better shape in the 70s than today, but the fact that it was still open in 2006 seemed to me a good sign that the community had not died. I haven’t seen a tourist town that can support a movie theater without residents who go, also.

  8. Bloix is pretty much correct, although he overstates a bit near the end. I live in Juhsey. Many of the nicer towns (e.g., Montclair, Westfield) have vibrant downtowns. A bit twee, but vibrant. Newark has a vibrant, if downscale downtown. The wealthy folk can afford twee towns; the poor folk can’t afford cars.

    This being said, Bloix is basically correct. Most Americans live in midscale suburbs, where downtowns don’t exist.

    1. North Jersey’s towns thrive because you can’t easily commute to downtown New York by car. Lots of people with high-paying jobs need to live close to a train station, and these of course are in the centers of the towns, and that means that instead of the entire upper middle-class moving out to new construction in a farmer’s field off a freeway interchange, there are lots of wealthy people who stay close to the old downtowns and keep them alive.

  9. Let’s not forget policy, even beyond Bloix’s point: there used to be so-called “fair trade” laws, and iirc the Robinson-Patman Act used to be interpreted to support them, which allowed manufacturers/distributors to set retail prices that all retailers had to charge. This limit on retail price competition supported all those small middle-class retail stores and was a central factor allowing them to stay in business.

    Sometime in the 60s a number of smaller cut-price retailers opened up, and big retailers managed to find ways to get manufacturers to abandon fair trade and to find ways around fair trade laws and to get them repealed by the mid-70s. That allowed the chains to use their buying power, internal efficiencies, and advertising, etc., to undercut small retailers. Walmart as we know it is inconceivable in a fair-trade environment; in that kind of environment it could have developed as a super-profitable chain because of its internal efficiencies and the consumer convenience of shopping under one roof, but it wouldn’t have been anything like what it is now.

    There’s nothing “natural” about this. We used to have a political economy that discouraged or forbade price competition for a variety of reasons (uniform air fares and shipping rates, retail pricing, utility pricing, etc). We started abandoning that when we got rid of fair trade, and then we went wholesale from the late Carter years with airfare deregulation. This was a deliberate set of policy choices.

    The old policies helped support the kind of neighborhood/small town economy whose attributes people are now nostalgic about. You can’t have those small-town/small-neighborhood shops unless families can live decently from the income they generate. Which is just an updated version of the 18th-century and Free-Soiler dictum that a head of family should be able to support the family with his own honest labor and resources, and that the political economy has to be structured so as to make that possible.

    But are we really willing to say that the economy is really a *political* economy, and that the social and political ends an economy serves are more important than letting money make more money?

    1. There’s nothing “natural” about this. We used to have a political economy that discouraged or forbade price competition for a variety of reasons (uniform air fares and shipping rates, retail pricing, utility pricing, etc). We started abandoning that when we got rid of fair trade, and then we went wholesale from the late Carter years with airfare deregulation. This was a deliberate set of policy choices.

      I would argue that the “regulated” era in airfare was more unnatural. As soon as the limiter disappeared, airlines were vastly more vulnerable to consumer preferences in airfare – and as it turns out, most of their potential customers wanted cheaper airfare instead of the luxuries of the regulated era.

      1. I’m not arguing for re-regulation, but the major point of fare regulation wasn’t to keep people from flying; it was to prevent price competition so the airlines would have enough revenue to maintain their aircraft and pay their crews and support personnel. It also protected the operating companies then in existence by setting up a de facto cartel system. Once fares (and to a far lesser extent routes) were de-regulated and we got price competition, not only does the flying public have more options and lower fares (though consolidation and high fuel costs have clearly been changing that pretty drastically), but airlines have every incentive to squeeze employee pay and skimp on maintenance and customer service. Which is what they’ve been doing. Until we get teleportation, that’s what flying is going to be like for the foreseeable future.

  10. My childhood home was also NYC and I smiled at your recollection of going into the liquor store to cash a check — for us, in those pre-ATM days, it was the fish store.

    NYC was slower than small towns in losing its small stores to the chains, but when I go back now, I am continually amazed at how much parts of Mahattan resemble a shopping mall and its satellite big boxes. The stores with quirky merchandise have been replaced with TJMaxx’s and the like.

  11. Just for the record, I’ve shopped at my neighborhood Safeway for 14 years now, and when the clerks ask about my kids, work life, hiking trips, it is out of the genuine curiosity of a good neighbor.

  12. I found this quote a while ago and haven’t checked the attribution:

    “Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product … if we should judge America by that – counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

    Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.” – Robert Kennedy

    1. While it wasn’t meth alone that cut down small town America it certainly was a very big factor. Take a look at Methland which covers the collapse of Iowa towns due to meth, driven by a collapse of the local economy.

  13. I’m puzzled by the assumption that a person can’t care about strangers. I have a job where I greet people (most of whom I will never see again) cheerfully and enquire about their welfare because I truly wish them well. For me, passing interactions don’t have to be impersonal, and, in fact, that job works for me as an antidote to the polarization we suffer from these days in this country. For just a moment, I can see those people merely as fellow human beings, not as Tea Partiers or whatever else they may be that is thankfully irrelevant in that moment. It’s good for my soul, I think, and I hope for theirs too.

    1. I think that’s wonderful, I do. But I also think the point about *enforced* friendliness is still important. See: the film Office Space and the concept of “flair”. There’s a point at which corporate automaticity and rote attitude campaigns I think cross the line into dehumanization.

      1. Furthermore, in many corporate retail environments the enforced friendliness is supposed to follow a fixed formula. The employee can be dinged by management for having an actual human interaction rather than following the scrip. Presumably it is a control thing. Back many years ago when I worked retail this was one of the hardest parts for me.

  14. You know, even granting the many virtues of the mom-and-pop shop, let’s not pretend that it’s just a bit of greedy chiseling that sends families to BoxMart instead of Main Street.

    Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that a family can save 15 percent on average on goods by shopping at efficiently managed chain stores. That amounts to a 17 percent increase in a family’s disposable income. It is not just a love of stuff that finds that a compelling difference, especially for middle-class and lower families.

    1. It’s this sort of overly-focused thinking that created the problem. I’m not meaning to be rude, but you’re focusing on one small aspect of what is good for a family.

      Let’s say the Smith family owns a bookstore. K-Mart moves to town, and suddenly the Smiths can get their clothes, housewares, and sundries for 15% less. The Jones pharmacy, the Harrison dress-shop, the Jones Hardware store, and the Brown bookstore close due to lack of business. All of a sudden, the Smith family finds themselves making *less* money because a bunch of the middle-class families that used to support them are gone, and K-Mart employees making minimum wage don’t have a lot of money to spend on books.

      Small businesses tend to support middle-class incomes, big box stores do not. Middle-class incomes are good for the community. Minimum wage jobs, not so much. It’s a downward spiral that starts with something that initially looks beneficial to the individual/family, i.e., cheaper goods, and ends with the destruction of communities.

      1. I agree. But if you fail to recognize the real benefits those chain stores have for consumers, any solution to the problem will be doomed — politically if not economically.

        But we also have to recognize creative destruction when it’s at work. Like the mom-and-pop retailer, small, locally owned farms were great for small-town America. They are today largely gone thanks to the brutal economics of agriculture. Does it make any sense to try to roll back the clock? Would the kids go back to the farm if they could?

        I just picked up Sylvia Nasar’s Grand Pursuit yesterday, and in the preface it mentions Keynes’ struggle with the tension between economic efficiency, social justice, and political liberty. Nearly a century later, the tension hasn’t gone away.

        1. Bruce, once the family has to have two cars, that’s a sunk cost, and the cost of of the drive to the big box doesn’t factor in. But if you don’t have to have two cars, then the savings by getting rid of one car will outway the 15% you save on daily purchases. Because we have a web of national, state, and local policies that promote auto ownership and undercut public transportation, people’s choice of whether to own two cars is not made by participants in a free market. It’s not “creative destruction” when governments tear up and pave over street car lines. It’s not “creative destruction” when Congress funds a freeway extension that allows suburbanites to get to the new Wal-Mart in four minutes. It’s not “creative destruction” when localities zone housing lots at a minimum of a 1/4-acre so that population density is so low that buses can’t economically serve a neighborhood. It’s not “creative destruction” when a city won’t let a small retailer expand because there’s “not enough parking.”

          1. When was the last time a government tore up a streetcar line?

            We have a car-dominated transportation system feeding a housing system that gives families just a bit of elbow room and peace. I figure it’ll all go kablooie when we hit peak oil, but in the meantime you might have noticed that it’s quite popular.

  15. None of the value whose loss Sara and I regret has any presence in economic data.

    That’s because it’s a subjective preference. I’ve grew up in suburbs near strip malls, and I don’t care for that sort of cozy, “Hey, how ya doing?” type of small business atmosphere. I prefer to be left alone when I’m shopping, which is why I prefer retailers like Wal-Mart and Amazon.

    1. Not to rain on anyone’s Mayberry RFD parade, but I lived in a small town for five years.
      One of the happiest days of my life was when we drove the U-Haul away.
      Damn that was a sweet moment.

      I found my small town to be perniciously small-minded and arrayed into four hard groups: The hippies, the cattleman, the university, and the hispanics.
      Each group willfully and joyfully crapped on the others. And once a feral rumor got attached to your good name, forget about it, the lie was yours forever.
      (Long-form or no long-form.)

      What a pleasure to get back to the anonymity of the city again. What a pleasure to look for a job, and not have to worry if some clan of small town inbreeds had dibs on all the hiring decisions.
      Walmart or Kmart ruining the local small town flavor? Please. Objective and fair-hiring practices would have done more to educate the local savages than anything else.

      Have I been dehumanized in the anonymous city? Hell no. I know the names of the folks at the Safeway and Trader Joes, etc. Know a little about each of them. As they do me.
      There is room enough between the right-wing corporate mandated speech (“How may I serve you please?”) to be human with people. To share a joke…
      And what a pleasure to see different faces every time I shop…

      Small town America and rural town America are filled with freaks.
      No thanks. Never again.

      Suggested reading:

  16. Historically, cities have been population sinks. So it makes sense that the survivors evolved to have an aversion to cities.

  17. I bailed from the America that I couldn’t recognize any more. I settled in a city in Peru where going to the mercado and buying fresh genuine organic food was a pleasure. Checking five to ten stalls in the mercadillo for electronics was a pleasure. Buying glasses from the 10 to 20 small eyeglasses shops (within five city blocks of me) was a pleasure.

    Now, a damned chain store centered in Lima has come in. Prices lower than the market people can sell for, everything concentrated in one building.

    I’m heartsick.

  18. It seems to me that small towns have, and have always had, a different kind of society than a big city. Small towns don’t provide anonymity, and they do provide a strong social network.

    The absence of anonymity make them feel safer (interacting with strangers is risky). The strong social network means that informal kinds of social pressure work well, and so rules-based interactions and force-based interactions are less needed and less common.

    But those same features make small towns really bad places to be different in ways that aren’t socially acceptable, and really bad places to be out of power. (There’s a reason that NYC and San Francisco had a visible gay presence long before smalltwon USA did; there’s a reason that blacks left the small towns of the south and went to the big cities of the north.)

    One major change is as the federal government has become involved in more and more parts of everyday life is that small towns are losing the ability to work like small towns. It’s harder and harder to form societies, and most existing societies are trying to survive, not grow.

    1. “One major change is as the federal government has become involved in more and more parts of everyday life is that small towns are losing the ability to work like small towns. ”

      Uh, try ‘large-scale corporations’.

  19. Having more stuff is prosperity? I never agreed with that measure, and always took great offense at the assertion – without contest, or evidence, that this was accepted fact. How is “more stuff” better, when one has less overall income, less security, less savings, less of a future?

    I earn roughly half-again what my father earned; in raw terms, but in adjusted terms, I feel as if I’m earning about half. I own my home, but barely. They were able to save for retirement, put three kids through college. My dad got new cars every two years. My mother had to work, but she worked part-time. My dad had a business degree and worked in sales.

    I have an engineering degree, and work in what was considered to be a “bulletproof” career – when I started it. My employers have been bought-out, shut down, I’ve been in layoffs, forced relocations. I’ve watched financiers (in the 90’s) come in, and sleaze their way through a startup takeover – just to shut down an innovative competitor that was making life hard for them. The only thing these guys brought to the table was money. (money that is basically “invented” by the privileged, in our fractional-reserve banking system).

    I’ve changed jobs to avoid forced relocations, I’ve suffered cutbacks, my retirement savings is decimated, my home value is underwater, I’m driving the same car I’ve had for 8 years, and it’s only by the skill of my own considerable ingenuity, and my employer’s generous paid-vacation time, that I’m even able to afford to keep my car – my source of semi-reliable transportation to work, maintained, through clutch-replacements, fuel-pump rebuilds, timing-belt changes, etc.

    In the small town where I live, we’re a special case, because we’re a tourist area, and the family-owned shops cater to those. But over half of those have shut down in recent years. I talk to a county sherrif friend of mine, who tells absolutely hair-raising stories of beat-downs he delivers to meth users on a weekly basis, involving knives, and often even gunplay. Most of this does not make the papers. I worry about the peer group of my teenage kids. They’re in trouble. It’s one of the top high-schools in the nation, yet, so few of these kids are “college material” – and curriculum wise, they are WAY behind where I was when I was their age. If I’m having trouble keeping a professional career going in engineering – these kids have ZERO chance. I have no idea how I’m going to pay for my kids to go to college. They’re good enough students that they might qualify for partial scholarships. I regularly hear about atheletes who easily get full-rides at prestigeous schools. Not academic achievers; and especially not kids from families who own homes, and are only moderately struggling.

    I did everything right. I worked hard in school, I studied, I’m smart, I stayed employed, I took risks that paid off, and I spoke up when I saw things that weren’t right. I flew the flag on the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Labor Day, and 9/11. I “support the troops”. But this is NOT working. It hasn’t been working for a very long time. I understand that when the market dips for 5 or 10 years – but I’ve been saving for retirement for almost 20. And I’ve got nothing to show for any of it. I don’t have more “stuff” than my parents. I don’t have a future, and if my employer shuts down or lays me off tomorrow, I’m just as screwed and homeless as if I had dropped out of high school 25 years ago.

    So tell me why “Trickle Down” was any kind of success at all?

    1. “So tell me why “Trickle Down” was any kind of success at all?”

      Look at the fortunes of the 1%. That answers all questions about why we are where we are.

  20. The “small town” appeal is an appeal to nostalgia and selective amnesia. It is an appeal to “Leave It To Beaver”, “Father Knows Best” and other similar cultural icons. When you look at those shows, you only see white people. You only see middle class people. You only see kids who obey their parents. It is a “dog whistle” that appeals to the same crowd that loves “states rights”, and for the same reason. Neither are meant to make sense to you – because you are not the intended audience for the message. Having you stop and think, and get confused is a bonus.

    I refer you to the quote that gives this blog its name:
    “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

    There is a lot of money to be made in fantasy, and a lot to be siphoned off before the music stops.

  21. For me, economic system focused profit too much that during all destructions of past-now nostalgic values it didn’t show creativity to substitute the old values.. This situation hurts people and thus constitutes necessity to create them.. Is it possible that we are approaching to this stage? Protests, frustrations, denials of artificial economic system etc. Would they be a sign?

  22. I’m with Brett and koreyel. Those who want small-town virtues can go someplace so remote that there are no big-box stores within an easy drive. (The income levels in such places will probably be about where they were when Mike was a kid, or higher, as will the availability of culture and information.) But what Mike is talking about, and nostalgic for, is mandatory small-town virtues, whether one likes them or not, in the middle of the City that Never Sleeps. No, thank you.

  23. It’s not just that the big box stores drive smaller businesses out with lower prices and lower wages; they also siphon money out of the community back to corporate HQ. The dollar you spent at a family business might end up going back and forth up and down the street; it’d go into local taxes, local payrolls. Not so with the big box store, especially if they came in demanding tax breaks, utilities, safety services, etc. And nobody graduates from the local high school with the idea that they could make a decent living for the rest of their lives in the town working at the Big Box store. It’s get out or die.

    Add in another change: the loss of locally-oriented media. Small town newspapers have been getting swallowed into chains, evaporating as local ad revenue dropped. Eventually you might as well be reading USA Today for all the local content you’d be getting. Local radio – Clear Channel. Local TV – cable, satellite. The Internet. There’s a whole chain of social relationships, an ecosystem of information that’s drying up, getting drained off. The Kardashians and Snooki begin to seem more real than the local homecoming queen.

    What used to be a community held together by shared relationships, mutual dependencies, and sheer habit dissolves as the local economic base becomes diffused and extended all the way to China; neighborhoods with schools, shops, government in walking distance expand out to the horizon. Farm fields get turned into isolated houses plopped down along country roads and the farmers retire to somewhere else. Local industries move away, go under, get swallowed up in mergers; bigger is better if you don’t want to get eaten alive by some multinational importing widgets from overseas cheaper than they could be made in the industrial park, and even then it’s not a sure thing. And nobody makes anything for the consumer market that can be repaired anymore; it’s cheaper to toss it and replace it. So there goes the local repair shops.

    Is there an answer? One place to look might be Greensburg, Kansas. Over 90% of the town was destroyed by a tornado in 2007. Faced with walking away or rebuilding, they were forced to confront an uncomfortable truth. Even before the tornado, the town was dying. Local businesses were drying up, kids were going away to school and not coming back, farming wasn’t enough to support the community. They decided not to rebuild the town so much as reinvent it, aiming to become as green a community as possible while also creating opportunities for business and a place for their young to stay and build lives. In doing so, they’ve also created a shared vision – and that can define a community when all else fails. Are they a success? A model for a better future? It’s still early, but they’re sure making the effort. Take a look here:

  24. As many have pointed out, this is connected to suburbanization and automobiles.
    another part of this is loss of political culture: in a small town, you can stand on the sidewalk and hand out a flyer; in a suburb, the only place people walk is in a mall, which is private property.

    When Congress was considering TARP I, I printed up, at my own exspense, some flyers, and stood outside the two places in my town where people still walk down the public sidewalk; most were polite (for the record, I thought TARP was a give away with no quid pro quo)

  25. ………creative destruction holds sway and efficiency increases, end of story.

    Alas. Sometimes the economic numbers measure the wrong things.

  26. When I went up to Rock Creek with my mother to fish in the late 1980’s, we needed to replace a rod and reel and were very glad there was a K-Mart in Bishop.

    The reality is that these stories always underrate the benefits to consumers that the chain stores confer, which is, in the end, the reason why they do such great business in small towns.

    I don’t mourn the overpriced, insufficient selection, mom-and-pop small town store which maintained a low standard of living in rural America for so long.

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