Walmart is not the culprit, it is the symptom

Whatever else one thinks of how we live these days, it’s hard to not see it as temporary, historically anomalous, a peculiar blip in human experience. I’ve spent my whole life riding around in cars, never questioning whether the makings of tomorrow’s supper would be there waiting on the supermarket shelves, never doubting when I entered a room that the lights would go on at the flick of a switch, never worrying about my personal safety. And now hardly a moment goes by when I don’t feel tremors of massive change in these things, as though all life’s comforts and structural certainties rested on a groaning fault line. ~ James Howard Kunstler

Perhaps the most compelling argument I’ve read against Walmart is the very same argument that one hears against sprawl – namely, that it is the result of a vast network of government intervention and central planning.  The very nature of Walmart is one which requires a car culture, and as we all know, the car culture would not have been possible without enormous amounts of state subsidies, draconian zoning laws, and so forth.  In other words, without the highway projects, the protection of the auto industry, and the many zoning practices in place in modern America, Walmart would not exist – at least in its current form.  As it stands, given our car culture, given our sprawl, Walmart acts as a benefit to many consumers.

That is the stumbling block I come back to when I consider my own distaste for Walmart.  In a real free market economy, sans all the government regulations and subsidies, Walmart would not even be an issue.  The many more diverse and denser places in America would not wanted or needed a Walmart to come set up shop.  But given the world we have created for ourselves, what is the alternative?  Can we very well deny poor people one of the only places that they can afford to buy cheap goods at?  Or, more to the point, should we demonize what is quite obviously a symptom of the larger problem?

Taking a closer look at the problem, we turn once again to Austin Bramwell, who has penned a brief response to James Howard Kunstler’s take on John Stossel on the subject of sprawl.  He writes,

Stossel defends suburban sprawl and accuses its opponents — like Kunstler — of forcing lifestyle choices onto others “by limiting where they can build.” The fallacy of this view has been pointed out about 100 times. For the 101st time: sprawl — an umbrella term for the pattern of development seen virtually everywhere in the United States — is not caused by the free market. It is, rather, mandated by a vast and seemingly intractable network of government regulations, from zoning laws and building codes to street design regulations.  If Stossel wants to expand Americans’ lifestyle choices, he should attack the very thing he was defending, namely, suburban sprawl.

It’s odd that self-described libertarians such as Stossel are so slow to grasp that government planning makes sprawl ubiquitous. You would think that libertarians would instinctively grasp the deeply statist nature of suburban development.  First of all, with a depressingly few exceptions, virtually every town in America looks the same. That is, it has the same landscape of arterial roads, strip malls, and residential subdivisions, accessibly only by car. Surely, given America’s celebrated diversity, you would also see a diversity of places. As it turns out, all but a few people live the same suburban lifestyle.  Government, as libertarian assumptions would predict, is the culprit.

Second, the few places in America that have a distinctive character are also exceedingly expensive. John Stossel himself admits to living in an apartment and walking to work most days. Now, I don’t know where exactly Mr. Stossel lives, but it sounds as if he lives in Manhattan, where residential space costs over $1000 a square foot (that means a two-bedroom apartment where a family of four could fit costs at least $1.5 million).  If Mr. Stossel’s lifestyle, as he puts it, is less popular than the suburban lifestyle, then why does his cost so much more? He apparently never asks himself the question. Had he done so, he might have discovered that government artificially restricts the supply of Manhattan-like places but artificially increases the supply of sprawl. That’s the reason Americans “prefer” to live in the suburbs. They don’t have a choice.

At this point ‘choice’ becomes a very tricky thing indeed.  Now that we’ve been, essentially, pushed into the suburbs – where cars and big boxes are simply a matter of life – what should we do about it?  Should we choose somehow to limit the existence of these big boxes?  Would this help us in our addiction to vehicular transport?  Many of the restored walkable communities around the country are either prohibitively expensive or Disney-fied versions of the America that once was.  Those who benefit the most from Walmart and its big box counterparts in this sprawling world of ours are also the poorest among us.  Would they benefit, also, from some other world?  I think so – but getting there is fraught with danger.

 

To put an end to the sprawl by mandating its destruction…  Far more sensible and humane, I think, to limit the government that has brought us here instead.  Quit subsidizing roads as heavily, quit subsidizing fossil fuels, work to reform zoning laws across the country to allow more freedom, mixed zoning (a term we now use to describe simply how places used to be built) and other ways to remove the artificial influence of the state from how we build America.  At this point – so intractable is the mess we find ourselves in – I’m not sure how it can be done.  The infrastructure of sprawl stretches over everything now, a vast web of concrete and sameness.  The year I lived in Denver drove this home for me, as does every trip to Phoenix.  “There’s no place like home,” has become my mantra whenever I’m in other places.

And people have come to like the sameness.  Even I take some comfort in it.  Or else it has simply become easier for us to stay at the Motel 8 than to find the local establishment.  Norman Bates would never work at a Motel 8.  I don’t begrudge Starbucks or Barnes & Nobles.  I just prefer the local joints, the used book stores, the organic landscape of an America without such cheap gas and such abundant roads.  We have imagined ourselves a much more boring, repetitive America.

One last point – there was really never going to be an extraordinarily strong central government in this country without this sort of interstate network of roads we have built (nor such strong corporations, for that matter).  However haphazard our sprawl has been, it was no accident.

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25 thoughts on “Walmart is not the culprit, it is the symptom

  1. Surely you are aware that libertarians are at their least popular when they attack zoning laws, building codes, and — gasp — publicly subsidized highways. You want to clutter up the neighborhood! You want us all to die in unsafe buildings! You hate the American Way of Life!

    Yet there are good reasons to attack these things. They are far too often instruments of privilege, they create sprawl, and they press all cultural life into a uniform mold. I agree entirely, then, with Austin Bramwell. The problems we have are problems of the government’s making, on a very deep level, deeper than most are willing to go.

    Is that message going to play well on Fox News? Of course not. John Stossel knows his audience, and he wouldn’t have been given one if he didn’t.

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    • What? If you’re against zoning, you must be against traffic lights?

      Do you *WANT* children to be hit in the walkways? Or just minority children? Or just handicapped minority children? Or just gay handicapped minority children? Or just undernourished gay handicapped minority children?

      It’s a simple question.

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  2. I would note that zoning is often in the thrall of the most local of local governmental levels. How does this mesh with your penchant for localism E.D.? The social dynamic is not complicated; when people move into a neighborhood they typically do so because they like it. Once entrenched they desire that the neighborhood remain pretty much the way it was when they moved in. It’s an ownership mentality. If you buy a toaster you would expect it to remain a toaster and might well be put out if you come home one day to discover that your toaster has grown up into an industrial oven. People are selfish and thus the monster of NIMBY is born and rampages across the land laying waste to all manner of helpful projects.
    The monster of Nimbyism is not going to go down to defeat easily, frankly I don’t know how it can be defeated in a top down manner considering that it is in essence a grass roots phenomena.

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    • This is yet another arena where “if you don’t like it, move” results in people who can afford to move do so… and, eventually, you’re left with someplace like Detroit being someplace like Detroit.

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    • As someone who used to work extensively in this area, I can vouch that this comment is pretty much right on. Developers may control city councils, but they still have to sell a product that people want to buy.

      At the end of the day, it’s all about money. Suburbs look pretty much the same everywhere because they’re efficient. Similarly, chains have driven out local retailers because they have lower costs.

      At its core, there’s an aspect of localism that’s about shared sacrifice; if we all agree to be a little bit poorer, we can preserve our way of life. That’s a noble goal, but not one much found in this country. Try France or England.

      Local government is all about making choices. Zoning laws exist and, in California, are mandated by state law. There is no such thing as pretending we don’t have zoning and returning to an older time; you just have to persuade your fellow citizens and elected officials that they should enact your preferred solution. (Please note that your preference sounds a lot like the “New Urbanism” movement being pushed by liberals.)

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    • I would note that zoning is often in the thrall of the most local of local governmental level.

      Not exactly. Zoning laws are instituted at the local level, but they are boilerplate codes available from a small set of companies. Most towns cannot afford to write their own from scratch, and they really can’t afford to have to defend their zoning codes in court.

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  3. Sort of following on North’s comment: My way of thinking about this stuff—localism, city planning, federal money and regulation—got a little more complex when I read about neighborhood development in my hometown. I’m not sure how to generalize what I learned. With urban renewal programs, the Federal government made the money available, but local leaders approved projects that tore down poor-but-functional African American neighborhoods without replacing any housing. So I guess what I’m saying is that federal funding vastly enhances the power of local governments to do bad things. It was also surprising how often federal loan guidelines came up as an explanation for why neighborhoods looked a certain way, both in terms of architecture and race. I think things got a little bit better when Charlotte changed its city council from a pure at-large system (in which eight of the nine members lived in swanky neighborhoods) to a combined district/at-large system that ensures that different parts of the city have a voice. So I guess what I’m saying is democracy matters on the local level, and that nothing will show you the flaws in your local government like an influx of federal money.

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  4. As Jason noted attacking sprawl doesn’t make anybody popular. Quite a few D’s and Liberals have been called “elitists” for not liking sprawl.

    FWIW when I lived in scenic Wasilla, AK , home of our most famous ex-gov, zoning was considered one step away from totalitarianism. Weak ass straw man arguments and over the top slippery fallacies fell from the sky at the mere mention of zoning. So what does Wasilla look like with no zoning. Well they gots themselves a big ol Walmart and stripmalls. It looks like every other generic town in the country.

    Its easy to fall into the blame government mode, but people seem to like suburbs and what zoning leads to.

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  5. Thought provoking…
    Another way to say this is that the solutions that our society has taken over the last 50 years are heavily influenced by path dependence. Actions taken in building highway systems and enacting zoning laws led to a world where ubiquitous Walmarts and suburban sprawl easily emerged. Different — less intrusive actions taken years earlier would have led somewhere else.

    I’m just not sure Stossel would disagree with this. He is not denying that the history of civilization has been filled with exploitation and coercion, just that we can make it better by minimizing these as practical going forward.

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  6. Kunstler, Bramwell, and E.D. are all right in calling out zoning and other sprawl-conducive policies as significant parts of the problem. Greg is right to note that the lack of zoning (*cough* Houston *cough*) can lead to serious problems, too.

    Francis, making something of an assclown out of himself, implies that New Urbanism — or, rather, “New Urbanism” (Come to think of it, as I’ve addressed before, a certain sort of centralization-heavy neo-traditionalism may qualify as “New Urbanism”, in which case Francis isn’t so far off base.) — is a liberal cause. Of course, however much American liberals may tend to support it more often than do American conservatives, it’s certainly not one, as I, a number of Front Porchers, E.D., or Phil Bess will attest. Really, fundamentally, I’d say that it’s a conservative cause.

    The important thing to understand about New Urbanism is that it’s not anti-zoning per se. Rather, it’s opposed to bad zoning. Yes, this is a seemingly subjective matter (Unless, like Phil Bess, you base your support for the New Urbanism in the Natural Law.), but it’s a helpful starting point. Instead of relying on Euclidean zoning, New Urbanists look to form-based codes, which permit much greater flexibility than does “traditional” zoning, but still has (a) certain end(s) in mind.

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  7. However tempting, I think that we should be wary whenever we find ourselves thinking: “This behavior of which I disapprove is the product of these policies which I happen to already oppose!”

    I’ve mentioned before that I am in favor of limiting the subsidies given to drivers by moving more of the taxation for roads and whatnot to those that use them more (and with more weight). Kyle points out that gas taxes are generally regressive, which is enough to give me pause and to think that we should approach such a policy shift with caution, though not enough for me to change my mind.

    Whatever my policy preferences and ED Kain’s aesthetic and consumer preferences, though, anti-sprawl is unpopular for a reason and it’s not that people have been duped into an addiction to their cars. Subsidies for roads are popular and toll roads are not popular for a reason. Namely that people do seem to like their cars. While it’s possible that in a different world wherein we never got used to our cars that people might put more of a premium on walkability, it is not transparently so.

    The America provided by chains may be boring and repetitive, but it is also frequently convenient and efficient and not just because of economies of scale. Whether I eat at national chains or local establishments depends on how good the local establishments are.

    In one city where I lived, I almost never ate at chains because the local selection was so danged good. In another town where I worked, the mere possibility that an Olive Garden would come into town was literally front page news and had everybody really excited. These were not people that wanted “more of the same” because there wasn’t an OG within 100 miles. These were people that wanted the price and quality that Olive Garden had to offer.

    I don’t disagree with most of your policy prescriptions, ED, but I think that if you think that this will lead to a widespread change of our consumption and auto-based landscape, I think that you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

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    • When a Golden Corral opened up here in Anchorage, the place was absolutely packed for months. I mean so busy people couldn’t find parking spots or gets seats kind of packed. There was no advertising at all. It just opened up, next to a TGIF and some Hilton. And don’t even talk about the excitement many people felt when we got a Target recently or how people waited on line for the grand opening of the new Walmart Superstore. In fact when we got a DQ people waited on line for 2+ hours to get a slushee or splunkee or whatever they have. People like chains.

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  8. gee thanks Nathan. Maybe ask first next time before the insult? In So.Cal., New Urbanism or, if you prefer, “New Urbanism” (Mark II?) is focused on mixed use, livable communities, decreased driving, and increased foot traffic. The people showing up at planning commission sessions in opposition to yet another all-residential subdivision and arguing in support of a NewUrbanistMarkII-influenced zoning map tend not to be the more conservative members of the community, in my (extensive) personal experience.

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    • Ah, relax, Francis, it was in good fun.

      But in seriousness, I recognize — as I noted — that most people who actively advocate New Urbanism, or some variant thereof, tend to be on the left side of the spectrum. That does not change the salient point, that, nonetheless, it is not a liberal cause. Again, if, as Phil Bess asserts, it’s a matter of Natural Law that we ought to live in a certain way — in accordance with one may call Aristotelian values —, and, further, if mixed-use development was the norm before the doings of FDR’s Administration and the post-war car culture, then perhaps we ought to consider that, on this issue, the ‘liberals’ are behaving conservatively — reactionarily, in fact —, while the soi-disant conservatives are conserving nothing more than the byproducts of big-government Progressivism.

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  9. “Francis, making something of an assclown out of himself, implies that New Urbanism — or, rather, “New Urbanism” (Come to think of it, as I’ve addressed before, a certain sort of centralization-heavy neo-traditionalism may qualify as “New Urbanism”, in which case Francis isn’t so far off base.) — is a liberal cause. Of course, however much American liberals may tend to support it more often than do American conservatives, it’s certainly not one, as I, a number of Front Porchers, E.D., or Phil Bess will attest. Really, fundamentally, I’d say that it’s a conservative cause.”

    Ass Hat

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  10. A counter argument to zoning forcing the current development pattern is Houston. There is no zoning in Houston, just deed restrictions put on by the developer. Yet Houston looks like most other cities with strip malls, big box stores and the like. As noted developers have to sell the land they place restrictions on as well, so they fulfill the demand. The new urbanists assume that everyone likes cities, there are those who like privacy and open space instead. As noted chains give reasonable assurance of a certain level of quality, and living 70 miles from an Olive Garden we wish we had one here. The local merchant are also hurt by the web and ups so that unless they provide significantly better service they are all likely toast.

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    • A counter argument to zoning forcing the current development pattern is Houston. There is no zoning in Houston, just deed restrictions put on by the developer. Yet Houston looks like most other cities with strip malls, big box stores and the like.

      Not really a counterargument. Houston may lack zoning ordinances, but it’s not without land-use ordinances and other requirements that have contributed to this.

      Until 1999, with 98 percent of current housing up, Houston exacted 5,000-square-foot minimum lots, which pushed new residents increasingly farther from bus lines. Apartment buildings must have 1.25 parking spaces for an efficiency and 1.33 spaces for each bedroom, with similar mega-parking requirements for offices, supermarkets and other business, all of which not only discourages walking but also depletes land for homes and other uses.

      Most major Houston streets can be up to 100 feet wide and residential streets up to 60 feet, while pre-World War II streets average 28-30 feet and modern streets, 32-36 feet. Major street intersections must be 600 feet apart, a far cry from a recent EPA conclusion that for ”a high degree of walkability, block lengths of 300 feet … are desirable.”

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      • Yes there are land use restrictions, but as with most cities thats what the citizens want. An effort to reduce the lot sizes inside the toll road to 1400 sq foot (27 homes per acre) is underway as land prices escalate. It has been in place inside loop 610 for a decade. The area outside the beltway is suburban. But I suspect if you put new urbanism to a vote in Texas it would loose big big big! People like space, and you see folks moving 40 miles out to get the couple of acres they want with their horses etc. The parking issue is a concern that is needed else the streets clog up with parked cars and the like. Everywhere in the world given the opportunity people buy cars when they reach an income level and the liberal pointy headed types don’t understand. Autos = Freedom. If you drive down streets in older cities its almost impossible to squeeze between parked cars, as we have moved to 4 cars per house hold since the teens now need cars.

        On the small town issue and shopping I suspect that it is Amazon and the like that is also killing off the small town merchant. Towns of 4000 are loosing big time to them as greater selection and lower inventory costs win the day.

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