Wednesday, July 13, 2005

A Conservative Case for the Little Guy

You’ve been to Best Buy – admit it. You’ve navigated the aisles there around the loud, fat woman on the cell phones. You’ve weaved your way around the teenage couple who has nowhere to go after school, so they decide to perform a joint tonsillectomy in the Rap/Soul section. You imagine the only reason someone needs to be that far down someone’s throat is because the cure for cancer is lodged in his esophagus.

You walk around, aisle after aisle, and soak in the technology. The employees that know anything about their products are likely hiding out in a cave in Afghanistan, as they are nowhere to be found. Finding a copy of “Lord of the Rings” is anti-climactic, because you feel like you’ve just lived Frodo’s journey to get to the right section (Drama? Comedy? Adventure? Adult? Golem is naked after all.)

The store takes up an entire zip code. It may be quicker to Fed Ex yourself to the washing machine section. They ask you for your phone number and your zip code, most likely to keep tabs on you for when Himmler returns from the grave to get his revenge. They will push an expensive service plan on you as if they were Sipowicz trying to break your will. There’s an 11% chance your credit card will go through within 3 swipes. You will get a 14 foot long receipt when all you purchased was a mouse pad (seriously, environmental groups need to take a stand on this issue – trees are dying needless deaths to supply Americans with unnecessarily long receipts. I see this being a big issue in the ’06 races.)

The sheer volume of product being sold from these large stores makes them revenue machines. They benefit local communities by providing lower cost products, employing a ton of people, and generating gobs of sales tax revenue (“gobs” being an official accounting term).

And guess what? I can't stand them.

When many of these “big box” stores are built, pro-business developers that push them on the community generally appeal to free market conservatism, using the points I discussed above. According to free market principles, lower cost products stimulate economic growth, which allows businesses to hire more people, which puts money in their pockets to spend. All of these are indisputable points.

Economic conservatism, however, is a coin that has two sides. For too long, conservatism has been used to defend grotesque excess, when it actually makes an equal case for economic restraint. It all depends on what an individual values – if you are looking for the cheapest product, Best Buy is for you. There are, however, non-economic costs to shopping there, in the form of large crowds, poor service, bad locations, etc. To me, there is a substantial benefit to avoiding all of these hurdles.

There’s a little CD store I pass every day on my way to and from work. The guys behind the counter know my name. When I go in, they alert me to the fact that an album from a band I like has come out. They suggest new discs based on what I like. They have a stand where you can throw on the headphones and listen to virtually any CD in the store before you buy. When you get a disc, they take the plastic wrapping and stickers off for you. If they don’t have a disc (or vinyl album) that you want, you can put in an order and generally have it within a day or two. They sell used CDs for half price.

Sure, I may pay a buck more per disc, but when I buy twelve, I get one free. When I buy music, I know that my money is going to help these guys stay employed and pay their rent, so they can keep helping me. To me, that is valuable.

Madison and the East Side of Milwaukee are rampant with residents that resist any and all types of commercialism. They would rather a blighted lot stay empty and infested with hypodermic needles than a Walgreen’s or Starbucks move in. All these people will allow in their neighborhoods are art galleries, organic food co-ops, and fair trade coffeehouses, so good properties stand empty. A lot of these people will defend Saddam Hussein before they will defend Wal-Mart. This is extremism that truly is bad for the economy. Regardless of the inhabitant, people need to be employed, tax revenue needs to be collected, and people need to be given a reason to walk the streets to shop.

As I said, I don’t begrudge Best Buy or Home Depot or Wal-Mart or any other big store from doing business in my city, and I’m certainly not a smarty-art extremist. Big box stores create government revenue that the York household doesn’t have to make up though higher property taxes. The trickle-down economic effects are overwhelmingly positive. People who don’t have the luxury of paying a little extra for their goods and services can get them at lower cost.

I just don’t prefer them. I value locally owned businesses, and getting the personal service that I do at these little stores is irreplaceable to me. I prefer to exercise my free market prerogative to spend my money where I find the most value, and that doesn’t necessarily mean economic value. I would never tell anyone not to shop at large stores, but I would encourage people to give their locals a try. You might be surprised. In many cases, the difference is like the difference between flying first-class and coach, for very little extra money. And because of your business, I will still be able to shop there.

Conservatism doesn’t always have to mean bigger – it makes an equal case for better.