Independence. What does it mean? It means separate and apart from-not the same. In America, we are seeing less and less of it. As every new look-alike subdivision gets built, a cookie-cutter set of businesses establish themselves on the high-traffic intersections; chain gas stations, chain fast food, chain coffee shops, chain upscale dining, chain retail ... it's all the same. Travel to any other city in America and look in the sections of town that have been built in the last 10 years and you'll be hard pressed to tell if you are in Phoenix, Denver, Atlanta or Richmond.
Independent businesses, the backbone of our country are disappearing. And with them, the middle class. As each new big-box store like Best Buy, Home Depot or Wal-Mart opens on the outskirts of town, residents flock to their shelves for those "low, low prices." You can't blame people. The value of a dollar has dropped so low, people need to save every penny they can.
These huge corporate retailers have such economic might they can set the prices they will pay for goods. If manufacturers cannot afford to make them at what companies like Wal-Mart want to pay, the implied solution they offer is to move manufacturing jobs overseas or go out of business.
With businesses closing in America and manufacturing jobs moving overseas, it becomes even more necessary to buy what we need at those "low, low prices." It's a vicious cycle, and it isn't just manufacturing. The white-collar, professional middle-class jobs are moving to lower-labor-cost countries as well. This is the new global economy.
The executives of these mega-stores argue that jobs are created as new stores open in cities at the rate of one or more per day. This is true, but they aren't the same wages that were there before. The wages are often below what is considered a living wage, forcing local and state governments to pick up the tab for the increased need for social services. This, after local governments have welcomed companies with open arms, giving tax breaks and low cost land as incentives to open.
Every aspect of American culture is in danger of being swallowed by corporate interest. How many independent gas stations do you see anymore? Radio stations? Television? Movie theaters? Book stores (new, not used)? Record stores? Office equipment and supplies? Clothing? Shoes?
These megastores aren't just about controlling market share in a community, wiping out the independents who cannot afford to compete. They cannibalize each other with just as much zeal. Last year, Toys 'R' Us realized it was futile to compete against Wal-Mart for toys and announced it was going to get out of toys and focus on its Babies 'R' Us division.
In his 2005 book, The United States of Wal-Mart, John Dicker writes, "There is a war going on. Pitched battles between the forces of economic progress and quality of life, between preserving regional identity and national homogeneity, and between the all-important low prices and the dignity of the American worker are beginning to coalesce into an all-out war to define the modern era. And Wal-Mart is winning."
Wal-Mart is easy to pick on. It's the biggest, after all. But while you've known that for years, they've continued to get bigger, happily and quietly growing fat on the lower and middle classes. Dicker points out in his forward that today not only is Wal-Mart the largest corporation in the world, it is the largest retailer (four times larger than it's nearest competitor, Home Depot), the largest grocer, owns the world's largest trucking fleet, is the world's largest jeweler ($2.3 billion annually), is the largest private employer in not only the U.S., but Canada and Mexico, has a GDP larger than 80 percent of the world's countries, including Israel and Sweden, has more than doubled its annual revenue in the last five years to $288 billion, will control 35 percent of food and drug sales in the U.S. by 2007 and buys $1 billion worth of land-each month.
While economies of scale can lower prices for the consumer, they also make more money for the stockholder and even more for the executives who lobby government to suppress the minimum wage, health care benefits and the quality of life enjoyed by our parents. As the rich get richer, the politicians they put in office make them even richer yet with more tax cuts, while the lowest wage earners are having social services cut off because government doesn't have enough money.
For a majority of Americans, this may be the first generation to see a decrease in the quality of life our parents and grandparents worked to give us. Two-income households are a necessity, not a luxury today. When will the children have to go to work?
So what is the solution? A few years ago, you could have said, "I'll shop my local independent stores and pay a little more so my money will stay circulating in the local economy." Today, that option is disappearing. There are things in the marketplace now that you cannot find anywhere else but a huge, corporate, warehouse megastore, because not enough people supported the little guy. I, too, have shopped at Wal-Mart. Those "low, low prices" call to me like the sirens calling Odysseus. Every time I go there-out of necessity-I get a sick feeling in my stomach knowing that I'm driving another nail in the coffin of American independents.
Years ago, a comedian friend of mine told me he was amazed how you can get everything at these megamarts. He said one day he was pushing his sick mother's wheelchair around the store and she died in the bulk toilet paper aisle. He pushed her corpse up front to a clerk and said, "I think my mother just died. Can you help me with her?" The clerk looked puzzled for a moment and then replied, "Paper or plastic?" But they don't have paper anymore. They realized they could save a penny by just using plastic.
-Bingo Barnes, editor of the last independent newspaper in Southwest Idaho.