Villages, towns and counties large and small, from the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State to the Florida Keys and all points in between across both the United States and Canada debate and will debate the growth of the so-called "Big Box" stores in their communities.
Some in my own profession call them "The Mart Brothers," for Wal-Mart and Kmart; others with more balance call them "The Great Discounters." "Big Box" is not a pejorative term; these stores are the largest chain stores in the world, led by Benton, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart Stores, and as every school child and Nobel Laureate alike knows, they have utterly transformed the North American consumer economy.
What public servant in his or her right mind would take far-reaching steps to oppose these stores and their hefty, permanent discounts? What elected official would rail against the right of their constituents to get as much as is possible from their hard-earned after-tax dollars? It is an inalienable right to both be free to pursue legal, open and bountiful economic bargains, and it is equally inalienable that businesses large and small have every right to offer such opportunities.
The "Big Boxes" have allowed more people to buy more items than they have ever been able to afford before. Many items, consigned by price to a "luxury" category, are now replicated at affordable middle and lower middle class pricing due to these stores. The demand for wide consumer choices has stimulated capital risk, reward, bounty, benefit and positive advancement.
Local governments such as North Hempstead are also forced to deal with the two powerful choice-points that arise when considering zoning and building permits for the erection of these huge "Big Box" stores: their effects on communities, and their deleterious effects on small business.
I find merit in both concerns as much as I support these corporations in their right to open their stores. Local government is charged with the power as well as the burden of preserving land use that promotes safety and long-lasting benefit for current as well as future generations. The need to balance today with tomorrow is great. Likewise, local governments cannot constitutionally stand in the way of lawful private enterprise.
The fact is, Wal-Mart especially, is not a good corporate citizen. In fact, most of the powerful negative forces writ large and growing in today's America can be traced largely to its doorstep. Wal-Mart suppresses wages, supposedly in the name of "competitiveness." This has the effect of driving down surrounding wages. They have been the key force in creating "outsourcing" in order to produce inexpensive goods. It has caused, as Claude Prestowitz Jr. has called "the race to the bottom." Wal-Mart brazenly engages in anti-union activities. Wal-Mart's meager benefit plans have allowed many surrounding businesses to either opt to drop admittedly costly health care plans, or be forced to in order to stay competitive because of Wal-Mart's low prices and wages paid to its employees. Finally, Wal-Mart has been bad for small business. The fact is, the Big Boxation of America hastened the evaporation of a vigorous independently-owned business community on our national Main Streets.
What North Hempstead is doing is to approach the location and planning for Big Box stores on a sound, balanced footing. The stores' legal eagles will go to bat for their Big Box clientele by wrapping themselves in the Constitution. No one disputes their clients' rights to exist, operate, and flourish. No one who believes in both the rule of law and capitalism would do so.
Yet, the public - through its elected agencies of government such as the Town of North Hempstead - also has a right to preserve, protect and defend the citizenry against bad land use; against traffic pile-ups; against pollution; against unfair business practices; and against the destruction of small businesses.
North Hempstead cannot right by pen stroke all of the powerful labor, wage, health care and sectoral changes in America today. Nor can North Hempstead stem the tide of globalization, which has its "discontents" with and without points, as Economist Joseph Stiglitz told us in his seminal book on the subject.
Personally, making the opening of "Big Box" stores in North Hempstead as difficult as it can be well within the fair limits of the law and due process deprives no one of their rights. Due process will be observed. After all, these are the ultimate guarantees and rights involved here pertaining to both sides of this issue.
Free trade has increasingly become unfair trade; I have served on a key federal panel involved in trade, and I support free but fair trade. The benefits of free trade are evident for all in "Big Box" stores, but the perils of both unfair trade globally and pernicious losses for small businesses and workers locally also come through these same stores. Land use issues also militate against careless permitting for these stores. A fair, balanced and rational approach will preserve the rights of all.
Jon F. Weinstein
(The author has served as a local Planning Board official as well as a member of the U.S. Department of Commerce's Industry Sector Advisory Committee on Small and Minority Business Trade Policy Matters.)