Friday, January 5, 2007
Are chain stores a bane or a boon to the community? I have written a number of times in favor of a utilitarian viewpoint that trusts free market demand more than government land use decisions to serve better the public interest. A recent edition of the Atlantic magazine provides two interesting and contrasting viewpoints from sociological perspectives.
First, food writer Corby Kummer criticized the proposal (which was voted down) to allow big box and grocery stores to sell wine in his home state of Massachusetts. Allowing chain stores to sell wine would lead to a "dumbing down," he argued, because the big retailers would push out small wine shops, which are more willing to offer unusual wines and provide personal attention to customers. My view is that such small shops might benefit Kummer, who visits wine stores in sophisticated Boston and travels around the nation, but they might not benefit much somebody living in West Cranapple, Mass., which may not have local stores with such expertise or clientele.
"In Praise of Chain Stores" is the title of an contrasting essay by Virginia Postrel, who wrote to dispel the notion that chain stores are undesirable because they make every place in America look the same. Chain stores succeed, Postrel argued, not simply because they are big, but because they are the successful results of nation-wide processes of trial and error to determine what most American want. Cities don't exist to please tourists, she notes, but to provide desirable goods and services to their citizens, which chain stores do to a greater extent than small shops ever did.
Tuesday, January 2, 2007
The holiday season has come to a close, but it's worth reflecting upon, as the New Year begins, one of the most telling images of year-end festivities in the United States. I'm speaking of the near-idolization of single-family homeownership that is applauded in the classic Christmas film from 1946, "It's a Wonderful Life," which has become as important a part of Christmas as conifers in the house and long shopping lines. Where else in American literature is the hero a banker (or rather, the director of a "building and loan"), who is heroic for providing easy mortgage credit to those (immigrants, etc.) who could not have afforded homeownership in other centuries and other cultures, and in financing a middle-class housing development ("Bailey Park" in the movie)? (Although the nightmarish, re-zoned "Pottersville" always looks, to me, like a fun place to spend a weekend.) To me, this film speaks more eloquently than any other work about the fundamental success of the United States -- and its land use and credit laws, of course -- in providing simple happiness to a majority of its citizens.