The Problem with …

  1. Liberalism and Conservatism
  2. Amazon and the Big Boxes
  3. “Christians” and “Jews”

1

A good many Christians treat either liberal or conservative ideology as the authentic political expression of Christianity.  For example, the left tends to view having compassion for the poor as practically identical with being liberal, and the right tends to view having respect for ‘traditional values’ as more or less the same thing as being conservative.  Back in the ‘nineties, I wrote a pair of articles for First Things magazine to explore the problem — one called “The Problem with Liberalism,” the other “The Problem with Conservatism.”

(J. Budziszewski) Yes, he did write that pair, and they were very good, and there’s no paywall any more.

2

Big Box stores suck.

They’re ugly and huge, which we know kills street life. They generate way less tax value per acre than their small-box brethren, often from the moment they break ground with the assistance of city TIF dollars. They require insane amounts of parking, which makes towns even less money than the not-exactly-productive square footage past the building’s front doors. And when they fail, they leave behind behemoth buildings that communities struggle to repurpose—not to mention the miles of short-sighted, auto-centric road development that these stores demand to ship their goods, and the cascade of negative impacts on our cities’ bottom lines and our citizens’ health, welfare, safety, and sense of community that follow.

If you skipped that block quote, please read it now. And if you doubt that Big Box does those things, click through to the hyperlinked articles.

So I can’t lament Amazon killing Big Box despite the short-term problems.

But the death of Big Box does not mean the arrival of something better, let alone a return to healthy local businesses in walkable communities (or neighborhoods within bigger cities).

Remember when I said earlier  how everyone’s so excited about Amazon crushing its big box competition? They’re not the only ones getting crushed. ILSR again:

Our analysis estimates that in 2015, Amazon’s growing market share caused more than 135 million square feet of retail space to become vacant. For perspective, that’s the equivalent of 1,267 vacant Home Depot stores, or about 700 empty big-box stores plus 22,000 shuttered Main Street businesses. As Amazon’s sales expand, these vacancies will mount.

I haven’t yet found a good study that outlines exactly how much of that vacant retail square footage belonged to small businesses rather than, say, Staples. (Let me know in the comments if you do.) But my years as a bookseller have shown me first hand that the number is far from zero, and that some of the businesses hardest hit by Amazon’s impact were exactly the kind of vital, third-place shops in walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods that we often talk about when we describe the likely elements of a strong town.

When you think of an extraordinary main street, can you picture it without the kind of small-scale retail that brings people out into the public square and gets eyes on the street, Jane Jacobs-style? When you think of a shopper, do you picture someone shut up in his home on a computer, with the street outside empty but for the odd delivery truck (or I guess, maybe someday, drones with brown packages)? Do you really picture the only stores on your main street looking like this, designed transparently to train you on how to be a better online shopper and get you home to buy, buy, buy?

Both quotes, and the immediate inspiration for this item, are from this Strong Towns article.

I’m fully aware of Amazon’s allure. A few years ago, I went from store to store looking in vain for a relatively big-ticket item, finally giving up and buying it almost effortlessly at Amazon. More recently, I (who am not “strapped” financially) was appalled at retail store (yes, relatively big box — a CVS or Walgreens) pricing of an item I’ll need regularly. I don’t remember what the item was (perhaps replacement brushes for my Oral-B electric toothbrush), but I think the price was less than half at Amazon.

But almost every time I do that, I know that I’m hurting local business just as surely as I’m hurting the Big Box stores. Yet local business and the Big Boxes can’t match Amazon’s selection or pricing. It’s a vicious circle. I don’t know how to break it.

Here’s the Strong Towns point that was new to me. It really ices the cake and earns the blog category “Damn rackets”:

But is Amazon really competitive in the way classical economists use the term? Practically since it began, Amazon has been heavily subsidized, not just by TIF dollars to build its warehouse spaces, but by Wall Street investors who were more than happy to own stock in a company that operated at a loss for (by some estimates) its first 20 years. In a sane world, operating that far into the red for even a fraction of that time would be a death sentence; Amazon would fail, and the wheels of capitalism would continue to turn. But in the world of eleventh-dimensional chess occupied by modern Wall Street investors, Amazon’s future potential to own most of the entire retail sector, and quite possibly the entire economy, is worth the wait. After all, Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, built a clock in his backyard that is designed to last 10,000 years, like some sort of Batman villain. He’s got nothing but time.

The more I learn about it, the more it seems the only way for Amazon to win is for them to take the whole pie. They need to sell everything, to everyone, at every stage of production and consumption. If you write a book, they need to control the publishing house that prints them and the self-publishing platform that you’ll go to if the book is rejected and the site where your readers write their reviews and the store that sells it all (and that any of their competitors use to supplement their own sales) before they make so much as a dime.

Multiply that business model across untold industries–cloud computing, groceries, even oscar-nominated movies–and give it enough time, and you have a massive centralization of power that has no precedent, and more to the point, is all but immune to current anti-trust law because it is diffuse across so broad a space.

One of the items on the Strong Towns strength test that’s particularly meaningful to me is this: “If your largest employer left town, are you confident the city would survive?” When you globalize that idea a bit, it says something even more vital: that if we want our communities to be strong, we have to think very carefully about the unseen structures upon which we rely, and what we’d do if they failed.

I put this out there so maybe we can crowdsource one or more solutions — a tacit purpose of much of my blogging.

3

After quoting and discussing a Mark Oppenheimer opinion piece encouraging his people to call themselves “Jews” rather than “Jewish,” reclaiming a word sullied by antisemites, Rod Dreher turns the focus inward:

I became serious about my Christianity as an adult in my mid-twenties when I converted to Catholicism. I was living in Washington DC, and had been pretty secular for almost a decade. I remembered how derisively my secular friends had spoken of Christians — I had done this too — and I had a lot of social anxiety about it. I settled on describing myself when asked as “Catholic,” deliberately not using the word “Christian,” though certainly that’s what I was. Why? Because “Christian” was — in my circles at the time — usually a negative descriptor, in a way that “Catholic” was not.

After reading Oppenheimer’s piece, I tried to understand why “Christian” made me feel so uncomfortable back then. After all, politically speaking, as a Catholic I held the same pro-life views that made me so offensive to certain progressives. But there was this context: the power and presence of TV evangelism.

I was at LSU in the 1980s, when Jimmy Swaggart, based in Baton Rouge, was a big national deal. I was present in his congregation back in 1988 for his big confession sermon after he got caught with a prostitute. I associated Christianity with people like him, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, and the whole herd of charlatans. Plus, on campus, the loudest Christian voices were the most obnoxious. To be fair, I was ideologically primed to see only the worst of Christians, and to think of them as emblematic. All the quieter Christians, both Evangelical and Catholic, escaped my notice, in part because of my confirmation bias.

When I finally got serious about Christianity, and did so through the Catholic church, I was well aware of the fact that whatever negative thing one might say about Catholicism, it could not be accused of the anti-intellectualism and chicanery that came with TV evangelism. I was ignorant back then of the differences among Evangelicals. I assumed — wrongly — that everybody who called himself an Evangelical was in some way part of the TV evangelism world. Choosing to identify as a “Catholic” and not a “Christian” when asked was a way of distancing myself from that mess. It played right into the ugly distinction that many of those believers make; I ran into it the other night in New Orleans, when an undergraduate at the J.D. Vance event introduced herself to me and said, “I was raised Catholic, but now I’m a Christian.” The TV evangelist types and the more conservative Evangelicals didn’t consider Catholics to be Christians, so by choosing the label “Catholic” instead of “Christian,” I signaled that I wasn’t one of the “bad” kind of Christian.

That’s not the end of the story. Rod now calls himself “Christian” unless pressed for detail. I’m pretty much with him, but “Evangelical” and Charismatic carry for me some of the opprobrium “Christian” once carried for Rod, as I never thought of Jimmy Swaggart, Jim & Tammy Fay Bakker, or Pat Robertson as “Christian,” but rather as Evangelical or Charismatic.

* * * * *

Men are men before they are lawyers or physicians or manufacturers; and if you make them capable and sensible men they will make themselves capable and sensible lawyers and physicians. (John Stuart Mill, Inaugural Address at St. Andrew’s, 1867)

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

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