Washington, DC, is a city often maligned as a corrupt cesspool synonymous with horse-trading, dishonesty and subterfuge. But those of us who hail from DC know that the city itself has a certain something to it, despite that famous John F. Kennedy (JFK) quote about it being of “northern charm and southern efficiency.” And Washingtonians are proud of the quainter aspects of their burg, which, if tourists are interested, are actually there for them to see, should they dare venture beyond inner-Babylon and the outer perimeter of the Smithsonian crawl. Sure, malfeasance on the local level and a rough modern history (thanks for the crack, Ronny. Have an airport) might make JFK's nugget of wisdom more poignant than the late president ever could have imagined . But due to time healing the racial wounds and criminal scars of yesteryear; the positive effect of Roe v. Wade on crime rates (if you're inclined to believe the Freakonomists); rising gas prices (which have made walking cities more attractive) and government subsidization of investment in revitalization and development (Sorry, Thomas Friedman … but city life has thrived in spite of, not because of outsourcing/financialization), inner cities in America are undergoing something of a renaissance and Washington, DC, is right up there with the best of them. While DC still has its share of concerns – poverty, crime, an HIV rate worse than much of sub-Saharan Africa – our fair city can now boast of vibrant diverse neighborhoods and a budding economy that would make the Brooklyn hipster mujaheddin weep blood in a jealous rage. We're gonna make it after all.
Or are we?
A contributing factor to the solidity of our robust local economy, no doubt, is the absence of most big-box retailers like Wal-Mart. Beyond the ruinous effects of Wal-Mart on a macroeconomic level – the outsourcing, the wage depression, the upstream bullying – study after study has shown that Wal-Marts depress wages and eviscerate jobs in and near communities they latch onto. So, while it helps DC to have the federal government as the region's biggest employer (but only so much as many federal employees retreat to Virginia and Maryland and don't pay income tax in DC), our city, without a doubt, has been blessed by a lack of Wal-Marts. Despite a multitude of failed efforts by the darlings of the Chinese Communist Party to get their filthy meat hooks into DC, only to be repelled by citizens' movements, the only traces of the parasitic retailer in the city proper is its crack team of reptilian lobbyists near its minions on Capitol Hill.
But if the world's largest corporation's machinations come to fruition, Wal-Mart may have its long sought stranglehold on DC, after all. Recently, the company announced its plans to open four(!) stores in our nation's capital. If Washingtonians don't come out against this, much of the progress our city has made since the post-Martin Luther King Jr. assassination riots and the days of crack cocaine could be reversed. All it takes is for some unfortunate event to spark a series of missteps and, before you know it, we're back in 1986, when anyone who could afford it ran like hell to the suburbs or anywhere west of Rock Creek Park. And if a certain rapacious retailer has its way, DC might find that event at its doorstep.
But considering DC politicians' penchant for scandals, it is unsurprising to find power players within the DC political establishment who think that the city should sell out to Sprawlmart. Having decided that the impending freeze of federal workplace pay won't be sufficiently hard on DCingtons, local politicians, it appears, are willing to lie prone and allow a multinational known for its scorched-earth policies to usher in a new era of institutionalized poverty in Washington. At least the British left after torching DC in 1814; Wal-Mart has every intention of staying as long as there is blood to be squeezed, like any good slash-and-burn rent seeker. How did this happen?”
First We Take Chicago …”
The most recent chapter of Wal-Mart's Masada-like siege of DC starts at America's burgeoning inner city waistlines and reads like an addendum to Naomi Klein's “Shock Doctrine” in a scenario that is playing out not just in DC, but in metropolitan centers across the land. As anyone who hates him or herself enough to keep tabs on Sarah Palin's toddleresque babble knows, Michelle Obama is making it her personal mission to tackle childhood obesity in America. And while this is certainly a noble and worthwhile initiative, some greasy profiteers are volunteering to help fight the War on Tubs. One of those is none other than our aforementioned anti-heroes, who have been welcomed by the first lady even though their help smacks of self-serving, counterproductive, opportunistic profiteering. Although Wal-Mart is generally a place that is thought of as a pusher and not a rehabilitator when it comes to America's fried lard addiction, all of a sudden, it is now pretending like it actually wants Americans to be in good shape. Maybe it dawned on them that when Chinese slave laborers eventually realize that they've had it and the American military needs to intervene on behalf of the sweatshop beneficiaries, the majority of Americans drafted to “fight for freedom” will freeze up in cardiac arrest when ordered to do their first pushup. But, more plausibly, the real reason that Gallmart has the impudence to feign interest in the fight against obesity should be obvious to the few in this country whose bullshit detectors haven't malfunctioned from an overload: the retailer is angling to claw its way into the urban centers that have made it non grata for all the obvious and right reasons. And angling to claw it is: beyond DC, Wal-Mart is trying to make forays into New York City, where it is meeting stiff resistance from the poor that its PR department swears it wants to help.
The situation in inner cities, however, is so dire that it would be understood if some rubes actually believed Wal-Mart. What gives the corporation any shred of credibility in this narrative is the indisputable fact that an alarming number of blighted urban neighborhoods in the US have turned into “food deserts,” areas entirely devoid of supermarkets. Thus, the urban poor are deprived of fresh produce and are becoming rather portly for it. While supermarkets themselves have their flaws – they waste energy; they're voracious consumers of land; they waste food; they supply mostly unhealthy, preservative and pesticide heavy products flown in from halfway around the world, and are a drain on local economies – in this workaday world, the only thing worse than having a supermarket in one's neighborhood is not having one, to paraphrase Raj Patel. And with its business plan coming straight from the school of geological bloodletting, Wal-Mart claims that its economic model is cutthroat enough to survive in America's unforgiving inner cities.
But will America's inner cities survive Wal-Mart?
In DC, the firm's ulterior motives are so stark that its plotted incursion has all the subtlety and tastefulness of a State of the Union standing ovation. The story goes a little something like this: last fall, the DC Council was actually on its way to irrigating the food deserts – Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh (who represents the richest ward in DC, ironically) proposed very sensible legislation to subsidize fresh fruit and veggies in existing corner stores and to offer financial support to grocery stores willing to open up shop in overlooked neighborhoods. Ward 8 in Southeast DC, for example, has a shocking, even by American standards, obesity rate of 71.5 percent. Shortly after it became clear that legislation was on its way to passing, in November 2010, Wal-Mart, having been trying for years to plunder DC, jumped at the opportunity to offer its “help,” effectively high jacking the popular legislation and making it controversial overnight.
“D.C. residents want more convenient access to quality jobs and affordable groceries,” Henry Jordan, senior vice president of Wal-Mart's American operations told The Washington Post. “We want to be part of the solution,” he said. Cue the not-too-distant memories of Halliburton executives proposing “solutions” to the Iraqi people.
Certainly, these neglected DC neighborhoods – like their counterparts in cities elsewhere throughout the country – are in desperate need of neighborhood supermarkets. For those that work 80 hours a week just to make ends meet, not having access to fresh produce near the homestead is a massive barrier to healthy living; after a long day of work, taking public transport to lug home groceries can seem no dissimilar to a Frodo Baggins-like odyssey. But Wal-Mart's offer – a business decision pathetically portrayed as an altruistic gesture in a fashion that might make even a Monsanto propagandist blush – is akin to offering a wanderer lost in Death Valley a drink of swimming pool water at a cut-rate price. Or, in the words of Huffington Post blogger Matt Ryan (who covered the company's attempt to do business in New York City), letting Wal-Mart have a go at closing the “grocery gap” would be like “asking a fox to fix the henhouse.“
Poverty Wages Bring … Poverty? Who Knew?
The argument to keep Wal-Mart out of DC (and New York and beyond) goes further than the sole fact that the retailer is playing the part of a Dorito in broccoli's clothing. If food deserts are a result of systemic poverty, why set up a scenario that is bound to lead to more destitution? Looking past the standard bleeding heart casus belii against the retailer opening up shop – Wal-Mart will ruin our emerging hipster Pyongyangs; the company employs unsavory management tactics; it is plunging the whole of America into deep economic doo-doo – the company will ransack the local economy, no matter how fiercely Wal-Mart sock-puppets and professional comment-shills say otherwise. The reason that any civic minded Washingtonian (or New Yorker) should want to lift a finger to keep Wal-Mart out is elementary: It. Destroys. Jobs. Wal-Mart's predatory pricing strategy puts other local businesses out of work, whereupon those low prices vanish in the footsteps of moribund competitors. Moreover, the company, with its enormous demand for land, also drives up the prices for commercial real estate, signaling to landlords that they should hold out for corporate tenants with deep pockets lined by Wall Street financiers. Thus, the introduction of big-box retailers to local markets leaves local companies – not shareholders, but stakeholders who take the long view – in the backseat, with an ever-increasing proportion of local income going to the financial black hole that is corporate America.
Much of these above assertions have been proven time and time again in study after study. For example, one study conducted for the Institute for the Study of Labor in Bonn, Germany, (Neumark, Zhang, Ciccarella; 2007) estimated that one Wal-Mart in a single county leads to the loss of 150 retail jobs, reduces employment in the retail sector by 2.7 percent and causes the total income of retail workers to drop by $1.2 million. And in a study more pertinent to city dwellers, another team of researchers (Davis, Merriman, Semoya et al; 2010) found that a single Wal-Mart in Chicago – the first American metropolis to allow Wal-Mart to penetrate its city limits – led to the closure of a handful of nearby businesses and a net loss of up to 300 full-time retail jobs. Wal-Mart is great for local economies if you happen to live in an offshore tax haven or lower Manhattan.
But Wal-Mart shouldn't be singled out just because the store is synonymous with incestuous yokels; Washingtonians living in DC's budding neighborhoods – Columbia Heights, namely – should be aware of the detriments to any big-box multinationals, even ones that try to market themselves to blue America: J'accuse, Target! Courtesy of the leviathan store's ominous presence on 14th Street NW inside a sterile corporate shopping complex named DCUSA, the potential for unique, resilient, long-term economic growth with a full, rich multiplier effect has been severely hampered in Columbia Heights. Other stores that populate the DCUSA include strip-mall tapeworms such as Panda Express, Radio Shack, Bank of America and Best Buy, which exemplify how landlords' expectations are altered by the presence of multinational tenants. And, farcically, an IHOP that opened in DCUSA in November was given all sorts of tax breaks and rent subsidies because it was considered a “local” minority-owned business by the Columbia Heights Development corporation, a nonprofit charged with finding such businesses because they were allocated 15,000 square feet of retail space in DCUSA at a 30 percent discount by DCUSA-owner Developer Grid Properties in exchange for $46.9 million in subsidies from the city government. Thus, the mom and pop IHOP, the 1,500th outlet in the country's 20th-largest restaurant chain, was gifted public money intended for a real local business because corporate might proved too much for the landlords to resist.
Meanwhile, another model is thriving in other areas of the city that are catering more to local entrepreneurs. These neighborhoods, recently mired in seemingly bottomless poverty, have given birth to pedestrian-friendly corridors brimming with mostly distinctive local businesses that add character and value to the neighborhoods they adorn. U Street, Capitol Hill, Barracks Row, Mount Pleasant and H Street NE are all areas of town that bode their time when it came to development, which appears to have paid off (read about the story behind The Liberty Tree, a restaurant on H Street NE, for an example of good things coming to neighborhoods that wait). Those who have reaped the windfall are numerous neighborhood stakeholders, as opposed to the handful of corporate shareholders that love the big-box model, like the gargantuan Target that ominously looms over the traffic-clogged streets of Columbia Heights. And, unlike Columbia Heights, neighborhoods that have cultured economies not centered around a massive corporate retailer don't have their livelihoods dependent on the whims of boardroom suits.
But patient, economically diverse development is exactly what Wal-Mart's PR hounds want you to believe will lead to East German-like stagnation, when the opposite is true. And those in the media who back the Wal-Mart have taken the same tack, laughably pointing to the lamest of criticisms and trumpeting them as the anti-Wal-Mart camp's sole gospel. Robert McCartney, a journalist writing for The Washington Post, for example, shrugged off the anti-Wal-Mart camp mainly because – I shit you not – Brenda Speaks, an ANC commissioner in Ward 4, where Wal-Mart wants to build a store on the up-and-coming Georgia Avenue (a few miles from the house of yours truly), argued that the store would entice young people to steal and, thus, ensnare them in the bowels of the criminal justice system. And this was the only argument against Wal-Mart that McCartney spoke about in depth in his column. Such lazy journalism marginalizes those opposed to the Wal-Mart, painting them as negative overbearing assholes with no alternatives and questionable, hateful and paternalistic attitudes toward race and class. In reality, what the DC anti-Wal-Mart camp would generally like to see is the initial spirit of the closing-the-grocery-gap initiative followed: subsidies going to neighborhood corner stores that provide fresh produce, or tax breaks going to more local, union-friendly supermarket chains. But, for the urban poor, getting a hand up from a company that loves misery defeats the purpose, in the words of rapper Diabolic, “like President Bush taking bullets for the Secret Service.”
The Revolution Will Not Be Freeze-Dried
Even beyond more conventional solutions like the legislation put forth by the DC City Council, there is a radical approach that DC could take by buttressing Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) networks (which, for the uninitiated consist of regional farms that offer shares of their harvest to nearby city slickers). They are already starting to thrive despite corporate farmers' best attempt to siphon off every last arable acre, resource and subsidy on God's green earth. So, why not give CSA a leg up when it offers consumers fresh and inexpensive produce and strengthens and diversifies local economies at the same time?
While it could be a risky strategy – both politically and financially – the potential for long-term benefit is immeasurable. In the case of Washington, DC, (and, indeed, most city governments), a CSA subsidy would be complicated by the fact that almost 100 percent of all local agriculture consumed within the city is produced outside of the district itself. But transportation subsidies for farmers, setting up networks to help them pool resources and tax breaks for consumers are options worth pursuing for the city council, along with lobbying, um, Washington for some federal funds.
And why shouldn't the federal government get behind CSA? Farm fresh produce could satisfy both Michelle Obama's fight against obesity and Barack's drive to jumpstart the economy and relieve our overburdened health care system. With all the garbage that big business injects in our food to extend its shelf life and guarantee its suburban-like symmetry, a CSA subsidy might save the country serious money in the long run. It would imply a costly overhaul of the broken agricultural subsidy system to be sure, but if consumers were spending less on chemically-intensive farm products, America's monthly doctors' and psychologists' bills would be slashed. And speaking of “slashing costs,” less slash-and-burn farming would cost the US (and the world) less when in comes to repairing the environmental damage done by industrial farms.
The naysayers, of course – your Becks, your Limbaughs, your Bachmanns, your Boehners – would more than likely slander government support of CSA as some sort of Stalinist brand of farm collectivization. And it is, without question, less corporate, capitalistic and individualistic (when you get your CSA share for the week, there is admittedly not much choice involved, which, I'm sure the knuckle-dragging shock jocks would defame as Maoist to no end). But what's wrong with a bit of community-minded collectivism? Besides, the identikit food Products (lowercase “f,” capital “P”) that we are force fed by the “free market” don't just appear out of Ludwig von Mises' left nostril. On top of all the misguided agricultural subsidies that the likes of hypocrite-in-extremis Michele Bachmann loves to quietly collect, an embarrassing amount of collusion is allowed to exist between “free” market “competitors” (not to mention that markets with a few dominant players are hardly free, even beyond all the cartel behavior and government handouts).
Therefore, by leveling the playing field and increasing access to a healthy, satisfying alternative to corporate food systems, support for CSA would actually enhance consumer choice despite the sort of shrieking Fox News corporate doublespeak that would almost certainly greet such a hypothetical proposal. The least that the federal government could do would be to withdraw support from wealthy absentee farmers, corporate agribusiness and programs that encourage the production of unhealthier crops, such as corn. But even if that were the case and all the crookedness in our agricultural support programs was straightened out, subsidies themselves shouldn't be shelved; done properly they can still produce desirable results. Those that have been fortunate enough to travel to Europe know this to be true; buying and eating a carrot from an average supermarket in Italy, for example, is, on the whole – from doling out the cash to eating the thing, to what comes after – a far more satisfying experience than consuming a carrot from your average Wal-Mart.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Having established that Wal-Mart wreaks havoc on local economies, digestive systems and body mass indices, how does one fight to keep them from exploiting America's obesity crisis and taking a polyurethane death grip on one's beloved hometown?
Boycotts themselves might not be sufficient, particularly in a place like DC where tourists, mercenary Hill staffer transients, temporary residents and sociopathic consumers could keep the store afloat. Think about McDonalds' that open in picturesque rural towns abroad: most of the locals don't want them there, as they sully the local landscape and take tourist dollars away from local haunts. But as long as gringo visitors keep going back to shut their bratty kids up with cheeseburgers, then they will stay open. In other words, neighborhood consumer boycotts can only do so much. If one in five locals want a Wal-Mart with three in five opposed to it (lets assume that the other one in five is indifferent), Wal-Mart will stay if that minority plus visitors spend enough money to keep it afloat. Thus, a sliver of the population could finance the area's decline with their insatiable appetite for slave-made-and-serviced consumerism that pushes unskilled laborers deeper and deeper into the throes of poverty when viable alternatives could have produced a much more desirable result for most. However, even if a boycott campaign might not be fully effective, at the very least, a movement could raise doubts about profitability at the company's corporate headquarters. Or drive home the message to politicians that supporting Wal-Mart could be political suicide. In DC, perhaps a well-organized mass movement against Wal-Mart could spur the city council into taking legislative action. At the very least, the council should explicitly preclude Wal-Mart from claiming any anti food-desertification subsidies, should the corporation end up coming to DC. Although its executives are claiming that it isn't seeking any public money, Wal-Mart suspiciously announced its plans for DC shortly after it became clear that the legislation would pass. Thus, if Washington is forced to swallow Wal-Mart's tripe, the least that the council could do is keep Wal-Mart true to its word by legislating airtight exemptions that prevent the retailer from cashing in on the grocery gap-closing subsidies. Lord knows that a city infested with Wal-Marts (and just one amounts to an infestation) has to bear enough of a burden as it is.
But whatever the course of action, Washingtonians should do everything in their power to stop such a harmful company from getting any sort of foothold in the city. But don't believe me that their presence would be a stain upon our social fabric; parse through the numerous studies that have been a thorn in the side of the Wal-Mart Ministry of Information. Perhaps they might encourage Washingtonians to rile up friends, family and neighbors into organizing, lest the city embarks on a regression back into its darker days (even this unapologetic socialist sees the benefit of some gentrification). It might not be clear what sort of action those of us opposed to Wal-Mart should take. But after having enjoyed a city bereft of Wal-Mart, those of us in DC with beating (not bleeding) hearts should brush off our shellshock and tell Wal-Mart that not even one of its stores encroaching upon our city limits is welcome. In fact, Wal-Mart's announced intention to open four stores is that they know even one would be fiercely opposed and are therefore trying to browbeat us into a compromise. However, we should not yield any ground to a company that would take an acre if given a square inch, despite the company's hollow promises of being a born-again responsible corporate citizen and bringer of fresh, healthy food to Washington's (and America's) needy. Anyone who has seen “The Usual Suspects” knows that “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn't exist.” The good news is that it's not too late to stop this corporate Beelzebub, even if opposition to the company has been left a bit stunned and flatfooted by the firm's PR blitz.
An example of one of the dirty PR tricks Wal-Mart is employing in its bid to force its way into DC: it is leaving fliers on Washingtonians doorsteps extolling the benefits of the company (according to them) without citing its sources for these statistics, or even letting it be known who is publishing the flier (not even an email address or web site!). This bit of propaganda, not unlike a comment left by one of the astrotufring trolls in the company's employ, is, to put it politely, a complete joke. An example of some of the baseless statistics cited by the Washington Wal-Mart Manifesto:
*73 percent of DC residents support bringing Wal-Mart to their city. (I call bullshit!)
- The store employs 600 residents already and Washingtonians spent more than $41 million at area stores. (Where do they come up those numbers?)
- Erroneous claims that the city is facing an $800 million budget shortfall. (It's more like less than half that figure.)
- But most ludicrously, the flier boasts that Wal-Mart is the remedy to these problems. The corporation says it will create 1,200 permanent jobs (Really? How many will it destroy? According to a cornucopia of studies, much more than however many it actually creates); expand access to healthy food (cough, bullshit, cough); provide a competitive wage “better than those offered by competitors, including unionized grocers” (Which unionized grocers? Maybe Wal-Mart pays their overseer-managers more than their competitors!); and generate $10 million in tax revenue for the city (but how much tax revenue will it liquidate through jobs lost and the inevitable decline in worker income?).
I know that public education in DC is less than stellar, but how stupid do they think we are? And, again, where the hell are they getting these statistics? They may as well be eating psychedelic mushrooms by the trashcan full and divining these numbers like some sort of fourth century shaman. Clearly, this waste of paper was left by a quisling Wal-Mart lackey with little regard for the truth and without the decency and courage to so much as identify him or herself. One might think that beyond the obvious downsides to Wal-Mart, such baseless claims and insulting pieces of shillery would jolt Washingtonians into action. To this point, however, organization against Wal-Mart has been minimal and demonstrations against the company have been sparsely attended. But those workers who will be most affected by Wal-Mart hardly have the time and energy to speak out, considering that many are on the clock almost every hour of their nonsleeping, eating or commuting schedule. So, when one of my housemates came home from service industry slavery to find the above piece of aspiring garbage on our front porch, he left it in my room with a note scrawled on the back:
“PLEASE fight this,” It says (And this coming from someone who usually doesn't get too stirred up by anything even vaguely political).
Duly noted. But what to do? Who knows? And does it matter? Did the throngs of demonstrators in Cairo, Tunis or Madison know exactly what they wanted when they took to the streets? In the words of a comical activist-ish Facebook group “Do Crucial Shit Somehow.” All you have to do is put down your computers, run to the window and do your best Howard Beale impression. Otherwise, Washingtonians, prepare for the strip-mallification of your favorite hipster Shangri-la, followed closely thereafter by economic depression and a lack of any real progress on tackling inner city obesity (and poverty).
And to those in metropolises outside of DC who think that this scenario doesn't apply to them: get ready. You're next.