Last week I accomplished exactly what I expected, if not what I wanted: I left several readers supposing that I was a “snowflake-coddler”—that I found a period of internship in our economy’s miserable entry-level positions to be an excessively brutal demand to place upon tender young college graduates. Which misinterpretation of my message indeed goes to show one thing (and maybe not much of anything else): that a man with a hammer sees nothing but nails, and a man who never removes his sunglasses finds the moon unimpressive.
No, those aren’t two things. I’m trying to be apothegmatic. Here’s an analogy that’s a bit less cliché. Some people are going to stuff and mount you to fill a vacant spot in their display of felines even if you have feathers. They class you at a glance, without study. They see in you what they’ve already decided must be there. They hear in your utterances a script that they’ve already written in their heads. If your audience consists only of them, you might as well save your breath.
I should know. I’ve been trying to make the case for a “conservative conservatism” throughout the past three decades. I always run into the “jobs/growth/innovation” types who don’t—who apparently can’t—realize that their vision is a progressive one: ever-changing consumer tastes, ever-responding markets, ever-shifting landscapes, ever-evolving standards of relevance. No stability of foundational experiences, no permanence of places, little enough fixity in basic values. I’m perceived by such people always to lose the argument—and, in the process, to disgrace myself with flabby, namby-pamby sentimentalism—because I don’t appreciate that Americans are tough, resourceful, energetic, dynamic, go-getting, risk-taking: the lumberjack, the cowboy, the wildcatter. Yee-hah!
You know how that movie always ends, don’t you? The lumberjack has no more timber to cut. The aging cowboy finds that all the range is fenced in and that trains have supplanted cattle drives. The wildcatter sits disconsolately in the tower of his mansion, abandoned by his third wife and reading the telegram about his estranged son’s death in a car crash. “Yee-hah” is not a philosophy of life. It might get Slim Pickens from the bomb bay door to the Kremlin atop his nuke, but it won’t get a child successfully to middle age. You can’t discover human purpose in a life of consuming, moving to new pastures, and consuming again.
I decided (in vain, no doubt, with regard to those who never remove their sunglasses) to take one more crack at the subject by reflecting upon the walks my wife and I take through the all-but-empty Mount Berry Mall in Rome, Georgia. With the onset of the fall allergy season, I can’t seem to spend much time outdoors… and one circuit of Mount Berry Mall probably gives us almost a mile of air-conditioned pacing if we wind around every nave. I believe Berry College (now “University”, like all one-time colleges) sold the land for this ambitious project in the late Eighties. The Mall isn’t at all old, as such things go, and parts of it are quite majestic. It’s a pleasant venue. Yet it has never prospered. The Toys-R-Us sitting at the turn-in from Highway 27, where we bought a couple of my son’s favorite stuffed animals during our visits to his grandparents, has been boarded up now for well over a decade.
Meanwhile, the Mall’s interior has shrunk steadily—not in physical size, of course, but in its “enterprise footprint”. The food court, teaming with exotic, high-calory options that are all strictly forbidden on my cancer-throttling diet, seems to be the only quarter that does any business. J.C. Penney’s is selling off everything—everything, manikins included—at whatever price it can get, opening two afternoons a week. The massive sporting goods outlet, Dunham’s, appears to have red blood in its cheeks, despite the utter invisibility of its customers; and Belk’s hasn’t yet gone as foul as whale on a beach (though the “50% off” signs in all its windows have an ominous smell). Other than that, we see on our meanders only a half-dozen outlets for designer clothes (frilly tops for chic female teens, high-priced high fashion for their moms), fronts for the luxury-bath-and-soap market (represented now by just one Bed, Bath, and Beyond), a Kay Jewelers, and a salon where Vietnamese women discreetly perfect toe- and fingernails.
What else? I think the space that sells smartphone accessories (not the phones themselves, apparently) may still be open, though its gate is never up nor its lights above a dull glow when we happen to pass. Hibbett’s Sporting Goods has a presence, selling off metal bats and mouth-guards at the all-but-ubiquitous half-price. At least three or four specialty shoe stores are stocked, not to be confused either with clothing vendors or sports-equipment distributors—wow, does our society ever pay attention to its footwear! Otherwise… well, a lot of utterly empty space yawning beyond the glass of vacated showrooms: thousands of square feet of comfy indoor refuge the nature of whose previous commercial purpose cannot even be guessed today.
Why has the Mount Berry Mall failed? Possibly, it hasn’t. Its acres and acres of interior have all been freshly carpeted: convenient for our ambulatory exercise, but also a very curious investment on somebody’s part if there’s no plan for overhaul. Let’s hope for the best. But why was the Mall already failing twenty years ago? It was on the respirator long before Dr. Fauci told our whole nation to stay home.
Some would say that the Internet has rendered storefronts permanently obsolete. I have to question this, however. People still crave places to go. We’re social beings. And once we find ourselves in a marketplace venue, we like to browse. If various wares are spread around us, we often return home carrying a bag or two even though we had no intent of buying anything when we left.
There are also many items—admit it—which cannot be reliably purchased over the Net. Remember all those shoe stores? How many pairs of shoes have you put in your digital shopping cart that pained your feet when the box arrived, despite your having clicked on the proper size? And with my revised diet, how many food products have I lately sent back to Amazon because the Web page didn’t reveal that they contained soy or added sugar? There’s sometimes a real need to examine the product face to face.
Okay, okay… but still (says my snowflake-hostile cowboy), why do you suppose that a young person who wants to make dolls and teddy bears or to write and record songs or to collect and trade baseball cards should be able to make a living in such fanciful activities? We should all have hobbies. Especially because our day job can be so boring or soul-killing, we should most definitely have that special something done in our free time to lift us up again. In the real world, though, the special something rarely translates into paid bills. It’s foolish—pure pipe-dreaming—to suppose that an economy could run on lollipop fantasies of the sort.
If I wanted to be arch, I could play back for this urban cowboy (any urban cowboy: I know the species well) his own words mere days or weeks earlier when he praised capitalism to the skies for freeing people to chase their dreams. Oh, yes: I’ve got that pep talk on my mental tape-recorder in thousands of renditions! But I’d rather defend his compromising statement than deride it: I genuinely believe that free enterprise (which is sometimes distinguished from capitalism—more on that shortly) can indeed build a realistic bridge between people and their visions of sugarplums.
So you like to stitch together dollies and teddies (and who does nowadays… but say that you do): you wouldn’t need more than a closet-sized shop with a broad casement window to peddle your button-eyed wares. Say that you write and record songs. An even smaller closet would do. Visitors could request that you compose a lyric for their wedding or anniversary. Why not? “Come back in a week—I’ll have it ready.” And the card-dealer? Some of his merchandise could be quite costly, so a tiny space in a secure, well-policed environment would be ideal. All three of these improbable enterprises—and any number of others like them—would share one critical factor: each would profit symbiotically from the others’ presence, as well as from the colossal magnetism of Penney’s and Belk’s and Dunham’s. Customers who might be vaguely enticed by such offbeat offerings but wouldn’t drive across town to browse through them would willingly stop by while on a more general shopping expedition. Mere pedestrians like my wife and me, too, with no thought originally of buying anything might step in to admire Jurassic Teddy or to price a George Kell rookie card in good condition.
In short, the mall—the latter twentieth-century American version of the marketplace, the piazza, the agora—is ideally suited to promote the tiny enterprises of creative people with somewhat cockeyed visions. But no, cries the Cowboy. “No, it’s not! Are you crazy? Think of the overhead! Such minuscule operations couldn’t begin to rent even the smallest space in a mall.” Well, thank you, Cowboy, for bringing us straight to the heart of the matter. Why can’t small entrepreneurs afford mall space, which ought to be infinitely more congenial to their bottom line than an independent storefront on Main Street (or a ramshackle lean-to bordering suburbia)? Let’s consider the reasons. They tell us much about how healthy, dream-friendly free enterprise degenerates into crony capitalism and competition-hostile corporatism.
Local taxes are a good starting point. City and county governments seem to consider malls as rich terrain for plundering to fund their pet projects. Precisely because so many shoppers go to malls and because so many huge national chains claim space in them, the haul is lucrative… supposedly. Of course, these assumptions strangle the small enterprise from the start. In and of themselves, high taxes make mall space prohibitively expensive for the doll-maker or card-dealer; and if he or she tries to pass the cost along to the consumer… well, suddenly the crap-shoot of buying footwear online seems a much better alternative than visiting Shoe Carnival.
The mega-chains seldom complain, though they probably should. Large corporations have developed the philosophy that the more small businesses are driven under, the larger the pot left on the table for Penney’s and Belk’s. In many specific markets, corporations even lobby government to raise taxes or impose new regulations, knowing that smaller competition will have to fold as a result. I don’t see how Penney’s suffers at the mall from the presence of a shop that peddles leather jackets and teeny-bling, however. On the contrary, the big fish can feed upon the customers drawn to the little fish as much as the little ones can snap up a few Penney’s patrons. Nevertheless, the signs that Mount Berry Mall has become the exclusive province of vast chains are unmistakable. The chains should have done more, not less, to lobby for lower taxes and lower rents. Their survival-of-the-fattest DNA has targeted them for extinction in this instance.
Sometimes politics at the national level—macro-politics, as we might say—sabotages thriving small businesses. The minimum wage is the most graphic example, with certain strictures associated with OSHA being a close second. Tammy’s Teddies could make a nice go of it if Tammy could employ a couple of sixteen-year-olds at seven bucks an hour to work the cash register and arrange displays over the summer… but no. Kids have to be paid like adults with hungry families at home, and to enjoy a full slate of benefits. This is represented as “humane” by demagoguing populist politicians who don’t really give a damn about the average family’s income. So Tammy can’t employ high-schoolers… Tammy can’t keep her door open… and Tammy goes on unemployment while she waits for Walmart to offer her a gig stocking shelves.
I’m not an economist. I feel confident that I could double or triple this list’s length if I knew the all of game’s “inside baseball” realities. And yet, economists with advanced degrees often promote the environment so toxic for small business that I’ve just described. It seems to me that they bring to their studies a taste for centralization that dictates how they assemble specific facts. I freely—even proudly—admit that, for my part, I have brought to my analysis a presumption in favor of the creative, energetic individual. I hate “big”, because “big” suffocates. Free enterprise is supposed to give “little” a chance to breathe and to thrive: that’s the proposition, dear Cowboy, which you’re supposed to be singing on your guitar. Instead, you’ve been duped into warbling, “Leave the range unfenced and open—let those corporations move their herds!” What you’re not noticing is that government is buying your saddle and stocking your chuck wagon; because government, for the sake of securing power over as vast a block of citizenry as possible, wants all the small sodbusters to sell up and move to the city, where they face lives of maximal dependency. (It occurred to me, as I worked through this faintly humorous analogy, that I was describing precisely what happened during the British Enclosure, and especially during the Irish Potato Famines.)
We could make our young people eager to participate in the marketplace if it were truly free. We could so energize them, indeed, that few would be interested in wasting four or five years expensively taking a degree in Sociology. Instead, our “conservatives” have allowed Big Business to fuse seamlessly, almost invisibly, with Big Government—as the two all the while cultivate the public-relatio9ns myth that they are mortal enemies. And the conservative plays useful idiot in the sell, more often than not.
So where did your open range go, Cowboy? You still don’t realize, do you, that an unfenced plain prowled by the Wild Bill Gates Cattle Company is just a wind-tossed slaughterhouse for freedom.
FREE BOOK OF THE WEEK… Eventually It All Gets Used: Complete Poems of a Fragmentary Life contains every poem I’ve been able to find from my adult years—and I’m being rather liberal with the word “adult”. Actually, the early poems shock me now with the degree of severe depression and misanthropy hiding just beneath their surface. I also look back and see the struggles I had as a believer (during my thirties) in a very personal God while various forms of organized religion crowded my professional life (forms that sometimes had the aura of big business). Fatherhood transformed me—utterly transformed my life, like landfall on an enchanted island. Then, in my last productive years, I got a bit wry and testy about several political subjects which I’ve since learned to back away from. I’m much more of a contemplative now… but contemplatives don’t write poetry charged with angst!
You might or might not like some or most of these. They’re all free from today (Saturday, October 3) through Wednesday (October 7).