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James Howard Kunstler: Foul-Mouthed Apologist for the Good Old Boys
My objection to Kunstler begins with the title of his website. I choose not to repeat it here. You can click through. http://www.kunstler.com/index.php
He is a Leftist. He is a foul-mouthed Leftist. But the main problem with Kunstler is not that he is one more Leftist critic of the free market. It is that his columns get reproduced on Right-wing sites. He therefore gets credibility. He deserves none.
Matt Taibbi is also a foul-mouthed Leftist, but he is one of the best investigative reporters in America, and his target is usually the fascist state. He ferrets out corrupt deals between big-money special interests and the state. So, I hold my nose when I read him, but I read him.
Kunstler is a whiner who brings nothing to the intellectual table but some slightly updated form of medieval oligopoly. He wants us to believe that the Good Old Boys of the small town council have our interests at heart.
Consider his most recent screed. It begins with an attack on the most successful free market retailing operation on earth, Walmart. He uses Walmart as a representative company for all of the low-price, high-volume box stores. He hates them all.
In the United States, millions of customers return day after day to buy at stores like these. But Kunstler, who is an arrogant Leftie elitist, dismisses them as helpless rubes who need protection from price competitive retailers. And who will supply this protection? The Good Old Boys.
Do I exaggerate? I will cite him verbatim.
Back in the day when big box retail started to explode upon the American landscape like a raging economic scrofula, I attended many a town planning board meeting where the pro and con factions faced off over the permitting hurdle. The meetings were often raucous and wrathful and almost all the time the pro forces won -- for the excellent reason that they were funded and organized by the chain stores themselves (in an early demonstration of the new axioms that money-is-speech and corporations are people, too!).
First, ethically speaking, why should a town council be given the right to decide who sells what to whom on what terms? Kunstler objects to the outcome of the meetings, not to the meetings as such. He likes it when the Good Old Boys get the town council to pass a law against Walmart, thereby protecting their mark-ups.
Second, what is the heart of this "disease," this "scrofula"? Price competition. You know: giving the customer more for his money. The horror!
The chain stores won not only because they flung money around -- sometimes directly into the wallets of public officials -- but because a sizeable chunk of every local population longed for the dazzling new mode of commerce. "We Want Bargain Shopping" was their rallying cry. The unintended consequence of their victories through the 1970s and beyond was the total destruction of local economic networks, that is, Main Streets and downtowns, in effect destroying many of their own livelihoods. Wasn't that a bargain, though?
You bet your monthly budget it was a bargain. It still is, which is why millions of customers shop there.
Kunstler is a standard oligopolist. He laments the loss of "local economic networks." This is a code phrase for the system that the local merchants ran in their own self-interest through control over markets. They had the local government fine anyone who set up shop without a license. Five centuries ago, this was called the town guild. It was based on force. The guild's members made it illegal for anyone to offer to sell anything that had not been approved by the existing guild of producers.
He laments the loss of those good old days. He wants the state -- the local town councils --to stick a gun in the belly of every consumer. "You want to buy, boy? Well, here's the deal. You will buy from the reputable sellers who got here first. You want a discount? We're not going to let you waste your money on discounts from outside agitators. We will protect you from your own dark side. We are not going to allow you to get cheated by this national chain, which offers low prices and a 100% money-back guarantee. You are going to pay what the Good Old Boys have gotten together to decide what is fair. Got it, boy?"
First it was Sears, Roebuck. Then it was J. C. Penney. Then it was Woolworth's. Then it was K-Mart. Then it was Walmart. These interlopers came into a local town and offered bargains. The local producers who could not afford to compete then went out of business. This has been going on for well over a century. It is the story of American progress.
Kunstler is having none of it.
Despite the obvious damage now visible in the entropic desolation of every American home town, WalMart managed to install itself in the pantheon of American Dream icons, along with apple pie, motherhood, and Coca Cola. In most of the country there is no other place to buy goods (and no other place to get a paycheck, scant and demeaning as it may be). America made itself hostage to bargain shopping and then committed suicide. Here we find another axiom of human affairs at work: people get what they deserve, not what they expect. Life is tragic.
I see. No other place to buy goods. Costco is a figment of our imaginations. Amazon is mythical. We are all "held hostage." We have all "committed suicide."
"Life is tragic." Ah, yes: the tragic sense of life. And it is all expressed in this slogan: "Save Money. Live Better."
Kunstler abuses the privilege of being silly. He continues.
The older generations responsible for all that may be done for, but the momentum has now turned in the opposite direction. Though the public hasn't groked it yet, WalMart and its kindred malignant organisms have entered their own yeast-overgrowth death spiral.
"Malignant organisms." "Yeast-overgrowth death spiral." This guy is like a 12th-grade journalism major writing in the student newspaper. He needs an editor.
In a now permanently contracting economy the big box model fails spectacularly. Every element of economic reality is now poised to squash them. Diesel fuel prices are heading well north of $4 again. If they push toward $5 this year you can say goodbye to the "warehouse on wheels" distribution method. (The truckers, who are mostly independent contractors, can say hello to the re-po men come to take possession of their mortgaged rigs.) Global currency wars (competitive devaluations) are about to destroy trade relationships. Say goodbye to the 12,000 mile supply chain from Guangzhou to Hackensack. Say goodbye to the growth financing model in which it becomes necessary to open dozens of new stores every year to keep the credit revolving.
Excuse me? Am I to believe that some underfunded little store in a strip mall is going to be able to pay for truckers to deliver supplies when Walmart can't? Really?
He believes that the entire civilization is about to collapse. This has been his niche market for a decade. But if we all go together when we go, why won't Walmart give us at least a few extra months, or years, or decades to hold on. The slogan still holds. "Save Money. Live Better." We pay less than the underfunded retailers of 1968 would have charged us, if they had not gone out of business. We live better than we did in 1968.
Then there is the matter of the American customers themselves. The WalMart shoppers are exactly the demographic that is getting squashed in the contraction of this phony-baloney corporate buccaneer parasite revolving credit crony capital economy. Unlike the Federal Reserve, WalMart shoppers can't print their own money, and they can't bundle their MasterCard and Visa debts into CDOs to be fobbed off on Scandinavian pension funds for quick profits. They have only one real choice: buy less stuff, especially the stuff of leisure, comfort, and convenience.
Let's see if I understand this. He says that there are people with less money. This is not a new situation, I remind you. What is new is this: Walmart and Target and Sam's Club and Costco and Amazon sell to these people. These not-so-well-off people do better than they ever could have done by buying from the Good Old Boys.
The potential for all sorts of economic hardship is obvious in this burgeoning dynamic. But the coming implosion of big box retail implies tremendous opportunities for young people to make a livelihood in the imperative rebuilding of local economies.
I see. The big box stores will implode. And they will be replaced by what? Nordstrom's? Or maybe Piggly-Wiggly?
At this stage it is probably discouraging for them, because all their life programming has conditioned them to be hostages of giant corporations and so to feel helpless. In a town like the old factory village I live in (population 2500) few of the few remaining young adults might venture to open a retail operation in one of the dozen-odd vacant storefronts on Main Street.
He lives in Boondocksville. Most Americans don't. They moved out a generation ago. Maybe two generations ago. So, he lives in a world that is not representative of anything significant to the vast majority of Americans. He is buying a lifestyle. But he blames his condition on discount pricing.
He made a choice. Customers make choices, too. First, they chose to move out of Boondocksville. They now shop at Walmart.
The presence of K-Mart, Tractor Supply, and Radio Shack a quarter mile west in the strip mall would seem to mock their dim inklings that something is in the wind. But K-Mart will close over 200 boxes this year, and Radio Shack is committed to shutter around 500 stores. They could be gone in this town well before Santa Claus starts checking his lists. If they go down, opportunities will blossom. There will be no new chain store brands to replace the dying ones. That phase of our history is over.
This may be the case. Amazon offers better deals. The Internet reduces all advantages held by retailers that are based on their customers' poor information. I have a slogan. "Shop Smarter. Live Better."
This is why the Yellow Pages are dying. We used to let our fingers do the walking to a phone. Now we let the same two fingers do the clicking.
What we're on the brink of is scale implosion. Everything gigantic in American life is about to get smaller or die. Everything that we do to support economic activities at gigantic scale is going to hamper our journey into the new reality. The campaign to sustain the unsustainable, which is the official policy of US leadership, will only produce deeper whirls of entropy. I hope young people recognize this and can marshal their enthusiasm to get to work. It's already happening in the local farming scene; now it needs to happen in a commercial economy that will support local agriculture.
I see. Amazon is unsustainable. Entropy will swallow up Amazon. Meanwhile, kids who play video games will return to small-scale farming.
Result: maybe a billion people will die of starvation. The division of labor will collapse.
He really believes this. Here is his publisher's promo for his 2009 book, World Made by Hand.
In The Long Emergency celebrated social commentator James Howard Kunstler explored how the terminal decline of oil production, combined with climate change, had the potential to put industrial civilization out of business. In World Made by Hand, an astonishing work of speculative fiction, Kunstler brings to life what America might be, a few decades hence, after these catastrophes converge. For the townspeople of Union Grove, New York, the future is nothing like they thought it would be. Transportation is slow and dangerous, so food is grown locally at great expense of time and energy, and the outside world is largely unknown. There may be a president, and he may be in Minneapolis now, but people aren't sure. Their challenges play out in a dazzling, fully realized world of abandoned highways and empty houses, horses working the fields and rivers, no longer polluted, and replenished with fish. With the cost of oil skyrocketing--and with it the price of food--Kunstler's extraordinary book, full of love and loss, violence and power, sex and drugs, depression and desperation, but also plenty of hope, is more relevant than ever.
"Look, ma: It's Gandhi. He's spinning green scenarios!"
If we ever get a breakdown in the division of labor on a scale comparable to Kunstler's scenario, it will be because of central banks, the dozen largest government-protected commercial banks, and a failure of the banks' payments-clearing system. It will not be because of Walmart or Amazon.
I buy something from Amazon almost every week. I get deliveries right to my door. I spend no time driving around. I shop from thousands of stores that use Amazon to sell to me. I don't know where they are. All I know is that within a day or two, I will have a book or some tool in my possession.
This is bad. Very bad. Why?
The additional tragedy of the big box saga is that it scuttled social roles and social relations in every American community. On top of the insult of destroying the geographic places we call home, the chain stores also destroyed people's place in the order of daily life, including the duties, responsibilities, obligations, and ceremonies that prompt citizens to care for each other. We can get that all back, but it won't be a bargain.
From the days of the medieval guild oligopolies to the era of mercantilism, from the days of the English village poets to the classrooms at mid-nineteenth-century Oxford, where art critic John Ruskin attacked free market capitalism for its destruction of the countryside, the story has never changed. The Good Old Boys will protect customers, if only customers as voters will hand over control of the marketplace to the Good Old Boys, who will then zone out their price-competitive competition.
Sorry, guys, but Amazon delivers! The local network of retailers is no more. The Internet is. Adjust, or else go into another line of work.
The free market does not reward producers at the expense of customers. It rewards producers who serve customers efficiently, as measured by profit and loss. It transfers economic power away from the Good Old Boys to customers. This is why elitists hate the free market.
Kunstler is merely one more hapless defender of local business oligopolies. He stands in front of the freight train of price competition, yelling: "Stop!" He will be run over, just as they all have been run over.
Liberty works for the common man, who can walk away from the non-competitive Good Old Boys. This bothers Kunstler greatly. Tough.