Column by Jim Davies.
Exclusive to STR
During the latter half of the last century, shopping changed its character, to accommodate the popularity of the inexpensive horseless carriage. Instead of stores being all grouped together near the town center in a manner convenient for customers who arrived on foot, either direct from nearby homes or from the bus depot, the “out of town shopping center” was built on the abundant land at the edge of town. The Mall arrived.
Recently there was some discussion in STR's Blog, about how government might discriminate in favor of some of the new retailers and, later, the big-box stores including the giant Walmart stores that opened close by the malls. Favors range from temporary tax breaks to free new roads to bring customers to shop. No doubt there are many tales of corruption to be told.
I caught the tail end of this big change, in the 1990s in Concord, NH. Main Street was where the old-style stores had been since the 1700s, and some of them were very good; I recall one office-supply store, the old-fashioned sort in which you could buy one pen, one ruler, one notebook, or any of thousands of other useful products, accessible and fairly priced. Then Mitt Romney came to town in the shape of Staples at the mall, and put it out of business.
The biggest advantage of the mall is parking. Roads lead the shopper swiftly to the stores, and there is an abundance of parking space, free of charge. In Main Street, Concord, there is a permanent shortage of spaces and they are far from free. So when I heard of a clever idea from out West, I decided to try to do the stores there a favor and to make some money.
The idea was to contract with a store to patrol the parking meters on its owner's behalf, and when I found one that had run out of time, I'd feed it. Put in a couple of quarters, buy the driver some extra shopping time. Then I placed a sheet of paper under his wiper, prominently stating that THIS IS NOT A TICKET, on the inside of which I explained that I'd probably saved him a parking fine, and crediting the store owner (my client) with having performed the favor. A few extra lines offered him a goodie (a discount, or gift) if he would stop by the store and bring the paper (and perhaps his thanks).
Before going live, I checked the city ordinances, of course, and could not find any law that prohibited the feeding of meters. To make quite sure, I called at the police headquarters to explain my intention and ask whether the Force agreed (and so would leave me in peace). Nobody found a sustainable objection.
So: the store bought some useful promo, the shoppers got some valuable favors, and I'd get some juicy profits. Win-win-win, as in all good, free market transactions. In aggregate, trade would not continue to migrate out of town, the city center would be saved. As well as money, I might even earn a medal. The only loser would be the government's parking-fine collector.
I won a few contracts and fulfilled them well and the store owners were happy, but not nearly as many as would make it a viable business. Something happened that I'd not expected: most of the owners went quiet, when I'd explained the plan and they realized that in essence, they would be giving government the finger.
One in particular, a lady owner who was possibly the sharpest of them all, never told me why she didn't like the offer but indicated without words that she already had something going with the parking police. If meters close by ran into the orange zone, blind eyes would be turned. Customers would not need to hurry out of her store. Now, I could not tell and do not allege that she bribed the patrolpersons, but maybe tips would be administered, Christmas gifts dispensed, or other incentives applied so that their visual acuity became selective.
In other words, she saw government more as an ally than as her enemy.
Whether the bulk of the Main Street store owners did something comparable I don't know. Perhaps not; perhaps they were just plain scared of saying Boo to the government goose; after all, the government had ways of making life difficult for them. An adjustment to the property tax rate, for one. Maybe most agreed that government was hostile, but with all the other difficulties they faced trying to run a retail store, they weren't about to provoke it.
Parallel to Main and one block West is State Street, on which is located not only that big building topped with a golden dome, where hundreds of pompous Pols busy themselves crafting laws for us to obey, but also block after block of offices where their bureau-rats work (or some of them; there are now so many that two large government campuses have been built out of town to house them all) so the area close by the stores I tried to serve is thickly populated, on weekdays at least, by government grunts with fat wallets.
So that may have been another reason why storekeepers were less than eager to poke a stick in the dragon's face; many of their customers work for the dragon's relations. Possibly this idea might work in a city that is not a State Capital; I haven't tried. But not in Concord.
The experience taught me more, therefore, of the intricate intertwining there is between businesses (and people, for that matter) and government. It's another strong lesson in the impossibility of abolishing government bit by bit, gradually. The beast has to be slain all at once, so that while a fire hose douses the flames in its mouth, the tail cannot swing over and break one's skull. Or am I pushing this dragon simile a bit far?
The same thing is shown by the recent FedGov “shutdown”; a little bit of it was closed, and at once the crocodile tears (there I go again) started pouring out. Oh my, those wicked Tea Baggers closed the Smithsonian! What Philistines! And the previous time it happened, in 1995, the closure prevented people getting or renewing passports. That's fine, except that they didn't repeal or even suspend the law requiring passports for travel. So squeals rent the air, and the closure collapsed.
So it has to go absolutely, fully, so that not a shred or scale of it remains. Either that, or it will get ever bigger, more monstrous; in proof whereof I present those prime 2013 exhibits, Obamacare, the unrepayable debt, and the NSA. The abolition can't be done overnight, but the one method that will work is already in process. If the reader is not taking part, in this or some better or faster method he may favor, he is helping curtail his own liberty even further.