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Thor - a Fable for Our Times

Free Enterprise - Living in a Dream

There are many examples throughout history where certain myths persist even after events on the ground, so to speak, have proven otherwise. Take for example the ancient Norse myth of the god Thor, who seems to be back by popular demand these days. Thor was believed to be a god who had a huge hammer that he banged around in the heavens and that is what was known as thunder. This may have given some of our early ancestors some relief from the unknown, but once we figured out that thunder was a product of friction and the expansion of air as lightning passes producing a sonic shock wave, well Thor became an artifact of our lack of knowledge in an attempt to explain the world around us. Thor’s banging around days and making a lot of noise were over.

I would like to explore another myth, a present day myth. This is the myth of free enterprise. Free enterprise is the theoretical process by which our society allocates resources involving the law of supply and demand. Self-interest, competition, supply and demand will be “the invisible hand” that will regulate this free market and make sure things do not get out of hand and we all live happily ever after. But that not quite how it’s been working out these days.

Let’s take an example. A small town in a rural New England state has a wonderful grocery store, which has done its best to keep its customers satisfied. Friendly, good service, diverse product selection, supportive of local community activities, an advocate for local products, some items have slightly higher prices but all in all still reasonably priced. A great locally owned store and the members of this community are very happy with the local well respected proprietor who lives with his family in this small rural town.

Now a much larger multi-national company, that owns hundreds of large groceries stores across the nation, whose headquarters is in a foreign country, decides that they want to expand their market share and this little New England town has now become their target. This multi-national is well capitalized and the plan is to actually buy the market share, not compete for it, just buy it. They first locate a site for their large store and send in the “development team”. They place a deposit on the parcel without the local land owner knowing who they are selling too, keeping their identity secret. One of the conditions of the purchase and sale agreement is the landowner’s silence. Private sale, this is not that unusual, but control of information is critical for a successful market take over.

Next target is the profitable local grocery store. An offer is made, again under the cloak of silence. But the program usually is: we will give you a sum of money that cannot be ignored to stop being a grocery store and if you tell anybody the deals off. And if you do not take the deal we will cut so deep into your profit with our below-market sales for several years that you will probably go out of business anyway. It will just be a slower death. It may actually be cheaper for the multi-national to buy out the local store than lower their prices for the first couple of years till the smaller store goes under. To complete the deal, if historical precedent is any indication, the local grocery store is encouraged to bring in the larger store’s product before a permit is even issued to build the mega store. Again, no information to the public, but to the public it looks like the deal is already done. To the public it looks like a forgone conclusion: the local store, in appearance, has already acquiesced. What is a hostile takeover now looks like a partnership. But no one’s talking because that’s part of the deal.

But there is a bit of a hang up in the plan to take over the local market for this larger store- a state planning ordinance. Turns out this rural town actually thought about the type of town they wanted. And large out of state, out of country stores were not part of the vision the locals articulated over years of public discussion. But the multi-national has their methods to deal with this little issue also. Small towns are supported by the local taxes and lengthy court battles can be expensive. More often than not local officials are hesitant to engage in this type of public expenditure. The larger store will just out spend the town. It’s the cost of doing business. The vision of legal battles raging on, the lawyers’ fees mounting- the towns’ people grow weary at just the thought. The hammer of money now comes down on this small town and the takeover is complete. Large, deep pocketed multi-nationals have slammed their money hammers around, silencing and crushing the opposition. Yet the myth of free enterprise continues and that is also part of the program to assist the takeover.

But what happens if the myth is exposed? If the people of the town are aware of the insidious process by which the market is now manipulated. Information can be very useful in a decision process. Making informed decisions is how a society can develop into a vibrant and healthy community. Large multi-national corporations are not “evil doers”. They are just doing what they were designed to do, make money for the stockholders. The fact that a small town in rural New England now looks like any mall town USA is not a concern of someone looking at a stock portfolio in Europe.

Free enterprise these days is as much a myth as Thor slamming his hammer around in the heavens to make thunder. To cling to the myth is to ignore the reality of what is happening to our communities. It’s time for the local population of informed citizens to stand united in their opposition to hostile take overs of their town. Select boards, planning commissions and design review boards need to know that they have the support of their community and they can stand firm in their role as architects of the community vision. One of the first steps is to expose the myth of Free Enterprise and then believe in a community vision that cannot be bought or manipulated. This vision comes from the deep, heartfelt love of a town and is a precious gift that gives our towns the vibrancy and sense of community that we all seek.

Chuck Reiss 5/17/11