The Walmartification of America

The greatest threat to the economic and cultural well-being of this country is the “Walmartification” of America. Businesses getting larger at the expense of small business, workers & consumer choice. Sure it may seem that TV at WalMart is reasonably priced, but we pay for it in multiple ways beyond the $500 in physical cash.

Every election year we hear politicians scrambling to pander to middle class voters about bringing back manufacturing jobs, and reviving good old-fashioned American labor. Here’s the thing – those jobs are never coming back, so it’s time we stop pretending that they will.

Competing with this political narrative is the “pro-small business” narrative. The politicians love the small business buzzword, because it reminds people of small town America, the little company that could. Here’s the issue with that, most politicians don’t share the same understanding of that definition. A small business according to our government is one with up to 1500 employees and as much as $35 Million in revenue!

Meanwhile, most small businesses lining Main Streets across the country lie shuttered and vacant in the looming shadows of WalMarts, Targets and Best Buys. We have no choice any more. If it’s not at Walmart, it’s at Target. If it’s not at Target, it’s maybe at Best Buy. Meanwhile all this shit comes from the same factory farms in China. We have but the illusion of consumer choice; a bunch of big box retailers with the same cheap stuff.

It doesn’t stop at big box retailers either, it transcends to our cultural output as well. Hollywood studios today comprise part of major conglomerates. Time Warner, Sony, Disney, Fox and Viacom own nearly all of the media you consume. They are all voracious consumers of intellectual property rights (like comic book rights) and lock up these rights to produce the same re-spun media for you to consume. No longer can you find a film like The Godfather at the movies – it’s all special effects heavy actioners with budgets of $200 Million and marketing budgets to match. There is no money left over for risk taking, and this is very much by design.

The root of a lot of these problems lie with an MBA mentality of obsessive balance sheet watching & quarterly profits pursuits. No amount of money is ever good enough, these companies are forever hungry for more. So these companies find ways to squeeze out growth even where their products aren’t selling as much year-over-year. How do they do this? Layoffs and outsourcing. Wage reduction. Who does this reward? Shareholders and senior management. Everyone else be damned. And it’s worked perfectly too, the Dow Jones has soared since the recession. Meanwhile in 2014, the stratification between the rich and the poor is worse than it’s ever been.

The only place left to shop is WalMart or it’s variations, because the people can no longer afford to have choice as small businesses have been wiped off the map by large retailers and outsourced labor. The government dutifully plays it’s part with an annual average of $400 Billion worth of tax-breaks and subsidies such as rural ground-breaking opportunities for WalMarts and Targets that Small Business could never qualify for.

America is no longer the land of opportunity the way it once was. These companies that started off small now run the show with government lobbying. They make it hard for any business to compete against them. Even laws that sound good in theory, like the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Act benefit Goldman Sachs more than the fledgeling investment firm, because they can afford the capital requirements, legal hires to navigate the new climate, as well as the fees when things go wrong. We have created so much bureaucracy, taxation and special interest carve-outs that small businesses cannot afford to compete with established companies. This too is by design.

Small Business cannot afford to survive in America, and if that is the case, then innovation cannot survive either.

We are at a critical point in our nations history. The rapid Walmartification of America since the recession has left us with depleted consumer choice, stagnant wages and ghost towns across the heartland of this country. The average American is witness to close to 2500-5000 ads per day (or 1.8 Million per year). Most of these ads are also from the same few companies with increasingly stratified control of our economy and consumption options. We are left constantly wanting to buy, buy, buy – and from student loans to home loans and credit card debt we’ve become slaves to banks and debt collectors.

So what are the solutions? It’s two-pronged really.

1. Consumer Power

We may not have a lot of choice, but we can be smarter about how and where we spend our money.

In spite of less choice, small businesses have been able to pop up here and there and we should lend them our support even if their products cost a bit more. The extra money you spend is supporting freedom of choice, innovation and American jobs.

How much stuff do we really need? What year is your phone from? Or your television? Did your old device work? If so, why did you replace it? We are constantly replacing stuff that works even though we don’t need it. While planned obsolescence is certainly a strategy on part of these large corporations, we can at least invest in quality and hold onto it for longer than two years. Europeans certainly seem to do this, I saw more iPhone 3GS models than 6’s in Paris (November 2014). Living within our means could shave off extensive credit card debt and provide financial peace of mind.

Stop supporting crappy entertainment sequels. You cannot complain about lack of originality while purchasing tickets to Spider Man. Support an Indie Production, or the awards-grabbing prestige pics like The Imitation Game or Inherent Vice instead. Support films with a diverse cast and projects made with and by women and people of color. If all these studios do is study balance sheets for shareholders, show them the sort of films you want to see by refusing to buy into pre-established franchises.

2. Technology

Silicon Valley is probably the last refuge of American innovation. With far less restrictions and regulation on the internet than in the physical marketplace, start-ups continue to grow from small ideas to game-changing companies and applications.

Entertainment produced via crowd-sourcing and direct input from consumers, using analytics provided by new data analysis tools that gauge user preferences online can create new niches and better aimed programming. Bypassing archaic distribution structures like multiple release windows & physical theaters may allow for filmmakers to control more of their product and create more freely outside traditionally stale-minded corporations.

Education and open-source access to materials can provide intellectual growth and excitement, like new digital libraries. Reform our copyright law to make it work as a temporary license and not a perpetual property right from which to extort ludicrous fees. A more reasonable approach to IP law could see a renaissance in derivative inspiration of works and access to software that teaches and enlightens.

The only way all this innovation can work to correcting a stale climate is by keeping away the corporations and their lobbying efforts to regulate our internet. SOPA, PIPA and various efforts at anti-Net Neutrality are ways that the corporations can control information, access to it and deplete choice and stifle innovation to preserve their profits. We cannot allow the Walmartification to continue into the online sphere. Nothing these companies and their PR agendas and purchased legislators say has substance other than their true intentions: kill off this source innovation and competition.

The internet and technological innovation is the small business economy of America – and the world. The internet is the way to solve societies problems. Free and open access to the tools of technology is the seed that sows new ideas and great things from it. It is the last bastion of true creativity, freedom of ideas and communication and businesses that have changed our lives. It is the last true source of competition, direct user feedback and input and a true capitalist economy. So don’t let the corporatism advocates take that away. Because then Walmartification is all we shall have.

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