Cities and suburbs, real and imaginary.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

thinking about cities 4...

Tax revenue is the key to urban bliss, isn't it? It certainly looks like the only thing that is truly measured and taken seriously.
With the proliferation of WalMarts across my fair suburbs, I have done some research into why big box stores seem to be the preferred method of physical retail space in this country. Certainly, they are full of things that people might like to buy. The cost savings of piling them all together into a silo probably does lower the costs. The large bulk purchases likely does create a discount possibility where everyone saves money, and that’s basically fine as long as no sweatshops and child labor operations are involved. Heck, the modern organic milk movement’s defining moment was the embrace of organics by WalMart!
Still, as a consumer, I find big box retail unpleasant. I have to cross great distances on foot to get what I need. Customer service is harried, at best, and absent most of the time. Much of what I find in these places is made in foreign nations under questionable conditions, and it often breaks quickly, needing to be replaced again with another inexpensive thing from the same unpleasant shopping experience and the purchased thing will also break. With this experience in mind, and ignoring the critique of Big Box retail from those that mythologize a diverse Main Street with many little shops, it is absolutely no surprise that on-line retail is clobbering Big Box stores, and will likely dominate these festering cesspits of oversized Americana.
But, more important to our current debate, is this question: Why do these huge shopping experiences take hold in drought-stricken areas, small towns with few resources to spare, and even densely-populated urban areas that can barely afford the parking space, much less the square feet of cluttered, messy shelves?
Tax revenue is the answer. The local city councils see tax dollars in their eyes.
The store comes in, and presumably will become a source of employment for many, and a steady stream of sales tax for the community, and this drives the decision to approve construction of the hideous thing.
Tax revenue is also tied to the revenue for the city in that residences are taxed based on property values.
Tax revenue has created a system where the better a neighborhood looks, and the larger and newer and more valuable the homes are in that neighborhood, the more money the city has. Tax revenue has also created a system where the larger the stores, the cheaper the stuff, and the more likely the stuff will need to be replaced, the more revenue the city generates in sales tax.
Ergo, push. Push out into the surrounding hillsides and build. The infrastructure and roads and highways will all be paid for by someone else with bonds both municipal and federal, but the tax revenue will continue and continue for years. The organs, once opened, will pulse with the liquid green blood of economics and spoo out their revenue stream into the municipal coffers.
The municipal coffers will swell and burst in a monthly pulse to pay down the bonds that were approved to build the streets and police stations and fire brigades that support the town.
The bondholders will own shares of the big box stores muted and dispersed among funds and portfolios that will include the bonds. This gelatinous green goo congeals into a ticker somewhere in a bank, that someone owns. Our taxes paid to our government, and the profits paid to our local big box businesses, are actually a fee paid to a banker for the privilege of debt to the banker. This debt is dispersed into the portfolios of thousands through all sorts of mutual funds and funds of funds and funds of funds of hedge funds and funds designed to mitigate risk to the investor and/or maximize return to the investor.
At no point in the process is our community’s health and well-being part of the equation. It is all strictly based on the notion of tax revenue. The whole pulsing, beating spoo heart of Big Box Store materialism is the hydra vampire of global finance extracting the life essence of our communities on every front imaginable, to accrue wealth from time, debt, and raw materials. The roads, themselves, that connect the Big Box store to the city, likely paid for with a bond issuance, is built by another company that is paid out to the other owners of fund management firms.
When WalMart comes to town, wages drop, household income drops, and American-made products are driven to the brink by products made in slave labor conditions in some of the poorest and most desperate places on the planet.
The amount of oil and carbon that goes into the production and distribution of these goods is substantial. Again, the same individuals and organizations that extract wealth from our cities and shopping malls also extract wealth from the gas and shipping lines. Every step is monetized, and becomes a dividend or stock to someone, somewhere, and the accumulated ownership has congealed into a clear overclass and underclass. Global warming happens as a result of the extraction and long shipping and power plants and it is a very profitable thing for the  profit-reapers. 
It all began, of course, with the notion of tax revenue. The city council desired tax revenue, jobs that will increase municipal and state funds, and went about this goal by destroying the world for the 1%. It approved zoning plans, expanded city limits perhaps, and issued bonds to pay for roads and infrastructure to support the retail establishments and new homes (fly from these inner cities, somewhere safer, somewhere newer, with gates and an HOA!).
Hyperbolically reductionary, I know. Life is always more complex than this simple thought experiment.
But, this thought experiment did exactly one thing: It followed money. The very city managers that push tax revenue growth will be invested in retirement portfolios managed by the very companies that are approaching them for bonds. Everyone has a financial interest in creating this horrible, destructive hellscape of what is commonly referred to in speech, among employees of these places, as “retail hell”. Again, the financial rewards go to people who are willing to inflict this monstrous retail hellscape upon their communities, destroy their local “mom and pop” shops, and submit their communities and landfills to wave after wave of cheap, plastic crap shipped in from distant, wage slaves. There is no alternative system. Opting-out is opting out of a roof over our heads, a municipal fire engine, and building code enforcement. Which is to say, it’s an even worse idea for individual safety to step away from the herd on this one. The best thing for us is to go along, and let it happen. For us, it is where the rewards outweigh the risk in the system we have built.
And, the broken cheap stuff we buy doesn’t just go away when it is placed out in the street for pickup. The landfills swell with all these things that are potentially toxic to our environment and build up and build up in vast architectures of piled-up wastematter.
Consider the landfill. It is your neighbor as much the city park. In fact, it will likely someday become a park as the piles of filth are buried and covered with sod. New houses wil be built upon the junk. We will buy junk to fill our houses built of junk, and everyone will be smiling and keeping up with their neighborhood’s appearances, and it will all be so wonderful.
I’m smiling. Everybody smile.
Someday we will run out of plastic from the available oil, and we will strip mine old landfills to recycle old plastic. At this time, presumably, the ocean gyre will be so dense, we can just scoop it up in trawlers like we used to do with fish, and from there it will be recycled, thrown out, built up…
This is the system we create when we build our cities based on the measurement of tax revenue.
It is a very profitable system for us on the short term, and it is particularly profitable for the people who will not end up working in these retail nightmares.
The majority of Americans who work in these hellscapes are paid below a living wage and must supplement their income with food stamps and government assistance to get by. Ergo, the very taxes that are presumably raised by expanding tax revenue should be measured against the expenditure of so many families on welfare and public assistance.

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