TCS Daily

Green Mountain Statists

By C. C. Kraemer - June 16, 2004 12:00 AM

Vermont's state motto, created 225 years ago by some people who might have actually meant it, is "Freedom and unity." Today these concepts are being tested in the Green Mountain State as it becomes a battleground in the culture wars.

Vermont is a paradox. It's a relatively poor state filled with low-income families who can use the price breaks brought by discount retailers. But it's also a playground for wealthy progressives and elitists who tend to be concentrated in the Burlington area. They began flocking to state three decades ago because they saw an opportunity to take control of Vermont's policy-making process and force through a progressive agenda.

Though their wealth is a product of our capitalist, free-market system, these left-leaning relative newcomers see development and economic advancement as threats to Vermont's rural and quaint small-town flavor. That puts them at odds with much of the more deeply rooted populace that shares neither the elitists' wealth nor their values. As such it becomes clear why the state is the perfect location for the escalating culture clash over Wal-Mart.

There's no need to guess where the National Trust for Historic Preservation comes down on the Wal-Mart culture conflict. Each year this private nonprofit lists what it considers the nation's "most endangered historic places." Through its history, the Trust has, by its own account, "identified more than 160 one-of-a-kind historic treasures threatened by neglect, insufficient funds, inappropriate development, or insensitive public policy."

This year, for the second time, the Trust put the entire state of Vermont on its list of the nation's 11 most endangered places -- this time solely to stop Wal-Mart from expanding across the state.

Apparently the Trust feels that more Wal-Marts in Vermont -- there are four now with plans for seven more - will offend the sensibilities of the state's powerful leftist sector of the population and spoil its culture through "an invasion of behemoth stores that could destroy much of what makes Vermont Vermont."

"The unique small-town character of the state and the fragile countryside will be overwhelmed by" the size of the planned Wal-Marts, explained Richard Moe, president of the Trust.

The fear, as always, is that adding Wal-Marts contributes to sprawl, an affliction that elitists want to save the world from, and ruins an area's sense of community -- the state of which only they are qualified to define.

The Trust's decision has no legal standing. It can't stop Wal-Mart or any other private entity from exercising its rights. The listing is merely, as Moe told The New York Times, an effort "to stimulate a debate in Vermont and throughout the country" about the effects of Wal-Mart expansion.

The "debate" will be -- and has been -- conducted by the mainstream media, which has predictably portrayed Wal-Mart as a haven for bumpkins who aren't sophisticated enough to identify with refined Park Avenue tastes. It refuses to sell saucy men's magazines and CDs with obscene lyrics, and has a distinct small-town and/or rural core essence that reflects its heritage.

Allied with the media in this "debate" is organized labor, which cannot, no matter how hard it tries, unionize Wal-Mart. That failure has left unions grasping for new strategies, one of which is a stretching of the truth about the retailer's pay and health insurance packages. In the Spring issue of City Journal, Steven Malanga shows just how exaggerated the unions' claims are.

Despite the determined efforts of the frenzied opposition, consumers, while they still have the freedom of choice, continue to support Wal-Mart with their dollars. Instead of seeing the demon Wal-Mart's critics want Americans to see, shoppers sense what the elitists cannot: A simple store that offers goods they want and need at prices they are willing to pay.

What the elitists don't understand is that for many American families, prices are important, even in Vermont. For instance, in 2002, Vermont's per capita income was below the national average at only $29,567 a year; in New Hampshire, its neighbor to the east, per capita income was $34,334. Data on the percent in each state living below the poverty level -- 9.4 percent in Vermont in the late 1990s, 6.5 percent in New Hampshire -- show a similar gap. A year later, 11% of Vermont was living in poverty.

Just as telling are data generated by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. It found that between 1993 and 1999, Vermont grew below the national average in nine of 10 economic sectors -- the exception being growth of government. On that count, Vermont's growth exceeded by 40 percent the national average. The government in New Hampshire, in contrast, leaves a much smaller footprint on its people than do the authorities in Vermont.

Joblessness is not currently a large problem in Vermont -- its 3.9 percent unemployment rate in April and compares favorably to New Hampshire's 4.1 percent rate and the 5.6 percent national average -- but the state has a recent history of employment volatility; it was as high as 5.5 percent in February 2003 and 4.8 this past January and 4.7 in February.

Most Vermonters could use more Wal-Marts and the low prices and job opportunities the retailer brings. Yet an elite few are willing to make sure they get neither. The world's largest retailer is unwelcome in Vermont and in other self-characterized progressive states and communities across the country. That might be OK for the cocktail party crowd, but it is a disservice to those who rely on Wal-Mart to make their incomes go further.


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