Vital Signs

Robbing Peter, Paying Wal-Mart

When Americans debate the merits of Wal-Mart, the discussions often become contentious, centering on whether this megaretailer is a corporate predator that drives wages down and Main Street businesses into ruin or is a corporate good guy because it offers decent jobs to the jobless and low prices to consumers.

Whatever one’s opinion of Wal-Mart, there should be no contention on one simple point: Wal-Mart, Costco, Home Depot, and other big-box stores should not leverage their political power to convince cities to use eminent domain to drive property owners off their land to make way for the newest superstore.  Nor should these retailers receive taxpayer-funded subsidies to finance the construction or operation of these stores.

Yet such abuses are common practice today, made even more common since 1981, when General Motors convinced the city of Detroit to obliterate an entire neighborhood, Poletown, so that it could build a Cadillac assembly plant.

Poletown was a humble but nice working-class ethnic neighborhood with more than 1,000 homes, 600 businesses, several churches, and a hospital.  When GM wanted the neighborhood cleared, local officials argued that Poletown had to be sacrificed to boost the entire region’s economic viability.

The homeowners and merchants were being selfish for trying to defend their close-knit neighborhood, the plan’s supporters said.  The good...

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