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James Howard Kunstler: Foul-Mouthed Apologist for the Good Old Boys

Written by Gary North on February 27, 2013

Gary North’s Reality Check

My objection to Kunstler begins with the title of his website. I choose not to repeat it here. You can click through. http://www.kunstler.com/index.php

He is a Leftist. He is a foul-mouthed Leftist. But the main problem with Kunstler is not that he is one more Leftist critic of the free market. It is that his columns get reproduced on Right-wing sites. He therefore gets credibility. He deserves none.

Matt Taibbi is also a foul-mouthed Leftist, but he is one of the best investigative reporters in America, and his target is usually the fascist state. He ferrets out corrupt deals between big-money special interests and the state. So, I hold my nose when I read him, but I read him.

Kunstler is a whiner who brings nothing to the intellectual table but some slightly updated form of medieval oligopoly. He wants us to believe that the Good Old Boys of the small town council have our interests at heart.

Consider his most recent screed. It begins with an attack on the most successful free market retailing operation on earth, Walmart. He uses Walmart as a representative company for all of the low-price, high-volume box stores. He hates them all.

In the United States, millions of customers return day after day to buy at stores like these. But Kunstler, who is an arrogant Leftie elitist, dismisses them as helpless rubes who need protection from price competitive retailers. And who will supply this protection? The Good Old Boys.

Do I exaggerate? I will cite him verbatim.

Back in the day when big box retail started to explode upon the American landscape like a raging economic scrofula, I attended many a town planning board meeting where the pro and con factions faced off over the permitting hurdle. The meetings were often raucous and wrathful and almost all the time the pro forces won — for the excellent reason that they were funded and organized by the chain stores themselves (in an early demonstration of the new axioms that money-is-speech and corporations are people, too!).

First, ethically speaking, why should a town council be given the right to decide who sells what to whom on what terms? Kunstler objects to the outcome of the meetings, not to the meetings as such. He likes it when the Good Old Boys get the town council to pass a law against Walmart, thereby protecting their mark-ups.

Second, what is the heart of this “disease,” this “scrofula”? Price competition. You know: giving the customer more for his money. The horror!

The chain stores won not only because they flung money around — sometimes directly into the wallets of public officials — but because a sizeable chunk of every local population longed for the dazzling new mode of commerce. “We Want Bargain Shopping” was their rallying cry. The unintended consequence of their victories through the 1970s and beyond was the total destruction of local economic networks, that is, Main Streets and downtowns, in effect destroying many of their own livelihoods. Wasn’t that a bargain, though?

You bet your monthly budget it was a bargain. It still is, which is why millions of customers shop there.

Kunstler is a standard oligopolist. He laments the loss of “local economic networks.” This is a code phrase for the system that the local merchants ran in their own self-interest through control over markets. They had the local government fine anyone who set up shop without a license. Five centuries ago, this was called the town guild. It was based on force. The guild’s members made it illegal for anyone to offer to sell anything that had not been approved by the existing guild of producers.

He laments the loss of those good old days. He wants the state — the local town councils –to stick a gun in the belly of every consumer. “You want to buy, boy? Well, here’s the deal. You will buy from the reputable sellers who got here first. You want a discount? We’re not going to let you waste your money on discounts from outside agitators. We will protect you from your own dark side. We are not going to allow you to get cheated by this national chain, which offers low prices and a 100% money-back guarantee. You are going to pay what the Good Old Boys have gotten together to decide what is fair. Got it, boy?”

(For the rest of my article, click the link.)

Continue Reading on www.garynorth.com

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19 thoughts on “James Howard Kunstler: Foul-Mouthed Apologist for the Good Old Boys

  1. I remember a post on another site where the posted noted that if you wanted a decent watch, 60 years ago you likely went to a jewelry store.

    Where you spent today's equivalent of at least $200, and if the watch didn't work, even if you took it out of the package in front of the jeweler, they'd tell you "you broke it taking it out of the box", no refunds.

    As that poster opined, you can keep "mom & pop" stores, I'll shop at Wal-Mart or any other "big box" with generous return policies.

  2. Michael Forshaw says:

    This subject is a very difficult one to address as there are pros and cons to both sides that are valid. The con has taken time to show itself in the gentrifcation of our society and the loss of the Mayberry downtown……and I do think many Americans truly regret this outcome….and the growth of the Corporation Master for employment. That being said how do we justify trying to inhibit competition…isn't that the American way? I think we were blind to the constant flow of our manufacturing going overseas creating this Walmart world of retailing….to be a sucessful and prosperious country you must make things not just buy things….like I said a difficult balance to achieve.

  3. What's next? Kunstler comments on your comments? Everyone needs a protagonist, especially bloggers we have never heard of. Then they get some much needed traffic from a site which can bolster their search engine ratings. Who is James Kunstler really? Your cousin or your brother-in-law?

  4. Kunstler want's to re-live Ozzie and Harriet. I fell victim to that ‘Good Ol Boy’ system in a small town when I opened my own Real Estate office in the early 90’s, the 1990‘s!!! The real estate ‘fathers’ tried to force me to join and pay fees, donations and dues to the city’s ‘Real Estate Association.’ My benefit was that I would be on the ‘list’ at the chamber of commerce (not very high up at that) that tourist would get when they visited. I refused, they ‘blackballed’ me to outside the city limits. Luckly I opened next to a little resort, became very successful, the city ‘fathers’ have all died and all the city offices have ‘branch’ offices out by me. SO, Kunstler can keep Main Street, I’ve moved into the 21st century.

  5. M. Lawrence says:

    I agree with your points from a strictly secular economic and captilaist point of view. However, there are a few concepts Kunstler deals with that bear some consideration (his vulgarity and penchant for end of the world scenarios aside). First, in general Kunstler addresses the lack of beauty in our modern world. I mainly read his site to look at the hideous architectual monstrosities people send in. I doubt he is Christian, but as far as beauty is concerned, he expresses a Christian viewpoint in that things ought to be done well and not shoddily. (Col 3:23 and even the mandate to "work & keep" Gen 2:15.)

    Second, maybe his opinion about Wal-Mart does simply arise from an elitist dislike of Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart shoppers. Yet, it seems to me that the big-box form of merchandising has the net effect of wasting of resources. Here is what I mean: by focusing simply on getting a bargain, a couple of things are happening. First, the shopper is buying a shoddily built product that must be replaced more quickly and more often than if they had bought a quality product at a greater price to begin with. The end result is that the shopper spends more money for repeated pusrchases of the same product. For example, in my woodworking shop, I have hand saws that I regularly use that are 70, 80 plus years old. In fact, my favorite was made by the Disston company in the mid 1800s. Same story with my set of Stanley planes. With care, my children and their children will be able to use those tools. The net effect is a wise stewardship of resources. One could not go into WalMart, Sears or Home Depot and purchase any tool of such quality and lifespan. That is not to say that all goods fall into this categorization but many do.

    Finally, evangelicals especially could learn greatly from his criticism of architecture. Rather than building well made, aesthetically pleasing, God honoring and humane churches, instead we tend to throw up hideously ugly "worship centers" that do nothing to invoke the gravitas or "kavode" of entering the presence of God.

  6. Brooklyn emigrant says:

    I've read him for years, as well as purchased three of his books. He does make some valid points, like rebuilding the railroads as cheap source of goods transportation, and the continuing Government bailouts for the banks. His art and photographs are worth viewing as a glimpse of the depleted towns and workplaces of half a century ago. That said, he misses the point of big box stores, value. The cocsco, bj, walmarts most voluminous sales are NOT the big screen tv's he often mentions, but food. Not only are they far less expensive, but also wider variety. Small stores can only compete with niche products or another way of offering value. His animosity to 'religion' especially Christianity is very dark and disturbing. But if it was against inner city (ghetto) thuggery, entitlemania and racism he'd be severely repremanded, tarred, feathered and threatened.

  7. I was opposed to Walmart until we lived in Cedar City UT. Without a Walmart there, it would be difficult to get many items. Plus, if there's a Walmart in a small town, then there will probably be a Builders Emporium too.

    Main street Cedar City has two thriving supermarkets and a hardware store, so Walmart hasn't destroyed local commerce either.

  8. I read Kunstler's book The Geography of Nowhere, and found myself agreeing with him on the loss of much of small-town Americana that came with the big-box stores and "strips". But really, what drives these things? IMO, it's cheap, personal transportation, AKA the automobile. If it weren't for the fact that everyone has a car, a store like Walmart would have to locate in a town or city center, and be at a more human scale. And the "strips" wouldn't exist (have you ever been on foot in one of those places? It's no place for a mere human being!). But having said that, who wants to give up his/her car? Any volunteers? (crickets) So basically the entire society and its infrastructure has adapted to the automobile, and the automobile has given us the shape of our society.

  9. Wal-Mart restricts my family's ability to buy what we want. They came into our town and sold sewing and cross stitching supplies for less than wholesale until all the local businesses were put out of business. As soon as that happened, Wal-Mart discontinued most of the sewing and cross stitching supplies. In cross stitching, you need all the colors of floss to be available for projects. Wal-Mart quit carrying colors that didn't quite sell as much as other colors. So you might find red floss but not blue floss. So you cannot do cross stitching unless you drive an hour or two each way to get to a town that still has a local shop. That's sad that you have to go out of town to get a 35 cent item that Wal-Mart can't afford to stock anymore.

    Wal-Mart is full of junk that I can't believe actually sells, but is out of things that do sell. We went there to buy groceries, and they had no cabbage and no onions of any variety. What kind of store would have a grocery selection that doesn't include onions?

    They have cheap foreign made clothes that I can't even wear. They don't have any tall sizes. I have to drive an hour or two each way to get to a town that has actual clothing stores where I can buy clothes. They have also run our only book store out of business. Now we have to go to another town if we want to buy a book. And don't say just order online. I want to buy a book in person and not pay more than it's worth in shipping.

    I will be glad when the big box stores fail, so that local people can make a living again. I miss the days when I could go downtown and find store after store where I could try on clothes and find plenty that would fit. I miss being able to go downtown to the newstand and buy magazines and books. I miss being able to choose from a dozen or more grocery stores. I miss going to a store where the employees actually know something about their product. I miss going to a store where they know my name and stock items that I want to buy.

  10. Kunstler's screeds cover streams of thought other than the mercantilist one dissected by Gary. I've read Kunstler's "The Long Emergency" and occasionally visit his blog. That book's theme as well as much of his blogging is premised on the Peak Oil theory. He argues that the world's reserves of oil will eventually get so depleted that regardless of how clever any future recovery technology becomes, the point will be reached where more than a barrel of oil will be consumed in order to pull every new barrel of oil out of the ground. At that point oil will cease to be a major energy source. For reasons covered in the book, he also argues that all the widely touted alternative energy sources cannot be scaled up to do the heavy lifting that oil has been doing.

    I've heard both sides of the Peak Oil argument and am undecided. At the moment the fracking phenomenon is rapidly increasing America's oil reserves. However, if the Peak Oil theory is correct, then the world of small scale, intensely local economic activity which Kunstler envisions will emerge. Clearly, abundant oil has powered and shaped our modern industrial civilization in every way imaginable. We take all this for granted and can scarcely imagine a world without oil.

    If oil is indeed a freak of nature existing in a fixed quantity and once gone is gone forever, then we must accept the fact that our industrial civilization is an anomaly in the history of humanity which no amount of ingenious entrepreneurship can sustain. The free market certainly can allow us to make the best use of what we have, but it cannot bring back that which is gone. Kunstler believes that under this scenario, towns and small cities near water and rail lines and surrounded by agricultural land will fare much better than large cities dependent on long trucking supply lines of everything.

    I think that Kunstler is aware of the distortions inflicted on the economy, even the very structure of everyday life, by central banking. The centralization of so much economic and political power is certainly an unwelcome outcome of central banking. How much of modern life including large scale enterprises has been shaped by central banking activities? As Gary pointed out, Kunstler does seem to be in favor of small scale, local mercantilism. But then small scale tyranny can be opposed more effectively than very large scale tyranny emanating from Washington. It's much easier to vote with one's feet to another county than to another country!

    Another theme of Kunstler's is the pervasive, thoughtless, soul crushing ugliness in our built environment. For this sin, he singles out not only the big box stores but modern museums and other civic buildings as well. It's as though American culture has lost its ability to deal with human scale and proportions. Despite being run down and having many empty storefronts, there is still a small scale charm to the central areas of towns and small cities and even neighborhood retail districts in large cities which huge car oriented shopping centers cannot match. True, one drives miles to the mall to get bargains, but it's an unpleasant, time consuming experience. One wonders to what extent property taxes, regulations and all kinds of red tape stand in the way of breathing new life back into the walkable commercial districts of towns and small cities.

  11. "The unintended consequence of their victories through the 1970s and beyond was the total destruction of local economic networks, that is, Main Streets and downtowns…"

    No, it was the city fathers that destroyed downtown by installing parking meters, hiring people to give tickets, harassing motorists with fines and tow aways. We can park for FREE at Wal-Mart and Costco!

  12. This is a two way street. I saw it happen in a town that I used to live in. The local businesses or whoever kept Wal Mart and other big box stores out for several years, when people no longer had a choice but to drive an hour or two to access these stores; they were finally allowed in. It's harder, but the "mom and pop" stores have to adapt as well. They have to sell their service or what ever other item makes them stand out above the box stores. They may have to find a niche market or something like that. We are a small 62 person business and we compete with Halliburton, Schlumberger, and Weatherford on a daily basis. We have higher margins than those behemoths, but we are more nimble and have much better service. Our customers have decided that those thing are more beneficial to them than the lowest price.

  13. Bryan you have an excellent point. Service to those who need it is the key. A great example of that is Home Depot vs Ace and True Value Hardware Stores. As a home owner, I do most of my own maintenance and repairs. It makes far more sense to me to buy paint at Home Depot for $20.00 per gallon than to spend $35.00 at Ace for the same quality. What makes our local Ace Hardware stand out is the service they provide. I can buy a lawn tractor at Home Depot but who will service it when it needs repairs I cannot do myself. Ace and True Value have repair service on premise and they pick up and deliver the machine as well. The initial cost of the machine may be a bit higher but considering the service at the local hardware store, it is money well spent. Price should never be the only consideration for an educated consumer…reliable service is just as valuable.

  14. Wake up and see. That helping the 1 or 2 percent is worst than foul mouthed. Dictator and/ or revolution. Please look at history. Don’t ruin our democracy.. so rich can take over.

  15. I gave a thumbs up to this comment. it's a very astute observation that you made and I'm grateful to you for connecting these dots. But someone erased my thumbs up. Who would do that?

  16. You can avoid the big box stores by shopping on the internet. Doing so you can find whatever you want at low prices. You won't have to travel plus you usually won't have to pay state sales taxes.

  17. I have an Ace hardware store two blocks from my home and a Home Depot two miles away. The Ace carries a cross section of the same stuff that Home Depot does. There's no point in wasting time and gas driving to Home Depot to save a bit on the small stuff and small stuff is what I usually need from the hardware store. That's the advantage that neighborhood businesses have over their big box competitors.

  18. Max Power says:

    JHK has been peddling the same story for years. I don't remember if he published a prediction of a 90% drop in the Dow this year, or he's finally given up after years of making this prediction based on his own contradictory economic "principles" and seeing it no come true.
    His novels are the atheists' answer to the "Left Behind" series. He foresees a world in the tribulations following the collapse of our current society, with (unsurprisingly) people exactly like him coming out on top of the new society, and sinners (in his case, people who sold automobiles or suburban tract homes) scraping by in destitution or servitude to his cohort.

  19. Brooklyn emigrant says:

    Very accurate and correct Max. Some of the ideas he's writes of are very far fetched. His 'bad guys' are white, less educated types who are bikers, contrived as an easy to demonize group for his ilk. Inner city ghetto types, gangbangers, crack dealers,fourth generation entitlement parasites, flash mobs nowhere to be seen. That borders on science fiction. Sad reality proves different.