It never ceases to amaze me that sometime between elementary school and college people forget what "there's no such thing as a free lunch" means. It means that everything, no matter how good it appears on the surface, comes with an associated cost. And whether it's because of blind optimism, willful ignorance, or just plain stupidity, this is one concept that's totally foreign to our community's political and business leaders.
Consider the following two illustrative examples. The first one was reported in the Bloomington Herald-Times on 10/22/02:
"In a development that could eventually rival Bloomington's shopping facilities, a developer plans to build a commercial center on a 95-acre tract of property in northern Lawrence County. … [Developer Pip] Chamberlain said he's already leased spots in the shopping center to a Subway franchise … When Chamberlain presented his proposal to Lawrence County Commissioners - a courtesy since the county has no planning or zoning regulations - everyone was thrilled, said commissioner Janie Craig Chenault.
'We're excited,' she said. 'Anything that makes jobs, we like. And the more I think about it, the more I like it.'"
The only way a new Subway franchise can "make jobs" is if there is already unmet demand for restaurant eating in the area. In other words, people have to be going hungry or starving because they can't find anywhere to get food. If there is no unmet food demand, and given the obesity rates in Monroe and Lawrence counties it's unlikely that there is, then the new Subway will simply capture customers from other, existing restaurants, causing those restaurants to either curtail staff or go out of business.
Cost/benefit: The benefits are the jobs provided at the Subway. The costs are the jobs lost from other businesses as a result. In the end, will there really be "much to like" for Lawrence County?
Here's another example, reported in the Bloomington Herald-Times on 12/12/02:
"Best Buy, the nation's top electronics retailer, is looking at a site near the Barnes & Noble Bookstore on Bloomington's east side for a new big box store. … 'I think it will work out fine,' [Bloomington Auto Tech owner Jack] Walker said. 'A new store like this means more jobs for the community.'"
According to the Monroe County Visitor's bureau, Monroe County has 15,000 more jobs than can be supplied by the county's residents. Therefore, any additional jobs will have to be filled by workers from surrounding counties -- workers who pay only a fraction of Monroe County's income tax while using a significant portion of its public facilities.
Cost/benefit: The benefit is that the newest big box will provide additional employment for surrounding counties. The cost will come in the form of higher taxes and congestion for Monroe County's taxpayers. Will it "work out fine?"
Politicians are blindly addicted to the mechanisms of the growth machine -- a machine which exists for one reason and one reason only: to constantly and artificially increase the value of land, irrespective of whatever real costs, or benefits, accrue to our social, natural, economic, and civic spaces. The next time you hear someone talking about the benefit of "Jobs, jobs, jobs" make sure to ask him how much those jobs will cost.
This column is an excerpt from CIVITAS, a weekly column written by Gregory Travis that focuses on the economic and civic dimensions of local issues. It takes its name from a similar format column written by James Howard Kunstler.