(Watch the video for a monologue on this article and an interview with The Washington Examiner’s Conn Carroll on the policies that turned America corporate, and what Americans can do to change it.)
Norwalk, Connecticut is a small, seaside city 30 miles northeast of New York. It’s a fun town for young people, the home to the No. 1 TikTok star, Charli D’Amelio, and the home of the Blue Cactus Grill, a popular little spot that’s been flipping burgers and hawking cheesesteaks for over a decade.
A few years ago, owner Vic Amereno turned its success into an expansion, emptying his savings to open a second location a few miles up the coast in the picturesque beach town of Fairfield. He turned a steady business and was thriving; even during COVID lockdowns, they went on, converting their small, 1,000-square-foot restaurant into a takeout joint. But when it came time to hire back staff and reopen, they hit a wall.
“It is with a very heavy heart that we are announcing that our Fairfield location is closed,” a message posted in the window, and reprinted by the state’s Yankee Institute, read. “We truly enjoyed being a unique part of this community. Business was great and we sincerely appreciate all who patronized.”
Then, the message took a different turn:
We were forced to close simply because we were unable to staff the business. We tried everything for the better part of eight months to hire people including Indeed, Craigslist, ZipRecruiter, [Connecticut] Unemployment office, even probation and parole offices to no avail. All of our efforts yielded only two applicants in those eight months. We hope the state is happy with the decision to extend unemployment and bonuses and hope everyone sitting at home is having a good time. A thriving small mom and pop business went down the drain for no good reason. I guess the state of Connecticut wants to be filled exclusively with corporate garbage. This is a serious industry-wide issue and we feel for all the other businesses that are struggling. Enough is enough.
The message wasn’t up for too long. Honesty doesn’t pay, and Vic likely realized this.
Like many other states in the union, Connecticut is still paying an extra $300 a week on top of preexisting unemployment benefits to anyone who wants to stay home instead of working. For small businesses especially, this is a problem. The economy is reawakening, and even in deeply pro-lockdown areas like the District of Columbia, businesses are at full capacity while everywhere employers complain they cannot get enough staff in the door.
Even in long-open red states like Florida, which ended expanded benefits last month, it’s hard to hire right now. At a restaurant in busy St. Augustine last week, a young man wandered in just before lunch to ask about employment. “Go next door right now and talk to Tim,” a young waitress, pregnant with her first child, quickly answered. “He might hire you on the spot.”
For weeks, it had been just her, one other girl and the manager, and they were tired. They didn’t even have a bartender yet for that night’s shift.
Difficulty in hiring is hitting everyone, but there’s one group of companies that’s going to continue on and get through it, and it’s the large corporate chains. Our biggest corporations are always the ones best positioned to survive disastrous government policies. They were the ones that were most likely to survive the man-made catastrophe of coronavirus lockdowns. They were the companies that reaped the most taxpayer aid.
A lot of major corporations didn’t just survive 2020, they thrived in it: Last year, for example, was one Amazon’s best — and one of the worst for their brick-and-mortar and mom-and-pop competitors.
Over and over again, the big guys have won out while the little guys went under. There are myriad reasons for this. In addition to the ability to leverage relationships and simple access to capital, strong and lucrative relationships with banks translated into massive loans to chains while small companies waited in long lines only to be told the money was out. (That is, unless those little guys used community bankers, who, just as their name suggests, took care of the communities where they lived, worked, and were personally invested.)
Big businesses win, small businesses wither and die; that’s been the story of this country, more or less, for two generations. But it’s not just small businesses that are vanishing — even the American ideal of home ownership is going away.
Buying Up The American Dream
Take BlackRock, a multinational asset manager that controls about $9 trillion. Over the past decade they’ve been buying U.S. single-family houses. A lot of them: They own about 80,000 right now. But it’s not only BlackRock — pension funds are buying up houses too. So are foreign sovereign wealth funds, and rich Chinese and other foreigners looking to stash their wealth abroad. They’re paying all in cash, sometimes 10, 25, 50 percent over the asking price.
Overall, in the first quarter of this year, one in every seven house purchases was made by an institutional investor to be rented out. That number is even higher among houses below $300,000, in neighborhoods with good school districts, and in cities like Houston, Miami, and Phoenix, where young people are moving. In other words, institutional money is crowding out the exact people we want to be buying their own homes: Young couples who want to settle long-term in a community to raise children.
People change when they own their home, developing a strange urge to tighten loose screws around the place, to always be cleaning and tidying things up, and a funny draw to the garden beds, where perfectly good weekend days might be spent instead planting flowers out front and vegetables out back.
Of course, renting has a real place in people’s lives. Some people rent because they aren’t ready to settle down, some people rent because they aren’t able to settle down, and some people rent because they simply can’t afford anything else. By and large, however, renting is not a good use of resources: It’s money that goes toward something people need, yes, but it’s money that doesn’t continue to build them as persons; it’s gone.
But in addition to maintenance and personal finances, there’s a moral angle to this: Owning is a special investment people make in their lives; it tethers them to their community in a way renting never will. For example, the public schools in my neighborhood stink, and I don’t yet have children, but like some of my neighbors in the same place, I’m keenly interested in reviving our parish school for neighbors’ kids and, God willing, someday for my own.
Everyone in my neighborhood has made the call to live here in D.C., for better or for worse (and recently it’s been more of the worse), and we’re all invested in building the gardens, the schools, and the community for this neighborhood’s future. When I rented, I loved my neighborhood (and stayed here), but now it’s different.
Renting, by definition, is not permanent; that’s why corporations like it. Starbucks cups, bottled water, leases, rental units: All these things are disposable, and that’s the new capitalist way. It’s the new consumerist way: own nothing and conserve nothing.
The Starbucks Illusion
It’s true, corporate chains employ real people in an important way — but not all corporations are the same. Case in point: Starbucks vs. Dunkin Donuts.
Starbucks pays a fine wage; better than a lot of fast food places, actually. Work there long enough, and you can get some money for college. Wow. Very impressive. But guess what: You can never own a Starbucks — they’re all corporate, top to bottom. So unless you’re going to take that degree in political science or feminist studies all the way to the middle class, you’re a lot more likely to always be a renter.
Dunkin, however: You can buy one of those and enter the middle class — and the more you own the higher you will rise. Domino’s is another example. My friend Scott started out answering phones like I did, but by the time I met him he had two pizzerias and was buying a third. And because he owned things locally, he was invested in his local community.
That’s why locally owned housing matters and why locally owned businesses matter. When your house, your neighborhood, your city is owned by people who don’t live there, standards decay, community dies, and life becomes a little less vibrant and beautiful.
There are exceptions, but by and large, there is no way the local Walmart is going to be as invested in your town as the local toy store, or the local hardware store, or the local grocer — if any of these even exist anymore.
You might not be able to go out as often at the local Italian restaurant as you could if you just went to the pizza chain, but when it comes time to look for help buying uniforms for your kid’s sports team or to celebrate your kid’s graduation, who are you going to turn to?
You might not be able to get the same benefits working at the toy store as you could working at the Walmart, but the family that owns the Walmart isn’t going to be waving to your kid on a Saturday morning when they ride by. They won’t sit in the pews next to you on Sunday. They won’t be contributors to your local town. You’ll never even see them.
That parking lot isn’t a replacement for a town center, and those disposable plastic goods made by slave labor in China aren’t a replacement for the factory jobs we’ve lost.
The American Profit Disconnect
All around us, there are terrifying signs that the well-being of our wealthiest corporate powers is diverging from the well-being of this country. In 2020, for example, the S&P 500 went up 16 percent. Something is wrong: GDP went down, unemployment went way up, ordinary Americans had their lives destroyed, but our largest companies had one of their best years ever? The S&P is still rising.
Are they stealing from us? Is this an asset bubble — one that will eventually pop? The truth is it’s some of both. And when it all comes crashing down, we all already know who will pay the biggest price; we saw this movie in 2008.
Capitalism is a fine economic system, but a corporate oligarchy isn’t real capitalism: It’s a monster devouring the American dream.
Remember “if you don’t like it, build your own”? Ask Parler about that.
Remember owning your home being the stepping stool to the middle class? Talk to Blackrock, in their renter’s office. Parking’s out back.
Remember family restaurants with all the kids’ trophies on top of the soda cooler? Ask the touch-screen installed at your table at Chili’s or Olive Garden if it would like to sponsor your sports team, then swipe your credit card and move on; a human will be by after you’ve left to sanitize the surfaces you touched.
When then-candidate Donald Trump promised to bring American jobs back, then-President Barack Obama mocked him, asking a town hall in Elkhart, Indiana, “What magic wand [does he] have?”
The solutions are very far from simple, but that doesn’t mean they’re magical or impossible. Corporations are insulated from their mistakes by limited liability while people and traditional business partnerships are not; labor is taxed far more than capital; trade deals with foreign governments undercut American businesses; corporate global investment travels far outside our borders; American factories sit abroad. All of these and more contribute to the American corporate oligarchy, but the good news is all of these and more are policies — policies our political class has crafted and executed.
Taking America back for the American people in the American interest will take political pain. Over the past five years, we’ve had a front-row seat to the enemies it creates. And most politicians, we know, are loathe to feel that pain, and so it will take immense pressure from voters and right-minded organizations.
The populist agenda in America is far from dead, but it’s also far from easy. Targeting the bad guys is an important first step, but they grow back. Without targeting the policies nothing is going to change — and if we’re to have a country that serves the American people first, we don’t have a choice.
Editor’s Note: This piece originally said Connecticut was adding $300 a month. It is actually $300 a week.