The Lowe’s corporation decided a week ago to suddenly can their workers, strip their much-ballyhooed sign, and flee Ticonderoga practically in the dead of night.
This cut-and-run, fly-by-night approach to American capitalism has been stewing uncomfortably in my mind in the days since.
It has mixed painfully with the latest economic news, which confirms that American companies are “hoarding” more than $2 trillion in cash while they wait to see whether we plunge into another recession.
By keeping their money out of the economy, it turns out, business leaders have literally erased the value of the Federal stimulus effort, where taxpayers tried to prime the national pump through huge levels of spending.
This isn’t the Great Depression, when nobody had any money to invest. And it’s not the 1970s, when regulations and taxes were at onerous levels.
Many of these corporations are posting record profits, and their executives are far, far wealthier than ever before in American history.
So how does all this connect with Lowe’s and the decision to quit Ticonderoga?
When the company closed down last week, a spokeswoman told the Plattsburgh Press-Republican that they couldn’t see “a scenario that led to profitability for the store.”
What that means is that the company — like so many American corporations these days — isn’t willing to make the investment needed to build a market, build profitability and grow prosperity.
And they are also unwilling to do the decent thing that neighbors do in hard times: stick.
Consider this. The company opened the Ticonderoga store just two year ago. Two years!
During Lowe’s brief adventure in carpet-baggery, the region suffered the devastating impact of a national recession, and the closure of the Lake Champlain bridge, which cut off the flow of Vermont shoppers while crimping the buying power of New Yorkers in the region.
We also endured historic floods this spring that literally shut down the region to visitors and dragged the economy in the Champlain Valley to a halt for more than a month.
Consider also that Ticonderoga is one of the most undervalued communities in the region.
The town has a stable timber products industry, is poised between two fabulous recreational lakes, is home to one of the nation’s greatest historic monuments, has great schools and neighborhoods, and is positioned at a crossroads between New York state and Vermont.
This is a town that has a future, with the right vision and the right investment.
But while most of the the region’s businesses were partnering, getting creative, working with government officials, struggling to keep their doors open and their mood upbeat, Lowes — with $3 billion of cash in reserves — was quietly preparing to pull the plug.
It is painfully ironic to read Lowe’s corporate motto: “Let’s build something together.”
Shameful as this is on a local scale, my big fear is that the same thing is happening nationally.
Corporations are perfectly happy to move into areas where the economy is already strong, where consumer demand is already present, where someone else has done the hard work of building prosperity.
If the government manages somehow to revive the economy, or if the good times roar back to life magically, then you can be sure the board room pocket books will fly open.
But what about the old idea of businesses putting up their own capital to invest and build? What about spending time and taking risks to help a community and a market grow?
The idea that profits should grow not from Wall Street schemes, but from thousands of healthy towns and bustling cities and from millions of productive workers? The idea of sticking during a crisis?
In modern American corporate capitalism, one has to ask whether those values are as dead as the gold standard. Or as dead as the jobs of those 86 people in Ticonderoga, whose livelihoods vanished in the middle of the night.