Saturday, September 25, 2010

The First Department Store

One of the quaint pieces of Utah history is the fact that the LDS Church established "the first department store." Zions Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI) was founded in 1868 by Brigham Young.

The Wikipedia article on ZCMI is interesting. It says the primary reason for establishing ZCMI was that "[Mormons] were despised by the surrounding community." As Mormons were a persecuted majority, their leader, Brigham Young, launched a boycott of non-Mormons businesses. As non-Mormon businesses continued to exist, President Young persuaded Mormon merchants to pool their resources into a single cooperative. This cooperative gave preference to Mormon suppliers and established manufacturing concerns that sold through the cooperative.

The independent businesses gradually merged into a single concern with the LDS Church as the majority share holder.

The term "gentile" refers to anyone who is not LDS. My guess is that the Wikipedia article was written by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I doubt that there is any group with a particular interest in research favorable to the gentile merchants of early Utah.

I have some sympathy for the gentile emigrant. I've always rejected the idea that gentile merchants were part of a cabal out to destroy Mormonism simply by existing. I suspect that gentile merchants were people who wanted to live in the area and were at wits end trying to figure out how to deal with the Mormon majority.

When there is a large power base that defines the market, people must develop a strategy to confront that power base.

In the computer industry, Microsoft established a large market base. People interested in the PC market must factor Microsoft into their business plans. Some take a decidely anti-Microsoft approach to life.

Yes, there are many geeks who are hostile to Microsoft. However, I doubt that anyone became a geek because they dislike Microsoft. They dislike Microsoft because they saw it as counter to their ideals about computer technology.

I believe a better description for the founding of ZCMI is that Brigham Young practiced an early form of progressivism in which he sought control by fanning conflicts and positioning centralization as the solution to the conflict.

I highlighted the term "pool resources" above as the idea that people must pool their resources to overcome some mysterious evil force is a common theme among progressives.

This is the justification for insurance.

The effect of pooling resources is a highly centralized market with a wider gap between rich and poor. This gap between rich and poor is often the very evil that progressive railed against.

Big department stores can create efficient inventory and product flows. The big stores have the negative effect of reducing the number of people directly engaged in investment and reinvestment of goods. Big box stores reduce the middle class from the position of owner to that of skilled employee.

ZCMI lasted for over a century. In the last decades it, and hundreds of other independent department stores May Department Stores, then Federated Department Stores and now a massive complex of Macy's Department Stores.

The process of economic centralization has gone unchecked for well over a century.

As mentioned in the last post, Glenn Beck has some odd reason for wanting progressivism to be an exclusively 20th century phenomena.

I see all of the elements of progressivism alive and well in the 19th century. For that matter, there has always been people willing to mix government, religion, philosophy and business in the never ending grub for power.


Scott Hinrichs said...

I agree that progressivism has long existed. In feudal times, for example, the culture and economy of many fiefdoms were heavily slanted toward collectivism. This carries over into modern European law and has to a certain extent colored American law as well.

Your discussion of ZCMI brought memories of my childhood. Aurbachs was one of the 'gentile' establishments that competed with ZCMI. When I was a kid, many of the old timers in my LDS ward considered it an offense approaching serious sin to shop at Aurbachs. My Mom tried to explain this sentiment to me, but I didn't understand it until I studied the history of ZCMI as an adult.

y-intercept said...

I hope that it's clear in my writing that it's the progressive streak in Mormonism that gets my dander up.

During my lifetime, the LDS Church has moved away from many of the activities that irk me. Conservatism has been good for Mormonism.

That Mormons have changed for the better gives me hope for other progressives.

Progressives believe they can engineer change. One pattern is to encourage dichotomies in a community. (us v. them)

The leaders tell us that we must pool our resources to counter the evil them. This pooling of resources, of course, increases the power of the leader.

The progressive leader often projects their own actions onto the opponent. We have to pool our resources against them because they are pooling their resources against us.

There is often a reaction. The reaction often involves the opposing forces pooling resources to counter the power of the progressive pool. (sillyness squared)

The political progressive paradigm leads to an overall industry consolidation and economic centralization.

Since there is room for only a few in the centralized market, the progression leads to a regressive society.

Breaking this stuff apart is a big challenge. I want to pursue the Medical Savings and Loan. My gut keeps telling me that I have to leave Utah if I want to make the program work.

If the program got caught in the local culture war, it would destroy its ability to affect the national move against Obamacare.