RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Buy Nothing Day 2003

October came and went with such a fury of activity on our place that it was a bit of a shock to turn the calendar and see that it's time to plan for Thanksgiving -- and our favorite holiday, Buy-Nothing Day. The invention of Adbuster's Kalle Lasn, BND transforms the busiest shopping spasm of the year -- Thanksgiving Friday -- into a bonus day when anything's possible.

Freed of the obligation to go to the mall, we can get together with friends and do good works, like painting a room at the community center. Or, we can do something personal -- balancing the checkbook, making applesauce, reading a book.

This year, the 12th year for BND, Adbusters has even offered a few dollars for groups that want to organize BND events like block parties, credit-card cut-ups, mall teach-ins and "free" markets. The winners -- and it's too late to apply, but there's always next year -- will get $100 or $250 for supplies, including air time, posters, t-shirts, and so forth. To look at the details and find out about BND events in your area, go to

At our place, BND has been the day when we get everyone together for leftovers and a mighty good jam session. We've been doing it since the first BND and then we're done entertaining. It sure takes the pressure off the December holidays.

Apparently, however, there are still a good many people shopping on the Friday after Thanksgiving. And just as apparently, it's taking our tax money to build new malls to support their shopping habits.

In many states, the legislatures have come up with a program called "Tax increment financing" to help the mall developers satisfy the cravings of the shopping-addicted. TIF waives property taxes for a new development for several years, usually from seven to 25. While it's waiving taxes, TIF also spends tax money to build public improvements for the developers such as streets and sewers. In Missouri, sales tax produced by the TIF malls can be diverted to pay for new developments-like housing around the mall.

The idea was that cities could declare TIF zones -- like blighted areas of a city -- and help re-develop them. That way, places where no sane developer would have invested could become vibrant shopping centers.

A few excellent TIF projects were put together. A Brookings Institute study released in April 2003 cited Kansas City as a city that used TIF wisely to re-develop a crime-ridden downtown back in the 1990s. But then the developers started bending the definitions for "blighted." The definition included such vagaries as "roadless" or "lacks affordable housing" or "buildings unsafe for human habitation and work."

The developers bought farms, which were, of course, roadless, and bereft of buildings safe for human habitation, and defined the farms as "blighted" and "underserved." Then tax money has been used to build roads and bridges, water lines, sewers, sidewalks, curbs, and traffic lights.

The Brookings Institute found TIF zones benefiting the leafy suburbs of Wentzville, Bridgeton, Crestwood and Fenton to provide tax breaks to developers who would have developed those areas anyway. "TIF is clearly being used extensively in the St. Louis area by cities that already fare relatively well in inter-local competition for tax base," the report found.

The biggest winners in the race for TIF zones have been -- wouldn't you just know it -- Wal-Mart, Home Depot and the other big-box stores. One Missouri expert estimates that more than half the TIF zones have gone for Wal-Mart centers, Sam's Clubs and Wal-Mart warehousing. That's right -- welfare for Wal-Mart. One new TIF zone Wal-Mart will get a new exit from I-70 and several miles of access roads and infrastructure. Then the sales tax money from the Wal-Mart can be used by the developers to put housing along the new roads.

And the profits from all this development? Do they go to the taxpayers that made the investment? I'll let you think about that.

The argument from Wal-Mart is always that the new malls will create jobs and bring new homeowners -- hence, new taxpayers -- to the municipality. An implicit side-argument is the threat that if our city doesn't get the new Supercenter, our rival city will. For some reason, this threat always works in the hyper-competitive and super-sensitive world of bureaucratic officialdom. For taxpayers, it would be a whole lot cheaper to give free couch time with the therapist of their choice to all elected officials.

After the TIF malls are built, the new jobs pay less than living wages and the new homeowners put a strain on services like schools, fire departments and law enforcement. After the Wal-Mart comes in and puts the existing businesses out, the cities find that they're strapped with new costs and have given up their major source of income through property taxes and sales taxes.

Basically, the TIF racket is a loser's game, but so is America's greatest shopping day. Celebrate BND and if you want to exchange gifts with your favorite favorite ones this winter, buy something that's made by you, or by artisans from your local community!

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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