By now, we know the signs of a "household" that's been hollowed out. We've seen the food deserts and the chronically vacant homes, the ghostly downtown storefronts and the municipalities in hock to the last sweet-talking corporation to suck up public subsidies and then run away. We're familiar with the tension in a city where the only thing the rich and poor districts have in common is a subway line. We know what it's like to be close, everywhere, to the same chain coffee shop and two hours away from the "local" hospital. We've seen the sprawl that ate the woodlands and the floodwaters that steadily rose.
In Commonomics we're going to look at communities that have had enough of all that; places where, by choice or by crisis, people are trying to figure out how to transform what they've known into something better for all.
There's no consensus on the meaning of "local," let alone agreement on what makes an economy "strong." Ask 25 people with expertise in the topic, and you'll hear 25 different answers. (I know because that's what I did.) But there is history here, and a breadth of experience we can draw on if we pay attention, especially to those for whom "self-reliance" is not a lifestyle choice.
Wealthy communities, let's face it, aren't famous for their embrace of togetherness and sharing. The wealthiest "local" economies are surrounded by locking gates. In Commonomics, we're going to talk with some of the people and groups who, when it comes to sustainability and localism, have often been excluded from the policymaking and the debate, and yet who may have the most rooted and innovative ideas for building strength.
I'm reminded of the words of J. Bob Alotta, executive director of the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, referring to the disproportionately low-income LGBT groups she funds: "To be unsafe inside your own skin can be isolating but it is also a value proposition"It begets the possibility of building community in ways that may seem old fashioned."
Nevertheless, even the best community builders need structural support. Policymakers and economic developers typically fall into two camps: "hunters" and "gatherers." The former look to tempt big businesses from elsewhere to move to where they are by showering them with tax breaks and benefits that simultaneously siphon money out of a local area. Commonomics will focus on the gatherers, those who are working to foster economic growth from within. We'll be asking what's working, what isn't, and by what standard are our local economies to be judged? Environmental health, unemployment, social mobility; there are many relevant metrics. We'll prioritize poverty reduction and quality of life. (See sidebar at left.)
"Local" has become a buzzword. There's "Eco-localism," local food and local farming, local media movements, and regional, state, and even national ad campaigns urging us to "eat local," "buy local," and "put local first." Local's gone global, but what exactly does it mean?
I bought the desk I'm writing on on eBay. I've saved a pretty antique from the dump and spared the environment the cost of a bit of fresh manufacturing. I've helped some eBay merchant's "local" economy. But compared to the closest furniture factory, is that nice eBay seller in Oklahoma contributing more or less in terms of jobs and taxes? The mind boggles.
Stacy Mitchell, director of independent business and community banking initiatives at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, says "local" varies by sector of the economy. Retail and banking businesses can be considered local if the owners are within a certain geographic area. But every village is not going to start making its own jet aircraft. "Talking manufacturing, you may need to be talking regional or statewide," says Mitchell.
Geography matters less than goals, she continues: "The goal is having community-led, community-controlled economies where the decision-making is by those who are feeling the effects of the decisions that are made. [We need] humanly scaled systems both in economics and politics."
At the American Sustainable Business Council, David Levine talks about the "triple bottom line" of social, environmental, and economic impacts.
"Within that frame, local by itself is not enough," he says. Levine does not want people buying "local first" from a locally owned sweatshop or toxic chemical plant. To avoid that, what's important to business owners and consumers alike, he says, is that there be "transparency around values."
"The so-called local economy is really best understood as a regional transaction," says Anthony Flaccavento, a family farmer, community leader, and small-business owner from Abingdon, Va.
"You need to think regionally. What does your region support ecologically and where are the markets? The hyper-local focus, within five or 100 miles is foolish. Most goods travel 2,000 miles. If you can build something [to substitute] within 500 miles you've made a major impact."
To Flaccavento, who built a nationally recognized nonprofit, Appalachian Sustainable Development, a critical indicator of a strong local economy is what he calls "synergy"--how much one positive action ignites another. A few large employers help anchor a community's economy, for sure, but when a community is depending on one or two entities to keep a place ticking over, it's vulnerable to devastation should that single employer move out. That company may get a better deal somewhere else in tax breaks or community services.Buying local is not enough--we have to change the rules
To make the substantial shifts that we need, it's going to take more than consumers buying local, says Michael Shuman, research director of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE). It's going to require tilting the policy landscape toward local businesses. Rather than simply lecturing consumers on buying local, government will have to lead by doing likewise. The government's purse is a whole lot more powerful than Joe and Jane Consumer's. There are many things cities and states already do to benefit business--like offering subsidies, grants, and loans. Cities are experimenting with different ways to direct those public benefits to locally owned businesses that benefit the public, and through government contracting and procurement. Some, like Cleveland, award extra points in the contract bidding process to businesses that are locally owned, or green, or pay prevailing wages, or hire local workers, or all of the above. But so far, policymakers have generally been reluctant to cut the multinationals off. Charging discrimination, internationally owned firms have been known to challenge local preference rules under international trade law and the fear of lawsuits puts an effective chill on legislators.