Sustain-ability: The Economy Sucks, Suck Harder

Back in 2010, I picked up a book from the library called: Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back. The title has been changed (to be more buzz-word worthy I suppose) but I prefer the original. This is a book that would naturally appeal to me but that was ultimately disappointing.

See, 9/10 of the book was about how the world became a corporation... and only about 1/10 at the end contained a few lukewarm suggestions as to how to take it back. It's like that essay you write in college where you conceive of a great two part hypothesis... but can only find textual or research evidence for the first part. So you tack a few flaccid ideas and unconvincing quotes at the end and your teacher marks it as 'weak' and suggests cutting it out.

Bonus tip: don't let your publisher convince
you to add material because
"otherwise it's too depressing"

Weak was the last chapter of this book. Clearly, Rushkin had problems finding good examples of 'taking it back'. Barter networks were suggested. A focus on local purchasing was a reasonable suggestion. I think he mentioned community resources like tool libraries as well. Most interesting were the ideas of using local currencies like Berkshares and banking locally. So his solutions were based around the idea of keeping things local. In fact the newest (and renamed version) supposedly has an additional section with more ideas and interviews for 'taking it back'. I'm tempted to get a copy of the book to check out this new information.

Rushkin was well aware that the current US economy is entirely designed to suck up all available wealth to an increasingly smaller segment of the population where it stops providing value to the larger economy. See, currency only really has economic value when it changes hands. If you give me $20 for a pair of hand knit socks, I have $20 and you have socks. $20 in economic value has been created. But then I take the $20 to the farmers market and get some veggies. Now that same $20 bill has created $40 in economic value. And then the farmer takes the $20 and pays it to a local mechanic to fix the tractor ($60). And the mechanic pays the rent on their shop ($80). And the landlord pays property taxes ($100). And the government pays the local police ($120). He puts his money in the local credit union who gives me a loan to start Ivy's Sock Shop (sure they do)... and thus is economic value created and compounded. Yay!

There are all kinds of side benefits to this as well. The farmer's local produce is healthy and nutritious. The mechanic's shop is available when my car breaks down. The cop keeps you from getting your socks stolen.

But if you go to Walmart and buy socks, the money you spend there hardly impacts the place you live. A tiny bit of it goes to pay the miserable salaries of the people who work there and to pay local utilities and probably hugely discounted local taxes. But most gets hoovered directly into the Walton family's oversized pockets. And those dollars are in effect gone from the local economy. If you imagine that the workers at Walmart probably also purchase many things from Walmart (because that is what they can afford) you can see the issue. It doesn't help anyone else or create any additional value for the place where you live. Boo!

Go visit the site I stole this from...

So spending local is important, which is why I got my new smart phone at the Portland Phone Factory, which employees 3000 local workers, who all make a living wage... oh, wait.

Now don't get me wrong. I am in favor of keeping things local as much as possible. We keep our money in a local credit union, we buy from farmers markets filled with local produce, we shop at a local (ok, regional) healthy grocery that stocks lots of local products, we eat at local restaurants. But the trouble is, of course, that if you don't manufacturer things locally, you have to buy from outside the local area. It's feasible for this kind of trade to work well, and trade is as old as human economy. But along with it come the traders, the merchants, the importers, and the tax men. All of them take their cut, which is why spices that were cheap and abundant in the Middle East were rare luxuries in Medieval Europe. But even with all of that, trade only works when you have something that you produce to trade against.

The problem with local economies in the US is that there's always going to be more 'outgo' than 'income'. We can't all just trade what we need with one another in our town or city, because many of the things we need can't be made locally. And even if they could, they aren't. For example, if you had a local textile mill in your area, then you could buy local textiles. Of course it sounds unreasonable, but it could happen. And sure, those textiles may be more expensive, but that wouldn't matter because the people who had local jobs that paid well could afford those textiles. Instead though we're in a race to the bottom, where we outsource jobs to places where people can work for less, which means that things get cheaper, but there are fewer jobs left here for us, so no one can afford even the cheaper items.

And yes, those people we outsource to have greater prosperity, but that comes with a whole other host of problem (like pollution, natural resource destruction, corruption, human rights violations, and overproduction that puts people out of work as surely as underproduction). But that's a post for another day.

So our local economies get hollowed out -- and the communities along with them. Or a slightly less extreme outcome is that the middle of the economy gets hollowed out leaving knowledge workers and highly-paid professionals at the top (who can afford skyrocketing property costs and expensive local artisan products) and the poor at the bottom (who can't afford anything, not even places to live). Neither of these outcomes is stable or sustainable, but it's what we're doing -- over and over -- throughout the Western world.

It's true that co-ops and barter networks and CSAs and local credit unions are good ideas. However these ideas are all about outgo -- keeping the your cash local. What about the income? This is where the book misses the mark. In fact, we do need lots of people who make their living within the local economy. But the economy still needs an inflow of capital from outside.

So I make my living "working for the man." And over the years I occasionally get flack for it. However, I see it as a deeply subversive act. Because I'm sucking a little tiny bit back out of the vampire economy and transfusing it back into my local community -- every paycheck. Sure, I give them my time in exchange for that paycheck, but I also get to have a really cool and interesting job that I enjoy and doesn't compromise my ethics (I used to work for a company that made equipment for testing military jets, so I know from ethical compromise). And then I take that money, which came from around the globe, and make it work in my city. So there, big whatever! Take that!

And if that helps another person get both their income and outgo local (like the checker at the local grocery where I shop, who gets a local income and buys their groceries at the same store -- they do, I ask) then that's a very good thing. It's still only a tiny drop in the ocean, but it's something. Because the larger system CAN NOT BE FIXED. Please re-read that. It just can't, and even if it could it wouldn't be by the likes of us. The system will either continue lumbering along -- shedding parts and sucking resources and polluting -- until it completely breaks down and is replaced by something else OR it will get torn down in fire and bloodshed by the poor, tired, huddles masses and teeming refuse.

And then your local connections will be worth more than any linen rectangle with dead folks faces (it was going to say dead men's faces, but we've moved forward a tiny bit recently on this).

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