This week, I'd like to resume discussion of building resilient neighborhoods as preparation for Peak Oil, climate change and economic collapse. In this post, I will emphasize the importance of supporting local economies as a part of the building process. In an earlier post, Our Least Resilient Neighborhoods, I said the following: “Building resilient neighborhoods therefore consists of devising effective defenses against breakage [of neighborhoods], repairing the culture of the neighborhoods and fostering neighborhood self-sufficiency.” One key element of neighborhood self-sufficiency is financial self-sufficiency – that is, being as free as possible from the claims of the official money economy. This means either not having huge financial obligations, or having locally-owned, locally-controlled means of meeting the obligations one has, or both.
As a practical example, consider a homeowner who wants to become more self-reliant and less susceptible to economic collapse. Let's assume that his house is on a fairly decent lot (around 6000 to 7000 square feet), and that he has started “farming” his front and back yards in order to provide some of his own food. Let's also give this man a clothesline and some chickens in his backyard and assume that he has saved up a bit of money to pay for super-insulating his house and installing a simple rainwater catchment system under his roof gutters.
This is all well and good. The man is pursuing financial self-sufficiency by providing for his needs in a way that reduces his need to spend money over the long run. But let's assume that he “owns” his home only in the sense that he is paying a mortgage. If we give this guy a two bed, one bath house and assume that he bought it in Southern California between 2000 and 2007, he probably has a sizable mortgage payment (say, around $1800 a month if he bought it before prices really took off). That's a significant financial burden, a significant obligation to the official money economy. Even if we assumed that the homeowner in question owned his home outright, he would still have to pay property taxes as part of the cost of living in a city. Yearly taxes for this man's house would probably run between $2500 and $3000. That money would have to come from somewhere. If he didn't pay it, the County would foreclose on his house and he would be homeless.
So how does this guy get the money? Until recently, the answer to this was, “By participating in the official economy.” In the overwhelming majority of cases, that meant getting a job from an employer. Now, this employer demands a certain amount of work, as well as a certain level of personal preparation, skill and competence. The employee must spend some of himself in his labors and in his preparation to perform his labors competently (i.e., in schooling and self-study). The employee's labors generate wealth for the employer, who returns some of that wealth to the employee as compensation for his labors.
This arrangement works tolerably as long as the employer returns a fair share of the wealth generated by the employee's labors, and as long as the cost of goods and services required by the employee do not exceed his compensation from his employer. But whereas that may have been true of American employers and employees before 1980, it is certainly not true now. The trends of deregulation and globalism, pushed by corporations and corporatist politicians from 1980 onward, have produced a world in which an ever-larger share of the fruits of the labors of workers are skimmed off and sent to a small “club” of ever-richer ruling economic elites, while an ever-smaller portion of the wealth generated by those labors is returned to the laborers. Thus, for instance, there is an expanding class of recent college graduates who can't get work paying more than $10 or $15 an hour. (See http://legacy.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/livingtoday/050516/degree.shtml, http://www.impactlab.com/2007/04/30/study-growing-number-of-college-graduates-classified-as-poor/, and http://www.newser.com/story/58492/college-grads-face-years-of-lower-wages.html. Or if you're in college now, maybe you should skip reading these. I don't want to depress you.)
Meanwhile, the cost of necessities such as housing and health care skyrocketed during the period between 1980 and the last two years. In fact, the cost of health care is still climbing. And the rise in the cost of an education has outpaced the nominal national inflation rate. These rising costs have led to massive indebtedness, which does not make for a very resilient or self-reliant situation for most people. Organic farmers know that soils can become exhausted when they are over-farmed without returning returning adequate amounts of dead plant and animal matter back to the soil. In the same way, most American workers are becoming depleted and exhausted as the majority of the wealth generated by their labors is taken away from them by greedy faraway corporate masters who do not give back enough to maintain the workers on whom they depend. All these things mean that it has gotten much harder for people to meet their financial obligations to the official economy by working in that economy.
This is why localism has become such an attractive concept recently. The premise of localism is the local control and ownership of means of generating wealth, where profits generated by local businesses stay in the community in which these businesses reside. Thus the fruits of the labors of local workers remain in the communities of these local workers, providing them with the nourishment they need in order to continue their labors. If, for instance, a person worked for a fairly-run local business and her labor generated $50,000 a year in wealth for the business, it is far more likely that she'd be compensated with a fair share of that $50,000 than it would be if she worked for some multinational, publicly traded corporation. Thus it is far more likely that she'd be able to pay her bills – including her housing bill, whether that meant rent, a mortgage, or property tax, and that she could do this without having to work like a dog.
One other important aspect of the “official” economy is that it requires continual growth to function properly, and that it is now breaking because it can no longer grow. The masters of this economy – the majority shareholders, CEO's, corporate presidents and so forth – still expect and demand ever-increasing profits. Therefore, they have not only been cutting laborers from their workforce wherever they can, but they have been driving the remaining laborers ever harder. Those who are still bound to the global economy are therefore increasingly losing control over their lives and their time. (An example: “WANTED: Certified QXZ Engineer for ABC process control. Must be goal-oriented, self-starter, highly motivated to bring the client the best possible value for the lowest price. Must be willing to travel at least 20 percent of the time. ABC is a fast-paced, dynamic place for hungry, rising stars willing to grab all they can.” Translation: “You will live in a hotel at least one week per month and work like a dog at least 60 hours a week. You will also be on call evenings and weekends.”) Proper participation in a properly organized local economy allows people to regain some control over their lives while meeting their needs.
So what are some desirable characteristics of a locally-owned business? First, it must truly be 100 percent locally owned – not a mere franchise of some national or global business. McDonald's, New Seasons Market and Whole Foods Market don't count. Neither does Valero Petroleum, NBC or Clear Channel. Second, it must be entirely locally controlled. This follows from the first condition, since those who own a business get to run the business. A business run by faraway masters is not local. Of the various local business models, a cooperative model is one of the most attractive. Examples of cooperatives in Portland include Citybikes Workers Co-op and People's Food Co-op. Third, it must return a fair share of its profits back to its employees. At the very least, it must be able to pay a “living wage.” Lastly, its profits must be spent predominantly within the community in which it resides. A business which sends the majority of its profits out of the community is a drain on the community, and is not truly local. This also means that local businesses need a supplier base that is also predominantly local in order to keep profits within the local community as much as possible.
In light of these characteristics, what can be said about some of the recent advertising by large corporations who want to portray themselves as “local”? In my post, "Localism" And Truthfulness, I described a few corporations whose advertising I had recently heard or seen. Feel free to check out that post and answer for yourself whether these businesses are truly “locally owned.” But I want to ask another question, namely, how “local” does a business have to be in order to be truly “local”?
I ask this question because of a billboard I saw last week as I was on the way home from work. It was an advertisement for Darigold Farms, and it showed a burly guy with a mustache standing in a field of some kind of grain, with the caption, “Your Local Farmer” underneath. Now, there are some good things to be said for Darigold. First, it is a farmer-run cooperative that offers hormone-free milk among its product lines, and second, it does have a number of operations that are “local” to the Pacific Northwest. But is it truly “local” on smaller scales, such as the individual cities in which its operations are based? How much local control is exercised in each place where such companies have their operations? How much local say is there over how locally-generated profits are used? These are questions that successful cooperatives will have to answer for themselves, as some of them grow beyond the boundaries of the communities in which they first started.