Local shopping might mean spending more, but the dollars go further – mathematically and philosophically.
Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Three months ago, President Barack Obama’s poorly phrased remark about business – “You didn’t build that” – looked like it could’ve cost him the election. It didn’t, but his message – one about collective creation – barely survived the punditry and attacks.
Why the hostility to sharing the credit for productivity? You can blame anti-big-government zeitgeist, or plain ol’ capitalist pride. Or you can blame a global economy that’s so distanced shoppers from the marketplace that we’ve lost sight of the fact that we’re all in this together.
Or, as writer Wendell Berry puts it, think of our economy as a series of unfulfilling relationships that leave behind a sense of longing.
“This is an economy, and in fact a culture, of the one-night stand,” Berry writes in his 1996 essay “The Whole Horse,” and adds, “We can say the industrial economy’s most-marketed commodity is satisfaction, and this commodity, which is repeatedly promised, bought and paid for, is never delivered.”
To explain that sense of emptiness, Berry examines what’s been lost in the exchange of goods. His answer is simple – knowledge – and his proposed fix attainable: local economies.
The notion that there’s information embedded in an object isn’t entirely radical. Heirlooms that families pass down from one generation to the next aren’t significant because they’re more beautiful tea cups or more functional jewelry boxes, but because they tell a story.
Those stories unravel as goods criss-cross the globe, Berry argues. “The global economy institutionalizes a global ignorance, in which producers and consumers cannot know or care about one another, and in which the histories of all products will be lost.”
To access those histories, all we need to do is get back in touch with where our stuff comes from.
But the case for buying local isn’t purely philosophical. There’s a compelling economic argument as dollars recirculate themselves several times over.
Take the local government as one example. Monterey County will spend about $365 million this year on goods like office furniture and services like electrical repairs. And thanks to a local vendor preference policy (one that doesn’t exist in Salinas, the county seat), almost a third of that will likely get spent on Monterey County businesses.
“It’s our fiscal and judicial responsibility with those tax dollars to make sure we’re supporting the local economy,” county Contracts and Purchasing Officer Michael Derr says. “It’s critical, because we all live here.”
An August update to the decades-old policy means local vendors who bid within 5 percent of the lowest bid get the contract. That will cost the county more money, but the added local dollars are expected to improve overall economic vitality, which is in turn good for the county’s tax base.
When I recently decided to spend double the dough on a new bike light, I parted surprisingly painlessly with the extra $50. That’s because I was buying at a local shop (Winning Wheels in Pacific Grove) that buys from a local manufacturer (Light & Motion; see story, p. 8), and I figured my money was going further than it would on Amazon.com.
The sales tax would go into P.G.’s coffers, which might be used to repair a chunk of crumbling sidewalk a few blocks up, or landscape the rec trail I traverse daily.
While local vendor preference policies don’t always distinguish between Big Boxes and mom-and-pops (the county does lots of local business with Office Depot and Coca Cola), when we shop at locally owned businesses we can also claim a sense of ownership.
My purchases make me a stakeholder in my neighborhood bike shop, bakery, cafe and bank. Alternatively, as one friend says on Facebook, “I feel like a number when I go to a big chain store, which is why I don’t do Starsucks.”
Where local investments pay off most might be in terms of quality. While I admit to buying made-in-China socks at Target, I spent $7 a pound on a Thanksgiving turkey I slaughtered myself in Aromas (see story, p. 24), partly because I expect the flavor to beat what I could find at the grocery store.
For Berry, the difference between a Subway sandwich and that freshly dead bird is the difference between cavorting with strangers and a lifelong commitment. And for the economy, it means those dollars can be reinvested, maybe into heirloom tomato seeds for next year’s crop – which means I’ll reap the benefit yet again.
To become a local vendor to Monterey County, visit co.monterey.ca.us/admin/vendorinfo.htm