There is a growing local-living movement that calls for every community to support local businesses, care for the planet, and build local food networks. We are concerned here with local business. We are already investing: We have local business incubators, local venture funds, training and networking efforts like X-Link. We know that the success of local businesses plays a big part in our economic well-being; it promises new-job creation, poverty reduction, re-building the middle class, reducing income disparity.
Encouraging smart business owners is important, but it’s only part of the challenge. We also need smart citizens and neighbors, and this is where local-living advocates have been relatively unsuccessful. What we need is a campaign to have citizens realize that every dollar they spend is a vote. A vote as powerful, maybe more powerful, than any vote on Election Day.
The vote of the dollar — how we spend our dollars, or don’t spend them, regardless of how many we have — fundamentally determines the ownership and distribution of wealth. This power is in our hands.
The dominant culture does everything in its power to distract us from claiming our economic power.
The dominant culture, with its firm control of advertising and media, does everything in its power to distract us from claiming our economic power. It sells consumerism incessantly. It tries to convince us that chain stores and fast food restaurants build families and produce happiness. The mythology is that clothing and food from Walmart is cheaper than buying from a local business. Not true if you consider the social, health, and economic costs of yielding to the call of unconscious consumerism.
Our culture has decided not to aggressively publicize the hidden costs of consumerism. The business community and Chambers of Commerce are noticeably quiet on the issue. What’s needed is to better publicize to everyday people the costs of buying cheap and eating fast. How about some billboards that shout that 37 cents of every fast food and big box dollar leaves the city? Only 25 cents leaves if you shop at your neighbor’s business. Big box stores and chains destroy your neighborhood and local economy. Fast food destroys families instead of building them up. The cheap shirt at Walmart is exploiting lives around the world. What were the 1,600 garment workers in Bangladesh doing before dying in a fire?
The concern is not just about pricing, or supporting local businesses; it also about who has control over the future of our neighborhoods. And our lives. And our ability to support our families. This is the politics of our dollars.
We are distracted by the futile political discussion. Liberal, conservative, left, right –– what should the government do or not do? Stay out of these conversations. This is the wrong politics. The real politics is the dollar in our hands.
Doing something to become conscious about the politics of money will require action on many fronts. One path is to promote the hierarchy of the dollar. We have a food pyramid to guide our eating; we have Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to guide our human services (from physical, to social, to self-actualization needs). We could use a Hierarchy of Dollars to educate our neighbors.
For example, let’s start a Politics of the Dollar campaign with different labels to designate increasing levels of local spending and economic control:
- Level 1: Bronze. Begin with spending at locally owned businesses, which is surely better than buying from a national chain. Twelve percent more of that dollar will circulate in the community instead of being sent to Bentonville, Arkansas. If the headquarters of a multinational business happens to be in our city, we can be very thankful for that, but circulating our dollars in smaller local stores keeps more of the money closer to home.
- Level 2: Silver. Spend money at local businesses that have a social and communal purpose rather than operating simply for a private and profit purpose. A co-operative. A consumer co-op, a customer co-op, a producer co-op. An entrepreneurial division of a church or social service agency. Local markets for local growers or producers, which also have a health and carbon-emissions benefit. Join a credit union.
- Level 3: Platinum. Vote your dollars at local businesses that are embedded in and committed to a neighborhood. Think businesses within walking distance. Businesses that have a connection and affection for this place and these people. That hire people from the neighborhood, especially young people that need to be useful.
- Level 4: Diamond. Buy at local businesses that are owned by neighborhood people. Particularly in marginal neighborhoods. For Cincinnati this most often means African American owned businesses, Hispanic owned businesses. Jim Clingman has for years written about Blackonomics and been its voice in Cincinnati and beyond. He shows that when African Americans got their political freedom they lost their economic freedom. The neighborhood economy disappeared. What took its place are predatory businesses such as convenience stores, check- cashing services, day labor employers, and landlords. Food, money, work, and housing.
Neighborhood owned businesses hardly exist now. This is what we need to work on. It starts with each of us committing to using our money this way. This is about democratizating dollars. They are votes for a world that works for all. And they help the planet in the process.
The democratization of dollars starts with each of us committing to vote with our pocketbooks.
To get local people to vote this way with their pocketbooks is an enormous challenge. This kind of economic power is barely on the radar, let alone advertised on any billboard. The dominant culture beats the drum of low price, false-promise consumer economics so loudly, in so many ways, that nothing less than a social or community movement will be required.
Luckily that social movement is already under way, but that is another conversation.