Think Local

Op-ed by Mike Shesterkin, Exec. Director, SMSBF

Thinking life will return to the way it was when the COVID-19 “all clear” is sounded is a bit like believing in the tooth fairy: It’s cute, but a complete fantasy. Things are likely to be radically different once Gov. Whitmer and her team have completed the process of reopening the state’s economy.

For one, social distancing, and the use of PPE while in public spaces – which means when we’re back at the office – will be with us for a while. The “restart team” at a local manufacturer is talking about running alternating schedules, wherein a reduced number of folks will work at the office one week, while the rest of the team works from home.

The following week, things will flip, and those who worked from home the previous week will work at the office, while the other group works from home. This sort of plan will lower the number of contacts between people working from the office. There’s much more being discussed, but one thing is certain: We won’t be in Kansas anymore.

And as much as the folks who congregated in Lansing last week would like to believe restarting the state’s economy will be the cure to our financial woes, that’s anything but a sure bet. With the way the PPP loans went, and the way wrangling over the additional $250B is going, there’s a good chance at least a number of the small businesses, those that make up the backbone of the state’s economy, will simply not reopen.

What does this mean? Well, for one, if it’s a local retailer that closes, Amazon won’t mind. Any gaps left by the loss of local businesses will likely be filled by large, potentially multi-national corporations capable of meeting the need. While this may see fine, it’s not. The replacement of a local business, by one that’s foreign (i.e., not based in Michigan) means a portion of the money that had circulated locally will be extracted from the state’s economy. And with fewer actors in the system, more wealth will aggregate.

Since the early 70’s, we have seen the continual erosion of diverse, local economies, and it’s not just retailers. Manufacturing firms have aggregated and eliminated jobs, or sent them overseas to low wage-labor markets. Of course, many will argue this is the “creative destruction” of the capitalist engine, but that’s another fantasy, like believing in Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. Shipping jobs to low wage, non-unionized and unsafe working conditions on foreign soil is bad for people, and nothing good trickles down from it.

While the current crisis looms large in our collective consciousness, the other, and potentially far more deadly, continues to grow worse. We’re already on track for yet another year of record high temperatures. January was the hottest month on record – ever. If we do not develop an economy capable of providing for our needs locally, and after this crisis, we continue to increase our reliance on a highly carbon intensive, global supply chain, we will simply further the destruction of the very thing that provides for our existence.

Now is the time to get active, but leave the “Don’t Tread on Me” flags at home. We need to work together and creatively; we need out of the box ideas and we need to think and act locally. This means not buying into DeVos family Facebook ads that encourage neoliberal rallies on the state capitol’s front lawn.

Michael Shuman, the champion of local business and the “small is beautiful” economics of E. F. Schumacher, published a piece on April 9th titled, “A Dozen Asks for Your Governor. Shuman’s twelve suggestions are probably not being talked about in Washington, but have a much greater likelihood of creating a healthier, more diverse and inclusive local economy than pumping trillions of fiat dollars into an already debt laden system.

We are in this together, and we ought to work together to create a future that is diverse, resilient, local, democratic and built on sustainable, triple bottom line – people, planet, profit – businesses. Stay safe, stay strong, trust our state’s leadership and the science they’re using, and stay home.

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