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We must invest in the independent businesses that enrich our lives, while we still can

click to enlarge CALEB WALSH ILLUSTRATION
  • Caleb Walsh illustration

With Amazon's proposed acquisition of Whole Foods last week, pundits are buzzing over the race between the internet giant and Walmart to strike the best mix of online and offline sales in our cutthroat modern economy. But which entity will cross the finish line first, and why, are not the questions we should be asking ourselves. At what cost to our economic future will this enormous retail duo reach total market dominance? And what can we do to preserve opportunity for the many, instead of continuing to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few?

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We're constantly told that the so-called "free market" is supposed to increase choice and competition. The longer regulators wait to confront huge concentrations of corporate power, the more this lie is exposed as a convenient story to justify how those with enormous wealth can make ever more, to the detriment of innovators and independent businesses everywhere.

Locally owned businesses maintain more jobs per dollar of sales, provide for stronger local income growth, and offer better job security during downturns than chain stores. When dollars are taken out of our local economy by big-box stores, communities are not only robbed of the "multiplier effect," where money recirculates to create more local prosperity, we also lose out on local business reinvestment and more generous community philanthropy.

With stagnant real wages and limited career prospects, many people are driven to prioritize price and convenience above all else. This creates a downward spiral, where economic opportunity is drying up fast. Consider the working class couple who wants to buy American, but can't afford the U.S.-made tools offered at the local hardware store. Or the office professional who can't make the farmers market fit into their schedule, and so opts for a non-local grocery delivery service instead. We are pinched for time and money at every turn, despite being the richest country on Earth.

Could you imagine the Inland Northwest without Auntie's Bookstore, Sandpoint's Boardwalk or Figpickels Toy Emporium in Coeur d'Alene? That could be the brave new world we enter in just a matter of years if decisive action is not taken. Fortunately, even small shifts in our personal budgets can make a big difference. While we as consumers can't fix this dilemma with our individual choices alone, we can do our part while also advocating, as citizens, constituents and voters, to demand that monopolies not be allowed to undermine our communities.

We need to build an economy where consumers make enough money and have enough leisure time to exert real choice in the marketplace. And we need a marketplace where competition is not stifled by megacorporations benefiting from gross public subsidies. According to research last year by Good Jobs First, Amazon has reaped billions of dollars in the form of tax giveaways and direct economic subsidies from local and state governments.

Every conscientious purchase you make, or action you take, shows that a vibrant local economy is not only possible, it's already on the way. ♦

Mariah McKay is a fourth-generation daughter of Spokane and a community organizer campaigning for racial, social and economic justice.

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