The Good Times is one of those oversized local weeklies that you can't not be familiar with if you live in Santa Cruz and even occasionally frequent the area's coffee shops or delis. The paper is unremarkable, a conglomeration of earnest local reporting, event listings, and advertisements. My understanding is that most cities of a certain size and demographic have their own version of the Good Times.
Anyway, my favorite part of the publication is, without a doubt, the page devoted to "local talk.” I like it for the same reason I like reading letters to the editor in small-town newspapers; that is, I love the roughness and directness of the typical sentiment. There is an endearing amateurism to the whole proceeding. It's the equivalent of a group of friends discussing things after dinner. There is a refreshing lack of rhetorical loftiness, which I guess is another way of saying there's not a whole lot of bullshitting.
In most editions, there is a single query and five or six responses. The responses - typically a sentence or two in length - are seemingly extemporaneous, transcribed next to a candid photo of some local citizen who was probably out buying groceries when they were politely accosted by a Good Times reporter.
The question in a recent edition (Cover Story: “Derby Girls Get It Done”) was this: Is Buying Local Always the Best Option”
Of the five citizens weighing in on the matter, three did indeed espouse “buying local” as the best option, one remained ambivalent, and one figured that it was not - but only because some goods are not available from local sources. The answer that I felt best encapsulated the general mood of Santa Cruz came from an older man named Eliahu Goodman, who told the reporter, “[Buying local] supports our community... and provides jobs for people I care about.”
On the surface, I suppose, this is a fairly uncontroversial statement. The importance of community is one of those values that has been championed to the point of meaninglessness. Which I think is a shame. After all, the idea of helping the people one cares about is only axiomatic until you examine the down-and-dirty mechanics of the sentiment. That is, how exactly do you decide who qualifies? Who are your people - the people you care about - and who aren’t?
This becomes important when you consider that every dollar spent “buying local” is a dollar that is not spent somewhere else. I think this is something that makes progressives profoundly uncomfortable, the idea that every dollar spent at point A is a dollar that could've been spent at point B. You do not - cannot - help people in a vacuum. Seen from a different light, helping American farmers is tantamount to screwing farmers somewhere else. Subsidizing American steel-workers impoverishes steel-workers elsewhere.
Let us be clear: I am not necessarily condemning this decision. I am merely pointing out the fact that the decision to “buy local” is, in fact, a decision. One with very real consequences.
One of the reasons I couldn’t bring myself to support the Occupy Wall Street Movement with anything other than half-hearted zeal was the simplistic manner in which many of the movement’s manifestos characterized big businesses. I think it is safe to say that in the minds of many protesters, large corporations were both enemy and entity.*
The problem with this view, of course, is that many millions of Americans are employed by big businesses. Hell, many of the protesters were employed by big businesses. Businesses may have certain cultures (and some of these cultures are most definitely more toxic than others) but, ultimately, they are all made up of individuals. Some of those individuals have corner offices; some mop the floors.
The desire to buy local is in part the desire to help individuals. It is desire to help people that you can see and talk to - economic efficiency (and, often, low prices) be damned. The problem is that many proponents of the “buy local” ethos do not think about the other, anonymous individuals in this equation - that is, the people they do not see and cannot talk to who are losing money every time a transaction goes through at the locally owned corner store.
Again, I am not necessarily condemning this behavior. For one, there is nothing wrong with paying a little extra for the “atmospheric” benefits of, say, a local cafe (e.g. the familiarity, the informality, etc.). Moreover, I have no problem with the general idea of favoring one group over another. I expect our government to prioritize the safety and happiness of its citizens above the safety and happiness of citizens in other countries. Maybe in the distant future the world will be different and my tribe will be global, encompassing (a liberal can dream, right?). But not today.
The challenge that I put forward to my new neighbors (who, by the way, are overwhelming smart and decent people) is this: think about exactly what your definition of community is, and the effects of that definition. Buy local. Don’t buy local. But think first.
*In my mind, the most bizarre example of this viewpoint came from Matt Taibbi, the perpetually frothing Rolling Stones writer, who exclaimed “fuck the business community” at a 2010 economic round table. After reading his exclamation, I couldn’t help but wonder where Mr. Taibbi thinks his checks come from.