If we want to save the American economy, we need to do it locally everywhere . No more hoping some corporation will move a plant or home office to our state; no more bribing the mega-rich conglomerates with tax cuts to create a few hundred jobs on our turf.
What we need to recognize is that corporations aren’t inherently good ideas or good creators of ideas. Furthermore, ideas aren’t the only thing that need creating. A healthy, happy country needs a diversity of employment opportunities spread wide and far within its borders. Isolating just a few dozen cities as the only places where such opportunities exist fails the rest of the country and decimates local economies that aren’t included.
What we need are tax incentives for local businesses to do business with other local businesses. Rather than giving billions of dollars of tax breaks and subsidies to corporations – most of whom seem most creative when it comes to figuring out how not to pay taxes – we should be giving those kinds of breaks to whole communities of business owners, workers, trade organizations and schools (both academic and trade) to better serve and improve their local communities. If restaurants and grocery stores were incentivized to purchase produce from local farmers, and local farmers incentivized to use local labor, imagine how diverse agriculture could become all across the country. Rather than having entire swaths of the country dominated by “mono crop” industrial farms growing just corn or soy beans, the financial incentives would drive ever increasing diversity of local crops and self-sustainability.
If local builders were given tax incentives to source their materials locally wherever possible, more local manufacturing could thrive. If manufacturers got financial incentives to remain independent and not sell out to national chains, and to source their materials locally (or at least regionally), local economies would naturally cultivate more diverse providers of services and products.
If local news media were given tax incentives to cover local news rather than focusing on generic national content from their corporate headquarters, the need for local reporters, editors, producers would be vastly increased, driving the need for more journalism professionals, and more journalism schools in smaller communities.
These are just a few occupations and services that could be improved by focusing locally. There are endless possibilities, of course, if the financial incentives are provided.
Unfortunately, our national economy today is designed to monopolize and decimate small businesses and local economies. Demand inspires supply, but the globalization model has only created a demand for jobs across the United States. It has far too often inspired greed as vast corporations like Apple and Nike and their tax-avoidant brethren send jobs to countries with weak labor protections and poverty wages. They “maximize profits” while minimizing human dignity. No iPhone or Air Jordans can make up for the devastating effects of an international economy that almost totally eradicates the voices, potential and power of employees.
Neoliberals often counter this argument with their deification of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship, and with the mantra about a better-educated workforce solving the problems of our struggling economy. By their logic, every American not working for a major corporation or in the service industries should be getting their MBA and “starting up” new and innovative businesses. What’s missing from their equation is the value for physical work, for the trades, for manual work and artisanship. How can anyone honestly say that an economy that doesn’t fairly value these things is genuinely diverse?
It isn’t, and that’s one of the primary reasons we’re suffering through the worst income inequality since the 1920s. Neoliberal meritocracy doesn’t think manual labor is of much value. It is, in their estimation, mindless; and mindless robots (or desperate, hopeless people who have been bullied into shutting up about their plight) can easily be found in other countries. Since the 1980s, neoliberal politicians have been helping corporations undermine the labor rights of skilled and unskilled manual laborers in the U.S. by allowing them to ship those jobs in droves to other countries. To Steve Jobs and his ilk, there was nothing unethical at all about the shift; manual labor, skilled or not, was overvalued. Manual laborers, whole local economies of them, were abandoned with no alternatives for future employment at the same level of income.
Diversity could have saved some of these local economies, but there were no incentives to be diverse. Cities like Detroit and Flint, Michigan, and thousands of others across the U.S. try instead to lure another big corporate fish to town, whoring themselves with desperate and unfair tax reductions and deferrals to billion- and trillion-dollar multinational conglomerates. The American economic model is that cities and regions should prostitute themselves – in a buyers’ market, no less – to get a few jobs, all in hopes that some semblance of past abundance will return to them. Under current law, it will never happen. The single-minded system of profit-mongering is rigged in favor of corporations and banks, not employees, not communities, not people.
Corporations aren’t coming to save us anymore than our politicians are. We must save ourselves and our communities. Self-reliance can be strengthened nationwide but it requires policies that encourage and support it. We have to force our elected representatives to pass tax legislation that helps build up and diversify talent pools in small communities across the country. The absurd practice of giving billion dollar tax breaks to corporations has to be inverted; communities themselves must be given tax subsidies on that scale. Imagine giving the $38 billion in tax subsidies that AT&T enjoyed from 2008 to 2015 to communities to develop their local economies and resources. Or the $31 billion that Wells Fargo received. Or the $22 billion JP Morgan lined their gilded beds with. Who wouldn’t want to stop subsidizing Goldman Sachs to the tune of $5.5 billion and give that financial help to genuine small businesses in the local economies of America?
(Remember, these were subsidies, not loans. No enslavement necessary. It’s free money.)
If “partnering local” and “investing local” and “focusing local” were incentivized across the tax code for all businesses and workers, the disastrous financial advantages that make corporate big box chains and financial institutions and industrial agricultural concerns so prevalent today would be significantly tempered. The only way that we can return to self-sufficient local economies – and it is imperative that we do so – is to diversify our local talent pools and our local businesses. This puts diversity of opportunity at the forefront of our local economies.
Unlike the debunked promises of globalization, the diverse local economy allows communities to succeed on the merits of their skills and their culture, not merely on the vaporous (and egocentric) financial dreams of the start-up tech economy or the destructive homogeneity of industrial agriculture. Creativity, the most revered skill of the start-up economy fantasy, is cultivated more vigorously when it is cultivated everywhere possible. Economies based on single industries may cultivate a single culture’s concept of creativity , but it also results in a vast vacuum of creativity for the communities and interest groups that it abandons. The obvious isolation of tech jobs and agricultural jobs in a handful of locations across the United States is clear evidence – as is the death of manufacturing due to off-shoring – that this approach has led to mass abandonment of local economies.
We don’t just need creative ideas for tech. So much has been said about advances in automation and other technology that we forget that simplifying tasks isn’t always the best way to complete them. (A nation suffering through an obesity epidemic clearly has not benefited as expected from diets of processed food, for instance.) Ask yourself why rich people so often purchase handmaid and tailored goods. Because they are higher quality and more valuable. So the creative thinker would ask, why do we always look to make things less complicated, less difficult to achieve? Is convenience always more important than quality? Could we achieve quality more widely by investing in it more broadly rather than investing billions in lesser services and goods via a handful of greedy conglomerates?
For example, industrial farming was a priority of decades of politicians because, we were told, it was essential to eliminate hunger and starvation across the planet. Yet, hunger remains a critical problem even here in the United States. The paradigm that was supposed to solve the problem didn’t, and now it is entrenched politically despite having destroyed family farming across thousands of communities in this country and Mexico.
Industrial creativity never asks itself, “Is industrial level effort really appropriate and healthy?” Corporate creativity never asks, “Would the world be better if we didn’t buy up all of our competitors so often?” Almost no one in tech asks, “Would it be better not to automate everything we can?”
On the other hand, true creativity asks questions of everything. One of the questions creativity should ask in every community is “Should our residents be told to abandon creativity and simply have one choice of employment?” Teenagers and young adults ask this question everywhere, every day. When the answer is yes, we destroy local economies in favor of local despair.
Local despair is the America we live in today.
Diversity of opportunity is the opposite of despair. How can it not be? Diversity is the nature of every community’s skills; we’re not all born to be good at exactly the same job that our parents and neighbors were. Within almost every family, there are a diversity of talents and skills. Within neighborhoods, that diversity multiplies exponentially. Within communities, towns, cities, it expands vastly more. If the opportunities were financially incentivized for communities to cultivate their own professionals, their own manufacturers, their own farmers, their own tech, their own self-sustaining economy, more and more and more towns and cities could become fertile ground for the most important product any economy can create: good community and good lives.
Good community and good lives are what everyone seeks, without exception. Current tax codes, however, are crafted with the goal of monopolizing markets in pursuit of maximum financial profits…and nothing more. If instead of giving ridiculously generous tax breaks and incentives to corporations we offer those more broadly to genuine small businesses and schools and trade organizations, it would go a long way to developing self-reliant and complex smaller economies that better serve their own communities. Such communities have a much greater opportunity of being productive in a variety of ways, and are far less likely to wither and fade the way so many communities, town and regions have today. When the lion’s share of tax breaks go to huge businesses that devalue all types of labor, rely too greatly on automation, and demand virtual tax ransoms for tenuous offers of a hundred jobs here or there, communities cannot help but grow fractured, desperate, insecure and dependent. We have to turn inward as communities and as economies, see the potential and encourage it with generous funding. Only by doing this will we stop placing profit above community as the primary goal of work. Only then will we get a healthy balance of both.