Regional self-reliance is more than just farmers markets—it’s the cornerstone of democracy
The American middle class is shrinking. You might already be feeling the pressure. According to a 2007 study by the Pew Charitable Trust, men in their 30’s now earn 12% less, adjusted for inflation, than men of the same age did in 1974. That’s a median annual salary of $35,010 today versus the equivalent of $40,210 thirty-five years ago. And that study was published before the current recession put more downward pressure on wages.
Generation Y will most likely have it even worse. MIT Economics Professor David H. Autor's recent study finds that if long-term job market trends continue, the person asking "Do you want fries with that?" is increasingly likely to have a college education. And young people are taking on unprecedented levels of debt to get those college degrees—often graduating with $100,000 or more in student loans.
Why is this happening? Americans everywhere are working harder, longer, and faster just to maintain their current situation. Yet, for many, it’s still not enough. More important, widespread public outrage about jobs and the economy seems to have little or no effect on either government policy or corporate behavior.
There’s a growing disconnect between average people and their government – regardless of your political persuasion. Even if super-majorities of citizens want something to happen, that doesn’t mean their government will respond. Why? Where has our collective political power gone?
The answer is right in front of you whenever you make a purchase. Most of the products and financial services you consume are produced far away from where you live. If it’s a physical product, it was most likely produced in Asia. If it’s a financial product, it was probably produced on Wall Street. By contrast, what does your city or county produce?
Unsure? You’re not alone.
Even if you do know what your region makes, it’s most likely over-specialized. The net result is loss of regional independence. For example the farm state of Iowa imports 70% of its food due to specialization in hybrids of corn and soybeans that are not directly edible to humans. They instead require industrial processing to break them down into fractional molecules, which in turn become additives for value-added processed foods—some of which actually make it back to Iowa supermarket shelves. And yet, even though American farmers are more productive than ever, the corporate entities below and above them in the supply chain have profited far more from the green revolution. That’s because farmers have little leverage with their primary customer—big agribusiness.
The fact is that any non-symbiotic relationship is bound to have an imbalance of power. Put more plainly: you need multi-national corporations more than they need you. In the context of democracy, that means the public doesn’t really have as much political authority as they think. The pervasive influence of lobbyists in Washington demonstrates this point.
Left or right, money is critical to getting elected in America. In the year 2000, candidates who raised the most money won 93 percent of the seats up for election in Congress. (USPIRG Report 1/3/01). This is why politicians respond to those who can bring a steady flow of campaign contributions. Who brings that money? Almost certainly it’s not you. According to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the U.S. population gave 83 percent of all itemized campaign contributions for the 2002 elections. So if you’re angry at the government because you feel it’s not responsive to the American people, now you know why: money is what wins elections, and lobbyists—not average Americans—bring a steady flow of money.
But what if all that money didn’t flow into distant corporate coffers but instead stayed right in your region? The balance of power would be turned upside down.
Regional self-reliance is more than a 'buy local' movement -- it's the cornerstone of democracy. In fact, it always has been. When Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776, he was describing an economic system not of multi-national corporations, but of individuals who would act in their own self-interest—human beings invested in their community. If your region wants self-determination, they need to be able to say 'no' to distant power brokers, and you can’t do that if you produce none of the products and services that support life.
Regional self-reliance is economic freedom – and there can be no freedom without it. Citizens can protest from now until doomsday, but unless they can supply their own critical needs (food, shelter, etc.) from within their region, then they will be forever reliant on distant masters—and ignored when it comes to national policy.
To have a real say in our governance (and to make our civilization durable), we need regional self-reliance, not global hegemonies. Regional self-reliance is ultimately better for everyone – including the corporations – because diverse regional strategies make it less likely that the entire nation will fall prey to the bad decisions of a few (a certain Wall Street bank comes to mind here) and thus wreck the national economy on which all commerce depends.
Protesting and getting angry won't bring control back to your life, but helping to redevelop local economies around critical industries will give you control of your life again. Living locally is not just good for the environment—it’s good for the nation.