Cities where small businesses account for a relatively large share of the economy have stronger social networks and more engaged citizens.
Let’s bracket out the “climate change” part of this, not because the climate isn’t changing – it is – but because intelligent people of good will can disagree on the extent to which those changes are anthropogenic (human-caused) and how much is due to natural cycles over which we have limited or no control. Obsessing over climate change can make enemies out of people who might otherwise be allies. Let’s just focus on doing the right thing, thereby generating positive, synergistic effects that will, in the main, benefit all of us, whether global warming is anthropogenic or not.
Case in point: I first ran across this article back in the dim and distant past (2013…), but the message is no less important, four years later! When I posted it on my Facebook account, I wrote, quoting the article,
“That there’s a connection between the ownership structure of our economy and the vitality of our democracy may sound a bit odd to modern ears. But this was an article of faith among 18th- and 19th-century Americans, who strictly limited the lifespan of corporations and enacted antitrust laws whose express aim was to protect democracy by maintaining an economy of small businesses.” Unfortunately, the bigger-is-better mindset of the 20th century blew this traditional American concept out of the water…
Indeed it did. And sadly so!
Our Founders – preeminently Thomas Jefferson, but others as well – were clear that the United States was intended to be a nation of smallholders: yeoman farmers, shopkeepers, tradesmen. They were staunch defenders of both private property and free enterprise, but having had to deal with the effects of oppression not only by the British Crown but by the East India Company, among others, they were understandably chary of giving corporations too much power. The kind of crony capitalism, corporatism, plutocracy and oligarchy we see today would, I am quite sure, have been anathema to them.
That said, they were far from socialists! The government did not control the means of production nor did it set production quotas. What it did do was help to keep the playing field level: to make sure that capital and the means of production were distributed – sorry, not sorry, if you don’t like that word – so that there were more capitalists, not fewer. This consensus largely held at least through the time of Teddy Roosevelt, who was known as much for being a “trust-buster” (“trusts” being the term for what we would call large corporations) as for his founding the Park and Forest Services, and being a general bad-@$$. Unfortunately, it went into decline shortly thereafter. As this article informs us,
“In 1946, Walter Goldschmidt, a USDA sociologist, produced a groundbreaking study comparing two farming towns in California that were almost identical in every respect but one: Dinuba’s economy was composed mainly of family farms, while Arvin’s was dominated by large agribusinesses. Goldschmidt found that Dinuba had a richer civic life, with twice the number of community organizations, twice the number of newspapers, and citizens who were much more engaged than those in Arvin. Not surprisingly, Dinuba also had far superior public infrastructure: In both quality and quantity, the town’s schools, parks, sidewalks, paved streets, and garbage services far surpassed those of Arvin.
“At about the same time, two other sociologists, C. Wright Mills and Melville J. Ulmer, were undertaking a similar study of several pairs of manufacturing cities in the Midwest. Their research, conducted on behalf of a congressional committee, found that communities comprised primarily of small, locally owned businesses took much better care of themselves. They beat cities dominated by large, absentee-owned firms on more than 30 measures of well-being, including such things as literacy, acreage of public parks, extent of poverty, and the share of residents who belonged to civic organizations.
“One might expect such findings to have had a powerful influence on government policy. In fact, Congress ignored Mills and Ulmer, while Goldschmidt’s study was actively suppressed by his bosses at the USDA, who, under the sway of big agribusiness, treated his research as though it were radioactive. They eventually fired Goldschmidt and abolished his entire department. In the following decades, a wide range of federal policies would work to facilitate and promote the concentration of capital and the rise of big industry.”
It’s enough to make one wonder: who, exactly, are the “socialists,” here…? The article further points out,
What is it about a locally rooted economy that fosters social ties and civic engagement? There’s much to be said for the value of doing business with people who know us and whose success is intimately tied to the well-being of the community. Small businesses are not merely smaller versions of large businesses; they are running on a different operating system altogether. Goldman Sachs makes money regardless of whether foreclosures are going up or down. But a local bank only does well when its borrowers do well. Business decisions are thus guided by very different motivations. And, in times of crisis, economic resources that are controlled locally are much more readily marshaled and reconfigured to meet shifting local needs.
Independent businesses also create environments that foster interaction. Research suggests you are roughly seven times as likely to end up in a conversation with another customer at a farmers market or neighborhood bookstore than you are at a big-box store (not to mention the isolating experience of shopping on Amazon). To run one’s errands in places that encourage lingering and conversation, where economic exchange is embedded in human relationships, is to experience the place where you live in a meaningful way. No wonder this leads to more engaged and resilient communities.
Anyway, read the article: there’s much more good (if depressing) stuff in it, such as the fact that “Residents of communities with highly concentrated economies tend to vote less and are less likely to keep up with local affairs, participate in associations, engage in reform efforts or participate in protest activities at the same levels as their counterparts in economically dispersed environments,” and why.
And whenever you can, and as much as you can – buy local, and support small, local businesses and your local community!