November 9, 2017; The Conversation

In the Conversation, Kevin Albertson, an economist from Manchester Metropolitan University, calls on citizens to devise local policy solutions to meet the challenges posed by globalization and the nationalist reaction that globalization has spawned “as citizens across the world are increasingly looking to the nation state for protection.”

Albertson is a member of the Labour Party, which has historically favored a strong role for the central government, yet he concedes that it is “by no means assured that the policies which suit a strong domestic government will be better than those which suit foreign owned multi-national corporations.

“Also,” Albertson adds, “history indicates the fear of global capital may be coopted by unscrupulous politicians into a fear of other nations or fear of other peoples.”

Rejecting the options of big state or big government, Alberton instead calls for a focus on what he calls localism, an approach that holds the promise of developing “independent income sources and financial sustainability; organizational stability suitable for undertaking long-term development work; improved partnership work due to possession of a needed commodity; an engine to drive the local economy towards environmental and social improvements; the building of community pride, networks and skills, and empowered citizens.”

In the US, the localist idea has gained a broad range of adherents. For instance, the national nonprofit Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) has worked for 15 years “with entrepreneurs, investors, funders, and community leaders to discover how to create an economy that works for all of us. [It’s] found that prioritizing local ownership, collaboration, and production weaves greater equity and health.” BALLE centers its work around eight principles that include prioritizing attention to equity, regenerating nature, collaboration, shared ownership, and connectivity. Another national nonprofit, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), has promoted localist policies that foster “humanly scaled institutions and economies and the widest possible distribution of ownership” for over four decades. Since the Great Recession, these approaches have started to attract support from foundations, such as NoVo and Surdna.

Michael Shuman, author of many books on how to build a local economy, including The Local Economy Solution, observes:

There is no question that the localization movement has made huge strides. There used to be a saying that you know you’ve made it when you’re on the cover of Time Magazine. Well, it was March 2007 when Time had on its cover “Forget organic, eat local.”

You know, I visit 40 or 50 communities each year to speak, many in deeply conservative areas, and every place I go, I see signs that say buy local, eat local, bank local. I have never seen the sign, “We are not local—buy from us.” We have won the war of ideas.

And yet, as Shuman would be quick to acknowledge, economic development still looks very different, with, for example, cities seeking to outbid each other to attract the corporate behemoth Amazon to their communities. Yes, the mayor of Washington, D.C., really did engage in a faux conversation with Amazon’s voice recognition software Alexa in an effort to cajole the company into selecting her city for its second headquarters. Tucson, the New York Times reports, sent a 21-foot-tall saguaro cactus on a flatbed truck to Amazon in Seattle. Greg Leroy notes that the organization he directs, Good Jobs First, has found that the average cost of public subsidies given to corporations to move jobs from one city to another totals $658,000 per job, hardly localism in action.

Albertson attempts to confront this problem. “Local protection from exploitation by global interests,” he contends, “requires the right mix of global and local policies.” To avoid creating incentives that encourage localities to bid against each other by providing ever lower taxes (thereby reducing the resources available to support nonprofit-provided social services), Albertson says that “taxes should be collected nationally, and shared proportionally (on the basis of demographic profile) to the devolved authorities.” For Albertson, the pursuit of “localism will require a systemic shift in how the national government goes about shaping society.”

Albertson does not engage in a detailed explanation of what kinds of policies he would support. He does, however, identify a few, such as local currencies and local ownership of utilities. Presumably, Albertson would not be unsympathetic to efforts under way in Preston (population 140,000), which, the Economist reports, has “encouraged local firms to consider becoming co-operatives—which are owned and controlled by their workers.”

For nonprofits negotiating the nation’s shifting economic, social, and political terrain, Albertson provides food for thought. A few years ago, in an essay titled “The World Has Changed and So Must We,” the FB Heron Foundation observed, “The pathway of Americans out of poverty in the 21st century requires economic reinvention.” Whether the path forward ends up centering on localism, reclaiming community control of common resources, restoring reciprocity as a central organizing principle, or some combination remains to be seen. At a minimum, though, Albertson takes us a few steps on that journey along a highly necessary economic reinvention road.—Steve Dubb