Keep it in Vermont
What will you do with the "economic stimulus" check you receive from Uncle Sam? No matter what any of us may think of this particular governmental plan, most of us will be getting a small share of this $103-billion payoff. So, what are you going to do with your check?
The powers-that-be in D.C. are hoping that we will all use our checks to buy, buy, buy in order to spend, spend, spend our way out of the recession (not that they admit we are in recession - but we know better). They are encouraging us to head down to our favorite big-box stores and buy the latest widget, gadget or trinket. Their plan, reminiscent of the New England Ponzi scheme of yore, assures us that if we all spend this money on new widgets, then widget factories will increase production, hire more widget-making employees - and voila! Our economy will rebound and flourish, at least until this particular pot of money runs out (or until someone realizes that all of the widget factories are now in China).
If you think this plan sounds akin to putting a Band-Aid on a broken arm, you are not alone. If you think adding to our $9 trillion national debt is not only foolish but dangerous, you are not alone. (Yes, the government is borrowing this money. Which future generation will have to pay it back?) If you think it would have made much more sense to invest this money in green technologies or transportation infrastructure, you are not alone. And if this reminds you of the president's inane advice to "go shopping" after the tragedy of Sept. 11, you are certainly not alone. Shopping to feel better, shopping to defeat terrorism, shopping to fix the economy - consumerism as the magic cure for whatever ails us all.
So, what are you going to do with your check?
Many people have told me they are going to use the money to pay bills, thereby offsetting the ever-increasing costs of health care, gasoline and food. And boy, oh boy - I can't blame anyone for taking this route. Sure, no one is thrilled about putting more money into the pockets of big oil or insurance companies, but bills are bills, and too many of us are struggling just to keep afloat. (Recession? What recession?)
But here's another idea, one that came from two Mad River Valley residents who put their heads together and created a new approach - and a new Web site called "Keep it in Vermont." Their idea is simple and brilliant: We all use the money to stimulate our local economy. Instead of shopping at big-box stores, where the money flies out of our state and we end up with products made in China, we "keep it in Vermont!"
According to Robin McDermott and Rob Williams of Waitsfield, Vermonters will collectively receive about $150 million from the economic stimulus plan. They suggest that if we all spend even a portion of this money in our local communities, it will make a real difference. Imagine infusing $150 million - heck, even $15 million - into farmers' markets; independently owned shops, restaurants and businesses, and nonprofit organizations. Money spent this way will genuinely stimulate our local economy.
Studies from Maine to Texas show that when $100 is spent at a big-box store, only $14 remains in the local community. The rest flows out of state to pay middlemen, corporate shareholders, and huge CEO salaries. But spend that same $100 at a local, independently owned business, and $45 stays in the community. Money spent at an independently owned business supports not only that business, but the local banks, accountants, and print shops these businesses use.
Robin and Rob put it this way: When you buy at a farmers' market, your money goes to the farmer, who then spends money at a local business, who in turn pays their local employees, who then spend money at local restaurants, where the chefs buy food from local farmers, and so on ... A living example of a stimulated local economy!
I know I'm being somewhat contradictory: On one hand I am criticizing the very nature of spending our way out of our economic woes, and on the other hand I am suggesting that spending locally is the very thing we need. And it's true, if I had my way, those checks would never have been cut in the first place. We don't need a feel-good, too-little, too-late attempt to fix the economic mess we are in. What we need is a national plan to economically and environmentally invest in renewable energy, public transportation and education. Just imagine what that $103 billion could have really accomplished.
And bring it closer to home. What could Vermont do with $150 million? What kind of real economic development could be achieved if we used that money to advance a greener infrastructure that created jobs, saved money and reduced our carbon footprint? What could Rutland or Barre do with $50 million? Imagine solar panels on every city building or co-generation facilities providing heat and electricity from the same source of fuel.
What could your town do with $5 million? Or $1 million? Picture more farm-to-school partnerships, where our children are fed healthy, whole foods straight from our neighboring farmers. Or town offices converted to solar hot water or biomass heating systems.
What could your community do with $100,000 or even $10,000? What about community-supported loans for home solar conversions or bike paths to encourage pedestrian or bicycle commuting?
You are not alone in your vision for healthier and more sustainable communities. Check out the "Keep it in Vermont" Web site and see how people from all over the state have pledged to use their "economic stimulus" dollars to strengthen our communities, our state, and our planet.
Carol Tashie lives in Rutland City and tried hard to find a balance between what is possible and what is impossible to ignore. Her column explores how ordinary people can make the planet a healthier and more just and peaceful place to live. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2008 Times Argus