Citizen Action Monitor

Here’s to Stacy Mitchell and curbing the power of big-box retailers

No 52 Posted by fw, August 27, 2010

I have recently bumped up the New Rules Project to the top of my list of RSS feeds. It’s a rich information resource that will be of interest to anyone concerned with community development — particularly with curbing the power of big-box retailers. Yes, it is a program of a U.S.-based institute, but the principles, policy areas and programs are adaptable to the Canadian scene.

Definition: “New Rules” refer to laws, ordinances, and regulations that can strengthen communities.

The problem that New Rules addresses

“Local self-reliance used to be our norm, even if we didn’t know it. . . . The close-knit community, the town or city, used to be the unit of self reliance. In the last half century, however, we’ve become more mobile and less rooted. By some estimates, over 70 percent of Americans don’t even know the people next door. Two-thirds give no time to community activities. Fewer than half regard the idea of sacrifice for others as a positive moral virtue. Electronic “virtual” communities replace physical communities. Meanwhile, the scale of public and private institutions continues to grow, and those who make the relevant decisions are ever more remote from those who feel the impact of their decisions.” From It Takes a City – How better rules and regulations promote local self-reliance. This excellent article by David Morris, published in In Character magazine (February 2007) provides an overview of the reasons behind the New Rules Project.

About the New Rules Project of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR)

The mission of the New Rules Project, which started back in 1998, is to bring fresh new policy solutions to communities and governments to ensure that they are “designing rules as if community matters”.

Why New Rules are needed — The old rules don’t work any longer. They are no longer fit for purpose. They undermine local economies, subvert democracy, weaken our sense of community, and ignore the costs of our decisions on the next generation.

The New Rules call for

  • Decisions made by those who will feel the impact of those decisions.
  • Communities accepting responsibility for the welfare of their members and for the next generation.
  • Households and communities possessing or owning sufficient productive capacity to generate real wealth.

These three principles underpin the new localism, calling upon us to begin viewing our communities and our regions not only as places of residence, recreation and retail but as places that nurture active and informed citizens with the skills and productive capacity to generate real wealth and the authority to govern their own lives.

All human societies are governed by rules. We make the rules and the rules make us. Thus, the heart of the New Rules website is a growing storehouse of community and local economy-building rules – laws, regulations, and ordinances – because these are the concrete expression of our values. They channel entrepreneurial energy and investment capital and scientific genius. The New Rules Project identifies rules that honor a sense of place and prize rootedness, continuity and stability as well as innovation and enterprise.

The New Rules Project reflect nine policy areas – Agriculture, Banking, Energy, Environment, Equity, Governance, Information, Retail, and Taxation and several key programs and initiatives, including: The Hometown Advantage, Telecommunications as Commons Initiative, Biofuels and Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles, and Climate Neutral Bonding.

About Stacy Mitchell

Stacy Mitchell ~ Photo credit: Nathan Eldridge

Although Stacy Mitchell is just one of five senior researchers with the New Rules Project, I singled her out for attention because she directs its initiative to curb the power of big-box retailers and strengthen locally owned businesses, one of my primary areas of interest. (For profiles of all five senior researchers, click on New Rules Staff).

Mitchell has served as an advisor to numerous community and small business organizations, and has helped dozens of cities and towns implement new land use and economic development policies. She has delivered countless presentations at many national conferences and public forums.

Her latest book, Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses (Beacon Press, 2006), has appeared on several top-ten lists and was described by Bill McKibben as “the ultimate account of the single most important economic trend in our country.”

In addition to her work with the New Rules Project, Mitchell chairs the American Independent Business Alliance and is a founding board member of the Portland Independent Business & Community Alliance. She lives in Portland, Maine.

See details of Stacy’s upcoming speaking engagements.

New Rules Q&A

Isn’t it unrealistic to expect communities to be self-sufficient?
Yes, it is. Localism does not mean self-sufficiency. Nations are not self-sufficient, and neither are communities. But nations that are self-conscious and self-determining are stronger because of it. The same holds true for communities.

But aren’t there economies of scale?
Yes, but empirical evidence has shown us that in many important areas–education, health, manufacturing, farming, the generation of power, for instance–it is not globalism and bigness, but localism and smallness that are more cost-effective, more profitable, more environmentally benign, more democratic, more enduring. The only thing that smallness lacks is power, the power to make the rules.

Doesn’t localism pose a threat to those who are not in the majority? Doesn’t it allow those with means, or power, to secede from responsibility for the whole, leaving the powerless behind?
If localism were absolute, yes, it would do that. But it is not. Localism is an approach that allows us to sort out which roles are appropriate for which levels of government. Guarantees of basic rights must come from the federal level. Higher levels of government appropriately should set floors–e.g., a minimum wage or a minimum level of environmental compliance or minimum guarantees of political rights– but not ceilings. They should not pre-empt lower levels of government from exceeding those minimums (as international trade agreements do, for instance.)

Why would localism guarantee efficient, environmentally benign development?
It doesn’t. There are no guarantees in a true democracy, because power rests with the citizens. But it does create the possibility. And without localism, we are guaranteed the opposite: rootless corporations with no allegiance to place, other than to the place with the lowest wages and least environmental restrictions; long lines of transportation, which are inherently polluting; and out-of-scale development that wrecks neighborhoods and destroys habitat. By its very nature, localism would shorten transportation lines, encourage rooted businesses, demand an active citizenry. Localism is a development concept that would enable humanly-scaled, environmentally healthy, politically active, economically robust communities.

Isn’t localism simply nostalgia for a simpler time?
No. Just as globalism is mistaken for progress, localism is often confused with a desire to reverse technology, or turn back the clock. There is nothing inherently progressive about globalization, and there is nothing inherently backwards-looking about localism. Localism has to do with where decisions are made, and the principles guiding those decisions. Those are issues that will and should remain central to society throughout time.

Is localism anti-technology?
The new localism relies on some of the most sophisticated technologies (e.g. integrated pest management, flexible manufacturing, and solar cells). At the end of the 19th century, as we switched from wood to steel, from water wheels to fossil fueled central power plants, and from craft shops to mass production, technology seemed to demand larger scale production systems and economies. At the end of the 20th century, as we switch from minerals to vegetables, from fossil fuels to solar energy, and from mass production to batch production, technological progress encourages decentralized, localized economies.

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This entry was posted on August 27, 2010 by in community building and tagged , , , .
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