Meme’s the Word (2 of 2)

I briefly discussed a mildly popular internet meme earlier in the week; a second set of images/admonitions asks us to refrain from purchasing Christmas gifts from large chain stores and to instead buy local. One I saw said “HERE’S AN IDEA: let’s buy Christmas presents from small local businesses and self-employed people…Let’s make sure that money goes to individual people and not multinational companies. This way more LOCAL people will have a better Christmas.”

Some concessions at the outset: first, if you wish to personally pursue the locavore strategy, go for it. If you have the disposable income to pay the premiums associated with avoiding economies of scale and comparative advantage, that’s wonderful. Second, there clearly are many situations where local businesses provide superior products to chain or corporate products. The hickory burger at Windrush Grill near my house is a delicious example, but I could also mention credit unions, barbers, and lawyers, among others.

Why should your kids play in the front yard when they could be working the (relatively small) fields? Pic by Lemons and Lilli Pillies

I’m sure people will quibble that the comparison to locavores is unwarranted since the push is for people to buy Christmas gifts and not food specifically, but the principle is the same. We are supposed to keep our money local to most benefit the local community. Of course, the absurdity of the principle appears pretty quickly by extending it; if we should not buy grapes from California but from a farm in our same county, then it should be even better if we not buy grapes from that farm but grow grapes ourselves in our own backyard. That would be keeping the money as local as possible, in our own house. I imagine locavores would agree with that suggestion as well, since it is so easy for people to consider only the benefits of proposals with which they agree and to neglect the costs, or to consider only the costs of proposals with which they disagree and to neglect the benefits.

Three points, one historical, one theoretical, and one religious, reveal the flaw in the do-it-all-yourself philosophy. Historically, we see absolutely zero long-lived societies where all individual citizens are autarkic; we see pretty clearly that a division of labor, even if relatively limited, is evidently preferable. Theoretically, given that people do not possess all skills and talents equally, it is clear that autarky forces a person to spend time and effort doing things for which they are ill-suited and for which another person is well-suited. Religiously, we are the Body of Christ, even if we live in different regions, countries, or hemispheres; should concerns over energy usage and corporations prevent me from improving the lives of people who live in very poor conditions but who produce products I desire?

At Kroger, I can shop in a temperature-controlled environment, and they don't need to bother advertising that they accept my credit card. Pic by NatalieMaynor

Is it morally superior to buy local? I don’t see how, nor do I consider it superior to buy only from multinationals. As long as the trade is entered into voluntarily between buyer and seller, it becomes a prudential judgment whether you buy local or not. Again, given the efficiencies that large-scale production typically offers, small local businesses usually have higher costs and therefore higher prices than substitute products offered by chain stores. Is it morally superior to have people pay higher prices when they don’t need to? You will respond “Money isn’t everything; you should be willing to pay a higher price to help out a local business owner.” Okay, but should local people near or under the poverty line be forced to pay that same premium? It’s not a matter of helping local business owners or not; it is a matter of helping them at the expense of local customers. As I said earlier, for those with enough disposable income the choice to stay local is a perfectly fine one, but those folks should not look down their noses at others who prefer the cost savings.

Consider this thought experiment: I have $100 to spend on a widget, and two stores offer widgets for sale. Mom-&-Pop offers the widget for $100, and Sprawl-Mart offers the widget for $70. The locavore option gets me a widget; the evil corporate option gets me a widget and $30 to spend on something else, like a hickory burger. The locavore option doesn’t help Windrush Grill at all. My standard of living improves by going the non-local route even though I’ve spent, and sellers have received, no more money than if I’d gone the local route.

Is it morally superior to “make sure that money goes to individual people and not multinational companies?” Again, I don’t see how, since multinational companies are not run by robots, angels, or demons but by individual people. Perhaps the criticism is against “multinational people” which is particularly morally offensive. Does it present a dilemma if a local store we frequent later becomes so successful that it grows into a large corporation? If Windrush Grill becomes popular and expands to other neighborhoods, cities, states, and countries, am I morally obligated to stop buying from it?

I could go on, but smarter people have made better cases than I. Check out here, here, and especially here; a quote from the latter summarizes well:

There is a romanticism about buying local food, but the reality is that local-food policies destroy wealth and institutionalize prejudices for one human over another based on such arbitrary criteria as the location of their farm. Local-food advocates imagine the movement providing a host of non-economic benefits, promoting a sense of community and “belonging.” But buying local food limits one’s community to only those we can physically see and imparts trust to only those whom we personally know. However, a shopper involved in the global food chain is part of a much larger community—one that requires a great deal more trust than one is required to muster at the farmers’ market. If we want to foster the civic virtues of trust, trustworthiness, and community, the local-food movement is a move in the wrong direction—it is little more than nativism.

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62 thoughts on “Meme’s the Word (2 of 2)

  1. mominvermont says:

    Aren’t the locavores typically the same people who advocate national healthcare and federally- mandated education for kids and increased federal taxes for small businesses? Why do they buy their food locally but farm out their healthcare, education, and funds to the national gov’t?

  2. Reagan mom says:

    Maybe the meme is “censored”, since that is what happened to my comment.

    1. Guest says:

      I suspect that if your comment was censored, it was because you responded uncharitably. I have to admit that in the other entries that you have under this moniker, there was a disrespectful bite to them.

  3. Robert Smith says:

    Ummm… official Catholic teaching from Rerum Novarum on says that buying local is by far and way the best way forward. I suggest that before you post on a Catholic blog about this you should see what the Catholic Church teaches on the subject.

    1. This isn’t a Catholic blog. It’s a republican propaganda site.

      1. Joe M says:

        “Let Peeps Vote” isn’t concerned about Catholicism. They are a liberal propaganda commenter.

        1. Carmen says:

          Let Peeps Vote is more catholic than this blog.

          1. Guest says:

            Never.

          2. I am more catholic than this site.

          3. Guest says:

            Never.

          4. Guest, you post under a number of different identities.

          5. Joe M says:

            No. I’d say that you’re about as Catholic as billmaher.com

    2. Joe M says:

      Robert Smith. I have read Rerum Novarum and do not recall where it says that “buying local” is the best way forward. Can you please cite the passage that you believe supports your claim?

  4. bitsnbytes says:

    It all depends. If a market is dominated by one or two vendors, they have a lot of power to set prices. Buying from smaller vendors can be a step to promote a more competitive environment.

    1. Chris says:

      If the market was dominated by 1 or 2 vendors, then it would be an excellent time for a small business to open up and provide the service or good that the 1 or 2 vendors can’t provide. There is a great deal of power in a niche business opportunity. It is exactly the niche market that the idea of the free market is even possible.
      The free market always corrects itself. (this is assuming that we live in a moral society)

      On the moral society note, Tim, perhaps you could write another piece that addresses how the moral and virtuous culture is necessary for a free market and our role as Catholics within a free market society.
      Looking forward to your next post!

      1. You look forward to prejudiced, judgmental, un-Christian posts that are funded by a group that said they wanted to “fan the flames of hostility” against minorities like blacks, latinos, and gays?

        1. Chris S says:

          lol :-p Jitters, could you be any more bored of your own posts…Your troll-ness is showing…please take care not to let it happen again, it’s kinda embarassing for the rest of us.

          ok ok, that may have been a little immature of me…anyways.. time to be a grown-up again…

          So back to the original comment: What exactly do you disagree with in my post? is my economic analysis incorrect? do you perhaps reject free market principles? Or on a subtle note, do you not believe that a virtuous society is necessary for free commerce?

          Would Tim addressing the role of Catholics within the marketplace be somehow anti-Catholic? Do Catholics have no role in the marketplace?

          I’m looking forward to our discussion.
          (Others are more than welcome to as well!!)

          1. Msgr. Charles M. Mangan says:

            Chris, I regret saying this but it doesn’t seem that he or she wishes any substantive discussion. I hope that I am wrong.

    2. Joe M says:

      bitsnbytes. That is true in a sense. That’s why government monopolies such as public education have been colossal failures.

  5. Real Science says:

    You completely neglect to consider the massive amount of fossil fuels that are burned transport goods over long distances and which negatively impact our environment. You limit yourself to consideration of only certain efficiencies of scale and ignore related inefficiecies, even dangers. No doubt, you don’t believe in man-made global warming, either. I suppose that the next meme will present reasons why the earth is flat or how the sun orbits the earth.

    1. Randall says:

      There are plenty of fossil fuels left, and if we run out we will drill here or invade a ME country again. And just for bringing up the red herring of “global warming” (is it warming today? or cooling? or climate change? the term changes so often) I want to reach through the Internet and smack some sense into you.

      1. Karol says:

        Randall, you’ve come out! Thought maybe the cat got your tongue after you responded to some quotes taken from a John Paul II encyclical under the previous “Meme” article with : “WRONG. Crawl back under the communist rock from whence you came.” You do understand what you did, yes? Just keep it up, buddy. You’r'e doing God’s work.

        1. Guest says:

          Clever, Karol, but Papa Wojtyla wouldn’t talk that unkindly to someone.

          1. Karol II says:

            Please point out the unkindness. And istm it would be very difficult for anyone to be as unkind as Joe M who effectually tells a dead pope to crawl back under the communist rock from whence he came.

          2. Paul Lewis says:

            Karol and Karol II, all your posts are unkind…we see them coming from a country mile.

          3. Poor Joe says:

            Paul, why don’t you back up your assertions with an argument rather than limit yourself to engaging in ad hominem? Again, please explain how Karol I (or II) was being unkind. And while you’re at it, why don’t you inform us what you think about Joe M’s comment in regard to the Pope John Paul II quotations. Do you agree with him? Do you think his comment was kind?

          4. Paul Lewis says:

            Poor Joe/Karol/Karol II, we know who you are, and we know of your ad hominem arguments for weeks…you submit a post devoid of invective, and then let’s talk.

        2. Guest says:

          You complain,. Karol, down below that you’re not unkind…read again your post to Randall. Do you have a conscience?

        3. Randall has been posting as “guest” as well as a number of other false identities.

          1. Randall says:

            George Soros has been posting as “Jitters and Hate” as well as a number of other false identities.

          2. Nope. I’m not George Soros, or any paid “troll”. I am an actual catholic that is upset that the catholic religion is being misrepresented on these pages.

          3. Msgr. Charles M. Mangan says:

            I am sure that you have something that you could offer. Then please stand us for your Catholic Faith and be charitable in your speech to all on this blog. Thank you.

    2. Joe M says:

      Real Science. On what basis do you believe that global warming is significantly man-made?

      1. Greg B. says:

        I don’t want to answer for RS but I’m going to go out on a limb and say the basis is science.

        1. Joe M says:

          Greg B. Where did you learn that science is the basis for that specific claim and how do you know that it is true?

          1. Greg B. says:

            It’s simply absurd to debate which theory is more likely to be correct – one written by men thousands of years ago or one supported by modern science.

          2. Joe M says:

            What theory written thousands of years ago are you referring to?

  6. naturgesetz says:

    I think the problem many people have with “Sprawl-Mart” isn’t so much the people in “faraway places with strange sounding names” who supply the goods as it is the top management who are believed to be enriching themselves while paying inadequate wages to those who work in the stores.

    One other point about buying “local” is that if a doomsday scenario hits and long distance shipping becomes impossible, we’ll need the local suppliers, so it’s prudent to keep them going/

    But I agree with the basic point that we should want people around the world to not be impoverished.

    1. Randall says:

      Oh, “Sprawl Mart.” Did your 3rd grade teacher tell that one to you this week? Look, if the workers feel they’re being paid an inadequate wage, they can work elsewhere. Simple as that.

      1. naturgesetz says:

        “Oh, ‘Sprawl Mart.’ Did your 3rd grade teacher tell that one to you this week?”

        Actually, I got it from Tim Shaughnessy in the original post, which you would have realized if you had been paying attention instead of trolling.

      2. naturgesetz says:

        “Look, if the workers feel they’re being paid an inadequate wage, they can work elsewhere. Simple as that.”

        It’s possible that they can’t work elsewhere because there is nobody else in the area hiring people for work they can do. Try thinking sometime.

        1. Joe M says:

          naturgesetz. Can you point to an example of that actually being the case anywhere?

          1. naturgesetz says:

            I don’t have a specific example. But I raised it as a possibility. OTOH you made an assertion of fact, and unless you know the situation of every Wal-Mart worker everywhere you cannot know that what you said is true. Therefore you cannot dismiss my hypothesis.

          2. Joe M says:

            What “assertion of fact” are you referring to?

            I don’t need to dismiss your hypothesis. I need only point out that if you can’t prove it to be true, it is merely conjecture and is not persuasive toward any given conclusion.

          3. naturgesetz says:

            The assertion of fact came in a now-deleted comment which I quoted above. You asserted as a fact that “they [dissatisfied Wal-Mart employees] can work elsewhere.”

            To call my hypothesis “merely conjecture and … not persuasive” is to dismiss it.

          4. Joe M says:

            A hypothesis not supported by evidence is conjecture. That is not to dismiss it. That’s what it is.

            You don’t know for a fact that anyone who works for Wal-Mart has no other work options.

          5. naturgesetz says:

            “You don’t know for a fact that anyone who works for Wal-Mart has no other work options.” I never said I did, although I consider it so highly likely as to be virtually certain. All I’m saying is that the assertion that everyone who works at Wal-Mart has other work options is not one that Randall is in a position to know.

          6. Joe M says:

            I think that it’s the exact opposite. Technology and the sheer size of our economy has rendered it virtually impossible to have no alternative work options.

          7. naturgesetz says:

            It seems to me that the levels of unemployment render your belief highly dubious.

          8. Joe M says:

            If all jobs paid the exact same compensation and entitlements did not encourage unemployment for some people, I think you would have a point.

            Instead, you’ve only reinforced my point. Wal-Mart provides a lot of important entry-level jobs that are better than the alternative options.

          9. Greg B. says:

            That’s pretty my the case in every small town Walmart has ever moved into.

          10. Joe M says:

            Greg B. Can you provide the science that demonstrates that there are no other jobs in any small town where a Walmart opened?

      3. naturgesetz says:

        Actually, even if they can work elsewhere, that does not settle the matter. It is not as “[s]imple as that.” There is an obligation on the part of employers to pay a just wage: “a wage sufficient to maintain a family and allow it to live decently. Such a wage must also allow for savings that will permit the acquisition ofproperty as a guarantee of freedom.” — Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church § 250, p.113 “The simple agreement between employee and employer with regard to the amount of pay to be received is not sufficient for the agreed-upon salary to qualify as a ‘just wage,’ because a just wage ‘must not be below the level of subsistence’ of the worker: natural justice precedes and is above the freedom of the contract.” — Compendium § 302 pp. 132-133

        So even if they could go elsewhere, that is no proof that they are being paid a just wage. The company has an obligation to pay a just wage whether or not other employers are doing so.

        And let me make it clear: I am not saying that Wal-Mart is or is not paying a just wage to all its employees. I’m presenting principles of Catholic teaching which we should have in mind when we consider matters of this sort.

    2. Joe M says:

      naturgesetz. Do you think that the people you refer to are the ones who actually have Wal-Mart jobs? Or, just the people who think that they know what is best for people who have Wal-Mart jobs?

      1. naturgesetz says:

        I’m talking about people who say Wal-Mart should pay their workers more. If memory serves, some employees at Wal-Mart have attempted to unionize; so they would be among the people I refer to. Clearly there are many non-employees who believe that Wal-Mart is exploiting its employees by paying them less than they could and should.

        1. Joe M says:

          Why is it then that, despite not doing what some employees want, Wal-Mart continues to have no apparent problem finding people to voluntarily work for them?

          1. naturgesetz says:

            So what? It really doesn’t matter. But since you’re asking for my speculation, here goes (assuming for the sake of discussion you’re right about Wal-Mart’s ease of finding employees). Maybe the people they hire haven’t been able to find a job anywhere else (which is what I suggested earlier), or maybe they had been in jobs that paid even less that Wal-Mart, or maybe they are drawn in by a vigorous hiring campaign.

            The important point is that Wal-Mart’s — or any other employer’s — ability to get people to work for them doesn’t prove that they are paying a just wage, as pointed out on pp. 132-133 of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church, which I quoted a few days ago.

          2. Joe M says:

            Likewise naturgesetz, some employees wanting to be paid more does not prove that they are being paid an unjust wage.

          3. naturgesetz says:

            True.

            But I think it would be good to understand what I’m discussing to begin with. The initial post talked about “Sprawl-Mart” as an example of the sort of business locavores decry and suggested that there was an element of nativism behind it all. My response was intended to suggest that when it comes to employers such as Wal-Mart, the opponents —from what I read about them — are more concerned about social justice than they are nativist.

          4. Joe M says:

            If you’re referring to Tim’s post, he quotes a meme that has a nativist bent.

            I agree that some people also slander Wal-Mart because they don’t think they pay well enough. Though, I believe that the merits of that sentiment are just as dubious.

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