My Turn: Local economics not as simple as Wal-Mart vs. community

Posted: Monday, June 06, 2005

The suggestion that Wal-Mart should be shunned by residents because we should show an unconditional allegiance to our business community offers only a snapshot of a complicated image.

Certainly local merchants do have to struggle with higher costs for keeping their livelihood financially healthy. Most probably run their shops with fair and decent intentions. But as in all walks of life, there are exceptions that create the ties that bind the rest of us. Those longtime Juneau business owners who have benefited from the lack of competition by taking advantage of the community residents know who they are, and they have a lot more in common with the Walton family than those who will shop at Wal-Mart. The well-run and fair businesses are unfortunate to have to carry some of the burden the reputation of the few creates.

But what happens to any of the money spent locally by Juneau consumers goes beyond the exchange of currency between retailer and consumer. How does the merchant keep that money in the community? Retailers, including Wal-Mart, are nothing more than "middlemen" finding a way to bring a product to the marketplace. Every retailer here sends part of the money they take in out of town to pay for the products they bring to the market. How many other middlemen, the other buyers and shippers, get a piece of that pie along the way? How few of them are local residents? How many of them extract an unnecessarily high profit from the next person along the chain? Who should decide when the money is passed to hands that are not local, the consumer or the business? Because in a community that produces so little of what is for sale, ultimately the greater share winds up elsewhere.

The idea of the global economy is a buzz phrase today as transportation and technology have expanded our ability to exchange goods across the globe. The act of bringing in goods from somewhere else opens the doors to "outsiders" setting up shop here. Nobody has a clear picture of the river the money flows through between the final buyer and the true source of the human hands that created the merchandise. There is no way to know if everyone is treated humanely along the path back to that source, for we only see the next hand that holds the money we spend.

I have no intentions to shop at Wal-Mart. I like to think that part of my freedom to avoid sending any of my money to an Arkansas family begins with the choice not to waste some of my income on what I don't really need in the first place. But if I needed shoes and could barely afford them, I'd also like to be allowed to go there without being judged as taking the low road of not caring about the community I live in, especially by those who don't know any of the story as to why I would be in such a day-to-day struggle to make ends meet.

I doubt anyone here or anywhere else is free from having made a choice that another won't criticize as a decision that undermines some aspect of the community's well being. I doubt too that there is one among us who, if after honestly examining every decision made, can claim to be on such a high road that has never contradicted a value that we expect others to follow. Maybe we shouldn't be judging the decision on how and where others choose to spend their money. Maybe we should all look inside ourselves and wonder why we have so many material needs that reach beyond the community itself.

The more we think we need, the farther we need to spread the income we earn. If we all saw that we needed less, the equation to buy locally changes. As does the equation on how much profit one needs to gain from their neighbor's willingness to honestly support the local business community on the simple notion that it's best for all here.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and a civil engineer with the US Coast Guard.

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