Sam Burnham, Curator
At ABG we pride ourselves on our support of the small. Family owned. Home grown. Community oriented. Decentralized.
So when I stumbled over a particular article this weekend I was left shaking my head. Natalie Escobar of NPR’s Code Switch was tossing softball questions to Vicky Osterweil who recently published a book trying to justify, even glorify the violent and chaotic riots that have destroyed large swaths of major US cities. I was disgusted by a particular quote even more than the constant droning of Marxism that filled the interview:
“It's actually a Republican myth that has, over the last 20 years, really crawled into even leftist discourse: that the small business owner must be respected, that the small business owner creates jobs and is part of the community. But that's actually a right-wing myth.“
The first article linked in the quote is one of the faulty and incomplete arguments that Osterweil uses to justify violent mobs destroying the property and livelihoods of people unfortunate enough to find themselves in the path of advancing terror. The second linked article is a more scientific sounding argument from MIT citing figures and statistics downplaying the importance of small enterprise as a job creator in America. The gist of Osterwell's abhorrent claims is that looting and rioting is justified because the small businesses really don't matter to the economy. Osterweil claims the property being stolen by rioters is a just compensation because Osterweil believes that small businesses are all built on a foundation of racism.
The idea that someone's livelihood, their slice of the American Dream is irrelevant and therefore welcome fodder for looting is a ridiculous instance of a bizarre elitism.
But let's take a look at one of the claims from the MIT article:
“Perhaps the biggest indictment of the small-is-beautiful view when it comes to jobs is the simple fact that in the United States small firms’ share of output and employment over time have been declining for decades.”
So if we see "small-is-beautiful" as some sort of conspiracy theory and that medium-sized and large businesses are the real job creators, what do we do with entire towns that are shuttered by the death of small businesses? While MIT argues that small business have declined over the last few decades, a 2018 article by the Pew Research Center shows that the average US worker has seen no measurable increase in wages in that same time period. You don't have to spend much time poking around on the web to find out that corporate outsourcing, restructuring, and downsizing have not been kind to US job markets. As I am writing this, Georgia economic mainstay Coca-Cola, which has the most recognizable trademark on Earth, has announced a massive reorganization that is going to cost thousands of people their jobs.
If we look at the efforts of the federal government under Bush, Obama, and Trump, we see multiple bailouts of the auto industry, financial institutions, and any other business deemed "too big to fail." While it is statistically true that small enterprise is in decline, it is also true that these businesses always perform without a net. No one is going to bail them out. If they fail, they fail. While the cited articles talk about the Small Business Administration and the programs available to "help" entrepreneurs, reality remains Lee Iacocca sitting before Congress with his hat in his hand. the TARP program, and "Cash for Clunkers."
However, the biggest fault in this argument is that it ignores that economic web of a healthy small community. We constantly discuss the economic principles of this web. It can be a powerful engine but we see how fragile it is when someone drops a Walmart or a Home Depot out on the bypass around town. Walmart, that started in Bentonville, Arkansas as a small five-and-dime is now one of the largest retailers in the world. It also pays its employees just enough that they can work 40 hours a week and keep a roof over their heads if they supplement their income with food stamps and Medicaid.
Walmart isn't the only villain here. Most large corporations expend substantial resources to determine how few people they can utilize and how little they can pay them and still operate. They drop a retailer in a small town and the majority of the income generated leaves the store in an armored truck, never to be seen in the community again. Profits go to corporate headquarters far away and the small wages paid to workers usually wind up in that armored truck as employees purchase the goods they need from the only game in town.
But the problem isn't just retailers. A local bank gets bought out by a large one. Suddenly a small business loan that was previously based on a relationship and a handshake now requires a phone call to Charlotte. The local newspaper, journalism's boots-on-the-ground, gets bought out by some conglomerate in New York or Chicago and restructured. The local radio station with local personalities who once broadcast local high school football gets bought out by Clear Channel and immediately automated and now only offers corporate music or syndicated political talk. People who once manufactured textiles, steel, automobiles, appliances, furniture, shoes, and machiery have seen their jobs sent overseas.
So why do the people behind these articles see consolidation, centralization, and homogenization as beneficial? At the very least, how can they not see the decline of small business as highly problematic? While these businesses are in such a state, now can Osterweil justify, even celebrate the burning and looting of these businesses?
Far from being irrelevant, small businesses can be the way forward for troubled communities. I found two claims in reading the two cited articles that I agreed with. The first is that one promise of small business is the possibility that it can become big business. I mentioned Walmart above as an example. But in juxtaposition we see the points that half of all small business owners didn't start their businesses principally to make money and that roughly 75% of small business owners have no intention of ever having more than a few employees. This is where a difference in philosophy comes into play. While big city, big government, and big college minds see dollar signs when they think of business, many small business owners are interested in being part of their community and finding personal fulfillment in their work.
If these philosophies as well as the resources needed for startup find their way into troubled communities. Specifically, black-owned banks and businesses can become an economic and cultural engine that could improve local finances as well as protect people from exploitation at the hands of corporate giants. This scenario provides jobs, builds community pride, provides generational wealth, and fends off gentrification. Walmart and Wells Fargo can't, correction, won't do that. None of this is going to happen so long as people are encouraged to go to small businesses, kick in the door, steal everything that isn't bolted down, and then set the place on fire. On the other hand, if small business owners are respected, if their livelihoods are honored, and if their businesses are patronized, they have a real chance to create jobs, especially if more and more people start more and more small businesses. Such a trend could come from an honest and positive portrayal of small business.
Essentially, the three articles I'm talking about have this one thread linking them all together: big government and big business built the modern world. The question is, is that really a good thing? Don't get me wrong, I appreciate electricity and indoor plumbing as much as the next guy, but there is a lot to the modern world that is less than desirable. For example, so long as our economy is measured in money alone, we can expect large corporations, medium sized businesses, and big government to scratch each other’s backs and leave small businesses and local governments out in the rain. Of course small businesses are struggling to keep up. Welcome to that modern world.
Back in 1930 John Crow Ransom wrote “Industrialism is rightfully a menial, of almost miraculous cunning but no intelligence; it needs to be strongly guarded or it will destroy the (moral) economy of the household.” Some 90 years later industrialism has largely run its course and the economy of the household is all but dead. Ransom’s words were tragically prophetic.
We need to restart our economies. I say that plural because I’m not just talking about money. Money is certainly part of the picture but without the economy of the household, the economy of place, the economy of people, a plan for healthy and sustainable growth, a holistic view of prosperity, and the determination to rein in “progress” we can expect to be stuck in the same rut we’ve been in for decades. We have to think small. We have to think local. We have to revive all these economies. You say small businesses aren’t an economic engine? I say that’s a symptom, not a cause.
Power From the Past
Sam Burnham - Curator
Armuchee Creek creeps through the Appalachian foothills as it has for thousands of years. These hill are old, the eroded remnants of their former selves. The locals will tell you that Armuchee is Cherokee for “land of many fish” or something to that effect. When the Cherokee lived here the creek provided water, food, and transportation.
After the Cherokee removal on the Trail of Tears, this area was resettled and the creek remained important. Some 50-60 years after the last Cherokee left the creek found a new use. In the old village, what locals call “Downtown Armuchee,” stood a grist mill, a pants factory, a cooperage, and a cotton gin. All of these operations were powered by an early-technology electric generator that was powered by the creek.
A small dam ponded the creek near the iron bridge where Little Texas Valley Road crosses the creek. The mill harnessed the power of the pond overflow to turn the little generator and produce electricity. The amount of power generated was more than these small industries needed and several homes were added to the local grid. The residents of this small village were reading by electric light two decades before the TVA broke ground on their first hydroelectric dam.
The evidence of this fact is confirmed in a May 1916 publication of the Electrical Review and Western Electrician. The report in that journal was that the Armuchee Water Mill was unfortunately destroyed by fire. That sounds like a strike against local power but this was early technology and fire was a widespread problem in structures of all sorts. While fire is and will remain a threat, new technology and practices have greatly reduced that threat. Present technology also offers redundancy that make accidents less devastating.
In 1916 there was little more than lighting that would use electricity in a home. These days almost everything uses electricity. But modern technology has created energy efficient appliances and devices. Major utility companies have reported dips in demand as people choose LED lighting and other energy saving options. Modern technology also produces a lot more electricity than 1916 technology did.
Generating electricity has become more efficient as well. Most notably, solar panels have become more efficient and effective while also becoming more affordable. One kilowatt/hour of solar power is now cheaper than the same amount of coal generated electricity. This has made solar a viable option for use in community power.
More recently, the South Georgia town of Plains, longtime home of former President Jimmy Carter, now generates half of its needed electricity by a local solar farm. Let me specify that Plains is a small town. I’m not advocating running the whole state this way. There is still a real need for large scale power generation in places like Plant Bowen, Plant Vogtle, and by TVA dams throughout their system. But for small towns or even designated neighborhoods in big cities, community power is a revolutionary opportunity.
By generating power locally and establishing a micro-grid, like Armuchee at the turn of the 20th Century, we can lower our costs and build in resilience to protecting ourselves from disruptions. Armuchee historically used the creek and hydroelectric generation. That is possibly still an option. But in The South we also have an abundance of sunshine. Solar panels, partnered with the latest in storage units could make the needed power and store it for nighttime or in the case of (literally) a rainy day.
The resilience comes into play with the local micro-grid. For example, a few years back when a tornado cut through the Berry College and Glenwood communities, serious damage was caused to transmission infrastructure. The Armuchee area was without power for days. Had the old micro-grid still been active no loss of power would have occurred in the old neighborhood. That area was barely impacted by the storm. The mill and the grid would have remained intact. Even during the Blizzard of ‘93, a local crew could have hooked up individual homes in a day and power would have been restored quickly. Even a mechanical malfunction at the mill would be backed up by the storage units until repairs are made.
Local power can be a game changer for small towns. Poorer communities within cities can also benefit from this idea. The best part is that our local EMCs as well as the TVA or The Southern Company can get in on this. They need to hear from customers or members who are interested in bringing this sort of project to their neighborhoods.
Local power lowers costs while building resilience and investment in our communities. There is no downside to the proposition. By revisiting an old idea we can open possibilities for the future. We can build a future with better opportunities for businesses and residents. We can power healthy and sustainable economic growth while fostering a sense of community. Local power is the best way to illuminate the way forward.
Localism vs COVID-19
Sam Burnham, Curator
The Corona Virus (COVID-19) is the new panic that is sweeping the planet. While narratives range from this being the common cold to it becoming a global pandemic causing the end of all life on Earth. The important story is not really about the disease itself. The important story is going to be buried because it doesn't fit nicely into the modern narrative. The important lesson here is about globalism and the dangerous place it has carried us.
Let me start by saying that trade is not our enemy. Pure isolationism is not the answer to all of our problems, including the Corona Virus. Trade, when engaged properly, is a good thing. It adds variety to our economy and opens new markets for our products as well as provides us with products we might otherwise never see. Healthy trade benefits the economies and citizens of all the nations involved.
But an honest glimpse at Southern history gives us a story of mismanaged trade. In the antebellum South almost all manufactured goods were foreign-made or at least made outside the South. As late as 1889, when Henry Grady addressed the Bay State Club of Boston, the situation had not changed much. His comments about attending a funeral in Pickens County related the fact that Georgia had plentiful resources but very few manufactured goods. Items needed for the funeral were all brought in from the cities of the North. "The South didn't furnish a thing on earth for that funeral but the corpse and the hole in the ground." Grady's point showed a hole in the Southern economy. Something was seriously missing.
Balance is important and I certainly am not calling for Grady's New South or suggesting that the South look to heavy industry to solve its problems. Trade helps create a balance. Industrial centers can trade with resource centers and both can benefit. But balance is key.With too much reliance on industry we risk damaging the very resources we rely on and even altering our culture. With too little industry we become dependent on other locations to provide us with manufactured goods.
This very morning (2/28/20) I heard from a health specialist appearing on the radio program 1A that between 80-90% of the ingredients for American generic pharmaceuticals are produced in China. So when there is an upheaval in China such as the Corona Virus or, God forbid, they go to war with us, our ability to produce medicine screeches to a halt. Keep an eye on the news, not for the stories designed to stir fear to drive ratings, but for the side effects. Notice all the products that are affected by the slowing of economic productivity in China. Well-balanced, healthy trade does not do this. Too many eggs in one basket does. Too few eggs in our own basket does. Again, balance.
While we cannot possibly produce everything we need locally, the more we do produce locally, the more balanced our economy will be. There is certainly no excuse for any foreign nation to be producing 90% of anything as vital as medication. We have to produce more of this in our own country. Entrusting entire segments of the economy to other nations while merely assuming they will stay productive, stable, and solvent is a recipe for disaster. As China remains in quarantine and their productivity continues to drop, domestic businesses reliant on that productivity continue to suffer and our stock markets will continue to drop as a result. It is ridiculous that nations with smaller economies than ours drag our markets over their epidemics. We've benefited from cheap Chinese production but now we're paying the price for that. We'll survive this and they will to. But if we don't change the way we do things the next pandemic will just put us back in this same spot.
Anything we do produce locally - food, clothing, furniture, electricity, you name it - will be independent of the downturns elsewhere. This is economic strength that we can build ourselves. We can build our local economies, improving the loves of our friends and neighbors, insuring economic security in hard times, and keeping our needs from being capsized in ships on our shores. A productive local economy is good for us, our neighbors, future generations, our local environment, and our planet.
When you are in the market to purchase something, put a higher value on things that are produced locally, in your state, or in your region. Value should matter more than cost. Local products may cost more but they will usually be of a higher quality and will have a give more economic benefit to your local economy. Reward makers who are working to provide us with these options. Like I said, it won't always work. There are things we must import but you might be surprised at how much you can find that was made just down the street.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire