Pushing Back

(Vanessa Pike-Russell photo .)

This is the third post in a series examining avenues available for creating change.

Where we buy our food can be a revolutionary act.  It can continue to support the Wall Street-based system of national chains, agribusiness, and investment banks.  Or it can instead support small farmers, cooperatives, and local businesses.  The choice is ours.  We have to eat– who will we give our money to?

To most fully support a revolutionary economy, we would need to look not only at where we get our food, but also what is in it.  Giant agribusinesses get billions of dollars in subsidies each year– our taxes at work.  With that money, they produce cheap corn and soy, which in turn produces high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils.  Without debating the health merits of these ingredients, let’s observe that the more we eat of these industrially-produced food ingredients, the more we support the corporate system that created them.  By avoiding corn syrup and hydrogenated soy oil, we’re taking a bite out of the profits of some of the most influential corporations in Washington.

Let’s take another aspect: it’s lunch time and I’m in a rush.  Do I eat at McDonalds of KFC, or choose instead my local burrito shop?  For coffee, do I patronize nationwide Starbucks, or the locally-owned coffee shop that offers live music in the evenings?

As we review our lives, we will find that we are intertwined with national and multinational corporations– sometimes unnecessarily.  Sure, it’s pretty difficult to buy a car or an insurance policy through a local company (unless you live in Michigan or Connecticut, respectively).  But I found a local company to provide my internet service.  My bank is local– and it not only gives me free checking, it pays me 2.25% interest on my balance, and they know me by name when I walk in!

There are some products that I can’t buy from a local company, but I can buy them from a small company elsewhere.  Ebay, Paypal,  and the internet in general have opened up worlds of opportunity for small businesses.  I’ve bought stainless steel equipment from Wisconsin and Nebraska, cheese cultures from Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and Ontario, and cheese molds from the UK– all choosing small businesses over the national or international “big guys.”

Home Depot, Staples, and Verizon Wireless are probably here to stay– there aren’t very many alternatives.  But for much of what I buy, I can make the choice to support my local economy over Wall Street.

There’s another aspect of Wall Street that permeates our lives: investment.  Whether for our retirement savings or our nest egg, most of us turn to stocks or stock-based mutual funds.  (Remember the Bush proposal that would have put even our social security into Wall Street based investments?)  It’s no surprise, really: the companies we work for offer Wall Street stock-based investment vehicles in their 401(k) plans.  Advertising campaigns by Morgan Stanley, Charles Schwab, TD Ameritrade, and others accept as a given that stocks are the only place to invest our money for the long term.  We’ve been raised on a steady diet of the idea that what’s good for Wall Street is good for us.

I know people who invest only in Small Cap stocks, those small businesses that people are betting will turn into large businesses.  But why invest in Wall Street at all, when there are so many investment opportunities closer to home? To my mind, if a company is big enough to be traded on a public exchange, it’s probably too big for me to invest in,  I’ve pulled almost all my savings and retirement funds out of stocks and stock-based mutual funds,and put them instead into local investments.

Here are some of the investment vehicles that I’ve chosen, and some that my clients have used:

  • Real estate investments (raw land)
  • Rental real estate, alone or in partnership with others
  • Loans to small businesses
  • Creating a small business
  • Loaning money secured by property
  • Purchasing a mortgage from a private lender
  • Collectibles

Whether you know it or not (and Wall Street hopes you don’t), you can even invest your IRA or Roth-IRA in these investments.  And by partnering with others, most of these can be accomplished with no bank loans.  Why put the bank first in line if there’s a problem?  A cash-only deal is another way to keep Wall Street out of our affairs.

Wall Street wants us to believe they are indispensable. But why do they spend so much money reinforcing that image, unless it’s open to question?  By voting with our wallets, we can dispel that image and put them back in their place.

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