Current crisis is an overlay on bigger problems

Because of their size and dominance, Amazon and other online behemoths are drawing attention from some in the U.S. Congress concerned about monopoly and antitrust violations.

Peter Rose

It’s hard for me to envision a reality in which small towns are obsolete. Where the unique character and make-up is no longer relevant enough to be a viable environment for independent stores to fill local niches.  

Hard because I don’t like that vision at all.  

Yet I see it happening, feel the inexorable pressure being exerted by technology and corporations so large that the castle cannot be defended forever.

The latest figures tell us that independent retail is now 45 percent of all USA retail, and employment in this field is 48 percent indie.  

These are pre-covid figures. These numbers don’t include the 400,000 small businesses that closed by September due to the economic reality of a pandemic. They don’t take into account that while virtually all small businesses experienced devastating drops in retail sales in the fourth quarter of 2020, Amazon sales were up 60 percent.

So who knows where we are now, or where we’ll be when some semblance of normalcy returns.  

If you look at these things as I do: As a huge-stakes war for retail square footage and market share, in which the well being and employment of millions is at stake, and choice and price fixing are at huge risk for consumers, the numbers matter a lot.   

I understand the reality of not wanting to go out, and the incredible ease of getting what you want at the push of a send button.  

But if my daughter owned a shop and needed every sale so as to feed my grand kids and pay her mortgage, I wouldn’t be quite as quick to bypass her for the convenience of the internet. My priorities and values predetermine what I’d do, and I promise you, it would not be to contribute to her detriment.  

On the broader scale, it’s all about just exactly how much each of us views the vitality of our own community. Community in this case being defined as Downriver. 

I’ve been sharing various angles and takes on this issue since I began writing this column. Before that, I was obsessed with the concept of a shared “pushing back” against national, for the sake of the effect on our community of our little businesses that employ so many, and how we all tend to keep our money circulating locally to the tune of roughly three times as much as national chain stores.  

I hate seeing boarded up towns that no longer draw people to eat, drink, bank, shop, get things done and just mingle with the rest of the world that relies on the personal touches that each merchant brings.

But with the internet came a whole different breed of threat.  

In Congress, there is a growing acknowledgement that antitrust laws have been nearly completely ignored in favor of  “hands off the market” thinking.  

Reports have been released, and action looms to reign in big tech in particular.  Google, Facebook and Amazon are the targets. The size and scope of these entities is mind-numbing.  The power and control they assert, with virtually zero oversight, is incomprehensible.

Twenty-two years ago, there was no Google. Fifteen years ago, no Facebook. Amazon was founded in 1994. In such a short time, the value of these companies is staggering, and Congress has paid virtually no attention. There didn’t use to be a concern about single companies having dominance in many realms; now it’s routine.

My heroic advocacy organization is ILSR, the Institute for Local Self Reliance.  

They’ve gotten the attention of Congress and are working with legislators now to achieve meaningful change.  

There is talk of splitting Amazon and Google. There is now a possibility for new laws by which to govern, not be governed. The capture of more tax dollars and a massive reduction in tax subsidies by which the government chooses winners and worries not about the consequences of a severely damaged small business network across the country.

I was invited by ILSR to participate in a Zoom call recently with their leaders, Congressman David Cicilline, Zephyr Teachout, and owners of many independent businesses across the country.  

I was invited to ask a question, which was intended to point out that these companies are not evil in and of themselves, but they need to be regulated and controlled.  There need to be guidelines and rules and consequences for breaking them.  Pretty much the precise thing that is wrong with the way we manage just about everything:  Leave it to big business to self-regulate, which means not regulate.  And then scratch our heads and exclaim “Boy, never saw that coming.”  

The question had been asked and answered in another way, so I punted to simply comment that so many of my fellow indie owners are every bit as passionate as I am about the failure of government to actually control the tool of capitalism, and that not surprisingly, we’re more than a little jaded about the prospects for real and substantive change down this path.  

But I’m thankful that there are some that really do care, that are also appalled, and that intend to affect change.

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