Do Olympians want a local economy—and will they support one?

This is the first of several posts on Olympia’s local economy.

I’ve written at length about the market demand in Olympia for downtown/high density corridor housing. For better or worse, it is one of the central goals in the comprehensive plan. Notwithstanding other implications, it is also one of the ways Olympians can ensure the greatest economies of scale on its infrastructure investments that the comprehensive plan requires.[i] I pointed out that developers, who would have to construct the buildings in which people will live, don’t currently believe there is sufficient demand in this area to justify the risk they would have to assume in building downtown or in the high density corridors. This demand issue has two components: 1.) Consumer preferences; and, 2.) Consumer purchasing power. I’ve discussed the former sufficiently; we can now turn to some issues concerning purchasing power.

The other prominent response in the Imagine Olympia process and its focus groups, besides urban housing[ii], was the desire to create a local economy. I understand that to mean that people want to patronize and work for local businesses, and earn enough doing that to live in Olympia, whether in a house or a condominium. This perfectly illustrates that Olympian ethos of which I am so fond.

In the next few posts, we’ll break apart and analyze both theoretical and practical components of a local economy and how those concepts could apply in Olympia and Thurston County. We’ll start with the superficial distinction between the consumer and the producer. (It’s superficial because they’re both wrapped together—particularly in a local economy—but a decent analysis requires separation.) I’ll start in this particular post with whether our actions are consistent with our stated desire for a local economy and what that means.

I approach this subject with a hefty skepticism about the overall concept of a local economy that I’ll illustrate with a personal story: My lovely and talented spouse and I decided to take an excursion around Lacey and West Olympia on a recent Friday evening with the express purpose of observing our chain restaurants. The multitude of Hawkes Prairie’s chain restaurants was amply supplied with people, which I expected given the number of vehicles that pass through that area. Olympia’s chains had likewise garnered a surprisingly absurd mass of humanity. One particularly stunning example was Red Robin’s on the Westside. Curiosity got the better of us. We called to ask about the wait time, given how many people were waiting outside. No answer. We parked—what would have amounted to at least a block away by downtown parking standards—and went inside after making our way through an absolutely terrific “line”. At the host station, we were told that they would get to us as soon as possible without even venturing a guess as to how long it would be before a table would be available. They did tell us we could be third in line behind two couples for a seat at the bar. Perhaps they knew we were just doing some informal field research. That we could not be seated in any articulable time frame, and that that didn’t seem to be a deterrent for those waiting outside, seemed a sad commentary on our collective consumer habits. On the way home, we drove through downtown and noticed that several sit-down restaurants with burgers on the menu had empty tables. While I don’t think I need to belabor the point, this experience and the public exuberance over the opening of REI and Trader Joe’s in Olympia certainly give me pause when I read that we want a local economy.

Lest you think I’m criticizing our fair city’s consumer habits, I want to emphasize that I’m responding to the feedback that Olympians gave the city—in response to repeated requests. I also want to develop a local economy. However, I, like those masses I am criticizing, patronize nonlocal eateries and stores (not a lot, but I am certainly guilty of the offense I am criticizing). While my single example could have been an outlier, it makes me believe that developing a local economy, if possible at all, will require a massive reorientation of our consumer habits.

It is necessary to point out here that the responses to the city’s surveys were concentrated among a relatively narrow, politically active demographic. There is no conceivable basis to argue that those responses reflect a majority opinion in Olympia, though they could just as easily as they may not. This “silent majority” idea is repugnant to me personally because I don’t think it helps any policy formulator to guess at what those who didn’t bother to get involved think especially when there is plenty to work from given the information we did receive. (We need to be logical and keep common sense where possible, but I say this mostly because I’ve seen some pretty bad examples of making up issues to confirm a preconcivced bias and I try to avoid doing that myself.) We know with certainty only what we were told and we don’t have a very good idea who those people are demographically. I can say only that we (or at least I) tended to see the same faces at all of the focus meetings. Suffice it to say, there is plenty of room for more input and more people to get involved and probably a more comprehensive process for the next time we attempt an update. As it is, I will have to continue the analysis under the assumption that a local economy is desirable even if I cannot prove that a majority desires it.

Two obvious and intuitive behaviors will aid the development of a local economy: 1.) Patronize local businesses; and, 2.) Don’t patronize businesses that aren’t local. At first glance, the local and non-local options obviously seem mutually exclusive: whenever you eat at a restaurant in Olympia, you’ll exclude either a local or a non-local eatery (unless you take two meals). That means you have a choice as to how much you want to support the local economy. Each meal at non-local burger joint means that many fewer dollars that will stay in our local economy. I know I don’t need to tell the readers of this blog that the only dollars that stay local in a national chain are the wages of the workers, provided that they live here. The rest flees Olympia to beef producers, potato farmers, real estate professionals (some of whom could be local) administrative personnel (including executives), and of course shareholders (some of whom could be local—especially with institutionalized shareholder ownership via mutual or pension funds). I also don’t need to say that the same goes for almost any restaurant that isn’t headquartered in Olympia—despite how much Panera Bread might flatter our sense of brand identification. This applies to every other consumer choice we have available—including supermarkets, hardware stores, office supply stores—you name it.

We need to dig deeper: what is a local business? In our economic structure this is an incredibly misleading and often confusing concept. Is a non-local chain which sources all of its supplies locally a local business? What about a locally-owned business which sources its goods from child labor in China? Does localism require that all of the company’s products be locally sourced or only that the mercantile exchange happens locally? What about food from organic farms in Switzerland or Brazil? Is it unfair to deem a company foreign because of where it’s incorporated? Would be counterproductive to laud a local business with unsavory labor or production practices?

The essential concept of a free market economy (apparently guaranteed by that god, our Constitution), is that consumers vote with their dollars, and that ensures the companies they patronize flourish. In the most popular economic doctrine, consumers act as though they have complete information and make rational decisions with their purchases. (Those of you who know me can imagine the vice grips I used to plug my nose while I typed that nonsense.) We therefore put the future of a local economy squarely into the hands of the consumers. According to currently conventional wisdom, their preferences—rationally cast with perfect knowledge—will determine the vitality of our local economy. On that view, then, local businesses will need to have the lowest prices and the most exemplary business practices in order to thrive—only then can our local economy sustain itself.

This is a particularly important issue for reasons that extend far beyond our local economy, and is actually fairly closely related to an ethnographic report the city commissioned in 2009. For those unfamiliar with it, ethnography is a qualitative study of behavioral phenomena within a specific culture (e.g. how people act)—not a bunch of numbers or data sets that are abstracted from anonymous survey responses and other sources. For more information, see Ethnographic Insight, Inc., the researchers’ website. The specific behavior in question was how people in Olympia make decisions about their lawn care, especially about the use of chemical pesticides. I found the research, responses, and behavior that this report detailed altogether astounding. For example: people confidently denied outright that they were in any way influenced by large chemical producers’ lawn care products, even though each of them said they used chemicals on their lawn because they wanted to recreate the classic image of a beautifully pristine lawn with a perfectly happy family precisely as it is portrayed on every television commercial for the product in question. Further, though they had some impression of knowing that the products were potentially dangerous or at least questionably safe, they used them anyway. In other cases, people denied that there was any negative repercussion from their use though after applying them, they kept their dog off the lawn, just to be safe.

If I can generalize some, this ethnography leads me to believe that we generally avoid coming to terms with our own destructive (and creative) potential; that we will always seek justification for whatever it is we want to do, whether that is avoiding weeding or eating at a non-local fast food chain. Most disturbingly, we will not admit or recognize that we are influenced by powerful  and pervasive sources such as marketing messages. (Here, I will avoid discussion of our near religious zeal for a ubiquitous gadget peddler, particularly among the lefties of our political spectrum.) If I interpret this ethnography’s general implications correctly and if this sort of behavior is pervasive in our community, it will be a major hindrance to the development of a local economy here. We’re quite happy to say we want to do what we think makes sense, such as creating a local economy, but at the same time, we are unwilling to modify our behavior to make it happen.

Having briefly touched the issues that I consider most problematic, I’ll now leave them behind. To the extent possible, further posts on this subject will assume that: 1.) Olympians do genuinely want a local economy, but more importantly 2.) Olympians will act like it in the marketplace regardless of the temptations, pressures, and restrictions that a local economy may require.

[i] Page 26, of this HUGE document details some of the assumptions to which I am responding. While downtown, market rate housing tends to be a hot button issue, the respondents to this survey didn’t say they want to live in downtown dwelling units. They said they want impact fees implemented that would drive new housing downtown from undeveloped land in the extremities. These survey results are open to many interpretations, but my conclusion—consistent with the “small town feel in a growing city” meme—is that Olympians generally aren’t actually looking for downtown housing for themselves though they believe someone should be living there.

[ii] See previous note.

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