Ben Grosscup: Questioning “economic development”




War profiteers and peddlers of deadly soft drinks expand amidst recession, but ethics define economic health
By Ben Grosscup, ISE Board Member

(From the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Monday, September 12, 2011. This newspaper serves Hampshire County in Western Massachusetts.)

AMHERST, MA – It is time to question the ideology of job creation that holds sway in most discussions of so-called economic development. We could look at how this ideology shows up in the permanent presidential race whose cycle is now ramping up, but we can just as easily start with the Gazette’s Aug. 25 report headlined “Investing in the future,” about local economic development priorities.

Outlining the “challenging” economic times we’re living in, the piece also noted reasons to cheer: Two firms with operations in Northampton have “created new jobs,” we learn. One of them, Kollmorgen, makes optical devices for the U.S. Navy’s submarine fleet, used to maintain American political and military domination across the planet. The other, Coca-Cola, manufactures and distributes soft drinks using genetically engineered high-fructose corn syrup, which causes obesity and a host of other health problems.

How do we assess the social benefit of these new enterprise expansions? One could argue legitimately that having a job at one of these firms is preferable to the misery of unemployment. On a personal level, I can see a truth in this.

However, as citizens of the democracy that many Americans aspire to practice, I think it is not enough to evaluate the health of the economy merely in terms of what personal opportunities individuals have to gain employment from certain firms.

The real mark of economic health is not merely that firms in a given municipality are hiring. Economic health is when the basic economic functions of society make ours a healthier place to live – a place with less war, less disease, more ecological health and justice. In this sense, the expansion of operations for Kollmorgen and Coca-Cola is economically harmful.

Why don’t our local economic development officials see it this way? The nature of their profession is to harness the mechanisms of government to bring about conditions that facilitate private firms hiring people. The basic terms are set by these firms, which are legally beholden to deliver profits to their shareholders, and not based on any sort of ethical end of creating a better economy for everyone.

As the economic lives of most people become ever more precarious, our economic development professionals counsel local communities to become ever more accommodating to private capital – even to the firms taking a lead in ruining the planet. These firms have been given tax incentives and infrastructure subsidies by the city of Northampton and many other locales pursuing the same logic of serving corporate interests.

This strategy may arguably expand the local tax base – at least in the short term. And it can provide some employment to certain individuals – at least so long as the firms continue needing the workers to make profits. But these benefits are funded by a mere fraction of the flow of money, originating with income taxes and soda purchases, that these amoral corporations are accumulating.

They also come at the expense of global peace and public health. What good is it for the community to receive such a restricted fraction of the wealth when these companies’ activities cause such harm? It is sad that many community leaders see facilitating the operations of firms that produce for war and obesity-inducing diets as necessary in order to gain revenue.

Perhaps if public officials held more firmly to withdrawing support for the activities that are destroying the planet, there’d be a greater availability of money, as well as creative energy and political will, for creating the kind of world we want to live in.

If we can transcend this reigning ideology, perhaps we can forge pathways toward that world.

Ben Grosscup, a community organizer, is a Town Meeting member in Amherst representing Precinct 9.