Protestors reinvigorate buy-American debate

2011-11-20T00:00:00Z 2011-11-22T13:23:24Z Protestors reinvigorate buy-American debateBY DEBRA D. BASS • dbass@post-dispatch.com > 314-340-8236 stltoday.com

Whether people celebrate or criticize Occupy Wall Street, the movement has reinvigorated calls for local buying just in time for the manic holiday shopping season.

Buying local and American-made became a battle cry for some in the movement that blames big business greed for shuttering American operations and shipping those jobs overseas.

"Some people talk about buying local and not supporting large chain stores, but really I think we want to encourage people to think consciously about where they shop," said Zach Chasnoff, 33, of south St. Louis.

Chasnoff has wielded a bullhorn at a few Occupy St. Louis rallies, though he said he couldn't speak as a representative of a movement. He said he'd been waiting for an opportunity to ignite this particular discussion.

Chasnoff owns a house painting business that fluctuates from two to seven employees during his busy season. When the bottom fell out of the economy in 2008, he was virtually unemployed for about seven months and didn't know if he'd keep his house, he said. Meanwhile, bank bailouts and news of continued executive bonuses infuriated him. He blames greed for companies' transferring jobs overseas and cheap foreign goods for undercutting American-made items.

Many economists challenge that logic, saying that free trade ultimately benefits the U.S.

"It feels almost anti-patriotic to buy goods made elsewhere right now. You are perpetuating the loss of manufacturing jobs," Chasnoff said, echoing long-standing protests by some against, for instance, buying foreign cars.

Buying local, on the other hand, puts consumers, not corporations, in control, he said.

Would it work?

Steve Fazzari (EDITOR'S NOTE: Fazzari's name was misspelled in the original story), a professor of economics at Washington University, said that the wage disparity concerns at the root of the Occupy Wall Street movement wouldn't be solved by shopping at boutiques and farmers markets.

"I'd have a hard time telling people that their holiday shopping patterns will have an important impact on income distribution," Fazzari said.

If globalization has killed American jobs and driven down wages, then the tool to combat the trend would be higher wages in emerging markets such as China, not necessarily closing operations there. China's extremely cheap labor is the problem for American workers, not the fact that Chinese workers have jobs formerly held by Americans, Fazzari explained.

Rising global wages would level the playing field for American workers, he said, and it would increase the demand for all goods if we have more people who can afford to buy. But Fazzari acknowledged that a push to boost wages for Chinese workers — a complicated endeavor, to say the least — is probably less likely to ignite an American protest movement.

Kathi Corbett-Otto, 45, of St. Louis also joined the Occupy St. Louis movement out of frustration. She's been out of work for 16 months. She believes buying local can make a difference, though she knows that might be hard to prove. .

She'll be doing the Christmas shopping for her sister and mother who won't have time to fight the holiday crowds, but she's not planning to proselytize about her shopping beliefs.

"I don't expect kids to understand the economic philosophy about why they can't get a toy that they really want if it's only available at a big chain" or if it's only made in China, Corbett-Otto said. "Getting them what they want is more important. It's about them."

You'd expect shop owners and area artisans to rally behind shop-local slogans, and they do — but perhaps not as vehemently as some might like.

Katie Miller, co-owner of the Scarlett Garnet jewelry line, sells her jewelry of rustic but beautiful, laser-cut metals embellished with bullet casings and gems both locally and nationally. She works part-time at Charm, a jewelry boutique in Maplewood, but isn't worried about people's shopping at big box stores.

"People have definitely tightened their spending, but we've only been growing," Miller said. She launched her business five years ago, but she's happy with her sales and doesn't feel threatened.

However, on a business level, she keeps her manufacturing close to home because it's convenient, affordable and "for the (customer) that cares where things come from, it does mean more sales."

VALUE SHOPPING

Amy Johnson of KayOss Designs had a similar outlook. She prefers to manufacture everything in St. Louis, but she doesn't expect her customers to restrict their spending to the city or the state.

She said that it's her job to make something they will want no matter where it was made, although most people say her local-centricity is a bonus.

"If you offer people something of value, they will pay for it," Johnson said. "I'm not trying to compete against anybody. It's more important to create things I'm proud of."

She quit her job as an engineer and started her clothing line in 2007 when the economy took a dive. Her business, which hinges on local sales mainly through private trunk shows, has grown every year.

Fazzari, the economics professor, said that ultimately "consumers will look out for their own self-interests," so that's why he's skeptical that telling anyone to shop here but not there will ever work, especially when price is a concern.

The good news is that more consumers are having this discussion, he said.

"Our shopping is a reflection of our values," so people should use their dollars to voice their convictions, Fazzari said. "If shopping locally reflects their values, I support and admire them … but I'm skeptical that it will solve national and global problems. We have to be realistic."

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