Amazon has reached the far corners of the earth… and the highest elevations. Delivery men venture 11,562 feet up in the Himalayas to leave a package. While the company may serve a useful purpose in remote regions, its phenomenal growth also reveals that no town is immune from its less desirable consequences. The online retailer’s omnipresence has been all too apparent in Chicago, New York, and London in recent months, where stores have been closing in droves.
Treasure Island Foods of Chicago, a family-owned business started by Christ Kamberos in 1963, announced at the end of September that after 55 years it was closing all remaining stores in just two weeks. Now, the lights are out and the shadows empty shelves are all that remain, with the scent of fresh sourdough and gyros cooking on the spit only in shoppers’ reminiscences as they walk by the darkened windows.
Julia Child once described Treasure Island as “America’s Most European Supermarket.” In my memory, it was unforgettable. The stores always had treasure troves for every season, from delicious green picholine olives from France, to liver pâté and English Blue Stilton at Christmas, and of course, Marmite. Not to mention exotic cookies and chocolates from all over the world: marzipan and chocolate from Switzerland and Austria, shortbread from Scotland, and crisp butter wafers from the Netherlands are a few examples. It was a haven for special gifts during the holidays.
Treasure Island was not alone in the struggle to survive amidst food delivery apps and Amazon. Not only were customers buying goods online, but Amazon was also shifting into the grocery market by taking over Whole Foods. Not surprisingly, Chicago’s other local grocery chain Dominick’s closed in 2014. The city lost one of its most beloved bakeries too in 2017 when the Swedish Bakery closed after 88 years in business. Gone were the days of mouth-watering rum balls, Princess Torte laden with green marzipan, and toska cake. In its final days an estimated 500 customers per day flocked in to have one last tasty treat.
Purchasing items online might be convenient but the trend has serious costs for many industries, not only food. Retail has been hit hard. Sears recently filed for bankruptcy and is closing 142 stores. So did Toys R Us, shuttering its outlets last summer. Luxury goods retailer Henri Bendel announced in September that its stores will be closing too, after 123 years.
What’s more the change is not just in the United States. In the UK, Marks & Spencer plans to close 100 stores by 2022. Debenhams and House of Fraser in London are also in trouble. In March of 2018, Sweden’s H & M reported the lowest first quarter profits in more than a decade, down 62%. When large international stores are being squeezed, one can understand how local shops are struggling to keep afloat. A recent Atlantic article observes that Manhattan is becoming a “rich ghost town.” So many store fronts once filled with interesting items are now empty, a trend that the author predicts will move to other cities. Will the choices for future shoppers be restricted to chain stores and dark unrented windows? Local small retailers unable to afford high rents are gradually being nudged out of existence. They need help.
Could Local Currencies Save Our Neighborhood Stores?
Switzerland has had the WIR since 1934 and Ithaca, New York introduced its own currency known as Ithaca Hours in 1991. Ithaca Hours started out with 90 individuals who were willing to accept the currency as a payment for their work, and expanded to become one of the largest local currency systems in the U.S. Ithaca’s example was an inspiration for municipal systems in Madison, Wisconsin, and Corvallis, Oregon.
The UK also has several local currencies including the Bristol Pound. The former Mayor of Bristol accepted his entire salary in Bristol Pounds, and more than 800 businesses accept the local currency.
Once local currencies are in circulation, consumers can continue using their national currency to purchase from large retailers and from online giants like Amazon. Their local currency, though, is typically used at local businesses.
As an example, were a Chicago currency implemented, consumers might use their U.S. dollars to purchase goods online but would use their Chicago currency to buy locally. Legislators and communities could thus lend a helping hand to local gems that remain in our towns. Lutz Cafe and Pastry Shop, for instance, established in 1948, is unique to Chicago, and creates some of the most delicious cakes in the world.
By 2003, there were over 1,000 local currencies in North America and Europe. Yet this is a mere fraction of the total number of cities. If local currencies expanded to a majority of towns, perhaps our beloved neighborhood stores would be able to survive the online onslaught.
The Benefits of Preserving Local Shops
Consumers lose a service every time a small shop shuts down. A local paint store, for instance, can provide advice on what paint to use for a particular purpose, how to use it, etc. Nowadays, in many towns, these stores have closed. Consumers’ options are limited to buying online without input from an expert, or from a large national chain, where they will be lucky to find advice comparable to that from a specialized store. The same holds true for many kinds of home repair.
Then there is the charm of familiar faces at the corner store. Growing up near Treasure Island as a child, I could scarcely forget the cherry-cheeked cherub-like server at the deli counter. After noticing this eight-year-old’s tendency to gorge on free olive samples once a week, he would always laugh heartily with those chubby cheeks and remark with a chuckle that I would end up eating all the olives before reaching the check out line. Ordering specialty olives online is just not the same. There may be no checkout line, but also no one to talk or joke with. The same is true for the automated Amazon Go stores. The nice deli server today is out of a job after decades of service.
Another hidden cost of online purchases is environmental. Aside from fossil fuel emissions, delivery of a parcel requires packaging, and often bubble wrap, made of low-density polyethylene, a form of plastic that comprises 20% of global plastic pollution. Reusable bags and a neighborhood store within walking distance are clearly better for the environment.
Amazon’s reach extends to places like Leh, India, high in the snow-covered Himalayas, where many of its goods may not be available in town. And one can appreciate and understand the value of online purchases in such rural communities. In fact that was exactly the original purpose of Sears with its iconic catalogue.
Yet in cities where one can readily buy the same items in stores nearby, we have to try to refrain from the convenience of one-click shopping. The more we purchase online items, the more we pollute the environment and kill local stores. Without small businesses, cities will eventually become homogenized with block after block of chain retailers, or dark empty windows, as has started to happen in Manhattan. The character of a quaint town or a trendy metropolis becomes obsolete.
Gone will be the unique gift shops and the luxury tailor. When the British high street becomes indistinguishable from U.S. ghost towns and when the only place to eat is a chain burger joint, the fun of traveling and the adventure of new places will be lost forever. The vibrant world of new flavors and experiences will be no more.
So please think twice before clicking an online purchase. You may be signing your local store’s death warrant.
Author’s note: this piece first appeared in CounterPunch.org
The CIIE: A gorgeous chorus of integrated world economy
The 2nd China International Import Expo (CIIE) will be held in Shanghai, China from November 5th to 10th. Iran will participate in Country Exhibition, Business Exhibition and Hongqiao International Economic Forum (HIEF). Here, I would like to introduce the CIIE to Iranian friends.
The 1st CIIE achieved great success. On November 5th to 10th, 2018, the first CIIE was successfully held in Shanghai, China, with a profound influence around the world. First, the scale of the exhibition was large. Covering a total area of 300,000 square meters, 172 countries and international organizations participated, and 3,617 overseas companies took part in the exhibition, fully reflecting the strong appeal of the Chinese market. Second, the level of the exhibition was high. More than 220 of the world’s top 500 companies participated in the exhibition, and more than 300 new products and technologies were first released. Third, the result of the exhibition was rewarding. More than 800,000 exhibitors and purchasers attended the conference, concluding contracts over US$57.8 billion.
During the 1st HIEF, Chinese President Xi Jinping attended the opening ceremony and delivered a keynote speech. More than 30 foreign heads of states and international organizations delivered speeches and more than 4,500 delegates attended the forum. The Country Exhibition covered all five continents, including developed countries, developing countries and least developed countries. The Country Exhibition pavilions had different styles, highlighting their own characteristics, and making full use of high-tech means and diverse forms to display their unique regional culture and distinct advantageous industries, including goods trade, service trade, industrial development, investment, tourism and specialty.
The second CIIE is quite worth expecting. Namely, its scale will be even larger. The exhibition area has increased from 300,000 to 330,000 square meters. More than 170 countries, international organizations, over 3,000 exhibitors and 400,000 purchasers have signed up for the exhibition. There will be more than 200 supporting and facilitating activities, such as interpretation of economy policies, release of research reports, international cultural exchange, corporate promotion, as well as sellers and buyers’ matching negotiations. Its quality will be further upgraded. The exhibitors are more diversified. The number of companies in the world’s top 500 and leading industrial enterprises exceeds that of the first CIIE, and there will be even more visitors and international purchasers. Professional, high-quality, cutting-edge and featured exhibits will be more concentrated and the quality will be further improved. Its innovation will be much stronger. This year, for the first time, the CIIE news release platform will be set up. The Chinese ministries and local governments will jointly interpret important policies. International organizations and research institutions will release annual reports and industrial reports respectively. The CIIE will continue to be chosen as an ideal platform by participating companies to launch their products and technologies, the number of which is expected to overpass last year’s. Innovative exhibition forms such as quality life, technology life, and artificial intelligence will give participants a first-class experience.
As a major feature and highlight of the CIIE this year, there will be more than 60 countries participating in the Country Exhibition, covering an area of about 30,000 square meters. The theme of HIEF this year is “Openness, Innovation, Cooperation, and Win-win”. More than 50 important speakers from political, business and academic fields including WTO Director-general, UNCTAD Secretary-general, Nobel laureate in economics and leaders of global top 500 enterprises, will jointly explore the new trend of global economic development, share their views and insights on meeting new challenges, overcoming difficulties, and finding ways for further developing globe economy in the new era.
The open and cooperative CIIE will never end. The CIIE was first initiated, planned, deployed, and promoted by President Xi Jinping in person. As an event to be held on an annual basis, the CIIE will feature good performance, good results and continued success in the years to come. Adhering to the global governance concept of extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits, the CIIE welcomes countries to share China’s development dividends. It provides new opportunities for countries to expand exports to China, but also develop trade relations with third countries. It builds a new platform for countries to demonstrate national development achievements and to explore global economic and trade issues. It injects new impetus to global trade and world economic growth. Upholding the spirit of openness and cooperation, the CIIE is not a China’s solo show, but rather a chorus of countries of all over the world. Working together with the international community, China is willing to develop the CIIE into an effective channel for the goods, technologies and services from the world to enter the Chinese market, an open and cooperative platform for countries around the world to strengthen cooperation and exchanges and conduct international trade, an international public product to promote economic globalization. China is willing to make joint efforts with the world to construct an open world economy, build a community with a shared future for mankind, and facilitate better development of global trade and world economy.
I believe that Iranian companies participating in this year’s CIIE will be warmly welcomed with the world-famous Persian carpets, saffron, handicrafts and etc…The Iran Country Exhibition High-Tech Pavilion will open a new window for China and other countries as well to perceive and further understand Iran’s technological strength and advanced products with its featured products in the fields of IT, energy, environment, nano, biology and health. As an important hub along the Silk Road , Iran’s voice and view will be heard at HIEF and spread to the rest of the world.
Here, I wish CIIE a gorgeous chorus of the integrated world economy and having a long-lasting profound impact of the world.
From our partner Tehran Times
Modi’s India a flawed partner for post-Brexit Britain
With just two weeks to go until Britain is scheduled to exit the European Union, Boris Johnson and his ministers are understandably focused on the last-minute dash to formulate a workable Brexit deal with the EU. Once this moment has passed, however, either Johnson or whoever replaces him as PM will come under intense pressure to deliver the trade deals Brexit side supporters have so talked up since 2016.
One such envisaged deal is with India. Seven decades after securing independence from Britain’s colonial empire, New Delhi has the world’s seventh-largest economy and one of its fastest growth rates. The prospect of deeper trade ties with Asia’s third-largest economy has been a major feature of the pitch for a “Global Britain” that extends the UK’s reach beyond the continent, and Johnson himself made a big thing of expanding economic ties with India while campaigning to become PM.
Unfortunately, any plans to kickstart trade agreements with India will run into problems, and not just over immigration and visa issues. India is on the verge of a serious economic downturn, hit by job losses and decreasing levels of foreign investment. With growth slowing down, Indian PM Narendra Modi has fallen back on his aggressive brand of Hindu nationalism to galvanise public support, a gambit that has most recently resulted in his government’s controversial move to strip automony from Kashmir.
Bad time for a UK-India trade deal
Whereas only a few years ago India was held up as one of the world’s fastest growing economies and an enticing prospect for global trade and investment, Moody’s new projection of a 5.8% growth rate represents a danger to Narendra Modi’s promise of a $5 trillion economy. Recently released figures show India’s GDP growth falling for the fifth successive quarter, to a six-year low of 5.2%.
India’s economic woes are reflected in patterns of foreign investment. Around $45 billion has been invested in India from abroad over the last 6 years. The downturn in the country’s economic fortunes has seen a record $4.5 billion of shares sold by foreign investors since June this year. These economic problems are linked to Modi’s failure to carry through on economic reforms promised when he came to power in 2014, when a number of structural problems were seen as inhibiting external trade relationships.
India currently has over 1,000 business regulations and more than 3,000 filing requirements, as well as differing standards for social, environmental and human rights. These have been sticking points in the moribund trade deal negotiations between India and the EU, and Brexit advocates have not explained how they plan to overcome these hurdles.
Hostility to foreign companies
Structural issues are only part of the problem. Another key concern is the Indian government’s adversarial attitude towards foreign investors. Despite Modi’s promises to make India an attractive place to do business, his government has continued protectionist policies that throttle the country’s ability to attract outside capital.
One issue is retrospective taxation. Under Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, several British and international firms were hit with sizeable, legally dubious tax bills by the Indian government. Modi came to power on a promise of ending retrospective tax bills being imposed on overseas companies, and yet British firms such as Vodafone and Cairn Energy still find themselves pursued through the courts for back-dated tax bills, despite the protections they should enjoy under the bilateral investment treaty between India and the UK.
Vodafone’s case involved its 2007 acquisition of a stake in cellular carrier Hutchinson Essar. While the deal did not take place in India, New Delhi determined Vodafone still owed $5 billion in taxes on the overseas transaction. After the Indian Supreme Court dismissed the claim in 2012, India’s previous government introduced a new law to tax transactions of this nature that retroactively applied to cases going back to 1962. Modi attacked this “tax terrorism” at the time, but his government has continued its dogged pursuit of Vodafone in the courts.
Cairn Energy has faced an equally arduous struggle with the Indian Ministry of Finance, which in 2014 blocked the British firm from selling its 10% stake in Cairn India and subsequently demanded $1.6 billion in taxes. Indian officials used the 2012 law to justify their actions, violating the bilateral investment treaty and breaking one of Modi’s own campaign promises in the process.
Immigration laws a further sticking point
This recent history should already give British businesses pause, but the most obvious obstacle in any trade negotiations between UK and India will be the issue of immigration. The Centre For European Reform has argued post-Brexit trade will be closely linked to opening up UK borders to workers from partner countries, but a UK Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee report in June highlighted how Britain’s immigration restrictions on Indian workers, students and tourists has already impacted bilateral trade relations. The report noted how the UK has slipped from being India’s 2nd largest trade partner in 1999 to 17th in 2019, adding that skilled workers, students and tourists are deterred from coming to the UK by the complicated, expensive and unwelcoming British migration system.
It is unlikely the Modi government will agree to any UK-India trade deal that doesn’t guarantee a relaxing of immigration rules that will allow a free flow of people as well as goods and capital between the two countries. The question is whether the British government, which has veered ever more closely towards a Brexit-fuelled populism at odds with relaxed border controls, will be flexible enough to sign up to this.
Given these issues, are Britain’s hopes for a post-Brexit dividend in Indian trade dead on arrival? Unless Modi’s government starts living up to international standards and honouring his country’s investment agreements with British companies, “Global Britain” may not get much further with India than it has with the US.
A more effective labour market approach to fighting poverty
is still the most reliable way of escaping poverty. However, access to both
jobs and decent working conditions remains a challenge. Sixty-six per cent of
employed people in developing economies and 22 per cent in emerging economies
are in either extreme or moderate working poverty, and the problem becomes even
more striking when the dependents of these “working poor” are considered.
Thus, it is not just unemployment or inactivity that traps people in poverty, they are also held back by a lack of decent work opportunities, including underemployment or informal employment.
Appropriate labour market policies can play an important role in the fight to eradicate poverty, by increasing access to job opportunities and improving the quality of working conditions. In particular, labour market policies that combine income support for jobless people with active labour market policies (ALMPs).
The new ILO report What works: Promoting pathways to decent work shows that combining income support with active labour market support allows countries to tackle multiple barriers to decent work. These barriers can be structural, (e.g. lack of education and skills, presence of inequalities) or temporary (e.g. climate-related shocks, economic crises). This policy combination is particularly relevant today, at a time when the world of work is being reshaped by global forces such as international trade, technological progress, demographic shifts and environmental transformations.
that combine income support with ALMPs can help people to adjust to the changes
these forces create in the labour market. Income support ensures that people do
not fall into poverty during joblessness and that they are not forced to accept
any work, irrespective of its quality. At the same time, ALMPs endow people
with the skills they need to find quality employment, improving their
employability over the medium- to long-term.
New evidence gathered for this report shows that this combination of income support and active support is indeed effective in improving labour market conditions: impact evaluations of selected policies indicate how people who have benefited from this type of integrated approach have higher employment chances and better working conditions.
One example of how this combined approach can produce results is the innovative unemployment benefit scheme unrolled in Mauritius, the “Workfare Programme”. This provides workers with access to income support and three different types of activation measures; training (discontinued in 2016), job placement and start-up support. The programme was also open to those unemployed people who were previously working in an informal job. By extending coverage to the most vulnerable workers, the scheme has helped reduce inequalities and unlock the informality trap.
Another success came through a public works scheme implemented in Uruguay as part of a larger conditional cash transfer programme, the National Social Emergency Plan (PANES). The programme was implemented during a deep economic recession and carefully targeted the poorest and most vulnerable.
Beneficiaries of PANES were given the opportunity to take part in public works. In exchange for full-time work for up to five months, they received a higher level of income support as well as additional job placement help. This approach reached a large share of the population at risk of extreme poverty and who lacked social protection. The report indicates that providing both measures together was critical to the project’s success.
The effects of these policies on poverty eradication cannot be overestimated. By tackling unemployment, underemployment and informality, policies combining income support with ALMPs can directly affect some of the roots of poverty, while enhancing the working conditions and labour market opportunities for millions of women and men in emerging and developing countries.
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