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Economy

Is Your Neighborhood Store Safe? Amazon and Store Closings

Meena Miriam Yust

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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?

The answer may be introducing local currencies.  Studies have shown that municipal currencies stimulate the local economy.  They serve as shock absorbers and protect in times of recession.

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

Meena Miriam Yust is an attorney based in Chicago, Illinois. Educated at Vassar College and Case Western Reserve University School of Law, she published a draft Migratory Insect Treaty with commentary in the Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law.

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Economy

Turkey and Trump’s sanctions-based “political economy”

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By the end of last year, the Turkish economy had slipped into a technical recession, boosting in 12 months by only 2.6%, despite the fact that a year ago the government expected GDP to grow by 3.8%. The slowdown is particularly striking against the background of sustainable development over the past seven years: in 2010, the country’s GDP grew by 8.5%, in 2011 – by 11.1%, in 2012 – by 4.8%, in 2013 – by 8.5%, in 2014 – by 5.2%, in 2015 – by 6.1%, in 2016 – by 3.2% and in 2017 – by 7.4%  This trend has turned Turkey into one of the fastest developing economies, earning it 17th position worldwide in nominal GDP and 13th in the GDP value regarding purchasing power parity.

The situation changed by the middle of 2018, when relations with Washington deteriorated to the point of a trade war. The Trump administration resorted to the much-practiced method of targeting the “dissenters”: it raised drastically customs duties on steel and aluminum imported from Turkey (which, however, did not prevent the United States from becoming the second buyer of Turkish metallurgical produce by the end of the year). On August 1 the US introduced sanctions against Turkish Interior and Justice Ministers. At that time, the main stumbling block (at least on the surface of it) was Turkey’s refusal to release American priest Andrew Brunson who was detained in 2016 on charges of  espionage and links to Fethullah Gulen’s movement along with the Kurdistan Workers ’Party. For some time Donald Trump’s propaganda slogans were dominated by the maxim “to save rank-and-file pastor Brunson”.

Turkey responded by slapping import duties on American goods: cars, alcohol, tobacco, cosmetics. And, of course, it put two US ministers on its sanctions list.

But the forces were clearly far from equal. As a result, the Turkish lira collapsed. At the beginning of 2018 one dollar traded for 3.8 liras, whereas by the end of the year it sold for 5.3 liras. Moreover, at the peak of the weakening of the national currency, the dollar cost almost 7 liras. The Central Bank of Turkey was forced to raise the interest rate, even despite opposition from the country’s omnipotent president. Today, the rate has climbed up to the red level of 24%. Consequently, there has been a drop in the sales of real estate, cars, and a number of other industrial goods. Prospects for inflation have materialized too – in October, inflation hit a fifteen-year high, exceeding 25 percent.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan put the blame for the crisis on Turkey’s foreign ill-wishers. This time – with a lion’s share of truth.

In October, the court sentenced Branson to imprisonment for exactly the time he had already served. The pastor returned home, mutual sanctions were lifted, which partly calmed the markets. But only partly.

According to the Turkish Statistical Institute (TSI), the country’s GDP increased by 2.6% by the end of the year. At the same time, the service sector grew by 5.6%, agrarian – by 1.3%, industrial – by only 1.1%. Exports, compared to the previous year, increased by 7% – to 168 billion dollars (a record figure in the entire history of the Turkish Republic). Foreign trade deficit, amid a boost of imports prices,  decreased by 28.4% to $ 55 billion, while imports proper dropped by 4.6% to 223 billion dollars. Tourism revenues increased by 12.3% to 29.5 billion

At first glance, the situation is far from critical, but, according to the TSI, over the year, per capita GDP dropped from $10,597 to $ 9,632; household expenditures, although going up by 1.1% on the year, went down by 8.9% in the fourth quarter. In December unemployment rate among the able-bodied population reached 13.5% – more than 4.3 million people.

Nevertheless, Berat Albayrak, Minister of Treasury and Finance of Turkey, sounded optimistic: “The worst days for the economy are over. The government is confident that the growth of the Turkish economy in 2019 will match the forecasts laid down in the New Economic Program. ”

In general, the above-mentioned program envisages the implementation of reforms that will protect export-oriented small and medium-sized enterprises, strengthen their competitiveness, stimulate the economy to secure a high level of added value. An important part of the document is a clause that stipulates cutting government spending on expensive infrastructure projects, often designed to foster the image rather than the economy.

Specialists differ in assessing the prospects for the Turkish economy: forecasts vary from a slight increase to a further decline. In particular, according to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, “Economists expect the cooling to continue. The OECD forecasts a further reduction in the economic growth of (Turkey-author) for 2019 to minus 1.8 percent.” So far, the trend is as follows: industrial production, for example, in January 2019 fell by 7.3% against January last year.

Among the chronic illnesses of the Turkish economy is a deficit of the balance of payments, which the government traditionally tries to compensate with foreign loans and foreign investment – these primarily provided economic growth in previous years. Now this source seems nearly exhausted as investors worldwide are growing increasingly wary of developing markets. The position of Turkey is aggravated by the uncertainty of foreign capital about the independence of the Central Bank, its concerns about the unpredictability of the country’s policy and the adequacy of its economic course (first of all, its adherence to ambitious projects with questionable economic efficiency).

Also, potential investors are deterred by the strained relations between Ankara and Washington. For many, President Trump’s recent treat to “ruin” Turkey for its policy on Syrian Kurds and his recent decision to abolish customs preferences for a number of Turkish goods came as signaling the continuation of a trade war. Significantly, these statements were made after the Turkish leadership confirmed its determination to acquire Russian air defense systems, thereby making it clear that pursued a course towards independence in strategic decision-making.

For Turkey, the United States is a fairly important trading partner, which in 2018 accounted for almost five percent of Turkish exports ($ 8.3 billion) and more than five percent of imports ($ 12.3 billion).

The recession in the Turkish economy has a certain negative impact on Russian-Turkish economic results. Last year, Turkey became Russia’s sixth largest trading partner. In particular, it accounts for a considerable share of Russian exports of metals, grain and, most importantly, energy carriers (the second, after Germany, importer of oil in the world). In February, according to Gazprom, the export of Russian gas to non-CIS countries decreased by 13% in annual terms. The company said the main reasons behind the decrease were the warm weather in Europe and the crisis in Turkey.

The Russian economy has succeeded in adapting to the extensive sanction pressure from Washington and, it looks like the Trump administration has now chosen to “attack from the flank”, targeting one of Moscow’s major foreign economic partners. It would not be a mistake to assume that the ability of the Turkish leadership to resist pressure from its “strategic ally” and NATO partner in the near future will largely determine not only economic, but also political relations between Moscow and Ankara. 

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Economy

Ambiguity in European economic leadership

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Europe’s economic situation remains uncertain! The European economic crisis and austerity policies remain in place. On the other hand, there is no sign that the EU is passing through the current situation. Two conservative /Social Democrats in Europe have not been able to effectively counteract the economic crisis over the last few years.

 This same issue has led to anger by European citizens from traditional European parties. Subsequently, the trend of European citizens to nationalist and extremist parties has increased in recent years.

The events that have taken place in France in recent months have led to disappointment with the eurozone leaders over the current deadlock.The most important point is that Macron was planned to assume the title of the Europe’s economic leader in the short term, and that was to be after succeeding in creating and sustaining economic reforms in France and the Eurozone.

 Meanwhile, European citizens expressed their satisfaction with the election of Macron as French President in 2017. They thought that the French president, while challenging austerity policies, would strengthen the components of economic growth in the European Union. Moreover, EU leaders also hoped that Macron’s success in pursuing economic reforms in France would be a solid step in pushing the entire Eurozone out of the economic crisis.

 In other words, in the midst of anti-Euro and extremist and far-right movements in Europe, Macron was the last hope of European authorities to “manage the economic crisis” which was raising inside the Eurozone: the hope that has soon faded away!

The main dilemma in France is quite clear!”Failing to persuade French citizens” on his economic reforms, and Macron’s miscalculations about the support of French citizens for himself, were among the important factors in shaping this process. Macron had to give concessions to protesters to prevent further tensions in France.

 After the country’s month-long demonstrations, Macron was forced to retreat from his decision on raising the fuel price. Besides, he had no way but to make promises to the French citizens on issues such as raising the minimum wages and reducing the income tax. This had but one meaning: Macron’s economic reforms came to an end. Right now, European authorities know well that Macron is incapable of regaining his initial power in France and the Eurozone by 2022 (the time for the France general elections).

 Therefore, Macron has to forget the dream of EU’s economic leadership until the last moments of his presence at the Elysees Palace. Of course, this is if the young French president isn’t forced to resign before 2022! The European authorities and the Eurozone leaders have no alternative for Macron and his economic reforms in Europe. That’s why they’re so worried about the emergence of anti-EU movements in countries such as France and Germany.

 For example, they are well aware that if Marin Le Pen can defeat Macron and come to power in France during the upcoming elections, then the whispers of the collapse of the Eurozone, and even the European Union, will be clearly heard, this time with a loud voice, all over the Europe.

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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Economy

Economic integration: Asia and the Pacific’s best response to protectionism

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana

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Deepening economic integration in Asia and the Pacific is a longstanding regional objective. Not an end in itself but a means of supporting the trade, investment and growth necessary to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It is a priority for all member states of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN ESCAP). China has a valuable contribution to make so I am beginning 2019 with a visit to Beijing. One to discuss with Chinese leaders how we can strengthen our collaboration and accelerate progress.

The case for deeper integration in Asia and the Pacific is becoming increasingly apparent. Recent trade tensions highlight Asia and the Pacific’s vulnerability to protectionism from major export markets. UN ESCAP analysis shows how regional supply chains are being disrupted and investor confidence shaken. Export growth is expected to slow and foreign direct investment to continue its downward trend. Millions of jobs are forecast to be lost, others will be displaced. Unskilled workers, particularly women, are likely to suffer most. Increasing seamless regional connectivity – expanding the infrastructure which underpins cross border commercial exchanges and intraregional trade – must be part of our response.

We should build on the existing Asian transport infrastructure agreements UN ESCAP maintains to further reduce regulatory constraints, costs and delays. For instance, UN ESCAP members are working to improve the efficiency of railway border crossings along the Trans-Asian Railway network. There is great potential to improve electronic information exchange between railways, harmonise customs formalities and improve freight trains’ reliability. The recent international road transport agreement between the governments of China, Mongolia and the Russian Federation grants traffic rights for international road transport operations on the sections of the Asia Highway which connect their borders. We should expand it to other countries. There is also huge opportunity to develop our region’s dry ports, the terminals pivotal to the efficient shipment of sea cargo to inland destinations by road or rail. A regional strategy is in place to build a network of dry ports of major international significance. UN ESCAP is looking forward to working with China to implement it.

Sustainable energy, particularly cross-border power trade, is another key plank UN ESCAP member States’ connectivity agenda. Connecting electricity grids is not only important to meet demand, ensure energy access and security. It is also necessary to support the development of large-scale renewable energy power plants and the transition to cleaner energy across Asia and the Pacific. The fight against climate change in part depends on our ability to better link up our networks. ASEAN’s achievements in strengthening power grids across borders is a leading example of what political commitment and technical cooperation can deliver. At the regional level UN ESCAP has brought together our region’s experts to develop a regional roadmap on sustainable energy connectivity. China is currently chairing this group.

For maximum impact, transport and energy initiatives need to come in tandem with the soft infrastructure which facilitates the expansion of trade. UN ESCAP analysis ranks China among the top trade facilitation and logistics performers in our region. This expertise contributed to a major breakthrough in cross-border e-commerce development and ultimately led to a UN treaty on trade digitalisation. This has been adopted by UN ESCAP members to support the exchange of electronic trade data and documents and signed by China in 2017. Now, UN ESCAP is working to support the accession and ratification of twenty-five more countries who recognise the opportunity to minimise documentary requirements, promote transparency and increase the security of trade operations. Full implementation of cross-border paperless trade in Asia and the Pacific could reduce export costs by up to 30 percent. Regional export gains could be as has high as $250 billion.

As we look to the future and work to accelerate progress towards the 2030 Agenda’s Sustainable Development Goals, economic integration must remain a priority. A strong UN-China sustainable development partnership is essential to take this agenda forward and strengthen our resilience to international trade tensions and economic uncertainty. Working with all the countries in our region, we have a unique opportunity to place sustainability considerations at the heart of our efforts and build seamless regional connectivity. That is an opportunity, which in 2019, UN ESCAP is determined to seize.UNESCAP

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