Sunday, 19 May 2013

Shop local – at Costco?

This afternoon the Empress Larkin and I went to the mainland to shop at Costco, setting a new personal record for both expense ($463.71) and weight (didn’t weigh it but the four cases of pop were not even half the total). Back on Whidbey we passed a sign that says “Shop the Rock”, exhorting all good islanders to spend their money with local merchants. I didn’t feel guilty, but it caused me to reflect on what “shop locally” might mean to different people.

Although I have absolutely no sense of patriotism, even consider it an evil influence and a mental health problem, I do believe in supporting my community. Part of this is for purely selfish reasons. It makes for a more pleasant community if the local businesses are making enough money to live reasonably. While I buy most electronic components on-line, I intentionally overpay at the local Radio Shack in hopes that they will always be there. (Of course I only buy one over-priced video cable there, I normally buy four or five on-line for about the same total price. But sometimes I need one – now.)

Sunday afternoon is not the best time to go to Costco, it’s a zoo. It’s an experience that would, to most people, shriek “evil national big-box store”, the very antithesis of shopping local. Except I got a Costco membership within two months of their opening the very first store (sorry, “member warehouse”) on 4th Avenue South. That was five miles away by the shortest route, six by the fastest. To me, shopping at Costco will always be shopping locally.

Millions of avid readers (readers in general, not my readers) deplore the changes in the book industry. To most of them, the absolute epitome of evil is Amazon. Yes, it’s true that local booksellers worldwide are having a hard time. Even Borders Group, with 175 Waldenbooks stores and 511 Borders superstores, went bankrupt in the face of the changes Amazon has led. But back in 1994, there weren’t a lot of us on the internet so a cheeky little outfit setting out to take on Barnes & Noble, Borders, Crown Books (also gone), B. Dalton (ditto), and the rest of the meatspace book retailers was something of a hometown boy setting out to fight the world and we cheered. Doubly so for me as it was a hometown boy twice, once for being on the internet and once for being based at Seattle.

When it comes to local businesses being swamped by huge international chains of stores the very first thought probably turns to McDonalds with over 34,000 stores worldwide, starting from just one in 1940 and really getting started in 1955. But the Starbucks juggernaut may be even more reviled for their 12,000+ US outlets and almost 21,000 worldwide. Right, big time trouble from out of town. But from 1971 to 1976, Starbucks didn’t brew coffee to serve, they just always had samples available. They were at 2000 Western Avenue at the time, I was at 2414 Western Avenue and frequently stopped in on my stroll to the Pike Place Market. I knew those guys. So even though I don’t often drink coffee (heresy, I know, for a Seattleite), Starbucks is local as far as I’m concerned.

On the other hand, Bill Boeing started his company south of town in 1916 and many of us have been cheering the brand ever since. “If it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going!” has been seen on bumpers, T-shirts, and coffee mugs for decades. I’ll probably go to my grave with a certain feeling of loyalty to the company (I did work there briefly, oddly enough in the finance department, and I did some emergency short-run label work for them in the ’70s) but they are going out of their way to take themselves outside my sense of local. They moved their corporate headquarters to Chicago, arguably so management would lose it’s problematic sense of responsibility to the community that nurtured them. They bemoan the actions of the unions that represent their employees, even though those unions are exactly the organizations created by Boeing management’s tactics over the years. They setup a competing non-union operation at Charleston, South Carolina. Now they’ve announced that they’re whacking 1500 IT jobs in the next year, moving the work to less-expensive locations around the country.

So what is local? What is your community? What obligations do we have to our community? Significant questions that I’ve only recently focused on. But it will probably help me to realize that I will be shopping locally in ways that most people will consider anything but. If I Were King, anything in my realm would, by definition, be local. Until then, it’s a bit more complex.

Friday, 17 May 2013

IRS: grant and audit – alphabetically

While I strongly suspect that the Cincinnati office of the IRS involved in vetting applications for 501(c)(4) status focused first on Tea Party elements for convenience because they had a large number of similar applications, it’s clear that this approach has not been appropriate and following up based on those initial inquiries is upsetting the delicate sensibilities of not only the Republicans (who are upset at everything anyway) but also many who are concerned about good governance (a group that does not appear to include many Republicans).

If I Were King I would instruct that office to immediately approve every single application that was properly filed. I would further instruct the IRS to create an alphabetical list of all 501(c)(4) associations, old and new, and starting with the first entry in the As and the last entry in the Zs to audit every single one of them in turn for calendar 2012. I’d like to lower the limit on campaign expenses to 40% of their total budget, but the IRS has apparently been allowing up to 49% so we probably shouldn’t try to change that. But any of these organizations that are not “primarily” enganged in the social welfare activities in their charters should immediately have their status and any tax exemption revoked.

Yes, I think it would be a good thing if Karl Rove spent the next couple of years raising money to pay back taxes on the campaign expenses he routed through his Crossroads GPS “social welfare” organization.