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Home for the Holidays

By Frank Gruber

Back in October Susan McCarthy, Santa Monica's formidable -- and stylish -- City Manager, told downtown business leaders that she was swearing off Bloomingdales in support of the City's campaign to encourage Santa Monicans to shop local during the holidays and thus counteract a loss of business due to the decline in tourism after September 11.

I was already way ahead of McCarthy in the "support-your-local-merchant" department. For fifteen years I commuted to offices in Century City, West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, and I figure I have done my time on Olympic Boulevard. If I can't buy something within three miles of my house, I don't want it.

My wife likes to shop at Costco, but in my mind no bargain is worth spending more than ten extra minutes getting there.

This year I bought mostly books for Hanukkah and Christmas presents. I spent time in Midnight Special, Borders and Hennessey & Ingalls, and in and out of other stores on the Promenade and in Santa Monica Place. I wasn't alone. Whatever the economic impact of September 11, the stores seemed full. But no one knows anything until Mike Dennis, the City's financial guru, releases data on the City's sales tax revenue.

When McCarthy announced the City's plan to boost the local economy, I wondered if she had ever expressed to Planning Director Suzanne Frick the idea that it might be good to have a balance of retail downtown, some serving visitors, and some serving locals, like having a balanced portfolio in a 401(k).

Okay, okay, I admit that I am still sore that Frick opposed locating a Target store downtown. I should get over it, but a big local serving store, like Target, would bring a steady stream of shoppers downtown in good times and bad. While most of our city government understands that economic development is important, our Planning Department rejects every significant commercial project as incompatible because of size alone.

Notwithstanding my personal aversion to driving more than three miles to shop, exhortations to buy locally, or, in the national context, "to buy American," always make me uncomfortable. Economic jingoism is no better than any other kind, and just as self-defeating.

The "Old Left" -- my father's left, the one I grew up resenting but now appreciate better -- always favored free trade, and for good reasons. Trade means lower prices and more jobs, and less monopoly profits for the bosses.

Perhaps it is not intuitively obvious, but the fact that Californians ship California wine to Australia and Australians ship Australian wine back to us, is a good thing.

These days trade -- or "globalization" -- is under attack from the left as well as from its old enemies on the right, but it's another issue on which the self-proclaimed true left and the yahoo right meet up and find out they agree with each other. Just like with fluoridation, as we in Santa Monica learned this year.

Ross Perot might talk about "that great sucking sound," and Global Exchange might talk about the "race to the bottom," but in my view if either had their way, the results would be the same: less investment (and fewer jobs) in the developing world, higher prices (and fewer jobs) for American workers, more emigration from the undeveloped world to the developed, and bigger profits for inefficient corporations, monopolies and cartels.

Governments must regulate businesses to protect worker rights and the environment, and the democratic governments of the world must ceaselessly advocate and even demand democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, but no one has convinced me that barriers to trade and investment promote any of those good things. In fact, during the Cold War much of the world operated within closed systems and the results -- politically, socially and environmentally -- were disastrous.

"Think globally, act locally." Let's do. But around here it's plain hypocritical for anyone to complain about globalization. Our regional economy stands on three pillars: copyrights (in movies, TV and music); building airplanes; and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. All three depend on international trade and open markets here and abroad.

Throw in tourism, our local mainstay, and the world has probably never seen 15 million people more dependent on the global movement of people, goods and ideas than us Southern Californians.

What if movie-goers, television-watchers, and music-lovers around the world decided only to buy local, to "stay home" when it comes to entertainment? Obviously, the movie studios and music companies, many of which have offices in Santa Monica, and all their suppliers and employers and artists would suffer, but consider the hit to anyone who sells any product or service here, anyone who works for anyone who does, and any government that relies on collecting taxes from any of them.

Susan McCarthy wouldn't have to swear off Bloomingdales because Bloomingdales would have padlocked doors and empty windows.

And on that Scrooge-like note of foreboding, and unseasonal lack of good cheer, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good week, full of family and friends whether you are home for the holidays or away.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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