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Citywatch: Slow Money

Citywatch: Whether it’s action or traction in the food world, cities are stepping up to the plate. The world is fast going urban, as are challenges of social, economic and environmental well-being. Citywatch is crucial to Worldwatch. Wayne Roberts, retired manager of the world-renowned Toronto Food Policy Council, has his eye out for the future of food in the city.

A lot of people blame fast buck artists for bringing on the 2008 economic crash, but few have yet looked to slow money artistry to get the economy moving in a better direction.

Photo credit: www.wayneroberts.caPhoto credit: www.wayneroberts.caFor social investment promoter Woody Tasch, however, the crash was an aha moment that led him to take his stand: the buck slows here. Modeling his efforts on the ideas of slow food, he rushed out a book on the subject of slow money and launched a national movement which quickly tweaked the imagination of social investors, community economic development advocates and even business journalists. After a year’s run along the flake axis linking Dallas, Santa Fe, Madison and Shelburne, Vermont, the likes of Time Magazine, the LA Times and the Wall Street Journal gave favorable coverage to the “nurture” investors drawn to the notion of slow but steady returns on ultra-community-friendly food companies. Business Week pronounced slow money the Big Idea of 2010.

The logo on Slow Food materials is a snail; slow money sports a turtle as its icon. Likewise, the deep thinking behind slow food, over and above its appeal to gourmets who appreciate fine and exquisite dining, also lies behind slow money. Just as slow dining is good at counteracting heartburn and other ills that ail digestion in a fastfood culture, so slow returns on investment aid economic digestion ensure all the benefits on money going through the system are spread properly. Wolfing it down only works when intestines look and function like hoovers, which is not what the intestines of the human body or economy are designed for. Both human bodies and economic bodies thrive with a slow touch.

Disappointingly, pundits following economic and social trends have not been up to speed when it comes to treating the idea with the depth it deserves.

That may be because today’s money not only talks, as it always has, but is a very fast talker. Indeed, speed-up is as much a signature feature of the political economy of the last 20 years as globalization and free trade, and for the very good reason that all three are interlocked. Slowcialism therefore gets the subversive treatment and is banished to the margins of debate.

Cute and disarming as the term slow money seems, the notion confronts one of the most powerful impulses in today’s economy, the impulse to ever-faster turnover of investment. Ironically, the very speed of investment turnover is a major factor in the chronic slowdown of the global economy — so far resistant to trillions spent by Global North governments on economic stimulus.

I’ve been a slow learner in these matters myself, but my mind got blown to this way of thinking at a Christmas season dinner party, thanks to my formidably well-read friend, University of Toronto food scholar Harriet Friedmann, who was shocked that I couldn’t partake in cocktail conversation about the classic Mann-Dickinson thesis, laid out in a 1978 issue of the Journal of Peasant Studies. When I confessed that edition was not to be found on my bedside table, she dispatched it to me in quick order by email. Ever the quick study, I converted immediately to the idea of slowing the turnover time of money to the pace set by that quintessentially high-return growth fund — nature.

The Mann-Dickinson thesis holds that factories succeed because the labor time and production time to make a widget are the same – in and out the same day. By contrast, food production, education, parenting and the like are time-inefficient because the labor time has to be spread over a lengthy production time – a year in the case of wheat, decades for parents and educators. The longer the production time of an item, the more time it takes before economic value is realized, the more likely the enterprise is either a non-profit ( a school, for example) or non-profitable enterprise ( a farm or environment store, for instance). The simple and unwavering reason for that is that investment is “tied up” for too long when the production time is too lengthy. Think of the cost of the money a farmer sinks into land, which lies “idle” during the winter or during periods when it lies fallow or being recharged in a natural way; all of a sudden, we understand why chemical fertilizers, which cut down time lost to crop rotations, are so hard for farmers to get off.

Since the 1990s, the entire economy and infrastructure have been bent to the task of reducing production time and circulation time in the economy. We have chicken meat that goes from egg to supermarket in six weeks, while truckers go through their paces to deliver Just in Time so no retailer money (taxpayer money is another thing entirely) is lost on shelving space, warehousing space or interest charges. This was one of the secrets to WalMart’s logistical triumph; it frequently orders tomorrow’s goods based on what’s left over after today’s sales, thereby imposing the law of Everyday Low Prices on its suppliers, who often go bankrupt under the strain. Likewise, the transaction costs borne by nature and the general public are staggering – consider that antibiotics and tiny cages are the norm in chicken factory farms so no calories are wasted on immune systems or exercize, and then consider the construction and repair to highways that permit such a hectic pace. No surprise if taxes for healthcare and road repair go relentlessly up, despite all the fooforah about tax cuts.

This reality is hidden by an accounting system known as the Gross national (or Domestic) Product, which enshrines fast spending in its core calculation. The GDP leads to calculations of productivity based on output per hour of labor, about the worst way to measure and manage production that can be imagined in an era of global environmental crises driven by fossil fuels, the fuel of choice for a high speed economy. We need instead to be moving to measures and management of production per unit of resources, not per unit of time, so that productivity of farmers, for example, is benchmarked against water and soil conservation. That way, the brutal realities of “haste makes waste” would not be suppressed from our sight and imagination.

By and large, fast infrastructure and government policy goes along with the impacts of globalization in discouraging the great motorforce of western economies during the 1950s and ‘60s – what’s called the multiplier effect, brought on by the ricochet romance of me using my pension to get a haircut from a barber who spends the money at a grocer who buys from the farmer down the lane, who uses the money to pay taxes for the local school, and so on. By contrast, money that goes to a typical chain is whisked out of the economy, often within 24 hours, according to research presented in David Boyle’s and Andrew Simms’ just-released The New Economics: A Bigger Picture.

The full multiplier effect varies according to particular products. With unprocessed items, such as eggs, there’s little that goes to jobs in-between farmer and consumer. With highly-processed products such as wine, the multiplier is staggering. A liter of Ontario wine sold in Ontario is said in a 2008 report by accounting firm KPMG to put $8.48 back in the economy, compared to 67 cents from an import. No reasonable economic stimulus can close the gap between 67 cents and $8.38, which may be why the government-funded stimulus tap was turned off as soon as fast-spending banks had been bailed out.

It shouldn’t take a quick thinker to pause at that fatal weakness of quick and dirty money.

(This article is adapted for readers outside Toronto, who read the original version in NOW Magazine

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