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Why We Can't Counter Corporate Power by Being Better Shoppers

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I recently gave a TEDx talk that looks at one of the more pressing challenges of our time: How do we wrest control of our economy back from giant corporations?

The statistics are stunning: Four big banks dominate our banking system. Agribusiness giants monopolize food production. Walmart captures $1 of every $4 Americans spend on groceries. One company, Amazon, accounts for over one-third of everything we buy online.

The good news is that many Americans are beginning to question the wisdom of letting a few companies run everything. They are changing where they shop, what they buy, and where they bank. And they are making a difference: Since 2004, the number of farmers markets has doubled. More than 1,000 neighborhood grocers have sprouted up. Nearly 500 new independent bookstores have opened. Long-vacant factory buildings are filling up with small-scale brewers and clothing makers. And over 600,000 people have moved from big banks to local banks and credit unions.

But -- and here's the bad news -- as remarkable as these trends are, they are unlikely to amount to more than an interesting side-note on the margins of the economy if the only way we confront corporate power is by trying to be better consumers.

Choosing independent businesses and local financial institutions is a great idea. But a purely consumer-oriented response won't get us where we need to go, in part because it fails to fully grapple with how we got here in the first place.

For a long time, the story of how big companies grew so dominant was, basically: bigger is better. It's more efficient, more productive, better performing. But, as I explain in the talk, when you pull back the curtain and really begin to look at the evidence, you find that, in one sector after another, the case for bigness doesn't stand up. Many of today's dominant companies do not in fact deliver better outcomes, higher productivity, or even, in some cases, lower prices.

How, then, have they taken over so much of the economy? The answer is that they've used their size and political influence to hijack government and rig public policy to their own advantage. From the farm bill to banking regulations to state tax codes, the rules favor big corporations and undermine smaller, more sustainable businesses.

And that's why the "buy local" and "eat local" and "bank local" movements need to get much more political. Unless we change the underlying policies that shape our economy, big corporation are going to continue to gain ground.

Watch the talk:

Stacy Mitchell is a senior researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, where she directs initiatives on independent business and community banking. She is the author of Big-Box Swindle and also produces a popular monthly newsletter, the Hometown Advantage Bulletin.