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If we valued society and not just self, our government could channel money to small businesses instead of big business. If a living wage was a universal requirement and set at a level that people could shop local businesses at prices needed to sustain local businesses, the country would be much more robust, socially and financially. But our twin gods are the myths of rugged individualism and the meritocracy of money.

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Oddly, Bennett, the myths of rugged individualism and meritocracy of money seem to have taken deepest roots in rural America's small towns where people have to depend on one another more obviously and explicitly than they do in our megalopolises. Wonder why.

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True.

Speculation:

Rural people work physically hard and actually or culturally close to nature. It's the kind of work that makes one deeply aware of their direct, physical work. Their individual effort is not very abstract. It's very real. They have to believe in their individual effort because it is almost the entirety of their actual daly experience. Even when they help each other out, it is a very personal interaction (as best I can tell at a great distance), and there remains a strong sense that it will be better when they don't need any help, that there is something shameful in being helped.

In urban areas,(where we also associate help with shame) a larger portion of the public has white collar jobs and retail jobs, the work is (on average) less physical, less grounded in one's physical reality), more abstract, and inherently more interactive. It's not me and animals, me and the land and crops, me and a small trade shop. It's me in a seas of humanity. Now we urbanites have tended to respond to that by dehumanizing ourselves and being as isolative as possible anyway, but at least we can't avoid seeing an intense level of person-to-person interaction.

Maybe it's no coincidence that the move to most commerce being online (human-less), and that drastic reduction in interaction with others, much of working becoming online-remote, and that drastic reduction in interaction with others, are coinciding with the current step function in the decline of community, of social awareness and responsibility, of shared values carrying some weight. I don't know. We need some leadership here form the professional sociology community. But it remains that we are the most socially complex and interdependent species on the planet and we keep moving more and more in the direction of isolation -- this is not a good plan for healthy people or a healthy society.

While we have been moving in this direction for thousands of years of planet-wide human history, I believe we are now crossing a threshold at which we will have to consciously pursue society as a primary goal, or we will suffer in ways we have never seen before, for an historically long period of time.

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Bennett, we who grew up in small agricultural towns know that when the neighbors come to help, we will, and have, done the same for them. There is no shame, only a heart that fills will immense joy to be a part of seeing humanity at its best.

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That's great. What is your take on the paradox Mr Reich led us off with? I still think it has something to do with a difference in the lived experience of who much one literally relies on one's own body, and how much time people spend with larger numbers of people. Does that ring true for you?

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In New England it might have something to do with low incomes—-chopping wood to stay warm, fixing everything yourself as best you can, not getting stuck in the snow, even growing your own food raising chickens etc., being a jack of all trades to find work. This tends to create the rugged individualism syndrome.

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Right -- this illustrates my point.

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When I was young in the 1950's, my mother shopped at the locally owned bakery, the locally owned butcher, the locally owned pharmacy, the locally owned grocer, etc. She knew the owners personally and would chat with them while shopping. We ate at one of the locally owned restaurants. They knew what our meal favorites were. All of this is gone now, everything is a chain store of some mega corporation or Walmart. The employees are too busy to talk much, assuming you know them at all. Customer service is terrible. The revenue flows out of town to some distant company headquarters. Very sad, but we bought this on ourselves by valuing the price we pay for goods over everything else!

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Walmart has sucked the lifeblood out of small towns across America. The social costs have, in my view, been higher than the so-called "efficiencies" of lower prices enjoyed by Walmart customers. Walmarts and other national chains that have drained our main streets should be subject to a tax proportional to this high social cost, whose proceeds are returned to the community.

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Yes, we brought this on ourselves by abandoning the established local businesses.

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Today, when you shop at one of these big chains at one of their big city outlets, if you ask a store employee where another store in the area is located, they usually have no idea. They don't live near where they work. They commute from a distant suburb, from a place where they can afford the rent, to a place where they can get a job (often a low paying one.) They don't know anything about the area where they work. And spend so much time at work - and commuting to and from work - that they increasingly know less about the area where they live. Of course they have no sense of community.

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We live in Hanover, across the CT River from Norwich. Dan carries “Crane Crest French Dressing”, not widely available, but a staple in our house. Dan’s sister brings it from MA, where it is produced, when she visits. Last summer, our supply was low and there was none on the shelf at D&W. When I asked Dan, he said they were out. Crisis! Then, about an hour later I received a text from a Norwich friend. Dan found a case in the cellar, but didn’t have my contact info. So he called my friend, and asked her to tell me he found said dressing. I drove right over. Dan is a big supporter of The Haven, a local homeless shelter that does amazing work in our area feeding and caring for those in need. So, I brought a donation with me to give The Haven in Dan’s name. Running out of salad dressing may be a problem for me, but running out of food is a real crisis for others. Dan teaches us all about the value of community, by example. He truly cares. This is why Dan &Whits is the heart of Norwich, VT.

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"social capitalism" found in most of europe, is not socialism. it is capitalism with the adjective of social because this is "capitalism that also includes social welfare programs". the poor are not discarded or ignored, like is some capitalism, but helped with social programs when they need it. the wealthy are still wealthy, but the poor are also taken care of. this is not a perfect answer, but I hope that 'american capitalism' would at least change in more of the direction of 'social capitalism' in the future. I think that 'american capitalism ' was more like 'social capitalism' in the days of FDR etc when 'social security' actually became an american social program. to often today , with fear mongering, the ones that benefit from social programs , are 'they all are called lazy' , hence fear mongering. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_market_economy

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For years, economists and policy analysts in the United States derided Europe's "social" capitalist (or social democratic capitalist) model as being inefficient, leading to slower economic growth. In reality, economic growth in Europe has shown itself to be as strong as in the United States, if not stronger.

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I love this story. Unfortunately, there's hundreds of “Dan & Whit’s” throughout our country that were driven out of business by the likes of “Walmart” who invaded towns, large and small, and promptly put them out of business. The same can be said of CVS and Walgreens who shuttered our local pharmacies as well. Growing up, we’ve all had a go to place where everyone in the community tended to gather, I only wish we would have fought harder to protect them from the insatiable greed of American Capitalism. However, it’s not too late to help save the ones that are left, the example shown here is a perfect solution!

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Susan, the social costs of the takeover of our communities by national (and sometimes global) chains has been far higher, in my view, than the economic efficiencies customers have gained. I'm in favor of laws that favor local ownership and impose taxes on big chains.

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I couldn't agree more.

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It's a great idea to keep a business going, if it is possible. I have seen country stores on the edge of closing completely that received a reprieve when they were purchased by locals. A food coop in Leverett, MA was in danger of going out of business, and it was heartening to see it revived. I often make a choice to buy local, and last year bought a share in our local co-op store. It makes a point to buy local produce, organics and locally made items.

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Good! Co-ops are especially important in our communities, deserving of our support and encouragement.

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Laurie it is good to buy local when possible depending on the price. Home grown food without all the poison sprayed on it from the grocery store helps to save ones health too. Americans are being poisoned! Very sad.

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True! I prefer to get organic fruits and veggies.

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Beautifully and vividly written as always. You bring the reader to an intimate understanding of the life of this multi-generational family-owned business, and to the distinct plight of small towns during a never-ending period of relentless change. Thanks for turning your pen to this cluster of issues.

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Thanks for your thanks, Michael.

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What you described in your statement is the true "American Spirit". We have to look harder for it in today's new world. In my town we lost 19 fire fighters due to a horrible wild fire. Hollywood made a movie called “Only the Brave,” starring Josh Brolin. Citizens came together during that tragedy to help each other. Why does it take a tragedy in America for us to see and do good? The hard working middle class continues to go to work each day, paying their bills and feeding their families . The American Spirit is alive and well even though the news (propaganda) focuses on the bad. Thank YOU for all that you are doing. Hugs, from Arizona.

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"I have been getting takeout from one of our local restaurants twice a week. They love us so much that sometimes they..." You have already invested in keeping them open and that is the best investment one can make. Keep spreading the love.

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So, I live in Norwich, VT and Dan and Whit’s is one of my many local main stays. I love local. I decided to stay in this area 48 years ago when I finished school across the river in Hanover, NH. I started my furniture company, Pompanoosuc Mills, in the early 70s and was quickly supported by nearby neighbors. Over the many many years since then, my business has grown from just myself to over 100 teammates (looking for more) and has 9 company retail stores between Burlington, VT and Philadelphia. We have sales teammates in DC and Florida as well. I still consider us “local” and while our designs are not inexpensive, we are still graced with tons of local buyers as well as customers from across the country. We use all North American hardwoods buying from local mills, we are working towards 100% LED certification and have never used fossil fuels for heat during our wonderful northern winters. Furniture making wood waste is our primary source of heat energy. Outsiders used to question my desire to stay so local in our manufacturing, but I am happy with what we have been able to do and continue to do. Goooo local!

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Vote with your dollar

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founding

Oh yes, that’s a wonderful idea. Ever since the pandemic started, my husband and I have been getting takeout from one of our local restaurants twice a week. They love us so much that sometimes they throw in a free dessert without our asking. I’ve wondered whether we could invest in them. And BTW, I know I keep harping on this but I am trying very hard to buy from businesses other than Amazon, which I truly believe is ruining the country. I wonder how difficult it might be to invest in some of these smaller businesses. Anyone know?

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A community's size makes a huge difference. When a business or a school or a community is small enough for people to get to know each other, they can create the kind of thing you describe at Dan. & Whit's. Small size makes institutions personal, and people care about each other, and demonstrate their caring.

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Libby, I find it interesting that many people who live in large urban areas discover that their neighborhood is a kind of community. In fact, some neighborhoods even within megalopolises like New York or Los Angeles have more attributes of community -- in the sense of local businesses and people looking out for one another -- than are found in many smaller towns. Which raises the interesting question: What makes a community?

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This seems worth more work … probably dozens of studies been done already … a conjecture has often popped up, that we each effectively live in a very small world of a very few close friends and family we know best and see most often, a group of others who support us and vice versa, maybe a hundred we know by face or name, and then another hundred celebrities and politicians and writers … so what does it mean to be a citizen of a city of millions, a world of billions?

We lived for years in Hood River, a picture book town of 7500 in Oregon, — it didn't feel a whole lot different from living in Santa Rosa, a town of 180,000 … because we only interact with a few hundred anyway? — b.rad

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I think empathy and getting to know each other, and living in the same place.

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Great article, thanks!

Yes neoliberalism does destroy communities, of all sorts. From wetlands to anthills to forests to towns to countries. And now to planets.

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I live in a small town in Mississippi where I grew up, and our downtown has been struggling for years. It is no longer a place where people walk around and shop. Two or three businesses get local support and the rest barely survive. I worked at one place as the only hostess--The Ritz restaurant. People would come from miles around to have dinner there at night, and locals would have lunch there during the day. The owner also refurbished the old Ritz theater and people could hold special events there, which they continue to do. Now the restaurant is only open for lunch by people who rent out the place and the theater seems to be the owner's main source of income. Without this lovely space, our town would lose part of its appeal. We all say "shop local" and it has resonated with our people. Hopefully buyers will support West Point businesses instead of going to our Walmart for their Christmas gifts or Holiday gifts. We have plenty of Mom and Pop stores and our town is proud of its solidarity. We got a new mayor, the first African-American mayor, who is trying to bring in a new grocery store to compete with Walmart. Our town has seen many changes and I am proud that I am part of it, even though I don't get out much, and I'm not there now. :) I wouldn't choose to live anywhere else in Mississippi. It is the best place to raise a family and the community is special. We hardly ever have any crime (I remember when someone got stabbed at the Huddle House) and our police are there to protect and not to harass or shoot. Racism exists, as in any town, but we are not divided by it. As we go through these troubling times, my hope is that our town survives the next few years and will prosper. There's nothing like a small town and there's nowhere like West Point, Mississippi.

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I have often mused that we have no sense of community! Of course we don’t! A sense of community has kept our darkest tendencies in check! When I was growing up our neighbors kept us from getting in too much trouble. There were community moral standards. Our children want to shoot their classmates! We no longer have a connection with people except maybe here where we feel a common purpose! The old days still produced crime and perversion and were not at all perfect! I remember when there was a small grocery store in almost every neighborhood. We knew our grocers and butchers and shopkeepers. Nostalgia always leaves out the negative and unpleasant. America broke apart with the advent of big corporations who moved our fathers from their home towns to “better” themselves! My own father always longed for the old hometown and he was lucky enough to be able to move back there much before he retired. He was so disappointed he moved before he died and was buried elsewhere. There was a sense of community in the community graveyard. I have never felt a sense of community in my life except with people of like mind! Small communities just exaggerate differences.

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My father was a shopkeeper in a factory town nearby where I grew up. After the factories closed, he and my mother turned the shop into an upscale ladies clothing boutique catering to the wives of corporate executives that began moving into the area. It was a wise move, although the executives and their wives had few if any connections to the community, and the shop (and my parents) became dependent on fleeting fashions rather than loyal customers.

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My parents like all the people in my hometown did anything they could for income to stay there. We adapted and after college I chose to move there myself to gather my siblings with the then resident great grandmother and both sets of grandparents. It was a wonderful idea! I began to abandon everything I learned in college and learned how to survive in a rural community. I learned carpentry and welding and how to fix vehicles. I learned how to reuse all kinds of materials and really how to be cheap! Great experience! Unfortunately when rural communities began to die because of lack of economic opportunity, the community began to be harsh and stingy. In fact, the local retailers began to steal us blind. The people became bitter. I reinvented my career again to encompass Bill Clinton and Robert Reich’s Economic Development ideas! I was excited to try to bring back jobs and money to small towns. I became an EDFP economic development finance professional. The concept was great but suffered from lack of understand and money. If you had stayed on as Labor Secretary we could have turned the situation around! The economics just did not work at the local and state level.

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Nothing beats a small town and a surrounding community that belongs to the people who live there. Small, creative, independent businesses, small-farm husbandry and home industry could do much to pull the entire country together.

Although state-narrow in its focus, Senator Booker’s excellent Justice for Black Farmers Act seems to make a case for nationwide application as the senator himself has recognized that “The economy has to get out of this ditch, and one way is to invest in infrastructure: from green infrastructure to roads and bridges to, in New Jersey, a new tunnel under the Hudson, to broadband. These things have the ability to supercharge the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs.” (Booker to Alison Steele, Phila. Inq.)

We need to offer hope, challenge, adventure to our young people as we strive to restore an environmental balance to our country. Why not invite a country-wide commitment to restoring our Heartland by growing small farms, towns, and industries along the Route 66 corridor, in part by awarding tracts of farmland now under corporate management to uprooted peoples across the country - farming that would be dedicated to the practices, for example, in films like The Biggest Little Farm and Kiss the Ground?

What prevents the Environmental Protection Agency, in concert with other agencies, from working to reestablish a rich migratory route, not only for wildlife but also for people, a route that not only links the coasts but also connects a growing Heartland of environmentally-committed farms, towns, and small industry?

Strengthen the core of this country and the entire nation prospers.

We need imagination in leadership. We need visible, palpable inspiration. Our young people need a genuine, virtuous adventure - an idea for which they can commit their passion and in which they can find hope in a future they can build.

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