Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #088. First published in the St. Cloud Times online and in print, Nov. 25, 2014

Thanksgiving is two days from now. "Black Friday" has been around for a while. In recent years it has slithered from the wee hours of Friday morning into Thursday itself. And this year "Black Friday" has morphed into a week or more of slashed prices ahead of Thanksgiving Day.

Reports of an uptick in consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of the national economy, are encouraging, even for someone like me who thinks our "buying more, having more, 'whoever dies with the most toys wins'" obsession has slipped over into the pathological.

A booming economy is to the general benefit, though these days the rewards are very poorly distributed.

My concern, however, is not directly with the huge issue of booming inequality. Rather, I'm wondering about the relation of the local economy to the national.

A recent effort to get a book frames the question.

A lifelong friend who now lives in London alerted me to a book he has just published, "and you can order it on Amazon." (Is there anything in the world that you can't order on Amazon?)

But I didn't want to order it on Amazon.

I went to the local Barnes & Noble. Saying I wanted to give a local store the business instead of ordering on Amazon, I asked if they had it. They didn't. And they couldn't order it. Turns out Amazon is so powerful, so dominant (the associate's remark was a mixture of resentment and awe) that they can arrange special exclusive deals with publishers.

I wanted to see what my friend wrote, so I ordered it on Amazon. "In stock, ready to ship." In a few days I got an email saying there was delay, and did I still want to order. I did. Several weeks later it hadn't arrived. They finally notified me they couldn't get it and my order was canceled. (There's something Amazon can't get! What's the world coming to?)

My friend across the Atlantic put a copy of his book in a mailer and sent it to me.

But the problem I have with Amazon isn't this (uncharacteristic) balk. It's where the money goes when I order on Amazon.

Convenience and economy are values, to be sure. I can save loads of time and at least some money by ordering on Amazon. Everybody's looking for a deal, and deals are everywhere, especially during this season of the year.

Target says "Expect more. Pay less." For its first 19 years Wal-Mart pledged "Always low prices. Always." Some of their trucks still announce this, though what they prefer you see now is "Save money. Live better."

Amazon is, of course, the current archetype for convenience and economy — and once they start delivering to your door by drone, they will also be the epitome of cool. But every time I order on Amazon, the money routed through my credit card goes somewhere other than the greater St. Cloud area, and probably other than Minnesota.

Barnes & Noble is hardly a "local" business. I deplore the way big box book stores have squashed the independents. But the people who work in and are paid by the local Barnes & Noble are my neighbors.

Even if it is more convenient and cheaper to "order on Amazon," I believe that "we all do better when we all do better" applies to the neighborhood as well as to the nation.

I further think it immoral to go to the local store, survey the book, and then "order on Amazon" — especially when done by smartphone while standing in the aisle.

I know. It's just how capitalism works. Competition and creative destruction and all that. But I don't have to swallow the claim that saving money is the only way to live better. Shopping for all sorts of things — not just books — in a way that keeps my money here can be a capitalist act. Sometimes you have to pay more in order to expect more.