Local, Collective Ownership
These days, it’s nearly impossible to turn on the news without hearing a politician warning us darkly about a “socialist agenda” taking root in Washington. A historically loaded and negative term to the ears of most citizens, the fervor with which it has been slung in recent times recalls a ghost of the Red Scare. In reality, America, like any other country, benefits from many institutions that operate under the principles of collective, and often local, ownership. Take the public library, for example, which is a distinctly American invention of which few towns are without.
So we are in a bit of a conundrum. While we all benefit from and make good use of collective resources, we at the same time are suspicious of the theory behind which they operate. Thus while on the one hand we deride the idea of universal healthcare as “socialized medicine,” we do not question the merit of public K-12 education, which, let’s be honest, is really “socialized education.” It’s certainly quite an interesting, confusing, and complicated public debate.
That being said, I thought it could be worthwhile to investigate some uniquely American examples of collective ownership at work. The examples that follow include successful businesses, cooperative housing, sports teams, and even a prime example right here in Burlington. While the examples are wide-ranging, they follow a few basic principles: namely, they are locally-owned, and they are run cooperatively, with members having both a say in the decision making process, and a stake in their success or failure.
So here goes:
Recreational Equipment Incorporated
This Seattle-based company is the largest consumer cooperative in the United States. Like other consumer cooperatives (such as City Market), members receive an annual check of 10% of what they spend per year at R.E.I., which can be used as credit or collected as cash. Other perks include discounts on rental equipment, member-only special deals, exclusive coupons, and more. The incentive for membership is clear, and the reward for the business is readily apparent; when a business, at least in part, belongs to you, you are that much more likely to spend your money there.
In the northeast corner of NYC, in the Bronx, you can find Co-Op City, the single largest housing development in the United States. Made up of 15,372 residential units in 35 high rise buildings, this city-within-a-city boasts multiple schools, shopping centers, a power plant, daycare centers, parks, a movie theater, two newspapers, and just about anything else one could need. Co-Op City is run by a board elected by tenants of the complex. Moreover, it is a uniquely diverse community. Like any other housing cooperative, it’s tenants own shares in the overall cooperative, and thus have more legal power over their apartments than tenants in a traditional owner/tenant situation. In an age in which renting is becoming more and more the norm, the cooperative alternative may be an appealing choice for many people.
The Green Bay Packers
As the NFL’s only self-funded team, they are owned exclusively by their fans. One of the greatest argument for collective ownership of a sports team, besides the obvious pride the fans have in owning a small fraction of the franchise, is the fact that when funding is required, say, for stadium improvements, that money is given voluntarily. When other teams need a stadium upgrade, it’s taxpayers that usually foot the bill, whether they’re fans or not.
Over a decade ago, Burlington was in the position of looking for a new grocery store to serve the downtown area. While many folks wanted a chain grocery such as Shaw’s or Hannaford, others called for a more unique vision. eventually won out, of course. The Market differs from its’ corporate counter-parts in a few ways: firstly, it offers a wealth of locally-produced food, which supports Vermont’s farming communities. Second, it is a community-owned store, with over 7,000 members owning a share of the profits. As a member, you receive discounts on store purchases, but volunteering at the Co-Op guarantees even better discounts: 7% for two hours worked a month, and $12 for four. Once a year, a share of the profits are given back to you, depending on how much money you spent and how profitable the Market was. Decisions are decided by a board that is made up of community members. Every aspect of the market is community-owned. What could be more important than to have control over your community’s source of food?
Co-ops and other forms of community ownership are not without their flaws. Since board members are elected, decisions can occasionally be hard to reach, as is the case in any democratically-run institution. However, with more of a vested interest in a community, co-ops usually have the well-being of that community as a priority. Moreover, they suffer less from the heavy-handed top-down structure of traditional businesses and institutions, and capital is more equitably distributed. In an age in which CEOs and others at the top of companies regularly receive compensation many, many hundreds of times percent higher than employees lower on the totem poll, it’s easy to see why a more cooperative approach is appealing. There is also something appealing in the concept of local ownership—in the case of City Market, for example, the powers that be are members of our own community, and not strangers sitting in offices out of state or even out of country.
So collective ownership, as an economic concept, isn’t as foreign as many today might make it out to be. Besides libraries and public education, as mentioned above, other institutions that fall under the umbrella of services we collectively pay for, vote on, and share the benefits of include parks, roads and transportation infrastructure, energy utilities, hospitals, police forces, firemen, and the military. It is possible, I believe, for a company, a sports team, a housing development, and a grocery store to both make money, share earnings in a more collective manner, reach decisions democratically (we certainly abide that principle when it comes to government—so why are we so quick to bemoan it when it comes to economics?), and operate with the interest of the community they serve as a priority. In an age in which terms like “socialism” are used by our politicians with such negativity, they would perhaps do well to open their eyes to the myriad ways we actually make use of both local and national collective ownership in this country.