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    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

The goodness of co-opness
April 28, 2010 - 7:34pm

Recent events like the explosion at Upper Big Branch and the BP drilling platform fire in the Gulf show up the mockery of statements like "safety is our #1 priority." The current civil suit against Goldman Sachs, combined with the recent performances of Citibank, AIG and other financial firms, make it pretty clear that the same ethos reigns on Wall Street (however disguised) as rules thousands of feet down. The interests of shareholders and executive bonus recipients trump the interests of the customer, the taxpayer, the public, the global economy, and the planet.

That's one reason I like co-ops. For co-ops, unlike other corporations, the customer and stockholder populations overlap. Sometimes 100%, sometimes a bit less. But always significantly. The stockholders have no motivation to screw the customers because . . . oh, yeah! . . . the stockholders are the customers.

This sort of arrangement should sound pretty familiar to anyone who works for a non-profit college or university, be it public or private. The customer/owner overlap isn't structured the same way, but it operates similarly. Think of who your school's stakeholders are -- current students and alumni (customers, now and in the past) are high on the list. Faculty, staff, taxpayers (for public schools). and donors are all there too, but none of these stakeholder groups particularly benefits by screwing any of the others. Not even in the short term.

It's easy to run the thought experiment that goes, "would the Upper Big Branch explosion have happened if Massey Energy were an employee-owned company?" The answer might not be an unequivocal "no", but the likelihood of "yes" would surely go down. For me, though, a preference for co-ops doesn't rely on conjecture, it's rooted in experience.

Over the years, I've been a member of a whole lot of co-ops, and I've never had a bad experience with any of them. I bought my first life insurance policy, and my first disability policy, from a mutual insurance company (a co-op by a different name). I used to get my health insurance through a co-op. I've belonged to two farmer-owned co-ops, from which I bought seed and supplies, and through which I sold a good portion of my product. In fact, I bought one of my farms by means of a mortgage from a Farm Credit co-op. My electricity currently (no pun intended) comes from a co-op, as do my dental and vision insurance plans. I do my retail banking through a credit union (another form of co-op). I don't believe that TIAA or CREF are technically co-ops (please correct me if I'm wrong here), but they seem to operate in a similar manner.

The co-op structure isn't magic, and not all co-ops operate in what I would consider an ethical manner. (I remember hearing of co-op apartment buildings in New York City which operated to perpetuate racial and ethnic segregation. The stories were always told at a "friend of a friend" level of non-specificity so they may well have been apocryphal, but still . . .). But on a conceptual basis, the very success of co-ops in a corporate-dominated culture creates a useful contrast. If what we've been doing on so many fronts isn't sustainable economically, socially, or ecologically, is there another way of organizing our behaviors which seems more likely to be so? The fact that the empirical answer is "yes" can allow us to ask similar questions about other parts of our lives where conventional wisdom takes on the air of inevitability.


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