When Vision is Lost: Difficile Est Bonum Esse

America’s character has been forged by both idealism (doing good) and entrepreneurial capitalism (doing well).

Jim Blaine captures these two aspects in his portrait of the Amana Colonies in central Iowa. This Utopian experiment did not last past the second generation. Today the community’s vision is divided into The Amana Society Corporation which controls and manages the businesses. The Amana Church Society now deals with spiritual matters. His blog posed the question whether today’s credit union generation still believes in the movement’s unique purpose.

Stories of Business Idealism

For 40 years USC Business School Professor James O’Toole has studied the ever present challenge of “doing good while doing well” in a capitalist economy. His latest book, number 19, is The Enlightened Capitalists.

It is a collection of stories of business leaders who built success in the market and also shared their firm’s financial gains with their employees and communities. He leads off with Robert Owen (1771-1850> proceeding to current examples such as Ben Cohen (Ben and Jerry’s) and Patagonia. Each is a story of a leader with a vision broader than financial success. These goals include shared ownership, employee education and well-being, environmental consciousness, and community investments.

I looked to see if cooperatives were part of this historical account. Late in the book he summarizes newer forms of organizations designed for more than financial success: benefit corporations, cooperative businesses, employee shared ownership plans (ESOPs), and mutuals. Credit unions get two short paragraphs. The first begins with this sentence, “Then there are credit unions, the most visible and successful form of cooperatives,” and the second ends with, “Again no organizational form is perfect: some credit union executives have taken advantage of their federal charters, accentuating the practical over the idealistic aspects of their businesses by paying themselves egregiously high salaries and even converting their organizations into regular banks to treat themselves to financial windfalls.” (pg. 419) Even credit unions illustrate his theme of vision overtaken by self-interest.

Difficile Est Bonum Esse

O’Toole’s conclusion after reviewing two centuries of multiple organizational efforts to combine financial success and social benefits is: doing good is very hard.

He concludes: “It would require a prodigious degree of optimism that I am incapable of mustering to conclude that the behavior of corporate leaders will change appreciably in the near future. . . my head will not allow my heart to disregard or discount the historical behavior of investors. . . I also find it ethically unacceptable to discourage corporate executives from attempting to buck the odds by adopting enlightened practices.” (pg. 472) He is especially concerned that the ever expanding patterns of outsourcing jobs and the gig economy model will further erode a fair allocation of financial gains for this growing class of “contingent” employees.

Lessons for Credit Unions

Both authors document the challenge of sustaining a reform effort’s original purpose. Innovative design and dedicated leadership can be a foundation. But vision can also be quickly shrunken by the realities of market competition or leadership failure. The factor that can help keep the vision alive is how the beneficiaries of the vision are incorporated in the oversight (governance) process. Is there a sense of us, not me? A bond of common values? Relationships, not just transactional events? Transparency empowering informed choice about the future?

Vision requires interdependence, not just the pursuit of self-interested independence. Both doing well and doing good entail documented plans. It is this joining together, this unity, that keeps credit unions from being sucked into the vortex of market capitalism, the system for which co-ops are to be the antidote.

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Has Anything Changed?

Almost twenty years ago, Callahans had a program of hiring five new college grads annually for the company’s future growth. There was a two week, full-time orientation to introduce the credit union movement and the company’s history before the new employees began a six month rotation among the firm’s operating units.

In the two-week introduction , we would invite a credit union CEO to speak about why they chose a career in credit unions and their vision for cooperatives.

A frequent guest was Jim Blaine, the now retired CEO of State Employees Credit Union in North Carolina. It was and is the 2nd largest credit union in the country.

Jim is a master story teller. He makes his points with directness. He seeks agreement as he goes along. He wants you to share his beliefs.

The Never Ending Credit Union Challenge

Even with all of his distinctive rhetorical skills, the one assertion that stands out for me from his presentations is:

“In America today, those that have the least, or know the least, pay the most for financial services.”

From this factual foundation, he would then describe his business tactics: the non-conforming variable mortgage with every member paying the same rate, no indirect auto loans, a simple savings account, no paid advertising, etc.

While one might debate the tactics, his observation still stands as a challenge for today’s cooperative executives: what are credit unions doing about this persistent market reality for America’s consumers?

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Is America THE Land of Equal Opportunity?

The points in the slide below are from a course on political polarization. The question for credit unions might be how they can address the lack of mobility especially by the lower income quartiles?

Is this a community impact opportunity for cooperatives? How might it be measured?


  • Most people (even most Republicans) believe that the federal government should attempt to increase the equality of opportunity to get ahead.
  • Many people regard the U.S. as “The Land of Opportunity”
  • But many researchers have reached a conclusion that turns conventional wisdom on its head: Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe.
  • “It’s becoming conventional wisdom that the U.S. does not have as much mobility as most other advanced countries. I don’t think you’ll find too many people who will argue with that.” *
  • A project led by Markus Jantti, an economist at a Swedish university, found that 42 percent of American men raised in the bottom fifth of incomes stay there as adults. That shows a level of persistent disadvantage much higher than in Denmark (25 percent) and Britain (30 percent) — a country famous for its class constraints.
  • Meanwhile, just 8 percent of American men at the bottom rose to the top fifth. That compares with 12 percent of the British and 14 percent of the Danes.
  • While liberals often complain that the US has unusually large income gaps, many conservatives have argued that the system is fair because mobility is especially high, too: everyone can climb the ladder.
  • Now the evidence suggests that America is not only less equal, but also less mobile.

* Isabel V. Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution

A. Lincoln on Labor and Capital

A  Labor Day reflection:

In my present position I could scarcely be justified were I to omit raising a warning voice against this approach of returning despotism.

It is not needed nor fitting here that a general argument should be made in favor of popular institutions, but there is one point, with its connections, not so hackneyed as most others, to which I ask a brief attention. It is the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government. It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor. This assumed, it is next considered whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent, or buy them and drive them to it without their consent. Having proceeded so far, it is naturally concluded that all laborers are either hired laborers or what we call slaves. And further, it is assumed that whoever is once a hired laborer is fixed in that condition for life.

Now there is no such relation between capital and labor as assumed, nor is there any such thing as a free man being fixed for life in the condition of a hired laborer. Both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them are groundless.

Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. . .

Source:  State of the Union Address: Abraham Lincoln (December 3, 1861)

Learning from the For-Profit Sector: the CEO Pay Ratio

Cooperatives’ unique design uniting the member-owner as the single focus for corporate performance can provide some protections versus the potential conflicts of interests that every public corporation must balance between shareholders and customers. Regulation and rules for public companies are intended to promote this balance. One way this is done is through mandatory public disclosures in annual reports.

These disclosures may also provide insight about how cooperatives can better account for their stewardship of members’ interests.

I will be sharing a series of examples that credit union leaders may consider as we enter the annual member meeting season.

One example is the “CEO Pay Ratio”, a disclosure required of public companies by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. This SEC rule requires that the relationship of the median of the total of all annual compensation of all employees be compared to the total annual compensation of the CEO.

The following is the disclosure for the CEO of Southwest Airlines (page 42, 2018 annual report):

  • The total annual compensation of the company’s median employee was $78,494;
  • The total annual compensation of the company’s CEO was $7,726,455; and,
  • The ratio of the total annual compensation of the CEO to the median employee’s total compensation was 98.4 to 1.

Would such a comparison be useful for monitoring credit union CEO compensation trends? For members to have prior to the annual meeting whose primary purpose is to approve the election of the Board which oversees the CEO’s role? Let me know what you think in the comments below.