Income equality is getting worse. Can the co-op model solve this problem?

Co-ops are more pervasive than you think. They just suffer from a marketing problem.

People inside hardware store

Hardware store in the city boulevard. Customers stand by the counter.

Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images.
  • The cooperative model accounts for $154B every year in America.
  • America leads the world with cooperatives, with over 30,000 businesses operating under this model.
  • Co-op advocate Nathan Schneider believes this model can help level the economic playing field.

What is a Co-operative?

Nathan Schneider plays a game at strip malls. The activist-journalist and University of Colorado Boulder media studies professor tries to guess how many businesses were directly or indirectly inspired by co-ops. The number is higher than you'd expect.

Whether it's organic food or fair trade coffee or Visa labels in the windows of the small business or chains like Dairy Queen and Best Western, cooperatives are built into their model.

Reading Ours to Hack and Own, a book on the cooperative tradition that Schneider co-edited, I learned that the nation with the largest number of cooperatives is right here. America has over 30,000 businesses built under this model. Co-ops account for $154 billion every year in the U.S. I met Schneider because I too work for one, and during our talk he educated me on the vast influence of cooperatives on American businesses, a fact I had never stopped to contemplate.

While there are a number of variables in the cooperative model, the basic principles, followed by co-ops around the world, were created by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in 1844:

  • Voluntary and open membership
  • Democratic member control
  • Economic participation by members
  • Autonomy and independence
  • Education, training, and information
  • Cooperative among cooperatives
  • Concern for community

The Next Economy: Worker-Led, for Public Interest

According to Worldwatch Institute, in 2012 one billion people around the planet were part of a cooperative. The 300 largest co-ops are worth $2.2 trillion. Dating the cooperative model to an origin point is impossible since tribes generally worked under this model. The problem, Schneider says, is that players in the capitalist model take credit for the work that cooperatives have done. For example, credit cards.

Visa, he says, was originally Bank Americard. This early Visa credit card, founded in 1958, was not working under the guidance of Bank of America. A decade later, Dee Hock founded a network of banks that ran under the cooperative model.

That was what made the credit card phenomenon really work. After the cooperatives built that industry, it got demutualized, privatized, turned into this kind of rapacious and exploitative industry. But it was actually the cooperative movement that enabled that feature of capitalism to grow.

While researching his latest book, Everything for Everyone, Schneider discovered his grandfather, a "farm boy from Colorado," was the director of a large national purchasing cooperative in the hardware industry. Growing up, he knew his grandfather ran a company called Liberty Distributors; he just didn't know it was a co-op. This is a persistent problem with co-ops, Schneider says. Few people, for example, know that large companies like Land O'Lakes, ShopRite, and ACE Hardware are co-ops. The most publicized, REI, is predominantly reserved for outdoor fanatics.

Whereas the co-op model might inspire thoughts of conformity, Schneider argues that it actually promotes individuality through participation. Regional cooperatives match the environment in which they are founded and service, whereas chain stores demand subservience from customers. It might seem convenient that I can go into a Home Depot anywhere in America and know where everything is shelved, but this mindset is antithetical to the co-op model.

Liberty was all about using the cooperative model to enable local stores to be more individualistic, to actually enable them to have more control over how they branded themselves and what stock they carried. The hardware store in my town that's a member of ACE Hardware is much more tailored to the culture of the town than the Home Depot conglomerate down the road. The corporate model expects a kind of mass conformity; the cooperative model is a strategy for enabling businesses to help people be their fuller selves.

Corporate responsibility? Don’t make me laugh.

This model can help level the economic playing field in a country like America, which is suffering from staggering income inequality. While Schneider's grandfather never became super wealthy, he was actively engaged in a community in which the rewards of the profession were distributed equitably. Self-help books about economic empowerment and business success proclaim that anyone can become the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates with a dream and drive, but Schneider recognizes such a promise as nonsense. The capitalist playing field is limited to few winners while forcing small businesses—the romantic 'Main Street' model of suburban America—to shutter their windows.

Schneider points out that even in a time of extreme party-line politics, the Main Street Employee Ownership Act, which argued for employee ownership through a cooperative model, received bipartisan support when signed into law in August 2018. While Schneider says that Republicans are more likely to work with electrical and agricultural co-ops in rural states, both parties need to better educate themselves on the history and importance of this model moving forward. Unfettered capitalism espoused by paid lobbyists is not doing the citizenry any favors.

This is especially problematic, Schneider says, during a time when so much wealth is locked into smaller technology companies that are poorly understood by government.

We have an incredibly widespread accountability problem. Our businesses, especially the dominant ones, are just not accountable the way we need them to be. We can drag them in front of Congress as many times as we want, but they're clearly on their own agenda; we need a different strategy. And another difficulty here that we're in is that we're no longer in the realm of national companies. We need governance that is transnational; we can't just rely on a hodgepodge of national regulations to deal with the emerging digital economy.

Honoring value creators is the way to move forward, according to Schneider. One thing is certain: we're currently not headed in that direction. Empowering members and consumers instead of treating them as a flock will benefit the greatest number of people. Forty years into the trickle-down experiment have shown its utter failure. When will we come to terms with this fact?

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Iron Age discoveries uncovered outside London, including a ‘murder’ victim

A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.

Photo Credit: HS2
Culture & Religion
  • A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
  • The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
  • An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
  • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
  • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
  • The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
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