FEW in the co-operative community would take issue with President Bush's statement summing up why he thinks ownership is important in our society.
But they might object to the absence of any reference to
co-operatives in the policies and programmes that make up the President's vaunted "ownership society".
When President Bush discussed an ownership society, he means things like health savings accounts, tax credits for homeowners, tax cuts for families and businesses, personal retirement accounts under Social Security, and raising the contribution limits for retirement accounts.
You may like or dislike this laundry list of Administration policy favorites. But an ownership
society? It doesn't even come close to what co-operatives do to promote ownership. And co-operatives don't appear anywhere in the President's ownership rhetoric.
In fact, the budget the President proposed in February reduced funding for several programmes important to co-operatives. One was the Rural Co-operative Development Grants scheme which funds co-operative development centres around the country and was slated for more than a 15 per cent cut.
Another was the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund, which helps fund community development credit unions and other co-ops. The President can talk about an ownership society all he wants. But co-ops are the real ownership society.
Some will say investors in stock companies are owners and that the Administration's emphasis on giving money back to taxpayers allows them to invest more in these companies. But there is a big difference. The co-operative governance structure is more open, more
democratic, and more inclusive. In a stock company, many board members are members of management or are hand-picked by the CEO, who often serves as the board chair. Others have financial or business ties to the company.
If President Bush really believes the economy should be owned by more people, he needs only to look as far as the co-operative business model. And, rather than cutting programmes that promote co-operatives, he should be giving them more money.
But American co-operatives can't rely on the Administration to promote their way of doing business. We have to make the case for co-ops on our own. What the Administration has done, with its focus on ownership, is give us an ideal opening to make our case.
Whether the President knows it or not, co-ops embody the ownership society he is touting. We are what democratic capitalism is all about and we have an unprecedented opportunity to prove that our way of doing business works better for members, for communities and for the economy.
The stakes are high and the time is now. We are either going to prove that the co-operative business model deserves the same respect and government support as other forms, or we are going to allow a historic opportunity pass us by.
• Paul Hazen is President and CEO of the National Co-operative Business Association, the national voice for co-operatives in Washington DC.
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