Saturday, April 26, 2014

Getting the Jobs Done

I recently was involved in an exchange among outreach-oriented folks living in income-sharing communities who were wrestling with how to respond to an invitation from NBC to do a broadcast that showcased ways that cooperatives offer models of economic stability in these unsettled times.

The Challenge
While I don't know all the details of the offer (I entered the conversation late and had no direct connection to the NBC producer that was dangling this bait), this was the challenge put before our group:

A. In order to be safe, secure and prosperous, the US (and other high-wage rate countries) need to be able to make a wide range of things and sell them globally.

B. Mostly, if we try to do that using conventional economics:
o  Our goods will be/are too expensive.
o  Production capabilities will get moved overseas, even when the benefit for moving is not huge, because some spreadsheet will show some benefit.

C: By moving toward worker-owned coops for the production of many items, the US (and other high-wage rate countries) can provide high-quality of life for large numbers of people, address the current and future jobs crisis, and long-term provide a path to sustainability.

The argument against this idea is, as far as I can tell:

If this were such a viable option, why are there not lots of Mondragon-sized coops around the country? Communities fail, product launches fail. Even if we successfully started 500 100-person coops in the next three years, that's only 50,000 jobs and we need millions. Solving this problem this way won't work because the scale is wrong.

Plus, to meet this need, there has to be a movement of people trying to address things like the Millennials Job Crisis using massive numbers of coops. While there are some coops, are there thousands of people pressing for:

—Tax breaks for people who sell their conventional companies to worker-owned coops?
—Access to capital for worker-owned coops?
—Laws and regs that encourage government agencies buying from worker-owned coops?

For this to be covered by NBC’s impact platform, the press needs to be illuminating an existing movement, not creating one. Then the story can offer viewers ways they can get involved.

Can we make the case that worker coops address an obvious and important problem like the jobs crisis?

The Context
Everyone in this conversation (there were eight of us) is a seasoned communitarian, with lots of years of experience in income-sharing groups. Further, we are all outreach oriented and have a general sense of how exposure on NBC could be a golden opportunity to get our light out from under a bushel. 

We are also all aware of how tiny our numbers are. In the US there are about 100,000 people who live in some kind of self-identified intentional community. At FIC our data indicate that around 12% of communities are income-sharing, which represents 12,000 people. In addition, the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives estimates that there are about 5000 people in this country employed in worker-owned cooperatives. Even if you postulated that there is no overlap between the two (a dubious assumption), 17,000 is less than the number who typically attend Kansas City Royals baseball games—hardly a phalanx sufficient to address a national jobs crisis.

The Contribution
Against this backdrop, here is what I contributed to the dialog:

1. I agree with the comments about intentional communities and worker coops not being anywhere near large enough in numbers to constitute an alternate job market capable of providing jobs on the scale being discussed.

2. What’s more there are powerful social reasons why that number is not going to increase rapidly (living and working cooperatively are hard to do well when you’ve been deeply conditioned to be competitive). It can be done and it’s worth doing, but it ain’t never going to be a flood. To be clear, we have dissatisfaction with standard employment options at the right levels, we just don’t have anywhere near the pool of cooperatively skilled people needed to pull it off.

3. That said, we still have a powerful story to tell. In particular, I’d want to emphasize four economic levers, the power of which are all showcased in intentional communities:

a) Access to resources rather than ownership (the power of sharing). In most cases, owning things is not necessary so long as you have access to them. For example, hardly anyone uses a chain saw, lawn mower, table saw, or even a washing machine every day. If you're part of a group that owns (or leases) one, then it's relatively easy to have it when you want it (sure, occasionally two people will want the thing at the same time, but that happens far less often than you might suspect), and you don't have to earn all the money needed to buy it, house it, and maintain. What's not to like?

b) Redefining security (even economic security) in terms of relationship, rather than money in the bank (or the size of one’s insurance policies). If friends, family, and neighbors are there for you in time of need, you don't need to hire people to be there for you. It's that simple. Of course, that means you'll need to be there for them as well, but it can all even out in the end, and it's far less burdensome in a group of 10 to have everyone do 10% more when someone is incapacitated, than for one person to do double when their partner goes down (assuming they have a partner).

c) How sharing (or pooling) can be further leveraged when you think of the group as the basic economic unit instead of the household. Every household has to solve the problem of getting its domestic work done and earning enough money. When you only have one or two adults in the household your options are severely restricted. However, when the equation is solved over a group you have lots more options, which include both economies of scale (each person cooking one night a week for seven is way more efficient than each person cooking for themselves every night) and how you can slant things much more toward the work that people like (read quality of life) when you have more options for juggling domestic and income producing labor.

For example, if a household is comprised of two people, one of whom only wants to make widgets all day, and the other of whom only wants to sell widgets, you may have a great business model but who cooks and how do the floors get cleaned? Alternately, if there's a household where one member dreams of gardening full time, and their partner wants to cook and can, they'll probably have terrific meals but how does the electric bill get paid? An income-sharing group can accommodate all of these preferences without anyone needing to compromise their preferred work mix. Woohoo!

d) Job sharing. Given a choice, most people would prefer to work part time, at home, and with flexible hours. In community this is much easier to do than in the mainstream. One of the most onerous ways to spend time is commuting. If you work at home that nightmare is eliminated.
While all of these points apply to intentional communities in general—and could be extended to neighborhoods, churches, schools, and even corporations—they are far more pronounced in income-sharing communities, where the collective takes a much more active stance in managing labor.

The Conclusion

First, we lay out how we're succeeding:
o  High quality of life satisfaction which requires less income and uses far fewer resources per person
o  Individuals can create their own jobs, but don't need to because the group will provide work options
o  Through sharing, each individual is required to do less grunt work
o  High degree of choice in work, with less commuting, less costuming, and more flexibility of hours

Second, we pitch how these lessons can be exported into non-community situations. The goal being to inspire from community, rather than trying to recruit to community (or worker cooperatives). 

So bring on the cameras!

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