Josh Haas's Web Log

Co-op capitalism?

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So I read this: The Minimum Wage Worker Strikes Back

Nothing really new or surprising, but it makes it very vivid how unsustainable working minimum wage in fast food is, and how hard a trap it is for people to get out of.

Articles like this demand a response, because pretty much every day I take advantage of goods and services provided by companies that are offering their workers a similarly-shitty bargain.

So the main reactions people seem to have is “raise the minimum wage” and “unionize”. And then political opponents respond that this is bad for business, destroys jobs, etc. Debates like this frustrate me because they’re implicitly adversarial: are you pro-labor or pro-capital? Pick a side, call the other side names.

I’m trying to imagine what a world where the labor / capital dichotomy doesn’t exist looks like. What if someone started a fast food chain where the explicit goal was to divide all profits among the workers, either through bonuses or through the business being employee owned. Would it work? Could it compete head-to-head against McDonald’s and Chipotle?

From a sheer math perspective, I don’t see why not. At the end of the day, the existing chains make profit, and give it back to shareholders — redirecting that flow of cash to the workers seems like it shouldn’t make the business any less efficient. You’d expect that, in fact, you could build a more profitable business this way, since the workers would be motivated to see the overall business succeed, and since you could use the sustainability as marketing.

The main obstacle from an economics point of view would be initial funding, since investors wouldn’t get a return — it’s the investors’ cash that we’re redistributing. But that doesn’t seem insurmountable; the investment would just have to be marketed not in terms of its financial return, but rather in terms of its social return. There are plenty of philanthropists (both big and — via crowd-funding — small) who might be interested in getting such a venture off the ground.

The real issue is cultural. It’s ingrained in our culture that corporations are supposed to extract and squeeze as much profit as possible out of labor, and that the people who fund and manage the corporations are successful to the degree in which they take home a large paycheck. Even people very critical of capitalism implicitly assume that that’s just how corporations work. Basically, making this work means changing the concept of “success”: success would no longer be measurable via the stock price, but rather by how much both the producers and consumers of the product benefit from the relationship.

It’s a norm-creation and culture-building challenge, basically. Which is really hard. But the win is that it might lead to an actual transformation of the relationship between people and their jobs, instead of another 100 years of capital-labor power struggles.

Written by jphaas

May 18th, 2014 at 9:08 pm

Posted in Uncategorized