Cooperative Economics

Public Banks and Credit Unions: What’s the Difference?

by Marc Armstrong

Anything that takes control from Wall Street banks is viewed by many as a positive development. Public banks, credit unions, and, to some extent, the new fintech firms all do this: they change the competitive landscape and provide a variety of services that appear to compete with traditional banks. Two of these players, public banks (of which the Bank of North Dakota is presently the only one in the United States) and credit unions, are considered by some to be in the same space, but they are actually quite different. This post will map out some of the key similarities and differences.

Public banks are government owned entities that act in a not-for-profit capacity to finance public goods, with their earnings passed back to the people in the form of lower interest rates on loans or government dividends. Public banks have many measures of democratic control, such as a more participatory form of governance. But since low interest rates on loans and local control are also the hallmarks of credit unions, what are the differences between public banks and credit unions?

The main difference is distinct and important: Thanks to the banking lobby, federal law prohibits credit unions from making commercial loans that exceed 12.25% of their total assets. This is a significant limitation that keeps credit unions out of the core business of banks: issuing credit. Of course credit unions can make consumer loans and mortgages, but this focus on member loans, savings, and other consumer-oriented services places them in the same market as most retail banks.

publicbankingworksPublic banks, on the other hand, are in decidedly different markets: commercial lending and public finance. They can ignore the retail sector entirely and have laser-like focus on generating credit to fund commercial and infrastructure loans. Because there is no need to provide costly retail banking services, an already crowded market in many areas of the country, public banks can be the engine for a state or city’s economic development program by providing affordable loans. Anyone who supports a good idea like renewable energy, worker-owned cooperatives, or effective public transit systems knows that very often the roadblock for each is always the same — lack of money. Without taxpayer funding many of these ideas die or the implementation gets postponed. But with low cost credit, available through a public bank, many of these good ideas can get funded. A credit union does not have the lending capacity of a public bank to fund these kind of loans, many of which run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

There are other differences. Public banks are owned by government entities, while credit unions are owned by their members, who are the depositors, and with whom credit unions work collaboratively to share resources for convenience and savings. CU Service Centers and the CO-op ATM Network are two examples of this cooperation, something that a public bank as we normally conceive it would not consider (although new forms of public banking are always possible).

Both government-owned public banks and cooperatively-owned credit unions are ways to create more democratic approaches to banking. While their differences are significant, they both move in the same general direction, returning banking to our communities and sharing in the many benefits that come from localized control of banking.

Marc Armstrong is the president of Commonomics USA and co-founded the Public Banking Institute.

What We’re Doing in Laramie

by Matt Stannard

Members of the Laramie Ecovillage Group, myself included, are in the process of creating an intentional, ecologically sustainable, income-sharing community near Laramie, Wyoming. If you share our values (cooperative culture, non-hierarchical economic communalism, deliberative democracy, commitment to personal and spiritual growth), you might consider reaching out to us and join us in committing our lives to a world beyond capitalism.

We consider our effort to be revolutionary in scope. All of us in the group are, in ways both different and similar, economic refugees. All of us are committed to both reducing the adverse impact humans have on the environment, and practicing a personal, radically intimate (while deeply respectful of personal security and space) localized socialism that we believe is conducive to a widespread transformation of economic and political systems. We share the belief that personal and social change ought to be complimentary, and reject the idea that we must choose between mass political change and local community building as “first priorities.”

We are committed to income-sharing because economic insecurity has killed those we love and has whittled away at our own lives. Our community will share in both debits and rewards, and we will practice carefully-planned scaling of costs and community enterprises to take advantage of the basic principles of economic cooperation. We are already forming one cooperative business enterprise and will facilitate more, aided by the plentitude of information about cooperative management from a variety of values-compatible sources.

Presently, we are exploring many land acquisition options, from community land trusts to cooperative or private purchase. We are looking at several pieces of land and have so far received one offer from a seller. Our group includes legal professionals and experienced intentional community consultants–and several people who have previously lived in intentional communities.

Next weekend, we are hosting a retreat, with around ten guests coming from outside of Laramie, for people interested enough in this project to spend the weekend with us discussing cooperative culture and economics, income-sharing, ecological sustainable community, and how people live communally.

If, in the course of reading this, you have found yourself feeling that this is something you’d like to do, if it has spoken to your deep sense that a community like this is possible, necessary, and a place where you would thrive, you should get in touch with us. Joining would follow a careful and conscientious process and a mutual decision between you and the community. You would need to be committed to becoming a better, more cooperative person always, and doing what you are capable of doing to contribute. It’s definitely not for everyone, but it could very well be for you.

What we’re doing isn’t unique. There are thousands of intentional communities, including many income-sharing communities. But we know what we’re doing will make a difference for our membership, and we hope it will help shape a world that desperately needs this kind of re-shaping.

Matt Stannard is policy director at Commonomics USA and a founding member of the Laramie Ecovillage Group.

The 2016 Elections: 6 Takeaways for the Economic Cooperation Movement

by Matt Stannard

1. Because capitalism. The election of America’s most prominently parasitic and malicious real estate capitalist to Chief Executive says “this is what happens, Larry.” An economic system based on predatory finance, making money through exploitation of labor, extraction of the planet, and the financial leverage of money itself, gets us mass immiseration, deep cultural divisions, irrationality-as-ideology, fake populism, incipient fascism. The 2016 election was an indictment of extract-and-exploit capitalism, not a vindication of it. Breathe deeply knowing that. Keep talking about it. More and more people will want to talk about it.

2. These Herberts won’t solve anything. The new (deeply incompetent and crony-driven) administration will push poorly-planned, graft-heavy infrastructure and other mega projects. It will continue to promise to bring back coal jobs and manufacturing jobs. All of the administration’s economic initiatives will likely be ecologically indefensible and not truly beneficial to the local economies they’ll purport to target. We have to keep emphasizing public and community finance, local protection of the commons, and the economic viability of cooperative communities.

3. Local politics matters now more than ever. We already know how fossil fuel giants manifest their politics via controlling state legislatures, and pro-carbon state-level politicians came out ahead in the 2016 elections. ALEC-like entities will continue to influence state and local governments. But this is also where we have the greatest chance of resisting bad policies and carving out exceptional, even revolutionary, communities. We must run for local offices and support legal efforts to increase municipal autonomy.

4. We are transpartisan. Democrats are demoralized, but many are eager to build a tycoon-proof society. Some Republicans are bright enough to see the reality of what they have created, ready to reject hate politics, and amenable to the localist component of our vision. Greens, Socialists, and others are still struggling for national relevance but have always had valuable knowledge of and commitment to cooperative economics (and those groups have run some great local campaigns that align with our values). A hell of a lot of people are unaffiliated and/or didn’t vote. Economic cooperation must be politically ecumenical in precisely the ways that bourgeois, corporate media-driven politics can never be.

5. Materiality intersects. We need to work on class, race, gender, sexuality, disability, indigenous rights, and other oppression points in our unique way: emphasizing the material components of identity-based oppression where activists inhabiting the conventional political economy cannot. While others are arguing about whether poor whites are more white than poor or more poor than white, let us create spaces where economic insecurity no longer sparks, exacerbates, or obfuscates identity-based prejudices. There will still be bigotry, but we can make it easier to fight it.

6. We are building the alternative. We have to keep building, building, building. Keep creating and converting worker-owned cooperatives. Keep creating and strengthening eco-villages, income-sharing communities, and community land trusts. Keep reminding cities and states that public banks offer independence from a federal government owned by Wall Street. Keep fighting every attempt to privatize the commons. Keep building cooperative culture, local currencies and time exchanges, strong social service networks and resource-sharing programs. Every time we demonstrate that cooperation works, the forces that gave us President-elect Trump lose. A cooperative economy is a material base against exploitation and fascism. Whatever the importance of other activism, this is the importance of ours.

Image: Union Cab workers in Portland, Oregon. Photo credit: NW Labor Press