This year, the credit union community should vote Democratic. For two good reasons. One is that Barack Obama has a better vision of where to take the country. The second is that the credit union movement is more in synch with the Democrats’ approach to government.
The Case for Obama
There is a great deal to like about Barack Obama. He is not an ideologue. He is not-over-the-top on any issue – environment, regulation, health care, education or foreign relations. He is passionate about bringing positive change to the country but is collected and intelligent enough to find common ground and sensible, realistic, pragmatic solutions.
The criticism that community organizing is not experience doesn’t hold much water. This country was built by community organizers, who worked at it for little pay. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson were all community organizers. Really, this is what politics is – getting groups of people to talk with one another and agreeing on common solutions that are going to advance everyone.
Many politicians talk about coming from the grassroots, but Obama really has. He understands the troubles of most Americans. When he was growing up, his mother was on food stamps; he knows what it is to worry about how a family is going to get by.
And if you were to know nothing about him except his resume, you would say, this is the kind of person we should have in the White House. As Abraham Lincoln ably showed, it is judgment, vision and leadership rather than a list of past executive positions that is important to a successful presidency.
The Proper Function of Government
Obama and the Democrats have a better sense of the proper relationship of government to other aspects of American life: the military, taxation, education, financial services, housing, foreign relations. They can see a better pathway through the Scylla of unfettered totally free markets on the one side and the Charybdis of socialized government on the other.
The Republicans tend to the any-government-is-bad-government side. We credit union people should have two problems with this. One is a long string of examples that -- despite the assurances of free-marketers – greedy people work their ways into positions of power and screw things up royally. We saw this when regulation was pulled back from the S&L industry only to have unscrupulous and foolish people grind it into the ground. The Bush Administration weakened the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and soon enough we had children sucking lead from toys made in China.
And, of course, greedy and short-term-oriented people looked to make killings in complex mortgages unsuitable to the persons they loaned to, and in the process killed off good portions of the financial services industry.
Credit unions steer a middle ground between cut-throat few-rules capitalism and spirit-sapping socialism. We are not capitalists putting up venture money expecting profits. Neither are we encompassing government bureaus. Rather we are cooperators. We cooperate to raise the fortunes of all; if one member wins, all members in the community win. We return money and benefits to persons who borrow and save, not ship money off to distant shareholders.
Our cooperative model is a superior business model, and we have shown it over and over during the past decades in good times and bad. We are showing it now during this troubled period.
Zero Sum vs. Advancement
Unfortunately in this country, politics is now largely looked on as a struggle where if someone wins, someone loses. It’s seen as a zero-sum game, by both its participants and ordinary citizens. Washington indeed has become ugly. Some talk of politics as “war,” the object being the total defeat of one’s enemies. Instead Washington politics should be a committee where reasonable representatives gather to assure that the best ideas bubble to the top, then approve those ideas and see to it that honest people administer them.
Ordinary capitalism is also largely a zero-sum game; in any trade someone receives and someone loses the same amount. But credit unions were never supposed to be that way and never have been. The cooperative model allows everyone to move forward.
Our cooperative methods should be a model for more of government. If we convinced agencies, interests and parties that they should act less as antagonists and more as potential cooperators, then everyone might advance together. In the approach to foreign policy, health insurance and more, the Democrats look far more to a consultation and cooperative model than the recent Republicans who have tended to bully ahead (in Iraq) and press ideological agendas (privatizing Social Security, starving the government of funds in order to shrink it).
Republicans would have us keep our taxes low and hope a rising tide raises all boats. It’s not working at the moment, if it ever did. If the rich get too rich, we end up like a banana republic. Everyone knows we have to pay for government; we have to pay for the services we consume and not lay off our consumption for our grandchildren to pay. Only a weak and cynical people would do such a thing. Recently, the Democrats have trumped the Republicans in paying for the government they purchase.
The argument that higher taxes on the rich slow an economy and innovation is contradicted by the prosperity and inventiveness of the 1950s. Taxes on income ranged to 90% – the highest in the world and the highest in U. S. history – but national prosperity was high and wide. Or consider this: When Clinton entered office, he enacted a higher tax on the rich; we went on to eight years of prosperity and shrinking government debt. When Bush entered office, he cut taxes on the rich; the country stalled economically if not also in innovation.
The genius of a good leader is understanding the relationship between government and the issues of the day. I believe Barack Obama has that understanding. And I believe the Democrats have a better notion of how cooperation rather than ideology can spur the country to moving in the right direction.
Credit union people can understand that, and they should support it.