One of the background themes of The Weekly Sift is that profit-making corporations are dangerous, because they have no morals. I don’t mean that as an insult and I’m not trolling. I just mean that, as a point of fact, corporations have no morals. Their goal is to maximize profit. If they can profit by curing cancer, they will, but if they can profit by giving people cancer, they’ll do that too. It makes no difference to them.*
Especially since Citizens United, you need to understand that any dollar you give to a profit-making corporation is likely to be used against you. Sometimes the assault is obvious, like Chick-fil-A funding anti-gay organizations; if you’re gay and you eat at Chick-fil-A, you’re funding efforts to take away your rights. Other cases are more subtle, like UPS having a seat on the board of ALEC. I’m sure union members ship via UPS all the time without realizing that they’re conspiring in their own destruction.
But what can you do? I don’t care for Verizon’s lobbying on net neutrality, but they have the only cell network that covers all the places I go. If I want an iPad, I can’t get an equivalent product from some tinkerer’s booth at the farmers’ market. And I’m sure my gas purchases have funded plenty of climate-denial propaganda, but my town is set up for cars.
If you try to be a purist about these kinds of things, you’ll end up living in a Unabomber cabin someplace. So the better question is: What’s the low-hanging fruit? You probably can’t (or don’t want to) disentangle yourself from corporate octopus completely, but how much of your money can you route around it without joining a hippie commune or something?
The answers below are not exhaustive and follow a few simple themes: Join co-ops, which are owned by their customers. Deal with local businesses that are owned by individuals or families. If you have to deal with a corporation (and often you do), pick smaller ones over bigger ones — and look for the occasional corporation that is owned by its employees.
Financial services. The no-brainer here is bank at a credit union. You won’t just pull your money away from the bankers who crashed the economy, you’ll get a better deal. This week my credit union gave me an .85% interest rate on an 11-month CD. The best a local profit-making bank would give me was .4% if I stretched it out to 14 months. Whether you’re looking for checking, savings, car loans, or low-interest-rate credit cards, your best bet is probably a credit union.
Like all co-ops, a credit union is owned by its members, who elect its board. So your money is not going to pay outrageous CEO bonuses or get lost gambling on derivatives or building some temple-of-finance edifice. The stock-holders are the customers like you. So the credit union will pay more on your savings and charge less on your loans.
Years ago, you could only join a credit union if you worked at a place that had one, or had some other special connection. But the rules got loosened in 1998, and now there are local credit unions that accept anyone who lives in a particular area. For example, anybody who lives in New Hampshire can join Granite State Credit Union.
Mutual insurance companies are also member-owned, but you need to be careful: Some companies retain “mutual” in their names for historical reasons, but their structure is more complicated. If your policy doesn’t come with voting rights, you’re not really a member-owner.
For more complicated financial services, you might have several other member-owned options.
If you are (or were) in the military, or one of your parents is a USAA member, you can join USAA and get a full range of financial services: brokerage, insurance, whatever.
If you work for an educational institution or some other non-profit, probably not-for-profit TIAA-CREF is one of your retirement-plan options. (I’ve had a TIAA-CREF 401(k) for 29 years.) In addition to 401(k)s, they offer life insurance and individual investment products like mutual funds and brokerage accounts. Possibly anybody can go to their web site and open an individual account, but I haven’t found a FAQ that says that.
But even if you don’t have a military or non-profit connection, Vanguard has brokerage and mutual fund services available to the general public. Like USAA and TIAA-CREF, Vanguard isn’t exactly a co-op, but it is organized in a creative way that avoids Wall Street: It is owned by the mutual funds it manages, and those funds are owned by their investors.
Finally: You can cut the Visa/Mastercard oligopoly out of a transaction by paying cash. Usually you don’t see the difference, but the merchant pays something like 2-3% — which is how some cards can give you 1% cash back on your charges. This is a judgment call. I’ll pocket my 1% if the merchant is another big corporation like Exxon-Mobil. But I’ve started paying cash to local merchants. More of my money stays in the community.
Groceries. The easiest way to reduce the amount of your grocery budget that goes to profit-making corporations is to join a food co-op, if your area has one. More and more of them are springing up. (In my state, one has just opened in Keene, and I’ve pre-joined one that is trying to open in Manchester.)
A food co-op looks just like a grocery store and anybody can shop there, but it’s member-owned. So if you join you can vote and you’ll get a dividend if the store makes money. Because members vote, a food co-op can manifest values other than cost. For example, it can favor local farms or organic agriculture, or whatever the member think is important. Probably some things will be cheaper at Walmart, even after your dividend, but you won’t be mistreating your workers and none of your money will support a right-wing political agenda. This article includes links to help you find food co-ops near you.
Another option is a farmers’ market, where you can buy directly from the local producers. On summer weekends I can see one out my window, but if you don’t know where the nearest one is, check the Local Harvest website.
In community-sponsored agriculture, you buy a share of a local farmer’s output. It helps if you have some way to store the excess and are creative enough in the kitchen to adjust your menu to what’s in season. But if you fit that description, a CSA share isn’t just socially responsible, it will save you money.
Finally, one of the big supermarket chains in the rural Midwest is employee-owned: HyVee.
Retail. Depending on where you live, you might have all kinds of unexpected co-op options. For example, the Black Star brew pub in Austin is a co-op. It’s owned by 3,000 beer-drinkers and managed by its workers. I’ll bet it will never have a Friday’s-style drink-watering scandal.
Book co-ops show up here and there. When I was a graduate student in Chicago, I joined the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, which has expanded since I left. Back in the 80s, I paid $10 for a membership, and when I left town a few years later they bought my share back for $13.
This week I rejoined for $30. The share buy-back provision still applies. You can order books online or get e-books from their partner Kobo. Prices are generally below list, but I suspect not as low as Amazon — for now. Personally, I worry what Amazon will do after it drives Barnes&Noble out of business, as it probably will. In general, we seem to be headed for a retail world of Amazon vs. Walmart, with everyone else reduced to bit players. Maybe avoiding that future is worth paying slightly higher prices now.
Avoid chain restaurants. It should be obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people just don’t think about it. A local restaurant isn’t just less corporate, it keeps money in your community. It’s not just that the owner lives nearby, but the business also probably has a local accountant, a local lawyer, and so on.
Chains aren’t even necessary on car trips any more. Yelp will find you local restaurants wherever you happen to be. And my personal research says that if an interstate exit has a Denny’s, a McDonalds, and some local diner, the diner is pretty good. (The best fried chicken I’ve ever had came from just such a place: the Jubilee Cafe off I-74 in Kickapoo, IL.)
Use the post office. That speaks for itself, I guess.
Utilities. You’re more-or-less stuck with the utilities that serve your home, but the next time you move you might look for an area with municipally owned utilities.
Cable TV probably should have been a municipal utility, but most places took the short-cut of granting a monopoly to a private company. Now a handful of conglomerates dominate the business. But depending on what you watch, you may be able to fire your cable company.
Software/internet. Open-source software is free to use and has gotten pretty good. The Open Source Alternative website lets you specify the commercial software you want to replace, and tells you what your open source options are.
Lately I’ve been using Duck Duck Go as an alternative to Google or Bing. It’s also commercial, but claims not to collect data on users and profile them. I still revert to Google for a few things, but for the most part DDG does what I want with less annoyance.
Some of those suggestions will save you money, while some will raise your costs a little. But none require you to adopt a completely different lifestyle. I find that I feel less trapped when I route some of my money away from the corporate power structure. And if we can get a lot of people to do it, some larger changes become possible. I’ll cover that next week when I review Gar Alperovitz’s new book What Then Must We Do?.
In the meantime, use the comments to tell me what I left out.
* I’m sure it does make a difference to many of the people who work in corporations, and even to some CEOs. But if their moral values consistently reduce profit, they’ll be replaced.