Kreis: Cooperative Economy

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(HOST) Commentator Don Kreis is a law professor by day, but in his spare time he’s a grocery magnate – or to be more precise – he serves on the board of his local food co-op. And in that capacity, he’s celebrating an important anniversary.

(KREIS)  Although I live on the Vermont side of the Connecticut River, I’m taking some time this week to mark the 75th anniversary of something important that happened on the opposite shore, in nearby Hanover, New Hampshire.

It was on April 30th, 1936 that Dartmouth College hosted two public appearances by a guest from Japan – a Christian theologian by the name of Toyohiko Kagawa. Though little known today, at the time, Kigawa was as noteworthy a religious figure as his contemporary, Reinhold Neibur.

Back in 1936, the world was roiling with isms: unfettered capitalism – not yet tamed by the New Deal – and also communism, fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism.  In the face of all that, Kagawa had written a book, called Brotherhood Economics, and embarked on a national lecture tour.   In some quarters, Kagawa was vilified as a troublemaker and a revolutionary who should just go back to Japan.

But Kagawa urged people to spurn violent revolution and find a way to follow the biblical admonition to "love one another."  In order to do this, Kagawa’s unorthodox admonition was to form cooperatives.

A cooperative is a business and not a charity.  A traditional company exists to maximize profits to investors.  A cooperative exists to serve its users, be they farmers needing to market their cheese, credit union members in need of a loan, or electric customers spurned by investor-owned utilities.  Co-ops are democratically run – one member one vote – and any profit is paid out to members as a refund in proportion to their patronage.
In the Dartmouth community, Kagawa’s appeal landed on fertile ground.  A few months earlier, some faculty families had formed something called the Hanover Consumer’s Club to get oranges and other items that were hard to find at the time.   And a few months after Kagawa’s visit, the Consumer’s Club had morphed into the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society.

That co-op is still thriving.  And so are Vermont food co-ops from Brattleboro to Burlington to Buffalo Mountain, the co-op in Hardwick.  In fact, collectively, food co-ops are Vermont’s 25th largest employer.  The idea that the customers should own the store is now commonplace – but it’s also as radical as it was 75 years ago.   You don’t hear too many politicians, even in Vermont, use the word "cooperate" when they talk about economic development.

Sadly, Toyohiko Kagawa went home in 1936 to a Japan that ultimately spurned his notion of brotherhood economics in favor of the totalitarian policies that led to World War Two.  But here, cooperatives have prospered.  They are the true embodiment of socially conscious business enterprise.  How fortunate we are that Toyohiko Kagawa came here during the Great Depression and taught us that the economy we need is one based not on greed… but on love.

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