FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Workers as Owners: the Other American Dream

George W. Bush talked the talk of an “ownership society,” but the laws he passed shifted income upward into the hands of the few. Three professors would rather see income flowing into the hands of the many, and they’ve written a book to point the way. The authors are Joseph R. Blasi and Douglas L. Kruse, both of Rutgers, and Richard B. Freeman of Harvard. The book is The Citizen’s Share: Putting Ownership Back into Democracy.

The nation’s founders wanted workers to have a piece of the pie, wanted widespread sharing of America’s bounty. The challenge of restoring the cod industry, laid low by the Revolutionary War, gave them the chance to set the national tone. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton played key roles in shaping legislation that split tax credits between ship owners (a three-eighths share) and crews (a five-eighths share). Further, owners could collect only if they had “a written, profit-sharing contract with all the sailors…covering the entire catch.” The law helped turn the industry around and remained in effect for nearly 20 years.

That was on the sea. On land, the government parceled out pieces of America itself to tens of thousands of early settlers. Starting with the Northwest Ordinance in 1787 (covering an area that became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota), Congress followed Jefferson’s lead: “distributing public lands to landless citizens, to give them a direct capital stake in society.” The land commonly went for bargain-basement prices with easy credit terms. The capstone was the Homestead Act of 1862, which turned over 160-acre plots west of the Mississippi. In Alaska, a law similar to the Homestead Act was on the books until 1986.

Today, of course, capital has replaced land as the primary source of wealth. For the authors, the nation’s beginning holds a lesson going forward: just as America itself was once divided up and shared, so capital (and the income it generates) should also be shared.

A template already exists in the form of employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs), pioneered by the financier Louis Kelso. ESOPs were included in the omnibus retirement bill passed by Congress in 1974. It offered tax incentives to companies to establish ESOPs, and to banks to lend set-up funds. Both incentives were later stricken. Today, with income inequality “the defining issue of our time” (President Obama’s words), there’s powerful reason to restore them. Corporations are awash in record profits; Congress should again encourage a cut for workers.

It’s surprising to discover how many already get one: “[T]here are an estimated 10,300 corporations with ESOPs and similar plans, with about 10 million workers and almost a trillion dollars in total market value….about 3,000 closely held companies are majority or 100% owned by their employees, about 3,000 are 30% to 51% owned, and the rest have ownership ranging from about 5% to 30%.” Employee equity is part of the culture at companies of all sizes, including roughly a tenth of the Fortune 500. Equity stakes and start-ups were made for each other. Annually, nobody shares equity better than Google: “Each year a stock pie is cut up…Less than one percent goes to the top executives. The other 99 percent goes to the broad group of workers.”

Equity takes various forms: stock ownership, profit-sharing, gain-sharing (e.g., setting goals and reaping rewards for meeting them), stock grants, and stock options. The key is that all boats rise, not just the yachts.

“The outstanding faults of the economic society in which we live are its failure to provide for full employment and its arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes.” Keynes wrote those words about England in 1936. To deal with the same faults, America needs more “citizen’s shares” in 2014.

Gerald E. Scorse helped pass the bill requiring basis reporting for capital gains. He writes articles on tax policy. 

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
April 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Ruling Class Operatives Say the Darndest Things: On Devils Known and Not
Conn Hallinan
The Great Game Comes to Syria
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Mother of War
Andrew Levine
“How Come?” Questions
Doug Noble
A Tale of Two Atrocities: Douma and Gaza
Kenneth Surin
The Blight of Ukania
Howard Lisnoff
How James Comey Became the Strange New Hero of the Liberals
William Blum
Anti-Empire Report: Unseen Persons
Lawrence Davidson
Missiles Over Damascus
Patrick Cockburn
The Plight of the Yazidi of Afrin
Pete Dolack
Fooled Again? Trump Trade Policy Elevates Corporate Power
Stan Cox
For Climate Mobilization, Look to 1960s Vietnam Before Turning to 1940s America
William Hawes
Global Weirding
Dan Glazebrook
World War is Still in the Cards
Nick Pemberton
In Defense of Cardi B: Beyond Bourgeois PC Culture
Ishmael Reed
Hollywood’s Last Days?
Peter Certo
There Was Nothing Humanitarian About Our Strikes on Syria
Dean Baker
China’s “Currency Devaluation Game”
Ann Garrison
Why Don’t We All Vote to Commit International Crimes?
LEJ Rachell
The Baddest Black Power Artist You Never Heard Of
Lawrence Ware
All Hell Broke Out in Oklahoma
Franklin Lamb
Tehran’s Syria: Lebanon Colonization Project is Collapsing
Donny Swanson
Janus v. AFSCME: What’s It All About?
Will Podmore
Brexit and the Windrush Britons
Brian Saady
Boehner’s Marijuana Lobbying is Symptomatic of Special-Interest Problem
Julian Vigo
Google’s Delisting and Censorship of Information
Patrick Walker
Political Dynamite: Poor People’s Campaign and the Movement for a People’s Party
Fred Gardner
Medical Board to MDs: Emphasize Dangers of Marijuana
Rob Seimetz
We Must Stand In Solidarity With Eric Reid
Missy Comley Beattie
Remembering Barbara Bush
Wim Laven
Teaching Peace in a Time of Hate
Thomas Knapp
Freedom is Winning in the Encryption Arms Race
Mir Alikhan
There Won’t be Peace in Afghanistan Until There’s Peace in Kashmir
Robert Koehler
Playing War in Syria
Tamara Pearson
US Shootings: Gun Industry Killing More People Overseas
John Feffer
Trump’s Trade War is About Trump Not China
Morris Pearl
Why the Census Shouldn’t Ask About Citizenship
Ralph Nader
Bill Curry on the Move against Public Corruption
Josh Hoxie
Five Tax Myths Debunked
Leslie Mullin
Democratic Space in Adverse Times: Milestone at Haiti’s University of the Aristide Foundation
Louis Proyect
Syria and Neo-McCarthyism
Dean Baker
Finance 202 Meets Economics 101
Abel Cohen
Forget Gun Control, Try Bullet Control
Robert Fantina
“Damascus Time:” An Iranian Movie
David Yearsley
Bach and Taxes
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail