By Chris Mackin
In this 1987 MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour report, Paul Solman reported on workers’ attempt to buyout the General Dynamics shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, and spoke with Chris Mackin, a leader in the worker ownership movement.
Paul Solman: Worker ownership: When I joined the labor force in 1970, it was the dream of many an “alternative” business, including ones I worked for. Egalitarianism. Justice. Capitalism for all. A Boston weekly newspaper of which I was the editor, “The Real Paper,” was in fact entirely owned by its staff.
Chris Mackin, of the consulting firm Ownership Associates, has been a key figure in the worker ownership movement for almost as long as I’ve been a journalist. He first showed up in a NewsHour story of mine in 1987. He was advising a worker buyout of a shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, about which we were reporting.
When I ran into him recently, I asked him to tell me what has happened to the worker ownership dream. Here’s his report.
Chris Mackin: In the classic 1967 film “The Graduate,” Dustin Hoffman gets a single word of advice about the secrets of prosperity: “Plastics.” Almost 50 years later, as economic inequality gallops, compounds and then gallops some more, we need a similarly pithy intervention to address matters of economic fairness.
One candidate that may be equal to that task is a homely sounding economic noun that separates the wealthy from the rest of us. “Assets” are a seemingly magical set of resources that work for anyone who owns them. In conversations about economic fairness, “assets” are a resource that has largely remained outside the policy tent. President Obama has recently raised expectations about how economic policy might attack the problem of inequality. But he likely won’t get that far unless he too is ready to step outside that tent.
Accounting textbooks teach us that there are different categories of assets, both tangible (e.g., land, buildings, housing, corporate stock, minerals) and intangible (e.g., patents, goodwill, copyrights). Wealthy people own lots of these assets. So many that they often forgo that more pedestrian instrument that makes possible the accumulation of income, the paycheck.
Unwealthy people own few, if any, assets. Theirs is wage-dependent, income based universe. They live from paycheck to paycheck. If assets are the key discriminant that sustains the wealthy, why is it that the most commonly invoked solutions to economic inequality tend to focus on income enhancing measures such as minimum wage campaigns, payroll tax credits and job training? That’s not where the real money is. One could be forgiven for suspecting a plot. If the general problem of economic inequality could be likened to an overly deep bowl of soup that should be more fairly consumed, income-based solutions attack the challenge with forks. We need spoons, asset spoons. Let’s examine a few.
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