How to make 400 ordinary people into millionaires

Corporate videos generally should be taken with a pinch of salt, but this one carries the ring of truth. WinCo is a supermarket chain that is owned by its 15,000 employees, many of whom have become millionaires. See the article at, which says “according to Forbes, WinCo has more than 400 front-line employees — cashiers, shelf-stockers, clerks, and others — who are already millionaires.” Employee ownership is one of the very few avenues to address the accelerating growth in inequality. And at the same time it transforms the working lives of ordinary people, and the experience of their customers.

Ideologies of Murder, Fantasies of God

It takes a lot to drive us, and to give us permission, to kill our fellow humans. Testosterone helps: murderers are overwhelmingly male. Feelings of anger will help us get there if they are particularly strong, as in outrage against a perceived slight. But most of all before we can kill we need the ideas that make it right to kill, and all right to kill. We need an ideology that permits and justifies it.

Religions, based as they are in baseless fantasy, and so endlessly twistable to serve any purpose, have been great at providing the necessary backing for mass murder. If we take the Charlie Hebdo cover from left to right: the Jewish religion, with its fantasy of a god who tells Jews to kill Palestinians and occupy their land, has provided ideological backing for decades of terrorist- and then state-organised murder and theft on a grand scale. Not content with killing thousands, the Jewish god gives his backing to the daily humiliation and hostile subjugation of the ones left alive. Christianity will claim to have done less of it in recent years, but in the past provided the necessary backing for crusading armies to invade the Middle East and kill the locals, and in living memory supported both sides in two world wars. Some loving god there. Also in the relatively recent past the Christian god instructed different sects to burn each other alive. Just 300 years ago the authorities in Scotland hanged a student for, among other things, questioning the reality of the supposed virgin birth. (I have news for Christians: Mary was inseminated in the usual way. Let us hope that it was enjoyable for her. Perhaps it was John the Baptist that did it – a charismatic preacher and an impressionable young girl, an oft-repeated story). And more recently, Islam has given the requisite ideas for 9/11 in New York, 7/7 in London and now the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, as well as many other murderous attacks across the Middle East.

Of course it is not just religions that do it. Revenge can be cloaked in the ideas of western films, as with George Bush invading Iraq, ideas with wide appeal in American culture and therefore useful for masking more sinister motives (intense greed for oil and for dominance) and whipping up public support. And joining in murder can be justified by the most ghastly self-serving hypocrisy, as with Tony Blair, with his crawling subservience to power. Of course the Christian god was a willing recruit in backing the invasion of Iraq; all it took was Bush and Blair to pray together.

Without irony one of the justifications offered for the invasion of Iraq was that democratic countries do not invade other countries, so we democratic countries are invading Iraq to make it democratic, so that it will no longer be a risk to its neighbours. Perhaps Bush and Blair were tacitly recognising that they were rendering their own countries non-democratic in their rush to war. Invading someone else’s country shatters the potential for a fertile middle ground — shatters the potential for democracy. Imposing democracy through invasion is not a sound project.

For Stalin it was the dictatorship of the proletariat necessitating the murder of critics and many other groups. For Mao the benefit of being led by the party under his chairmanship made the murder of critics and millions worthwhile. For Hitler purity of race justified the murder of critics and people not of that particular race. For Johnson defending freedom necessitated killing Vietnamese in large numbers, though living in a democracy he could not kill American critics. For Boko Haram and Isis various words of a man who fought wars many centuries ago justify murder today on a vast scale.

The Vietnamese were lucky in one respect: the ideology available to them was not a religious ideology but an ideology of political resistance, which is usually less toxic than a religious ideology and pollutes minds with less persistence. Stalinism and Maoism killed on a truly vast scale but they have been transcended. Only the religions persist, ready to justify murder again.

So it echoes on through history as we make it. If Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11, had not been invaded, would 7/7 and Charlie Hebdo have happened?

Murderers are criminals and should be treated as criminals, not soldiers or political leaders or representatives of a race or religious group. Dangerous criminals need to be locked up and helped to understand the error of their ways. If you believe in a fantasy of god yourself, you are not in a good position to help someone get free of their own fantasy of god.

A common theme through the religious ideologies especially is that women should be kept in their subservient place. Who knows, if we shared airtime and leadership with them, they might not let us kill so readily. So we’d better not let them show their faces or become bishops or eat sacrificial meat and so on and so on and so on. God forbid that they should be free to express their sexuality: they might not choose us.

We need to speak out against the idiotic and baseless religious (and political and racist) ideas that can justify murder. Religions do not deserve respect: they need to be challenged, shown up, dismissed. Their hypotheses are rubbish. There is no god; the idea of god is a very very bad hypothesis. Reality is much more complex and wonderful than that. And murder is not justified. And we need to keep our leaders under control, whatever their fantasy gods tell them.

US Wealth Distribution is Crazy

This is a great, clear video showing how the distribution of wealth in the USA has gone crazy. Joe Stiglitz, the Nobel prizewinning economist, concluded from his research that the market has no Invisible Hand that makes things all right. What works in the market is power, and when you let the powerful off the hook, when they no longer have any sense of being responsible for the consequences of their actions, then this is what happens. Only six minutes, and very well worth seeing.

Rewarding Stars in Employee-owned companies

15_sf_ballet_pairHow do we reward people who do great things? We have to reward them well. Their special contributions need to be acknowledged. Often that means giving them lots of money, much more than the average.

At the same time, they need to acknowledge – and they may not want to recognise it at the time – that their work is hugely supported by the work of the others, the work of their partner employee-owners. They could not achieve all they do without that support.

Different groups of employee-owners come up with different systems for rewarding their stars. Some companies are very happy to see big differences in cash bonuses, while keeping the share distribution equal, building up through equal allocations every year. Others devise systems to share the ownership more with the people whose work contributes more in the way of growth or profit. Some reward the individuals, others have team bonuses, with the team itself or the team leader deciding how the bonus is divided among the team members.

In companies where a few stars make a really big difference – such as in a literary agency or a ballet company – there will usually need to be a system for addressing this question.

It is important for the people involved to have a say in designing the original system, and in reviewing it and perhaps tuning it from time to time. Employee ownership is never about imposing a ‘one size fits all’ solution.

But there are common elements. The clearest lesson is that there needs to be a significant part of the ownership held in common, and managed democratically. Otherwise the system will be open to opportunist abuse by people who are influential, people who don’t care about future generations. We need to be vigilant about selfish opportunists – the most dangerous being the ones who have not got beyond the current model, the people who think that those at the top do everything that is important, and deserve all the rewards.

Most employee owners want to pass on their company strong, so that future generations can enjoy the same excitement and freedom as they have. And they recognise that the big contributors should be well rewarded.

Strengthening Democracy

StrengthenDemocHeaderThe first of four workshops was held recently in Glasgow, in the Scottish Universities Insight Institute, on the theme of Strengthening Democracy. The key topic was to look at the ways that employee ownership strengthens democracy in the communities around the employee owned firms. David Ellerman opened, with a survey of his search, when he was a young philosopher, for the intellectual basis on which capitalism is founded. He was at that time (1960s) convinced that capitalism was by far the best system in the world, and so set off on his quest for its philosophical foundations with some confidence. However, what he discovered was that there is no valid basis for the key relationship on which our current system depends: employment. Examined dispassionately, the employment contract is a fraud – a way to remove from people the wealth that they create through voluntary cooperation with their work-mates; and to force them into a subservient role instead of acknowledging their autonomy. By contrast, when a company is owned by its employees the business consistently outperforms similar businesses conventionally structured. Why? Because people cannot give up their autonomy, and when they are forced in the conventional employment relationship to pretend to do so, they perform less well: they don’t identify with the business to anything like the same extent, and so they don’t think about it, they don’t feel so confident, nor so cooperative, they end up competing with their colleagues for hierarchical position instead of cooperating to innovate. There is overwhelming evidence that employee-owned companies are more productive, and the reason is that they treat people as the partners they actually are, whatever contracts they have to sign to get a conventional job.

Employees and Owners

WagesPercentGDPGetting a job is a good thing – it helps you stand on your own feet. Those who don’t have jobs tend to have worse health, higher divorce rates, earlier deaths. But in the US, the world’s strongest economy, those who have jobs have been getting less and less of the pie they have created. The chart shows the strong declining trend, from about 1970 to now, in how much of the pie employees get. If today employees got the 53% of GDP they did in 1970 instead of the 44% they actually get now, they would receive in their pay packets $1,350 billion more than they do get. That is very nearly $10,000 per person employed. That would alter the ability to pay mortgages and look after children.

DividendsPercentGDPWhere has the money gone? Over a third of it has gone to company owners. Dividends, shown in this graph, stayed between 2% and 3% of GDP from the 1940s to the late 1980s. Then the owners pushed them up to nearly 6% of GDP before the crash. In today’s terms, the owners took from each employee an extra $3,600 every year. Today, they still take $2,600 more from each employee than they would have in the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s or most of the 80s. And it is rising.

How has this happened? The owners have simply been exercising their rights. Employees cooperate voluntarily to create the wealth, but have no right to participate in the wealth they create. The owners can legally take all the wealth for themselves, and in one way and another they have been exercising that right. Private equity leveraged buyouts, for example, are simply the ruthless exercising of the rights of owners, at the expense of everyone else, whether employee, supplier, customer or taxpayer.

It is different in employee-owned companies. The next blog will be about who shared in the profits of two major British retailers: Marks and Spencer, owned mainly by the financial institutions, and the John Lewis Partnership, owned since 1929 by a trust for its employees.

Marie Colvin and an Open Society

Marie Colvin 3

Marie Colvin.
Photo: Richard Flaye

January 22nd was the first anniversary of the death of Marie Colvin, the bravest person I have ever known. Her murder was a war crime: she and her colleagues, civilians all, were targeted by the Syrian army because they were broadcasting the truth to the world about the massacres carried out by the regime.

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