Thursday, December 29, 2011

My Coming Trip to the Credit Union Museum: Call for Suggestions

Ever since I first discovered the existence of America's Credit Union Museum in Manchester, New Hampshire, I've been dying to check it out. Unfortunately, life kept getting in the way of my dreams of archival adventuring, but I've decided to put my foot down and make January the month I finally get to take in the American credit union movement's premiere historical institution for two glorious days. My hope is that this trip will provide inspiration for a number of Credit Union History posts, including (but, thanks to the inspirational magic of primary sources, not limited to):
  • A video interview with museum director Peggy Powell.
  • A review of the museum's exhibits (hopefully with photos!).
  • A brief guide to the resources available in the museum's reading room.
  • A book review of Roy Bergengren's single known work of fiction, Cumet: A Fantasy Having to do With Credit Union Mass European Tours (as it turns out, Paul Thompson's The Credit Union Lady is not the only credit-union themed novel ever written). Self-deprecatingly mentioned in several of his subsequent non-fiction books, Bergengren's novel supposedly proposes the idea of credit unions organizing trips to other parts of the world in order to help create international understanding. I've been fruitlessly searching out a copy of Cumet for a while, but it has been impossible to find; however, it turns out that the Museum has one, and Ms. Powell has graciously offered to open the glass case and allow me to read it!
Additionally, I'd happily welcome any suggestions from readers of Credit Union History as to other thing to look for and/or what you'd like me to write about. Leave your suggestions in the comment section, on the Facebook page, or drop me an email.


I finally got the Credit Union History "Tip Jar" working. If you'd like to help fill my gas tank for this trip, click on the "Google Checkout" button on the right hand of the screen...

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Book Review - Cooperation Works! by Nadeau and Thompson

Cooperation Works! How People Are Using Cooperative Action to Rebuild Communities and Revitalize the Economy, by E.J. Nadeau and David J. Thompson, is an accessible and wide-ranging overview of the cooperative movement in the United States as things stood at the time of the book's publication in 1996. Including both a general discussion and a number of specific anecdotes, each chapter is devoted to a specific form of cooperation, including such topics as senior housing co-ops, community-owned sports teams, and employee owned enterprises.

In addition to the value of the overall comparative perspective promoted by the diverse subject matter of Cooperation Works!, the book's chapter on community development credit unions (CDCUs) is particularly valuable to those interested in credit union history. Though the historiography of American credit unions in general is pretty sparse, extra little has been written about the CDCU model. This neglect can likely be attributed to the fact that, with their relatively recent origins and a tiny fraction of the asset-size of traditional credit unions, CDCUs are relatively easy to relegate to a footnote or an aside. When discussed at all, they are mentioned in passing as a project that emerged out of the "War on Poverty" era before the narrative returns to the main credit union story.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Common Bonds and Conflicting Identities: The Establishment and Development of the Vermont State Employees Credit Union

Given that I busted my butt writing this document for the better part of a year in order to finish my masters degree, I might as well make it available for public consumption. Read the whole thing here (pdf); the Abstract follows the break:

Monday, December 19, 2011

Book Review - Speaking of Change by Edward Filene

Edward Filene
When considering the development of the early credit union movement, it is impossible to ignore the key role played by reform-minded business man Edward Filene (of Filene's Basement). After encountering cooperative banking on a trip to India, he arranged for the Canadien credit union pioneer Alphonse Desjardins to speak to a group of community leaders in Boston about cooperative banking. Thereafter, Filene led the charge in obtaining the first credit union law in Massachusetts in 1909, and he spent over a million dollars of his own money over the subsequent three decades on credit union organizing and advocacy.

Described by one historian as "an American Owenite" (in reference to the early 19th century British utopian industrialist and cooperative pioneer Robert Owen), Filene was a man of action who devoted his later life to patronizing and supporting a wide variety of causes in addition to the credit union movement. In doing so, he constantly traveled and spoke before diverse audiences. After his death in 1937, a group of his associates decided to memorialize him by collecting what they felt to be the best of these speeches and publishing them in a book entitled Speaking of Change.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Occupy and Credit Unions: Next Steps

As readers of this blog are well aware, I've been actively advocating a synergistic relationship between the Occupy and credit union movements ever since since the former kicked off in Zuccotti Park on September 17th, and the developments since that date have been truly exciting. Beginning in early October, "Bank Transfer Day" spread widely through the Occupy movement's networks, which not only resulted in hundreds of thousands of people moving their money from commercial banks to credit unions, but was also critical in making activists aware of the basic differences between banks and credit unions. This awareness has fed activism that continued long after November 5th, with Occupiers across the country supporting the credit union model with teach-ins, pro-credit union pickets of banks branches, and using credit unions almost exclusively as the institution where movement funds are kept.

Given all of this, a recent development in San Francisco has been framed by many as the logical next step: members of the Occupy movement there have decided to establish their own credit union. Called the Peoples Reserve Credit Union, the founders stated that the "goal of this project is to encourage San Francisco residents, businesses, as well as nonprofit and city agencies to keep their money out of the big banks and to redistribute that money locally. Initial services will include micro-loans for the working poor and homeless, and subsidized student loans at low interest rates." After starting with 500 members, the founders aspire to have over 2,000 within a year.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Banks vs. Credit Unions in the Financial Crisis - with Graphs

In recent discussions of the relative merits of using banks or credit unions, one argument in favor of the latter asserts that they generally fared better than banks in the financial crisis. The reason for this, the argument goes, is that for-profit bank shareholders are only liable for losses up to the value of their investment, while they stand to profit from the returns on both their own investment as well as the depositors' funds. Thus, since it's rational to take greater risks when gambling with other peoples' money than with your own, for-profit banks tended to take on risky investments during the real estate bubble.

By contrast, since they are owned by their members, the conflict of interest between shareholders' desire for greater returns and depositors' desire for increased stability simply doesn't exist in credit unions. They thus tended to take fewer risks during the boom, and, as a result, didn't take as grave of a hit as commercial banks when the economy went bust.

In order to see if this thesis reflected the actual experience of the financial crisis, I crunched some numbers from the NCUA and FDIC. The results, which were published yesterday by the Motley Fool, seem to confirm credit unions' relatively superior performance in the bust. Read the full article, complete with pretty graphs, here.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Bank Transfer Day: A Model Victory for the Occupy Movement

Frustrated by a number of negative experiences involving her bank, LA gallery owner Kristen Christian decided to draw the line on October 4th, 2011, when she created a Facebook event entitled "Bank Transfer Day." Calling for people to move their money from banks to credit unions on November 5th, the action quickly went viral. By the intended date, more than 70,000 people had indicated their intent to participate on the Facebook event page, and the Credit Union National Association estimated that more than 650,000 new accounts were opened in the month before November 5th (more than had been set up in the entirety of 2010), and a further 40,000 people joined on the day itself.

When trying to explain this phenomenon, the dominant narrative coming out of both the credit union movement and the mainstream media as a whole is that Bank Transfer Day was primarily a reaction to the decision by large banks (most visibly Bank of America) to institute debit card fees. This ham-handed and poorly-executed policy change, the story goes, struck a nerve and instigated normally passive banking consumers to take Christian's call to heart by revolting en masse and moving their money to credit unions.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Bank Transfer Day, Populism, and the Strategy of the Credit Union Movement

After 27 year-old LA gallery owner Kristen Christian created the virally spreading "Bank Transfer Day" Facebook event in early October as a response to some infuriating experiences with her bank, a fascinating conversation has been taking place within the credit union movement. On the one hand, many are quite excited to see the burst of positive media attention that the event instigated. They eagerly hope that, in the short term, the tens of thousands of people who have RSVPed on Facebook will follow through on their intentions and deliver a wave of new members to credit unions. From a longer, more strategic perspective, the aspiration is that, by spreading awareness of the credit union model, the event will contribute to fundamentally and positively advancing the movement's place in the world of financial services.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Credit Unions and the Wall Street Occupation

My first real awareness of and appreciation for the credit union movement was a direct outgrowth of the 2008 financial crisis. Like many Americans, I was deeply shocked by both the fraudulent excesses of the banking industry and the collusion of government regulators which combined to plunge our economy into a recession from which we've yet to extricate ourselves. In order to try and better understand what had happened, I began reading widely in economics, and, in the process, stumbled upon the powerful alternative to the current financial order that is the credit union idea.

The thing that initially fascinated me about credit unions in the context of the financial crisis was the fact that they were, on average, far less negatively impacted by it than for-profit banks. Sure, they struggled as the economy turned sour and a few failed, but their woes were nothing compared to the apocalyptic crisis that engulfed the for-profit banking sector.

After a fair amount of research, I came to the conclusion that this advantageous outcome can be largely attributed to credit unions' cooperative ownership structure. In a for-profit bank, the depositors and the shareholders are two different groups of people. The shareholders, who legally have an absolute say in the direction of the company, generally want their bank to take risks which have the potential to pay off in the short term. On the other hand, depositors generally prioritize safety over returns, but, because they have no say in a for-profit bank, the banks took on too much risk for their own good, which ultimately led to the massive Federal bailout.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Book Review - Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber

Upon the recommendation of several people, I recently acquired David Graeber's new book Debt: The First 5,000 Years. With a title like that, I assumed that it'd be a conventional and somewhat tedious work of economic history. However, since debt is ultimately at the root of the whole credit union project, I figured that getting a long historical view of the phenomenon would be worth the slog. As such, I brewed up a cup of tea, hefted the substantial tome, and began to read.

Within the first twenty pages, my expectations of a dry economic history narrative were completely blown out of the water. Graeber, it turns out, is an anthropologist, not an economist, and that perspective is powerfully evident throughout the text. Instead of accepting the commonly held assumptions of economists and lay people on the origins of money and debt, he uses his encyclopedic knowledge of human cultures to refute many of those premises with hard, specific evidence, and offers an interesting new lens through which to view the development and role of debt in both the historical development and the lived reality of human societies. Indeed, Graeber's insightful argument covers so much terrain that it would be virtually impossible to do it full justice in a short book review. As such, I'll limit my observations to a few key points and their implications for credit unionism.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Book Review - Cooperative Banking: A Credit Union Book by Roy F. Bergengren

Not to be confused with his unimaginatively titled later work Credit Union: A Cooperative Banking Book (1931), Roy Bergengren's Cooperative Banking: A Credit Union Book (1923) was his first full length publication. Having been hired by Edward Filene a mere three years earlier to direct the project of promoting credit union development first in Massachusetts and then nation-wide, Cooperative Banking is a fascinating reflection of both the state of the credit union movement and Bergengren's thinking near the beginning of his long career as a credit union champion.

The most apparent difference between Cooperative Banking and many of Bergengren's subsequent works is his focus on international examples of credit unionism. In his later books, the bulk of Bergengren's writing draws upon his experiences with an enormous variety of domestic credit unions for evidence and emphasis. However, the pool of domestic examples from which he could draw in 1923 was fairly small given the fact that only a handful of states had passed credit union enabling legislation, and even the Massachusetts movement (the strongest and most organized at the time) boasted a total membership of less than fifty thousand. As such, instead of leading with a description of the sparse credit union development in America, Bergengren first introduces the readers of Cooperative Banking to the promise of the credit union idea by providing an overview of the success of cooperative banking in Germany under the leadership of Friedrich Raiffeisen and Hermann Schulze-Delitzsch. After outlining the process by which the movements founded by these two men grew to an enormous scale and helped to ameliorate many social problems, Bergengren argues that the two models of credit union development that had emerged over the previous decade and a half in America were not unprecedented new socio-economic experiments. Rather, they represented the spread of successful systems that had been subject to continuous refinement for more than half a century before reaching the United States.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Social History and Credit Unions

For much of its long existence, the primary focus of the field of history was on the "great men" who were believed to be the driving force behind historical change. Little could be gained, it was thought, by understanding the life of a French peasant in 1780 or a fisherman in Nova Scotia in 1890. Instead, the idea was that good history should be populated by world-changing geniuses, powerful princes, cunning statesmen, and intrepid explorers.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Unique Importance of Co-op Histories

While working on an institutional history of the Association of Vermont Credit Unions over the past few months, I've been giving the reason for writing such narratives a lot of thought. Particularly, I've come to the conclusion that, as a result of their unique ownership structure, histories of cooperatives serve fundamentally different purposes than do those of for-profit companies.

In the case of the latter, institutional history is commonly treated as a marketing tool. By crafting a narrative that puts the organization's best foot forward, a corporate history (whether in the form of a short blurb on a website or a full-length book) is generally driven by the goal of elevating the stature of its subject by providing it with ennobling historical roots. That objective, in turn, provides a powerful incentive to minimize (or overlook entirely) the conflicts and questionable moments that inevitably litter an organization's past.

At the root of this corporate tendency to whitewash their histories when presented for public consumption is the fact that their relationship with their customers is adversarial. As consumers are fickle and can often change which business they patronize with relative ease, it would be profoundly irrational for a corporation to actively promulgate an historical vision of itself which might damage its bottom line by scaring off its patrons. As a result, official corporate histories are notoriously unreliable and incomplete, which has, in turn, sparked a whole cottage industry of critical historical writing devoted to exposing the skeletons in corporate closets.

By contrast, the relationship of cooperatives (and consumer cooperatives in particular) to their histories is very different. Since the customers of such firms are, by definition, also their owners, the corporate concern over losing customers as a result of a warts-and-all portrayal of their history has little relevance to the cooperative context. Instead, such histories actually function to strengthen co-ops, since they provide the members and leaders of organizations with a clear sense of which paths have been taken or avoided in the past, and why. As a result, much of the institutional memory which is too often lost when a veteran board member or employee leaves can be preserved and used to inform future decisions without fear (as exists in a corporate environment) that its public exposure would cause great organizational harm. By maintaining a "long memory," cooperatives can cultivate an institutional culture (which their corporate competitors are structurally incapable of emulating) in which decisions can be based upon a deep and rational understanding of, and engagement with, past choices.

As philosophers from Francis Bacon to Michel Foucault have long recognized, the possession of knowledge is a source of great power. In the hierarchical, authoritarian cultures of many corporations, this fact is reflected in tireless efforts to obscure their pasts so as to deny their customers the power over them that knowledge of their history would provide. By contrast, at the core of the cooperative idea is the democratic dispersal of power: every member has an equal stake in the organization and an equal vote for the board of directors. However, such rights mean little if co-op members lack the information necessary to make truly informed decisions about how to wield their influence. As such, a corollary of dispersal of power to co-op members must be an equal dispersal of knowledge about the organization. Though such knowledge takes many forms (accurate annual reports, etc.), a comprehensive and well balanced institutional history is a vital tool of member empowerment that no cooperative should be without.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Book Review: We the People by Roy Bergengren

Reading through the works of credit union pioneer Roy F. Bergengren, it quickly becomes apparent that his books fall into two categories. The first consists of his "Credit Union Books" which, as the name suggests, were written for the benefit of the movement in a narrow sense. Containing practical guides to starting and running a credit union, the contact information of important people in the movement, and updates as to its status both nationally and in various locales, these books were primarily intended to be aids to credit unionists across North America as they struggled to build the movement from the ground up.

Although such texts make up the bulk of Bergengren's oeuvre, he also penned three works in response to contemporary events that take a much broader perspective. His memoirs can be seen in this light as a philosophical reflection upon his career as a co-operative organizer, and I Speak for Joe Doakes, written in 1944, is a call for international and economic co-operation as a way to prevent yet another world war from decimating yet another generation. However, the most involved and comprehensive of these books is We The People: Being an Impudent Dissertation on Certain National and International Matters.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Women in the Early Credit Union Movement

A little while back, CUNAverse, the blog of the Credit Union National Association, ran a great post assembled by their Archivist, Shawn San Roman, that gives an overview of a number of the early credit union movement's leading ladies. The piece is a valuable starting point for anyone wondering about the historical role of gender in credit unionism, but it also leaves a number of questions unanswered.

For instance, by focusing on specific individuals within the movement, we are left wondering whether such committed activist women were exceptional cases or simply representative of thousands of other such women who labored for the benefit of the credit union movement all across North America. According to an essay the book Consumers Against Capitalism? Consumer Cooperation in Europe, North America, and Japan, 1840-1990, co-ops in late 19th and early 20th century Europe disproportionately empowered women when compared to other institutions, and it would be fascinating to know whether such trends were mirrored in the American credit union experience.

A good step forward towards increasing our understanding of this aspect of the movement's history might take the form of a survey of the make-up of credit union boards and committees over time. By looking at the percentage of women who served in leadership roles and comparing those rates with women's influence in other kinds of organizations, we might gain a clearer picture of what the movement meant to women, and what women meant to the movement. Until such a survey is undertaken, however, anecdotal evidence such as the CUNAverse piece nonetheless hints strongly at the important role that women played in the building of credit unionism.

Monday, May 16, 2011

From Grad Student to Freelance Credit Union Historian!

Since I completed my very last masters program related responsibility today, I figured it is as good a time as any to announce my intention to try and make a career as a freelance credit union historian. I am deeply convinced that much of the credit union story has yet to be told, and that a great deal of good might come from its telling. As such, despite the risks involved in attempting to make a life as an independent academic, I'm excited to have the opportunity to attempt to make it work.

To kick off this new journey, I will be undertaking an historical project for the Association of Vermont Credit Unions. The goal will be to create an on-line history of the Vermont movement that is comprehensive while, at the same time, an accessible introduction to its legacy aimed at credit union staff, volunteers, members, and the public at large. Once completed, my hope is that this resource will help orient credit union people in Vermont to the debates, traditions, and choices that have shaped the contemporary movement, and that it will aid them in taking the lessons of the past more fully into account when making the decisions that will determine the future of credit unionism.

Additionally, I hope to begin work on a biographical piece about Roy F. Bergengren. Any understanding of the early American credit union movement that does not fully take into account the importance of this dynamic organizer and philosopher would be profoundly deficient, and yet there exists no comprehensive introduction to his life and thought. Though I'm not sure what scale or form such biographical work will ultimately take (long article? book? website?), I've decided to develop a research program that will hopefully culminate in a resource which will be of use to anyone who is curious about Bergengren.

As such, the content of Credit Union History over the next few months will likely be a reflection of these projects: lots of Vermont, and lots of Bergengren (and if I can combine the two, so much the better!). However, I will still try to post the occasional non-Bergengren book review or philosophically oriented essay and, as always, I encourage readers to submit their own relevant writings. This is an exciting new step, and hopefully the next few months will be good ones for credit union history!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Book Review: CUNA Emerges by Roy F. Bergengren

Written shortly after the formation of the Credit Union National Association, CUNA Emerges, by Roy F. Bergengren, is a truly essential text for students of the early credit union movement. Intended as an introduction to the theory and practice of credit unionism, Bergengren's book offers a comprehensive window into the ideas and general practices that characterized the movement in the mid-1930s. Along the way, he offers numerous insights into the nature of the philosophy that underpinned credit unionism, as well as observations on issues that the movement has continued to wrestle with to this day.

First and foremost, this book is of truly incomparable value to anyone doing primary research on early American credit unions (i.e., pre-1970s); in fact, for anyone considering such a project, I would strongly recommend consulting it before digging into the archives. Without the benefit of this book, my earliest archival work had a steep learning curve, as I only gradually, and in a piecemeal fashion, came to understand the full significance of the musty documents that had been excavated from a credit union's supply cabinet.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Coming Micro-Ownership Revolution

In the more than two centuries since the beginning of the radical transformation of economic life that accompanied the rise of industrial capitalism, one of the most interesting trends has been the changing nature of the forms through which people have engaged in economic activities. Before the industrial revolution, an artisanal mode of production predominated, with many small work-shops producing the goods required by the largely agrarian economy. At first glance, such the existence of many small firms would suggest a highly competitive economy; however this was not the case. Rather, the high cost of transporting goods created by primitive transportation networks, the risk of brigands, etc., meant that, rather than a single integrated economy, there existed many small economies between which only low-bulk, high-value goods (such as spices) were exchanged. In this situation, workshops were almost universally owned locally, since the cost of monitoring an agent in a distant city would be prohibitively high (the exception being those in the aforementioned low-bulk, high-value businesses, but they also helped ensure the loyalty of distant agents by using family members).

However, the advent of the 19th century transportation and communication revolutions, which brought better roads, canals, steamships, railroads, and telegraphs into widespread use, changed the game. The many local markets became increasingly integrated, and the prices of commodities converged over the course of the century. These changes also led to radical shifts in how firms were both run and owned. With huge, growing markets at their disposal, firms could, as Chandler describes in his brilliant book Scale and Scope: The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism, drastically reduce the unit cost of many products by engaging in capital-intensive mass production. However, in order to fully take advantage of such available efficiencies, firms needed to mobilize amounts of capital beyond the resources of almost any individual or family. As a result of this problem, the "managerial firm" emerged as the dominant model in many industries by the end of the 19th century. Where, previously, the owner of a business was generally involved with its operations, managerial firms were characterized by a separation of ownership and management (which began to be undertaken by salaried professionals).

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Book Review: People Helping People by Edward M. Walters

As its title suggests, Edward M. Walters' 2009 book entitled People Helping People: 75 Years of the Texas Credit Union League  traces the development of the Lone Star State's co-operative banking movement from its roots in that region's populist traditions up to the financial crisis of 2008. Clearly written, effectively structured, and jargon-free, the book's value lies in it being a comprehensive and accessible introduction to the movement for Texan credit union people. By weaving together the narratives of credit unionism's growth and development on both the national and state levels (and supplementing this story with numerous biographical sketches and old photographs), People Helping People is undoubtedly a very effective tool for orienting new credit union employees and volunteers to their organizations' historical context.

That said, Walters' book is problematic in a number of ways when viewed as a work of history. The first and most obvious issue lies in his total failure to cite his sources. Despite including many quotations and anecdotes, the book does not contain a single footnote, or even a bibliography. This important omission might have been excusable had People Helping People been written by a credit union enthusiast with limited familiarity with the conventions of historical writing. Walters, however, not only holds a PhD in history, but also has an MA in librarianship from the University of Chicago. With such credentials, one would expect him to appreciate the importance of writing in a manner that facilitates the verification of one's work by other scholars. Instead, Dr. Walters seems to expect the reader to unquestioningly accept his version of things. While that assumption might be fair in the case of a new credit union employee who picks up the book the better understand his or her employer, it means that People Helping People's contribution to the body of credit union historiography is of questionable validity.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Book Review: Crusade by Roy F. Bergengren

Published in 1952 (only three years before his death), Roy F. Bergengren's final book, entitled Crusade: The Fight for Economic Democracy in North America, 1921-1945, was written with the clear purpose of recording the legacy of his life's work as a credit union organizer. Mixing a chronological narrative of the movement's growth from his early work as the head of the Credit Union National Extension Bureau until the Second World War with countless colorful anecdotes and philosophical asides, Bergengren provides the reader with a rich textual mosaic which powerfully conveys his sense of the movement's trajectory and meaning during the years of his involvement.

As a work of history written by a participant, Crusade often reads like a book-length acknowledgements. For each event he covers, whether it be successfully lobbying for a state credit union law or organizing a speaking tour, Bergengren faithfully names all of the people whose support made the particular achievement possible. While this nostalgic style sometimes gets a bit tedious and mushy, it also means the book is an excellent place to start for anyone interested in undertaking a wide variety of credit union history-related projects. Not only will that reader emerge from Crusade with a fairly clear sense of the movement's overall developmental path, but he or she will also likely have developed a list of the names of the key players in almost any episode of that period.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Community Building in Credit Unions

In the American credit union movement's early years, narrow legislatively imposed field of membership (FoM) requirements functioned to limit the possible scale of cooperative financial institutions. As a result of this state of affairs, one of the major trends in the development of credit unions in the United States has been the push for the gradual loosening of their FoMs. That process culminated in the mid-1990s, when the regulatory framework was shifted to allow for "community" charters under which a credit union's FoM could consist of a region populated by millions of potential members. The results of this change have been mixed; while the number of credit unions members has grown robustly, that growth has been accompanied by a crisis in credit union identity.

This crisis, manifestations of which include declining annual meeting attendance, aging boards of directors, demutualization, and the fact that many new credit union members aren't even aware that their institution is structurally different than a joint-stock bank, was not entirely unexpected. Indeed, it had been anticipated by the debates between "traditionalist" and "progressive" credit unionists over the strategic direction of the movement in the 1970s and '80s. While the progressives advocated for the consolidation and growth of credit unions into large, technologically savvy full-service institutions with loose FoMs, traditionalists countered that the core purpose and essence of credit unionism would be weakened or even lost entirely in the course of such a transformation.

BitCoin: A Natural Experiment for Credit Union Development?

Over the course of the past few months, Bitcoin, an open source peer-to-peer on-line currency, has been quickly gaining traction and acceptance, to the point where the "Bitcoin economy" is now valued at several million dollars. A full explanation of the nature and broad implications of the phenomenon is beyond the scope of this essay (to learn more: the short version and the long version), but, while following its development, it occurred to me that the expansion of the Bitcoin economy might offer some potentially fascinating insights into the dynamics of credit union development. The sudden, almost spontaneous growth of a new monetary system and economy is not something one can observe everyday, and the ways in which forms of co-operative credit emerge within it might offer new insights into the models of scholars such as Ferguson & McKillop and Ian MacPherson.

At present, the Bitcoin economy is small enough that, as far as I can tell, credit is virtually non-existent. All transactions are made in "cash," and the "credit money" that does exist within the system was likely obtained from intermediaries in the form of Dollars, Euros, etc., and then converted into Bitcoins (btc). However, as an increasing number of providers of goods and services begin to accept btc, it is conceivable that, once all of their obligations can be met in btc, certain kinds of firms will start operating exclusively in that currency. Once that happens, demand for credit within the system will begin to grow, as btc-exclusive merchants will need short-term loans with which to cover fluctuations in their businesses, as well as longer-term credit to finance growth.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Book Review: The Credit Union Movement by Moody and Fite

Written in 1984 by J. Carroll Moody and Gilbert C. Fite (both academic historians), The Credit Union Movement: Origins and Development, 1850 to 1980 remains one of the most essential texts for anyone interested in credit union history. Drawing on a rich assortment of primary sources, the authors exactingly trace the lineage of North America's co-operative banking movement from the experiments of Schulze-Delitzsch and Raiffeisen in mid-19th century Germany through to the challenges of deregulation and inflation at the close of the 1970s.

Given that their pioneering book was the first of its kind, Moody and Fite openly acknowledge its limitations in their Preface. It is not intended to be "an economic history of the role of credit unions in consumer finance. ... Moreover, this study is not about individual credit unions, their founding or operation, or the thousands of volunteers and dedicated leaders who worked to make the movement succeed at the grass roots. Nor does it deal in any detail with credit union chapters and state leagues, except as these facets of credit unionism illustrate the failures and successes of the larger movement." Rather, their modest goal for the book is "to trace and analyze the history of credit unionism as a national social movement."1

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Oral History: Roy Bergengren, Jr.

While recently mucking about on-line, I stumbled upon the transcript of an oral history interview of Roy Bergengren's son, Roy Bergengren, Jr., which had been conducted in 1975. At the time, the younger Bergengren was the recently retired president of a junior college in Florida, and the bulk of the interview focuses on that experience. However, the biographical background information that he lays out in the first few pages provides some intriguing tidbits for credit union historians by offering a quick glimpse at what it was like to be Bergengren's child and outlining his own brief involvement in the organized credit union movement. I've excerpted the passage in which he discusses the latter; if you want to check out the full interview, you can read it on the University of Florida's website.

P: What did you do after [graduating from Dartmouth in 1936].

B: After that, I went to work for my father, who was at that time, head of the Credit Union National Association in Madison Wisconsin. And the National Organization of Credit Unions was just starting, and they had a very small staff, and they needed somebody to edit their little monthly magazine [ed. note: the Credit Union Bridge]. So I started editing a monthly magazine for $15 a week. I kept that for about three years, and I decided that it wasn't the best thing in the world to work for your father, despite my respect and love for him, so I went to work on a newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin... (Page 2)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Book Review: The Credit Union Lady by Paul Thompson

For those seeking an introduction to the origins of the credit union movement, the general dearth of contemporary literature on the topic can be quite frustrating. Given the available resources, it is often necessary to either settle for the overly-simplistic thumbnail sketches that can be found in CUNA publications such as People, Not Profit, or commit to the dense and slightly out-of-date academic histories of Ian MacPherson or Moody & Fite. Fortunately, retired CUNA speech-writer Paul Thompson's recently published book, The Credit Union Lady, offers a new medium through which prospective students of credit union history might become acquainted with the field: historical fiction.

Thompson's novel traces, from 1927 to 1956, the experiences of three generations of a German-American family in the fictional industrial town of Brighton Falls, Wisconsin, whose lives are intimately bound up with the development of the credit union movement. Over the course of these decades (and in less than three hundred pages), Thompson weaves a truly impressive depth of historical information into his narrative. Not only does he get the "big stuff" such as the emotional and populist atmosphere of one of Roy Bergengren's rallies in the 1930s, but The Credit Union Lady also teases out some subtle dynamics (such as the importance of payroll deduction for early credit unions) that only became apparent to me as significant after many hours spent poring over credit union board of directors meeting minutes from the 1940s and 1950s.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Input for Oral History Template

In order to maximize the usefulness of the Credit Union History oral history project's interviews, I'm currently working on developing an "interview template" which will help ensure that certain types of information are collected in all of the conversations. The idea is not to only ask the questions on the template, but, rather, to provide a "skeleton" that might serve as a jumping-off point for the discussion of a great deal of interesting material. I plan on continuing to develop and tweak it over the next month or two before beginning the first round of interviews, and so I figured that I'd post some initial ideas for commentary and suggestions. If you can think of any questions that you'd like to ask of elder credit union volunteers, feel free to leave them as comments on this post, or send me an email. A few of the questions that I've been considering are below; critiques and suggestions are extremely welcome!

  • When were you born and where did you grow up?
  • What did your parents/caregivers do? Where were they from?
  • What schools have you attended and what kinds of work have you done?
  • What was your earliest encounter with a credit union? Why did you join one initially? What was its common bond?
  • What was your early understanding of what a credit union was? How did you learn about it?
  • [For volunteers or staff members] How and why did you take on an active role in your credit union?
  • What role(s) have you played in your credit union? How have the responsibilities of those roles changed?
  • How have credit unions changed in the time you've been involved with them? Why do you think those changes have occurred? What do you think the effects have been?
  • What do you believe to be the essential characteristics of a credit union? What makes it different from a bank?

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Book Review: I Speak for Joe Doakes by Roy F. Bergengren

When one first picks up Roy Bergengren's I Speak for Joe Doakes, it is immediately apparent that the book stands apart from the bulk of his oeuvre. To start with, having been written in 1944 and published a year later, the realities and implications of the Second World War loom large and extend even to the book's physical form. Immediately below the copyright information, the reader is informed that the text is "manufactured in strict conformity with Government regulations for saving paper," and it is dedicated to "SERIAL NUMBER 0-560627 and SERIAL NUMBER 0-1289910 [presumably his enlisted sons] With All My Love." Unlike the rest of his books, which focus primarily on the credit union movement that he founded and led, I Speak for Joe Doakes has a much grander purpose: namely, to argue for a post-war international and economic order rooted in co-operation.

As its title suggests, the book is framed as Bergengren's advocacy for the interests of "Joe Doakes," his "symbol of the common man, the worker, the great mass of people." In general, Joe Doakes is not a man of expensive tastes or voracious appetites. Rather,

He is most vitally concerned with any circumstance which affects his opportunity to work at a fair wage ... it is essential to him that there be a lasting peace. He has no wish that this war shall end in futility as did the war which his father fought. He is interested in co-operation as a possible contributing factor in the creation of the great new world which might evolve from this war if his rights and hopes and aspirations are adequately recognized in the peace.1

The validity of these insights, Bergengren argues, is rooted in his decades od criss-crossing the United States for the purpose of helping thousands of "Joe Doakes" from all walks of life to organize credit unions. That experience, he believes, provides him with a unique vantage point into the interests and desires of the inarticulate "common man," who he declares to be his "client." Thus, according to Bergengren, what "Joe Doakes" desires above all else is to avoid a full replay of the great traumatic episodes of Bergengren's generation: the First World War and the Great Depression, or, to put it more abstractly, to secure lasting peace and economic prosperity.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Oral History: M. Yvonne Gratton of the Chittenden County College Employees Credit Union

M. Yvonne Gratton was the founding Treasurer of the Chittenden County College Employees Credit Union (which later, via mergers, has become the Members Advantage Credit Union), which she ran from 1965 until 1969. This interview was filmed by Matt Cropp on March 3, 2010 as part of a graduate school project on the CCCECU.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Oral History: Terry Macaig of the VSECU

Terry Macaig, the former President of the Vermont State Employees Association (1973-75) and a current board member of the VSECU discusses his experiences with his credit union from the 1960s to the present. The interview was conducted by Matt Cropp in Williston, VT on December 1, 2010.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Significance of Roy F. Bergengren

In the thumbnail-sketch histories of the credit union movement that can be found in introductory texts and on the websites of many institutions, there are a few individuals who are consistently framed as the movement's "founding fathers." The origins of the movement, according to these narratives, are traced back to the innovative co-operative banks founded by Raiffeisen in 19th century Germany, whose successful system inspired Alphonse Desjardin to establish North America's first credit union in 1900 in Levis, Quebec. A few years later, Desjardin's caisse populaires attracted the interest of the wealthy Boston philanthropist Edward Filene, who bankrolled the initial explosive growth of the movement in the United States until his death in 1937.

It is in the context of Filene's campaign to spread credit unions throughout the USA that Roy F. Bergengren enters the scene. Hired by Filene to direct the Credit Union National Extension Bureau in the early 1920s, Bergengren remained the credit union movement's leading figure until 1945, and remained a passionate advocate for their cause until his death a decade later. In the conventional histories mentioned above, Bergengren's contribution to the movement is portrayed as primarily that of a lobbyist and logistician; by shepherding credit union enabling legislation through state legislatures and the U.S. Congress and by organizing the Credit Union National Association, he laid the groundwork for the independent and self-sustaining credit union movement of the present day. As the third edition of Introduction to Credit Unions puts it, "with the establishment of CUNA, a historic period was drawing to a close ... Bergengren, though still influential, no longer constituted the main driving force of credit unionism in the United States."(22) With the infrastructure for modern credit unionism in place, he exits the historical stage as the narrative focus turns elsewhere.

Indeed, Bergengren's intensive and passionate campaign to, as he put it, "get the laws," and organize CUNA is of profound historical importance to the credit union movement. However, as I have dug progressively deeper into the history of credit unionism, it has also become apparent that he made another contribution that is of equal or greater importance. In his thirty-plus years as one of North America's leading advocates for co-operative banking, Bergengren criss-crossed the continent, making the acquaintance of countless people from all walks of life in the course of helping to organize thousands of credit unions. A sharp, articulate observer, the experiences and relationships that emerged from this path profoundly informed his understanding of the movement whose standard he bore. Those perspectives found their expression both in the pages of the movement's newsletter, "The Credit Union Bridge," in addition to the more than half a dozen books he wrote over the course of his career.

Thus, in addition to being a skilled lobbyist and organizer, Roy F. Bergengren might appropriately be recognized as the most important philosopher of the American credit union movement. An eminently practical and modest man, Bergengren would likely have discounted such a label but, nonetheless, his body of work comprises perhaps the single greatest contribution to the development of the "credit union idea" in the twentieth century. Furthermore, since credit unions are values-driven organizations, the nature of those contributions is not simply a question for academic historians to debate in the rarefied atmospheres of the ivory tower. Rather, what Bergengren had to say more than sixty years ago might have profound and interesting implications for contemporary credit unionism, and, as such, his ideas deserve to be unearthed and debated by those of us whose current movement is so profoundly indebted to his life's work.

To begin this important process, I plan to read every book that Bergengren wrote, and, as time permits, will post reviews of them on Credit Union History. As they are completed, I will provide links to them from this article, or you can find them on the main site.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


After having successfully defended my Masters thesis on the establishment and development of the VSECU yesterday, I decided to start this blog to provide a continuing outlet for my interest in the history of credit unions. It is my hope that it will become something of a clearing-house for discussion of the history of the movement, and, as such, I encourage anyone who shares my enthusiasm to submit relevant original pieces, which I'd be happy to publish.

To kick this project off, I will be posting a series of reviews over the next few months of books by credit union pioneer and co-founder of the Credit Union National Association Roy F. Bergengren. I'm currently cruising through I Speak For Joe Doakes - Voicing the Common Man's Plea for More Co-operation at Home and Among Nations (1945), so keep an eye out for that review in the next few days!