Friday, January 10, 2014

The McCarthyite Roots of the Campaign to Tax Credit Unions.

While working my way through Dorfman's masterful history of the credit union movement in Pennsylvania, I came across the following passage, which I think provides some useful historical context to the current political scrape over the tax-exempt status of credit unions:
Through the early 1950s, CUNA ... faced two major legislative issues. Most critical was an attack on the tax-exempt status of credit unions led by various private groups that opposed cooperatives in general and tax-exempt cooperatives in particular. Simultaneously, many state and local governments looked at credit unions as potential sources of additional tax income.

Attempts to repeal the tax exemption of federal credit unions were made in 1951 and 1953. This campaign may have been related to the general "red scare" of McCarthyism that swept the nation during and after the Korean confrontation. In any case, the two bills attacking the tax-exempt status of federal credit unions introduced in the 82nd Congress were not successful. (315)
This narrative seems to lay bare the hypocrisy of the present American Bankers Association campaign to tax credit unions. At the moment, the primary banker argument is that the tax exemption is "outdated" and was originally intended to benefit small credit unions, so they have been proposing that only mid-to-large asset-size credit unions should be taxed. However, back in 1951, when the credit union movement was made up almost entirely of the former type of small-scale organizations, the bankers not only wanted them taxed, but were willing to stoop to McCarthyist demagoguery to advance that goal.

This fact that bankers have been gunning for the credit union tax exemption since the days when most credit union "staff" were volunteers and a "branch" was more likely to be a lock-box in a church basement than a brick-and-mortar store-front belies the lip service they've recently been paying to small credit unions in their attacks on the movement. For several generations, it seems, a major goal of the banking lobby has been to maximize their shareholders' profits by hobbling the spread of the democratic, cooperative model of finance. They were able to bring the mutual savings banks to heel by the 1950s, and the 1980s saw the demise of the S&Ls, but credit unions not only survived, but are growing, and now provide 96 million Americans with a direct stake in their financial institution. As such, the above quote demonstrates that most recent banker campaign should not simply be understood as an isolated controversy primarily driven by the needs of the moment, but it should rather be seen as the latest skirmish between the forces of economic oligarchy and economic democracy in a conflict over the structure of the financial system that is more than a century old.

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