Co-ops in the spotlight


Like almost all progressive-leaning wonks, I am fascinated by creative ways that collective resources are pooled (i.e. through taxation) to solve market failures.

I recently wrote about the Travis County Healthcare District’s funding of a new health insurance plan, and the implications of a social venture approach for how we evaluate and optimize bureaucracies.

In today’s New York Times, Tim Egan describes three distinct Washington state co-operatives and places them in the “prairie progressive” tradition.  The co-ops he discusses are:

Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound.  Group Health is a non-profit healthcare provider that serves 600,000 members in Washington and northern Idaho.

PCC Natural Markets.  A multi-location organic grocer in the Seattle area.  Like the Wheatsville food co-op turned up to 11.

REI.  The Seattle-based, national outdoors equipment provider has a storefront next to BookPeople here in Austin.

As he concludes his piece, Egan points out that the national healthcare co-ops Sen. Conrad has advanced would probably require federal seed funding.  This is similar to what the Travis County Healthcare District undertook with TexHealth Central Texas.

The point I wanted to reiterate is that idea of tax dollars being used to create revenue generating, mission-oriented, self-sustaining entities has great potential to address market failures more effectively than bureaucracies and with less ideological friction.  I can think of a variety of situations where there is a market failure – basic financial advice, low-cost legal services, home insurance – where I would be highly skeptical of a bureaucracy solution but supportive of local government providing seed funding for an independent co-operative that meets these needs.

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