New From The Ministry: Uniqueness Out, Sameness In

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George Orwell missed his calling. Oh, sure, his acclaimed novel 1984 is a critical indictment of totalitarian government and the subjugation of free thought, and it will likely remain rooted on the sylabi of high school lit classes until 3084. But if Mr. Orwell (the pen name for the real Eric Blair) had really wanted to cash in, he should have done two other things: 1) Lived another 50 years, and B) moved to the U.S. and hopped on the credit union speaking circuit.

As tens of thousands of chickens across the country valiantly surrender their lives in the name of the credit union league meeting and luncheon season, George Orwell would be proud to see that while communism and fascism have faded (Stand Proud, North Korea!), doublespeak and unthink remain as firmly in practice today as when he wrote the book. And no place more than in Credit Union Land.

Here's a test for you. Which of the following statements was recently made during a credit union event?

A) "Don't take that not-for-profit thing too seriously."

B) "The tax exemption isn't as important as you think it is. In the long run, the exemption doesn't benefit you."

C) "There were no ballots mailed. No results. No elections. No effort to recruit new board members."

The answer is actually D, all of the above. We can only assume that also said were "love is hate," "war is peace," and my favorite old standby, "By spending more on dues you're actually spending less."

The first statement above came during a league meeting in the midwest during the past few weeks. It was made by a consultant who specializes in fees-his own, of course, but also the fees and charges levied upon members. We can see his point. You wouldn't want to take that not-for-profit thing too seriously-after all, it's only the entire foundation of the whole credit union movement. It's the core of uniqueness, the reason credit unions act and think differently from banks, the reason you're reading this, and the big reason 80-million-plus Americans have flocked to not-for-profit...I'm sorry, credit unions. Why the next thing you know credit unions will be getting serious about all that other stuff that doesn't matter, such as democratic rule, members volunteering their time on boards, and putting a ladder in place for the less fortunate to climb so as to improve their own lives a bit.

Apparently, instead of devoting their time to such abstract pursuits, credit unions ought to be be serious about fees, the more the better. A quarter here, a dollar there, and pretty soon you're-a bank. And isn't that what consumers are demanding more of.

In the same vein, the second statement above, "In the long run, the tax exemption doesn't benefit you" sounds like something Orwell's character Winston Smith might have been forced to concoct in his job at the Ministry of Truth. You may not realize it, but in the U.S. we already have a Ministry of Truth as We See It, which operates under the name the American Bankers Association and which has shown an an uncanny knack for spinning language in a fashion that would do Orwell proud.

The tax-exemption claim, made by the ABA's Keith Leggett during a recent "debate" with a CUNA rep at a meeting in California, represents a whole new level of unthink in the 75-year battle by banks to have the credit union federal tax exemption eliminated. The old arguments-playing field isn't level, banks at a disadvantage, the federal treasury is being cheated (you know the chorus)-were nifty pieces of unlogic to be sure, but they lacked a certain something. Specifically, they sounded more like limousine logic-rich people complaining they have to slow down for poor people in the crosswalk.

But now the Ministry has hatched a clever new approach-position the tax exemption not as an advantage for CUs, but au contraire-as a competitive disadvantage, a strangling yolk limiting the credit union's growth and, ultimately, its survival. That money you're paying out in higher dividends, lower loan rates and free services? Dispatch it to the federal government today. And work shall make you free!

But the biggest piece of doublespeak here is the claim that the tax exemption is no advantage in the long run. If that's true, why in the world are the bankers trying to change it? Wouldn't you want your competitor to remain at a disadvantage?

The final statement above (C) comes not from outside credit unions but from inside the beltway and was made by a member of U.S. Senate FCU. As The Credit Union Journal has reported in recent issues, some members are fighting mad over board elections and the lack thereof at the credit union (I think we're all aghast that the words "voting shenanigans" and "Senate" are being used in the same sentence). The charges that the board has done little to promote fresh voices or change within its ranks come as little surprise to many. Indeed, the statement could be applied to any number of credit unions.

But why include that statement with the other two? Because for parties outside credit unions to ever really have any detrimental effect, there must first be an internal compromise. After all, Winston Smith couldn't believe Big Brother really did love him until he first told himself that two plus two really does equal five.

Frank J. Diekmann is editor of The Credit Union Journal. He can be reached at fdiekmann

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