The Inherent Beauty of Snowflakes-And Credit Unions

Register now

The deafening rumble you may soon hear is the giant noise of a snowball rolling down the mountainside, gaining size and scope as it spins downward, helped by mass and gravity to demolish all that lies in its path.

And now that I've got your attention, I'd like to warn you about what happens to persons, groups, institutions or industries that embrace consistency and uniformity in the misguided belief that it simplifies choices, promotes safety and presents greater opportunity for better service, higher profits and happier customers.

The snowball is made of countless snowflakes, each unique and beautiful. Not unlike human beings, for as much as we share in common, we are as individual as each multi-faceted snowflake.

For a moment, think of credit unions as if they were snowflakes. Do you want them to be all the same? I think not, because that would hamper their ability to adapt to the changing needs of their members. On the other hand, if they freely choose to adopt policies of glacial change in reaction to today's white-hot marketplace, they deserve to melt away, don't they?

Should regulatory structures impose on them a mandate of form and policy that makes them look, act and essentially BE just like the one next door and the one across town? Again, I think not, although it would certainly make them easier to supervise.

So why have federal statutes and regulatory fiats taken on the tone of inevitability that makes so many individualist thinkers want to hang their heads or brace for the eventual avalanche? Where is the strength, the resolve to overcome bad ideas and champion good ones? Are we in the credit union movement so exhausted from paperwork and the drone of daily competitive challenges that we will go meekly along while the very essence of our existence is homogenized into mush?

We used to be made of sterner stuff. We were "the people" Ma Joad spoke of when she said, "We'll go on," in The Grapes of Wrath. We survive because we have a fire in the belly, a trace memory of hunger that fused our commitment for social and financial justice and upward mobility, for advancement and opportunity. And above all, we stand for fairness. No matter the size of a credit union or the array of services offered, we are all the same under the fa?ade, in that one aspect that makes us unique, and in my view, so rare, in today's scheme of things.

Bully For Us!

For us, it's not about the profit motive, but the service motive. Bully for us. Let's speak that each and every chance we get. Let's never tire of reminding those who would make of us just one more glob in the financial services conglomeration.

Let's recall proudly how credit unions were formed, and how, in the depths of the Great Depression not a single one failed, not a single one locked its doors against a member seeking his or her money. It wasn't credit unions that needed a federal government bail out. There was never a "Credit Union Holiday" declared so that Wall Street players could parlay in order to pony up the capital to avoid massive credit union failures. But there were plenty of "Bank Holidays."

The National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund wasn't seeded with a single penny of taxpayer money, either. In the good, old-fashioned American way of self-sufficiency, we contributed to our own safety net. Today, in an atmosphere where many for-profit corporations are tarred with crimes of greed that have robbed so many workers of jobs, pensions and peace of mind, credit unions can stand tall and proud.

Tempted To Scream 'Tilt!'

We deserve the respect of the rest of the financial services industry, but instead of such grudging respect, we realize only envy and dismissal. The "level playing field" is so uneven against us that I am tempted to scream, "Tilt!" each time I hear a bank group lobbyist mention tax fairness.

The overreaching, acquisitiveness and lax oversight that allowed S&Ls to require billions more of taxpayer money to reinvent local banking also passed us by. We watched as they collapsed and listened then, to the tut-tutting of politicians who pointed fingers, shocked that such a thing might happen again in modern America.

But short memories are ingrained in large institutions, it seems, and we are facing, once again, the kinds of threats that challenge our very existence. It's always centered on the money, which is never sufficient no matter the profit margin. Against the pressure such massive amounts of money can buy when applied, and the politicians it can influence, we can muster a smaller, but still significant number. Yet the compelling tale of the good done through financial cooperatives, the seeds planted, the fields plowed and the homes and businesses built remains our greatest asset. That's what makes our members loyal to a fault. And when credit union members come to understand all that is at risk when we face the end of credit unions as we've come to know them, they will react with a force and power those challenging us will wish they had not unleashed.

Those rallied against credit unions, combined with those who have no sense of history, and therefore know nothing or care for the beauty and simplicity that is the underpinning of a financial cooperative keep us mindful of the stakes. These people would lose something of value while remaining ignorant that it has even been lost.

The cooperative movement, and credit unions in particular, have given a far greater measure than that for which they are known. There is a strain of modesty running in our blood, but we mustn't confuse modesty for fitting recognition. Perhaps the time is proper now to reawaken that spirit of pride in our shared history and experience. Why should we limit our combined strength to periods of great duress?

We are the people. Let's go on from here.

C. Michael Litzau is president of Colorado Central Credit Union, Arvada and Chairman of the NASCUS Credit Union Council. He can be reached at 303-427-5006 or via email at mikel coloradocentral.com

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.
MORE FROM AMERICAN BANKER