The year isn’t off to a good start for the Park Slope Food Coop. In January, two members of the venerable Brooklyn institution were accused of stealing more than $18,000 worth of goods. Each had been caught shoplifting once, and when police consulted surveillance tapes, it turned out that the two men (one of whom was 79 years old!) had some seriously sticky fingers.
But maybe the two bandits just assumed that the other 17,000 members really took the coop’s mission statement to heart. It is, after all, supposed to be an “alternative to commercial profit-oriented business.” What’s a few thousand dollars when you’re “working together [to] build . . . trust through cooperation”?
At the coop, though, trust is on back order. In 2013, The New York Times reported the shop lost $438,000 in stolen items.
But that’s only a drop in the bucket compared to the value that’s recently been lost from the coop’s pension fund. The fund — which is for staff, not members — had been invested in small, speculative companies and racked up two years of losses.
According to the Times, “It appears to have gone into hedge-fund mode years ago, when one co-op member, also a hedge-fund investor, made stock-picking his unpaid job.” Last summer, members were told that the coop had to pour in more than $1 million to keep it flush.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that an institution claiming to be above making money has been losing a lot of it. But there’s more going on here. For decades, the coop has been offered a useful lesson to anyone paying attention: Socialism doesn’t work.
In 2011, for instance, coop members were caught paying other people — notably their nannies — to take over their 2-hour-per-week shifts at the market. As it turned out, the well-heeled bankers and lawyers and psychiatrists in the neighborhood who bill several hundred dollars an hour for their time didn’t think rearranging the broccoli was worth it.
Which is not exactly shocking. It happens to most socialist utopias, eventually. In a 2002 article in Commentary called “Socialism’s Last Stand,” Joshua Muravchik describes how even the socialism of the Israeli kibbutzim has had to succumb to this logic. “These days, Thai immigrants work in . . . fields, and Arabs clean the hotel guestrooms and serve the meals.”
It’s not that rich or middle-class people will always pay someone else to do their manual labor. Some people like cooking dinner for their families or planting their own gardens. But very few people — even when offered good produce in return — would choose to spend their spare hours working in a supermarket. Not even the virtue-signaling that comes with belonging to the coop could make up for time spent keeping the parsley properly watered.
But this is part of the problem with socialism. Most people aren’t looking to live out Karl Marx’s vision “where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity,” but everyone can “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner.”
People who aspire to be lawyers want to be lawyers and want to be paid accordingly. They don’t want to fish for their dinners after work.
It’s not only the basic misunderstanding of human nature that makes socialism a problem. It’s also all the self-dealing and the corruption.
One of the trustees of the pension fund was a friend and investment adviser of President Barack Obama. A coop member asked in the organization’s newsletter: “I am curious why and how we have a relationship with him. It certainly isn’t because there’s a dearth of financial acumen in New York City.” No kidding.
Historian Ron Radosh says the coop stories remind him of the old Soviet Union. The Nomenklatura — a class of apparatchiks — “lived very well. They had private stores. They could get Western goods at cheap prices while everyone else was on line for 20 years.” They spouted the party line, of course, but they were not exactly living the life of the proletariat.
Radosh, author of “Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left, and the Leftover Left,” explains that there were two big buildings in the center of Moscow reserved for members of the Politbureau or when the government wanted to entertain foreign visitors. “They were always playing with other people’s money.”
It’s hard to imagine how much longer this is sustainable. Maybe the coop made sense in 1973, when Brooklyn was filled with working-class idealists looking to escape the boredom of the suburbs. But in a neighborhood where the median apartment sale price is $1 million, socialism’s a tough sell.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.