Digital Kelsoism: Employee Stock Ownership as a Pattern for the Online Economy
Louis Kelso’s Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) became a feature of US employment law in 1974, and since then it has enabled millions of people to benefit from an ownership stake in their workplaces. But Kelso, together with his collaborator Patricia Hetter Kelso, envisioned much more than the ESOP. They proposed a series of similarly structured plans that involved leveraged financing for broad-based ownership among stakeholders beyond just the employment relationship, situated in a distinct theory of political economy. This essay argues that Kelso and Kelso’s proposals deserve reconsideration in an age of the increasingly dominant online economy. Although first envisioned in another time, they anticipate frequent anxieties and ambitions surrounding digital networks, from gig work and big data to universal basic income. The proposals also come with financing mechanisms and policy tools that, as with the ESOP, could make them scalable and self-perpetuating. The essay reconsiders several Kelsoist strategies in light of the digital economy and addresses concerns from critical research on the ESOP legacy.