Corporate pickpockets

by Brian Clarey

Have you ever had your pocket picked while at the same time being kicked squarely in the groin? No? Well let me tell you, my friends: It’s happening out there, today. Right now. It’s been happening to me over and over again, like it’s playing on a loop. By now you’ve heard, of course, that the government plans to save us, the working people of America, by letting huge, multi-billion- and trillion- dollar banking concerns dip virtually interest free into public funds. The banks need the money, they say, because they made some bad deals and they need refunding. And never mind what they plan to do with it. Make no mistake here: That’s our money, pinched nickel by nickel from our paychecks and business transactions, and its sole purpose is to pay for the running of the country. Kind of like if you lived in a house with a bunch of other people and kicked in every month for rent, groceries and other bills. Except, of course, we’re talking about $700 billion here — enough to rent out a private twobedroom villa at the Las Vegas Bellagio, at $5,000 a night, for 274,000 years with plenty left over for the craps tables and dancing girls. Yeah — I did the math. But hey, I’m willing to help out. If this is the best use of the money for our country’s needs right now, then I say we should spend it. Some more from my calculator: $700 billion would buy a lot of textbooks (more than 9 million of them at a modest $75 apiece) or pave 1.4 million miles of roads (at a pricey $500,000 per), but it’s still not enough to, say, finance a manned trip to Mars, which Citizens Against Government Waste puts at about $1 trillion. So, okay, I’m in for the banks. Insurance companies, likewise, need to stay afloat. And sure, let’s give the automakers access to the table as long as they prove the ability to get their finances under control. But not the Post Office. No way is the post Office going to get any of that bailout money, as was suggested this week by Postmaster General John Potter. Because, seriously: When was the last time you sent anybody a letter? Basically the Post Office exists these days to subsidize consumer advertising and companies that still mail out bills. You think the actual cost of picking up a piece of mail from your doorstep and sending it anywhere in the country is 42 cents? Think again, my friends. At any rate…. If a bailout is what’s needed to get people back to work, get some money in their pockets and hope they stop buying guns, then I’m all for it. But I’ve been noticing that these very institutions that don’t hesitate to slurp from the public trough are doing what they can to beef up their bottom lines by wheedling what they can out of their customers — that’s us — one fee-based charge and declined claim after another. My own bank, for example, has been the repository for my piddling income for nearly a decade. And for this entire time the sanctity of my checking account has hinged on the bank’s practice of processing deposits before debits after weekends and bank holidays. Last week in an unannounced move contradictory to company policy, my bank flipped the script and began subtracting debits before it applied my deposits to the balance. A neat little trick, to be sure, that even over the course of one long weekend likely generated millions of dollars in fees for the bank. It cost my wife a week’s worth of phone conversations up and down the managerial food chain to get our money back. And it likely cost the bank a longtime customer, as I’m considering putting my money somewhere else, like maybe a credit union or under my mattress. Our run-in with the big automakers last week was not as fortuitous. At stake was about $1,200, which we paid in order to have our GM automobile repaired while in New York on Christmas Day. The computer on our 2004 station wagon had cut out on Interstate 95, which wreaked havoc with my emissions and disengaged the transmission, necessitating a mad swerve to the shoulder and much fretting from the back seat. I am of the opinion that this particular vehicular malady is covered under the 8year, 80,000-mile warranty that came with my car, as were about half of the people in the company my father called in his spare time last week (he’s semi-retired and he likes to argue, plus my wife was the phone with the bank). But the dealership in Greensboro, from which we have bought two new cars since 2002, did not agree, and since they made the final call in the matter my claim was denied. It’s incredible, really, that our nation’s most beleaguered institutions — which should be kowtowing to the American consumer not only in gratitude for the massive bailout we provided but also to earn our business in a time when business is tough — would display this kind of callousness to a longtime customer… and one who writes a newspaper column, no less! This is what passes for business savvy these days? But what’s truly astounding is that it keeps on happening in millions of American homes every day, with no end in sight. And in a crisis that feeds on consumer confidence, this is bad news indeed.