Mega-money executives from all over the country, the self-proclaimed 0.01%, were unwittingly caught up in fevered squabbling with reporters and protesters alike this month. But they did not enter into civilized debate at the elaborate front doors to their banks, nor did they offer their refined opinions in front of gaudy backdrops on obsequious FOX cable talk shows. No, dozens of these wealthy movers and shakers were stranded in the unlikely spotlight of car seats, as they sat in motorized pockets of air-conditioning, stalled in a refined though congested country driveway. The scene was the ever-so-secure entryway to the manor of one of the notorious billionaire Koch brothers, while the invited waited to be courted for cash at Mitt Romney’s elaborate Hamptons party.
Guests passed protesters carrying virulent signs, and yelling even more vituperative slogans. One twenty-foot banner read “Romney has a Koch Problem”. The rich folk were then required to electrically lower the tinted and bulletproofed windows of their mechanical financial statements so that their individual engraved invitations to the $50,000 a head fundraiser could be scrutinized, only to find themselves again caught in a further wheeled line of parking limos awaiting valet parking. There they were subject to even more abuse from the unwashed masses.
Certain elite invited guests were angered at the fact that there was no obvious definition as to who actually owned more Vs in the “VIP” list. And of course insisted on affirming to reporters that they were indeed Very Important, entirely different creatures from the common men (and women) they had passed through on their way into the celebration.
This visible symptom of the ongoing “nightmarishly dysfunctional political situation” was so extreme that people like the Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman find themselves saying: “I find myself now, watching the Mitt Romney campaign, I find myself wishing for the honesty of George W. Bush.”
Watching this campaign, Krugman, and the rest of the modestly moral universe by extension, are truly verklempt. Who would have thought it would ever come to this?
The LA Times quoted one patron of the Koch fete: “‘I don’t think the common person is getting it,’ she said from the passenger seat of a Range Rover stamped with East Hampton beach permits. ‘Nobody understands why Obama is hurting them.'
“‘We’ve got the message,’ she added. ‘But my college kid, the baby sitters, the nails ladies -- everybody who’s got the right to vote -- they don’t understand what’s going on. I just think if you’re lower income -- one, you’re not as educated, two, they don’t understand how it works, they don’t understand how the systems work, they don’t understand the impact.’”
“The systems work” to acquire and hold money. The impact is Romney’s overwhelming bank support, verified by his top ten largest mid-summer donors:
Goldman Sachs ($593,080)
JPMorgan Chase & Co ($467,089)
Bank of America ($425,100)
Morgan Stanley ($399,850)
Credit Suisse Group ($390,360)
Citigroup Inc ($312,800)
Kirkland & Ellis ($264,302)
Wells Fargo ($237,550)
But as Salon noted, “As evidence of bad bank behavior grows, the GOP candidate continues to absolve them of blame … he does not understand the passions of the moment. Americans -- of any political stripe -- do not want to hear why the banks were not responsible for the crisis. They’re still angry, and with good reason…
“… Chase’s record is particularly horrible: It sued delinquent customers without proper documentation, robo-signed legal affidavits without checking to see that the facts attested to were actually correct, and fired employees who dared question the bank’s behavior.”
The Huffington Post confirmed the deep GOP commitment to hoarders of cash: “Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney depends on a wide network of venture capitalists, hedge-fund managers and other Wall Street bankers to raise the hundreds of millions he has amassed in his bid to oust President Obama, a USA TODAY analysis of his fundraising operation shows. More than 300 people -- or nearly a quarter of the roughly 1,200 individuals USA TODAY has identified as Romney fundraisers -- come from the world of finance, more than any other sector.”
Obama has his VIP lists too, but these seem to mainly be more low-key money-crusted guilt-ridden Hollywood sorts. Mainly these are creative individuals trading in image and the manipulation of imagination, rather than stoic businessmen dedicated to amassing access to hard cash and the continuing possession of more and more of it.
Then there is the source of that money, us little guys, regular folks of one supposed economic or cultural class or another. We willingly and regularly give the banks small sums of our own cash on a regular basis, depositing paychecks and earnings into the ever-welcoming vaults of bespoke-suited bankers and their economic minions. We do this for the convenience of being able to then draw money out in minuscule amounts, distribute it via checks or ATMs or debit cards to pay debts at a distance, and therefore avoid the often unsafe transference of that all-too-often abstract and dangerous entity called hard cash.
However, to banks, only money is real. It is we who do not actually exist.
* * *
I have a personal, and very real, example of this attitude, an incident with the very same afore-mentioned Chase Bank. This financial tale requires a bit of narrative, as the Common Man in this case is related to me.
Some background: when I moved back to New Orleans after a government-required stint in the US Army and the subsequent completion of a university education, I went to work, and needed a place to put my money, such as it was. I found a local financial outlet called Bank of New Orleans, and I figured that BNO sounded friendly and local, so I started an account there. After a couple of years BNO was acquired by also-local First NBC. Even though it stood for First National Bank of Commerce, the inclusion of the network name NBC seemed an interesting biz coincidence since I was working for a while for an NBC affiliate, so at that point I made no huge protest. Life proceeded without much in the way of catastrophic financial incident.
But then, just a few years ago, the national chain Chase Bank gobbled up FNBC, and things began to deteriorate rapidly.
At first I decided to forgo changing banks, just because it would be so much trouble, entail so much paperwork, and require me to converse with strange money handlers. Basically I was lazy to the core when it came to the complexities of personal finance and microeconomics.
But then Chase also acquired Rapides Bank in rural Rapides parish, two hundred miles to the northwest in Central Louisiana where my parents live.
My 99-year-old dad had been banking with Rapides Bank since 1955. He is a very self-effacing and gentle man, but loves people. He still drives twelve miles to work every morning. For the last ten years he has volunteered daily to serve lunches to “old people” at the Pineville Senior Citizen’s Center near his print shop. Needless to say, no one there is as old as Dad. He once published and printed the only weekly newspaper in Pineville and two other small towns for decades, and though he sold the names to the papers, he kept his print shop so he could continue to work in a profession he loves. And the towns he serves love him, too, naming him Grand Marshal of their Christmas parade.
When his bank was bought out, he was informed by mail that he would be getting new checks emblazoned with the Chase logo, but that everything else would remain as it was. That did not end up being the case. Somehow, a wrong account number was printed on those new Chase checks that were mailed to him. He did not notice – he gets stronger glasses every few months these days -- and as he used his new checks as he had done for over half a century, they suddenly began bouncing back to him.
At places where he had done business for decades, suddenly he was told his checks were no good. He did not know what to do, told them there must be some mistake, went to his usual branch of the bank to inquire, only to hear that his account was fine, and his checks shouldn’t be bouncing, but that he could make a request for more information online if there was a problem.
He is still quite self-sufficient, and has never liked admitting that there is a problem he cannot handle himself. Plus, as a matter of course, my father does not go on-line at all, at least not without major assistance. The internet is too intimidating, and the computer he owns is merely the vessel for his favorite video game. He fishes for bass and perch electronically. So he did no further inquiry. He decided that everything, as the bank officer had told him, was alright.
Then, the next day, came The Incident.
As part of his ongoing exercise in staying both mobile and relevant, Dad goes to his neighborhood supermarket once a day, and sometimes more frequently. He knows all the butchers, and gets special treatment for his cooking needs. He knows each one of the young cashiers, and can enquire after every member of their families by name from memory. Other regulars recognize him, smile and let him move ahead of them in line, knowing he only buys one or two items at a visit. He thinks of the store as an extension of his kitchen.
But that day, writing a check for just over ten dollars, his familiar comfort zone broke down. His check, run through the computer-driven approval system, was refused, and the automated service instructed the store to confiscate the checks.
There was a long line, and a stranger stood directly behind him, impatient now that this transaction was talking up his time. My father asked that the check be run again, and the young woman complied, but with the same final results. She asked if he had the cash to pay for his purchase and he went through his pockets. He did not.
She told him he will have to leave his purchases unless he can pay for them somehow. He cannot, and began to leave, shamed. The man behind him gruffly pushed his bread and milk and eggs out of the way. A dozen people watched as my father was forced to abandon his food. As he left the store and began the drive home, he broke down into tears of embarrassment, and was still that way when he walked back into his home and related this story to my mother. When I called that evening my mother told what had happened. My father wasn’t talking about it. Had indeed gone to bed at 6pm.
I am steamed.
That night I go online looking for contacts to the bank, only to find an automated merry-go-round. The contact number for the branch in my father’s town leads to yet another circular dead-end. There are no live contacts to be found anywhere. So the next morning at 9am, I am waiting as the doors open at the main branch of Chase in New Orleans. I go directly to the Information desk, only to find a phone. There is no human there, and the phone leads directly back into the same circular dialing game that I had fought unsuccessfully the night before.
I get in line and wait for a teller. Then reaching the head of the line, I give that person a brief version of my story, and ask if I can speak to a bank officer, or to anyone who can help me. She says I need to use the Information phone like everyone else, that no one in the lobby can actually help me with the sort of action that I need.
I get surly and demand a supervisor. That does not work.
I raise my voice and tell her I am not leaving her window until I have some way of helping my aging father work with her bank. I tell her loudly that my own forced account with Chase is history. Finally, after looking side to side for help that was not coming, she blushes, consults her computer screen, and finally gives me a phone number that will connect me with someone literally “upstairs” in the very same building. But I still have to use the Information phone.
I go back to the booth and call, get a person on the line, and do the long version of my story. But once I give my father’s name and location, I can hear a keyboard clacking away without pause. The man is not listening to me.
About five minutes in, he interrupts my narrative: “This is a personal account, right? A small personal account?”
“Yes,” I admit. “But the man is 99, and he is not buying real estate. He has had his money in what is now your bank for half a century.”
“I understand that, sir. But we just acquired that bank quite recently. There are bound to be a few glitches as we update what is undoubtedly a very old and rustic system.”
“My friend, your bank is making my father miserable and yet is still holding his money, and neither you nor it is solving the problem. I need to speak to someone who will make things better right now. If that someone is not you, then I want your supervisor on this phone.”
“Yes, sir. I can understand your frustration. No need to get emotional about this.”
“I AM emotional. My father is emotional. And I will get very much MORE emotional unless you move this toward a solution. NOW.”
The resulting public scene – me screaming into a phone -- is all more than a little awkward, but my badgering pays off. I am given the name of a woman at a desk in the isolated bank branch nearest my father. Let’s call her Florence Johnson-Whitley, rather than use her real name and instigate a lawsuit. But in real life this person was actually hyphenated. Bad start, as I personally do not much care for dealing with hyphenated names. I seem to be peculiar in this opinion, but I figure that we each have already been given a first, middle and surname. One of each ought to be good enough.
But the real name of the banker in this case was indeed hyphenated. A pair of surnames ought to have tipped me off, as I wrote them down with their corresponding phone number. I calmly thank the gentleman I have just spoken to, a fellow roosting at a desk some twenty floors directly above me, and disconnect from him. Then, while still standing right there at the Information desk in the New Orleans bank lobby, I call the new banker who supposedly sits in her own private banking space two hundred miles away.
The phone rings once only. A woman answers with the name I have written down. I greet her, tell her who I am, and then explain the travails visited on my father by her bank, from the beginning, once again. Miss Johnson-Whitley is very gracious and polished, her voice melodic and with no hint of a regional accent of any sort. She speaks with what my debate coach always called a “G.A.” accent – “General American”. He always rewarded such generic vocalization with great praise, as something to be desired. However, I suspect that this current G.A. person might be a recording. For the moment I do not let her know of my misgivings about her humanity.
I find out two days later that she did indeed call Dad, and that he could relate the conversation almost word for word. He feels better about the matter.
At first, he tells me, he started by apologizing for all the trouble he had caused.
“Mr Gabour, it was entirely our error,” she countered, “and I am happy to tell you that this next batch of corrected checks will be free. We have refunded all the overdraft charges to your account, and notified vendors that the error was ours.”
“Mighty nice of you, ma’am. Mighty nice,” said Dad. He told me he had been waiting for this possibility. “But please, may I ask you one thing before you hang up?”
“Was I charged for that first bad batch of checks?”
“Let me check, sir.” There was a quick clacking of a keyboard, and then a breath. “Yes, yes, I believe you were.”
“But I never actually ordered those, now did I?”
“No, sir. I think the bank just automatically decided that with the new owners and all, you would want a new set of checks that matched the bank’s name.”
“And you charged me for them.”
“Yes, Mr Gabour. It seems we did,” she admitted.
“And then caused me all sorts of grief.”
“Like I said before, we do apologize for any inconvenience.”
“Was a tad more than inconvenient, Miss. Now, I don’t have to buy my checks from you, do I?”
“No, sir, you do not. Of course. You may purchase checks printed on valid forms anywhere you choose.”
“Well then, I would also like a refund on those first bad checks. I didn’t order them, and they didn’t work. I will just send the rest back to you and you can throw them away.”
“We can give you the refund, Mr Gabour. And you yourself can throw them out. But then what will you do for checks?”
“Miss Johnson-Whitley, I know a very good printer. And he’s cheap.”
“I hope he knows how to print these legally, Mr Gabour. It’s a bit complex, you know.”
“I know, and so does he, Miss Johnson-Whitley. He’s been doing it for some seventy years. You see, I intend to print them myself, and though I might misspell the name of your bank, I will bet you that all the numbers on those pieces of paper will be right this time.”
And they are. You can bank on it.