Citizens, Not Serfs

greed_is_badOn the “Tonight Show” recently, President Obama discussed the need to change the “culture of entitlement” on Wall Street.

It needs more than changing. How about scrapping it completely and then grafting on a little bit of character and common sense?

The other day, I asked a Bank of America representative why, after I used their electronic bill pay feature, it would take two days to refund into my account money that they did not timely deliver to a payee (according to the bank’s own specified delivery timeline and guidelines). I was essentially told that it was none of my business.

I am not kidding.

I believe that the representative’s exact (or nearly exact) response was that she was not going to discuss with me “the bank’s internal processes.” A fascinating revelation: the manner in which the nation’s largest bank handles my money may now be counted among the numerous closely held secrets of the American financial community. (A second representative attempted to offer some lame, slightly less offensive explanation – but by then the damage was done. A third representative tried to expedite the bank’s repayment to me of my own funds, but the bank refused).

Now, I know that Bank of America is nearly insolvent – but did they really need to hoard my tiny bit of cash – and then insolently offer me no compelling reason?

Especially since they’re hoarding all of our taxpayer bailout money?

Stories about this type of contempt by the financial community for the American taxpayer are legion. The AIG bonuses, of course, have given rise to a new level of outrage but, as the President pointed out last night, AIG is plainly not alone in its disdain for the American taxpayer. Armed with our bailout money, banks raise credit card interest rates with impunity, cutting limits on even the most credit-worthy borrowers and reducing credit scores with nary a thought. AIG, in fact, is really just one aspect of a growing problem – these financial executives have confused American taxpayers with medieval serfs – demonstrating toward us a contempt, disdain and disregard that is plainly at odds with their reliance on our dollars to stay afloat.

Very smart move, then, to have Edward Liddy – the picture of contrition as he touted his $1-a-year salary – plead for a little understanding before an outraged House on Wednesday. His empathy with our communal disgust, however, was obviously insufficient to ward off passage of a bill in the House the next day that slapped a 90 percent surtax on the AIG executive bonus payments.

This bit of political theatre – emotionally satisfying as it may be – is not only constitutionally questionable, but is really a distraction from the larger issue – - the unabashed sense of entitlement that the financial community has toward the American consumers and taxpayers who currently are propping it up. Indeed, one piece of hastily drafted and ill-thought out legislation is not going to level the playing field for American consumers who, given the largesse with which we have provided these institutions, are entitled to an entirely new consumer bill of rights.

Why not level the playing field by requiring financial institutions to live by the same dictates they impose upon us? For instance: the CEO of Bank of America (no, this isn’t personal) has indicated that the bank will repay its bailout funds by the end of this year or the beginning of the next. Great. Let’s give the bank a firm due date and if it misses its payment, impose late fees and the same usurious interest rate (which can be as high as 32%) to which consumers are subject. If any bailed out institution attempts to access a greater amount of bailout funds than that which it originally had been allocated (we call this “going over the limit”), let’s again impose a penalty interest rate and an overlimit fee.

tanya_ackerOr, alternatively, these institutions could be required to accord American taxpayers the same generous treatment that our elected representatives have given them. We’re not asking for a free ride (or to be paid bonuses for engineering a calamity, or anything as absurd as that), but simply that consumer-lending institutions abandon the shiny suit of the Mafioso loan shark in favor of good old Main Street plaid.

Tanya Acker

As a member of the panel of experts on diverse topics at SheSource.org, Tanya Acker is a frequent guest on various television and radio broadcasts, including “Larry King Live,” “Anderson Cooper 360,” “The O’Reilly Factor,” “Hannity and Colmes,” Your World With Neil Cavuto,” “Verdict With Dan Abrams” on MSNBC. She graduated from Yale Law School, where she worked in the Clinton Office of White House Counsel in the Civil Rights Division at DOJ. She now works as an independent legal, political, and media consultant, as well as serving on the boards of Inner-City Arts, Public Counsel, and Planned Parenthood Los Angeles.

Follow Tanya Acker on Twitter at tanyaacker.

Republished with permission from CNN’s Anderson 360, where it appeared on 20 March 2009.

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