Bit of a whinge this evening, I’m afraid.
As so many of us are wondering who we should vote for, or if we should even bother*, I got to thinking about those other little things we can do to make a difference and feel empowered. They could make a greater difference than voting for people whom, in all likelihood, will turn out to be just like the fakes that let you down previously (damn it, Tony Blair; will my broken heart ever mend?). I don’t mean an hour spent shivering and twiddling your thumbs in the dark, or any of that stuff. I’m talking about the collective power of the consumer.
You could start, this very day if you like, if you haven’t already, by committing to take whatever money you have left in your bank account and depositing it elsewhere; far away from the evil clutches of those that caused this financial mess through their risky speculation due to carelessness and arrogance, the banks that we, as dutiful taxpayers, had to bail out whether we approved or not. Not that we bail out other failed establishments, of course. We in the UK didn’t bail out dear old Woolworths, God rest her soul, even though its presence on the High Street is missed. We didn’t resolve to have a whip-round to keep Cadbury’s out of the clutches of a ‘plastic cheese company’ that conducts cruel lab tests on animals (Kraft).
Oh, silly me, that’s because banks are different. They are all-important and we must not displease them for fear of upsetting the sensitive souls cocooned within them or else they might pack up their belongings – in very big crates and containers – and leave the country for good, presumably leaving us all horribly downcast and at a loss as to how to continue alone, afraid.
Our money has made the banks rich. We gave it to them to take care of, they gambled it casino-style and created this dire mess, the reality of which they don’t appreciate because they’ve still got plenty of money. Go to them now, cap in hand, and ask nicely if they will, please, lend some of our money back because our debts are suffocating us, our children are miserable, our homes are falling into disrepair and we have struggling businesses to somehow support through these harsh times, and just you wait for the inevitable rejection. That’s because your wretched life, family, home and business isn’t worth saving because you don’t matter one jot to the Big Banks.
Think about it. Aren’t you tired of how much it even costs to telephone your bank these days? Of how long they keep you hanging on, listening to music, going through endless options (‘If you want to stab yourself in the eye to relieve your boredom, press 3′), hoping you’ll give up and spare them the hassle? They oh-so kindly and oh-so helpfully (I’m being sarcastic here, if you can’t tell), suggest you go to their website to find the answer to your question. In other words, do their work for them. But once there, you can’t e-mail them if you wanted to. You can rarely even speak to someone knowledgeable in your local branch any more without an appointment. The opportunistic cashiers try to sell you insurance and other assorted loosely-related services to top up their personal pay packets with commission even if you only popped in to deposit a cheque and don’t have time to listen to their spiel, not least because you’ve heard it before and will hear it the next time you’re in. Then they lay off workers by the hundred and employ cheaper labour overseas to man the telephones, and as polite and obliging as those polite and obliging people may be, their lack of local sympathies merely adds to the frustration you’ve been caused. Then there are the fees, not exclusive to banks, of course; you want to change a simple detail on an insurance policy and they think they should be entitled to charge a hefty administration fee for simply pressing some buttons and printing out new documents. Doing what they get paid to do, I presumed.
Just what exactly are they doing for us which doesn’t involve them exploiting and infuriating us further?
Do they make you feel welcome or valued? No. We are, in fact, something of an inconvenience to them and this contempt they make little attempt to hide. The reality is that banks operate in the interests of their shareholders, not their customers, so we might as well tell our problems to a brick wall for all they care. Yet let’s keep giving them our money to look after.
It was pleasing to observe that shareholders are beginning to revolt against excessive chief executive pay (Barclays last week, insurer Aviva today), although let’s not kid ourselves; it’s not as though they’re protecting anything other than their own interests.
The largest banks don’t pay their fair share of tax, their ethics have always been objectionable, they finance destructive projects that cause great harm to the environment (thinking tar sands development in Canada) and bankers receive substantial rewards even for failure. Ah, the bonuses. You’d suppose that a large salary would be motivation enough to do their jobs well without the need for a six-figure perk on top, yet the bosses continue to brazenly collect their bonuses in these bleak times of austerity. These round-faced, rosy-cheeked white men (with the glued-together teeth, have you noticed?), so often photographed on horseback or with big guns and surrounded by adoring sycophants, appear to have no sense of shame whatsoever. People are struggling right now, the majority through no fault of their own, but the ‘banksters’ don’t care. They’ll never know what it’s like to worry about paying the bills. They’ll never resort to flogging their jewellery for cash when the cupboards are bare. They don’t know about student debt, endure sleepless nights worrying about the ruinous rates of interest being charged, or fret over the rising cost of just about everything. They don’t live in dread of the car breaking down or the pet becoming sick. They haven’t the foggiest idea how any of this gloom is smothering the real world because it’s a long time since they visited that unforgiving place, if indeed they ever spent time there.
Somehow they become ever richer whilst we experience cuts to our pay and benefits and live in fear of job losses as our living standards decline. Why should they care about our failing schools and hospitals when their kids go to expensive fee-paying schools and their families enjoy the best private healthcare money can buy? They don’t need to worry themselves with mortgages, loans or credit cards. Our ignorance and apathy is what allowed these prissy, privileged people to fall into high-paid jobs in the first place. For goodness sake, people. It’s about time we woke up and used what power we haven’t yet allowed to be eroded away and did something.
As many of the people we elected (or not) into office will, I dearly hope, experience their own embarrassing rejection the next time we have the opportunity to democratically demonstrate our displeasure, we too can hit the bankers. It’s not as hard as perhaps we’d like to hit them, granted, and unfortunately it involves no blunt objects, but it’s something. It’s as much as casting a vote, perhaps more. It can send a clear, loud message and, if enough people do the same, the harder the hit.
This is how you Move Your Money, if you haven’t yet done so, in the US and the UK. In the US it is estimated that as many as 650,000 Americans moved their money to alternative financial providers, such as local credit unions and co-operatives owned by and run for the benefit of their members rather than their shareholders, in the month leading up to Bank Transfer Day (5 November 2011) – 40,000 in a single day. I’m sure you’ve seen the footage. More than 10 million have since followed suit.
Here’s an idea. If you have savings sitting around not earning interest worth shouting about, you can pull them out of your wicked bank and invest in a peer-to-peer (P2P) lending marketplace such as Zopa (with whom I have no connections as either a borrower or lender, I hasten to add) or Prosper in the US, Smava in Germany, Communitae in Spain. Apparently it gives you a better return than saving with a bank, you choose who you lend to and the lender gains access to cheaper credit. How nice is that? That’s the type of compassionate, considerate world I want to live in. Much better than your bank spending your money on weapons for corrupt dictators and not letting you have it when you most need it.
Enough’s enough. We don’t have to do things the way the richest and most influential have decided is best for their own good for so long. Just like we don’t have to shop at large supermarket chains or read Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers.
I’m not saying anything new here, I know, but I feel a little better now.
Feel free to have a moan about banks and insurance companies – either here or in the chatroom, which will be open tomorrow from 3pm (UK).
* Please do vote, even if it’s only to spoil your ballot paper in protest. Low voter turnout is terribly depressing and sends a garbled message that is too easily and conveniently misinterpreted by those that really should be listening to us now, if not always.