Monday, December 22, 2008

I Object: Nothing Personal to My Credit

I Object: Nothing Personal to My Credit

I recently received a notification from my credit card company that my interest rate would soon be raised to prime plus 18.99%, meaning an effective rate of 24.99%. I was first furious, then insulted, then humiliated, then called to action. The current effective rate on my balance is 9.99%. Why I carry a balance is a much longer story than I want to tell here. And, to a degree it is irrelevant except that I do not think I am in any way alone in having such debt. I am sure I am one of many, many who also received this notification. The alarm letter meant I no longer have the privilege of being a detached observer of the economic news that is sweeping across the country. I could no longer hold on to the illusion that as a good bill paying citizen I was immune from the bank nightmare.

Some context may be helpful here. I pay attention to the state of fiscal affairs. I work in a financial organization (RSF Social Finance) where we pay attention to trends in the market, in the real economy, and to the world of credit, though we, as a public charity, work outside regulated bank functions. I understand the origins of credit, of debt and money, and how problematic and overleveraged the financial system is. In contrast to this broken and impenetrable system, RSF’s mission is change how we work with money and financing, to recognize the spirit in and behind it. Because of this, I also understand how valuable money can be, how real investment is effective in supporting initiative and building community, and how deeply rooted in feelings financial transactions are.

In many ways money reflects the architecture of human experience—both inner and outer spaces. This may appear a sweeping statement. But architecture, especially buildings, very much conditions our experience of space, and, the transition from outside to inside, the peristyles and portals, the light and darkness. The ancient Greek temple is an illuminating example. Usually devoted to a particular god, each temple also had a treasury at its center, the inner sanctum, the protected space. This is religion, or mythic beliefs and their statuary expressions, co-housed with sacrificial material offerings, mostly gold and other precious goods. If one can accept this structure also as metaphor for personal experience—that we house within us our own treasury of gifts and offerings which we protect and use as resource at the same time—then one can see how money, as we have come to know it in modern times, is still connected to each person’s inner sanctum within the temple of individuality. We know only too well from daily experience how money connects us to the outer world of materials, relationships, and values.

The letter from the credit card company caused an unusual rupture for me in the flow between inner and outer world. I felt as if a predator had entered and mistaken me for the wrong person. Actually, this touches on one of the central points of this article. The letter was generated as part of a bank strategy. It had absolutely nothing to do with me, my history of twenty years as a good timely paying customer, or my pride. Of course, I got on the phone to what they call customer service and entered yet another space and degree of absurdity. I asked why I would have received this letter and was told (and I am not making this up) that the bank had had numerous losses and that it was costing the bank much more than it had in the past to access the money to extend me credit. I think this script was designed to make me feel sympathetic to the bank, that it was the victim. I knew about the losses. The whole world knew and knows about the losses and the bailouts. How could it be that charging me a lot more interest on my debt would solve the bank’s financial problems resulting from bad loans and investments it had made? Why should I, an already good and long-standing customer, feel responsible? Further, I responded to the customer service provider that the line about the increased cost of funds was patently false. I also knew that she had not crafted the script. Her final position was that the bank had the right at its discretion to raise the fees. True enough. There was no argument from me on that. I explained that I would be disappointed to take my business elsewhere after twenty years.

Finally I asked if I could speak with a manager. This was an extraordinary moment, a revelation of the depth of personal objectification. She said that she could transfer me to the Balance Retention Unit. Not customer retention, or client service. I was nothing more than a balance to them—loyalty, consistency, credit-worthiness be damned. When I reached the Unit, the conversation changed, though the absurdity of the earlier phase didn’t seem to matter much to them. The fascinating outcome was an accommodating interest rate at 7.99%, or two hundred basis points lower that it had been previously, and I remain their customer. Somewhere common sense prevailed. But I have this sense of disquiet and concern about all the other people who received the same letter I had. How had they responded? Fear? Resignation? Indignation? What if they could not convince the company to forego the increase? What if they were already paying 22.99%?

This was the awakened insight. From the credit card perspective, I/we are nothing more than potential and real balances. This objectification somehow makes it okay to charge predatory rates. It makes it okay to justify the changes under false pretenses, and to somehow make me responsible for the bank officers’ irresponsible lending practices. The credit card company demonstrated to me the use of what I call “irrationalization” to maintain its totally impersonal and opaque position. I am object. I object. Balance retention masks a reality that is drastically out of balance.

This story is as much about what is wrong with our financial system as it is about my credit. Any invention of the mind (in this case money and debt) that is managed in order to dehumanize its users needs a new set of ethical practices that might take a cue from the ancient temples and the origins of money in Western civilization. There can be a quality of offering in and through every financial transaction. I can become more conscious of the intentions in my financial behavior, or more aware of the work and economic efforts of others to make the transactions possible at all. But first I, and others who have not already suffered enough, have to wake up to the pain and inequity that have grown within the system even as I have participated willingly, if not wisely, in it.

John Bloom
© 2008