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March 20th, 2009
05:05 PM ET

Citizens, not serfs

AIG's plans to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in executive bonuses is the latest controversy to enrage many Americans.
AIG's plans to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in executive bonuses is the latest controversy to enrage many Americans.

Tanya M. Acker
AC360° Contributor
Attorney and Political Consultant

On the “Tonight Show” last night 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.

Or, 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.

Follow Tanya Acker on Twitter at tanyaacker

soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. Michael "C" Lorton, VA

    I would be looking for another bank--if there is any solvent ones left---or a Maxwell House Coffee can-–under the umbrella protection of my mattress.

    March 23, 2009 at 8:55 am |
  2. earle,florida

    Just about a year ago when interest rates were coming down," Bank of America" sent me a "Fine Print" notice well in advance telling me that any future interest (credid card) rate cuts will be deferred for 60 days (or more,turns out they meant 3 months)! Thus, when the Fed made their cuts ,I never saw the decrease for 3 months on my statement,and the kicker to all this ,was if the (economy turned better) Fed started raising again, (interest went back up) I'd see the increase the next statement!

    March 20, 2009 at 9:35 pm |
  3. Mark

    None of this is surprising, this culture has grown freely for many years, especially the last 8 years because of a lack of oversight. It permeates all areas of life, look at the FDA, SEC, EPA, FEMA, etc., it is so apparent and so simple. Look at Iraq, it was quite apparent that the Bush administration was making up the WMD and link to 9/11. Now for reality, we have been ok with all this to some extent or another because we have been kept fat and spoiled so we looked the other way. Please save your outrage and use that energy to work together to achieve what we can achieve. It is looking less and less likely. There is a reason that we are reading about 8 babies all the time and Obama saying something less than compassionate about special needs folks, i mean can't we accept his apology and move on? There are real issues and real solutions and what we seem to focus on is stupid stuff. I would blame the media, for they have a part, but they just serve up what we want, what sells. I seriously doubt this will be printed and It does not matter, I guess I am wasting my time, but none of this is rocket science. It is all simple, lets quit changing or ignoring reality so we can feel good and start accepting reality, accepting responsibility and start working toward solutions. This is the promise Obama brings, this is the change he brings, but it is being ignored and I am afraid it will be lost in all the distractions that are shoved at us daily. Lets be grownups and quit being so childish, basically grow up.

    March 20, 2009 at 9:14 pm |
  4. Annie Kate

    Bank of America has always been snippy with me when I have had questions. So I closed my credit card account with them. Now, much to my chagrin I got a letter from Countrywide, who handled my mortgage, saying that my mortgage (current and always paid on time so far) had been sold to Bank of America to service. I am not pleased. I liked dealing with Countrywide. They were at least polite. I doubt I will get the same nice treatment from Bank of America that I got with Countrywide. At least my loan is a fixed rate loan.

    March 20, 2009 at 9:11 pm |
  5. robyncaffrey keyser west virginia

    att : anderson

    mr barack obama should send them ceo's where the sun dont shine. they are a glutton for punishment

    March 20, 2009 at 8:55 pm |
  6. Roberto in British Columbia

    How about we charge the banks for the privilege of handling our money. Charge for the time spent in doing any sort of business with the bank from waiting for a teller, getting to the ATM and finding it out of service, deciphering the bank statement. Charging for every bit of unsolicited mail we get from the bank, especially those credit card offers. Doubling the charge every time the bank submits incorrect information to the credit reporting agencies. The list could go on and on (sort of like the list of charges that the bank imposes). Not totally nutty, just look at tenant’s rights in some states.

    March 20, 2009 at 8:13 pm |
  7. Steve Venarchick

    Anderson-

    Most of the people in Washington are cowards. They cannot be trusted to do the right thing. I'd like to be on your show to confront these people. They would run for the hills, becasue they are incapable of telling the truth and when you do confront them, you can tell they are lying by their physical reactions. Senator Dodd ring a bell.

    Keep up the great work for the American people and keep them brutally honest.

    March 20, 2009 at 8:09 pm |
  8. Lynn

    Perhaps the leaders should have discussed foreign affairs over a glass of wine. It is the start of the Illamic New Year. Perhaps this might ease some tensions.

    March 20, 2009 at 7:37 pm |
  9. Jerry

    I,m average Joe (not the plumber) and it's my opinion that no bank is to big to fail if they take taxpayers money and use it as they wish are not to big or important to fail. AIG included.

    March 20, 2009 at 7:28 pm |
  10. KatchProFILMS

    Please don't publish the last "Blog" (IF you even give it the time of day). It is, indeed, "surreal" but DEFINITELY not "fun" for alot of folks - including myself. They (including yourselves) may take it wrong... but you know, I think you know... you know what I mean... (thanks... thanks again).

    (Tough.)

    ("Tough" as in good. Just awesome, well written article. AND compassionate. We need that. Lots.)

    March 20, 2009 at 7:26 pm |
  11. Mike Stefanick

    As I watched the congressional hearings about AIG and the retention bonus’ congress reminds me of the child with a dirty diaper continuously pointing fingers at others to determine where the smell is coming from. Congress is the one primarily responsible for the fiasco mess we are in and the circus going on. Most of the actions and economic bills passed by congress over the last 10 to 12 years have heavily favored wall street and the banking industry and not the average American. There are certain key members of congress that have been common denominators in all of these bills. Those are the ones that need to stand up and take responsibility for there actions and take themselves out of these key committee positions. Don’t blame Bush, Geitner or Obama for what is in bills. Congress passes laws. Also every congressman has a chance to have input into these laws but once they are passed it is a law for all Americans, not a democratic or a republican law. They need to close the doors and duke it out and get there act together. Then they need to come back as a team not 2 political parties and due what is best for all of America. Find a way to make it work not a way not to make it work.

    Mike in Pennsylvania

    March 20, 2009 at 7:20 pm |
  12. KatchProFILMS

    Surreal (but getting kind of fun).

    March 20, 2009 at 7:19 pm |
  13. KatchProFILMS

    Thanks for the article.

    March 20, 2009 at 7:17 pm |
  14. Judy

    I too, was a victim of Fifth Third Bank, here in Ohio. I decided to add another hundred dollars, on to my house payment. I made the change on a Saturday, to be deducted, with the next monthly payment.
    Much to my surprise, an entire house payment, plus the hundred bucks; had been removed from my account , the next day, SUNDAY!
    By the time the situation was finally resolved, I had received threatening phone calls, from the bank's collections department and nasty letters from Donald Coleman, a bank CEO.
    Mind you it was the banks mistake but I was cahrge a fee, for overdrawing my checking account, and a fee was added to my credit card because it was considered a cash with-draw.
    I cannot imagine how people cope, who are in real financial difficulty.
    AIG, Enron and all, I hope you get a taste of your own medicine. As for Fifth Third Bank , I hope they get their Fannie Mae's kicked, as well!

    March 20, 2009 at 7:08 pm |
  15. Tracey - Boston

    I love your title. We are not serfs!

    March 20, 2009 at 7:07 pm |
  16. GF, Los Angeles

    Shoot we don't even know what private banks make up the Federal Reserve. The banks have far too much power and we're the ones who are keeping their doors open. Such the irony.

    March 20, 2009 at 6:45 pm |
  17. Jim- California

    Tanya- It is a very simple solution- Take your money out of the Bank
    -Stop buying on credit. We can survive without banks- Banks Cannot survive with out customers- Since they gave you the middle finger salute
    Simply take your bussiness else where along with your money- that is the only thing they understand. Our Founding Fathers wrote about big banks read the History of Nevada & " Ralston's Ring of the Bank of California"- William Sharon who would latter become SENATOR lent the mine & mill owners of the Comstock money at low rates, allowed them to get in over their heads, then forclosed on them they then formed the
    Milling & ming Company, built the Virginia & Truckee railroad The Bank Owned The Mines, Mills, Timber, Transportation was heavy in Politics & everything went through the Bank- NOTHING has changed 100 plus years later.

    March 20, 2009 at 6:44 pm |
  18. Vicky, Nashville, Tennessee

    right on!

    March 20, 2009 at 6:41 pm |
  19. Chris

    This is a gross abuse. We need to take down these banks. Maybe the problem is that they are too big. We need to break up the banks and bring them down to a normal size. Some of these bank have more power and money then some countries. The UN and NATO should step in the is TERRORISM.

    March 20, 2009 at 6:31 pm |
  20. NeSS

    I am in complete accord with Tanya. Bravo.

    We are neither serfs nor stupid; but, this is the way we are perceived, or we would not be seen as mindless consumers who need to spend beyond our means to feed the engorged and virulent elite.

    I've not heard much about or from the other banking institutions yet. The Rockefellers et al are strangely quiet – nay, almost reticent to whisper a hint of a sentence that might be misconstrued by the rabble.

    Having read the blog posts on some now forgettable blog about last night's appearance of our president on Jay Leno, I am compelled to state that I can often see why we are thought of as uneducated, barely literate, malleable and ignorable serfs who want everyone else but them to be perfect. Get real.

    We are neither uneducated nor perfect. I thank you, Tanya, for your suggestion that those who are/consider themselves to be elite live and die by the same rules under which we labor. That goes for Congress and the corporate elite (unless they're going to eat GM foodstuffs and fast food fare as they'd like us to continuing doing whilst they do away with organic standards.

    God only knows what the elites will do with/to/not for us when Oil and Natural gas finally break through the media barrier imposed from the elites who rule that portion of our lives and have to admit it's going away!

    We can handle the Truth. We are you. Take a look. Yes, we are.

    March 20, 2009 at 6:17 pm |
  21. M Finch

    I have been inquiring about refinancing our home loan for the purpose of a better interest rate. We are not part of the "bad" loans and our home is worth at least double what we owe. We have always paid everything on time, yet when we have approached Citi Bank who holds our mortgage, they offer no incentive to stay with them. I would think with all their problems they would want to retain a customer who pays their bills on time. I am starting to believe that they now feel like they have government money and don't need mine. They said 18 months ago they had programs offering free refinance, now nothing. What's up with that.
    I may as well take my mortgage to a more solvent institution.

    March 20, 2009 at 6:08 pm |
  22. Alyzabeth

    I just don't see how it is legal for a bank to take your money and refund it only at their leisure after they are done using it for their own purposes. It's infuriating and the American public needs to really hold these financial institutions accountable from here on out.

    March 20, 2009 at 5:54 pm |
  23. LoveFreedom

    Anderson...you need to follow this up with the same gusto with the Representatives and Senators who are part of this Fiasco. Investigative reporting like the old days...How refreshing. Thanks

    March 20, 2009 at 5:52 pm |
  24. Sha'Non Simmons

    What is exactly is the problem? Tax the money back, Fire Dodd and whom ever eles help put the clause in at the last minute! If this happened in the public sector there would be massive firing as well as money returned ASAP! What has happened is this those in high positions have forgotten what it is like on the bottom! Every single Executive that recieved bailout money should spend at least one-two years on low-income ($10,000 – $25,000). Having money at you disposal at any giving time changes things and they need to see and remember what it is like for everday average American. So let's stop all the whinning because what is done is done can not change it! So move on and Have the back of our President! And stop picking at him every chance you get bacause God knows that you all did not do that to the Previous President that has made a major mess of things!!

    March 20, 2009 at 5:45 pm |
  25. Jim M

    Banks hve become too big for OUR wellbeing. Perhaps it's time for the divestature of the banks. We might not be able to reestablish local banks that we, as individual could deal with personally. However, the reduction of the stranglehold of the major institutions could be achieved. Most of today's financial institutions are far too removed from being able to provide reasonable, adequate and intelligent service.

    Alternatives? Eventual take-over of the banking system by the Bank of India or the Bank of China.

    March 20, 2009 at 5:45 pm |
  26. Melissa

    I can completely agree with this. I'm tired of the attitudes of the banks.

    March 20, 2009 at 5:26 pm |
  27. xtina, chicago IL

    Good article ! I like the idea of the bank paying 32% if they are late paying back the bailout money. It won't happen, but I like the idea.

    March 20, 2009 at 5:12 pm |