I am a creature of habit. I like things predictable and comfortable. God knows, there is so much in this world I have no control over that I cherish my puddle of tranquility.
For me to make a major change in my quiet little life requires a huge motivation — and I have had one. In the course of a life, perhaps changing banks does not qualify as an important milestone. But I have put a lot of time and thought into it, and it has muddied my little puddle.
The fact is that I have been with my old bank for nearly 30 years. I have been faithful through a half-dozen mergers and acquisitions. I have stayed with it from the time it was a community bank with offices in a few South Carolina towns and cities until it emerged at the top of the banking food chain, a financial behemoth, with offices from coast to coast.
And that's the problem. It got too big to fail. But it wasn't big enough to embrace a vision of the public good, a sense of what was fair and decent. Instead of providing the capital for stable and reliable economic growth, America's "Big Six" banks entered into a reckless era of highly leveraged speculation involving credit default swaps and other incomprehensible financial "products."
When the house of cards collapsed in 2008, these arrogant institutions rushed headlong to the federal government where they received hundreds of billions of dollars in bailouts and public guarantees. That was less than two years ago. Now, thanks to public generosity, these banks are back on their feet and enjoying record profits. And yet they have cut back on the money they are lending to business at the moment credit is most needed to get this economy up and running.
No, they don't have money to lend to businesses, but they have billions of dollars in bonuses to hand out to top officers — acting as if nothing happened two years ago. And they also have millions to spend on Capital Hill, paying lobbyists and paying off politicians with campaign donations. They are going to make sure there is no serious effort at federal financial reform, and nobody —– not even the insurance industry — plays that game better than the bankers.
Some of us are fed up. We put our money in banks for several reasons, but supporting corrupt politicians and corporate officers is not one of them. That's why some Americans (and there does not seem to be a count on how many) have decided to take their money out of the Big Six and put it into small, locally owned banks and credit unions. There, it can support local businesses and create local jobs, and help local banks be responsible members of the community — something banks used to take pride in doing.
Leading the charge to get people to switch banks is Arianna Huffington of Huffington Post fame and her Move Your Money campaign (moveyourmoney.info).
"It's neither left nor right — it's populism at its best," Huffington writes. "Consider it a withdrawal tax on the big banks for the negative service they provide by consistently ignoring the public interest."
As an inspiration she cites the movie It's a Wonderful Life, in which upright small banker George Bailey defends his community from the depredations of the greedy big banker, Mr. Potter. (Huffington has a great clip from the movie on her website. And while you are there, check out Bill Maher explaining why you should move your money. You'll be sending it around to your friends.)
Personally, my inspiration comes from another source. Jim Wallis is an evangelical minister and editor of Sojourners magazine and author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street.
In a recent Washington Post op-ed, he wrote: "Clearly, the financial crisis is a structural meltdown that calls for increased government regulation of banks and other financial players. Members of faith communities ... are helping to push for this sort of reform ....
"I hope local congregations and national denominations alike will begin reflecting on where they keep their money and how their investments reflect their faith. I envision congregations creating checklists to evaluate who they do business with, and national church bodies considering where they should invest their pension funds."
And so I recently kissed my old bank goodbye. I now have my money and my credit cards with a small, Charleston-based bank. Yes, it was a bit of a hassle. It took a couple of hours to transact everything and set up the new electronic checking and credit card deductions. But I am actually getting a higher yield on some of my money, and there is another intangible benefit — I sleep better at night.
See Will Moredock's blog at charlestoncitypaper.com/blogs/thegoodfight.