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Business Casual: Nickels And Dimes

 

The first time I heard myself say the dreaded words “Do you think I’m made of money?” to my own child, I clapped my hand over my mouth and wondered when I had turned into not just an adult, but one of those adults – grumpy, stingy, disapproving, one who begins every conversation with “In my day…” references. The kind of adult the neighborhood kids play Halloween tricks on.

I don’t recall what my daughter’s request was, but I suspect it wasn’t unreasonable – no doubt she was trying to make up a revenue shortfall and secure an advance on her allowance, and she was simply making her case to the parental authority figure she thought would be most sympathetic. 

On that occasion, however, she chose the wrong parent. It was very likely a matter of timing – no doubt I had just brought in a load of bills from the mailbox – rather than substance that prompted my extreme reaction.

That response may also have represented the teeniest bit of a power play on my part: Here was a fiscal decision I could make unchallenged.

When money is involved, timing is crucial. So is power.

As Georgia’s “free to vehicles with two or more passengers” HOV lanes on I-85 turned into HOT lanes requiring the purchase of a Peach Pass and payment of a toll even as the “travel free” requirement jumped to “vehicles with three or more passengers,” some righteously cranky citizens voiced their disapproval. They were clearly feeling powerless and time-deprived.

A lot of people who travel I-85 daily complained because the new gimmick slowed down their commutes, and a lot of other people objected to paying for something they had already helped pay for that had formerly been free. Some wondered why so much money and effort was going into breaking something that was already broken. Was the state trying to make it harder for people driving to work?

Gov. Nathan Deal responded promptly by lowering the fees and promising to improve access to the toll lanes. He is seeking a waiver from the federal government for the “three or more” rule, which was one of the strings attached to the federal funds that helped pay for the conversion to HOT lanes.

In the private sector, when some of the nation’s big banks decided to add monthly debit card use fees, the reaction was outrage. For many consumers, that particular display of pettiness – charging $3 or $4 or $5 for an electronic transfer that has long been free – was the last straw. All the breathless, “Thank you for being our valued customer” sentiments dispensed by tellers couldn’t compensate for the feeling on the part of consumers that they were being gouged. 

Some customers were impertinent enough to point out that banks that had been rescued by taxpayer funds ought to be more grateful and less greedy.

So the big banks finally backed down on their debit card fees, and not a moment too soon.

Banks adding fees is hardly a new phenomenon, but this particular one was so blatant (a clear reaction to the limits imposed by the Durbin Amendment on the amount banks can charge merchants when customers pay with their debit cards) and the timing so off that it galvanized banking customers nationwide. Some closed their accounts; many others are on the verge. A nickel here, a dime there. There are limits.

The banks’ capitulation came against the backdrop of the Occupy Movement, which unleashed a lot of unfocused anger at a lot of things that aren’t going well. Again, it’s a matter of timing and power.

Not all concerns – rampant unemployment or wealth disparities – lend themselves to simple answers or clear-cut solutions. But some actually do. Georgia motorists complained and got some action. Banking customers realized they had some leverage: They could withdraw their money and leave. They flexed their muscles and won a victory.

When indignation and a clear solution come together at just the right time, it begins to look like empowerment, and that is pretty heady stuff. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a whole lot more of it in the immediate future.

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