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Why I’m sad about leaving Bank of America

Bank of America ATMs

Bank of America has finally pushed me over the top. Photo: Wonderlane via Flickr.

I know I shouldn’t be at all emotional, but honestly, I find myself a bit verklempt about moving my bank accounts out of Bank of America.

Yes, it’s a hassle, but it needs to be done, as the Move Your Money Project makes amply clear. Since they’re a national bank, the biggest part of every dollar I deposit with Bank of America goes into the financial system and leaves my community. And if B of A uses my deposits to fund reckless speculation, fat bonuses for their execs or donations to Tea Party Congressmen, then my money will be harming America.

And as a Transitioner trying to relocalize my area’s economy, I’ve felt especially guilty staying with a big corporate bank.

It’s a fee party

But it was really the $5 debit card fee that B of A wants to start charging in January that got me to finally act. Fortunately, Bank Transfer Day came along a couple weeks ago to help. They’re on the same populist page as Occupy Wall Street, which makes me feel like I’m supporting the campers just by getting a new checking account. As BTD says on their Facebook page:

Together we can ensure that these banking institutions will ALWAYS remember the 5th of November!! If the 99% removes our funds from the major banking institutions to non-profit credit unions on or by this date, we will send a clear message to the 1% that conscious consumers won’t support companies with unethical business practices.

Even if my money isn’t used in nasty ways, the very fact that Bank of America is a corporation run for profit means that they’re under constant pressure to please their shareholders and deliver satisfying quarterly profits rather than to provide me with good service at reasonable terms.

B of A says they need it to make a profit. Experts say that’s wrong; even without the fee, the bank would still turn a $3.3 billion annual profit on their 59 million customers’ debit transactions.

In itself, it’s insulting enough to have to pay to use your own money. But as a piece of a bigger picture, the $5 fee represents how for-profit banks do business. Owners first, customers second.

So, today, I opened accounts at the Dupont Community Credit Union (“Bank as a member, not a customer”). Next week, once I can reroute all my automatic payments, I’ll close my accounts at Bank of America and move all my money.

The credit union offers the same services — savings and checking for personal and business, loans, safe deposit boxes — but behind the scenes, they don’t act like a bank.

First, they’re non-profit, so they don’t need to squeeze their customers to provide ever more profits to Wall Street investors. Then, the credit union is based locally and does business only within our part of the state, so more of my deposits do stay in my community, creating jobs for my neighbors. Talk about the hundred-mile diet. This is hundred-mile finance.

Finally, the credit union is the kind of cooperative business, owned by their members and governed by an unpaid board elected by those members, that I’d like to see more of in the future because they have a reason to put their customers first. Maybe that’s why the fees they will charge me are lower and the interest rates they will pay me are higher.

My head says right on. To hell with B of A. Viva la credit union!

Unrequited love

Yet, my heart is still a bit heavy. I’ve been with Bank of America for ten years and I have good memories with them. Like the day in 2004 when I opened my first business account at a small rural branch. The manager, Steven, sat and chatted with me for two hours over coffee about my bizarre idea for a business, an online dating website for people interested in Buddhism.

I also like the people at the branch. Start with that same manager Steven, who, as it happens, was transferred to the branch in my current town, which means I’ve now done business with him for ten years. His staff is friendly and patient. If I’m in a hurry, they always try to accommodate me. I pass them on the street in our small town and they smile.

I’ll miss Steven and his staff and I wish them all well. I know it’s not their fault that:

  • Bank of America gave their CEO Brian Moynihan a bonus in 2010 of $9.05 million at the very same time the bank was relentlessly foreclosing on underwater homeowners and refusing to reduce their mortgage principal to current market value.
  • After being bailed out by taxpayers in 2008 to the tune of $230.1 billion, Bank of America is sitting on piles of cash that they refuse to lend to small businesses to help them create jobs.
  • Bank of America, the largest bank on earth, is also one of world’s most rapacious and irresponsible corporations, funding payday lenders and coal companies all while avoiding US corporate taxes through off-shore tax shelters, loopholes and clever scams.

There’s plenty of reason to hate Bank of America. Yet, over the years, I’d developed a soft spot for them. They kept my money safe. Their great website helped me pay my bills conveniently online. The local branch is walking distance from my house.

The problem is, humans and corporations are not the same, no matter what the Supreme Court and Mitt Romney say. Humans are creatures of the heart. We want to like people and trust people. And we like to extend that trust to the companies that those likeable people work for. We learn to like their logos!

But those companies, if they’re big corporations, don’t and can’t work the same way. They’re legally required to maximize profits for shareholders. So, if it’s more profitable along the way to hurt people instead of helping them —whether customers, employees, or communities — then so be it.

I’d say that corporations have a cold heart. But that would be to fall into the fallacy of personification. In reality, corporations have no heart. And unlike the Tin Man, neither Dorothy nor the Great and Powerful Oz can help corporations find one.

Yet, corporations keep trying to convince us that they care about us. Together, they spend billions each year building a likable “brand personality.” Why? Because corporate marketers know how the human mind works. Even though corporations can’t return the favor, their management wants us to love them so we’ll be loyal customers.

Well, B of A, I stuck with you for ten years. But no more. I’m sad to have to throw you over. But learning to un-love you is one step towards freeing my mind and helping to build a resilient local economy.

Now I have to start thinking about which corporate “friend” I’m ready to dump next.

Editorial Notes: Erik Curren is the publisher of Transition Voice. He co-founded Transition Staunton Augusta in December 2009 and serves as managing partner of the Curren Media Group.

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