I think most of us see and hear things pretty much on a daily basis that we think are wrong with the world. I know I do. Here I share some of my thoughts on the things going on in our world and how things should be instead. Or, in my own opinion… The Way the World Ought to Be.
A persistent theme these days among the conservative / Republican / Tea Party end of the political spectrum is that regulation is strangling innovation and thus inhibiting business and entrepreneurs.
On the contrary, regulation has been being dismantled at an unprecedented rate for the last 15 years, and we’re now starting to really see the devastating effects it’s had on the economy. Many banking and finance regulations were wisely put in place following the Great Depression in the 1930’s, to ensure the kind of rigged system that caused the economy to collapse back then could not occur again. Well, today we see the greatest degree of income inequality since that time and it is no coincidence. It is because the safeguards that were in place have systematically been stripped away, allowing once again for a new age of robber barons to exert their enormous financial clout to further their own wealth creation at the expense of everyone else. And this all amidst a background of cries of socialism on the part of the current administration. It is true that there is a great redistribution of wealth going on, but it is NOT from the rich to the poor. In a strange, Orwellian way, the true redistribution of wealth is from the lower and middle classes to the very rich.
By now we’ve all seen on the news how the rich are getting richer, middle class incomes have stagnated or shrunk over the last few decades when adjusted for inflation, and how union power is slowly being decimated. Those are all grand-scale trends that are clear, but the root causes are not always so apparent. I’m currently reading a fascinating book (Griftopia) by Matt Taibbi, an editor at Rolling Stone, who has done a great deal of the painful research (because this stuff is really dry sometimes) and sheds light on what is perhaps intentionally esoteric stuff (because the more confusing it is, the less people are likely to put forth the effort to really understand it).
Here’s a great example… Up until just a few years ago, commodities (coffee, corn, oil) were regulated so that only a small percentage of traders were not an actual party to the transaction (that is, either a direct buyer or seller). The small percentage was allowed for good reason… So that brokers could cover the gap when there were no readily available buyers or sellers. Then, Goldman Sachs successfully lobbied congress to remove this restriction and immediately set about hoarding commodities (most notably gasoline) in order to create false scarcity and drive up prices. And of course it was then Goldman Sachs who profited from the increased prices, in the form of the commodities futures contracts it held and the fees and percentages collected from them. And who paid the price? We all did, not only in higher gas prices, but higher prices for everything transported using gasoline, and especially food. It was an engineered transfer of wealth from the middle class to the rich, and they use their wealth to only further perpetuate such schemes.
It really started with the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which said deposit banks (like the ones you and I have checking and savings accounts with) could not co-mingle assets with investment banks (like the kinds that drive Wall Street). With that repeal, these banks were now allowed to use your deposits to bet on risky investment vehicles, and worse yet, it gave them a vested interest in pushing their (sometimes worthless) investments on individual investors. The next crushing blow to consumer protection came with the infamous Citizens United ruling in 2010, where the Supreme Court went well beyond the question before them to blow a hole wide open in election finance laws. As such, schemes like the two I’ve mentioned are only like to worsen, as huge corporations know they can pick and choose who gets elected, and use that influence to hand-write legislation that will further roll back consumer protections and further the looting of the middle class.
You see, without regulation, these monolithic moneyed powerhouses adversely affect all of our lives by driving down wages while simultaneously increasing the prices we pay for everything. And this is the thing that is most damaging to small business owners and entrepreneurs. When the middle class can’t afford to buy anything beyond the bare essentials, small businesses go out of business. When small businesses can’t afford the cost of gas for delivering their goods, they go out of business. This is why regulation is GOOD for business. The worst part of it all is that we may already be beyond a tipping point, where there is no way back.
My father was long fascinated with tracing our family history, and I know that he spent countless hours, years even, researching both his mother’s history and his father’s, going all the way back to the 11th century England. Keep in mind, this was before the days of the Internet. He labored the old fashioned way… digging through dusty library books and public records.
I have recently picked up where he left off, although I now have the distinct advantage of crowd-sourcing and online documentation. What I have found is nothing short of astounding! I have been able to trace our family line back 71 generations, dating back to the year 380 BC! There are spots where the dates become sketchy and anything older than 380 BC was clearly getting into the realm of mythology. But I was truly surprised by the extent of data available going back such a long way. I was surprised to find full dates of birth, marriage records, locations of birth and death, etc., sometimes as far back as the 3rd century AD. One thing that was most helpful in my search is the fact that many generations of my lineage traces through the royal family of a small kingdom known as East Anglia, one of twelve such smaller kingdoms that now make up the modern day United Kingdom. Since great importance was placed on inheritance and determining rightful heirs to the throne, I believe this is why extraordinarily complete records are available for this period of time. It’s nothing particularly unique to my family. Most of us could turn up royal bloodlines in our family history for the very same reason… these are the records that are best preserved.
I was also able to confirm, like probably most Americans of European descent, exactly who among my ancestors arrived on the Mayflower in 1620, and almost all of my ancestors can be traced back to Massachusetts, following the migration from England and Scotland. More recent history shows how my family made their way to Kentucky and Ohio, where I grew up. There are so many amazing stories, if I were to tell them all, I would have to write many volumes of books. There are major periods dating to the height of Greek society, the Viking invasions of lands that are now northern Europe (Germany, France and England), a long period of stability through the Medieval period that lasted nearly a millennium, and several generations affected by the American Revolution. Having delved so deeply into these many generations makes me feel as if these people are as much a part of my family as are the grandparents I grew up and talked with face to face.
Below are some references of relevance to my family history, and below that is the complete lineage dating back to 380 BC.
THE COMPLETE HISTORY
You may have heard of the Move Your Money Project (http://moveyourmoneyproject.org/). This is a movement to encourage people to invest in local banks rather than the huge conglomerate banks. There are a lot of good reasons for doing so, but that’s really a whole separate post.
I want to tell you about my experience when trying to ditch Bank of America to go exclusively with a local bank. It is a telling experience, and if you’ve ever needed a reason to never do business with Bank of America again, please read on.
Monday, February 12, 2012
On Monday, February 13th, 2012, I decided it was time to join the Move Your Money effort, and close my accounts with Bank of America in order to go completely local. This included closing a Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC) that I originally had with Countrywide Financial, before it was swallowed by Bank of America. Before my local bank could open a new HELOC, they needed a statement from Bank of America confirming that I’d frozen the account and could not make any more charges against it.
So when I called on February 13th, I experienced what I have come to expect from Bank of America… I was transferred no fewer than 5 times, including once where I was disconnected, so I had to call back. After speaking to one person after another who sounded as if they had no clue what they were doing, I finally spoke to someone who said I would need to send my request in writing and fax it to them. She gave me a fax number, which I promptly used, asking within the fax that they provide me with receipt confirmation and additional confirmation once the request was completed.
They explained that the reason I was transferred so many times was because I had a HELOC and not a mortgage, and that’s a different department. And then I got transferred back to the first place, because it was originated from Countrywide, so it was handled by the mortgage department after all. Do they really think any of this matters to the customer? I just want to speak to someone who is able to resolve my issue. The rest is all their own internal organizational mess, which doesn’t matter in the least to me, except to the extent that it makes my life difficult!
Here’s a condensed recap of that first call:
ME: “Hi, I’m calling to… blah, blah, blah”
Customer Frustration Rep (CFR): “Okay, what’s the account number you’re calling about?”
CFR: “I’m sorry, that’s not an account number. It would be 11 digits long.”
ME: “I’m reading it straight off of my account summary screen, logged into your website.”
CFR: “Are you sure you’re looking at the right number?”
ME: “Well, it’s the one that appears right under the label ACCOUNT NUMBER.”
CFR: “Hmm, let me put you on hold for a minute.”
CFR (more like 5 minutes later): “Sir, okay, that is a Countrywide account, so I’ll have to transfer you to that department.”
Finally, I get to the last CFR, who seems to be a little more knowledgeable than average and she gives me the fax number where I can send my request in writing.
Wednesday, February 15th, 2012
After two days had passed and I still had not received either a receipt confirmation nor a confirmation that my request was complete, I decided to call to see what I could find out.
Turns out, there wasn’t much to tell. The CFR I spoke with didn’t see any request to close my HELOC and didn’t recognize the fax number I was told to send it to (keep in mind, my fax machine displayed that it was connected to a Bank of America fax). She gave me a different number where I could fax my request, which I did so immediately.
Thursday, February 16th, 2012
Still no confirmation that anyone has even seen my faxed requests, so I try calling again. After the usual gauntlet of ill-informed front-line CFRs, I was escalated to someone named Christie in their “Level 2” escalations. This makes me wonder just how many levels there are! Christie seems to know what she’s doing, and she provides me a fax number which she says is right by her desk, so she’s sure to get it. She even stays on the phone with me to assure me she has it in her hands. This was starting to feel a little comforting, like I might actually be making some progress. Christie assured me she would personally handle getting my freeze letter arranged and call me back within the hour. That was the last time I ever heard from Christie!
For good measure, I thought I would take a multi-angled approach, and so I went to a local branch of Bank of America to speak with someone face to face about what I needed. When I spoke with a local bank manager there, she looked up my account and said that she saw nothing in “the system” to indicate that I’d requested a freeze, or any statement to that effect. She offered to fill out a form that would take another three business days to process. This seemed pointless, since none of the checkboxes on this form addresses what I was seeking. I then spoke with a VP at that branch about my frustrations, and she seemed genuinely remorseful for what I’ve experienced so far. Unfortunately, she also seemed equally powerless to do anything to improve it.
Taking a third angle at it, I thought I’d take a stab at using their online chat feature. I knew from my own work experience that such channels are usually staffed with more senior people, and so I may get someone more competent. This is what I got instead:
Thinking they may just be really busy, I tried again… about a dozen times throughout the day… with the same result.
After getting nowhere via chat, nor with Level 2 escalations, I thought I’d try again to go through the local branch. Both the manager and the VP gave me their cards, in case “there is anything we can do to help you in the future.” Kinda hard to help if you can’t get through. I called (both business cards just list the main branch number, no direct line and no email addresses) only to get a message saying no one at the branch is available to take my call, and then I was transferred back to their national customer service number.
Friday, February 17th, 2012
Having not heard anything back from Christie still, I sent another fax to her direct fax number, reminding her that she owed me a call back. I got no response from that. After giving Christie sufficient time to respond, I then called the main CFR number again, and immediately asked to speak with Escalations. I spoke with someone name Leticia, who gave me yet another fax number where I could send my request (as if I really wanted to start at square one after 5 days of this). She said she’d personally assure me she’d see it through to resolution. I assured Leticia that if she didn’t, I would be speaking with her manager, whose name she reluctantly provided. I asked Leticia if there was a direct number I could call, and of course there is not. I never heard back from Leticia!
This morning, I received an email from Bank of America, asking if I would like to take a survey about my recent experience. Why yes, I most certainly would!
Again, trying to approach from all angles hoping one of them would work out, I resorted to going public with my frustrations on Twitter, saying “@BofA_Help Wow, Bank of America is just outrageously infuriating to deal with. No customer commitment, no empowerment, no competence!”
This seemed to get their attention real quick, since I got a response within minutes, asking me for contact information, so that someone could help me. Finally, it feels like I might just be getting somewhere. I spoke with a gentleman named Edgar from “Executive Customer Relations.” Edgar seemed knowledgeable and helpful, and genuinely interested. The only thing the previous employees seemed genuinely interested in was getting me off the phone.
Unfortunately, Edgar didn’t get back to me until almost the end of the business day and advised me that I would need my local bank to call Bank of America to request a “subordination package.” Well, I called my local banker, who informed me that subordination only applies when the existing HELOC will be staying open, not when it’s being closed altogether. So I called Edgar back, and by that time, it was after normal business hours. To make matters worse, Monday would be President’s Day, so all banks are closed.
Monday, February 20, 2012
President’s Day - Sorry, bank is closed. Can’t help you!
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
9:30 AM - I emailed Edgar to remind him of my case and to restate that all I need is a simple letter stating that the HELOC has been frozen. That’s all. I don’t care if it’s hand-written on the back of a deposit slip!
10:30 AM - I direct message Edgar on Twitter to see if I can get a response.
11:30 AM - I call Edgar on his direct line, and he tells me that he’s still working on it. I re-emphasize how I would REALLY like to get this resolved TODAY.
1:00 PM - I email Edgar directly to see if he has any progress to report.
2:00 PM - Edgar responds to my email saying he’s still working on it.
3:00 PM - I respond, thanking him for his effort and again stating that I really want to get this wrapped up today.
4:30 PM - Time for another public Twitter posting: “@BofA_Help Another day coming to a close, and still no resolution from Bank of America! That’s 6 business days so far.”
4:45 PM - I get a call from Edgar, who says that there is a complicated paperwork process for what I am asking for (this doesn’t surprise me at all) and that it won’t be until tomorrow that he can get this to me.
So here we are, at the end of 6 days - 12 phone calls, 10 (unsuccessful) attempted chat sessions, 5 faxes, 5 emails, 4 (unsuccessful) attempted phone calls to the local branch, 2 face-to-face contacts, and zero resolution!
To be fair, Edgar is the only person in this whole mess who seems genuinely concerned and who takes ownership of the issue. He’s gotten more than his fair share of the mess, thanks in large part to the lack of caring, competence and concern shown by his colleagues. He’s unfortunately hampered by the shackles of a large corporation mired in inexcusable gridlock.
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Success at last… and on two fronts at that! Edgar made good on his word and provided the freeze letter today as promised. This was shortly after I visited a different local branch to try that route again. There I spoke with Taylor, who was very helpful and knowledgeable. Ironically, she presented to me the same exact form the other bank manager showed me last week, but Taylor was more accurate in describing what she could do with that. The bank manager I spoke with last week explained that the form is used to freeze the account AFTER it is paid off, even though Bank of Oklahoma needed that statement in order to pay it off, so it seemed like a chicken vs. egg type situation. Thankfully, neither Taylor nor her manager Elizabeth were so quick to throw up their hands with an “Oh, well” sentiment that seems to be so pervasive within Bank of America that I suspect it may be part of the formal training program.
As I was leaving, Elizabeth asked if I felt any better about Bank of America finally being able to resolve this. Yes, I did, but only in the same sense that an action movie hero feels a hard-fought sense of victory only after suffering through an unspeakable onslaught of adversity.
Think I’m the only one suffering? Hardly! Here’s what the Twitterverse is saying:
I have a lot of opinions about a lot of things going on in the world. But I thought for my first post, I’d start with something a bit light-hearted. That is not to say it’s not something that seriously bothers me… it does… but in the big picture of things, it is a minor annoyance, rather than a major injustice, which is the stuff that really gets to me.
I recently stumbled across a website that has a simple but universal appeal. That is, when people ask you the most basic of questions, you can then type that very question into www.lmgtfy.com (Let Me Google That For You) and then send the link it generates. In a really fun, snarky way, it will then start an interactive tutorial for the inquirer, showing them how to use Google.
Yes, it’s painfully simple, and that’s the point. It lets those annoying people know that they are being WAY too lazy by emailing you a question that they could have just as easily Googled themselves.