The last page of the New York Times magazine normally carries a short slice of life article, often about a white person’s adventures (or misadventures) in some exotic land. One particular article “Travels with Omar” (1/30/05), is worth noting and not just because this happens to also be my name. It seems a perfect example of the particular cluelessness of the New York Times Magazine, the writers of which often find themselves remarking dryly on the humurous and immoral eccentricities of colorful yokels from the world’s backwaters but seldom turn that investigative eye toward the central mores and attitudes of the West.
Jeffrey Taylor (a traveloguer by trade) , the author of this particular treatise complains of his experience being cheated by an impoverished muslim during his travels in Africa due to the “a priori notion not supported by the Koran but nonetheless widespread in many Muslim countries: namely that lying to an infidel was somehow pardonable”. Again and again, Taylor tries to reason with Omar, his guide and porter, to be honest about his business dealings; and Omar agrees, only to lie to him again, to the disappointment of our white american hero, who cannot instill western values, such as capitalist honesty, into Omar via this transaction. Perhaps if Taylor had introduced a contract into the deal, such as those provided by American credit card companies, banks, savings and loans, online companies, car manufacturer’s, employers, and the US Federal government, Omar would have seen more clearly that a better way to cheat people is to bury the truth in legalese that the ordinary consumer could not hope to decipher without financially prohibitive legal aid. This method works on both infidels and believers and is completely legal in America and also, thus, condoned by God.
Last Monday, for example, this Omar bounced a check for 50 dollars. I won’t lie–I’m not only poor, I’m bad with money. With 60 dollars in the bank and the check out there, I took the chance that weekend that the check would not clear until Wednesday payday and withdrew the 60 bucks via ATM. The check cleared on Monday. Since, as I was later informed, transactions on the weekend are not counted until the next business day, they applied the 33 dollar fee to my 60 dollar balance, giving me a retroactive balance of 27 dollars when I withdrew the 60 dollars on Saturday. Incredibly, this meant that I also received an insufficient funds fee for the 60 dollar withdrawal. Two bounced check fees, for one bounced check. I find it interesting that BoA processed the check before it processed my ATM transaction, when there would have only been one fee if they had processed the transactions in reverse order; being a bank, I’m sure they don’t pay attention to such things. I probably signed something that acknowledged their right to do this when I opened the account–along with God knows what other machiavellian cash-generating schemes their supercomputers from Space have developed.
Indeed, my obvious ignorance of fee-charging activities must have tripped some sucker-sensitive alarm, because in the past week alone, along with my official notice of insufficient funds, I have received half a dozen offers from BoA to try one of their new financial services. These range from health insurance supplements to credit card check services, all charged monthly and wired to one’s checking account, with the accompanying fees charged should you be late with the bills, giving the banking behemoth even more opportunities to extract $33 from one’s supine checking account. The most unbelievable of these offers, however, was for those with bad credit, such as myself, to acquire a BoA “security card” Visa. The large fonts of the mailer sing the praises of this card– which requires only a $99 deposit but provides a credit limit of $500.00–and suggests that you can build a good credit history with its consistent use. Digging through the envelope, I finally found the shocking fee and term information, in normal sized print and in stark black and white; an APR of 16.24% compared to the average 12%–subject to change according to the prime rate generated by the Fed. Though the rate will oscillate ever upwards, it will most likely never lower if past history is any guide, for the Fed reduced the prime rate 11 times in 2002, but not one major credit card company followed suit. The card also charges $1.50 for each purchase, increases the APR to 21.24% for cash advances and applies a penalty APR of a staggering 29.24% if you’re twice late with a payment. This latter fact means that the entire debt is suddenly calculated at 30% if you have a couple of bad months within any 12 month period. Add to this late payment fees of $35 and you get the idea that BoA sees folks like me as cash cows that have not yet had their udders fully connected to the milking machine.
The credit card offered to me is only a slightly more extreme version of those offered by instituitions like BoA to normal credit-worthy citizens. About 60% of Americans have one, succumbing to brilliant marketing ploys that make not having one seem an indicator of unsavory character. After 9/11, in fact, Visa ran ads that made shopping with a credit card seem like nothing less than a patriotic duty. Credit is an alpha-business because it operates outside the normal confines of the economy–when times are bad, people rely on their credit cards to tie up the loose ends and when times are good, people use their credit cards to celebrate. The members of this credit-nation, each carry, on average, a revolving debt of about $10,000, servicing about 1,500 a year on the balance in interest alone. But it is not only the interest which interests credit companies–they’re making a good deal of money from late fees, which in 2000, accounted for about 25% of their total profits. Late fees make you less able to pay off the entire debt, leaving more of it to accumulate interest, making it more likely that you will end up incurring late fees; a beautiful matrix of control to which Americans gladly submit for the dubious convenience of not having to budget their money.
Lying Muslims like my African namesake, will never enjoy the fruit of such a business model, however, and will have to be content with finding other ways to hustle suckers–for loaning at interest is considered immoral by Islam’s God. Go figure.
Thus, while Muslims cheat the infidel, Capitalists cheat the financially ignorant; the second half of this equation will probably evoke little outrage from Taylor, who will most likely not phone the credit card company that financed his trip to Africa to insist on the moral imperative of being clear about ballooning interest rates or to make contracts in readable size and in understandable English. Instead, he will, more likely than not, blissfully send his monthly offering to the company, never considering how he has wound up as a life-long debt servicer and captive source of income to a financial abomination, but rueing, instead, the 10 bucks he was swindled out of by a poor African Muslim merchant.