Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Broomstick Principle—how Americans are getting ripped off by powerful interests, a few coins or dollars at a time

A story first: years ago I met a well-to-do man who told me how his struggling immigrant family put him through college.

“Mom and Dad owned little New York corner deli. Mom hung a kitchen broom next to the cash register. As each customer checked her stuff out, Mom would add in the price of the broom.

"If a customer balked, Mom would say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I thought that was your broom,’ and she’d give the money back, but customers didn’t catch her often. Well let me tell you something, that broom sent me and my brothers to college.”

It’s easier to get away with stealing nickels and dimes and a few dollars over a long time than it is to steal millions at one time. People don’t notice it, or figure it’s not worth the hassle to put up an argument over a few dimes, or these days a few dollars, filched from their pockets. Let's call that The Broomstick Principle.

Major bank thefts—only
you're the bank and the bank
is the thief

The Broomstick Principle is the same system that banks are using to shake the loose change out of your pockets.

You want to carry last night's restaurant bill for a month? No problem, it’ll cost you a mere nine bucks. Nevermind that the nine bucks represents 28 percent interest a month on your debt, while the banks are borrowing the money they lend you from the taxpayers for next to zero percent.

The Mafia never had it so good

In the days when America had usury laws, even the local Mafia loan shark didn’t earn those kinds of profit margins. And unlike the corner mafioso, the banks are stealing from millions of Americans every day.

Keeping the greedy banks from feeling free to pick your pockets a few bucks at a time is why the consumer protection law now before Congress is so important, and why the majority of Republicans as well as some Democrats deserved to be slammed for watering it down.

Now The Broomstick Principle
returns to the supermarket line

While I’m doing the slamming, I feel I ought to mention the “good works” of the D’Agostino supermarket chain in New York. It’s virtually impossible to go through their checkout lines without having the checkout clerk demand that you contribute money to one of D’Agostino’s favorite charities.

“Would you like to contribute your change to…?” Or simply, “Do you want to contribute to…?” on the checkout line forces the customer to say, in effect, either no I won’t, or no I don't want to, or no I can’t afford to, or no I’m a grouch. Rather than put up with that kind of hassle, many customers open their wallets.

It can be only a buck or two, or a few nickels and dimes at a time, but it adds up. Suppose I want to contribute to my own favorite charity, not to one of the charities the D’Agostinos want to give money to? Do I have to plead my case on the checkout line? No wonder those lines are so slow.

Yes, the charities are all good causes, so far as I know. And besides how much could it cost each customer?

It might be a money grab
in the multi-million dollar class

Well, cumulatively, it might run into the hundreds of thousands, or millions, pressured from our pockets, one checkout customer at a time for the sake of D’Agostino causes.

One also wonders if these contributions aren’t another form of “I thought it was your broom.” Is one hundred percent of what’s collected forwarded to the charities? Is D’Agostino taking a tax deduction that belongs to its customers? Is there even an honest auditor who is tracking and publishing the record?

I don’t have the answers. I do know that because we only get relieved of a little bit of their money at a time, Americans aren’t mad enough about it, whether it happens in the supermarket, at the bank, or online. Not nearly mad enough.

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