Gum crime

A bank once had me arrested. I want to admit that up-front, to be honest about potential resentment I might harbour while commenting on banking news. Here’s the sordid story, in all its tabloid glory: Years ago, in South Africa, I thought I was funny and some people disagreed (some things never change). While waiting in a bank, I wrote what I thought was an amusing note on a deposit slip.

My message read thus: ‘I have a gun some gum. It is minty and fresh. Chewy chewy chewy, yum yum yum! Give me all your money.’ I left the note on the writing desk, happy to let my brilliant surrealist joke pass into legend without claiming any glory for myself.

I was, of course, an idiot. South African banks have a similar sense of humour to that of British airports, and the next time I went into the bank I was arrested on charges of attempted armed robbery. And put in the holding cells of Johannesburg’s violent crime police station for three days.

Since then, banks seem to have developed a robust sense of humour. Take last week’s news, for instance. The Office of Fair Trading won a court-case it had brought against Britain’s banks, asserting that the OFT should have the right to adjudicate when customers queried excessive bank charges. That means that over the last few months, while banks have been bombarding us with adverts about how much they love us, all-singing, all-dancing, laugh-out-loud feel-good romps designed to convince us that they care about their customers, they’ve been campaigning against fairness for them. That is hilarious.

Let’s be clear. What banks have been fighting against is not a specific judgement on what they may charge when we ‘dip into the red’. They have been campaigning against such charges even being assessed for fairness. The court battle they lost was trying to prevent the OFT from having any say in the matter.

Now, I’m no financial expert. And far be it from me to cast aspersions on any individual or business’s character. But if a person I’m doing business with seems very keen that independent standards of fairness are never applied to our dealings, I may be disinclined to trust him. If someone campaigns against fairness, the cynical part of me thinks that perhaps they are not keen on fairness. Shocking, I know.

The Bible obviously talks a great deal about unfairness in trade and business, and yet I find Christians I talk to are divided about this issue. While many, like me, think that banks should be forced to be fair, many others believe what one banking industry spokesman said on the BBC’s Moneybox programme on the weekend. When asked whether the penalty charges in question bore much relation to what the infringements by customers cost the banks, he repeatedly replied in terms of the banking industry being a competitive market. Apparently, those charges have less to do with cost and more to do with what the market will bear, what people are willing to pay. In other words, they may be unfair, but that’s just business.

As Christians we may not be conformed to the thinking of this world in terms of promiscuity, drugs or abortion, but I find myself assuming that businesses must obviously maximise profit at all costs, that such thinking is natural, that notions of ‘fairness’ are naïve and misplaced in business. And yet that is not what my Bible says. You don’t have to be a communist, an anarchist or wilfully stupid to believe that people are more important than profits. And you don’t need to write a note to steal from people.

more in this simplistic but fairly accurate series about what is really wrong with the banking system thatunderpins out economics, click here.

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