The upside of the Move Your Money campaign
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I’m puzzled by Yvette Kantrow’s supercilious dismissal of Arianna Huffington’s Move Your Money campaign. Kantrow paints the campaign as being about “optics” over substance, and complains that “it emphasizes symbolism over reality and feeling over fact”. And she does so with no hyperlinks at all, which means that when she says the campaign “promises to help you ‘stick it’ to big banks”, it’s impossible to fact-check her. (That phrase certainly never appears on the initial blog entry which launched the campaign.)
Instead, the campaign was much more than an attempt to stick it to the man: it was an attempt to get people to do the right thing with their money. Here’s what Huffington actually wrote:
We talked about the outrage of big, bailed-out banks turning around and spending millions of dollars on lobbying to gut or kill financial reform — including “too big to fail” legislation and regulation of the derivatives that played such a huge part in the meltdown. And as we contrasted that with the efforts of local banks to show that you can both be profitable and have a positive impact on the community, an idea took hold: why don’t we take our money out of these big banks and put them into community banks? And what, we asked ourselves, would happen if lots of people around America decided to do the same thing? Our money has been used to make the system worse — what if we used it to make the system better?
Kantrow says that Huffington is “turning the decision on where to bank into a moral choice, like being green or buying organic” — and she’s right about that, but in a good way. People think long and hard about where and how they spend and give their money, and they — rightly — consider it very important that they do so in a manner that’s consistent with their broader beliefs. The big four banks, however, expanding across the country by acquisition, have simply taken over millions of consumers who never particularly wanted to bank with them and who are now giving them billions of dollars in fees and trillions of dollars in virtually zero-interest-rate deposits.
As Huffington says, there’s no doubt that community banks and credit unions generally have a positive impact on their communities, while the too-big-to-fail crew have had an inordinately negative impact on the entire country. If you continue to bank with the big four, you only serve to perpetuate that dynamic. On the other hand, if many people start moving their money into community-based financial institutions, those institutions are likely to be able to do much more good in their communities than they’re doing already. (If you live south of 14th Street and east of the Bowery, I’m on the board of one such institution which would love to put your deposits to good use locally.)
The point here isn’t to bring the big four to their knees: it’s not a negative boycott, in that sense, aimed at the destruction of something you hate. Instead, it’s a much more positive thing, telling people that if they move their money to community institutions, then they themselves will be better off financially (friendlier bank managers, lower fees, etc) and so will their community more generally. It’s a win-win proposition.