Why I plan to move my money

Maybe switching my checking account from Chase won't topple the bankster oligarchy. But it will make me feel better

Published January 6, 2010 11:22PM (EST)

Changing your bank, as Felix Salmon observes, "is hard, and people are lazy." But plugging your zip code into an online database to see if there is a fiscally sound community bank near you is super-easy. And by that metric, the MoveYourMoney campaign cooked up by the Huffington Post, Institutional Risk Analysis (IRA), and the Roosevelt Institute has been a big success, after just one week of existence. In today's Huffington Post, Dennis Santiago, CEO of IRA, reports that around 340,000 zip codes have been entered into the IRA bank database. (Found via the Curious Capitalist.)

Like a good little lemming, I followed along to see what my local (Berkeley, Calif.) choices might be. Up popped Mechanics Bank, an East Bay institution I'd always been mildly curious about, but never investigated.

There's a lot to like about Mechanics Bank. It's been around a little over 100 years, survived the Great Depression, and refused $60 million in TARP bailout money. All I would need to do is arrange direct deposit of my paycheck, and I could have a checking account with no monthly fees and unlimited ATM refunds (for withdrawal fees charged by other banks).

I am currently a customer of Chase, but through no fault of my own. 20 years ago, I opened up an account at a bank called Great Western, which was subsequently snapped up by Washington Mutual, which then famously disappeared into the maw of JPMorganChase. A similar thing happened to my credit card. It is beyond irritating to end up having two of my three most important relationships with financial institutions handled by Chase, without CEO Jamie Dimon ever asking so much as a "by your leave?" So purely on an emotional level, I am attracted by the opportunity to exert some personal control over my bank account destiny.

This is a separate question from whether doing so would achieve any practical good. The goal of the Move Your Money campaign is to simultaneously hurt the big four banks and strengthen the community banks. Like Slate's Martha White, I am skeptical as to whether enough Americans will act upon their populist rage to make any substantial impact on the Big Four. (Although both Dennis Santiago and Felix Salmon offer sound pushbacks against her cynicism.)

But I find that I don't really care whether switching my bank account from Chase to Mechanics Bank would strike a substantive blow against The Man. To refrain from action for such a reason would be defeatist. I've cast many a vote in elections where I knew my candidate would not win, but I did so anyway  because voting, to me, is a precious right and responsibility in a democracy. It's a fundamentally self-affirming expression of agency. Likewise, taking back ownership of where to put my money will prove that I personally, am not just some flotsam floating on the remorseless tides of American capitalism, but someone with the will to choose my own fate.

Of course, it could all go horribly wrong. Smaller, local banks are disproportionately vulnerable to the commercial real estate meltdown currently working its way through the U.S. How ironic would it be to move my money and then have my new bank seized by the Feds before it went bankrupt? Even worse, who is to say Mechanics Bank won't give up its independence and be bought by some larger entity? Chase will never stop coming after me! Maybe resistance really is futile.

But I'm just guessing that I'll feel better about myself in the morning if I make a change. And that's something I really can control, unlike the fortunes of Chase, or the insanity of what passes for the political process in the United States.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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