Lost in the righteous anger toward Connecticut Light & Power last week was Gov. Dan Malloy's soft request of banks across the state to do the right thing. Listen, he essentially said, people are out of power and have been handicapped for days. A lot of them manage their finances online. Many haven't been able to pay their mortgages, car payments, student loans, etc. So do us all a big favor — don't charge any late fees right now.
“Legally, I cannot compel businesses to waive late fees,” he said in a press release, “but I would hope ... banks and other financial institutions would agree not to profit from customers' inability to access online or in-person their financial services.”
The governor is right in asking banks to ease up. Deadlines are deadlines, but we're recovering from Alfred, a freak snowstorm whose toll might exceed Hurricane Irene's. The banks will likely see this as a chance to cultivate good will, especially the big ones. So it'll be a win for almost everyone. The governor looks like a champion. The banks look like nice guys. And people don't have to pay late fees.
But notice. I said “almost.”
Banks have profited from our inability to pay for a long time. What's different now is cause, not effect. This time, it's a recovery from a record-setting storm. Three years ago, it was a recovery from a near-total economic collapse triggered by criminal speculation of the housing market.
Malloy is powerless before Mother Nature. Apparently, it's the same with banks.
Yet Malloy has the power to call on state regulators to step up regulatory efforts, create new policy and enforce existing rules. He can order them to investigate banks for failing to modify loans when they should have, for foreclosing on homeowners who should not have been foreclosed on — the list goes on. We know these crimes happened here and elsewhere yet justice hasn't prevailed. Likely never will. Instead, we have weak-kneed regulators appointed by a chief executive who politely inquires if banks might sorta kinda you know consider the possibility of waiving late fees. We have this instead of a strong leader who makes demands in the name of the people. It's enough to make you want to say, “Yo, Dan. Grow a pair, will ya?”
That we live in an era in which politicians serve corporations and not citizens is a given. What's surprising is that Malloy declines to carry the people's mantle when it's politically safe to do so.
With the mainstreaming of Occupy Wall Street, there has rarely been a better time to openly criticize big banks. Same for public utilities like Northeast Utilities (parent of CL&P). With some residents still without electricity more than a weekafter the storm, rage against NU's de facto monopoly on power has seldom been higher. Sure, the company's CEO apologized, but to what end? During a shareholders meeting last week, NU said it plans to pass the $200 million storm cleanup on to customers.
Malloy should use the bully pulpit to lambaste anyone who privileges greed over need. But the best we can hope for from Malloy is something like this latest request that banks waive late fees. The entreaty uses soft, encouraging and passive language seemingly meant for the ears of fragile egos — as if Malloy were explaining to the Emperor that, um, Your Highness, you don't, um, have any clothes on (just saying).
“During these trying times, the financial services community can make an impact in the lives of Connecticut residents,” Malloy suggested in the press release.
Only 36 percent of voters approve of Malloy's performance. That's unlikely to improve if this keeps up. If he won't stand against corporations for the right reasons, maybe he'll do it for the wrong ones.
Malloy requests that banks play nice. That's wrong. He should tell them.
Grow a Pair