Gold in the Water, Gold in the Bank

by Ben Carter

The Indigo Girls and their Boy

I was 12 when I first heard the Indigo Girls. I know it’s probably the worst cliché to begin an essay about the need for equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans by talking about the Indigo Girls, but dammit that’s where the story begins for me. I came to know about gay and lesbian people like most other sensitive kids who were into sensitive folk rock and came of age in the early 90s: through Emily Saliers and Amy Ray.

My cabin’s counselor was an undergrad at University of Georgia in Athens. It was 1990, and the Indigo Girls were touring the South while using Athens as their base. Each night, counselors were supposed to give devotionals to the campers before bed—a time for reflection. Ed, our counselor, mostly just played us Indigo Girls songs. The first song he played us was “Prince of Darkness.” Penned by Amy, it’s a song about deciding to use your life for something beneficial. It’s an obvious choice for a devotional.

My place is of the sun and this place is of the dark.

By grace, my sight grows stronger.

I do not feel the romance. I do not catch the spark.

By grace, my sight grows stronger.

And I will not be a pawn for the Prince of Darkness any longer.

Damn, that’s pure.

When you’re twelve, each day is a revelation; the world as you know it changes almost daily. I remember laying in my cot under the stairs of Pine Lodge, listening to their harmonies in the dark, flooded with their earnestness, thinking, “This changes everything.”

And, in some ways, it did.

On my way home from camp, I made my mom stop at a CD store (remember those?) and I bought the album for myself. I have bought every one of their 17 albums in the 21 years since then. It’s not overstating things to explain that the Indigo Girls have had more of an influence on my politics and worldview than any other band. I should probably explain that this is a high bar: if a band is not singing about current events, our shared obligations to one another, love, or politics, I’m not interested. In fourth grade, (my mom and) I did a report on musicians with social consciences. This is what happens when “We are the World” is one of the first songs a boy falls in love with. In high school, I was the guy listening to Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston.

I don’t remember anyone explaining to me that the Indigo Girls were lesbians for a few years after I started listening to them. I can’t remember, but I don’t think Ed framed their music that way. I think I told someone they were my favorite band and they mentioned something about them being lesbians because I remember thinking, “WHAT? How did I not know that? I’m like their number one fan!” By the time I learned Amy and Emily were lesbians, they were too important to me to care whether they swung this way or that way. If liking, accepting, and admiring lesbians was wrong, I didn’t want to be right.

I grew up in Ashland, Kentucky. It’s not a backwards place, but it’s also not kind of place where a 12-year-old would know a bunch of gay and lesbian people in 1990. Not because there weren’t gay and lesbian people in my life; looking back, it’s obvious to me that I knew bunch of gay and lesbian adults. They just were never going to be out of the closet in Ashland, Kentucky in 1990.

Even though I didn’t know any gay or lesbian people personally, by the time I was in high school I knew enough (thanks to the Indigo Girls) to know bigotry and stand up to it. Our newspaper, the Ashland Daily Independent, often ran these “Heard on the Street” columns where reporters would go down to the Ashland Town Center Mall and ask regular people what they thought about an event in the news. Somehow, this counted as journalism. One time they asked people whether homosexuals should have the right to marry. I don’t remember all the responses, but I don’t think they were able to find someone who answered in the affirmative. I do remember one woman’s answer: she didn’t agree with gay marriage because if you allowed gays to marry each other, pretty soon people would be marrying their dogs.

(My mom and) I wrote a letter to the editor. I tried explaining that heterosexuals had proved to be pretty rotten at marriage (domestic violence, divorce rates, etc.) and speculated that it was time to give somebody else a shot. I tried explaining the logical fallacy in the woman’s opinion. And, I said I would much rather have a loving gay couple is my neighbor than a guy who beats his wife. Fifteen years later, I’m still proud of writing that letter.

A Jethro and his Boy

Jethro Nededog (his real name) was the first openly gay person I ever knew. After my freshman year in college, I studied Spanish at a New York University program in Madrid. Jethro was an NYU student who needed foreign language credits to graduate. I think I told Jethro he was my first gay friend. I think he took it upon himself to show me how ordinary gay people were. I think that’s why when I suggested camping out in an olive grove above Toledo, Jethro was the only one of my friends who took the bait.

For anyone considering camping out in Spain, here’s what you need to know: it gets ass-cold at night. Jethro and I were woefully—woefully—unprepared and it was all my fault. We had a couple of thin foam camp pads and a couple sheets. It must have been fifty degrees by 10 o’clock. This is how a kid from eastern Kentucky ends up spooning with a heavy set Californian of Guamanian/Filipino descent under an olive tree in Spain. To add to the absurdity, at around midnight, a discotheque just over the hill from us started bumping, so we shivered the night away to “Dancing Queen” and the medley from “Grease.” Amazingly, Jethro remained my friend after that disaster and we keep in touch through the magic of Twitter.

People like Jethro are the reason Republicans and social conservatives will lose. Jethro is funny, kind, up for any adventure, and quick to laugh; he’s a great storyteller and he listens well. In short, he’s exactly the kind of guy you want as a friend. As Jethro’s friend, I want him to enjoy the same rights and share the same obligations as I do in America. As more and more gay people become openly gay in America, more straight people like me realize just how many of their friends’ lives are affected by institutionalized, systematic inequality.

The Price of Being Gay

The ways in which our systems treat gays and lesbians as second-class citizens have been well-documented elsewhere. They are not allowed to visit ailing partners in hospitals. They are not allowed to adopt children. Their marriages are not recognized in most jurisdictions and are not recognized by the federal government. They pay more for health insurance for their partners. They pay more in taxes. Until recently, they were not allowed to serve openly in our armed forces. This is how we treated men and women who are willing to die for a country that treats them like inferiors.

Each person is chafed by different aspects of the existing inequality. For me, it’s in the tax code. Erin and I paid $1,825 less in taxes last year because we filed as a married couple.

One-thousand, eight-hundred, and twenty-five dollars.

Just for being straight and getting hitched.

A gay couple, whose union is not recognized by the IRS, will pay a Gay Tax every year when they file their tax returns separately. Chuck Hendrix—the guy who prepares our taxes each year—has been filing separately from his partner for 27 years. I think this chafes me so badly because this Gay Tax is quantifiable. There it is: $1,825—the value the federal government places on me being straight and suave enough to get a girl. Over the next 35 years, if I invested $1,825 at 7% (the average rate of return of the S&P 500 since 1950), I would have an additional $289,000 in my retirement account. Just for being straight. No telling how much less Chuck has in his retirement account because he can't file jointly with his partner. 

Preposterous. Outrageous.

"Today, this is news. One day, it won't be."

Because our government treats homosexual couples differently than heterosexual couples, the ministers (Derek and Ryan) at my church asked the congregation’s blessing to stop signing civil marriage licenses until they could sign civil marriage licenses for couples regardless of their sexuality. The church Erin and I go to is an Open and Affirming Church in the Disciples of Christ denomination. It was one of the reasons we joined. [1]

As an Open and Affirming community of faith, we believe God calls all people, regardless of sexuality, into communion with God and welcomes them into a life of discipleship. Christianity has been used to exclude, marginalize, and oppress for centuries and we think it’s time that stopped. Erin and I think the Bible is pretty clear on that point.

So, one afternoon after church our congregation voted to endorse our ministers’ decisions not to participate in a secular system of marriage that is only available to some of our members. If we can’t confer the civil benefits of being married on all our members, we won’t confer them on anyone. We’ll marry anyone in the eyes of God, but straight people can go to the courthouse to get their civil marriage licenses.

We voted and we wrote a press release. The Courier-Journal wrote an article. The LEO (Louisville Eccentric Observer) wrote about it. A local TV station interviewed our ministers. And then the story hit the wires. Emails of support and gratitude came in from around the world. Think Progress wrote a nice article. And then MSNBC called. Five days after we voted, Contessa Brewer interviewed our minister on her daytime show. As I told my minister, “Today, this is news. One day, it won’t be.”

I believe that. I believe that one day—hopefully one day soon—the fact that a church treats everyone the same regardless of their sexual orientation will not be newsworthy.

But, it’s not guaranteed. That’s what’s hard for me to remember. Too hard for me to remember.

Not There Yet

The long march toward equality for homosexuals can seem almost inexorable, inevitable. Polling among young people shows that it is apparently only a matter of time before bigotry becomes politically untenable. When a Republican (admittedly, a Republican from New York, so not really a Republican) says something like this, it feels like victory is assured:

You get to the point where you evolve in your life where everything isn’t black and white, good and bad, and you try to do the right thing. You might not like that. You might be very cynical about that. Well, fuck it, I don’t care what you think. I’m trying to do the right thing. I’m tired of Republican-Democrat politics. They can take the job and shove it. I come from a blue-collar background. I’m trying to do the right thing, and that’s where I’m going with this.

Small victories are all around us—but big injustices still exist. Ironically and inappropriately, instead of being emboldened to become more active in the gay rights movement, I find myself reacting to the movement’s small victories by adopting a mindset that says it’s only a matter of time until everyone in America enjoys equal justice under the law. Seeing progress as inevitable is seeing myself as unnecessary. Seeing progress as inevitable justifies my own inaction.

In many ways, it feels like we’ve already won.

We haven’t. I find myself needing to remind myself that progress is not guaranteed. Human societies often take a leap forward in the expansiveness of their thinking, adopting new understandings of community, family, and the role of government, only to fall backwards for decades or centuries. I know that the arc of the moral universe is long and that it bends toward justice, but it’s the humans that do that bending. That’s what I have to remember to remember.

That’s what this essay is for. This essay is to remind myself of the gays and lesbians I have loved and still love and to remind myself that my love for them is not enough. America and Kentucky still treat them with distain, still codify their difference, still tax them for who they love. And, this essay is to remind myself that despite America’s great strides forward, continued progress forward is not guaranteed but is my (our) responsibility.

So, what am I going to do?

1) I’m going to publish this essay.

2) I’m going to keep going to an Open and Affirming church.

3) Each year, I’m going to ask my tax guy how much Erin and I saved by filing as a married couple and I’m going to donate that money to organizations (like Fairness Campaign) and churches (like Douglass Boulevard Christian Church) and politicians (like John Yarmuth) who support equal treatment for all Americans, regardless of their sexuality.

I’ll go to marches. I’ll lobby in Frankfort. But, money matters. Money allows Fairness to hire more full-time staff; money allows Douglass to continue to minister (both to people and other Disciples of Christ churches); money allows John Yarmuth to stay in Washington, ready to vote to repeal DOMA when the votes are finally there.

The $1,825 Erin and I saved last year for being straight is ill-gotten gains. It’s a kickback from an unjust system. If every straight person who supports the equality of their lesbian and gay sisters and brothers gave this money to like-minded organizations and politicians, we would rapidly expand our capacity to extend justice to gay and lesbian Americans. We would make bigotry politically untenable much more quickly.

The day can’t come soon enough. Not just for gay and lesbian people, but for straight people, as well. The persistence of injustice reduces us all.

The Power of Two

Erin and I recently attended a wedding on the top floor of the Muhammad Ali Center. Today, Muhammad Ali is remembered in his hometown as much for his peacemaking work and his attempts to make America confront its unjust and oppressive systems as he is for his fighting. Before the ceremony, Erin and I were enjoying the sunset on the balcony overlooking the Ohio River. Somewhere in the muddy foundation of the river was Muhammad Ali’s gold medal. Perched above Louisville, an orange light, a warm breeze, my wife: the scene was perfect.


Except six stories below, gays, lesbians, and their allies had gathered for their annual Pride Festival. As Mark and Sarah swore their life-long commitment to one another, thousands of gays and lesbians stood, literally, in the background hoping one day for the same opportunity. I felt like a rich man in a developing country must as he stands at his penthouse balcony and looks across his city at the oppressive slums below.

For me, Erin’s love and our marriage is a daily miracle. It is my only wealth.

I know that some opponents of marriage equality say that gay marriage will destroy the value of their marriage. I feel the same way, except opposite. That I enjoy socially-conferred and state-sponsored benefits that my gay and lesbian friends cannot diminishes my marriage. As I survey the landscape from my penthouse of privilege, I want to see opportunity, not oppression.

We will not end the government-sanctioned marginalization of gays and lesbians without pain and effort. More gold medals need to hit the water and more gold coins need to hit the coffers of those organizations that support equal rights for all.

It is clear that we are turning the tide—quickly—in this fight. Much of it is due to the bravery of gays and lesbians who live their lives and love openly. Knowing that you have a friend or family member being directly harmed by the government’s unjust policies forces people to reconsider their apathy or antipathy.

More and more, people are beginning to see the moral poverty of the current arrangement and longing for justice for their co-workers, friends, and loved ones. Life, we know, is hard enough without unfair tax structures and government-sanctioned marginalization. Everyone should have a partner to help bear their burdens and magnify their joys. Everyone should be able to multiply life by the power of two.

  1. Footnote: We agree with the Iowa legislator who asked, “How many more gay people does God have to create before we ask ourselves if He wants them around?”


Acting Faithful: The Only Way I Know to Become Faithful

by Ben Carter in

I cannot escape the notion that what we do matters far more than what we believe. This is an old debate. As far as I can tell, it’s one of the primary reasons[1] Protestantism exists today.

Sure, having both faith and works is optimal–two of the Buddha’s eight big things (known formally as the Noble Eightfold Path) are right understanding and right action. Martin Luther, the man largely responsible for the sola fide doctrine in the first place even recognized that

“Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn’t stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing. Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever…Thus, it is just as impossible to separate faith and works as it is to separate heat and light from fire!”

In Martin Luther’s view, faith leads inexorably to good works. Good works are the measure of faith: Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever. Same as the Buddha: right understanding is the foundation of right intention and, next, right action. I really love what (I just found out) Scottish theologian John Murray said,

Faith alone justifies but a justified person with faith alone would be a monstrosity which never exists in the kingdom of grace. Faith works itself out through love (Gal. 5:6).

I recognize that this is a very nuanced area; I feel myself wanting to set up an antinomian straw man that I can knock down in service of my point that what you and I do on this earth matters. Instead of doing that, let me tell you a couple reasons why I think the church gets it wrong if we insist on faith instead of insisting on action.

I am, therefore I choose

I believe that suffering and pain exist because God allows them to. Given God’s omnipotence, God could easily have created a world in which God’s creations were automatons incapable of either wrong thought or wrong action, capable only of embodying God’s will 24/7. But, that’s (clearly) not what has happened. Most suffering and pain exist because of very human failures: greed, selfishness, cowardliness. Failures God allows us.

The implications of this are enormous. Suffering, injustice, oppression, pain–all are abhorrent to God. But, more abhorrent would be a world without agency. Choice, then, has to serve as the justification for all of life’s pain, all of the systemic inequalities that bestow riches and inflicts poverty. For God,[2] your freedom to believe and do as you please is everything. Or, if not everything, at least worth suffering for.

Freedom appears foundational to God’s creation. Everything flows from the primacy of freedom. What we do with that freedom matters. And, what I’m trying to say is that I think the real inquiry is what we do, not what we believe.

Would you rather live in a world in which everyone believed in Jesus or one in which everyone behaved like Jesus? Which do you think God would prefer?

I know that for Martin Luther and other nuanced protestants, separating belief from action is difficult if not impossible, but I’m not that sophisticated. For me, I’m trying to figure out whether if you had to choose between either belief or action, which would you choose as the modality that mattered more?

God decided to make this Earth one on which humans could inflict enormous suffering, unthinkable injustice, upon each other. Clearly, to God, freedom to act matters. It matters terribly. I don’t think it’s overstating things to say that for God, choice is the foundational rock on which Creation rests.

For humans, choosing is inescapable: I am, therefore I choose. All day. Every day. Even the most mundane choices–where I eat, where I bank, what I drive, whether I drive–matter. These choices either foster humane, just relationships and systems or they reinforce systems that oppress and profit from pain. These things matter to God. We exist to make these choices, to act.

The only justification for suffering that makes any sense to me is that it exists because our freedom to act is more important than human suffering. Considering the cumulative amount of past, present, and future suffering on Earth, it’s on us to act with wisdom, compassion, and love. If we do not, all the suffering is for naught; the cruelty of the situation becomes overwhelming.

Do Justice

Second, in my experience, faith is the product of action, not the other way around. Asking people to believe first then act is backwards.

For me (and I suspect for a lot of people), the only way I have ever found faith is by backing into it. Do something that is a gift for someone else, act small against large injustice, especially act alongside someone else–WHAM! …there’s God. God wasn’t there before, but God’s here now. Faith is a constant process of backing up. Act, then believe. Faith can’t be thought, it has to be done.

I reject a model for right action that says first you believe, then the actions based on that right belief will be holy.


You give a hungry guy a peanut butter sandwich–that act is holy whether you believe in Jesus or not.

Elevating belief over act forecloses participation in the physical and spiritual life of a church for many modern Americans. Telling people, “First you must believe in all this blood and body stuff, then the good works count” drives a wedge between the church and many people who want desperately to participate in their neighbors’ lives, to make a difference in their neighbors lives and have their lives reciprocally enriched, deepened, challenged.

It says to people, “We can help you think your way out of that paper bag.”

Young people don’t want to think, they want to act. What is happening in America, what is happening on Earth is not okay. Poor kids grow up without a chance at success; drugs consume young people; people starve; they die from malaria; racism, homophobia, and xenophobia persist. Corporate power grows across political parties and across borders. Young people know that the economy they’ll inherit is one based upon exploitation of human and natural resources. They are not okay with any of this.

They want to do something about it.

They want some corporate power themselves, though they probably wouldn’t say it like that. They want to experience the power of living in a body of people trying to cultivate just systems, people willing to sacrifice, to work. The corporate power they seek is the power that flows from being part of the body of Christ on earth.

But you can’t say it like that.

You can’t say it at all.

You have to act it.

Young people hear a lot of cheap talk out of churches. They heard a lot of cheap talk from rich Christians when they were growing up–that’s why they’re not Christians anymore.

There’s a reason why Micah 6:8 is my favorite single verse from the Bible: it emphasizes action.

God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Do justice. It’s not something you can think. You can’t do it from the pews on Sunday morning. It’s what happens after.

“The voice of the Lord cries to the city… ‘Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights?’”[3]

I don’t care what you believe about Jesus or his dad. If you cannot tolerate wicked scales, if you want to fight for honest weights, if you want to do justice, I am there for you.

If you will walk beside me, pick me up, I’ll do the same for you. You spread the peanut butter, I’ll cut the bread. I’m confident we’ll find faith together somewhere in the crumbs.

And if we don’t find faith, we’ll find each other. As far as I’m concerned, that’s enough.

  1. Sola fide (Latin: by faith alone), also historically known as the doctrine of justification by faith alone, is a Christian theological doctrine that distinguishes most Protestant denominations from Catholicism, Eastern Christianity, and some in the Restoration Movement.

  2. as far as I can tell… through a glass darkly and all that…

  3. Micah 6:9–11


Withdrawing from JPMorgan Chase: An Exercise

by Ben Carter in

Here’s what I’m ashamed of: Chase Bank. More specifically, I’m ashamed of my continuing relationship with Chase.

When I was sixteen or seventeen, my dad got me a credit card from Bank One to help me “build my credit.” JPMorgan Chase bought Bank One in 2004, which was fine with me, because at that point I already had a mortgage with Chase–all my accounts were now with Chase, which makes online banking a breeze. Oh man, they have good online banking.

Up until a few months ago I had loans on two homes, a home equity line of credit, a business account (with an IOLTA account), a checking account (with sub accounts), a savings account, and two credit cards with Chase. I still have a lot with Chase, which is sort of what I want this essay to be about, but I have refinanced both home loans with local banks: First Citizens Bank and Huntington Bank.

I am uncomfortable with my continuing relationship with Chase; I am ashamed of it.

Idiocy and Hubris

My discomfort first arose when Chase started suing my clients at Legal Aid Society. For two years, I defended homeowners from foreclosure for Legal Aid. We hosted clinics for struggling homeowners twice a week: Tuesdays at 11:00 and Thursdays at 5:00. Each month, I probably talked to thirty or forty homeowners. Sometimes less; often more. Many of these people were also customers at JPMorgan Chase.

And they told awful stories. Stories typical to the foreclosure crisis–JPMorgan Chase is no worse an actor than most big, national banks in the years leading up to the crash and the years following, but its no better, either.

  • Homeowners calling Chase to apply for a loan modification only to be encouraged to miss a payment because you “have to be behind to qualify”. (You don’t.)

  • Chase losing paperwork that was sent certified mail (because the first set had also been lost).

  • Chase telling homeowners to pay a reduced amount for months on end to qualify for a loan modification, then Chase not modifying the loan, then Chase claiming the person was thousands of dollars behind and needed to catch up immediately or face foreclosure.

Defending useless and unnecessary suits brought by Chase took some (all) of the shine off Chase for me. But, it wasn’t just the suits. It was their suit, CEO Jamie Dimon, testifying in front of Congress, without trying to be funny, that financial crises are “the type of thing that happens every five, ten, seven years”.

How’s that for preposterous hubris?[1] Yet, I know that my decision to bank with them is a tacit endorsement of their actions and words. So, for the past three years, I have been squirming about my banking situation.

A Right-Sized Solution

It wasn’t just the suits or their suit. It was their size. Like most Americans, I find the concept of “too big to fail” antithetical to our meritocracy.

In Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered,[2] E.F. Schumacher discusses the problem of the need for both largeness and smallness in human organizations. His goal is to encourage right-sized organizations for the problem the organization exists to solve.

What I wish to emphasize is the duality of the human requirement when it comes to the question of size: there is no single answer. For his different purposes man needs many different structures, both small ones and large ones, some exclusive and some comprehensive. Yet people find it most difficult to keep two seemingly opposite necessities of truth in their minds at the same time. They always tend to clamor for a final solution, as if in actual life there could ever be a final solution other than death. For constructive work, the principal task is always the restoration of some kind of balance. Today, we suffer from an almost universal idolatry of giantism. It is therefore necessary to insist on the virtues of smallness–where this applies.

I keep my money at a bank that is too big for its own good. For our own good. I have known this for some time, yet the lock-in at Chase is enormous: I pay all my bills online (at; I can transfer money among my accounts at one website (; and my debit card and credit card are stored with hundreds dozens of online vendors, some of those debiting automatically each month.[3]

This is all to say that what I’m doing is wrong. Chase Bank is too large; it is a product of our worship of giantism. There is no reason that I should keep my money with one of the largest banks in the world. Any bank I would put my money in will be FDIC-insured up to $250,000 and I’m a long (long) way from having to worry about what to do with the next 250 grand.

I know what I’m doing is wrong, yet I have been lazy, complacent, compliant.

Continuing to bank with Chase is not just a bad decision because it’s a tacit endorsement of the bad acts of Chase and the hubris of its CEO. It’s also supports bad policy.

Robert Reich has articulated the need to limit the size of a bank’s assets as the only way of limiting the amount of risk to the broader financial system and world economy.

Needless to say, the danger of an even bigger cost in coming years continues to grow because we still don’t have a new law to prevent what happened from happening again. In fact, now that they know for sure they’ll be bailed out, Wall Street banks – and those who lend to them or invest in them – have every incentive to take even bigger risks. In effect, taxpayers are implicitly subsidizing them to do so. (Haldane figures the value of that implicit subsidy to be about $60 billion a year for each big bank.)


As long as the big banks are allowed to remain big, their political leverage over Washington will remain big. And as long as their political leverage remains big, the taxpayer and economic tab for the next mess they create will be big.

By all means, give regulators resolution authority and also impose the tightest regulations possible. But Congress and the White House shouldn’t stop there. Limits should be placed on how big big banks can become.

How big? No one has been able to show significant efficiencies over $100 billion in assets. Make that the outside limit.[4]

Reich suggested this in 2010 and there’s been no move from either Congress or the White House in this direction since then. I think it’s safe to say that we can expect no action from Washington to limit the size of banks for at least another five years. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that we don’t need Washington in this instance. We can limit the size of our banks’ assets ourselves–by moving our assets to smaller banks. Sure, it would be easier if 536 people got together and did something, but they’re not going to and we (millions) can. When shopping for a new bank, I will ask whether they have assets exceeding $100 billion. If they do, that’s a deal breaker, ladies.

Why Doing Something Matters

The problem with continuing to lend my money to Chase (and allow them to lend me money), is that I believe that decisions about money–how you make it, how you spend it, how you save it–are fundamentally moral decisions.

Growing up, my dad had a coffee mug that said, “Talk is cheap.” On the other side of the mug, it said, “Until you hire a lawyer.” He had to explain the joke to me. Now, even though I’m a lawyer, I think talk is always cheap. I guess you could say I’m a James man:

Faith without Works Is Dead

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. James 2:14–17.

If you’re the sort of person who cares at all about the direction of our country and our culture, if you want something different than what currently exists, you have to recognize that decisions about what to do with your money either sustains or starves that vision. Choosing between buying a tomato from California and one from Kentucky has a direct impact on which farmer puts another tomato seed in the ground next year. Choosing to buy a new car or a used car affects how many new cars roll off the assembly line. Buying an ebook versus a paper book changes what the book industry looks like.

It’s the same way with where you keep your money. As someone who has grown deeply skeptical of the prudence of our giant banks, as someone who is outraged by their continuing rapaciousness and imbecility during the foreclosure crisis, I can no longer continue to lend them money and allow them to lend me money. If I want a different kind of banking system, I need to move my money to a different kind of bank.

Talking about this with a friend, he reminded me that any bank is going to screw me. That’s probably true. But, if I eventually want the option of banking with a bank that doesn’t screw me, the first step is moving to a bank that is going to screw me less.

But, my little bank account doesn’t matter

I have also justified my inaction by rationalizing that, well, my bank account is so small that where I keep it doesn’t make a difference. This fails for two reasons. The first is obvious: if everyone with a tiny bank account moved their money to a more just institution, the effect is not so small anymore. Now we are getting somewhere. As the Amish say, “Many hands make light work.

Even if no one joins me, it’s still important to move my money. Especially important. Failing to do so risks forgetting who I am, of changing who I am. Being true to yourself is a muscle you train; it knows strength or atrophy. I know that moving my money to a bank that doesn’t foreclose blindly on my neighbors is the right thing to do. I know there are banks that are run by men and women less blasé about the financial crisis it helped create than Jamie Dimon. I know that seeking a relationship that is, at minimum, less exploitative reinforces my values. The act of moving banks will remind me of who I am and what I believe. It is simultaneously a product of who I am and constitutive of who I will become.

More dangerously, failing to act in this instance will make it easier to justify failing to act in the future, perhaps when the stakes are slightly or significantly higher. Failing to act in the face of small injustices is how people learn to fail to act in the face of large ones. This thought, more than any, is enough to scare me into action.

I’m scared. Are you?

  1. Growing up, I had this sense, unspoken because it was so woven into the fabric of my existence, that grown-ups were taking care of things. And, for the most part, this was true as far as I knew. My parents took care of business. It has only been recently–far too recently–that I had the terrifying and exhilarating realization that grown-ups are just as clueless as the rest of us. Comments like Jamie Dimon’s were very useful to this process (commonly known as maturation).

  2. Schumacher, E.F. Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. New York: HarperCollins, 1989, p. 70.

  3. There is not, as far as I can tell, an easy solution to this problem of lock-in. Especially among local banks. I have found some who seem willing to help you (manually?) transfer your online bill pay to their website, but moving still means tracking down all of the online vendors (iTunes, Amazon, eBay, REI, software developers, web hosting, bar associations, charities, and on and on), changing those accounts, forgetting a few, and having a few bills (how important?) drop through the cracks. (The bank that solves THIS problem and brings their solution to market? Wow.)


  4. Chase has over $2 trillion in assets. Huntington Bank, by contrast, has $52 billion and First Citizens has just over $300 million.