Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Little Engines

The place where I now live is a deeply conservative place. It is powerfully Republican, but that's not what makes it conservative. It's conservative because people here keep doing things the same way long after everyone else has given it up.

There was a bank here that had been around since the National Bank Act of 1863. It was one of the original U.S.-backed banks, and it was where local people had stashed their pennies since Lincoln was president. But it grew too fast and got out of its depth after deregulation, and last year it collapsed when regulators looked at the books and discovered a huge amount of fraudulent loans to companies far out of state. It got bought up by a big commercial bank from the other end of the state.

The new owners formally took charge this summer. When the future writes the history of America, it may pick up on little things as signs of our impending decline; the rattle of loose lugs in the hub that, in retrospect, signals the wheels are starting to come off.

They may pick the moment, sometime in the 1980s as far as I can tell, when a passbook savings account became a waste of time and money for Americans. Banks basically began to make sure anything you made in interest on a savings account would be eaten up in fees.

Around here, typically, it took a little longer. My son, now 17, got a savings account when he started earning a little money. We wanted him to see how money put away now, rather than taken at a run to the comic book store, can be there when you need it. Also to see how money can grow. This last was dubious, though. When I was a kid you could make 4 percent a year in a savings account or better. My son got a measly 1 percent. But at least he was saving.

More than money grows. Turning to see if anyone is behind you before you let a door swing shut. Holding on to the candy wrapper till you reach the trash can at the end of the block rather than letting it fly from your hand onto the sidewalk the minute you pop the treat into your mouth. Turning off the lights when you leave the room. Little things learned young grow into habits of mind that become behaviors. They are the scaffolds of character. You do it through your life because it feels right, even if most likely the trash can already is overflowing because people have stuffed their household garbage into it. The world, or at least the neighborhood or nation where you live, is just a little brighter than it might have been without you. Which is, in the end, what makes a life worth it.

The new bank sent out notices to savings account holders this month. To keep an active savings account, you had to keep a minimum of $400 in it. And if you made more than three withdrawals a year from it, the minimum rose to some exorbitant figure, $1,500, I think. Translation: We are a big bank that deals with big, important customers. You are not one. We don't want your pennies.

A few years ago I read an article in the Kansas City Star, now unfortunately no longer at the Web address where I then found it. It was datelined Waukegan, Ill., and it told the story of a group of children singled out by comedian Jack Benny for a comical gift of trust funds "in the whopping amount of $39."

Benny's whole schtick -- vain and stingy, among other things -- is ancient history now, so the savings account story takes some explaining. "The story started on Oct. 5, 1961, the day a junior high school was named in Benny's honor in Waukegan, which he often mentioned on his popular radio and TV programs.

Benny announced that he would show his gratitude for the honor by starting $39 trust funds for every baby born in the city on that day.

He hoped that money would grow with interest over the years and become a nice bonus when they turned 39, Benny's mythic age.

But the joke flopped. By the time the Waukegan kids hit 39, the accounts were dead.

[Doug] Jondal remembers his Benny Baby bank statements being the first mail he ever received. Because the account wasn't active and below $100, the bank began charging fees, he said.

"Whenever they added a nickel interest, it was offset by a charge that kept it from ever going over $100," he said.

Jondal thinks he finally got a $98 check from the bank when he was in his late teens and probably spent it on a motorcycle tire or motocross gear. Though Benny Baby status wasn't a defining moment in his life, Jondal said he's glad it happened.

It's history now. Those kids, like many of the rest of us who were little kids in the 1960s, had an experience our children never will now. Whether it tutored us in the habits of thrift or not is an open question. What's not open to question is that our children won't have the chance. The neighborhood, and the nation, won't either.