Adventures in Credit Card Land

Michael Moore has been appearing and speaking in alot of interview programs that I happen to listen or watch over the past week, in connection with his new movie – Capitalism: A Love Story.  Moore certainly doesn’t need any help from me, nor will it come as much of a surprise that I’m a great admirer of his since I was about 17 years old.  But recently during one of these interviews he starting talking about a topic that got me thinking about my own experience. The topic of credit cards.

Speaking about how credit card companies target young people by setting up right on college campuses on day 1, regardless if you have a job or any income at all, they want to sign you up. Moore goes on to talk about the high rates of debt among students, to the point that between credit card debt and college loans, when they graduate they owe more than they will make for many years to come.  You might hear or read these statements (If you went to school in the US) and think to yourself: that didn’t happen to me. Or you’ll remember those credit card companies outside the student center, offering free gadgets and saying hello to you in that irritatingly friendly way.

Now comes the story I’d like to tell about one big difference I experienced when I moved to the Netherlands.

Currently this is the 8th year that I live in Amsterdam, having moved only about a year after graduating from university in New Jersey.  When I got here I was a student, as well a European citizen, so getting a social security number, bank account, and most of the essentials, was a fairly smooth process.  If there was an occasion I needed a credit card, I still had a trusty US credit card to fall back on, never mind the terrible exchange rate. But after two years as a grad student I was finished with zero school or credit card debt (fortunately I’ve never had debt in my life) and I found myself a part time job at the U of Amsterdam and a number of freelance editing, translation, and writing jobs.  Around that same time I kept seeing advertisements at the airport and through my bank for a certain credit card company. Considering the exchange rate and the times where I could have really used it, I finally took one of the forms to fill out.  Though I had heard its much harder in Europe, I also kept thinking back to freshman year at college and how easy it was. Just fill out the form and choose the funny graphic layout for the card.

Two or so weeks after sending in my forms I get a call. “Mr.Bicyclemark, we’re just going over your form and we wanted to confirm some things, it says here you’re self employed?” Indeed at that point I’d started my own company to make getting freelance jobs and handling the expenses and income a little easier. “Yes” I said, “I’m a freelance journalist, editor, and sometimes web consultant.” “OK very good. I’ll just need to know your yearly income..” She’d cut right to my achilles heel, as a freelancer and part time employee, my income was pretty embarrassing by most adult standards, I was and still am, a specialist of living on a shoestring budget. I fumbled through an answer “Well its hard to say as a freelancer, you know, some months its a good amount, some months it is hardly anything…” The credit card lady tries to help me along, “So about 20K per year?” I had this feeling that if I told her the truth, that is was surely less, that I wouldn’t qualify for their minimum, “Yes,” I answered confidently, “about that much.” What the hell, I figured, as long as I don’t have to prove it, I’ll be fine. “.. and we’ll just need some further information so we can confirm this..” – Shit I thought. Plan foiled. I quickly told a lie about having to go but that I would be in touch. She didn’t even fight me on this, wished me a good day and recommended I get back to her when I had a better idea of my income.

It would take me another 2 years to get a credit card, when I sent in another application hoping they wouldn’t remember the first.  I got that call again, only this time I tried harder to lie my way into getting one.  Once again I argued that as a freelancer my income didn’t always fit into one of their boxes, but that I manage a decent living and somehow deserve this credit card.  After alot of convincing, and a much stronger arguement than my first attempt, I got my card which to this day I hardly ever use.

Why the long story? It is amazing the difference between what it took for me to get a credit card in the US compared to getting one in Europe 10 years later. Beyond it being impressive, I wonder if this difference doesn’t reflect on part of why so many problems have arisen with people and credit card debt. Not to mention banks that take advantage of people by inventing surcharges.  Not that Europe is perfect, or that someone can’t eventually get a card who perhaps can’t really afford it, but in my experience, there is a real difference in how less easy it is to fall into this trap.

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Longterm Social Crisis

This week several mainstream headlines quoted “experts” who pointed to signs of economic recovery on the horizon.  I think they were referring to Europe, but if you search the news, you’ll find other experts pointing out signs of the same for Japan and the United States. Of course after experts say such things they add the caveat: but there is still a lot of uncertainty.

As I ride through the streets of Amsterdam and my neighborhood, the young yuppie mecca known as the Oud West, I see “for sale” signs everywhere.  Most of those signs have been hanging there for most of this year.  As I drive the Red August around the canals of Amsterdam, I see more “for sale” signs on house boats then I’ve ever seen before as well.  Some disappear in a few weeks, some linger and have become part of the scenery.

Riding home from frisbee practice the other night I was chatting with a longtime friend who works as a freelance ICT person for the past few years.  Talking about his business and how things have been, he pointed out that in the past few years he was always swamped with work, in many cases having to turn down jobs because he was too busy.  In sharp contrast he described this year as one with hardly any work, for the first time in his freelance career he has had to approach businesses and potential customers in an attempt to convince them they could use his services.

Are so many people unemployed in the Netherlands? I suppose not as many as I’ve noticed back in Portugal or the United States.  But what about all these freelancers and those of us who are employed part-time for the past few years, how do we factor in to the statistics in these troubled times. Beyond that, do any of us realize how much worse it can get?

Economic experts and government representatives can point to industrial output numbers and so-called investor confidence surveys to justify holding a “the economy is going to get better” press conference.  But a walk down the street and a talk with your neighbors tells another story.  Seems like everyone, from the big corporations who needed bail outs, to the banks who traded in fake money, to we the freelancers/consumers, thinks that we can have economic recovery but just doing things how we always did, not need to learn any lessons from the past. Looming social crisis? 25 million unemployed by next year? We don’t want to think about it.

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bm261 The Undereported Story of the Soy Industry

Soy is often looked at as the alternative bean, beloved ingredient for vegetarians and concerned citizens worldwide. Yet what do we know about the soy industry? How is soy being produced, by who, for who, and to what effect? My guest, Nina Holland of the Corporate European Observatory, sat down with me to explain how it all works, and what we should know about our soy.

Discussed:

Soy as food/feed/fuel

Genetically Modified Soy

Who Owns the Farms

Situations in different parts of South America

Comparison to Europe

GM Soy Lobby in the EU

Labeling

So-called responsible soy

Independent farmers

Solutions/Advice for People

Links:

Music:

  • Vinicious Cantuaria – Corre Campo
  • Tom Brosseau – In My Time of Dyin

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Corporate Influence in EU Governments

It is that feeling that never really goes away. No matter how often you might look around at how things work in Europe and admire things, there is the ever present feeling that politics, business, and everything in between is heading in the same direction as the United States.

Yet another piece of evidence to that effect appeared in the Financial Times recently, in an article about the intricate role of business executives within the German government.  In a story that sounds identical to what has been going on in the US for decades, one German executive from a hedge fund was said to be working in the ministry of justice in the area of hedge fund policy. Another classic example, reminiscant of the Reagan years, executives from BASF (the chemical company) are working in the ministry of environmental protection, also in the area of policies – of course.

But the infiltration of government by business experts from large corporations goes beyond the national level. As the article points out in its conclusion, within the European Commission there is also a strong presence of corporate experts working in the area of policy and regulation.

Just as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, for all the reasons we might admire Europe, there are plenty of reasons to worry about a continent whose governments are allowed to repeat the kind of dysfunctional corporatist capitulation that we saw in the United States over the last 30 years or more.

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