Old Man 2016 is tottering out of town this week — to be recalled about as fondly as a mob hitman — while Baby New Year crawls in bearing a yuuge can of Chinese-made spray tanner.
How bad was 2016? This year not only killed Prince, David Bowie, Gene Wilder, Glenn Frey, Gordie Howe and Muhammad Ali, but also came for Patty Duke AND her TV dad, and didn’t quit until it ran its icy finger of death through Mrs. Brady. The year 2016 was a raging global toxic Dumpster fire of futility doused by coalmine sludge with the run-off shunted through the Dakota Access Pipeline and bottled as Trump Organic Baby Shampoo.
Which brings us to our annual Piggy Bank Awards for Dubious Achievement in the Financial Services — the 2016 Piggies. These awards honor the most swinish, selfishly porcine and greedily pig-headed anti-consumer practices inflicted on you, the American consumer, by some of our banks, credit card companies and other financial institutions, abetted by their legislative protectors.
I thought the Piggy nominations might be sparse this year. At first glance, 2016 showed remarkable improvements in the landscape of financial services. Consider:
■Authorities indicted a rabidly sketchy national payday lender with a federal racketeering charge;
■The Department of Labor started promulgating a rule to require any investment adviser handling retirement plans to put the client’s interest first before the adviser’s own commissions;
■The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau began proposing payday lending rules to break the abusive $8.7 billion annual cycle of debt and 400 percent interest rates;
■Plus the bureau started work on rules to slap down abusive debt collectors;
■And the three-ring circus we call Congress stepped up to force airlines to refund our baggage fees when said airlines don’t deliver those bags anywhere near on time.
And so, after many years of banksters going hog-wild with rip-offs and scams, citizens were seeing just the barest hint of a consumer paradise dawning.
But, as Glenn Frey’s old band sang: “You call some place paradise, kiss it goodbye.”
That light in the east wasn’t a glimmering sunrise for consumer protection, but the Republican candidate for president, powered by a 40-year effort by some to delegitimize the role of government in order to guarantee that a few rich white men and their corporations can do as they please.
Or, for short: Government of the Piggies, by the Piggies, and for the Piggies. Which is why I’m presenting just one special Piggy Award this year — to President-elect Donald Trump and his incoming Cabinet of merry billionaires.
All that stuff in the bullet points above? Kiss it goodbye.
The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau that’s forced bankers to cough up $11 billion in refunds to more than 25 million consumers? Likewise.
Did you cheer when Wells Fargo was busted for bilking customers with nearly 1 million bogus accounts that cost them at least $2 million? Were you thrilled when John Stumpf, the CEO of Wells Fargo, forfeited $41 million in stock awards and was fired?
Well, forget it. Next year, that guy might qualify for the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The rest of us? We’re likely to go back to getting the short, dirty end of the stick — in the eye.
It’s easy to understand how we’ve come to this point. The other political party regularly sold out consumers with feints, promises and half-measures. That party’s candidate, She’s Got Mail, famously flip-flopped on her promise to vote against the destructive consumer bankruptcy “reform” bill in 2001, then collected millions making speeches to Wall Street.
Then there’s Payday Piggie and former Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of Florida (D, 1-800-CASH-NOW!), who thought it was terrifically consumer-friendly to fight proposed rules to outlaw giving desperate borrowers short-term loans with interest rates of 312 percent. This, I am sure, had nothing to do with the $31,250 payday lenders contributed to Rep. Wasserman-Schultz.
Seeing all that, consumers decided they’d chance it with the Reality-TV-Star-in-Chief — who was, at least, upfront enough to vow that he’d sell them out. Instead of once again trusting the people who left them holding half a loaf, voters reared back and hurled that ragged crust through the plate-glass window of Government As Usual.
I’m not going to blame them. Maybe, years from now, we’ll see this was just what we needed. But in the meantime, the crust-throwers and the rest of us won’t have even our half-loaves.
As the country’s motto goes from “E Pluribus Unum” to “Caveat Emptor” consumers should expect to lose the few recent gains we’ve won, while the enforcement of any surviving rules shrinks back to tax-deductible wrist-slapping fines.
All I can offer is this unfortunately timely reminder of what has been, for years, General Order No. 2 of the Funny Money column: “Whenever someone connected to the financial services industry says they’re doing anything ‘to serve you better,’ it’s time to hold on to your wallet.”
’Cuz in the New Year to come, you’re gonna need both hands.
My first newspaper byline ran on the front page of the Birmingham Observer & Eccentric in the week after Christmas 1974. This post-Christmas column won’t be my last byline, but it does mark my last one at The Detroit News. Thank you to all my readers, even the ones who called me a commie-pinko elite media sissy. I’ll treasure those spittle-flecked letters, always. For anyone who cares to, you can follow me at www.funnymoneyblog.com.