For all of the failings of our politicians in Washington, D.C. over the years, I just finished watching a video of Senator Elizabeth Warren grilling Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf, and for one brief shining moment, I have to stand and applaud a member of Congress for actually doing the job for which she was elected. Like a bird watcher catching a glimpse of an extremely rare New Caledonian Owlet, I witnessed a Senator calling one of the most powerful bankers in America to accountability for not stopping employees from opening bogus credit card and bank accounts costing unaware customers millions of dollars. It was a beautiful and uplifting sight to see Stumpf try and explain why 5,300 low-level employees were fired over the scam, while top executives, including Stumpf, continued to receive salaries and bonuses worth tens of millions of dollars.
At the basis of the Wells Fargo fiasco is the concept of “cross-selling.” Not something new, cross-selling is a long-practiced technique of getting customers who bought one thing from you interested in buying something else. A recent experience of mine serves as an example. I walk daily and needed a new pair of walking shoes. I went to a nearby upscale running store (my mistake) to get a good quality product. I did find a pair of shoes that worked for me, but while I was there, two employees worked on me constantly, trying to cross-sell me expensive socks, an additional pair of shoes, a VIP membership and on and on. In the banking world, cross-selling involves selling customers additional accounts beyond a checking and savings account. Wells Fargo was giving its employees bonuses for cross-selling accounts, which as it turns out, got completely out of hand.
Why the emphasis on cross-selling? Selling more accounts to customers helped the bank profit each year, and this pleased the bank’s board and shareholders, who then rewarded CEO Stumpf and others at the top of the food chain with salary increases and huge bonuses. So customers became a means to an end. No one involved in the scheme cared whether the customer needed another account or credit card, it was all a matter of numbers. Sell more, get more. And this is, of course, the major flaw of capitalism itself.
Capitalism has no moral imperative. It is an economic system driven by one thing and one thing only, profits. If you run a business, you either make a profit or you go under. As a business owner, you must do whatever you need to do to keep your company profitable, weather that means massive layoffs, moving your business overseas or selling customers things they don’t need. There is no room in the capitalist system for mercy, kindness or generosity when the bottom line is in danger. Sure, you’ve probably read an article here and there of the employer who did this nice thing for his employees, but these people are the exception by far, and not the rule. Capitalism is a system that rewards greed, especially at the top, and as government restrictions and regulations have been curtailed over the last thirty years by money-hungry politicians, the fattest of the fat cats like Strumpf couldn’t be happier.
We need Elizabeth Warren and many more like her if we are to ever hope for a more equitable economic system in this country. Income inequality is the worst it has been since the Robber Baron era at the turn of the 19th century. Today’s economic bandits like Strumpf will only stop gouging the little guys when they are held accountable for their actions, and have to pay for their crimes. Thank you Elizabeth Warren, for doing your job.