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Chase Bank, Microsoft and What's Good for America

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The other day, I went into my local branch of Chase bank. It moved recently to a new location, not far from the previous location in Seattle's University District. The bank had to move because its previous location will be the site of a station on the wonderful new light-rail line. The light rail's wonderfulness is somewhat compromised by the fact that we should have built it twenty years ago, but that's a different story.

Actually, it's not really a different story at all. The light rail's single line runs from downtown Seattle to the airport, south of the city. Unfortunately for me, I live north of downtown, so the light rail won't be of much use to me until the U District stations at Husky Stadium and 45th & Brooklyn (where the bank used to be) are opened, and that's supposed to be some five years, or more, from now. Until then, my wife will (I hope) continue driving me to and from the airport for the many trips out of town that my work requires. She loves me and supports my work and usually doesn't complain, but we'll both be happier when I can conveniently get to the airport and back by light rail.

But will that day, in fact, come? Put differently, under what conditions will I be doing my work five years from now? Do we -- specifically, in this case, the citizens and leaders of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, but more generally American society as a whole -- have either the money or the funds of collective optimism and shared purpose that are required to follow through on such a project? I hope we do, but these days the question is always in the back of my mind.

If we had built the light rail twenty years ago, when Seattle was in the midst of a Microsoft-led tech boom, not only would it have been a lot less expensive to build, but the public would have been making use of it all this time, burning much less gasoline in automobiles and contributing less to global warming. But Microsoft Corporation and its reactionary enablers on what we call the Eastside -- the mostly Republican-voting suburbs east of Lake Washington, where Microsoft world headquarters is located -- have undermined all efforts to build adequate public transit for the Seattle area.

Now, finally, we have one light-rail line that doesn't yet serve either the suburbs or my neighborhood. Is it too little, too late? The question is a microcosmic version of one that now looms over America as a whole. Microsoft made a definitive statement (or rather gesture, with its middle finger) regarding where it stands, three or four years ago when it built a massive parking garage right where a light rail station should be. To consider that Microsoft is the General Motors of our time, and to ponder the condition in which GM and the other car companies left the city of Detroit, is to see in a new light the once-proverbial saying "What's good for General Motors is good for America." Indeed, I tremble for my country, just as Thomas Jefferson did way back when, as well as for my city.

What does all this have to do with my visit to the bank? Well, I happened to have business there just as the "Occupy" people were calling for us to "Make Wall Street Pay" by moving our accounts from the few remaining big national banks like Chase to local credit unions. I'm sympathetic to the idea, and I've been keeping a close eye on the banks and considering options, up to and including stashing Confederate dollars under a mattress. Given how unstable the American economy and political system have become, and how severely our trust has been violated, who's to say anyone's money is safe anywhere?

Coincidentally, Chase CEO Jamie Dimon was in town to give a talk sponsored by the University of Washington business school. Dimon seems like one of the relative good guys of American banking, which is one reason I moved all of our personal and business accounts to Chase a couple of years ago from Bank of America, which is definitely not one of the good guys. But I don't have any visceral or ideological loyalty to Chase; my premise is that I'm OK with them making money off my small amount of money, as long as I can trust them (there's that word again) to keep it safe. And, as long as the national economy continues to function, I need a national bank. Or so I tell myself. And having invested or squandered (depending how you look at it) my twenties and thirties seeing a lot of the world but making very little money, in middle age I'd like to establish and enjoy a measure of personal stability. And I'd like to think that stable institutions exist to help me do that. So I'm not crazy about the idea of pulling the plug on Chase bank.

In his remarks in Seattle, Dimon said this about the Occupy Wall Street protesters, according to the Seattle Times: "They're right. In general, these big institutions of America let them down. That's not the same thing as to say that every bank was bad, every politician was bad. That's where I would disagree." But he claimed that big corporations are good, because they "pay their people more, are more diverse, with health benefits. It isn't like they're the bad actors here." And here's the free advice he offered young people who can't find jobs: "Keep the faith. I wish we hadn't put them in this position. Remember those fundamentals always when you wake up: You are in the best country and it will come back."

This is where people like Dimon, who according to the Seattle Times "considers himself a fiscally conservative Democrat," and 99% of the rest of us part ways. As rich men go, he seems like a relatively humane and thoughtful one. But, in his coiffed silver hair and pinstriped suit, he doesn't sound credible telling others to keep the faith. The question he's begging is: Are "those fundamentals" that he's urging us to remember each morning really bankable anymore?

The new location of my Chase branch was, until a few months ago, a dingy but excellent little used bookstore. It had cats and a rule against using cell phones while browsing; I wish I had patronized it more. I guess in the end it couldn't afford the rent, and Chase could. The new bank branch has big windows at street level that let in lots of natural light. The other day, as I sat there endorsing checks and filling out deposit slips, I found myself wondering how long it will be before a protester throws a rock through one of them.

ETHAN CASEY is working on a book with the working title Home Free: An American Road Trip. He is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004) and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010). His next book, Bearing the Bruise: A Life in the Context of Haiti, will be published in March 2012. He lives in Seattle. Web: www.ethancasey.com or www.facebook.com/ethancaseyfans