The phone rang yesterday morning, and the delay before anyone spoke alerted me to an automatic dialling software at the other end. I hung on. 'How are you today, sir?' came a clearly Indian-accented voice. I suppressed the 'who's asking?' response which formulated in my head. I have sympathy for workers in this kind of work; it's clearly a frontline job. I made the right kind of noises and the poor guy, obviously reading from a script, launched into a monologue about how I had been 'chosen' (one of those key words) as a 'priority' member (the key words are mounting up) of the 'British Midland Diamond Club' to be considered eligible for a British Midland credit card. I would automatically receive 20,000 'destination miles' and 6 months interest-free credit which would be applied to any amount outstanding I had on any other cards, so long as I transferred the balance etc. etc.
I had lived in Scotland for a couple of years and had taken the flight between Aberdeen and Norwich a few times. At some point, someone at the airport had offered me 'Diamond Club Membership', which I took up because it didn't appear to be costing anything. I would proceed to gather 'frequent flyer points' and so on. As far as I know, the points still exist in ghostly form somewhere. Otherwise, my exclusive membership translated into a 'hospitality lounge' at Aberdeen airport, where I could sit with the suits in a little room outside of the main crowd and drink free coffee out of polystyrene cups. Once however, in Moscow, I flashed my DCM card and was directed to a capacious lounge with only two other people there, and any amount of buffet food and wine available; this was something of a result.
The hook, for me to consider the credit card and carry on with the call, was the 20,000 'destination miles'; I imagined a few trips to the US and so on. OK, I had to spend £300 in the first 90 days of ownership, but I figured I could handle that. However, a semblance of rational brain remained despite the piggy bank, lottery-winning, free-lunch activity which the spiel, however mechanically delivered, had promoted. 'Hang on, hang on,' I said, breaking in to the monlogue. '20,000 destination miles: is that for real?' The answer was a bit fudged. I persisted: 'how does that translate in actuality? Like, a day trip to an amusement park or what?' The guy was compelled to move off script a bit and was clearly vexed. He read out a few European city names that would qualify for the amount in question. So, 'destination miles' have little or nothing to do with actual miles then, we established. I was reminded of the huge number of 'air miles' I had once collected only to discover that they could be used incrementally towards the cost of the most expensive flights etc.
The monologue moved on and lasted a full eight minutes, with only occasional input from me, as I handed over more and more personal information. I managed, I think, to interrupt the default scenario of my receiving 'offers and promotions from carefully selected third parties' and so on. By the end of the call, I was exhausted. I guess this guy stopped for a drink of water as well. I found myself hoping that, at least, my positive response might have earned him, as worker, a bit extra by way of bonus. And I had maintained, I imagined, the option to go forward with this thing or not. I had agreed an email contract, and it duly arrived a minute after I put the phone down.
An even larger number, maybe the majority, are paying massive, compound interest on their borrowing on credit cards. Someone has to pay the guy in the call centre's wages, the cost of my flight (if it ever materialises - I wonder what the percentage of actual take-up on this is?) and, of course, for the whole edifice which is the banking system. We are in a time of 'recession'; many banks have 'gone under'; some (those that are ideologically monumental within the system) have been 'bailed out by the taxpayer'; ordinary people have seen their pension schemes go down the drain; fingers have been pointed at the very high wages and huge bonuses received by high-end bank employees and directors, and so on. Banks and their erstwhile, ill-advised, laissez-faire lending have been blamed for this present parlous condition of capitalist economics. And yet, the system is still in place and working the same as it ever was. The only way the promotion of credit cards can work is for ordinary people to go into debt and to be servicing a loan that they can never quite surmount. Someone somewhere has done the cynical maths. X number will not go into debt; x number will pay a bit by way of late payments; x number will stumble along paying interest on their borrowing; x number will go into exponential free-fall; x number will take the bankruptcy option. The number of those who struggle to service the loan must be high enough to maintain the enterprise.
My final thought on this call is that it seems incredibly anachronistic. The credit card system and its high interest lending are entirely predicated on milking those who get sucked into debt. The anxious consumer is like Jonathan Harker in the company of the vampire sirens who keep him just alive enough to sustain their feeding habits. How can it be that this high-interest lending has not been outlawed by now? I guess it's a dumb 'elephant-in-the-room' kind of question, but it seems like one that we should be addressing.