Today’s project: apply for a “Get travel points” American Express card and cancel my generic American Express card. The whole experience was an eye-opener. But apparently only to me. It points to a company gone sadly wrong, and even worse, a culture dissolving.

The company’s losing it

Twenty years ago, Amex was famous for customer service. No longer. They still think so. They said five times during my call that their goal was to provide “world class customer service.” They should have stopped telling me and done it instead. Every new person and computer they transferred me to made me verify my card# and security info. Huh? Can’t their computers transfer the info? Maybe not. After all, IT is notoriously hard.

But the people stuff isn’t. All told, they made me sit through ten minutes (no exaggeration) of disclaimers and policy disclosures to apply for a card I already had, even after I asked them to stop. At least the rep read it in a monotone so fast it was almost gibberish (wish I could say she was trying to be humorous. Nope. She was just robotic.) Then they wouldn’t let me cancel the old card without another ten minutes of trying to convince me not to cancel. Bizarre, since I was just switching cards. Even after telling her several times I was in a hurry and wished to cancel, she had to go through her whole script. World class customer service? Hardly. They have a long way to go to make it to “mediocre,” much less anything approaching “world class.”

America is losing it

Amex’s incompetence was nothing compared to the underlying policies, however. Their underlying policies are atrocious, but what’s even worse is that we don’t even blink when we hear them. And that’s what’s really scary.

Halfway through my Application Drone’s procedural monologue, she mentioned that if I stop payment, the interest rate jumps to over 30%. Huh? How does that make sense? I’m in severe financial trouble. I can’t make my credit card payments. So their solution is to hike the interest rate to an unbelievably usurious level, this guaranteeing I’ll never be able to catch up on by debt and will simply fall into financial ruin.

Do they think the high interest rates will deter overspending? Absurd. Credit card companies partner with merchants to spend billions on ads convincing people to spend on their credit cards. The average American is financially illiterate when it comes to debt (see: Credit Card Debt, Housing Bubble, etc.). Does Amex think a footnote mentioning “prime plus 21%” will create financial responsibility in someone who watches a thousand ads daily, telling them that credit card spending is “priceless”? Right. Pull the other one. So banks can’t believe that usury serves the Greater Good of deterring overspending.

Maybe they think if they immediately up what’s owed to them, they’ll get more of the estate when their customer declares bankruptcy. Maybe, but we’re talking about average Americans. There won’t be much to divide. Besides, immediately putting someone further in debt at their first financial squeeze in anticipation of feeding off their carcass seems … distasteful.

What I don’t understand, and I really don’t understand it, is the utter lack of compassion. If a friend were in a tough situation, my first impulse would be to help them. To be there, to counsel them, to do what I could to help them pick up their lives and go on. And yes, I’d do that even if their problems were a result of their own bad decisions. That’s what it means to help someone. As a company, there’s no reason to put the screws to someone in trouble. But as a culture, we’ve come to the place where the worse off someone is, the more we jump in to grab the last few drops of blood (after all, it’s not like they have the money to defend themselves).

Who do we want to be?

Michael Moore asks in “Sicko” if we’ve become a nation without compassion. He suggests that when it comes to health care, the answer is “Yes.” I suggest when it comes to business, the answer is also “Yes.” I ask myself, “is this a world I would be proud to help create?” the answer is a resounding “No.” So-called Progress just isn’t worth it to me. iPhones, the Internet, HDTV… at the end of the day, those things just don’t replace living in a community that lifts us all up. No amount of “twittering” on my iPhone will ever replace caring. We’ve created an economy whose values oppose us, rather than nurture us. And in a head-on battle, I fear the winner will be the economy.

American Express usury highlights an economic cult…

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