The Common Good
November 2009

Trouble in the Garden of Liberty

by Ed Spivey Jr. | November 2009

While purchasing a slingshot recently, I began to wonder what message this might be sending to my credit card company, a business that pays special attention to my spending habits out of what I ...

While purchasing a slingshot recently, I began to wonder what message this might be sending to my credit card company, a business that pays special attention to my spending habits out of what I used to think was a deep sense of affection, or possibly love.

But it turns out they routinely monitor purchases to determine demographic tendencies for repayment. (Who knew? I thought they were just figuring out what I’d like for my birthday.)

This practice is known by many names: profiling, market segmentation, and Being Even Bigger Jerks Than We Thought.

Apparently, if you’re careful with your money or seek value in discounted merchandise, you’re not to be trusted. If you shop at Target or Wal-Mart instead of blowing your paycheck at an upscale jewelry store, the credit card company assumes you’ll probably lose your job, miss a payment, or get into such a deep financial hole that the only fair remedy is doubling your interest charges. It’s probably in the Bible someplace.

Credit card computers also note purchases associated with lower-income demographics, such as used motorcycle parts and generic soda, products I now only buy through a third party to mask my frugality. I figure if it works for Mexican drug cartels buying their guns in the U.S., it could work for me and my Econo-taste Cola. (Actually, if drug cartels bought their guns from Nordstrom, they could get a lower rate on their credit cards, not to mention air miles to use for smuggling. With the new charges for baggage these days, it’s good to know that the kilo of cocaine in your underpants won’t trigger extra fees, although it may itch a bit.)

Apparently, to confuse the profiling computers you need to buy a couple things at upscale stores from time to time. Need batteries or a new American flag stencil (made in China) for your pick-up truck window? Buy them someplace cheap. But then grab a T-shirt on sale at Neiman Marcus. New biker tattoo? Get it at a parlor that has the word “salon” in the name, as opposed to, say, “Bubba’s Piercing Shack.”

And be alert for temptation. Traveling through Michigan I once saw a sign for Beef Jerky Outlets, probably a great place to stock up on healthy staples. But unless there’s a Whole Foods nearby, don’t be tempted. Nothing sets off the loser alarm at the credit card company like jerky (now in the new extra-salty flavor).

I bought my slingshot at some no-name place on the Internet—it didn’t occur to me to pick it up at Tiffany’s—and I may return it to strike it from my purchase history, just as soon as I take care of the little problem in our garden.

I first noticed the groundhog after most of our young vegetable shoots had been chewed off. Not being an unreasonable rodent, he (or she) had left the surrounding dirt undisturbed.

Right away I had a theory of what bulbous and rude animal it was. But then I asked myself, why would Rush Limbaugh be rooting around in our garden? After all, we’re not growing prescription painkillers, which he has admitted using illegally and purchasing through third parties to avoid accumulating too many air miles on his credit card. But then the short furry coat and distinct waddle gave it away. (Not to mention drawing wild conspiracy theories on a chalkboard.) It was Glenn Beck.

Kidding. It was a groundhog.

Like any normal American male, my immediate reaction was to purchase a powerful handgun at an unregulated gun show and teach the varmint a lesson it would remember, however briefly. But my spouse won’t let me buy a gun, even though the Supreme Court has confirmed my Second Amendment rights to own one and, if it contributes to a healthy debate, take it to a town hall meeting.

So I had to get a slingshot. I keep it within easy reach and have used it many times, although I have yet to hit my intended target. I have, however, neutralized any future threat posed by the neighbor’s garage window, my wife’s favorite flower pot, and the left turn signal of my motorcycle. In the meantime, the groundhog—on second thought, it looks more like Newt Gingrich—continues his (or her) onslaught of our garden, lifting its head only to wonder why something keeps bouncing off the toolshed.

Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners. His new book, A Hamster is Missing in Washington, D.C., is available at store.sojo.net.

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