The couple at the table to Leetha's right had stopped chatting about politics. Instead, they were openly listening to Swaine. At any other restaurant, it would have been rude. Here, it was welcomed, because it gave weight to the truths spoken.
"He's right," the woman said. "Their sweet spot -- the state they'd like to keep you in -- is heavily in debt, paying all your bills, but never actually paying them down."
Leetha nodded. "That's where I was, all right. But it's a precarious balance."
"Like walking a tightrope," Swaine agreed. "Except a wire-walker can adjust his center of mass, spread his arms to help. They've got yours strapped to your sides. But their bottom line depends on you staying up there. And more and more people are slipping off. So tell me, why do you enrich them? Why do you pay your credit card bills, since most of it is interest?"
She shrugged. "Because they're my bills. I bought stuff, after all. It's an obligation."
"Okay. But if you're obligated to fulfill your end of an agreement, what are they obligated to doing? Is that a two-way street?"
"I don't understand. They've extended the credit. What else should they be doing?"
"If I may," the woman at the next table ventured. "They've done nothing of the sort. You wrote yourself an IOU by offering that card. What they do is hold the chit for you. They're nothing but a collection agency, and you're paying them to harass you to make good on the IOUs you write. It's all in how you look at it. And they spend an awful lot of money making sure you look at it the way they want you to."
"That's the psychological warfare angle," Swaine said.
Leetha turned the card over and read the notice beside the signature space. "So tell me this. If this thing says it's not valid unless it's signed, and I've written 'Check ID' instead of signing it, is it really valid?"
"Well, that's the thing of it really, isn't it? If you get right down to it, that card represents a contract between you and the issuing bank. They asked you to sign it, but they don't check whether you did. They don't keep a copy of the signed card as proof that the card is valid. And since you've declined to sign it, you've already chosen to void the deal. So anything you do with that card is strictly voluntary. Including paying the bill."
The people at the table to Leetha's left had stopped talking about intellectual property rights. Their jump-suited server had set down her tray, and was listening as well.
"But if I don't, they'll come after me," Leetha said weakly. "I wouldn't have the strength to..."
"All they'll do is threaten," Swaine said reassuringly. "That's the gamble. They're hoping that you'll somehow manage to find a way to keep sending them money. Sure, they'll call at odd hours and send you nasty letters, but they've worked the odds. They figure that most people will knuckle under with nothing more than a few threatening calls or letters. The cost to them is almost nil, but the payoff is big. Actually making good on those threats costs money, and everything they do is based on a calculated return on whatever investment they make. You're just not worth it to them."
She looked around the room. "But what if everyone did that? What if everyone just turned their back on their credit card bills and switched to cash? What would they do then? I mean, at some point, they'd have to call in the lawyers, wouldn't they?"
"Even then," he said, "they'd play the odds. Except then the play is different. If they're forced to spend money on a legal collection action, they'll pick a couple of really high profile customers, in hopes that the tabloid vultures will amp up the danger to increase circulation, and help them to rope in a few million weak-kneed refuseniks."