You say you went through four hankies during Hands Across America and couldn't eat for a week after "Gandhi"? That one verse of "Blowin' in the Wind" is enough to give you the shivering fits? That you slam your magazine shut in self-reproach when one of those hollow-eyed ads pleads that "Little Juanita Will Go to Bed Hungry Tonight Unless You Help"? Too bad: Looks like you've got Post-Woodstock Vestigial Conscience Syndrome, nagging spasms of guilt that rattle at your bourgeois contentment like an unanswered phone.
But thanks to the miracle of modern marketing, help is on the way.
Coming soon to a mailbox near you is an application for the Working Assets Visa card -- a device that turns conspicuous consumption into ostentatious altruism and offers blessed relief from the lingering agony of moral concern.
"Dear Future Cardholder," the letter smugly intones, "the Working Assets VISA card is like no other. It works for peace, human rights and the environment -- every time you use it."
How so? First, when you sign up, Working Assets contributes a full $2 of your $22 annual fee to outfits like Greenpeace or Amnesty International, "non-profit organizations that are striving to stop the arms race, clean up toxic wastes, feed the hungry -- and more."
And passing the bucks is only the beginning. Thereafter, it turns out, the more you indulge your greed for deferred-payment doodads, the more good you do, since "each and every time you use the card -- no matter how small the purchase -- we donate another 5 to these same organizations." No pain, no gain.
Of course, a nickel may seem like a pretty paltry sum set against the colossal quantum of human suffering. But, the brochure estimates, if only 150,000 edified shoppers enroll at $2 a pop and then make 10 purchases a month, that's a hearty $8 each for the year, or $1.2 million per annum for the Forces of Good. And naturally, "the more you use it, the more you help!"
The road to Bloomingdale's, it would seem, runs straight to New Jerusalem.
"I would prefer to call it social concern instead of guilt," says Peter Barnes, 44, creator of the card concept and other forms of ethically related finance. Barnes is the president of Working Assets Funding Service, a subsidiary of the Working Assets Money Fund, the San Francisco house that invests exclusively in "socially responsible" industries and services. In league with Boston's State Street Bank and Trust Co., which issues the WA Visa cards, Barnes' group is now making its first major foray into national marketing with a 200,000-piece mailing whose prose sounds like an amalgam of Hubert Humphrey, Smokey the Bear and the Brookstone catalogue.
By virtue of the astonishing "power of this pocket-size tool," the brochure enthuses, each of your daily purchases will become transformed from mere gadget-addled obeisance to Mammon into, well, "an opportunity to make the world a little safer, a little closer to peace, a little more caring toward those in need." (And to show how much it cares for your need, State Street charges only 17.5 percent interest -- a thoughtful 14 percent above the inflation rate.)
Which raises the scruple-boggling prospect that every time some enlightened user flops out the WA card for a $3,000 fur jacket torn from the backs of blameless mammals or a $5,000 diamond from the sweat pits of South Africa, he is thereby also sending a nickel to animal preservationists and human rights activists.
"If that's what people want to do with their cards," Barnes sighs, "well, there are a lot of ironies that are possible in this, that's for sure."
But then, for the card's principal target audience -- affluent baby-boomers -- irony has been a way of life ever since they made the uneasy transit from the Age of Aquarius to the age of arthritis. And wasn't it a long way down.
Now you're up to your nose job in debt for tuition at Waspo Country Day, your health club requires gene samples for admission and your neighborhood has more restrictive covenants than the Treaty of Ghent. Twenty years later, you are the person your guru warned you about.
Yet somewhere in your tax-sheltered, Brie-sodden heart, there is a small pocket of remnant remorse -- a tiny part of you that still wants to buy the world a Coke, that is secretly ashamed of the price of your new Audi (the interest alone on which could support six Haitian families for a year), that wants to share your lawn with some deserving Navahos.
And now there's a way to have your quiche and eat it too.
Although WA Visa's mailer mentions that card-generated donations will be "supporting the work of worthy, time-tested groups like Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Oxfam America, the Sierra Club and Planned Parenthood," the final roster of worthies has not yet been determined. "We're separating ourselves from the recipient decisions," Barnes says; and the name-brand charities cited in the mailing "may or may not be the actual organizations" chosen by the money fund's trustees. They will, however, meet "the guidelines and criteria we've defined for them" -- namely "national or international established groups with a track record in these areas."
Barnes, a former Newsweek reporter and West Coast editor for The New Republic, left journalism 10 years ago to found a solar energy company in San Francisco.
He had "come to believe that revolution, in the apocalyptic sense, was not likely to occur in America in my lifetime," he wrote in a manifesto titled "Confessions of a Socialist Entrepreneur," which appeared in the Washington Monthly in 1983. "Rather it seemed to me that democratic alternatives to corporate capitalism would have to emerge within the womb of capitalism itself, much the way capitalist institutions once sprang to life inside a withering feudalism." The result was an employe-owned, employe-managed company that sold and installed solar heating systems.
The Solar Center flourished, but Barnes wilted. "Three or four years ago I was ready to retire, ready for a change, burned out." He teamed up with a local banker and together they founded the money fund, patterning it after a previous success: a special bank offering of savings certificates -- earmarked for solar energy projects -- which had proven a surprise hit with investors. By mid-1985, Working Assets was the second fastest growing general money market fund in the country, according to a survey in Forbes magazine. (In an earlier article last year, Forbes had derided Working Assets' claim that its funds are used for "peaceful, non-polluting enterprises that create jobs in America instead of shifting them abroad," calling it "pious nonsense.")
The average age of WA's 10,000 investors is 38, smack in the upscale midriff of the postwar demographic bulge -- 40 million card-carrying candidates ripe for a guilt-edged purchase plan.
Of course, the idea of heightened consumption for Higher Purpose is not new; witness the huckster purposes to which the Olympic Games are invariably put. And various plastic barons recently promised contributions to the Statue of Liberty restoration fund as a way to boost the take. In fact, Barnes' Visa epiphany was partly inspired by an American Express card campaign promising a penny a purchase for the Statue of Liberty fund. "I said, can't we find a way to donate more than a penny?"
He did, and also found Boston's State Street Bank and Trust, which already was doing a brisk business in Visa cards and was willing to do more. So far, Barnes says, 15,000 applications for the cards have come in (primarily from the West Coast, says a State Street spokesman). But that was before WA's new -- and first major -- mailing of 200,000 pieces.
As for Working Assets Funding Service, it's only the beginning of the do-good debt biz. "Our job is to raise money for progressive nonprofit organizations," Barnes says, "to give people double duty out of their dollars. The credit card is only one tool for that, and we're going to come up with similar tools."
Plans are aborning for a sort of "voluntary tithing process" whereby monthly charitable contributions would be billed directly to your WA Visa. Studies show, Barnes says, that "Americans are very generous. The average person donates about 2 percent of his income. But they don't feel they give enough, and would give more if it were easy. That's what we are going to offer people -- an easy, systematic way to make contributions." Also in the pondering stage: A trickle-down travel service that would donate a portion of users' travel booking fees to sundry worthies, and several more.
The concept has already made an audible splash in hot-tub country. The Los Angeles Times extolled the vinyl solution in a recent editorial. "For the first time the two dimensions of materialism and moral purpose merge in the three dimensions of credit-card holography," said the Times, resulting in "the most paradoxical act, changing base acquisition into a small percentage of unselfishness." (Those on the verge of tears should remember that reconciling hedonism with social purpose is a dependable growth industry in Southern California.)
So the next time you're down at some power-chow eaterie watching the mousse-maned dandies across the table playing card games (East leads with his First GalactiCorp UberCard, but North trumps with the PanAmerican Excess Titanium Card), just flip out your plain vanilla Working Assets Visa. Suddenly they'll be sitting there feeling like Imelda Marcos in a cheese line and you'll be a nickel closer to heaven.
"What I call it," Barnes says, "is painless generosity."