In 1965, Ralph Nader's book "Unsafe at Any Speed" was published. The book raised unsettling questions about auto safety, and led to rules and standards designed to protect drivers and passengers. It also ushered in a new era in the country, one in which consumers realized they were being taken for a ride (a dangerous one, in this case) and used their purchasing power to demand quality and safety standards in all kinds of products.
The trend abated somewhat over the decades, and much of it had to do with cash. Businesses fought against regulation, arguing that it stifled growth, killed jobs, and increased the price of the product in a competitive global market. Consumers, too, had to take some of the blame, since while they are worried about things like toxic toys from China, they also seem to think, at times, that they are entitled to bargain-basement prices.
Banks, however, held the trump card. People needed to use banks to get paid, to save for retirement, and to pay bills. Even credit cards—once a sort of luxury for those with higher incomes, and rarely used by lower-income and middle-class consumers who owned them, are now standards requirements for basic living. So when banks, angry at a government crackdown on high fees for banking services, shot back by raising other fees, consumers mobilized.
The result has been astonishing. While banks have an omnipotent quality in commerce—one can forgo a consumer goodie but not a bank account—consumers are succeeding in pressuring banks to lower or eliminate what are arguably abusive new fees. Some fees are tough to contest; why shouldn't a bank charge someone who overdrew his or her account? That's like asking the bank to lend you money for free. But charging fees for making, for example, more than four transactions a month (which is pretty much everyone, given the frequency with which people deposit paychecks and take cash out of an ATM) looks like a shake-down. The debit card fees seemed to upset people the most, and understandably so. The old check system is very expensive for banks to operate, given the cost of clearing checks. Using a debit card actually saves the bank money.
For the moment, several banks have caved and eliminated the new fees. It's possible that will be short-lived, and that banks will move more slowly and incrementally to make it more expensive to use their necessary services. But a more important development has occurred, that consumers again are rising up and using their collective power to keep big business in line. That threat may end up being more powerful than any government regulations.