Friday, May 6, 2011

Fees and the Cashless Society - Signs of the End?

A friend complained that his bank practically forced him to go cashless and now charges him fees for the "convenience" (mostly theirs). Well, I got to looking at what I pay out in fees - not to the government, but to the companies I buy things and services from. It's bad enough to be taxed by the government, but when we tax each other almost as heavily, I think it's a very bad sign.

Have you ever stopped to take stock of how many hidden fees you are paying. Your cell phone bill alone will give you a stroke and don't even get me started on the electric bill.  Every time you turn around someone is charging you a little something extra just for trying to do what it is you need to do.

The French have a word for it - "lagniappe". It means "a little something extra".  Nowadays, it's being redefined as a little extra thing you give your customers, but don't kid yourself. The concept didn't start out as a treat for customers. At least that's not the way it was understood in the Cajun parishes of south Louisiana.  If you wanted to build something, buy real estate or do virtually anything in that part of the country that involved the County Judge or the local government, especially anything that required a license or building permit or certification, you knew that part of the fees you would pay was the "lagniappe" - the little something extra you left on the judge's desk or slipped the county clerk (sometimes you gave it to both). The lagniappe was simply a polite way of describing bribes and graft. You could fight it all you wanted, but it all boiled down to no lagniappe / no permit.

South Louisiana isn't the only place where this is going on today.  There is a whole class of inividuals out there who make their living collecting extra charges and fees - someone for virtually everything you do. Want to file your taxes, better pay a CPA to look over them.  Want to buy a house, better pay a lawyer to look over the papers.  Want to file your incorporation papers, give your lawyer several thousand dollars and he'll pull some paperwork out of a drawer. Actually, these days he'll likely tell his secretary to type your name onto a computer and it will spit out the paperwork you need. Go to the hospital and they'll charge you the same fee whether they give you pure oxygen or just pump ordinary air into your courp tent. The medical industry makes a science out of charging inscrutable fees for things you can't pronounce, much less understand what they are. There's a fee for everything these days. These fee-charging people remind me of sharks circling the edges of a pod of whales and slipping in to nip off hunks of blubber whenever they take a notion, hoping the big fat fellas don't miss it too much.

These fees are a pernicious form of taxation. Here we have, not the government taxing us, but us taxing each other. We've got private businesses like banks, hospitals, utility companies and, heaven help us, even retail business adding charge after charge to our bills.  Charges like credit card fees are common enough, but stores now charge restocking fees if you return something because it doesn't fit.  In other words, you pay them to put whatever you returned back on the shelf.

To add insult to injury, we're being pressed more and more to convert to credit and debit cards, automatic payments and automatic bank transfers - features of the so called cashless society. What's good about that for the fee sharks is that the fees are deducted out of sight. Unless you're one of those folks who love to wade through pages of account statements, the fee collecters count on your not noticing the $2 account maintenance stimulation fee that pays to keep the staff coffee pot in latte and espresso mix.

It's bad enough when the government taxes us, but when we start taxing each other it's the end of the world.

Just slap a 666 on my forehead and call me Beastie boy!

Next thing you know we'll have little kids with lemonade stands charging us an "ice replacement fee", "a cup recycling charge" and an automatic 15% gratuity for parties of more than 2 people.



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