Debt, Collection and Citizenship

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March 6, 2011

Amazing what little serfs we remain, with feudalism supposedly long gone. It’s as if the habit of doffing the cap to a laird was carried in our DNA.  I hear it when companies talk of creating jobs as if it were a boon they offer, or employers speaking of ‘giving’ someone a job, when in both cases their objective is to generate a net gain for themselves and what is on offer is simply a contractual exchange of effort for revenue. Nothing wrong with the latter, plenty wrong with the former. I also hear it when folks challenge a company’s charges not as equals but as something on the order of supplicants, this post being triggered by a CBC Television piece on debt collectors.

Some years ago I refused to pay in full a cell-phone bill which had a number of charges on it that made no sense…..charges for multiply-repeated one-minute calls to the same number.

I wrote to the company, having gone to the trouble of tallying the extra calls and subtracting them from the bill, explaining the situation and offering to pay the net amount. I received in response a sequence of letters demanding that I pay the full charge. No acknowledgement of my original letter, with which, conveniently as it turned out, I had not sent a cheque.

It was then easy for me to further deduct from their original invoice to me, the cost of my time for dealing with the ongoing hassle. I also chose, given the cell-phone company’s stance, to subtract from it the value of the time it took me to go through the bills originally and find and tally the mistaken charges.

Somewhere along the line I started to get calls progressively pushier calls from a bill collector. I forewarned him that I would be deducting charges for any time I spent dealing with him from the amount I believed to remain legitimately owing. It was not an onerous hourly charge but nor was it insubstantial.

The predictable eventual threat to take me to court, was of course not much of a threat at all. I’d documented the entire process and was quite willing to invoice for more of my time if it was required, including for that involved in any small claims court procedure. I also mentioned that I was fully aware that any attempt by the service provider to lawyer me into submission in that forum was in itself likely to be justification for the court to rule in my favor. Small claims courts are meant to accommodate exchanges between principals, not lawyers.

After that there was one final call, from the same ‘collector’ to advise me ‘sternly’ that the cell company would drop the matter if I would pay the amount I had said I would (after all the deductions). His tone was kind of snotty but, quite reasonably I thought, I chose not to penalize the cable company for that. I paid what I said I would and the matter was concluded.

The point: What possible basis is there for anyone, company or individual, for generating an outlay of effort from any citizen without being invoiced for the value of that time when the problem lies with the them?

If we have legitimate reasons for opposing intimidation from anyone, individual or company, we owe it to ourselves not to accept second-class status in the exchange. If demanding respect for ourselves goes some small way towards generating it for other, we’re doing them a service of a kind that folks should be pleased to do for one another.

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