Several thousand dollars worth of bills await me on the dining room table. I am urgently advised, the cover letters all say, to pay them in a timely fashion. I image the bills milling around me like hungry cats, each angling for my attention: “Feed ME first;” “No, feed ME, i’m HUUNGRY!” “No, ME, ME, ME!”
Sadly for them, I liken bills to fine wine or cheese; I prefer to let them age. Especially big ones.
I owe six hundred dollars to a lumber yard that tried to dun me for somebody else’s bill. Twice. I owe several thousand for the deductible on my recent hospitalization. I owe the surgeon, the anesthesiologist, the hospital, the primary care medical group, and even the emergency room. Everybody bills separately these days.
I always pay actual people on time; and that includes local small businesses which consider themselves members of the community.
The self-employed workmen who re-sided and painted and repaired our house this year? We had a relationship; we treated each other with respect. So why wouldn’t I pay them on time? My checks were their livelihood. And we’ve all got to live.
But institutions? EVIL! Institutions aren’t alive, and they aren’t people, though they’re made of people. Today’s institutions, many of them, bill early and pay late. They demand as much as they can get, deliver as little as they can get away with. Corporations are the worst; but even public institutions, starved for money, are raising fees and fines while shrinking services.
I give them all the respect they deserve. I pay — eventually. It’s a small rebellion.
Once, I didn’t pay. A couple of years back we closed our account with AT&T, and they delivered us a final billl after we were told we’d paid everything: $79. While we argued back and forth with them, they abruptly stopped talking and sold the debt to a collection agency which was on us in a flash.
Since then I’ve made a hobby of not paying that bill. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not real. AT&T just claimed it was.
At any rate, there’s not much a collection agency can do if you don’t pick up the phone or sign for the certified mail. Not for seventy nine bucks. I just let the answering machine take all the calls. Don’t worry; if you prove to be a real person, I always pick up.
The bill has passed through at least five different collection bureaus: when one can’t collect, it sells the debt to another at a reduced price. The bill must go for no more than a few bucks now, because they’ve started offering me discounts if I’ll just pay what I owe. Or what somebody claimed I owed, once upon a time.
And you have to start wondering how much debt is really “real,” when somebody can just say you owe them something, and then start compounding the bill with fees and late charges and penalties that you “agreed” to by not reading the three thousand words of fine print that they knew you wouldn’t read.
The hospital’s official bill for my overnight stay — not counting the surgeon and the anesthesiologist and all the rest — was $39,000. For an overnight stay. How real is that? The insurance company “negotiated” the price down to seven thousand, and I only paid a fraction of that. But I’m not even sure that price is real.
And yet if I’d walked in the front door without insurance, I’d be on the hook for the thirty-nine thousand. For one day’s stay for an infected thumb. So what’s the real price? What’s the real debt? Who owes what to whom?
Dangerous words. In the days of slavery, the slaveholders lived high – yet lived in fear of slave rebellions. In the same way, in the heart of every financier there must live a cold spot of fear that all the debt they own, buy, and sell might someday not be paid. That we might just decide not to, and walk away. It happened in 2009, with over-priced houses whose value had crashed.
And yet the moneymen are doing all they can to make it happen again. When all but a few are struggling, who’s going to pay all those debts? And what will happen to them if they don’t try to? In the semi-immortal words of Bob Dylan, “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”
Must be something about extreme wealth that causes insanity. That’s all I can figure. We shall see. Indeed we shall. Barring surprises, I’ll live long enough to see it from the cheap seats.
In the meantime, I still have something to lose. And the bills are waiting. Grrrrr.