Morality tale draws the wrong moral

A writing blog I follow recently shared a cautionary tale about lateness: the writer’s son left a payment too late and ended up having to pay a late payment fee. His parents refused to help him out – his fault that he “wasn’t smart enough to make his payment in time”, right?

My take on this episode is entirely different. Apparently the son was paying for a summer course at the University of British Columbia (UBC). He made the online bank transfer to pay the $600 fee the night before the money was due. Cutting it fine, yes, but nevertheless, he sorted out the transfer before the deadline.

What he didn’t know – and apparently should have known – is that his bank takes three days to process online payments.

I don’t know how the would-be student found out that the payment hadn’t reached UBC, but he did find out and tried to sort things out. But he didn’t have enough money left in his account to cover the fees because – well, let me think why that could be. Could it possibly be because $600 had ALREADY LEFT HIS ACCOUNT? Unfortunately, he didn’t happen to have another $600 just hanging around in his current account, which is why he contacted his mother for help paying the fees.

She refused. UBC then charged him a $100 late fee.

Daphne Gray-Grant, the writer and mother in question, turned this into a smug little morality tale about the importance of planning and not leaving things to the last minute. As you might have guessed, I don’t see it that way.

There is absolutely no technical reason why a transfer from one bank to another should take three days. It would make sense if money transfers involved a man on a horse carrying the cash in sacks; but even then, a transfer between the student’s home in Vancouver and a university also in Vancouver would still take less than three days. In reality, bank transfers can happen in milliseconds. The fake delay is imposed by greedy banks who want to hang on to customers’ money for as long as they can get away with it. So Daphne’s son was entirely reasonable in his expectation that a bank transfer would take a few hours rather than a few days. (Many banks have already done away with the fake delay and process transfers instantly.)

You know who else is greedy? The University of British Columbia. They imposed a $100-dollar fine for late payment of $600 in course fees. Payment which, I assume, turned up after two days. Think of it in terms of a regular debt and you can see how unfair it is; a $100 charge to borrow $600 for TWO FUCKING DAYS represents an APR of about 3000%. Bear in mind that we’re talking here about an 18-year-old potential student who saved up for a summer course, did his best to pay on time and (presumably) tried to explain the situation. A student who had proof that the money had ALREADY LEFT HIS FUCKING ACCOUNT, which meant that from his point of view, it was paid.

Maybe I’m projecting here, but it seems to me that the would-be student genuinely (and reasonably) expected the money transfer to take a few hours. When the payment didn’t go through, he thought something had gone wrong and that the money had been somehow lost: “Did I just pay 600 [expletive] dollars into thin air?” His bank’s behaviour must have caused him a lot of unnecessary alarm. Then the university chooses to financially exploit him – exploitation which wouldn’t even have been possible if the bank hadn’t already been exploiting him financially with its bullshit three-day-transfer policy. Then his mother refuses to help him out because she thinks he needs to learn his lesson. If she’d lent him the $600 for just a few days while the mess got straightened out, he could have avoided the $100 late fee completely. But she didn’t.

Look, I accept that leaving things to the last minute is often a bad idea, because things go wrong and they take time to sort out, so often you haven’t got as long as you thought you had. But we’re talking here about a teenager who’s been badly screwed over by two institutions he trusted. Why are we talking about his “lateness” in paying a few hours before the deadline when we could be talking about what evil bastards his bank and the university are?

And if we are going to talk about lateness, why can’t we talk about the completely calculated, utterly unreasonable lateness involved in taking three days EVERY TIME to complete a fucking bank transfer?

If we’re talking about lessons learnt, let’s talk about how this teenager found out that respected institutions can conspire to screw you over even when you’re trying your best to do the right thing. How his local university sees him as a cash cow rather than as a potential learner. And, worst of all, how his own mother has no sympathy for him and instead decides he’ll make a great topic for her weekly blog post. (Incidentally, when she had her own hassles with a financial institution – American Express – she whined about how hard they were making things for her.)

The really poignant bit for me is when the lad tells his mother he’s afraid that his father will blame him for the mix-up, little realising that she will blame him too. They’ve obviously got some kind of “bad-cop, bad-cop” parenting dynamic going on there, combined with a bit of “victim-blaming cop” .

Do I need any more evidence that the cult of early is linked with unreasonable smugness and a total lack of empathy? I just hope that if Daphne ever needs her son’s help in an emergency, he charges her at least $100 for it.

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