All Commentary
Monday, October 2, 2017

The Bad Old Days of Paying Bills

The technology we use for simple financial tasks has been massively overhauled in the last ten years.

My father was a happy person. But on the first or last Saturday of the month, every month, he was miserable.

He would wake in a grumpy mood, say nothing at breakfast, listen to no one around him, and at 10am, would slump into the small wood paneled room he called his office. He would gather piles of mail around him, dig through to find his books, heave a big sigh and get to work.

It was time to “pay bills.”

Growing up, I didn’t know what that meant other than: today is the day not to speak to Dad. It was a complete wash for us kids. I only knew that something on that day, the day of misery, something was terribly wrong.

It is still called “paying bills” but it not the same. As I got older, I noted the ritual. There was a huge pile of mail called bills. He would open each envelope with a letter opener, and it made a special noise that burned into my brain so hard that I can recreate in my imagination right now. He would examine the letter, to discover whether he had to pay the whole amount or could just pay part of it.

Then the checkbook would come out, and he would write, record the amount in the ledger and rebalance the book, tear off the check and stuff it in an envelope, and put on a return-mail sticker on the top left. He would put a government-issued stamp on the paper envelope. He put that in a stack. This activity was repeated as many as two-dozen times, maybe more, and each time, the paper ledgers had to be updated.

The suffering lasted from 10am to dinner time, but he was so exhausted that he wouldn’t speak.

Every bit of this pained him. You see, he was an artist, intellectual, dreamer, teacher, historian, and musician. He wanted to be throwing the ball with the kids, hiking, playing piano, practicing trombone, boating, or just reading a great book.

He was not an accountant. The whole thing seemed like terrible suffering.

Fast Forward

I’m almost embarrassed to compare what I do now to what he did then. It is still called “paying bills” but it not the same. I open my laptop, click a few things, and then….I’m out of things to do. It is done. I think my whole monthly ritual today lasted about ten seconds.

Imagine total financial disintermediation, the end of national monies, and the triumph of privately produced money that grows in value.  True story.

This point in history required vast innovation across many platforms. It never ends. Even now, my online banking interface is different than it was last month. I assume this will be true next month as well.

How many millions and billions of hours of time have been saved by these innovations?

There are so many pieces and parts that had to be improved to make our lives so much better, so many interfaces, institutions, protocols, rounds of experimentation, and, mostly, time. Somehow all these years later, the experience of the past is unknown, even unimaginable.

How many areas of life have been touched by this very thing, the abolition of drudgery in thing after thing?

The Wood Stove

I once asked a 90-year-old woman what the greatest innovation in her lifetime was? She answered: indoor heating. Before this came to their house, the whole day was consumed by finding trees, cutting them down, chopping them up, dragging them to piles, bringing in log after log, cleaning out soot, keeping the fire lit, turning the logs all day, dealing with smoke, smelling like smoke. This was the only life she knew.

Then one day, it was all gone. She never looked back. She never minded that technology “stole her job.” She hated her job. She was happy for a new life.

We could march through the list. The washing machine, indoor plumbing, refrigeration, the vacuum cleaner (no more rug beatings!), and so on. And dare I mention the Internet? I barely remember life without it. Whatever happened back then, we knew nothing as compared to today. The whole period ought to have a name. How about the Dark Ages?

The End of Suffering

My father had a happy life despite his monthly ritual of the suffering of paying bills. He overcame it. We have plenty of drudgery remaining but fortunately, we have a system that allows human beings to experiment and cooperate to take it away, bit by bit, year by year.

I wish my Dad could see my monthly ritual. I think he would smile, and then ask: what do you do with all your extra time? Today I can say: I write about you, Dad, and how much you inspired me to celebrate the system that liberated me from what you had to endure.

And what’s the next step? Imagine total financial disintermediation, the end of national monies, and the triumph of privately produced money that grows in value. The game has just begun to change.