Saturday, December 13, 2008

Why Do We Accept These Things?

I've just gotten back in after an afternoon of Christmas shopping, so I'm in a surly mood, and ready to air some gripes.

To begin with, while store surfing, I saw no fewer than three establishments with signs at the checkout informing the customers that they can no longer accept $100 bills, and they regret any inconvenience that this may cause. Now, I realize that this stems from a counterfeiting problem, but that's what bill checkers are for, no? Each bona fide $100 bill contains a notice proclaiming that "This note is legal tender". That means that it is endorsed by the Bank of Canada and is to be honoured as legal currency. I don't see where any proprietor has the right to refuse one unless, of course, he can either demonstrate that the note is not legitimate, or perhaps is unable to make change.

Incidentally, it's not that I had a pocket full of $100 bills that nobody would accept. I'm not complaining because I personally was inconvenienced. I'm complaining on principal. This is just one of many common practices that we encounter every day, and everybody just seems to accept, and I'm asking why. Why do we accept things which are patently wrong, unreasonable or unfair? Well, at risk of sounding like "Network's" Howard Beale, I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore! Fortunately, unlike Howard Beale, I don't happen to be on television, so you can't see my disheveled hair or the maniacal gleam in my eyes (not that they're not there). Here, then, is a list of things that the sheep-like public just seems to accept and which, to me, seem unjustifiable.

First on my list is the insurance business, specifically as regards automobile insurance. The Ontario government recently suggested imposing much more rigid restrictions on young drivers, including disallowing any trace of blood alcohol when driving, a zero-tolerance policy for speeders which imposes a license suspension for even one single speeding ticket and, most onerously, a restriction of no more than one teenage passenger when a young driver is behind the wheel. The public outcry against this last provision was such that the Ontario government has wisely relented and agreed to drop it, but the other provisions remain in force.

Needless to say, the Insurance Bureau loves this. Of course they would! These restrictions, by their nature, make young drivers a negligible risk, yet these same young drivers, especially the male ones, pay the most exorbitant insurance rates of anyone on the road.

If I had anything to say about it, I would pass a law stipulating that anyone driving under the restrictions and limitations imposed by a G2 driver's license must automatically be charged 20% less than the premium for a similar driver holding a G license, unless the G2 driver has an at-fault accident on his or her record. The restrictions imposed upon them make them a lower risk, so they should pay a lower premium. And don't give me a lot of statistics about accident rates among young drivers. Those statistics happened before these new restrictions went into effect.

Besides, why do we accept that drivers who have committed no offense must pay a premium for what they might do wrong? Once a driver has been convicted of an offense, or has been involved in an at-fault accident, by all means raise their premiums. Until then, charge them a fair and equitable rate.

Another thing; it is blatantly discriminatory to charge a male driver a higher premium than a female driver of the same age and with a similar car and driving record, yet this is what is done. I have teenage nephews whose insurance rates are enough to buy a good quality used vehicle every two years, yet they haven't committed a single offense. Girls their age pay half what they do or less. Why do we accept this?

Automobile insurance is a particularly tender spot of mine. I could go on for several paragraphs more, but there are other institutions awaiting my wrath, so I'll leave off at this point and set my sights on my next target; the Ontario Power Corporation.

Every time I open my Hydro bill, there's a charge described as "Debt Retirement Charge". This is a charge billed to every power consumer in Ontario ostensibly used for paying down the huge debt that was accumulated by Ontario Hydro during the years that it mismanaged the electric company.

Why does nobody complain that we, the consumer, are being billed monthly to pay down a debt that we did not incur, especially given that those who did incur it walked away with multi-million dollar severance packages? If I mismanage my finances and get into debt over my head, nobody is asked to bail me out. Why am I being asked to bail out the power company?

Even if I accept the responsibility for paying down somebody else's debt, my Hydro bill never gives any indication as to how much of this debt has been "retired", and how much remains. How do I know when it's been paid off? How do I know that it wasn't paid off years ago but Ontario Power continues to charge me anyway? Why do we accept this?

While we're on the subject of bills, the utility bill that I receive every month contains a "Fixed delivery charge" for natural gas. That's fine during the winter, but the charge remains, even during the summer months, and it's no lower than it is during the winter. I only use natural gas to heat my home. My washer and drier don't use gas and neither does my stove. During the summer months, I use zero gas. None. Nada. So how come I pay an average $15 "Fixed delivery charge" for gas that wasn't delivered to me in July? Why do we accept this?

Certain banks charge their customers a service fee, or "convenience fee" for withdrawing money from an automated teller machine (ATM), even when the ATM is owned and operated by themselves. I'm happy do say that my bank does not do this, which only goes to prove that there's no reason for it, but I've heard of others that do.

I can understand incurring a service charge when I use another bank's ATM to withdraw money; after all, I'm not their customer, but I see no justification for charging me to withdraw or deposit money using my own bank's ATM. Think about it. By using the machine, I'm saving them having to pay a human teller to process my transaction for me. Why would I accept being asked to pay a premium for saving the bank money? Why do we accept this?

When I fill up my car with gas, I'm charged the GST tax on the total amount. However, that total amount already includes federal excise taxes and provincial taxes. The GST isn't calculated on the cost of the gas itself, but on the total cost, including those other taxes. In other words, I'm being taxed on tax. This happens to every Canadian driver, yet nobody protests. Why do we accept this?

Finally, an issue that has been exacerbated by our slumping economy. I hold non-registered investments; that is to say, they do not qualify as RRSP's and are therefore not tax sheltered. Actually, RRSP's aren't sheltered either, only deferred, but that's another discussion.

Every year at income tax time, I have to report any increase in the value of these investments as income, and I am taxed on this income. Needless to say, this year, my investments all showed serious losses. This means that I won't have to pay any income tax on them. Yay. But, wait a minute, if I'm taxed on my gains, should there not be a tax deduction for losses? I think there should yet, as far as I know, there aren't any; not on the types of investments that I hold, at any rate. This seems unfair, and I don't see why we accept it.

Seems to me, every day we encounter situations which, if we thought about them for a moment or two, just don't seem right, yet few, if any, complain. Some of these practices and policies have been entrenched for so long that we've simply come to accept them unquestioningly. I suppose many of us assume that those who made the rules are smarter than we and so we simply abide by them. The current state of the world economy, however, suggests to me that perhaps those who made the rules are not nearly so clever as we thought that they were. Given that, maybe it's time to start questioning their rules.

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