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Jim Kershner: It’s tough to watch your virtual spending

Sat., Feb. 12, 2011

Our subject today is money and how it consists entirely of electrons.

And how the electrons from my bank’s computer may – or may not – have zipped their way over to Avista’s computer in order to keep my furnace stoked and my lights switched on. Nobody seems to know.

Here’s what happened.

I paid my Avista bill this month in my usual fashion, via my bank’s online bill pay feature.

It’s magical, when you think about it. Every two weeks, a number, representing my paycheck, is deposited into my bank account. Every month, I use my online bill pay to take some portion of that number and give it to Avista.

No actual money, as far as I can tell, is involved. No dollar bills are handed over by anyone, to anyone. Yet my furnace remains stoked and my lights keep on shining.

It’s easy and efficient and I would never go back to the old ways of doing it, which were, in reverse chronological order: 10 years ago – mailing a check; 80 years ago – handing cash to a clerk with a green eyeshade: 120 years ago – trading three live chickens for a wheelbarrow full of coal.

This new system works with far more elegance and efficiency.

Until … it doesn’t work at all.

A few days ago, I received a message from my bank telling me that my Avista payment “could not be processed.” My bank had tried for more than a week to give Avista my money and Avista, for unknown reasons, wouldn’t take it.

I asked my bank why. They said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “How should we know? Go ask Avista.”

So I decided to ask Avista.

I figured if there was anything Avista would be happy to do, it would be: figure out a way to take my money.

So I got on the phone to Callie, the Avista customer service representative. Callie, alas, is automated. She gave me a number of options, including “get detailed billing information” and “get account balance.” Her options did not include, “Get detailed explanation of why we won’t take your money.”

OK, fine, I thought, I’ll just wait for that part where she says, “For all other problems, wait for a live customer service representative.” Except Callie never said that. She just kept repeating the same options, over and over again.

So, running out of options myself, I did the only thing I could think of. I hung up the phone, got on my computer and re-sent my virtual money to Avista.

Did it get there? How should I know? It’s all so ephemeral. My bank says it sent the money. The money is gone from my account, or, to be precise, the electrons representing my money are gone from my account. But so far, as of this writing, Avista has still not received any money.

I could try to ask Callie what’s going on, but it will be quicker and easier just to wait and see if my furnace goes cold and my lights go dark.

I like this new world of imaginary, electronic money, I really do. Yet the old way had one advantage. When you handed over your three live chickens, you at least had a wheelbarrow full of coal to prove it.

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