By John Mattingly
When my son graduated from high school, I shook his hand and attempted a parody from the 1967 Mike Nichols movie, The Graduate, in which Murray Hamilton takes Dustin Hoffman aside to say, “One word, Son … plastics.”

I took my son aside, and placed a hand upon his shoulder with a wise nod as I said, “One word, Son … fees.”

This father-son moment, inspired by my recent reading of the family’s phone bills, was not intended as serious life-advice. Nor was it a joke. I’d been noticing more and more fees creeping into our daily economic lives: fees for licenses and access, originations and handling, conveniences and premiums, even new car floormats and internet speed. And, of course, a fee for checking your luggage at the airport, a fee that creates an incentive for people to haul more outrageous bundles and heaps into the passenger cabin, which is the main bottleneck, and often neck breaker, in the loading process.

Regarding our phone bill, curiosity got the best of me awhile back, and I asked the provider for an explanation of the fees. I had to be transferred to an area manager who told me he had no idea what four of the eleven fees were actually for. His justification was priceless: “I have no control over the fees, and everybody has to pay them.”

That sounds like a solid business model for modern times: charge people for something nobody understands or controls, but must therefore pay for automatically. It occurred to me then, as now, that for any young person about to graduate from college, the best job might be to simply get on the paying end of an anomalous fee, a fee with a credible acronym such a FGW (Fight Global Warming) or HZPG (Help Zero Population Growth). Once named, the fee must be set up with an automatic payment facility as part of an essential human service (such as cable TV) and placed among a larger body of fees such that it appears innocuous – merely another little fee among other little fees, harmless and possibly even helpful to humankind.

I could go on for quite awhile, bad-mouthing the various fees assessed to average people these days, but I suspect few would argue the point that, compared to twenty years ago, the number of fees we all pay is on the increase. For a free country, we certainly do pay a lot of fees. Perhaps the real cost of freedom is fees. Oh, wait, I forgot, the real cost of freedom is the trillions of dollars spent fighting UFOs (Unidentified Fleeting Operatives) in the Middle East.

The good news in all of this is that my son actually listened to me. The advice I gave him as he graduated high school about the future of fees was one of the few pieces of advice he actually took to heart. He graduated from the University of Colorado, where he received a partial basketball scholarship as a walk-on. Later, he learned his membership on the team was primarily to elevate the team’s GPA to keep CU in compliance with NCAA rules. So, on graduation day, he walked away with a degree in basketball, girls, parties, and an almost incidental BA in Political Science.

While this would have been an excellent resume for a prodigal farmer returning home to feast on the fatted calf, my son entered the field of financial services, in which his livelihood derives from … ta da: fees.

Who says kids don’t listen to their parents? Maybe it takes a few years, or a decade, but sometimes, when you least expect it, you see your words running away into action. Patience is, as Kafka once said, “The only virtue.”

But, as they also say, be careful what you wish for. Now that my son is living handsomely on fees, he and I frequently spar over his professional choice. I like to remind him that he came from a family farming tradition in which we produce things – actual things, such as commodities, and he was good at it, being a crafty mechanic and excellent machinery operator. The wheat and oil seeds and alfalfa, the crops he learned to grow while growing up, are new wealth to the economy.

My favorite analogy in these discussions is this: there are people in the world who pump the water and put it into the pipeline, and there others who service and repair the pipeline, and finally, there are those who roam the pipeline looking for leaks, taking a share of water for which they contributed nothing.

People involved in fees and financial services are, for the most part, members of the last group. But my son ably points out that farming is constrained by an economic straightjacket. For example, no control over costs and prices, no market share, and a flawed capital structure in which the farmer tries to own all the means of production (MOP) unlike the “sensible” corporate capital structure that fractionalizes ownership of the MOP by issuing millions of shares of stock. Thus, a farm operator is upside down to start with, even before trying to deal with unreliable machines, unknowable markets, unpredictable weather, and unwilling help.

There’s no denying it, a farmer produces a lot for nothing.

A registered representative in financial services, on the other hand, is well paid for producing nothing.

My son teased me the other weekend when we were watching a baseball game on TV, enduring the run of commercials between sparse interludes of action. He suggested that I had missed out on a lot of economic opportunity by not charging fees in my farm business dealings.

“Just think,” he said, “you could’ve charged a loading fee for those big block alfalfa bales. And an inspection fee, a string disposal fee, and a straightening fee – you know, for those truckers who insisted on their loads being straight as a board from one end of their flatbed to the other. I remember that once I spent a hour getting every bale where this one guy wanted them. Yeah, those guys definitely needed to be charged a fee for that. You should even consider a fee for listening. Some of those hay buyers would get a hold of your ear and talk until your ear was hamburger. You could say to them, Uh, listen, buddy, I charge a fee for story time.”

“Story time?”

“Story time is when I have to listen to a client talk about something unrelated to the deal, such as their dog’s appendectomy, or the overcooked salmon they sent back five times, or, you know, the two flat tires on their BMW. But seriously, Dad, you need to charge more fees.”

“You’re right. Now that I think about it, I should charge a tractor initialization fee, a drive to the field fee, and BAF (back and forth) fee, a fuel-up and grease-it fee.”

“Exactly. Add these to your crop sales and you might even make a profit.”

“That was below the bell housing, Son.”

“Yeah, well, if I make enough money, I might come back and farm.”

My son understands the necessity of sufficient capital in the farming business. He grew up living with the chances I took, the checks I kited, the brinksmanship I often played with the weather, and the way the stresses made me something of a grumpy, opinionated, aging American who finds fault with, well, almost everything.

OK, I’m capable of a little optimism.

But I charge a small fee for showing it.


John Mattingly cultivates prose, among other things, and was most recently seen near Creede.