Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Man Freezes to Death Over Unpaid Electricity Bill

Marvin E. Schur froze to death on Jan. 16. The 93 year-old failed to pay the electric bill at his Bay City, Michigan home. The electric company put an energy-limiting device on his home after he failed to pay almost $1000.00 in useage bills. The limiter will trip power off if power use rises past a certain point. Mr. Schur may have lived in a freezing apartment up to three days before passing away. Neighbors found him frozen inside his home on the 17th.

In the Yahoo! news article, it was stated that he had failed to pay his bills and had not appeared to arrange for payment. What was not detailed, however, was whether he had been contacted by the company. Shouldn't such measures be taken when dealing with the elderly in harsh winter or summer seasons? Whatever the reason for his non-payment, did Mr. Schur deserve to die? Could the power company have contacted authorities to prevent just such an incident. The Bay City Electric Light & Power Manager, Robert Belleman, insisted his company did nothing wrong, they played it by the book. Yet isn't it reasonable that in this case the book should have been thrown out in favor of another way? Tell me what you think.


Pulse said...

Going to have to disagree with you, bro. It's not the company's responsibility to keep track of elderly people. Nor is it the company's responsibility to show charity. It is, however, the responsibility of the church to do such things. Let's not hold the government and busisness sector responsible to do in a secular sphere what the church should do as the body of Christ.


Steven Douglas said...

Hey Brent,

Well I suppose we do disagree here. Yet I wonder how much we actually disagree. As to your first point, that it is not the company's responsibility to keep track of elderly people, I would say you are partially right. I would not advocate that a business needs to go to extraordinary lengths to "care" for any specific individuals. The question becomes, however, what is the company in business for, to offer a service or to make money? If it is the former, which I would suggest, there should be some means taken to prevent these kinds of situations. If it is the latter, then what's the point?

It is similar to McDonalds, if no one holds McDonalds accountable, and they cut corners and start products that they know might harm children in order to make a larger profit, is that right? I would suggest that they should police themselves, but external, community pressure helps.

As for your second point, it is not the company's responsibility to show charity, I could not disagree more. Maybe this comes down to our definition of "charity." We see large companies sponsor and bankroll sports stars, they keep private jet fleets, they pay their C.E.O.'s multi-million dollar salaries. I think a little flex when a 93 year-old man stops making payments is in order. What about even picking up the telephone and calling the man to see why he stopped paying? What about calling the authorities if he refuses to pay or is incoherent. Something was decidedly wrong, and I believe it was the power company's responsibility to at least look into the situation before limiting his power. That's charity. I do not expect the company to give handouts, but they should know who is using their power and why things have gone awry.

You are absolutely right that after the authorities are notified (allowing for psychiatric or medical evaluations to take place), it is then the job of the church, not the private company or the state to step in and care for the man. Then the question is whose church? We live in a broken and fragmented society and we know nothing of Mr. Schur's religious affiliation, if he had any. Ideally speaking, it would be best if his own church stepped in to help.

There is a place for the church, but there is also a place for the state and there is certainly a responsibility toward charity/common decency in every arena of humanity, including the corporation. Even if that decency is not as lucrative as not being decent. If we have no human standard to apply, we move very quickly to horrid extremes.

a guy said...

Hi there,

You guys'll get a kick out of this, but you're both wrong. [smirk]

We usually distinguish between products and services; if McDonalds delivers a defective, harmful, product, that causes harm, they'll be held responsible. The electric company, however, didn't deliver its service (or if we want to say it, product=electrons).

The outcome is tragic, sure, but we also can't expect service companies like this to keep track of every single one of their customers, which may number in the millions. They can't send a visitor to every customer who stops paying to check-in and ensure all is well; they cannot realize that so and so is elderly when in all likelihood much of their business is purely automated because there are just too many people to deal with personally on any regular basis.

They put measures like cut-offs in place simply because, frankly, if they're not in place, people don't pay. It's like socialism: it just never works. Even the incoming puritans figured this out when they came to America--people would become bums. The good-ol' verse "those who don't work, don't eat".

I'm not saying the elderly should be neglected, they shouldn't, but in this case, I do think it is utterly irresponsible and imprudent to blame this company, as tragic as it really is. Too often people forget a few factors, including that businesses don't often operate (at least for long) as these megacompanies able to make for themselves huge sums, since they have so many legislative things to comply with, and most importantly their expenses in the first place: even essential services are no exception. During the Great Depression people died all over of hunger and needs, yet it's not like anybody could do anything about it if the money wasn't available for food, for growing the food, for transporting the food, for buying the gasoline to transport the food, for... men aren't going to work for free when the mouths of their own families and their selves need to be fed, for which they're scraping for work to actually be paid, or any opportunities at all: it all just breaks-down.

And lest we forget, this state is not socialist--it is by design anything but, to protect liberties knowing that "benevolent" government has always proven itself to become tyrannical, and the more these limitations on power have been ignored, the more tyranny we've watched surge into practice. FDR's policies during the depression are an excellent example: without the romance of modern politicking, his efforts are gauged as some of the worst ever ideas to be thought: paying people not to produce food to drive-up prices in a depression with starving people, creating a communist-like bureaucracy to ensure compliance; letting the heads of industry fix prices, building useless infrastructure (it's useless without successful, sustaining businesses to make it worth anything). All his efforts, when viewed from now, were not only so he could dole-out favor upon states (through his program) and locations that would benefit him and his party (how "benevolent" of him), but were shown to prolong and make worse all that happened.

As for the Church, even it, being so few, can't seriously handle everyone, it can't keep tabs on everyone; and to be honest, very few congregations ever function as a church, either doctrinally or in practice; I don't know why we don't just disband these gatherings of feigned belief--save the time.

Pulse is right that the Church does well to take care of those in need (though I emphasize and bring to remembrance this is not its primary task, though an important one); SD is right to say there is a place for the rest of society to take care of those in need as well.

Speaking of which, it appears none of this mentions if the man was in need or not, just that he was old and froze. I know it's our first inclination to assume that he wouldn't go cold and not pay, but you never know: it would be nice to learn that information.

Anyway, there's a quote that sums this all up well,

"I've said this before and some of my colleagues have said this: Neighbors need to keep an eye on neighbors," Belleman said. "When they think there's something wrong, they should contact the appropriate agency or city department."

Which should tell us that perhaps this should be done day-to-day, not every three.

Pulse said...

a guy

Nowhere did I say the church can or should keep track of everyone. I did say, however, that the responsibility of the church is to help those in need.

Also, nowhere did I say I don't think there is a place for those in society to show charity. I said this is not the responsibility of the government or business sector.

Steven, the question I think you are grappling with is, does God expect a company to keep tabs on customers and help them in thier time of need, especially if it's a matter of life and death? Should a car company repo a single mother's car who can't pay the bill but needs the car to get to work? Should a gas station give out free gas to those who can't afford it, but need to get to work? Should a bank evict a family who can't pay thier mortgage? Should restraunts give free food to the homeless? Should we put pressure on companies to show such charity? Should companies give such hand outs? Trust me, this was not the first old person or young person to not pay his or her electric bill. Why should they help this guy and not that single mom with an infant over there? If companies were charitable to our liking, they would all go out of business, and that's the reality. Thus, capitalism would not work and the majority of people, rather than the minority, would suffer. For all America's faults, it is still the best place in the world to live, for both rich and poor, precisely because companies strive to stay in business, which, of course, gives people jobs and customers the needed services and products they require.


Steven Douglas said...


It depends on what you mean by help. I do not mean that a company should be forced to give services or product away for free. A company should be profitable, or let's face it, what's the point? But profit should not be the primary goal, the product or service should. Relationship is also the goal. Who is the product for? People.

The problem here is that we have a skewed notion of capitalism. Capitalism is motivated by self-interest (and I am completely on-board with that), but not selfishness (which is what "self-interest" has been interpreted as by most). The latter is largely to blame for our current economic situation.

Again, I don't think that the company should have necessarily kept the power on for a non-paying customer, the company needs to make a profit. But the company keeps records of its customers - they were able to find the man's house to attach a limiter - Why not have biological information (most companies collect this information anyway, whether or not they use it). In cases where it is unlikely for people to survive - like in the case of Mr. Schur - don't you think it would be prudent to call the authorities to let them know about the situation. That takes away any company liability or negligence, and it is being a neighbor to this man. Are companies exempt from "neighbor" commands (that's a whole other conversation)?

As I said before, companies must remain profitable. I certainly am no socialist. Capitalism without bounds, however, can be just as bad. I would disagree with any government regulation of business (except in extreme cases, which this is not). Instead, there must be self-regulation on the part of companies. The business philosophy should not be, "What can I get away with", but "How can I offer a better product that benefits society more and fills this niche best". The first is selfish, the second is self-interested, yet relationship focused. The first may be wildly successful at making money in the short-run, but the latter will be more successful over a period of time. Self-regulation is what I advocate.

When that fails, "money talks". If a company will not regulate itself, customers can change corporate policy by simply not buying. That is the beauty of the market. This is exactly what is going on in our economy today. People (customers) do not trust financial institutions because they have noticed blatent selfishness on the part of those institutions, so they stop investing and buying. This SHOULD result in the financial institutions changing to meet customers' desires, but instead, the government has stepped in and is forcing customers to pay the institutions for nothing via taxes. The institutions don't learn their lesson or change their ways, and the customers get the short end of the stick, all in the name of the "good of society" - that's the worst form of socialism, communism.

Why did Mr. Schur die? He froze. Why did he freeze? his heat was cut off. Why was his heat cut off? Non-payment. Why didn't he pay? That's the million-dollar question that nobody seems to know. But he was not the only person responsibile for his death. he was in a business relationship with the power company and they shut off his power without taking the extra step of finding out why he was not paying or calling the authorities due to weather concerns mixed with age. That is negligence. That is poor customer service.

Steven Douglas said...

A guy,

If the company can take a man's check and process it, and can keep enough information about a client to know there has been non-payment, they can certainly keep his age. That argument won't hold up.

Nobody is going in for socialism 'round here, but profit should not be the primary focus, either (pleas see my note to Brent).

I agree completely that "neighbors should keep an eye on neighbors". That does not always work, though. I am not advocating for any company to perform supererogatory (sp?) acts. I am advocating valuing human life and relationships above money (to what extent can generally be left up to the company).