Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Tips on how better to exploit the working poor

Payday loan testimonials from the new Web site of the Predatory Lending Association, which launched on Tuesday.

"I was able to turn my heat on for 2 weeks with my payday loan."

-- Jake G. Parsons, Duluth, Minnesota

"I would have been homeless two weeks earlier without my payday loan."

-- Ben R. Gibson, Denver, Colorado

Note: "The Predatory Lending Association is not related in any way to the Association of Predatory Home Lenders (APHL), which focuses on the home mortgage industry. And while we are partners, we remain separate from the Society for Credit Card Fee Maximization (SCCFM), the Association of Predatory Money Managers (APMM), and the Society of Predatory Mutual Funds (SPMF)."

One way to expose the growing prevalence of legal usury in the United States is to write well-meaning academic papers or outraged blog posts detailing the flourishing social blight. Another is to launch a very funny, satirical Onionesque Web site that reads as if sprung directly from the imagination of Jonathan Swift.

Complete with handy tools like a "Payday Loan Calculator" that helps you "maximize your loan fees and profits" and a "Working Poor Finder" that includes "maps to find the highest concentrations of the working poor with the fewest existing payday loan stores," the PLA Web describes itself thus:

The Predatory Loan Association is dedicated to extracting maximum profit from the working poor by increasing payday loan fees and debt traps. The working poor is an exciting, fast growing demographic that includes: military personnel, most minorities, and a growing percentage of the middle class.

The site has already hit a nerve, as testified by real defenders of payday loans who are venting their anger in the site's discussion forum.

But maybe the coolest thing about the site is its genesis. The Predatory Lending Association is the second project conceived and executed by Front Seat Management, a startup founded by ex-Microsoftie Mike Mathieu along with two other self described techies, Matt Lerner and Jesse Kocher. (The first project was Walk Score, a Google mashup that lets users calculate the "walkability" of their neighborhoods.)

Lerner, a former Microsoft project manager, told me that both projects should be seen "as a form of philanthropy." Mathieu and Lerner aren't the first Microsoft alums to dedicate themselves to social change, but as far as I know, judging by the PLA Web site, they might be the funniest.

"Mathieu made a lot of money last year," said Lerner, "and he wanted to start applying it to some type of social purpose. Mike is a very funny guy -- he has progressive values, but also a very dark, competitive streak. We thought it would be twisted to really use free market rhetoric against payday loans, as a way of demonstrating how as a society, converting short-term financial pain into long--term financial pains isn't good for our citizens."

(Thanks to Credit Slips' Elizabeth Warren for the early alert. Warren, says Lerner, found out about the site when he told her that she'd been "blacklisted" by the PLA.)

-- Andrew Leonard

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