Mark Speese, Queen of putrescence

This is not a post about government regulations or legal consumer protections.

Nor is this a post about financial education, personal responsibility and helping the working poor to make smarter choices.

What this post is about, rather, is this:

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That’s Margery Mason in The Princess Bride, in a role listed in the credits as “The Ancient Booer.” And I would like to see her greeting of Princess Buttercup here become a relentlessly familiar scene for Troy Aikman and Mark Speese.

Aikman you may know as the Hall-of-Fame quarterback who led the Dallas Cowboys to three Super Bowl championships. These days, he also serves as a pitchman (alongside Hulk Hogan) for Speese’s company: Rent-A-Center.

I don’t care for Rent-A-Center. Their latest TV ads with Aikman and Hogan illustrate why. Those spots advertise Rent-A-Center’s current offer of a 60-inch HD flat television set “Now Only $29.99.”

That price — $29.99 or, for those who prefer honesty, $30 — is of course not the full price of these television sets, but the amount of the payments charged in Rent-A-Center’s “rent-to-own” scheme. If $30 a month seems reasonable, look again. That’s a weekly payment — working out to about $130 a month and $1560 a year.

Rent-A-Center’s ads tout a weekly price in part to disguise that monthly cost and to fog up any attempt by the consumer to figure out what the total ultimate cost of this 5-foot television set will actually be. That hints at everything you need to know about this company — they never give a straight answer to the question “How much?”

The weekly payment plan also provides Rent-A-Center with more chances to do what it does best — charge late fees. When you’re as good at charging late fees as these folks are, it seems a shame to only get to do it once a month. Much more lucrative to get to do it every Thursday.

For a nifty graphic explanation of how Rent-A-Center’s sleazy business plan works, see “How Predatory Lending Works, From Payday Loans to Rent-to-Own.” And then check out the company’s attempt to explain why charging $2,074 for a $1,000 mattress (not counting fees) isn’t a raw deal.

You probably don’t need me to tell you that Rent-A-Center’s big-screen TV offer — “Now only $29.99!” — is a total rip-off. But then you’re not their target customer. Their target customer either isn’t smart enough to figure out that this is a money-gouging scam designed to prey on the gullible and the vulnerable, or else they fully realize that it is but, because they’re part of America’s vast army of working poor, they’re used to that sort of thing by now and have come to realize that such scams and schemes are their only option for buying much of anything — which is why their neighborhoods are filled with Rent-A-Center’s and old-school pawnshops rather than the sorts of retailers who will give you a straight answer when you ask “How much?”

And but so, the point is that this $30-a-week offer is a really bad deal.

I happen to think that this sort of bad deal that ought to be legally discouraged or legally prohibited. I believe this for moral and ethical reasons, and also for some vitally important practical reasons. This sort of deal turns out to harm more than just the particular rent-to-own consumers involved. It tends to cause a good bit of collateral damage as well.

For several decades, the housing and real estate markets were based on exactly this kind of deal. It was lucrative for many years, earning billions of dollars for lenders and loan brokers, but eventually the “hard-money” or “subprime” consumers were sucked dry and their shriveled husks could no longer support the weight of the multibillion-dollar industry built on top of them. If you’re old enough to remember all the way back to 2007, you may recall how this almost destroyed the entire global economy. Banks fell and are still falling. Nations fell and are still falling. And tens of millions of people all over the world who never had anything to do with subprime housing markets lost their jobs, many of them remaining unemployed to this day.

So yes, I think that permitting bad deals like this is not in the public interest and that it is in the public interest to protect consumers and the larger economy from the damage they cause.

But this post isn’t about that, so set that aside. That’s not what I’m calling for here and not what I want to focus on.

That disclaimer likely won’t be of any use to prevent the Randian trolls from crying “Socialism!” here. Once their reptilian reflexes kick in they tend to do what they tend to do, which is to denounce anything short of Hobbesian brutality as a big-government, statist restriction of their freedom to conduct the war of all against all however they see fit. Whether or not it’s the point of this post, I mentioned “consumer protection,” and they will feel duty-bound to condemn any such mention in the name of “personal responsibility.”

They’re not wrong to mention the role of personal responsibility here. The Randroids are wrong –  stupidly, preposterously, sinfully wrong — to regard it as the only factor that matters, but it certainly is one factor in the personal and societal harm wrought by such dangerous deals. Rent-A-Center is counting on the irresponsibility of a certain percentage of the working poor. That’s part of Rent-A-Center’s business model and it’s why they sell extravagances like a 5-foot TV.

Con artists like to say that “you can never con an honest man.” That’s not true. It’s a self-serving lie they repeat to try to make themselves feel justified and to defend their indefensible actions. But it is a lot easier to con a dishonest man, or an irresponsible, foolish or greedy one. Thus another necessary measure for limiting the harm done by predatory businesses like Rent-A-Center is to promote a greater financial responsibility and financial literacy among their pool of would-be victims.

Again, though, all the personal responsibility and financial education in the world doesn’t change the fact that the working poor aren’t permitted any good smart and responsible options. Yes, you can and should easily do without a 5-foot HD television set, but you can’t do without a mattress, and if you’re among the working poor, then your only option for buying that mattress will involve paying the predatory poverty premium of more than $1,000 above what a rich person is asked to pay for that same-exact damn mattress.

As James Baldwin said, “It’s expensive, being poor.”

But that’s not what this post is about either. I think both consumer education and consumer protection are prudent, just and necessary measures in response to schemes and scams like the one I’m discussing here, but I don’t want to talk about those today. Today I’m focused on something else entirely — something that has absolutely nothing to do with the government, or with regulation, or with maternalistic efforts to train consumers to protect themselves.

What I want to talk about today is just as necessary as both of those, but a lot more fun.

My point here is simply this: People who make a living by preying on the vulnerable and the gullible ought to be reminded that they make a living by preying on the vulnerable and the gullible. They ought to be reminded that others know this about them and that it appropriately influences our opinion of them

They ought to be reminded of this loudly, extravagantly, artfully and almost constantly.

I’ve yet to hear any complaints from the owners, executives, investors or spokespersons for places like Rent-A-Center about the steady stream of insults, condemnations and dirty looks they’re subjected to every time they venture out to interact with the public. That indicates a failure that needs to be corrected.

Please don’t misunderstand me — I’m not talking about harassment. When they’re hiding at home behind the walls of their gated communities, then let them be. Don’t seek them out. But when they venture out to interact with the rest of us in their stores or at the stadium, then they need to be reminded that being uncommonly indecent means that they can’t presume to expect the same common decency due to everyone else.

I realize that any notion of this kind of public shaming sets off alarm bells for those who have seen it used, too often, to keep down the downtrodden rather than being used, as it should be, to pull down the powerful. Shame and opprobrium are like humor, sarcasm, snark, ridicule and satire. These can be righteous, useful and necessary tools when you’re punching up, but they become vicious, cruel and oppressive tools if you’re punching down. (Ideally, I think, shame and opprobrium work best when combined with humor, sarcasm, snark, ridicule and satire.)

There’s a lucrative fortune to be made for anyone who has power and resources and the willingness to put them to use to prey upon the poor and the powerless. As long as that financial reward exists, people will continue to pursue it.

One way to help limit that would be to ensure that such financial rewards come with a social cost.

  • Brad

    To be fair, it’s not just Taco Bell but all the fast food outlets in the Yum! group, including KFC, Long John Silver’s, and Pizza Hut. (No breakfast?) I can imagine it’d be a great thing for a night out, but it would use up your credits pretty fast…

  • Lori

     Two thou…. WHAT?

    A car is worth more than that most of the time.  

    The $2k limit is in liquid assets. Your car doesn’t count, although I believe you can be turned down if it’s worth more than a certain amount & was purchased too recently. Equity in your house doesn’t count either. 

    The bad part is that I do think the $2k limit includes things like your retirement accounts.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Phew, okay. Well, the law isn’t as mean-spirited as I thought it was but it’s still a bum rap for anyone trying to save up for their old age.

  • Anonymous

    On the Taco Bell thing, if you’re only cooking for one it really isn’t any more expensive to eat fast food. I can get a burger at In-N-Out for 3 dollars and it’d cost me as much or more to make at home if I want to actually use vegetables on it. The meat and bread are easy to freeze but the vegetables have to be used pretty quickly, which is hard to do when you’re the only one eating.

    Same with a sandwich at Subway. Six dollars for two meals (splitting a foot long into two) with something that at least has all the food groups is pretty good. Of course, the chains in the Yum food group are pretty much the least healthy options around, so the point kind of gets lost a bit. Still, if you’re willing to sacrifice some intestinal integrity for a quick, cheap bite…

    During poor periods, I’ve had a difficult time bringing my weekly grocery bill under $20, even eating simple things like spaghetti, sausage dogs, and burgers. Any cheaper and I’d have to sacrifice nutrition pretty badly. It generally works out to the same eating prepared food, even at nicer fast food chains like Panera and Corner Bakery, because portions are so large a meal can often be split into two. Cooking for only yourself is also depressing as shit, and between that and the time crunch…

  • Woodsider

    Not a good analogy. That is what an ER is for, after all; it’s the place to go when you or your child (or anybody) has a cut that won’t stop bleeding.  Do you mean that’s you’d do the research to learn about taking care of the cut? That’s different than taking the time to learn about where you can buy a mattress for a reasonable amount.

    In my experience, these stores exist in places where people may not have cars to travel to large stores and the people who use them may not have access to credit cards at all, or have the where with all to go to Sleepy’s and get credit from them.

    I despise the current commercial with a white couple talking about not needing another credit card bill and the sports guy saying that you can stop paying when you’re not able to — without saying that then you have to give back the item and probably still owe fees.

  • Woodsider

    Not a good analogy. That is what an ER is for, after all; it’s the place to go when you or your child (or anybody) has a cut that won’t stop bleeding.  Do you mean that’s you’d do the research to learn about taking care of the cut? That’s different than taking the time to learn about where you can buy a mattress for a reasonable amount.

    In my experience, these stores exist in places where people may not have cars to travel to large stores and the people who use them may not have access to credit cards at all, or have the where with all to go to Sleepy’s and get credit from them.

    I despise the current commercial with a white couple talking about not needing another credit card bill and the sports guy saying that you can stop paying when you’re not able to — without saying that then you have to give back the item and probably still owe fees.

  • Woodsider

    EBT = Electronic Benefit Transfer. Used for food stamps and some other cash assistance programs, I believe. But definitely for food stamps.

  • Woodsider

    If you have a checking account Unemployment can still be deposited directly into it. That’s what I did with NYS. Otherwise to get a separate card I think entailed fees for using the a separate card. 

  • Woodsider

    I thought it was his son — Randall Paul — who did that, in opthamology.

  • Woodsider

    That’s the son. I don’t remember what Ron’s medical specialty is.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-McGraw/100001988854074 Patrick McGraw

    I was received EBT while on dialysis. The Ohio card was blue and white, much less garish than my orange debit card. I only ever used it at grocery stores, of the type where the customer slides their card and inputs data, so using it was no different than using my debit card.

    JJohnson, seconding what you’ve said about depression so much. Eating healthfully is difficult for me, because so often microwaving something pre-made is an accomplishment.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I purposely had my unemployment checks mailed to me; I wasn’t fond of the idea of letting the Canadian government other than Revenue Canada having my banking info. (>_<)

  • Emcee, cubed

    We’re also about to have more unemployed people, thanks to Focus on the Family

    I don’t wish unemployment and hardship on any one, and I hope those people soon find jobs with organizations that aren’t trying to wipe me out of existence. But if FotF has to lay off its last 650 employees and shut its doors for good, I can’t say I’ll be too upset…

  • Anonymous

    Gary Paul Nabhan, in his book Why Some Like it Hot, describes helping a friend of his on the Pima Indian Reservation to distribute government commodities.  Specifically, a group of Pimas were getting together for a baseball game:  they needed powdered milk to pour out as baselines, so the players would be able to find the infield. 

    Among Native Americans beyond childhood, you see, the incidence of lactose intolerance is nearly 100%.  And yet the government kept shipping cartons of powdered milk onto the reservation, even though the people who were supposed to benefit from it literally had no use for it beyond pouring it onto the ground at baseball games.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, by all means, let’s replace regulations with regulations put in
    place and enforced by stakeholders interested in suppressing
    competition! Also, this whole line of ‘ok, some regulations are dumb,
    for example, these regulations that have to do with disease, health, and
    safety’ argument is just exhausting to me.

    One Libertarian I dealt with quite seriously argued that regulations and inspections should exist, but shouldn’t be a “government monopoly”:  instead, there should be competing privately run inspection agencies.  That, exempli gratia, restauranteurs should have the choice of having their facilities inspected by Charlie’s Health Inspectors Ltd., Fran’s Safety-And-Health, or Jack’s Cleanliness Checkups.  For a fee, restaurants that passed the inspection would have the privilege of displaying the inspecting agency’s approval certificate.

    (Of course, this same individual advocated that neither police nor courts should be government monopolies either.  He never did explain how we could distinguish between “competing privately-run police forces” and “hired goons”.  He apparently genuinely believed that in a world of competing privately-run court systems, the Invisible Hand of the Market would magically select for the fairest courts and judges — failing to appreciate that when I’m called into court, for whatever reason, I don’t necessarily want the fairest court, I want the court that will rule in my favor.)

  • Lori

     One Libertarian I dealt with quite seriously argued that regulations and inspections should exist, but shouldn’t be a “government monopoly”:  instead, there should be competing privately run inspection agencies.  That, exempli gratia, restauranteurs should have the choice of having their facilities inspected by Charlie’s Health Inspectors Ltd., Fran’s Safety-And-Health, or Jack’s Cleanliness Checkups.  For a fee, restaurants that passed the inspection would have the privilege of displaying the inspecting agency’s approval certificate.  

     

    Yeah, because that worked so well with the financial ratings agencies? Need a Triple AAA on your piece of shit deal so that you can get conservative investors to hand you their money? Just rating shop and play the agencies off each other until you get one. 

    If I was forced to pick one thing that irks me most about Libertarians it’s that they always act as if their ideas are some brilliant new thing that no one has ever tried before. 

  • Brad

    This is interesting – farmers’ markets in Michigan give you double your purchase on food stamps!

    http://www.yesmagazine.org/people-power/a-double-win-for-fresh-food

  • P J Evans

    And that their shiny new ideas will always work.
    Do they have thirty-microsecond memories? With a refresh problem? Because It really seems as though they didn’t learn anything in history classes.

    (Also: BBB, which cheerfully sells its ratings to businesses; the businesses that don’t pay them don’t get the ‘seal of approval’, but might be better businesses for customers.)

  • Lori

    That is so cool. Yeah for Michigan. It’s nice to see my home state doing something good instead of horrible and/or embarrassing. 

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    I really despise Randroids, not the least because while they want to
    treat everybody else how ever they hell they want and not pay a dime in
    well, anything. They scream bloody murder at the idea of them being
    without fire fighters, police, clean water and reliable electricity.
    They’re selfish 17 year olds who never grew up.

    Well, Objectivism IS a philosophy of Utter Selfishness.  The Individual (i.e. ME) is everything, the group is Nothing.

    A one-eighty flip from what Rand fled in the early USSR, where the Individual was Nothing and the Collective was Everything.  Communism begets Objectivism.

    And Rand & Stalin ended up as funhouse mirrors of each other with only one thing in common:  Purity of Ideology.  If Rand had ever been given the same absolute power over a country and its inhabitants as Stalin, I have no doubt her rule would have been just as bloody.

    “Who is John Galt?”  Hell if I know, but these days the guy’s got more Celebrity Impersonators than Elvis.

  • Anonymous

    No kidding. Someone said earlier — very few of them were actually alive when their ideas actually dominated public policy. None of them can remember a time before the FDA (1906), federal minimum-wage laws (1938), Social Security (1935), and most of the other federal controls and welfare programs that they would like to dismantle. The reason Ron Paul can be so ideologically consistent is because his most radical ideas — and a significant majority of his good ideas, really — pretty much never make it into legislation. It’s easy to be consistent when everyone except your biggest fans ignores you all the time.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, because that worked so well with the financial ratings agencies.
    Need a Triple AAA on your piece of shit deal so that you can get
    conservative investors to hand you their money? Just rating shop and
    play the agencies off each other until you get one.

    Another poster in the discussion envisioned the following exchange:

    “Hi there, this is CleanBillOfHealth Private Regulators. You’re due an audit. We are one of several regulators operatingin this area and we hope you choose us to publicly verify that your company is well run.”

    “OK, I’m sure we can negotiate terms. Make it a good one and there’ll be a tip in it for you. AOKNothingToSeeHere FirmCheck also offered us a review and some of the examples in their portfolio are stunning. They’re attractively priced too. What can you do for us?”

    I have trouble posting links here, but if you want to read the discussion you can find it by googling the exact phrase “Why the derision for AnCap and libertarianism here?”  Fair warning — it was at the JREF forums and was sixty-eight pages long, so good luck.  But it was hugely entertaining from the very first page, with such exchanges as:

    RATIONAL POSTER:  “Who would show up for a trial at a private court? If my brother had a
    private court business right now, and I decided to sue you, and he and I called you tonight and said “be at the JimmyB’s Courthouse on Friday!” would you show up?”

    LIBERTOPIAN:  “You would send out private police to arrest me if I failed to show up.  If I contested this arrangement or my subpoena and there was some potential legitimacy to my claim, it would be in your and your brother’s best interest to take interest, because if not, your private firm would lose reputation, and your insurance rates would go up and you or credit would sink down.”

    RATIONAL POSTER #2:  “So, let me see. Then I (the Corleone torpedo) have a beef with the Tessios. If the Don doesn’t back me up, “his private firm would lose reputation [...] or credit would sink down.” I think I saw exactly that situation the other night when The Godfather was on — Sonny was saying he had to hit Barzini or else the Corleones would look weak. But, of course, the Barzini were saying exactly the same thing, because they had been insulted by the Corleone refusing to help them with a business proposition, and if they would lose face if they accepted the insult.  You’ve just raised the second reel of The Godfather to the heights of judicial theory.”

  • Lori

       You’ve just raised the second reel of The Godfather to the heights of judicial theory.”  

     

    LOL. 

  • Lori

       You’ve just raised the second reel of The Godfather to the heights of judicial theory.”  

     

    LOL. 

  • Lori

       You’ve just raised the second reel of The Godfather to the heights of judicial theory.”  

     

    LOL. 

  • Anonymous

    Oh, I have zero attachment to FotF myself.  (More like the opposite.)  But every FotFer laid off is another person competing with my out-of-work friends for what few jobs there are.

    Also, I find the idea of something like FotF laying people off to save money really repulsive.  They’re theoretically a Christian group, and I’m pretty damn sure that the answer to “Who would Jesus lay off?” is “no one.”

  • http://mistformsquirrel.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    And that of course assumes the companies are even remotely trying to be legitimate.    It’s very, very easy to imagine a place where the ‘inspection’ can be handled via mail, and the grade you get is dependent entirely on the fee you’re willing to pay.

  • Anonymous

    You don’t have to imagine that. It’s basically like a diploma mill, except under their system there will be no way to distinguish between a diploma mill and a ‘real’ school until a “surgeon” from Fake U Medical School accidentally removes your lungs instead of your burst appendix.

  • http://mistformsquirrel.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    This is true. I don’t know why I didn’t think of diploma mills, but that’s a perfect parallel.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    “Who is John Galt?”

    John Galt was the third man on the Grassy Knoll
    John Galt is actually Jim Morrison, retired and gone into accounting.
    John Galt is Ronald McDonald’s evil twin brother.
    John Galt is a while lab mouse in a large mechanical suit.
    John Galt is J. R. “Bob” Dobbs without the sense of humor.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    What bothers me about things like Atlas Shrugged is that, rather than trying to fix an unsustainable system, the “heroes” just go “Screw you guys, we’re outta’ here!”  It just hardly seems very, well, heroic for them to do so.  

    Who is John Galt?  

    He is the pied piper.  

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    What bothers me about things like Atlas Shrugged is that, rather than trying to fix an unsustainable system, the “heroes” just go “Screw you guys, we’re outta’ here!”  It just hardly seems very, well, heroic for them to do so.  

    Who is John Galt?  

    He is the pied piper.  


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