Magic Words That Will Save You $$$

Jake Halpern’s noir-ish story in the NYT Magazine about debt collection is scarier than Sin City. Poor Theresa! (We are all Theresa.)

there was little that Theresa could do; she had paid off her debt to the wrong collectors and had fallen into the debt underworld. If anyone was going to help her, it wouldn’t be the state attorney general, or the Better Business Bureau, or the F.T.C., or even the police, but the former banker and the former armed-robber who bought her debt.

The most valuable takeaway from the piece, as underlined by an interview Halpern gives Ira Glass on “This American Life,” though, is that a few magic words can make the whole nightmare go away.

Jake Halpern: [The lawyer] said, oh, well, when a consumer actually shows up in court and says the magic words, then these cases basically evaporate. And I say, the magic words? He says, yeah. Show me the evidence.

Ira Glass: Show me the evidence. In other words, show me where you got this number, $3,762.20. The Georgia Legal Services lawyer told Jake that if you’re standing before a judge and you say, OK, I don’t recognize this amount that you say I owe, and I want to see some documentation, I want to see account statements or whatever, because I have no way to know with certainty that this debt is really mine, the judge will usually turn to the other side and ask for the evidence. And in all likelihood, they’ll have no documentation and they’ll drop the case. And this is true not just in Georgia, but elsewhere. Because the way this business works, Jake says, when credit card companies sell these IOUs to debt collection companies, they usually don’t give them any documentation. Usually they just give them a spreadsheet with a long list of people who owe money on their credit cards and their addresses and the last payment and how much they owe, and not a whole lot more than that.

Amazing!! You have the right to remain silent, America, or to use the magic words that will set you free. Think you’ve got it down? Test your skills by playing the game!

A Conversation With Anna Sale About ‘Death, Sex & Money’

Death, Sex & Money is a new podcast by WNYC’s Anna Sale and you should probably be listening to it. As the name suggests, its raison d’etre is discussing those taboo topics that are frequently on our minds but seldom in our conversations (just like The Billfold!). The first three episodes address topics often addressed here, like realizing you can no longer afford to live in New York, pursuing a creative career despite financial hardships and long odds, and, of course, having a former Republican Senator intervene in your love life. (That last one was featured on This American Life.) Anna was good enough to take some time to talk with me about the podcast, taboos, shame, and the challenges of adulthood.

This American Life’s Segment on Give Directly

This American Life teamed up with Planet Money who sent reporters David Kestenbaum and Jacob Goldstein to Kenya to see whether or not GiveDirectly actually works. Spoiler alert: Some people used the money to make their lives better and start businesses, while others misused the money given to them.

Internet Giving

In Slate, Seth Stevenson takes a look at why people tend to band together on the Internet to donate massive amounts of money to individuals like Karen Klein, the bus monitor who was infamously bullied on video:

Reicher attributes the giving frenzy, in part, to concretization. “For an abstract idea to affect us,” he says, “it often helps if it’s turned into something concrete and embodied. To say lots of people are suffering is an abstract concept. To see this one woman suffering, and be able to help her, is more concrete.”

Reicher suggests that the “archetypal elements” involved here played a role as well. As we watch the video, we might flash back to moments when we were bullied on a school bus. Or feel guilt about having bullied others. The video also pits strongly defined, archetypal personas in opposition to each other—brash youth versus wise elder. (Max Sidorov thinks it’s this juxtaposition of foulmouthed little kids and a weeping older woman that really screws with people’s emotions.)

The Internet raised about $700,000 for Klein to give her “the vacation of a lifetime.” Media coverage and Reddit also played a huge role. The Internet also banded together to raise $60,000 for a woman who needed surgery after she was brutally raped and beaten, but didn’t have the same massive publicity that Klein did. Last week, I donated $20 to Harper High school after listening to the two-part episode on This American Life about the school’s struggle with gun violence—the conversation about that episode on the Internet helped persuade me to do that too.

How Ira Glass Does Money (For His Show, and For Himself)

Gotta announce my biases from the start: I adore Ira Glass, in a celebrity-idol kind of way. I got to meet him, once, and for about three minutes he asked me questions about my life and then really listened in that way that few people do, in a way that seems improbable given that I waited in the book-signing line for nearly two hours while other people also had their three minutes of personal listening-time with Mr. Glass.

Yesterday, “This American Life” left P-R-I, Public Radio International, and I bet you’re already hearing the same lyrical fillip that accompanies those solemn words, because those of us who are “This American Life” fans have heard them so many times.

Now, TAL will be distributed over PRX, the Public Radio Exchange, an “online marketplace for distribution, review, and licensing of public radio programming.”

In other words: “This American Life,” like many Americans, now has to earn money on its own, on the online marketplace.

Modern-Day Jean Valjean Set Free

Cornealious "Mike" Anderson, a Missouri man sentenced to 13 years in prison in 1999 for his part in a robbery, instead spent 14 years as a free man with a new lease on life. He didn't run or hide; after his conviction, he waited for police to show up and haul him off to prison -- only, because of a clerical error, they never did. At least, not until July of this year, when Anderson came home from his job to find cops outside his house.

The Salaries of Public Radio Personalities

I started my career working in radio and quickly left and moved on to other mediums after I discovered how little money there was in the industry. There is money, though, for top talent.

The Cost of Things: Supporting Podcasts, Radio, & Friends

Mike: “I don’t want your money! Keep your money!” Ester. I can’t get that song out of my head—it’s stuck. It’s from 21 Chump Street, from the This American Life musical that just went up earlier this week.

Ester: That’s hilarious, MD. I haven’t listened to it yet but I’m highly susceptible to earworms so I’m sure that once I do I too will suffer from your malady.

Mike: So, it’s from their live show, and they have a video you can download if you want, and yes, I wanted it. The cost of it was $5, but they said that since the show was so expensive to make it’d be great if you could pay more. So I paid $20.

Ester: That’s great of you! Did you consider waiting to see how much you enjoyed the content before deciding how much to give them in exchange for it? I just signed up for Slate Plus, where you pay the site $50 a year or $5 a month to get upgraded content — podcasts without ads, for example — but that was after years and years of reading and listening to Slate content gratis. Their value had already been demonstrated.

Mike: I decided that $20 was a fair price to pay for something I listen to on a weekly basis and want to continue to support, so I paid it without waiting to see if I liked the video itself.

Ester: Right, that makes sense. You’re not paying for the video, after all; you’re rewarding them for their track record. I have done that too for TAL specifically. (I’m a radio dork.) But do you have other podcasts that you listen to and like and haven’t contributed to, even though they’ve asked? What’s your criteria for deciding which listening experiences to support?

The $750,000 Story

Did you listen to last week's This American Life episode about how acetaminophen kills about 150 Americans every year due to accidental overdoses? The story, among many other things, showed the long, difficult, and frustrating process of getting warning labels onto acetaminophen bottles. The story, which took two years to report, was done by an investigative unit at ProPublica. Today, The Atlantic reports how much it cost to report the story: $750,000, which is an extraordinary amount of money dedicated to one story. That money went to pay: "reporters, news applications and web developers, editors, video production, social media and PR, travel, legal review, half of the public opinion poll etc." The cost of producing the This American Life episode was a separate matter. Was it worth it? Peter Osnos writes: "...what price do you suppose a parent with a young, feverish child might put on these disclosures?"

14 Million Americans on Disability

In Hale County, Alabama, 1 in 4 working-age adults is on disability. On the day government checks come in every month, banks stay open late, Main Street fills up with cars, and anybody looking to unload an old TV or armchair has a yard sale.

Sonny Ryan, a retired judge in town, didn’t hear disability cases in his courtroom. But the subject came up often. He described one exchange he had with a man who was on disability but looked healthy.

“Just out of curiosity, what is your disability?” the judge asked from the bench. “I have high blood pressure,” the man said. “So do I,” the judge said. “What else?” “I have diabetes.” “So do I.”

If you haven’t read Chana Joffe-Walt’s story about the number of Americans who are on disability in the U.S., it’s worth taking the time to read today (or listen to, if you’re a This American Life podcast subscriber). There are places in America where 1 in 4 working-age adults are in disability due to health issues like back pain and diabetes—25 percent of adults in Hale County, Alabama, for example, have been determined to be unable to work and are collecting disability checks from the government totaling up to about $13,000 a year, plus Medicare benefits. It’s not a lot of money. As Joffe-Walt points out: “Going on disability means, assuming you rely only on those disability payments, you will be poor for the rest of your life. That’s the deal. And it’s a deal 14 million Americans have signed up for.” And it’s also a deal we can’t afford: The Social Security Administration estimates that reserves in the disability insurance program are on track to run out in 2016. If you do listen to the story, take the time to read it as well—the charts by Planet Money’s Lam Thuy Vo are great.