Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Monday, June 6, 2016

John Oliver, Public Benefactor



The above video is wonderful for two reasons.

First, John Oliver is forgiving the medical debt--$14.9 million worth--of 9,000 people. Yes, the statute of limitations has expired (which is why Oliver's newly formed debt-buying corporation was able to acquire it for $60,000), but, as the debt buyers caught on camera in the video reveal, people pay even when they're told in written disclaimers that the debt is unenforceable, because the letters don't effectively communicate that the debts are unenforceable.

So, that's a mitzvah for 9,000 people right there.

Second, because the video, aired on his HBO show, Last Week Tonight, allows Oliver to deliver a highly effective primer on the unsavory debt buying industry. As The NYT explains:
Like spinach concealed in the brownie mix, the deliciously entertaining scene masquerades as TV dessert, but it has real nutritional (or, in this case, informational) value: Mr. Oliver wanted to illustrate how easy it is for companies to buy debt and try to collect from consumers, whether those consumers are still legally liable for the debt or not. The segment also showed footage of panelists at a debt-buying trade conference saying that most consumers didn’t understand disclaimers on their debt notices, which affords them some legal rights.

News as entertainment is a continuing theme on the show. Whether Mr. Oliver is explaining the history of Donald J. Trump’s family by leading a campaign to change Mr. Trump’s surname to Drumpf or starting his own house of worship to better explain how tax-exempt megachurches work, “Last Week Tonight” is continuing to perfect the art of explaining by doing.

On the latest episode, Mr. Oliver said buying the debt was “absolutely terrifying, because it means if I wanted to, I could legally have CARP take possession of that list and have employees start calling people, turning their lives upside down over medical debt they no longer had to pay.”

“There would be absolutely nothing wrong with that except for the fact that absolutely everything is wrong with that,” he said.
This is an issue the Times has done some good reporting on, here, here, and here.

Let me just add that my own piece in the Anglican Theological Review dealt with the harms inflicted by usury, and the surprising normalization within Christianity of those harms by erasing the prohibition against usury, the subject of at least 15 biblical prohibitions. The catastrophic damage caused by shady and outright debt collection practices is nothing short of appalling.

So good for John Oliver, helping out 9,000 people who might have been fleeced without his aid.

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