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Saturday, August 16, 2014

Pay Day Loans and John Oliver

I loved John Oliver on the Daily Show, and kept meaning to catch up with him on "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver."  This morning, I went to the youtube video on payday lending -- from last Sunday night's show (8/10/14) that his site steered me to.  I found it mostly annoying.

Googling it, I see a number of articles from the mainstream press that express their joy that someone big has finally shone a spotlight on this issue.  E.g. LA Times, Huffington Post.

I gleaned the following facts from the video:

-- A payday loan is supposedly to be a short term loan for an emergency, where you agree to pay the money back on your next payday.

-- There are more payday loan places than McDonalds restaurants in the U.S.

-- They use attractive pitch-people, including Montel Williams

-- They often charge several hundred percent interest (on an annual basis).  He mentioned an example where the rate was 1900%.

-- They have a strong lobbying arm.

-- Oliver had an interesting clip of a Texas legislator defending the payday loan industry, and another Texas legislator calling him out because he happened to own a dozen or so payday loan outlets.  The punchline was that the second legislator -- Vicki Truitt -- very soon thereafter turned around and became a lobbyist for the payday loan industry.

-- A majority of people who use payday loans say that they felt taken advantage of, but a majority also said they really needed it (that's not an exact quote, but it was something like that).

-- Legislating against it (per Oliver) is like whack-a-mole -- Ohio banned payday loans, but in stepped something called mortgage loans.  In other states, legislation is circumvented by places that sell short-term auto loans.  Other payday lenders have managed to affiliate themselves with Indian tribes, and thus benefit from sovereign immunity.

-- A large percentage of loan-taker are NOT able to pay the loan off by the next payday, and end up taking out a new loan (I guess to pay off the old loan).

-- A payday loan employee training manual portrays the business as a cycle -- the customer gets the loan, can't pay it off, and then gets another loan.  In the end, the debt (including interest and fees) is a multiple of the money that was actually borrowed.

-- Often, the cycle goes out of control, and the debt-taker needs to find other means -- e.g. pawning stuff, going to family members -- to pay off the loan.  The implication is that this is what the people should have been doing in the first place.

Sarah Silverman came on at the end in a "counter-ad" where she suggested doing "Anything Else" rather than get a payday loan.  That included getting paid to urinate or defecate on people.

That's what I remember from one viewing.  But it's stuff that we middle-class and rich people already know.  I've noticed those places, and never in a million years would go to one.  If I need money, I'll take out a loan on my house, I'll borrow money from my retirement plan, I'll accept another low interest introductory rate credit card offer, I'll dip into the line of credit at my bank (on a very short term basis) or (if for some reason none of these work out, which has never happened), I'll ask one of my relatively rich or middle class family members for short-term help.  And I suspect that John Oliver and Sarah Silverman are even more removed from the problem than I am.

So it's easy for us rich and middle-class people to hate payday lenders, because they take advantage of people who are less fortunate than we are.  It's all the more troubling because this is the "working poor" we are talking about -- people who have paychecks and might be supporting families, but are nevertheless poor.  It's easy for us to run around yelling about how it must stop.  But I didn't hear any real solutions.  "Anything else" is not a solution.  Obviously, the people who take out payday loans have made that calculus -- they have their pride, and they hope that they will be able to pay the loans off without having to go to family members.  Often, they've already done that.  Yes, if they realized that they would have to pay $700 on a $200 loan, they would have gone to their families for the $200 in the first place.  But they had their dignity, and hoped it wouldn't come to that.  And dignity is probably why they don't go out and try to get paid for defecating or urinating on people, Sarah.

This is the first time I've ever thought about these issues, so rather than write out all of my thoughts, I'll just link to economist Tom Lehman's defense of  payday lending here, and then say a few things about what I think it probably says (I don't have time to read it myself, but I'm sure it's worth reading). 

The bottom line is that if we believe in the free market, payday lending should not be a problem.  The solution is not "anything else," but it's for rich do-gooders like Sarah Silverman and John Oliver to open up their own payday lending shops and run the business the way they think it ought to be run.  The fact is, payday loans make a lot of sense -- if you know you'll get some money next paycheck, and you're willing to sign that over to me, I'm willing to lend you money.  There must be a reason that they are so ubiquitous and profitable -- they are filling a need.  A need that was formerly filled by loan sharks.  There was a reference to "loan sharking" toward the end of the video, but it contained the implicit assumption that loan sharking was no longer around because we had made it illegal, and the suggestion that payday loans are just legalized loan-sharking.  In fact, I'd have to guess that the rise of payday lending can be credited with the decline of loan-sharking.  If we end up regulating payday lending out of business, you can bet that loan sharking (yes, *gasp* -- illegal loan sharking!) will rise to meet the need.   

The funny thing is that this is clearly a market where the barriers to entry are very low.  The competition are a bunch of people who are hated for their usurious rates, and it should be easy pickings for the good guys to come in and start a chain that would put them all out of business, by simply charging lower rates.  If Oliver is to believed, charging a mere 100% (APR) might well make you the best deal in town, and should ensure a healthy profit margin as well. 

There are a lot of "markets" where I support government intervention.  Pharmaceuticals, for instance, where the government has intervened, although not in a very smart way.  There are places where consumers just don't have and can't get enough information for the free market to really work (although the internet is making things better for most consumers and most products on that score).  But payday lending is one where consumers really should be able to watch out for themselves.  There were no allegations in the video (or if they were I missed them) that there were hidden fees and that the consumers weren't told exactly what they were getting into.  Yes, the business takes advantage of people who are in dire straits, but it also provides relief for those people.  The people have done the math, have considered the alternatives, and are choosing the most palatable option.  Yes, it sucks for them, but if it's the most palatable option for them, what business do the rest of us -- who never find ourselves in those circumstances -- have trying to take that option away from them?

It seems to me that there is an analogy to be drawn between payday lending and the pharmaceutical industry.  Patented drugs often costs patients thousands of times what they cost to produce.  The patients (or their insurance companies, or medicaid, or medicare) have no choice but to buy the drugs, at the prices that pharma charges.  But those prices are outrageous, you say.  The drug companies are preying on the fact that paying those prices is more palatable than getting sicker and sicker and dying.  I hope John Oliver's next "expose" is on that system.

I wish I had a bit more time or money -- I'd get into the payday lending business myself.  It really could be a very beneficial to a lot of people.  And since I'm a nice guy, I'd only charge reasonable rates, and would have reasonable payback plans, etc etc.  And if I had a LOT more money, I'd go into the pharmaceutical business.

After writing all that, I found this, which makes some of the same points, quite eloquently.  I don't think I'd ever heard of The Washington Free Beacon before, but I see now that it's a deeply conservative publication.  I hope that doesn't mean I am becoming a conservative.  If you're a liberal, and understand why John Oliver and Sarah Silverman went too far on this one, please let me know.  And if you want to start a campaign to get them to start a humane payday lending business, I'll be there to help out.


If you've gotten this far, maybe you would be interested in my views on other matters, like free speech and Charlie Hebdo and Charlie Hebdo and Boko HaramSony's "The Interview, as well as my question "Why Should I be Charlie?" (featuring a hilarious clip from The Daily Show).


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Banana-induced headache, anyone?

Nobody believes me when I say that having more than one banana at a time -- really more than one over the course of a day -- gives me an instant, pounding headache.  Well, some people believe me -- I have a reputation for great honesty and integrity -- but nobody has any answers as to why.  Nobody else gets them.  And until recently, this particular medical problem was completely ungoogleable, which, for all practical purposes, meant it did not exist.

In truth, I haven't googled it for several years -- I just avoid eating more than one banana a day.  But I googled it just now, and I finally found some validation.  There is no scientific research on this issue, but several websites -- including now this one -- report that tyramine (something that shows up in bananas, nuts, citrus fruit, and aged cheese) might be a migraine trigger.  I have never had a migraine in my life, as far as I know.  But at least now I have something to blame my headaches on.  One article suggests that the tyramine concentration is greatest in the peel, so (if you have the same problem that I do), it might help to scrape the banana before eating it, or before putting it in your smoothie.

Here, here, and here are some links that mention the problem.

I should note that the main reason that there is no firmly established link between foods like bananas and headaches is because (supposedly) the headaches only come on many hours after ingestion of the trigger.  For that reason, it's very hard to test or confirm any particular trigger, because headaches might be caused by other triggers.  With me, however, the headache is almost immediate.

I also note that I have not made any similar connections to any other kinds of food.  I eat oranges and grapefruits with no problem, although, come to think of it, rarely more than one a day.  I occasionally eat nuts, but never noticed a problem.  I hardly ever eat aged cheese.

I will be the first to admit that I don't think this is a problem for the general population.  I'm the only person I know who has experienced it, even though my life in general is very headache-free.  I don't know if something like this qualifies as an allergy, but I'm going to say the words banana allergy right here just in case that's what people are googling for.

If you have experienced banana-induced headache symptoms similar to mine -- i.e. a very quick onset of a pounding headache within seconds of having eaten one banana too many -- let me know!

Friday, August 8, 2014

Rocket Raccoon Called Gamora a Whore Twice

This is a followup to my earlier post about whether it was ok to laugh when Drax called Gamora a "green whore" in Guardians of the Galaxy. In skimming over the IMDB quotes this morning, I was reminded of the following exchange:

Rocket Raccoon: There's a quarnex battery behind it. Purplish box. Green wires. To get into that watch tower, I definitely need it.
Gamora: How are we supposed to do that?
Rocket Raccoon: Well, supposedly, these bald bodies find you attractive, so maybe you could work out some sort of trade.
[Groot starts walking toward the panel]
Gamora: You must be joking.
Rocket Raccoon: No, I really heard they find you attractive.

And I remember laughing at the last line there too.  I wonder if that was ok?  At that point, we didn't know for sure what a good person Gamora really was.

There doesn't seem to be any feminist outcry about this line, but maybe that's just because it's not as memorable as the "green whore" line.  And maybe James Gunn gets a pass for this one, because Rocket is an a-hole.  Is it possible that putting an offensively sexist line in the mouth of a character who says all kinds of other offensive things is ok, whereas if it's put in the mouth of any other character, it needs to be analyzed?

I don't know, but that's not going to stop me from analyzing this line. Yes, he's not quite calling her a whore, but it's possibly even worse -- he suggests that she should trade sex for something, and then when she says he must be joking, he assures her that he is not.  In fact, he can't even conceive that she might think he's joking about her willingness to prostitute herself, that he thinks (or acts like he thinks) she is referring to something else. So really, he has called her a whore twice.

So again for the record, I thought it was hilarious.  I've heard that jokes structured like that before -- there's probably even a name for them -- where one person says one thing, the other person denies it, and the first person responds as if the denial was only as to a part of it, which then confirms that the first person really believes the main part. I'm struggling here -- if anyone can provide other examples of this kind of joke, I'd appreciate it.  

So my question is whether this is another offensive line, designed extract cheap laughs while demeaning women everywhere?  Even though Gamora has proven her ability as a resourceful and formidable fighter, Rocket thinks of her primary value as a sex object.  What lesson is that teaching our kids?  Even the punch line brings us back the notion that the only woman in the group is valued for her looks rather than anything else.  Is it more or less pardonable than the Drax green whore line?

I really don't know the answer to this, all I know is that I laughed, possibly because of the misdirecting structure of the joke.  Was it irresponsible of the James Gunn and Marvel to have that joke in there?

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Domino's Pizza and the "Heroic" Dairy Cows

I'm looking at a Domino's Pizza box right now.  It says:  "This pie couldn't have been made without help from Stella, Edna, Abigail, Estelle, and Nancy," i.e. a bunch of fictional dairy cows that Domino's wants us to think are the "unsung heroes" behind the pizza.  Before going on a full-blown rant on this, I checked the internet and found that other ranters have been there before me.  Bottom line -- for those who don't know -- the life of a dairy cow is even worse than that of a slaughterhouse-bound beef cow. Meat cows, on balance, probably enjoy their too-brief lives (about a year; after that it doesn't make sense to keep feeding them), at least until the last few horrific days.  But then it's over.  By contrast, dairy cows are uncomfortably confined and repeatedly are made to suffer the loss of separation from offspring to which they have strong maternal bonds.  Here's an excerpt from Sarah Taylor's recent book,"Vegetarian to Vegan," found here:

"Sadly, just like human mothers bond tightly with their newborn babies, so do cows bond with their calves.  Mother cows have been reported to bellow for many hours or even days after her calf is taken from her.  Author Oliver Sacks, MD discusses a visit that he and Temple Grandin made to a dairy farm: When they arrived, they heard many cows bellowing, causing a very loud and unnerving sound.  Temple commented, “They must have separated the calves from the cows this morning,” and indeed, that was exactly the case.  Similarly, John Avizienius, a senior scientific officer at the Farm Animal Department at the RSPCA in Britain, discusses one particular cow that suffered great emotional distress over the separation from her calf:  She bellowed for hours, and even after six weeks would hover at the pen door where she had last seen her calf.
"In a cruel twist of fate, it’s been shown in mammals that multiparous females (those giving birth for the second time or more) have higher levels of oxytocin than primiparous females (those giving birth for the first time.) This means that with each subsequent birth, a mother cow presumably grows more and more bonded to her calves, and it likely becomes more and more emotionally traumatizing for the cow each time a baby calf is taken from her. 
"Just as the mother forms an immediate bond with her calf, the newborn calf also has an immediate attachment to his or her mother, and is healthier the longer it gets to bond with its mother. Calves allowed to remain with their mothers for up to 14 days showed weight gains at three times the rate of calves taken within 1-2 days, and they also showed signs of better searching behaviors and better social relationships with other calves. But as we’ve seen, baby calves are taken away within hours due to both the risk of infection from their filthy conditions, as well as the desire for the farmers to keep the mother’s milk for humans – not calves – so they can make a profit.
"It has been shown that baby calves experience emotional distress when they are separated from their mothers.  Unbelievably, they have been known to try to bond with the factory farm workers, even trying to suckle the fingers of the worker who is sending them off to slaughter. 
"Female calves will be raised to become dairy cows like their mothers, and the male calves will go to veal farms where they will be slaughtered for their tender meat."
So think about that next time you eat a Domino's Pizza, or any other pizza for that matter.  Think about the dairy cows and their never-to-be-seen-again veal calves nuzzling their slaughterhouse killers.  I know that it's wrong to compare anything involving mere animals with human slavery, but I hope you'll understand that there is an analogy there at least -- this is similar to an antebellum clothing shop advertising that the clothing would not have been possible without "unsung heroes" Stella, Edna, Abigail, Estelle, and Nancy -- the human slaves who endured the overseer's whip while picking the cotton that went into the garment.

Here are some other blogs that have had the same problem I did:

And in case you didn't realize it, cows can be happy and joyful beings, as shown in the following beautiful video:

Finally here's a picture of the box:

Update 120814:  A sickening video of how real-life Stella, Edna, Abigail, Estelle, and Nancy were treated at a Domino's-supplying dairy farm can be seen here:

Domino's response was as clueless as ever:

"No act of cruelty can ever be condoned. Ever. What we do know is that this is not an issue with our cheese supplier — it was an isolated case of sadistic acts by employees at a single dairy farm in southern New Mexico."

What about the cruel act of taking calves away from grieving mother cows?  

I honestly don't know what's worse -- the occasional albeit all-too-frequent cruelty inflicted on cows by sadistic and frustrated minimum wage workers, or the system that not only allows that to happen, but also systematically, and for the sake of profit, causes the cow the searing pain of loss described above, while all the while telling its customers that the cow is a hero with a girl's name?

I wonder if the cows at dairy farms are even given names.


If you've gotten this far, maybe you would be interested in my views on other matters, like free speech and Charlie Hebdo and Charlie Hebdo and Boko HaramSony's "The Interview, as well as my question "Why Should I be Charlie?" (featuring a hilarious clip from The Daily Show).


And by the way, I solved the ISIS problem here:  

PriceFixer: Fighting ISIS with Maslow's Hierarchy

It would only take a couple of billion dollars to do it.  Too bad nobody's listening. 

Gamora the Green Whore

Ok, I'm sorry.  I apologize in advance to all of my female friends and admirers who might be reading this blog.  I just saw Guardians of the Galaxy yesterday, and there were several lines where I laughed so hard that tears came to my eyes.

And yes, one of them was the following exchange:

Drax:  I want you all to know I am grateful for your acceptance after my blunders. [he just about got them all killed, and was responsible for the infinity-stone-containing orb falling into the hands of Ronan, the most evil being in the universe]

Quill:  We all make mistakes Drax.

Drax:  It is pleasing to once again have friends . . . I can barely see [it's dark and Groot lights the place up with luminous spoors]

Drax:  How did you learn to do this?

Quill:  I'm pretty sure the answer is "I Am Groot"

Drax:  "You, Quill, are my friend . . . . This dumb tree is my friend . . . . And this green whore is now my . . ."

Gamora (interrupting furiously):  "You must STOP!"

The internet seems to be going wild with people saying that calling Gamora a "green whore" was inappropriate, and people wondering how such an offensive line got into this movie.  Herehere, and here are some current examples, I have a feeling there will be more soon enough.

I'm going to use this post to try to analyze whether it was wrong for me to laugh, and whether I need to figure out a way to stop myself from laughing when confronted with a similar stimulus in the future.  The next question is whether it was irresponsible for James Gunn and Marvel to have the line in there, knowing that it would cause people like me to laugh, and that it would cause offense in others.

I can't really explain why that line seemed so funny to me (it was a reflex), although that won't stop me from trying.  First, I can't think of another word right there that would have made me laugh at all. Part of it is that "whore" is so obviously NOT what Gamora is.  She has just recently rebuffed Peter Quill's advances, and has already shown that she is by far the most ethical and moral (yes, these are non-cumulative adjectives) person in the group -- she has explained that all her past killing and rampaging was not her fault (she had been programmed to do it).  We know that she is betraying Ronan and that she doesn't consider Thanos her father.  She is willing to risk her life to save the galaxy, and she's the only one of the bunch that doesn't have any second thoughts that that's the right thing to do.  Maybe I found it funny in the sense that I'd probably find it funny -- in the right context -- if someone called Mother Teresa a "whore."  [I wrote that not realizing that Christopher Hitchens had done so in 2009, and that he's not the only one; thanks Google]

Second, it's in keeping with Drax's character, and the way he talks about people.  I also laughed pretty hard when, during the prison break, Drax got hold of a gigantic gun, and tossed it to Rocket, with the words, "Here, creepy little beast!" (IMDB says "furry", I remember "creepy"; guess I'll have to watch it again).  In the "green whore" sequence, he has just called Groot a "dumb tree" (even though he obviously likes and admires Groot), and that's also part of what makes the "green whore" line funny -- he is calling these people friends, but he thinks of them primarily in terms of pejoratives.  It's also funny because "whore" is such a step-increase beyond "dumb."

And of course, in our introduction to Drax, we had the following, after Drax fails to understand Quill's throat-slashing gesture, and when made to understand it, says that he won't slash the throat, he'll cut the head clean off:

Rocket the Raccoon: "His people are completely literal. Metaphors are gonna go over his head."

Drax:  "Nothing goes over my head! My reflexes are too fast. I would catch it."

And third, it's Drax's idiotic way of trying to say the same thing that Gamora had said so eloquently a few scenes earlier:  “I have lived most of my life surrounded by my enemies. I would be grateful to die surrounded by my friends.”

Another thing that makes it funny is that Drax really thinks that he is saying something deep and meaningful (he says it very deliberately), because he has come to realize that these people ARE his friends, and that he really was responsible for the big mess that they are in, and that they have nevertheless accepted him.  He is trying to express his gratitude and happiness, but he has no clue that he is even being offensive by calling Groot dumb or Gamora a whore.

Others have pointed out that in the prison scene, many of the prisoners -- whose families, friends, and civilizations had been killed by Gamora et al., back when she was a killing machine -- called her a "whore."  Given Drax's literal-mindedness, the "green whore" reference might have just reflected the information Drax got when he first encountered her. Unfortunately, when the "green whore" line came up, I didn't recall hearing that word in the prison scene (although I don't doubt those who say it did), so I have to admit I found the line funny (and was not offended) even without that memory.

So my point is that what made the line funny was all about Drax, not about Gamora, not about women generally.  And it's not about whores, either.  Remember, some women actually are prostitutes -- are their feelings being considered in all of this outrage?  Many of them can't help being prostitutes (which is another tragedy), and yet a slang word for their circumstances is so appalling to (some) other women (and some men) that it can't even be said in a movie laugh-line without igniting a firestorm of controversy.  I wonder how that makes them feel?  Of course, Gamora herself speaks for all the feminists (but not the prostitutes) by cutting Drax off.  Why does she need our collective outrage at the line, when she is perfectly capable of defending herself against the dimwitted Drax, and everyone in the audience and on the screen knows that Drax's comment reflects his own stupidity, as opposed to anything about Gamora?

[For the sake of completeness, I will note that a June 7 preview of the movie on has the following occurring right after Gamora cuts Drax off:

Nebula (from off-stage): Gamora, look at what you have done. You have always been weak, you stupid traitorous... 

Drax:  Nobody talks to my friends like that! 

Gamora: But whore is perfectly fine?

Elsewhere on the internet, someone says that this last line ("But whore is perfectly fine") was cut from the movie.  I don't remember hearing it, but that might be because I was laughing so hard.  I'm not sure if this line makes the thing better or worse.  For me, it was unnecessary, because I was already laughing.]

It would be great to do a scientific poll to find out what percentage of people laughed at the "green whore" line, and what percentage were immediately offended, and then get information (including gender, obviously, but not limited to that) about the respondents.   I don't think it can be done, but if it could, we could use that information to all come together and talk about it, and maybe one side could convince the other.

Feel free to comment here on your reasons for laughing or being offended.  Even having written the above, I sometimes think maybe I should have been offended, and I'm very open to being persuaded that that's the case.

UPDATE Aug. 8, 2014:  I just realized that Rocket Raccoon essentially called Gamora a whore twice, but there hasn't been any outcry about that (yet).  I've written that up here.


If you've gotten this far, maybe you would be interested in my views on other matters, like free speech and Charlie Hebdo and Charlie Hebdo and Boko HaramSony's "The Interview, as well as my question "Why Should I be Charlie?" (featuring a hilarious clip from The Daily Show).