Of all the ravenous financial predators in American society, payday lenders might be the most shameless.
Their bread and butter is offering high-interest loans—typically a few hundred bucks or less—to working people trying to keep their heads above water, struggling to feed their kids and keep their lights on. The positive spin from lenders is that they're just providing a helping hand, and after all, debt is as American as apple pie, right?
Well, sure. But there are many, many millions of people—even in a seemingly sparkling economy—regularly facing financial peril in the United States. Disproportionately, they are people of color, and disproportionately, payday lenders profit on the backs of repeat clients, who often take out a new (extremely high-interest) loan to pay back their old one in a vicious cycle of despair.
If nothing else, though, you have to give these lenders credit: They know a friend when they see one, and they have a friend in Donald Trump.
As the Washington Post reported Tuesday, some of the top dogs in the payday lending industry recently held a webinar in which the general consensus was that donating to Donald Trump's re-election campaign was the best way to buy influence and block oversight from on high.
“If you need something and we may need something… then it would be good to be able to pick up the phone and call someone that could get the president’s attention," Max Wood of the firm Borrow Smart Compliance, said during the event, which was organized by his company. He echoed the account of self-described Trump fundraising guru Michael Hodges, who founded a lender called Advance Financial, and told viewers, "Every dollar amount [of donation to Trump], no matter how small or large it is" could help their cause.
While Hodges denied explicitly seeking favors from the White House in an interview with the Post, it's worth noting the industry's chief trade group, the Community Financial Services Association of America, held its last two annual meetings at Trump properties.
It's not exactly shocking that an entrenched financial industry would try to buy favor under a Republican administration that has proved uniquely kind by providing massive tax cuts to the wealthiest and dismantling their chief watchdog. But it's a reflection of just how pure the corruption is in Trump's Washington that, promises to drain the swamp notwithstanding, Wood actually posted video of the event on YouTube until the paper asked about it.
“This example is very brazen, although I have to say that the system itself is brazen," said Fred Wertheimer, founder and president of campaign finance reform advocacy group Democracy 21. "This is kind of the classic example of pay-to-play, in which money is literally invested in officeholders."
"What's remarkable is that they said it out loud," agreed Rick Hasen, an expert on campaign finance at the University of California, Irvine, adding, "It is as unsurprising as it is troubling that this is business as usual in Washington."
The regulations petrifying members of this industry were dangled by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—the federal watchdog conceived by Elizabeth Warren—years ago. One specific rule in the offing would require lenders actually figure out if their clients will be able to pay back loans before giving them a new one. That's important because it's not like payday lenders just send people a bill—they often have access to borrowers' bank accounts and can debit fees directly, risking overcharges (and, in turn, more fees) when people can least afford it.
But that kind of consumer protection represents a threat to the bottom line of the industry, and as VICE previously reported, payday lenders were plotting how to thwart it—or delay it—as far back as 2016, when they met to that end at a fancy Bahamas resort.
Now they're posting about meetings like this in the open, and the only thing they seem remotely worried about—like other titans of high finance—is Elizabeth Warren.
"If Warren wins you can bet on day 1 of her Presidency she will be focused on her baby, the CFPB," Michael Brown, a payday lender consultant, posted online after the seminar, according to the Post. "That is a doomsday scenario for the payday industry."
Meanwhile, lenders seem poised to do everything they can to get their guy four more years. And under the current rules of campaign finance, already lax in their enforcement, there isn't a whole lot stopping them.
"This is a corrupt system in which people who put up money get access influence and results," Wertheimer said. "There is nothing in the Constitution that says you have to buy access to your elected officials. But that is the way the system works. And the result is people with money get access and influence, and most of the 300 million Americans sit on the sidelines."
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