postings by Pamela Foohey

Two Books About Selling Math and Its Consequences for Inequality

posted by Pamela Foohey

EconomismOver at Consumer Law & Policy Blog, Jeff Sovern recently discussed James Kwak's new book, Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality, which mounts a convincing case against the blind application of Economics 101 to important policy questions, such as healthcare, international trade, the minimum wage, mortgages and other financial products, and taxes. Kwak details the consequences of "economism," which he defines as "the belief that a few isolated Economics 101 lessons accurately describe the real world." Kwak analogizes using economics in this way to justify widening socioeconomic inequality to prior century's reliance on religion and applications of Darwinian evolution to justify the social order of those times. Part of the lure of economism, and how it can be used as an effective justification, is that it seemingly is grounded in math. And math appears to many as absolute, complicated, and scary. 

Weapons of Math DestructionWhich made me think of another relatively new book, Cathy O'Neil's Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. O'Neil chronicles the repercussions of relying on algorithms fed by big data to assess everything from grade school teachers' effectiveness to credit worthiness to which households politicians should target during election campaigns. When not used properly, these "weapons of math destruction" can entrench and perpetuate inequality.

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Scarcity, Money, and Undocumented Immigrants

posted by Pamela Foohey

Scarcity refers to having less than one needs -- time, money, calories when on a diet. For example, not having enough money reduces a person's cognitive capacity as much as missing one full night of sleep. When Scarcity, by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, was published, Slipster Katie Porter connected its lessons about the mental tax of not having enough to adding a "cushion" to a chapter 13 plan. And now, Slipster Nathalie Martin's recently published paper, Survival in the Face of Scarcity: The Undocumented Immigrant Experience, uses her hour-long interviews with 50 undocumented immigrants living in Albuquerque, New Mexico to explore how their acute financial scarcity impacts their lives. Though the paper is focused on undocumented immigrants, some of the lessons of the narrative that Martin weaves apply equally to all cash-strapped people.

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How Consumers Use the CFPB's Complaint Function

posted by Pamela Foohey

I recently posted to SSRN my new article, Calling on the CFPB for Help: Telling Stories and Consumer Protection (Law & Contemporary Problems, forthcoming 2017). In the article, I survey a random sample of consumers' narratives detailing their complaints about consumer credit and financial service providers, with the goal of assessing how people engage with the complaint function in light of how the CFPB processes complaints. In short, consumers submit complaints via the CFPB's website and by phone, the CFPB forwards the complaints to companies, and the companies are required to respond. That the CFPB does not respond to complaints in the first instance may come as a surprise to some consumers, despite the CFPB's websites’ prominent statements about where it sends complaints. Importantly, the CFPB is not the only federal or state agency that maintains a complaint function. The DOJ, FTC, and other agencies similarly take complaints from constituents, and likewise often do not respond directly to the complaining individuals. Identifying when and how people are not understanding how their complaints will be processed may provide agencies an opportunity to further help constituents and to augment how they meet their goals.

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Linking Pyramid Schemes (aka Multilevel Marketing Companies) and Consumer Bankruptcy

posted by Pamela Foohey

A couple weeks ago, on Last Week Tonight, John Oliver started what promises to be the greatest pyramid scheme ever. In an effort to help him, watch the segment here (warning: language). More seriously, multilevel marketing companies that sell products directly to customers through salespeople working out of their homes (Herbalife, Amway, Nu Skin, the relatively new Rodan + Fields) operate by way of a concerning sales structure. Salespeople recruit salespeople, who recruit more salespeople, who recruit yet more salespeople. The salespeople at the top make money off of the salespeople at the bottom. And the salespeople at the bottom often are left with stockpiles of soon-to-expire product in their homes and garages. Indeed, as noted by John Oliver, in July of this year, Herbalife consented to a $200 million settlement with the FTC in which they agreed to change their business tactics. When asked about Herbalife's business model, FTC Chairwoman Ramirez said, "they were not determined not to be a pyramid."  

Now, the potential (probable?) connection to bankruptcy filings. There is evidence that people sign up to sell these products because they need to make extra money--which makes sense. Signing up to be a salesperson for a multilevel marketing company could be one of many coping tactics used by someone hopelessly deep in debt. Get a second job, sell some belongings, go without insurance or food . . . and try to sell products from your home. People may get the idea from friends or financial gurus. For instance, Dave Ramsey's website has a page titled, "Guide to Joining a Multilevel Marketing Company," which includes some of the same inspirational, "go-getter," pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, you hold the key to your own success language that accompany Facebook posts that try to entice people to join Rodan + Fields. Of course, that means it is your fault when you fail, right?

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CFPB Consumer Complaint Narratives: What They Say About Bankruptcy

posted by Pamela Foohey

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's consumer complaint database has contained narratives for over a year now. Each month, the CFPB publishes a report that summarizes the complaints received over the previous three months, and that focuses on a specific product and geographic area. (The latest report was published on August 31.) The higher-level summary offered by these reports is interesting and I have referenced them in class on occasion.

The consumer complaint narratives tell as interesting, but often different stories. However, they are harder to sort through systematically. In preparation for a symposium, I recently took a random sample of complaints with narratives published in the year period between May 2015 and April 2016. Having now read thousands of narratives, one trend stood out to me rather quickly -- narratives that talked about the consumer's prior bankruptcy or a relative's bankruptcy. About 5% of the narratives discuss bankruptcy.

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The Financial Lives of Undocumented Immigrants

posted by Pamela Foohey

We know little about the financial lives and credit constraints of undocumented immigrants, partly because they are such a difficult to reach population. But Slips contributor Nathalie Martin gained access to this population in Albuquerque, New Mexico, interviewed 50 immigrants, and recently published a paper that provides an important glimpse into how this population handles money and finances. As the paper's title -- Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due: What We Can Learn from the Banking and Credit Habits of Undocumented Immigrants -- suggests, this population is leery of taking out credit, despite having so little income and savings that unexpected expenses quickly can become financial crises.

One of the most interesting, but expected findings is this population's extremely low level of savings. When asked if they could handle an unexpected expense of $100, three-quarters of respondents (37 of the 50) said they could not. But the majority of interviewees also expressed serious concerns with taking out credit, including via credit cards and the almost inevitable title loans (and payday loans, but most payday loans require a bank account, which a majority of respondents did not have). Indeed, they stated that they would rather ask family and friends for help, including help in trying to find work, which adds nuance to what we know about low-income individuals' feelings about relying on family and friends to deal with unexpected expenses (for instance, see Laura Tach and Sara Greene, Robbing Peter to Pay Paul). Martin's paper also contains data about how undocumented immigrants think about what ultimately often are legal problems and using (or not using) the legal system. Taken together, the paper provides a needed first glimpse into the financial lives of a subset of people who are in the country.

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