About Got Debt 2.0 (the preface)

May 28, 2019

I published the first edition of Got Debt, Dispatches From the Front Lines of America’s Debt Crisis in October, 2017. At the time the economy wasn’t treading water, wasn’t booming. It was just, or so it seemed to me, moving along in a hopeful direction while I was still cleaning up the detritus left from the Recession.

The economy eventually did take off – at least according to the media in all its forms. Unemployment dropped like a rock, the stock market soared, economic indicators indicated “great things,” everybody was working, houses were selling – although nowhere near the rate of the early 2000s, but we all know how that worked out so lower growth there was just fine.

Through all this good news I noticed a few things. For one, I was as busy as ever with foreclosure and debt cases and they weren’t leftovers from 2008, they were new. The economy may have been zipping along but homes were still going into foreclosure, credit cards were being maxed out, late payments piled up as before, banks were issuing default notices, and collection firms, lean and mean after consolidation and some house-cleaning during the Recession, were enjoying a golden age.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a lawyer who deals in consumer debt every day to realize that wages – the regular working wage of the regular middle-class worker – hadn’t changed at all. At least not in comparison with inflation.

The dollar is not going as far as it did and that’s a trend that doesn’t look like it’s going to change anytime soon, despite constant promises from politicians.

People continue to supplement lagging incomes with credit. Still. They’re just doing it today a little more quietly than during and immediately after the Recession. Debt back then was front page news, now it’s stuck – when it’s mentioned at all – back in the “Consumer Help Team” section.

Debt is still there, the crisis is still there, the coverage is not and as the coverage goes, so goes the awareness.
Not too long ago, I read a review of a terrific movie, Hell or High Water, a movie very much about foreclosure. It was shot on location in West Texas and Eastern New Mexico. The cinematography is brilliant – as noted in the review.

The reviewer loved the movie, loved the performances, loved everything but had this criticism (I’m paraphrasing): “They really overdid it with the boarded up buildings, empty houses with foreclosure signs, billboards for pawn shops and companies that buy distressed homes.”

I’ve been to conferences in Texas – Florida as well – and I can personally attest that the filmmakers didn’t overdo anything, they simply shot what was there on the side of roads not interstates.

The review simply wants us to believe what is not supported by fact – the Recession is over and that foreclosures and crushing debt are fading away with it.

Debt is still everywhere and it affects almost everyone in one way or another. Pretending it’s not is not only irresponsible, it is setting the stage for another recession and new generations afflicted to be by it. I share here the story of the law firm that used to foreclose on medical debt, and when that became public and the firm fired by the hospital after the shameful news broke, how it moved on to focus on collection of old credit card debt- a more “under the radar” type of work as there is less general sympathy for the person who couldn’t pay a credit card than someone who couldn’t pay a medical bill. So has gone the story of crushing debt—we have become desensitized to it, and so overwhelmed by our own situations we have no empathy left for others. It has become old news, it’s that simple.

Hence this new edition.

A Conversation with a Twelve-Year-Old

An Excerpt from Got Debt? 

Recently, I was sort of interviewed about what I do. My neighbors asked me to pick up their 12-year-old son from school, he was getting home late from a field trip to Boston, they were tied up at work and in meetings, and I was available to help.

He got in my car, we talked about how his trip to the museum was, then he fell silent. He’s a great kid, I’ve known him since he was about two years old, he’s very smart, musical and athletic and he’s the quiet sensitive type so I did not expect a lot of conversation.

As we drove down Washington Street, I pointed out the courthouse that I go to all the time.

He said, “Oh yeah you’re a lawyer. Do you ever have scary cases?”

“Do you mean do I do criminal law?” I asked back.

“Yeah.”

“Nope, I help people with mortgage foreclosures.”

“What does that mean?”

I paused for a second, then explained that when people want to buy a house they borrow money to buy the house. And when they can’t make the payments, they are taken to court for not making their payments. And, if they can’t make their payments, they have to move out of their houses.

Finished with the Cliff Notes version, I added, “So, I guess it can be pretty scary.”

He took that in for a moment or two, then, asked “Why don’t you do criminal law?”

“It just isn’t something I ever was interested in or ever had experience with,” I answered, “I think it’s scary enough when a client of mine has to move out of their house, I would be terrified if because of me someone had to go to jail.”

He nodded, “So are you good at Monopoly?”

“I don’t know what you mean!”

“You know with all the buying and selling of houses and mortgages.”

Rough approximation of my neighbor and the car we had the conversation in. Rough.

Of course! It caught me off guard, I said something about I hadn’t played in a long time, we’d have to play and see how good I am at it.

I love how he made the connection between what I do and the game of Monopoly.

But he didn’t stop there, “Do your clients tell the truth?”

I said, “Yes, sometimes my clients are put under oath and should tell the truth . . . but, even when people are put under oath sometimes they don’t tell the truth. Sometimes.”

That seemed to surprise him a bit and I immediately felt a little bad, like maybe I was being too cynical with a 12-year-old. But it didn’t seem to faze him and he moved on to, “Are you friends with your clients?”

“Not really, it’s not recommended that lawyers become friends with her clients . . . though I have worked with some people for so long they’re almost like family.

“You know, you get along with them, you have to deal with them once in a while, but you don’t tell them what you would tell your friends.”

He nodded acceptance, moved on to, “Since you have to go in court and speak in front of people, do you like public speaking?”

“Sure,” was my immediate reply, then I thought for a second, and added, “but if you told me when I was younger I would be doing as much public speaking as I do, I probably never would’ve left my bedroom.”

“Do you have to convince the judge to help your clients, like you see lawyers arguing in court on TV?”

“Yeah, the judge comes out in a black robe, everyone has to stand up and it’s very official. Sometimes I have to tell my clients’ story to get the judge to give my clients what they’re looking for.”

He thought about that for a second, pulled out a folder full of homework, asked, “Are your clients afraid?”

“When they first call me, they are usually afraid of something, like they think they have to move out of their house in a very short period of time. But I explain that I can usually get them more time, maybe save the house, at least get them the opportunity to figure out what they’re going to do or where they’re going to live next.”

He made some kind of sound of agreement and dove into his homework, while I just drove and marveled.

I think everyone should have to talk to a 12-year-old once in a while and explain what they do. It gives you a different perspective on how you spend your time every day.

Conversations like this would make everybody a better person.