Editorial note: This column was first published in the Hopewell (VA) News in early 2006. I have redated it in order to pop it to the top of this blog because there seems to be a lot of hand-wringing and finger-pointing at Realtors and lending institutions over the sub-prime mortgage mess. This set of observations and research findings will, I think, correct the misimpression that only rich white guys rip off poor people. There's plenty of blame to go around, and some of it roosts in the unlikliest places ...
Sometimes, reality is too juicy to be real. Here's a case in point: If I'd have told you last year the Rev. Al Sharpton would soon be hawking the services of a car title loan company on television, you probably would have said, "You mean The Rev is fronting for one of those companies that charges 200 or 300 percent annual interest on small loans to poor people?"
And your eyes would have bugged out slightly as you asked. Mine sure did when I saw a 30-second television ad the weekend after Thanksgiving, 2005 on Richmond's UPN affiliate. There was Sharpton (or someone who looks and sounds remarkably like him), smiling and rapping, claiming to be the friend of the little guy while inviting him down the path to financial ruin.
Payday loans are bad enough: If your post-dated check bounces, you can be charged criminally and sued by the company for restitution. But if you default on a title loan, the company is legally entitled to take away your transportation to and from work.
At least that was my impression, so in search of the Real Deal, I petitioned Prince George County Virginia Extension Agent Lou Gorr, our local family finance guru. He took me to lunch and explained in vivid detail why those who are most likely to use a title loan company are the last persons on earth who should ever do so.
"They already don't know how to budget what they have," he said. "The fundamental law is, if you don't have enough to make ends meet, you have to earn more or spend less."
Gorr is frankly skeptical that a family already financially stressed will benefit from a 288 annual percent rate loan, with its breadwinner's wheels as collateral. On the question of Sharpton's apparent endorsement of the company, Gorr declares that if the guy on the LoanMax ad is in fact he, "it would be interesting to know what the Reverend Doctor Sharpton is getting paid."
One can only congratulate Gorr on his perspicacity.
But maybe the guy on the TV is just an actor, or Sharpton's evil twin. If that's the case, The Rev should run, not walk, to the nearest attorney and try to sue somebody's brains out. He's got no legal grounds to do so, but hey, when has that sort of inconvenient fact ever stopped Sharpton from raising Cain in court?
If the LoanMax TV spokesman is a ringer, he should be sentenced to be slapped repeatedly by elderly black charwomen, many of whom pack a sincere wallop with their labor-hardened hands.
Come to think of it, if it's not a ringer, The Rev himself should be subjected to the same justifiable assault by the same no-nonsense ladies.
Actually, there have recently been media stories about Sharpton getting his own TV sitcom, so he might just be selling the little guy down the river for the sake of increased media exposure. But even if he donates 100 percent of his pitchman pay to charity, there's no excuse for his sudden endorsement of usurious interest rates on loans to poor, working families.
For background, I did a little Web research, and discovered, to my dismay, that Virginia is not the only state where anti-usury laws are neatly gotten around by high-interest loan mills. In a story from Iowa's Waterloo-Ceder Falls Courier, Rod Aycox, owner and operator of LoanMax, "says he runs a 'decent business.'
"'I ... am, in my opinion, a good corporate citizen,' said Aycox, who encourages his critics to call him if they have concerns about his business practices.
"'We're not preying on anyone,'" said Mr. Aycox.
Well of course not, at least by my lights. As a neo-capitalist libertarian, I believe any deal you want to enter into (short of one involving the breaking or severing of limbs when repayments are in default) is between you, your lender and your spouse. Government's got no business telling people how to keep from losing the family auto to good corporate citizens like Aycox.
And if Sharpton had spent his career championing capitalism, personal financial responsibility and self-determination for all - including the sovereign right of the poor to be taken advantage of by the rich - I'd at least applaud his consistency.
But as we all know, Sharpton has instead spent his life attacking high-achieving capitalists of color ("cocktail-sip Negroes" and "Uncle Toms") for daring to ask the question once voiced by the late, great lawyer, entrepreneur and Virginia State University alumnus Reggie Lewis; "Why should white guys should have all the fun?"
The bottom line is, Sharpton (or his body double) has put aside the race card long enough to play the hypocrisy card.
One might ask, with a considerable degree of justification, what else one could expect of a man who claims to love and serve the Prince of Peace, yet who has nothing but scorn for so many of us?
When you think about it, The Rev just the flip side of poor old peeking-pervert Jimmy Swaggert. Both are supposed Christians who either condemn the sexually deviant among us - between their own sneaky photo sessions with hookers at sleazy motels - or gleefully chase the eternal ambulance of race enmity while spraying American civilization with Ebola-quality rage.
Since whoever it is that looks and sounds so much like The Rev never actually says his name on TV, I continue to hold out hope that it's not really Sharpton, it's just a Sleazy White Man Trick, sort of like luring mallards within shotgun range via the clever use of wooden decoys. But I can't tell, and neither could the young lady at a local LoanMax office who spoke with me when I called to ask her about the new advertisement. She said she'd seen it, and thought it was Sharpton, but nobody had told her one way or the other.
Strangely, I actually hope to see a story about how Sharpton is suing the ringer/clone talent who did that sick endorsement of a low-quality service provided by the same money-grubbing capitalists Sharpton claims to despise. Consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but in this case it would be refreshing to see one man, even one as hateful and phony as The Rev, maintain and defend a consistent set of values for longer than it takes him to collect his 30 pieces of silver from a good corporate citizen.