October 25, 2014

Review: 'Bad Paper' by Jake Halpern

When a person stops paying his credit card bill, the lending bank has 180 days to collect on what is owed before it is required, by law, to "charge off" the account and file it as a loss. Soon afterward, the bank will sell the rights to collect on the debt to one of the 9,599 debt collection businesses in the United States for pennies on the dollar. This is when it becomes "paper," a record of a person's name, address, social security number, amount owed and, maybe, a family history.

Jake Halpern reveals this world in "Bad Paper: Chasing Debt From Wall Street to the Underworld," the fascinating result of a more than five-year immersion journalism project, beginning in 2009.

Readers may know Halpern from his work as a contributor to "This American Life" or as a producer for NPR's "All Things Considered." He has written about bikini waxers, zombie culture, abandoned military bases in the Arctic, living on an active volcano, and bedbugs, each report featuring thorough research and a prismatic approach to getting the story.
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"Bad Paper" starts out as a story about Aaron Siegel, son of a Gatsby-like playboy, who leaves his job on Wall Street to enter the world of debt collection. Halpern writes, "For Aaron, the collections industry offered both financial reward and voyeuristic access to the city's seedier side. According to Rob, Aaron's floor manager at the agency, his boss was both fascinated and repulsed by the business."

The "city" Halpern refers to is Buffalo, N.Y., the unofficial capital of debt collection in the United States. While Halpern's initial study appears to be focused on Siegel and his jump from Wall Street, it soon moves toward the difficulties Siegel has with the social and racial stratification of debt collecting culture in Buffalo. Siegel relies on those at the top of the financial ladder for funding, but can only see returns on their investments through some of the rougher characters in the debt-collecting industry.

Perhaps the roughest character in the industry is the book's most interesting one, Brandon Wilson, a felon who spent roughly 10 years in prison for armed robbery. He's an old-school debt collector, relying on instinct rather than numbers projections. "They got their sophisticated scoring models, I got my eyeball," Wilson says.

Siegel needs Wilson because he's one of the best in the industry, and he seems to speak the language of the industry's underbelly. In describing Siegel's ambivalence toward Wilson, Halpern writes, "(A)s loud, lewd, and unbearable as he could be, everyone seemed to believe that you needed a Brandon Wilson to scare off all the con men, hucksters, and charlatans in this industry."

Halpern is at his best when writing about people, and that's the fascination with this book. If he initially focuses on Siegel, he realizes the best stories are in examining the lives of the people involved in the debt business. The structure of this book is sound, as it seems to follow the trail of paper from the big banks to the street-hustling brokers, but within that structure is the sinuous path through the muddled lives of regular people. It shows Halpern's willingness to follow leads without preconceived notions. When he feels like he's drawing too many easy conclusions, Halpern deepens his research, takes it to a place oblique in relation to the apparent subject. In a conversation between Wilson and his mother about dance classes Wilson used to take as a child, Halpern seems to step away and let the story evolve:

Halpern's subjects are responding to him at first, but, eventually, the subjects talk to each other. It's this kind of authenticity that Halpern is known for. He's recording the words and actions of real people instead of crafting fictional characters, and it provides an exciting unpredictability for the reader.

"Bad Paper" gives readers an intimate knowledge of the debt-collecting industry, but more important, it gives a comprehensive profile of the people in our country who live and die by the industry. This, ultimately, is the book's power and attraction.