[15 April 2008]
In the low-fi slacker opus Clerks, there’s a famous monologue by the character Randal that speculates about the independent contractors allegedly on the unfinished Death Star when Luke blew into space debris in Return of the Jedi. The question raised: Are the “little guys” working in a shady operation just as guilty as the bosses, or are they blameless pawns caught in the complex machinations of evil?
I asked myself that same question because of a recent job experience, though it wasn’t because I was constructing super lasers on an intergalactic space station of death. In my mind, it was much worse: I temped at the headquarters of a prominent payday loan company.
Sure, it all sounded innocent enough, my recruiter had simply told me that my next assignment would be doing data entry at a financial company. Of course I didn’t ask what kind of company it was specifically. Why bother? As a temp, your work life consists of bouncing around aimlessly from one faceless office to another to shuffle some files or press some buttons for a paycheck. But the next day, as I rode the rickety elevator slowly up to the fourth floor to my assignment, I discovered the shocking answer. My breath caught in my chest.
I was assigned to the collections department of the corporate headquarters of a payday loan company - the Ground Zero of free market evil. To me the payday loan industry is full of opportunistic loan sharks who smell blood in the water of the working poor and set up more shops than McDonald’s in their neighborhoods. Then, under the guise of quick and easy money, they give out loans to the desperate with an obscene amount of interest and finance charges attached.
I’ve always thought these huge payday loan companies made Enron look like Habitat for Humanity. Its one thing to screw over stockholders and investment bankers, but quite another to further trap people already in dire financial straits in an ever mounting cycle of soul crushing debt.
But here I was, stepping into the 4th floor Heart of Darkness, and suddenly I was faced with a moral dilemma. Do I turn and walk out now, with righteous indignation to whomever happened to be walking by that I wouldn’t sleep with the enemy? Or could I somehow rationalize this job with the fact that I was merely a temporary contract worker, an office mercenary, a Secretary of Fortune, separate from the politics of the company. I was just in it for the cold hard cash. Why else would I murder my eyes by typing thousands of nine digit numbers into a spreadsheet under fluorescent lighting for eight hour shifts?
Did any of the union welders on the Death Star walk out once they realized what “Project DS” stood for? Driven by monetary interests, I decided to keep walking through the barren white walls of the payday loan HQ, but not because I could set aside my conscience. Part of it was morbid curiosity, the journalist in me believed I could “embed” myself in the payday loan company and be the equivalent of Wolf Blitzer sneaking into an Al Qaeda cell group to report. I could expose the dark seedy underbelly of the payday loan industry from the inside. The other part was, of course, that paycheck.
Beyond writing a brilliant expose, though, I got the grandiose idea that I could be a modern payday loan version of Robin Hood, stealing from the rich, corrupt corporation via subterfuge and giving back to the poor people. I’d be Tyler Durden minus the fighting or Erin Brockovich minus the breasts.
My grand scheme, of course, didn’t go quite as planned. After my first few hours, I found myself somewhat disappointed that the office wasn’t almost literally a level of hell in Dante’s Inferno. There was a conspicuous lack of cackling, mustachioed white men in Armani suits puffing cigars and flinging handfuls of money around while using cowed poor people as footstools. It was all rather staid and quiet.
It appeared nothing more than another boring, subdued office filled with business casual-clad worker drones sitting in cubicles fiddling with paperwork or chatting on phones— The Office minus Steve Carrell’s wacky antics. People politely said “hi” to each other, asked how the kids were, and held the door for each other just like they do in other offices. I had no choice then, but to return the pleasantries to my temporary colleagues.
The silver-haired supervisor with the ubiquitous Janet Jackson Rhythm Nation headset struck me as semi-contemptible, but only in the conventional wormy, passive-aggressive middle manager way. Sure, he gave me a dirty look for eating a cherry Pop-Tart at my desk before 10AM, but he still wasn’t exactly the Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood figure that I could direct my contempt toward.
At some point, I found myself pondering the idea that I was wrong about all of my assumptions. If payday loan companies were really that bad, how come this place didn’t feel bad?
The answer came stumbling out of my brain from the Ghost of History Class Past: the “banality of evil” theory. Coined originally to explain the complacency of many of the German people during the reign of the Nazis in World War II, the Banality of Evil theory explains that great evils are not executed by fanatics or sociopaths but rather by ordinary people who accept the premises of their state and participate with the view that their actions are completely normal.
Given the fact that payday loans can’t be compared to something like the Holocaust, I proposed the idea that since there is nothing technically illegal about payday loans and since the government is just now starting to regulate them, few who work at them feel morally compromised, especially since they themselves weren’t literally grabbing money out of the hands of the poor. Also, one employee I struck up the nerve to chat with about it quipped : “No one’s forcing these people to get a loan. If you sign a contract, you should pay up.”
This made sense. Yet over the next few days, I cringed as I feverishly typed hand-written loan agreements into a computer database and read the names of people who were stuck paying $800 for a $300 loan. I wondered if these people would be able to pay for the gas needed to drive to their minimum wage jobs, or if they’d be able to afford a doctor visit this month.
I eavesdropped on nearby cubicles and listened in horror as collection agents berated people and threatened to slap expensive lawsuits on those with delinquent accounts. Other operators deliberately hid their identity to callers, trying to trick them into answering the phone. “Hey, is Tyrone there?” said the large teddy bear-like man who sat at a cubicle near me. The headset looked entirely too small for his head. “This is Jason,” he told whomever had answered the phone as if it was an old friend wanting to chat, not a bill collector. Alas, perhaps the caller ID told Tyrone otherwise because he never answered the phone.
Sometimes, I could hear shouting come from a cubicle of a particularly vocal collection agent on the other side of the room. “I don’t think you understand,” yelled the man with the wispy mustache at the phone. He was standing up and pointing at nothing at particular for emphasis. “You owe us a lot of money. We can take you to court at any time. Can you afford a lawyer? Can you?” After he hung up the phone, Wispy Mustache seemed to take it personally. “What’s wrong with these people?” he’d ask the collectors around them. “They can’t hide forever.”
On my second day, the department held a cheery pizza party in honor of a good month of profits from the poor to the welcome arms of a huge moneymaking corporation. Smarmy Boss Guy even awarded a sad looking red plaque to a collection agent who had managed to harass enough people into paying $20,000 for the month. His coworkers clapped. I managed to half-smile for a second before I looked down into my hands, shamed. Suddenly, I knew what I must do.
I sat in my lonely cubicle the next day, iPod earbuds buzzing with Phil Collins’ “Land of Confusion” and I began entering some of the loan agreements I worked on incorrectly. Specifically, I was allowing people to pay back their loan amounts with zero interest. I opted to alter one out of every ten loans—not enough to get caught, I thought, yet an amount substantial enough to make a small difference over a period of time.
Part two of my scheme was to find information on the Internet decrying the social wrong of payday loans and covertly distribute them to everybody working there. Maybe if they knew what the Death Star was being built for, they would change their mind about working there.
But in the end, I was less the Robin Hood and I had hoped to be, and more like a Men In Tights—not a threat one could take very seriously. As it turns out, the loan agreements were being double checked and the only thing my carefully planned subversion caused was an impromptu meeting where the boss demanded I increase my accuracy.
My noble propaganda plan was also sadly thwarted. I was fired. But I wasn’t fired because I was the defiant threat to the system I imagined myself to be—but because the company needed more phone operators. They simply didn’t have the cubicle space for me anymore.