Jun 072016

John Oliver buys $15M of very old debt for $60K, forgives it, and touts that as the world’s largest televised give-away, nearly double the famous “Everyone Gets A Car!” moment from Opera.

I’m not an economist, so maybe I’m missing something… but isn’t this bullshit?

He gave away $60K. Regardless of what number was in their spreadsheet, the debt was worth $60K. The sleazeballs would never have gotten $15M. They fully expected to get less than $60K, which was why they sold it for that much in the first place.

Notably – that $60K of cash went to the debt-buyers rather than any of the debtors. What did he give-away to the debtors? Well, one can argue he gave them relief — a reduction in suffering. I really doubt it was $15M worth, though. That debt was past the point of viable collection. John Oliver reduced the volume of harassing phone calls that some people receive. Maybe helped to improve their credit score a little? I’m not sure about that second one though.

(Although I will admit, those harassing phone calls can be extremely nasty! I would love for the government to organize a task force with the sole mission of prosecuting assholes who basically are running a harassment racket)

OK, the ep was funny, as John Oliver always is. But we already knew some debt collectors are the sleaziest jerks ever, and $60K isn’t that big of a give-away. And yet, multiple news (“news”?) sources are spinning this as a massive give-away.

Mother Jones – John Oliver Gave Away $15 Million
Time – John Oliver Gave Away $14 Million
Slate – John Oliver Just Gave Away Nearly $15 Million

At best, this could have been called “John Oliver gives away $60K of debt relief.” Not $15M.


Why do I care how this is spun? “It’s just a joke”, etc.

As I said above, I consider the claim that this was a giveaway of $15M to be flat out inaccurate. By orders of magnitude. For those on the other side of the political spectrum, who are uncharitable, it wouldn’t be a stretch for them to say this is basically a lie.

And I don’t like to see my own side lying. It gives ammo to the other side. Now they don’t have to take his arguments seriously, because he’s a liar who’s doing it for the publicity. And everything else he said can now be dismissed out of hand, “cuz that guy is full of shit anyway, didn’t you see him claiming he gave away $15M?”

It weakens our argument when a major spokesperson for our side presents the case against our fucked-up debt laws, and packages that case with a giant, easily-dismissed stunt/joke/lie. It immunizes those who aren’t already convinced against all the GOOD arguments when they are bundled together with something like this.

Do not give your own side a free pass just because it’s your side. Demand intellectual honesty at all times!

  3 Responses to “John Oliver’s “Biggest Giveaway Ever” is kinda bullshity”

  1. Obviously it isn’t worth the $15 million even to those people because if he gave them $15 million directly (in the appropriate proportions) they would probably do things with it other than pay off this debt. They would probably have preferred he had done that. The giveaway is exaggerated and you’re right that this can be a problem.

    Looking at the RIP Medical Debt page about this, the accounts do get removed from credit reports. This presumably does improve the reports and scores, and therefore does benefit the people whose debt he forgave.

  2. The value of the debt (to a debt collection agency) isn’t the amount that will be recovered from the debtors, but the difference between the amount recovered and the cost of recovery.
    If it’s very old debt, then the cost of recovery could be very high. Tracking down, say 1000 people, from 20 year old names and addresses isn’t easy.

    • True, but in any case the collection agency would not have collected the whole $14.9 billion. There is no metric of revenue or profit to a hypothetical debt collection agency close to that figure.

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