We recently watched the Final Four in basketball and now we're effectively down to the Championship Series in politics. Both political parties are ordering in pizza and rolling up their sleeves to craft their convention platforms and prioritize the issues they think voters will care most about in November. In our age that measures things in nanoseconds, how can the candidates predict what the political trade winds will be six months from now?
One way to do it is to think about how often an issue is on the minds of typical voters. Judging by the media, the cycle is once or twice a week for getting worked up about Afghanistan, global warming, and gas prices, give or take.
Then there are the daily issues. Jobs and the economy take center stage here because they saturate the media.
Another issue has the potential to beat even the powerful daily ones, because this issue is on the hourly minds of 30 million Americans. It permeates their lives and demands constant emotional attention: It's the trauma of being turned over to debt collectors.
The Federal Reserve reports that about 14 percent of American consumers are delinquent on debt, with an average amount due of $1,400. That's not only double the number of consumers in that position since 2000, but they owe 75 percent more.
We're not talking about merely having that amount of debt on credit cards, but debt that's now subject to collectors, and that's where the hourly preoccupation comes in: debt collectors are justifiably known for making continuous calls to consumers. One family received more than 500 calls from a collector in two months. They don't stop at calls to home, either, but talk with neighbors, call at work, and plaster your delinquency across Facebook and other social media.
By hounding consumers mercilessly, debt collectors use the phone as a remote-control way of saying "resistance is futile" -- if you ignore the phone, it will ring every hour; if you pick it up, you'll be browbeaten, belittled, and threatened until you pay up. Both spouses' anxiety shoots off the charts when the phone rings, and soon the kids see the effects: their parents, who previously looked strong and capable, now look mad, frustrated, and helpless.
And it's not just a few "bad apple" collectors, either. The Federal Trade Commission got more than 164,000 complaints in 2011, which is more than for any other category. That doesn't count reports to the Do Not Call Registry, complaints to state consumer-protection departments, or the millions of people who choose to suffer in silence.
Also note how the number has doubled in the last decade, which means many millions of consumers had been on a trajectory toward their goals of kids, a nice home, college, and retirement. They don't see those dreams anymore in the fog of daily dunning. Now they're in a deeper hole every day, due to outrageous levels of interest and late fees on the debt they can't yet repay.
These are not people who need a lecture from debt collectors about how they're deadbeats who should honor their obligations; they already know they should pay. In my experience with settling debts with 4.5 million Americans, the overwhelming majority of consumers who are late on their bills realize that their future life in part depends on their future credit, and they're earnestly searching for a way to make the numbers work.
One of the few things both political parties agree on is that most Americans are honest and hardworking. What they need to realize is this vast voting bloc of tens of millions of working people are desperate for a way out. These voters know that words and promises are cheap, as long as the debt-collector wolves keep circling.
So the challenge for President Obama and Governor Romney is clear: Create an effective mechanism for scaring -- not recommending, and not urging, but scaring -- debt collectors into treating consumers with dignity and respect. That can only be done by having the consequences of predatory collecting far outweigh the profit motive, and soon.
People who are at ease may decide their votes in different ways, but people in pain will vote with their emotions. Thirty million Americans are in tremendous pain. The first candidate to the door with a solution will win this vast bloc -- not by forming a commission to study the issue, or with sympathetic words -- but with a real solution.
Bill Bartmann is CEO of CFS II, a debt-collection company. His companies have helped to settle debts of more than 4.5 million people without ever filing suit against a customer.
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