Stray Bullet cover

“A convicted killer. A journalist. An enduring friendship.” That’s how The Atavist is promoting this story I’ve written for them about my twenty-year relationship with Tony Davis, who was 18-years-old when he killed an 13-year-old during a drive-by shooting.

I first met Tony in 1993, when I was a young journalist seeking to put a human on the growing problem of youth violence starting to plague inner-city communities around the U.S. I'd use the murder that he committed as the focus of the resulting book, Drive-By, though not because of Tony but because of his co-conspirator Junebug. In Drive-By, Tony and his dysfunctional family were the bad influence that spurred Junebug's mother to work the after-hours cleaning crew at the the post office and remove her moody, sensitive son from harm's way.

But a funny thing happened. We kept in touch, me and Tony. At first it was because he had no one else in his life but over time I accepted his collect calls because I enjoyed talking with him. It was fascinating to watch him grow and change. Intent on showing that this one awful act would not define his life, he has toiled to better himself. He basically dropped out in the 8th grade to start work as a drug dealer but he's earned his GED and he's now well on his way to earning his associate's degree. He earned a transfer to a medium-security prison and since then has seemingly signed up for every self-help and support-group program offered there, from Narcotics Anonymous to a victim offender reconciliation group. Last year he helped organize a breast cancer walk on the prison yard, raising $10,000. He volunteers with a program that helps younger inmates adjust to prison life.

This is our story--our life together as Tony went from source to friend. But mainly "Stray Bullet" is Tony's tale: as The Atavist put it, "one man’s fight to cling to hope inside of a criminal justice system that seems bent on extinguishing it."

The Atavist, by the by, is a site co-founded by a New Yorker editor and New Yorker/Wired writer and dedicated to the notion that long-form narrative can thrive in our Internet age. Backed by Marc Andreessen, Eric Schmidt (Google), and Peter Thiel (Facebook), among others, it offers a cause for optimism in bleak times for journalism. The only catch: you'll need to buy the piece to read it. On the upside, it's very multimedia, as the site stresses: "You'll get access to the story right now in our Web reader and our iPhone and iPad apps, all of which include a full audiobook [read by moi], additional sound, video, maps, timelines, and more."

At $2.99, a bargain at twice the price!

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An alternative title for this post might be: Presidents, World Leaders, and Me.  I happily said yes when I was invited to address the Cleveland City Club -- and then I received a more formal invitation in the mail that listed some of its past speakers.  The City Club was having me for its Friday Forum, a venue that has hosted FDR, Teddy Roosevelt, W.E.B DuBois, Cesar Chavez, and Desmond Tutu, among a long list of dignitaries. My first instinct to quote Wayne and Garth when in the presence of a woman they consider out of their league: "I'm not worthy."  But hopefully my chosen topic, how the working poor became big business, was.

Click here to listen to the talk I gave on Friday, October 29th.


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I've been a fan of Ray Suarez's work  dating back to his days hosting NPR's "Talk of the Nation."   My favorite part was always the brief essay he he would write to introduce that segment of the show.  The man can write -- and radio gave his words a real intimacy, almost like he was reading to  us from a short story he had written.  I was happy for him (even if sad for us listeners) when he moved to the NewsHour  but of course that just means he's doing great work for PBS.

But now I'm a different kind of fan-- a grateful one. Here's the story (and here's the (7-minute!) clip to give away the ending):

Reid Cramer at the New America Foundation invited me to Washington, D.C. to talk about BROKE (click here for the webcast).   Reid is director of the foundation's Asset Building Program.  For the better part of two years, I was hanging out with all these people getting rich draining the working poor of their hard-earned money.  I understood the point of view of the entrepreneurs behind the payday loan and rent-to-own but they were also ensuring that all those waitresses and welders and warehouse workers among their customers could never build up a savings account.  The saddest part is that if  people had just $500 or $1,000 in the bank, they'd never need to  use a pawn broker  (and borrow money at annual interest rates of between 60 to 300 percent, depending on the state) or a payday lender (fees that make a Read the rest of this entry »

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Well, I'm not sure what Mayor Mike thinks of BROKE but it was sweet to log on Twitter a few days back and read this tweet posted by the book review editor at Bloomberg News: "Bloomberg's Jim Pressley, master reviewer of all finance books, loves 'Broke USA' by @grivlin"

Lots of quotables in this review that describes BROKE as a " queasy journey through what he calls 'Poverty Inc.,' the business of making money off Americans who scrape by on jobs that pay $30,000 or less a year."  I'm "thorough and thoughtful,"  I'm "even-handed" and this Rivlin character also "eschews hyped language and lets the evidence speak for itself."  I'm apparently also retro:  "Rivlin, a former New York Times staffer, is what we used to call a shoe-leather reporter."   I also like that Pressley ends his review declaring BROKE "required reading for elected officials and lenders alike."

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Sure, sure, everyone was focused on whether Ohio would go for Obama or McCain in November 2008  but the question that drew me to the state a couple of times that fall was whether voters there would side with the payday lenders, who were seeking the right to continue charging fees that worked out to an annual interest rate of 391 percent, or with payday's critics, who supported a reinstatement of the 28 percent rate cap that had been the law until thirteen years earlier.  I spoke to people on all sides of the argument and was having a hard time deciding how I would vote if I actually lived in Ohio.  I'd speak with someone like Chris Browning, who had run a payday store for ten years,  and be a full-throated supporter  of a 28 percent cap, but then I'd spend a few hours with a payday lender and be reminded that no one was putting a gun to a borrower's 's head.  These were transparent interactions and people were adults who could make up their own minds about adult matters.

Even now I would have said I'm ambivalent on the issue of payday loans -- but then I read this review of BROKE in the Washington Post this past Sunday (6/27/10).   Reviewer Justin Moyer writes, "Rivlin, a former New York Times reporter ...tries to remain objective as he interviews the usurious architects of payday-lending (one, who operates 1,300 outlets, complains that making $10,000 an hour isn't enough) and the activists trying to protect impoverished communities from their influence. Eventually, however, he must take a side. 'I began to liken the entire Poverty, Inc. industry to those energy companies whose strip-mining destroyed vast tracts of wilderness areas,'  Rivlin writes. 'Short of government intervention, the consumer advocacy side didn't stand a chance.'"  Interesting to be reminded of my own words.

I don't think payday should be outlawed. But there need to be serious restrictions placed on the business.  And for that reason it was hard to write with much objectivity this piece appearing in today's Huffington Post. Legislative bodies  have made their wishes clear.  The voters have spoken in several states.  And basically the industry flips everybody the bird.

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I'll confess to having been a cynic about  Sen. Chris Dodd, Democrat from Conn.  In BROKE, I note that Dodd, pictured, had accepted tens of thousands of dollars from payday lenders and other fringe financiers.  He had also been spotted having dinner with the online payday lenders, who charge rates so high they make the bricks-and-mortar payday lenders seem like a bargain.  As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, he would be a  key combatant in the fight over financial reform. Uh-oh.

But, Mr. Dodd, hats off -- and to you, too, Barney Frank  and also the president's people.   I spent two years on the economic fringes talking to victims of predatory loans and their advocates.  People like Martin Eakes, founder of the Center for Responsible Lending, and Bill Brennan, an Atlanta Legal Aid attorney who has dedicated most of the past two decades of his life to fighting the spread of predatory mortgage lending.  The new Dodd-Frank bill does pretty much everything they wanted it to do, including the creation of an independent consumer protection bureau.  Consumer champions are happy and throwing around terms like "landmark legislation."  My take here at TheAtlantic.com.'

Read the rest of this entry »

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Some new reviews.    No complaints -- well, okay one complaint.  When I have more time I'd like to write about The Wall Street Journal which more than gave me my due ("Mr. Rivlin brings to his subject a genuine gift for storytelling") and makes my book sound interesting, but I'll confess she throws out more than  a few snarky lines that burn me up. Only one of them is aimed at me but her comments are so dishonest that they made me laugh and shake my head.  I already have my headline for that post: "Why Payday Lenders Deserve a Nobel Prize."

The review in The Washington Post.  The Minneapolis St. Paul Star TribuneThe Wall Street Journal.

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Exciting week.  My first book reading in 11 years, at the big Barnes & Noble on Manhattan's Upper West Side.  A really nice turnout, which was very gratifying.  Earlier in the day I was on the Leonard Lopate show, on WNYC, which no doubt helped draw people to the bookstore (Lopate is a great interviewer), and then I did a taping for the highly-esteemed Michael Eric Dyson, who is hosting a new syndicated show on NPR.  It was a pleasure to speak with Dr. Dyson, whose work as an academic and public intellectual I've known going back to my days writing on race and politics. The next day was also something of a thrill because  I met Doug Henwood, who hosts "Behind the News," a radio show on WBAI that also airs on KPFA in the SF Bay Area.  I've been reading Henwood since first subscribing to The Nation in my early twenties.

Here's the link to the Lopate show.   And to the link to "The Michael Eric Dyson Show"  ("Poverty, Inc." is up first).   And here's the Henwood/"Behind the News" link. Read the rest of this entry »

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I used to be a semi-regular on the radio show "Marketplace."  Back in the day when getting rich seemed no more complicated than starting your own dot-com.  (I post 4 or 5 of these appearances under "BIO/ radio appearances.")  But the bubble burst in 2000 and soon my role as resident skeptic was one *everyone* was playing. My phone stopped ringing.

It had been nearly ten years since my last appearance so it was a thrill to learn that "Marketplace" wanted me on the show to talk about BROKE, USA.  Click here to listen to Kai Ryssdal (pictured), he of the mellifluous voice and ultra-smooth on-air style,  talk to me about my new book.  "How the Working Poor Became Big Business" aired on June 15th.

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Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank based here in New York, talks with me about BROKE USA on CSPAN-2's "After Words."  It was taped in May on the convention floor of  Book Expo America and first aired on June 12th.  Click here to watch.

Also, a real thrill to see my name in a smart column by Joe Nocera, pictured, one of my favorite business writers.  In his weekly "Talking Business" column for The New York Times, Nocera describes BROKE as an "important, scathing book" and then quotes me as the fellow whose ideas on reforming our home lending system he finds most appealing.

Click here to read the column.  Read the rest of this entry »

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