Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld
What happens when a banker and an armed robber go into business together to buy $1.5 billion worth of bad debt? In his new real-life thriller Bad Paper, acclaimed writer and Fulbright Scholar Jake Halpern dives into the Wild West of consumer debt collection. The result is a dazzling keynote speech about corporate accountability and consumer confidence, the lives of real Americans, and the economic and societal impacts of debt.
Jake Halpern has a gift for finding and telling America’s untold stories, as he did most recently in the Pulitzer Prize-garnering interactive New York Times series “Welcome to the New World.” Telling the story of an American-Syrian family in twenty gorgeously illustrated installments, the Pultizer committee called it “an emotionally powerful series, told in graphic narrative form, that chronicled the daily struggles of a real-life family of refugees and its fear of deportation Halpern produces.” A story like this is more timely than ever, and in his talks, Halpern knows precisely how to share it.
“Halpern’s voice is a welcome one; he is a fresh, spirited chronicler of a rare breed of people,” says The San Francisco Chronicle. Whether he’s exploring the unregulated shadowland of consumer debt collection (in Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld); the seedy underbelly of our national obsession with celebrity (in Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America’s Favorite Addiction); or the country’s most hellish places (in Braving Home: Dispatches from the Underwater Town, the Lava-Side Inn, and Other Extreme Locales); he captures and unravels the extraordinary narratives that make up this country. Halpern also writes for young adults: his first, Braving Home, was selected for the Book of the Month Club by Bill Bryson and was one of Library Journal’s Best Books of the Year. His next book, Fame Junkies, was the basis for an original series on NPR’s All Things Considered and was excerpted in both The New Yorker and in Entertainment Weekly. His children’s book series, The Dormia Trilogy, was hailed by the American Library Association’s Booklist as a worthy heir to the Harry Potter series. His most recent young adult novel, Nightfall, was a NYT bestseller and was chosen by the Book Expo of America as one of the top five “buzz books” for 2015.
“This is perceptive writing that illuminates the human condition.”— Publishers Weekly on Braving Home
Halpern has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, GQ, Sports Illustrated, The New Republic, Slate, Smithsonian, Entertainment Weekly, Outside, and New York Magazine. He is a contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered and This American Life. His hour-long radio story “Switched at Birth” is one of This American Life’s top eight shows of all time. One of Halpern’s stories has been optioned by Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B, and another one, about a $20 billion treasure discovered beneath a temple in India, is the basis for a new movie being produced by 20th Century Fox and Heyday Films (which made the Harry Potter movies). Halpern is a fellow of Morse College at Yale University, where he teaches a class on journalism. He recently returned from India where he was visiting as a Fulbright Scholar.
“Jake Halpern spoke to my students today and greatly exceeded all of our expectations. My 8th grade students, admittedly a hard group to please, were actually yelling and complaining about having to go to ‘another assembly’ before his presentation. Many were devising ways to skip it. But Jake swooped in with his animated and jovial style of story-telling to quiet their animosity. Within minutes he had them on the edge of their seats in suspense listening to his stories. Many students gave me money to order the first book in his series before he even left the building. Whenever a teenager is willing to offer his or her own precious dollars to buy a book, I know I’ve met an instant success.”Toby Farms Elementary, Chester Upland School District
“Jake was a fantastic speaker! He had these middle school students in the palm of his hand with his story-telling and anecdotes. The students were talking about him for days! Teachers came to me for two weeks afterward telling me that it was the best assembly our school has ever had.”Indian Hills Middle School Library, Kansas
“Jake mesmerized our students … He took a group of students who you normally can not get to stay quiet and turned them into the perfect audience. Wonderful presentation, and the kids are really enjoying his book, too! One boy was sent home from school with what was thought to be pink eye but the mom said it was from reading the book so much!”Bungay Elementary School, Seymour, CT
“Jake Halpern did four back-to-back presentations at our middle school with less than two weeks left before summer break and had everyone—staff and students—enthralled the entire time! Afterward, the halls and classrooms buzzed with talk about the author visit and his book, Dormia!”Irving Middle School, Virginia
In this riveting talk, Jake Halpern introduces us to a former banking executive and a former armed robber who become partners and go in quest of “paper”—the uncollected debts that are sold off by banks for pennies on the dollar. As Halpern shows, the world of consumer debt collection is a wild and unregulated shadowland, where operators may misrepresent a debtor’s situation, make illegal threats, and even lay claim to debts that are not theirs to collect in the first place. He follows his collectors as they intimidate competitors with weapons, manage high-pressure call centers, and scheme new ways to benefit from American’s debtindustrial complex. He also explores the history of collection agencies and reveals the human cost of a system that leaves hardworking Americans with little opportunity to retire their debts in a reasonable way. He leaves us with a true understanding of the societal and economic impacts of debt, and how consumers and the financial sector need to work together to earn trust, accountability, and confidence and develop a system that benefits everyone.