Here is a topic which is a good example of the occasional enormous chasm that divides economists from non-economists and makes 'normal' people think that we just don't 'get it.' The argument for the regulation of the payday loan industry in Oregon (which, among other things, limits the amount of interest that can be charged at 36%) seems overwhelming: these businesses are praying on the poor and vulnerable and indenturing them into debt servitude, furthering their misery and contributing to their poverty. Yet, I don't buy it and I worry that the poor and vulnerable will be made worse off with such regulation, not better.
Let's begin the analysis with the root problem: access to credit for the poor and/or those with poor or no credit histories. This is a considerable hardship because credit provides flexibility when dealing with limited and often transitory income. Access to credit can also be a key to escaping poverty by allowing investments in productive assets (like education) that can increase future incomes. This is what I would call the disease.
Here is a symptom: Because credit at (for lack of a better term) mainstream financial institutions is inaccessible, a host of businesses have cropped up to provide credit to this population. They have been criticised for having exorbitantly high interest rates and short repayment periods. The subtext to this critique is that they are abnormally profiting from other's misfortune. Given as evidence of the scale of the problem are the vast numbers of payday loan shops. But these critiques strike me as completely misguided. The fact that there are many payday loan shops suggests to me that the industry is highly competitive, and therefore that the interest rates they charge are reflective mostly of the costs of doing business in small-scale loans and high delinquency rates. So the proposed cure will cause firms to exit the industry - worsening the disease by further limiting access to credit to the poor. For those that remain and are limited to 36% interest, they will impose more stringent requirements to limit their credit to only the least risky of their clients - again limiting access to credit for the poor.
So I find this a totally misguided policy. I think that payday loans are a problem, but that the problem is with access to credit for this population. What government could do that would be more appropriate perhaps is to mandate that banks, credit unions and thrifts extend credit to this population. To do so these institutions would end up charging more for credit for all and thus this would be a type of transfer from the relatively well to do to the relatively less fortunate. But it would be aimed at the disease and not the symptom.
Finally, one argument that really bothers me (and I am perhaps typical of economists) is that these payday lenders are predatory because borrowers are naive and don't understand what they are getting into when they borrow money. I find this incredibly patronizing - basically "the poor are dumb." While it is true that education and socio-economic status are highly correlated, intelligence is not. And even if people (in general) are not too savvy about understanding the implications of these loans, they tend to be very small and short and one experience is likely enough for borrowers to learn (unlike, say, sub-prime mortgages). It would be one thing if these lenders were accused of fraud (like, say, some sub-prime lenders) and I would be in favor of any sanction against such practices, but the argument is not fraud, but the failure to comprehend. But you don't have to just take my word for it, the issue of whether payday loans are really predatory has been studied very carefully by economists at the fed who find that, in fact, the population of payday loan customers looks very similar to customers of mainstream financial institutions in their delinquency rates and that the payday loan industry appears to be quite competitive.
So, in my view, here is a policy that just gets it wrong - it attacks a symptom, not a disease and is likely to hurt the very people it intends to help.