The show craftily skewers the system that lured its contestants into debt, intermixing questions about Beyoncé and condoms with earnest facts about the moral blight of for-profit colleges. But despite its good intentions, Paid Off accidentally provides a glitzy simulation of the labor market. On stage and off, individuals use their knowledge and skills to compete for income against their peers, and the winnings are fundamentally scarce, if not zero-sum.

The program implicitly punishes people with lower debt burdens. On Paid Off, the contestants carry debt ranging from several thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. In the final round, winners can receive a check equal to their total debt burden. This means that a contestant fresh out of law school with $40,000 in debt can earn an order of magnitude more from the show than a community college graduate with just $4,000 in debt.