Everybody knows the old adage about the drug dealer and his soon-to-be hooked junkie client, right? The first fix is always free.
For me, it was the free tee-shirt.
I’m talking about credit cards and debt. I was in college, minding my own business, when out of nowhere all of these wonderful offers came my way for free clothing, free Frisbees, even “free” money. All I had to do was fill out a credit card application.
They got me young, the credit card companies, and as of this very day I’m still trying to dig my way out. The tee-shirt? Many years gone, I’m afraid.
Other people are less lucky and fall in a lot deeper than I ever did. And that’s the reason our nation’s bankruptcy laws were put into place: to protect law abiding citizens from a lifetime of servitude and repayment when the pit of debt and despair got too deep to climb out of.
In a land of easy credit and endless entrepreneurial opportunity, bankruptcy provides an emergency rope that allows risk takers and mavericks – as American a pair of adjectives as I can imagine – to risk and maverick and still have a future if the walls cave in. They’re also in place to help folks get a fresh start. After all, historically, we’ve been a nation of second chances, second acts, and second opportunities.
That is, except under the House of Bush circa 2005. The new Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act shortens up that old emergency rope. Under the new laws, debtors who the courts determine can afford to repay creditors over time and earn a salary higher than a state’s median income will no longer be able to wipe the slate clean under Chapter 7.
In effect, the new law make it more difficult for debtors to hold onto their cars and homes. The credit card companies are to get theirs first, we’re told.
The protection from crushing debt was built into our nation’s founding documents in order to express a difference between the old world and the new. America has long been a “land of opportunity” because the economic caste system of titles was successfully broken along with the shackles of debtor’s prisons.
The brilliant idea – the fundamentally new and American idea – was to allow everyone to prosper from taking risk and creating opportunity. Not just the already well-to-do. Immigrants still flood our shores clinging to that same idea:
The freedom to work hard and risk and obtain a brighter future.
Mark Twain, one of America’s greatest writers, was no business man. He went bankrupt three times while navigating his way to success. Imagine the loss to our literature if Twain would have been forced to dig ditches or clean houses to pay off debtors for his failed printing and other businesses.
But now is the age of Big Business where the insurance and health care and credit card and oil companies get theirs first. The traditional recourse for normal folks who try and don’t succeed are being systematically shorn away.
President Bush declared that new bankruptcy legislation will restore “integrity to the bankruptcy process.” But isn’t it the opposite? The new law will steal integrity from those who are scrambling for dignity and a second chance.
There will always be those who try to cheat the system, but the stark truth is no one wants to go bankrupt. It’s humiliating and requires many years of wandering credit-less before that offered second chance is fully bestowed.
Why punish everyone – why always punish the common working stiff first – when it’s the credit card companies and competition-crazy lenders who clearly could tighten up their own lending policies.
If they wanted to.
I wonder whatever happened to that old tee-shirt. I suppose I could have lived without it.
DB Note: This article originally appeared in the Bellflower-Downey Post.