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The editors of The New York Times Magazine had a good idea recently.

The financial crisis that collapsed Asian economies in mid-1997 and then bounced around the world was a distant sideshow to most Americans until it reached Wall Street.

A massive natural disaster reminds us why people worldwide have been engaged by the issue of debt relief.

Ajit Singh

Ajit Singh, who graduated from Punjab University and obtained his PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, is professor of economics at Cambridge University.

Pakistan today is a complete mess, a sad example of what can happen when a once-favored "frontline state" is reduced to the status of a cold war orphan.

If only George W. Bush were content to merely market nights in the
Lincoln Bedroom or issue some questionable pardons, the public would be
much better off. But no, the new President has taken the art of selling
White House access to an unprecedented level, with disastrous
consequences for millions of Americans.

While the media remain obsessed with trying to prove that the Clinton
Administration was on the take from corrupt fat cats, the Republicans
have unashamedly turned over the federal government to the very
corporations that purchased the dubious Bush electoral victory.

MBNA, the world's biggest credit card dispenser, which hooks your kids
with teaser rates that can quickly balloon to usurious proportions, is
about to get the bill ending bankruptcy protection for little people that
it had in mind when it led the Bush campaign contributor list.

The big corporate givers are all lined up with wish lists in hand.
"There is no longer any countervailing power in Washington; business is
in complete control of the machinery of government," former Labor
Secretary Robert Reich concluded recently.

In less than two months, the Administration has reversed workplace
protection for repetitive stress injury, betrayed Bush's campaign promise
to curtail industry carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming
and revved up plans for Arctic drilling. For all of his belief in a free
market, the President used the club of the state to force mechanics at
Northwest Airlines back to work.

Not that congressional Democrats are without blame. As the bipartisan
support for the bankruptcy bill demonstrated, corporate contributions are
as compelling as they are pervasive.

Bush has indicated he's eager to sign this atrocious bill--an
identical measure was vetoed by President Clinton--which strips away a
century of protection for small debtors. No longer will holders of
unsecured debt, who average $22,000 a year in income, be given a fresh
start. Under this bill, such debtors who file for bankruptcy will not
have their debt eliminated under the easy-to-use Chapter 7 protection of
the Bankruptcy Code but will be forced to file a repayment plan under the
more rigorous Chapter 13. That places this unsecured debt on the same
level as all other claims requiring payment, such as child support and
alimony, leaving divorced spouses and their children competing with banks
for a claimant's paycheck.

At the same time, Congressional Republicans refused to accept any
amendments restraining the marketing of credit cards or the regulating of
usurious interests rates charged. These largely unscrupulous banking
practices that prey upon the young and gullible, with billions of mailed
solicitations a year, is what often leads people into bankruptcy.

What in God's name is going on? The Bible warns against these money
handler who charge usurious rates: "Let the exacting of usury stop" is
commanded in Nehemiah, where the word "usury" is applied to loans among
Israelites bearing a mere 1 percent interest. On a more secular note, the
California Constitution had placed a 10 percent limit on interest, but that has
been watered down by court decisions.

By those historical standards, the current average charge of 18 percent on
credit cards, often rising more than 24 percent, certainly qualifies as
"exorbitant," to use Webster's definition of usury. Indeed, the common
practice of the banks would seem to fall under the category of criminal
loan-sharking, but just try to find a prosecutor with the guts to
classify a leading bank as organized crime.

The analogy with loan-sharking is valid, given that both credit card
companies and gangsters loan money to people who have no means of
repayment. The gangsters compel repayment with the threat of physical
force, and banks will now have the legal intimidation of the courts.

Because Clinton vetoed this legislation, the banking industry weighed
in heavily for Bush in the last election. MBNA employees accounted for
$240,000 in donations to Bush, compared to $1,500 to Al Gore. The bank's
chairman hosted a $1,000-a-plate dinner for Bush, and the bank
contributed a nifty $100,000 to the Bush inaugural festivities.

Financial institutions, which gave Republicans $26 million in the last
election, have been rewarded with quick passage of the bankruptcy bill
that Clinton rejected. The big difference this time around is that Bush
has already stated that he will sign the bill, so there is no pressure on
Congress to build in even the most minor consumer protections.

This year alone, a million Americans, many of them young people
suckered into financing their education by maxing out their credit cards,
will attempt to use the bankruptcy court as a second chance, only to find
the door closed. They should thank Bush the next time an election rolls
around.

During the past two decades, as random financial crises visited various fast-growing economies, we have become familiar, after the fact, with the profile of a developing country that's headed for

Remember those great scenes in Blues Brothers 2000 that evoked the urban grit and soul of southside Chicago and Joliet? Well, sorry.

With this issue, we resume our 'What Works' series, which explores effective projects and strategies for improving people's lives through progressive social change.
      --The Editors

Seattle changed many things, and one of them is American labor. Nothing lifts the spirit or one's vision like winning.

Blogs

We know that we are not all middle class and that capitalism isn’t really democracy, so why don't we take the time to grapple with the major dilemmas facing our society?

May 9, 2011

California teachers fight back against education cuts, while Gov. Snyder deals with the aftermath of his own statewide cuts and proto-fascist use of "emergency managers."

May 9, 2011

Budget cut protests continue while the GOP cools to Paul Ryan's extreme austerity plan.

May 8, 2011

Budget committee chair can say what he wants, but the noisy protests against his plan -- especially in his home district -- have shaken congressional Republicans,

May 7, 2011

Mayor Mike has a plan to fire thousands of teachers; unions and students have a plan to make the the big banks pay their fair share.

May 7, 2011

This week, the Nation brings you in-depth coverage of Osama bin Laden's death and what's next for the 'War on Terror.' And I argue for a saner budget blueprint modeled after the Congressional Progressive Caucus People's Budget.

May 6, 2011

Teachers in California have planned a Wisconsin-style sit-in at their state's Capitol to oppose education cuts.

May 6, 2011

Finally, Republicans in Congress have announced a jobs plan. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear to actually create any jobs.

May 5, 2011

The Obama administration considers cutting the corporate tax rate during a time when Americans are being asked to sacrifice their social safety net.

May 5, 2011

Thousands of protesters in North Carolina and Pennsylvania descended upon their State Capitols to demand an end to education cuts, gas companies giveaways, and corporate loopholes.

May 4, 2011