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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

National teach-in staged on college campuses across the country came to UMass Amherst Tuesday. The teach-in called for greater economic equality in America.

April 6, 2011

First-time candidate JoAnne Kloppenburg declared victory in her bid to unseat a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice closely aligned with the union-busting governor Scott Walker.

April 6, 2011

Even in contests for local posts, the message is: “Defend Madison (or Milwaukee, or Appleton, or Racine) against the assault from Scott Walker."

April 5, 2011

Nationwide, workers are pushing back against hundreds of anti-union bills and widespread budget cuts.

April 5, 2011

Students in Indiana gathered to tune into a national teach-in holding corporations, banks and political parties responsible for the economic situation facing America today.

April 5, 2011

Students gathered at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, to participate in a national teach-in hosted by Frances Fox Piven and Cornel West.

April 5, 2011

The Rev. Jesse Jackson makes the connection between struggles for collective bargaining rights in 1968 and 2011. And he urges the citizens of Wisconsin to honor Dr. King by voting Tuesday for candidates who will challenge Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's anti-worker agenda..

April 5, 2011

Eleven workers dead, untold volumes of sea life poisoned and more than 200 million gallons of oil spilled into the sea.  If that’s what a historically good safety record looks like at TransOcean, IÆd hate to see a bad year.

April 4, 2011

The rich got too greedy and took to much, and now average Americans are fighting back—not by looking to their leaders but by physically occupying banks, streets and state Capitols.

April 4, 2011

The great scholar of the African-American political experience urged us: “If we can dare to dream politically, let us dream of the world as it should be.”

April 2, 2011