Another Bankrupt Idea From Congress

Another Bankrupt Idea From Congress

Thou hast taken usury and increase, and thou hast greedily gained of thy neighbor by extortion, and hast forgotten me, saith the Lord God.


Thou hast taken usury and increase, and thou hast greedily gained of thy neighbor by extortion, and hast forgotten me, saith the Lord God.
   –Ezekiel 22:12

The Bible be damned is the considered judgment of the US Congress. Not that the legislators spelled out such a proclamation, of course, but that is the spirit with which our leaders have made their latest offering at the temple of the money changers.

By pushing through a credit card industry-backed bankruptcy bill that punishes victims of usury paying almost 30 percent interest, the Beltway boys and girls have again made it clear who butters their toast: the same CEOs who have expressed shock and dismay with each revelation of abusive business practices in their ranks.

The timing is also peculiarly callous. With our “jobless recovery” and the stock market slide, escalating health-care and drug costs, bankruptcies like that of WorldCom and thousands of layoffs, many American workers will soon find that their government has just made it much harder for them to receive the fresh financial start that centuries of law have established as a necessary tool of a functioning free market.

Those currently facing ruin caused by an unexpectedly long period of unemployment, a death in the family, divorce or some unforeseeable disaster have caught a slight break in that final passage of the legislative “reform” may have been delayed–not by moral concern but rather because members of the House are eager to depart for their summer vacations.

When they return after Labor Day, however, the bill is almost certain to be sent for approval to the President–whose top campaign contributor was MBNA, a major purveyor of credit cards. In the next few weeks, consumers should examine this legislation, which the media have until recently ignored, and then they should set a fire under the people who claim to represent them.

President Clinton vetoed similar legislation for being too hard on consumers with low and moderate incomes.

No belt-tightening has been applied to Chapter 11, the portion of the bankruptcy law that large corporations employ. The end result is that a company like Enron gets to protect the wealth of its top people while its fired workers and money-losing investors find it hard to obtain relief.

Perhaps this would have been more acceptable if consumers received some compensating protections. The legislation does nothing to cap the exorbitant credit card interest rates that banks now legally charge, nor does it curtail blatantly deceptive marketing tactics designed to trap in debt the young, the desperate and the gullible.

When organized crime engages in practices like these, it is called loan sharking and is punishable as a felony. Banks don’t break kneecaps; instead they recruit the government as a debt collector for greedy money lenders who make unwise loans.

Banks have been completely irresponsible in their loan policies. When consumers started borrowing less, the banks flooded the market with tricky offers of “debt consolidation,” low-interest starter loans and “convenience checks.” This aggressive marketing appealed largely to people who could not afford to carry more debt–something a lender is supposed to factor into its calculations before handing over money.

Then, with their customers squeezed by ever-higher interest rates allowed in the small print–even as the prime rate was shifted far downward–the profits of banks’ credit card operations soared. Now, still making out like bandits, these lenders want the government to strong-arm their debtors.

The money changers who, in the words of the folk song, rob you with a fountain pen instead of a gun are legal and have bought off the leaders of both parties to make the law a servant of their avarice. Take the case of Charles Schumer (D-NY), who last year was complaining publicly about the banks’ credit card rip-offs. Yet he now hails this atrocious bill as “a victory for women” because he managed to soften language that would have allowed those successfully sued by abortion clinics to avoid financial responsibility. What a crock! Are women not debtors?

We are a nation that rose up to smash the indentured servitude, debtors prisons and poorhouses that were the hallmark of the king of England’s oppression. If the banks want to make bad loans with their own money, that is their business, but they should not be allowed to rely on the power of the state to force payment. As those melodramas that were the hallmark of the early American theater established, the sheriffs should be protecting destitute widows, not tossing them out on the street.

Congress and the President have made a big deal about this being one nation under God, but what sort of God do they have in mind? Certainly not the one speaking in Ezekiel 18:8, which defines the just soul as “he that hath not given forth upon usury…that hath withdrawn his hand from inequity.” Amen.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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