Thursday, March 03, 2005

Which Side Are You On? 

That's the chorus to a famous union song, as most of you probably know, but in case not, here are a couple of the verses from it:

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You'll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair

Oh, workers can you stand it?
Oh, tell me how you can
Will you be a lousy scab
Or will you be a man?

In my previous post, I made a plea for a more complex awareness of how individual Democratic office-holders can fail to come down on our side on a particular issue, but still retain their importance, and their integrity.

Ever the good liberal, I shall now take the other side of the argument. Well, not entirely. But in the next several weeks there are three issues surfacing in the Congress which represent acid tests for the Democratic Party: the Bankruptcy Bill, which is a horror for middle and working-class families, the backdoor-of-the-Budget ruse about to be used by Republicans to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to exploration for oil, and the re-submission by the President of candidates for the Federal bench already rejected by the Senate. Each of these has litmus potential. On each of these three issues, the Democrats sucessfully fought back, sometimes using the filibuster. But, like those slippery poltergiests, they're back.

Today, let's look at that confounded revision of our current bankruptcy laws. But, first, a look at what's at stake in terms of the political viability of the Democratic Party. Since I can't say it any better than this excellent discussion at "Liberal Oasis," please click on the link and read the post carefully. What I like about Bill's take here is its combination of a temperate tone in a discussion that doesn't hesitate to cut close to the bone. Helpfully, Bill's previous post deals with some of the same issues, but focused entirely on the question of the bankrupcy bill. Again, do yourself a favor, click here and read carefully.

When both The Nation and The New Republic call for Dems to go to the mat, you’d think they’d go to the mat.

But based on their past voting records, there aren’t nearly enough Dems in outright opposition to filibuster on the merits.
Does that enrage me? Damn right it does. But that said, we're stuck with the reality that neither the Green Party or any other third party is in a position to do a damn thing about stopping this thing, no matter the purity of their point of view on it. Bill provides a lot of links to the facts of the case, and the only viable option left open to us - get up of our asses and call, write, email the Democrats, and maybe even what few moderate Republicans remain and read them some form of the riot act.

Also helpful is this discussion in the excellent Progress Report of Feb 28th, also replete with links.

Most of you probably know who Dr. Elizabeth Warren is, currently the resident scholar on the role of bankruptcy in the lives of the majority of Americans. Here's a transcript of an interview that Bill Moyers did with Dr. Warren on Now that is highly informative and relevant to this discussion. (scroll down just a bit and you'll pick it up)

Political candidates take note — we're not making this up — there's an invisible crisis building out there. By the end of this decade, says a new book, nearly one of every seven families in America with children may have declared itself flat broke. This year alone, more people will end up bankrupt than will suffer a heart attack. And more people will file for bankruptcy than will graduate from college.

For desperate Americans, it's scary. Look what happened in the Washington, DC area this week when WKYS, a hip-hop/R&B radio station, ran a contest offering to pay the winners' overdue bills.

DJ: I'm just payin' bills! Throwing them all over the place.

MOYERS: More than 20-thousand people sent in their bills: mortgage, gas, tuition, child care bills. The station had to replace its fax machine three times to cope with the flood of paper.

DJ JEANNIE JONES: This contest proves that folks are still in a lot of pain. They're scraping up everything they have to survive day by day.

MOYERS: Even though unemployment figures improved slightly last month, 8.3 million Americans are still on the rolls, and many families today are just one lay-off away from economic collapse. That is not our opinion.

This is the book I mentioned, THE TWO INCOME-TRAP: WHY MIDDLE-CLASS MOTHERS AND FATHERS ARE GOING BROKE. Elizabeth Warren is one of the co-authors. She's a leading expert on bankruptcy, debt, and the middle class. Cited five years ago as one of the fifty most influential women lawyers in America, she teaches at Harvard Law School. Elizabeth Warren wrote this book with her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi.

Welcome to NOW.

You say in here that every 15 seconds some American is filing for bankruptcy?

WARREN: That's exactly right. That's 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. In fact, this year, more children will live through their parent's bankruptcy than will live through their parents' divorce.

MOYERS: Well, what are we to make of that?

WARREN: I think what we're to make of it is the middle class has been pushed right to the edge. They are on a cliff. And increasing numbers are falling off every single day. Families live in a much more dangerous economic world than they did a generation ago

They tried to deal with it by sending both mom and dad to work. You know, a generation ago, early 1970s, the median earning family had one person at work.

And today, just 30 years later, the median earning family has two people at work, and now here comes the zinger. Even though they're making 75 percent more money in inflation-adjusted dollars, because now they've got those two incomes, by the time they pay the mortgage payment, health insurance, a second car, because they're further out in the suburbs and mom needs to get to work, and pay for their pre-school and daycare, they actually have less money to spend than their one income parents had a generation ago.

And what we found was that well over 90 percent of the families who file for bankruptcy, when you look at the enduring criteria, are middle class families.

They're moms and dads who worked hard, played by the rules. They went to college. They bought a house. They had kids. And then they ended up in financial collapse.

Also, I need to make clear here bankruptcy's just a little piece of that iceberg. Not only will 1.6 million families file for bankruptcy this year, but in addition to that, we've got 9 million families who are in credit counseling already.

Okay, you may know most of that, or else are living it out yourself. But here's a bit I found especially interesting:

MOYERS: The popular notion is that families are spending too much, buying things they don't need. What did you find out?

WARREN: I thought I was gonna write a book about overspending. I thought this is it. I got it. This book is gonna be about too many trips to the mall, too many Game Boys, too many…

MOYERS: That's been done. AFFLUENZA. Remember that book? That…

WARREN: I do remember that book. Exactly. I thought, "This is the book I'm gonna write." I mean, I can't get a parking place at the mall. Right? That had to be the problem. So what we did is we got old, unpublished, government data. It turns out the government's been collecting this for a long time about how families actually spend their money.

And we look at mom, dad and two kids 30 years ago, and mom, dad and two kids today. And remember, today, they've got two incomes. You know what we discovered about… Let's start with clothing. How much more are they spending today on clothing than they spent a generation ago? All those designer clothes. All those $200 sneakers. You want to know the answer?

Twenty-two percent less than they spent a generation ago. Less. Okay, food. They're eating out today, right?


WARREN: Mom's not there in the household. She's not cooking those meals at home. So when you add up all that they're spending on food, all the designer water, all the fancy things they're buying, all the pre-prepared food, all the eating out, how much more is today's mom, dad and two kids spending on food than they spent a generation ago? Answer: 21 percent less.


WARREN: Appliances. Hey, they have microwaves, and nobody had a microwave a generation ago. They have espresso machines today, right? Fancy popcorn poppers. The answer is today's family is spending 44 percent less on appliances than they spent a generation ago.

MOYERS: So, where's the money going?

WARREN: It's going to the mortgage. It's going to the health insurance.

Daycare, childcare, nursery school. Something to take care of the little ones. And a second car, so that mom can get to work. Those four expenses have more than eaten up all of mom's income that she's brought into the game, and eroded what dad earned.

MOYERS: I want people to read the book, because they'll get the full answer to this. But give me a quick summary of why this has happened.

No, I'm not going to quote that part. Click on the link above and read the whole thing.

All I'll add is that much of what Warren has to say applies equally to working-class families who are less affluent but for whom being able to file bankruptcy can save all the years of investment they've made in owning a home, or a car, or a set of tools upon which employment itself often depends.

Some months later, David Brancaccio did another interview with Warrne that's also worth looking at, which you can find by clicking here.

Read, think, let us know what you're willing to do, or any thoughts on how to get others to do something. We don't have a lot of time on this one.

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