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Rethinking Debt: Deadbeat Creditors

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It's all in the way you think about it. Debtors or victims? Creditors or usurers?

The ancient dance of debt and credit has changed partners and its moral compass through 4000 years of recorded history. Humanity has had an ambivalent relationship to debt since civilization began. The current battle between borrowers and lenders reveals the age-old struggle shows no sign of abating.

The New York Times published a remarkably biased report entitled, "Debts Rise, and Go Unpaid, as Bust Erodes Home Equity," on the growing phenomenon of Americans "choosing" to walk away from debts. Far from "all the news that's fit to print" the yellow journalistic tone of the article makes one wonder whether writer David Streitfeld and the New York Times were fronting for bank lobbyists. Streitfeld writes that defaulting homeowners "prefer" bankruptcy to honoring their contracts.

Of course this reasoning is so logical, as we all know how simple it is to declare bankruptcy. Just become a prisoner for the next 20 years of your consuming life and it's basically a walk in the park! (Perhaps he was thinking of Central Park at midnight.)

The normally fair-minded Marc Gunther who pens a column on sustainable business followed up the Times article with more borrower bashing in an article entitled simply, "American Deadbeats." Gunther wrote while he doesn't mind paying for his sunroom, he doesn't want to pay for yours too. In his blog, Gunther pontificates on the moral hazards of unemployment and defaulting on debt.

The housing meltdown is, needless to say, still with us today. It's the single biggest reason why millions of Americans are unemployed, people aren't spending and the economy remains choppy, at best. It's also a cause of what, at the risk of sounding like a fuddy-duddy, looks to me like an erosion of moral values, as many thousands of borrowers simply refuse to pay what they owe.

Simply refuse to pay what they owe? Who? Where? What?

Never mind that being unemployed might lead to a tragic inability to pay ones debts, not by choice, but by no choice. Gunther notes the source of the economic crisis is the housing collapse, yet rather than sympathize with those whose incomes have evaporated and find themselves overwhelmed by debt because of it, he judges their state harshly as a willing abandonment of American "moral values."

Neither of these articles acknowledges the economic suffering going on in Middle America. People are struggling to stay in their homes, struggling to keep the lights on, struggling to find work, struggling to feed their families. They are literally struggling to keep themselves alive and not shoot themselves in the head due to long-term joblessness and continuing threat of homelessness.

How did they miss that? Is the New York Times so cushy a job that the economic despair of the nation can go unnoticed?

Sure let's make the victims of the housing collapse--the underwater, unemployed, overextended-- the source of the problem. Why not, victimize the victim? Isn't that a brilliant tool of defense used by many abusers? Doesn't a rapist say of his victim, she wanted it? Essentially that is what these folks are saying. Debtors are walking away from their homes, because they want to go bankrupt? Excuse me, but what ordinary person (not corporation) wants to go bankrupt? I don't know any.

In the NYT article, Streitfeld portrays borrowers unable to repay debts as "unwilling" to pay. He uses quotes from a Phoenix attorney Christopher A. Combs who teaches classes on foreclosure and claims, "Mom and pop making $80,000 a year were taking out $300,000 home equity loans for new cars and boats."

Firstly, any lender who was reckless enough to issue a loan at 4 times a person's income was knowingly spinning a roulette wheel. Chances are the "lender" sold the unstable loan to Wall Street underwriters for a fast and fat premium. Wall Street sold it back to mom and pop pension funds for an even fatter premium. No one held the loan for a more than a few weeks. Now who do we feel sorry for?

Secondly, I don't know too many Mom and Pops with 80k incomes who own yachts, do you? More likely, "mom and pop" took out equity loans to send their kids to college, fix a leaky roof, or pay for their liver transplant.

A little due diligence on Times "expert" Combs, reveals he is part of "CAI," a group of Arizona bottom-feeder lawyer lobbyists making big bucks from foreclosures. Mr. Combs claims that settling debts for less than the full amount of the loan "rewards immorality." I guess he would know.

Streitfeld's second "expert source" is a collection agent who makes his living squeezing pennies out of down and out debtors. A vulture capitalist who pays $500 for $20,000 loans from lenders, any amount Clark Terry extracts from the misery of others is worth his time. Never mind that the borrower and he never willingly entered into a contractual agreement. Parasite Clark somehow feels righteous enough to preach to the fallen. As he pounds the nation's struggling unemployed and foreclosed with thousands of legal threats and phone calls a day, Clark opines, "Americans seem to believe that anything they can get away with is O.K." Yes indeed.

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Monika Mitchell is the Chief Executive Officer of Good-b (Good Business International)a leading new media company xcelerating the movement for better business for a better world.
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