Thursday, March 1, 2012

Too much of a "yes, but" about debt

Our local state senator, Mark Leno, sent around a nice press release just now about SB 890. This is a bill he's carrying to require that when third-party debt collectors ("debt buyers") pursue someone for a debt, they make some effort to prove they're chasing the right person.

Great bill, good work. I'm being ungrateful here to complain.

But, so help me, it's irking that in the fourth paragraph down, he has to make a ritual "yes but" statement showing deference, albeit qualified deference, to debt collectors:
"I am the first person to assert that consumers have an obligation to pay their debts in a timely fashion. Our credit system works to our country’s benefit when consumers and reputable collectors respectfully hold up their ends of the bargain. But in our deep recession, for-profit debt collection businesses have been growing exponentially, and so have the reports of abuse by these companies..."
Actually, well, there are debts and there are debts (and, yes, I'm saying a "yes, but..." here too, but a milder one.) Debts between equals, OK, deserve to be honored. But there are debts incurred through foolish or forced choices, or through no choice at all, or simply to a crushing extent, that a society should question.

Debt isn't a simple concept. Our political talk about it doesn't have to be simple either. Most people don't think about it simply.

As I've mentioned before, William Greider wrote a great article last fall about the sound economic wisdom in the ancient custom of debt jubilee. Now the Crooked Timber blog is having a thoughtful online seminar about David Graeber's ideas on debt.

It's all right to say out loud that debt is something a society negotiates -- it's not an absolute.

So I wish Sen. Leno wouldn't feel he has to pretend to view this subject as simple.

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