The Phone Call

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I was in bed Wednesday night about 6:30, a hot pack over my eyes, nursing a sinus headache, when the phone call came.

It was a polite sounding young man from an organization I’d never heard of. From his diffident manner and stumbling pronunciation of my name – he turned the “o” in Broderick into a long vowel – I assumed he was from a polling agency or perhaps an advocacy group seeking a contribution.

But when I told him that I was, indeed, Richard Broderick, his tone changed abruptly. Gone was the diffidence, the courtesy. On came a brusque and accusatory note.

“You have $4861 charged on your Visa Card from the Bank Of Omaha,” he informed me. “What do you plan to do about it?”

It took a moment to register what he had said, but then I told him, politely, that I do not have a Visa issued by the Bank of Omaha.

“Do you live at 860 Johnson St.?” he pressed on. No, I told him. “But your name is Richard Broderick, right?” Yes, I told him. “Then stop trying to lie to me,” he warned.

I admit. I’m not proud of what happened next. I exploded in an outburst of profanity, tossing the phone down on the bed, my temples throbbing. I thought I’d cut him off, but I hadn’t. I heard him explaining to a colleague that, “This asshole has some real issues.” Picking up the phone, I yelled at him that he was the one with issues and that he’d called the wrong person. Then I hung up.

As I unpacked my response, I went over the many reasons why I’d lost it. In the end, I remembered something, a simmering little ember of resentment that has nearly been buried by this season of political charges and counter-charges.

Barak Obama has justifiably pilloried Hillary Clinton for her vote in support of the 2002 authorization to use military force against Iraq, but there is another vote that she is not being held accountable for, one that, on the domestic front, has proven almost as costly as the Iraq resolution.

I’m speaking about the bankruptcy bill of 2005, a piece of legislation written by the credit card industry and given the suitably Orwellian name of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act. What the bill really retroactively protected was the predatory lending practices of credit card companies.

Before going into the details of the bill, a little recent history.

Long before the housing crisis was fueled by the proliferation of low doc, no doc, interest only, 1-3, 1-5. and 1-7 ARMs, and other sub-prime mortgages peddled by companies and brokers who made a habit of preying on minorities who have traditionally had a hard time breaking into home ownership – often steering such customers away from fixed-rate 30-year mortgages they could afford into much riskier (but more profitable) sub-prime offerings — the credit card industry perfected and paved the way for wholesale predatory lending.

Even today, it’s difficult to go to the mailbox without encountering at least one “pre-approved” credit card application offering a fabulous teaser rate – often 0% interest – with all the nasty info about exorbitant fees and outlandish interest spikes in the event of late payments buried in the fine print. But in its heyday, the great credit card sweepstakes was truly remarkable, with college campuses, airports, bus stations, and, hell, as far as I know, plasma donor centers and soup kitchens overrun by helpful credit card “associates” ready to sign you up faster than you could say “maxed out.”

As with sub-prime mortgages, these predatory lending practices – which are really nothing more than variations on a Ponzi scheme – led to escalating rates of credit card default; not surprising, given that consumer credit card debt is now estimated to be more than $900 billion and climbing.

Enter Congress and a bill aimed at sparing the credit card industry the consequences of its criminal behavior.

Prior to passage of the bill, most consumers seeking bankruptcy protection had the option of filing under Chapter 7 of the bankruptcy code, which allows a petitioner to wipe away portions of debt and start over. It was up to the judge to determine who was or was not eligible for this option.

The new law takes away that judicial discretion and imposes a means test on Chapter 7 filings. No matter the reason why you’ve ended up in default, under the 2005 bill if your income is at or above the median in your state you’ll be forced to file under Chapter 13, which makes it far more difficult to wipe the slate clean and start over. Even for people still eligible for Chapter 7 protection, the bill imposes new standards that raise processing fees for those already in financial distress. Studies show that almost half of all Americans who file for bankruptcy do so not because of credit card debt run up for consumer purchases but because they are overwhelmed by medical expenses (incidentally, a majority of these individuals have health insurance). The 2005 bankruptcy bill, therefore, doesn’t just punish credit card wastrels but families unfortunate enough to experience some kind of medical crisis.

Seventy four senators voted for this unconscionable act. Twenty-five, including Barak Obama, voted against it. Only one Senator failed to vote at all – Hillary Clinton.

In some ways, this was as craven as her earlier vote for the Iraq resolution. As a leading recipient of money from the financial industry, she did not want to offend some of her richest backers. But – with an eye toward the Presidency – she did not want to go on record as an enemy of consumers. So, as with the Iraq resolution, she tried to have it both ways. Voting for the war resolution while steadfastly refusing to read the NIE (and continuing to pretend that it was a vote in favor of diplomacy rather than war). Not voting at all on the bankruptcy legislation.

Would her committed opposition have stopped this atrocious bill? Hard to say. But by 2005, she was already considered the party’s leading presidential contender. A really passionate Hillary Clinton leading this fight just might have made a difference.

But, alas, she had other things on her mind that day, which makes a mockery of her current outpouring of concern for the “working folk” of Ohio and elsewhere – working folk who are, as with NAFTA, the principal victims of a bankruptcy bill that happens to make it much more likely that families facing the prospect of foreclosure are also getting calls like the one I received the other night — and could go on getting them long after they’ve even lost their homes.

Let’s just say there was another one of those red phone moments back in 2005 – and Hillary didn’t even bother picking up.

* * *

On another note, there is something else that needs to be pointed out about Mrs. Clinton.

It’s been observed that the only times George W. Bush speaks clearly and forcefully without any trace of his habitual stammering and syntactical stumbling are on those occasions when he is promising to punish or kill someone. In those moments, he becomes focused, articulate and sometimes even eloquent.

Similarly I have observed that the only time that Hillary Clinton rises above her usual plodding speaking style are on those occasions when she is heaping scorn on someone – most recently, Barak Obama.

Neither Bush nor Clinton are natural politicians, meaning that they must work at projecting an image that is at odds with their native dispositions. Both are vulnerable, especially at times of stress or fatigue, to leaking hints of their real personalities. In these rhetorical flashes, I strongly suspect that they are unwittingly revealing the needs and emotions that most animate them – the very core of their beings. In Bush’s case, that would be cruelty. In Clinton’s case, contempt.

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