Maggie Gallagher
This week the Senate is set to approve sweeping changes in federal bankruptcy law. Personal bankruptcies have climbed 75 percent since 1990. Last year, at the end of the Great Boom, 1.3 million Americans declared bankruptcy, according to The New York Times.

The goal of the reform, say advocates, is to keep affluent people from shucking off legitimate debts, using lenient bankruptcy laws designed to give a fresh start to ordinary Americans who encounter bad times and can't pay their bills. "People with high incomes can run up massive debts, and then use bankruptcy to get out of honoring them," Sen. Orrin Hatch told The New York Times. Credit card companies have lobbied heavily for the change, which makes me suspicious.

On the one hand, it's hard not to agree with Todd J. Zywicki, a bankruptcy specialist at Geroge Mason University Law School, who said, "I can see no good reason why a schoolteacher earning $30,000 a year should have to pay more for a mortgage or more for a new couch because some guy making $100,000 a year finds it inconvenient to pay his debts."

On the other hand, I'm holding in my hand a solicitation for a Visa credit card from a company called Capital One, which came, unsolicited, to my home. I'm sure you get dozens just like this one. It offers a $500 credit limit and a choice of an attractive array of card designs on little stickers, ready to be affixed to the application: dolphins, leopard skin, lightning bolt. Plus a convenient opportunity to charge a subscription to Sports Illustrated, which happens to be my son's favorite magazine.

The offer is in fact addressed to my son, a senior in high school, whose only source of income is me. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't lend $500 bucks to a teen-ager I didn't know and expect to see it again. This is one of dozens of offers my son has received (or more accurately, which I receive and toss in the mail before he opens) since turning 18 last fall. Capital One Visa apparently knows this about my son, because one of the few questions they ask on the application is the name of the school he will be attending next year ("No abbreviations, please").

Meanwhile I regularly receive attractive printed checks from my credit card companies, suggesting I use them to reward myself by going deeper into debt for what can only be called consumer ephemerals. "Cater a party," one company suggested. On the television, ads urge us to borrow money not only to buy a home or a car, but to take a vacation or buy a boat.


Maggie Gallagher

Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.

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