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The Gloom & Doom Trap The Two-income Trap Why Middle-class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke

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In Elizabeth Warren's world, men are kinda worthless ("Brad drank too much; he did not pick up after himself; he always forgot birthdays"). SUVs fare surprisingly well ("It is important to note that families drive stronger, safer cars that last a lot longer than they used to"). Creditors are, naturally, mostly scum preying upon victimized debtors.

There's more: Hillary Clinton is a disappointment for listening to the banks on the bankruptcy bill; Joe Biden is even worse ("Senators like Joe Biden should not be allowed to sell out women in the morning, and be heralded as their friend in the evening"). But Warren and Warren Tyagi save their sharpest knife for the smallest target: American children. It seems that the worst investment anyone can make, worse than Enron or WorldCom stock, is having children. Needless to say, the more children you have, the worse investment they are.

The authors do, however, propose two solutions that could allow for children to generate better return to their investing parents: Free daycare and a return to 1970s-style usury laws. Prof. Warren and her daughter argue forcefully that re-regulation in the form of capping allowable interest rates is the best way to provide more financial security to today's two-income families. This is a bridge too far even for the platform of the "Kucinich for President" legions.

In a book that is almost oppressive in its pessimism about the outlook for U.S. consumers and households, Prof. Warren and Ms. Tyagi make some otherwise excellent points about the so-called Bankruptcy Reform Act, referred to as the "awful bill." The authors also point out, accurately, that most debtors are not "immoral," that is, deliberately trying to live it up at the expense of their creditors.

The authors properly convey the difficulties of the two-income family trying to carve out discretionary income while paying for health care, safe and roomy vehicles, and housing in good school districts. My own experience as a trustee handling thousands of cases per year confirms this. The basic tenor of the book, however—that the pursuit of these middle-class dreams is a joyless voyage doomed by predatory lenders and lazy husbands—comes off as more of a polemic than as an accurate description of reality.

While it is true that consumer bankruptcy filings are at an all-time high, and that the national economy has suffered for nearly three years, it is also true that default rates for middle-class consumers, whether measured by credit cards or home mortgages, remain remarkably low. Even more amazing is the fact that nearly 70 percent of American households now own their own homes, including nearly 50 percent of African American and Hispanic households. Ever wonder how many aspiring, middle-class ethnic minorities or recent immigrants in European Union (i.e., regulated) countries own their own homes? Don't ask. It's not even measurable. Western Europe, with its cradle to grave socialism, stagnant economy (but zero to negative birthrate) is proof that children are instead the living, breathing investment essential to economic growth.

Prof. Elizabeth Warren, over many years, has issued brilliant critiques of so-called "bankruptcy reform," backed up by impeccable statistics and empirical research. Unfortunately, in The Two-Income Trap, her analysis is too often swamped by a sense of hopelessness that prevents the substance of the authors' argument from coming through. While they may have been shocked—yes, shocked—to learn that Sen. Clinton reneged on her private commitment to oppose the bankruptcy reform bill, perhaps it's time, in the senator's own words from another context, to "move on."


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Journal Date: 
Monday, December 1, 2003
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