The debate over bankruptcy is a difficult one to judge because it pits two groups of losers against each other. On the one hand are people who spend recklessly with credit cards and then expect to get away without paying. On the other are credit card companies who in recent years have demonstrated their integrity by, for example, sending tempting offers of easy credit to my daughter when she was 11.

I haven't had this much trouble knowing whom to root for since the Iran-Iraq war.

My only fear is that a third group — people who suffer sudden medical problems or a job loss — will end up being the real losers.

Sometime within the next month, the House is expected to pass a 501-page bankruptcy reform bill that has been debated back and forth for nearly a decade now. The Senate already passed it, 74-25, and President Bush has said he is anxious to sign it.

The intent is to make it harder for people to deliberately get away with not paying their bills — something that ultimately makes everything the rest of us buy a little more expensive.

In Utah, this issue ought to be front-and-center on any political agenda. In 2004, 20,629 of you filed for bankruptcy. The last time national figures were released, Utah ranked No. 1 in the nation in terms of bankruptcy filings per household.

Whatever it is that makes people over-extend themselves, we buy it here in bulk.

The bill would set up a test to see whether people really should be allowed to file under Chapter 7, which erases non-secured debt, such as credit cards, and requires people to sell off certain assets; or whether they should have to restructure their payments under Chapter 13.

Here, in brief, is how it would work: If you earn more than the median income in your state (in 2003, that was $62,032 in Utah for a family of four, according to the Census Bureau), you would need to have less than $100 per month in discretionary income in order to qualify for Chapter 7. A court would determine your discretionary income by subtracting reasonable monthly expenses.

But, if your discretionary income is between $100 and $166 per month, you could still file under Chapter 7 if you owe more than $24,000 in credit card debt.

Of course, if your discretionary income was too high, you wouldn't have to be Einstein to figure out you could just buy an expensive car before filing for bankruptcy. A car is an allowable expense. Under Chapter 7, you'd probably get to keep it. Sure, you'd still have to make payments, but a lot of the rest of what you owe would be wiped out, making those payments easier.

On the other hand, you can't just run up more credit card bills to get the balance over $24,000. Not unless you do it more than three months before filing for bankruptcy, that is.

I can see the logic behind all this. People who wield their Visa cards like swords as they cut through the jungles of greed on a shopping crusade will have a tougher time escaping the day of reckoning. That's good. No one likes irresponsible people who can, essentially, buy things for free.

But then, it isn't right to hand out buckets of sharp swords to overzealous shopping crusaders, either.

So, which side should win this loser war?

As with most things, it comes down to a question of responsible behavior.

That used to be an easy concept to grasp. In our grandparents' day, conventional wisdom was that you bought only what you could afford. Wimpy was a comical cartoon character because he promised to pay next Tuesday for a hamburger today. These days, no one gets the joke.

It's easy to correlate private bankruptcy filings over the past 20 years with credit-card debt. The Newhouse News Service recently studied data from the Federal Reserve, bankruptcy courts and the Census Bureau and found that revolving credit-card debt increased by 360 percent from 1980 to 2004. Non-business bankruptcies increased by 320 percent during the same period.

People should pay for what they buy.

Still, I'm bothered that the bill does nothing to curb abuses by credit-card companies. I'm also bothered by how it would go easy on the wealthy who can't pay their bills. If you owe more than $1.2 million, for instance, you automatically fall under Chapter 11, which would provide much more generous terms.

Generally, the bill goes in the right direction, but it is far from perfect.

My guess is that financial insolvency, like most personal problems, is best understood on a case-by-case basis. Everyone's reasons for going broke are different. Some may not hold up under scrutiny, while others demand a bit more compassion.

That's why we have judges. This bill takes away a lot of their power.

That means if you really do have a sob story to tell, it will be hard to get anyone to listen.


Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret Morning News editorial page. E-mail: [email protected]