The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Saturday, March 12, 2005

Bankruptcy bill - shouldn't there have been some sort of early warning system?

Until a few short days ago, I had no idea there was a bankruptcy bill pending, let alone the War and Peace-scale of the saga that led up to S 256's passing the Senate.

Now, every man is responsible for his ignorance, and I take no pride in mine (far too much like work...). On the other hand, it was clearly in the interests of opponents of the bill to make its true horror widely known - and early enough for lobbying against it to have some chance of being effective.

And two weeks before passage on a bill six or more years in the making was nowhere near long enough.

Had it been an abortion measure, say, I'd be pretty sure it would have got tons more publicity much earlier. But I suppose that the bankruptcy issue lacks groups with remotely comparable resources and influence to grab media attention.

It's tempting to think that a Dean-run DLC might have taken a lead on the issue. But, given the voting patterns of Democratic senators on the bill, that is no doubt pure druther. (Harry Reid votes for it, after the DLC has campaigned against it? Hard to see that working out!)

In truth, it's not a partisan issue. The point is made over at the essential TPM bankruptcy page:
Opposition to this bill is not a Democratic issue. Anyone who believes in free enterprise should oppose this bill. Anyone who wants to strengthen families should oppose this bill. And anyone who is disgusted by the corruption of our legislative process by special interests should oppose this bill.

There is no principled position to be taken in favour of the bill - it's purely a business transaction (votes for contributions) - and therefore no ideological reason why either liberals or conservatives should support it.

Paradoxically, the breadth of opposition that the bill on its merits should attract hurts the effectiveness of that opposition: far better if the opposition to a bill is focussed on a group narrowly delimited by geography, ethnicity, vocation or whatever.

The temptation for an individual opponent of the bankruptcy bill would have been to think, This bill is so bad, it stands to reason that it will be defeated [1].

Also, I wonder whether the current concentration on social security crowded out the - much more urgent - bankruptcy issue from public discourse. A strictly mercantilist view of the amount of attention available for the consumption of news stories is no doubt incorrect: in time of war or emergency, total news consumption can be expected to rise significantly.

But, in more normal times, rationing of attention to news is surely a plausible hypothesis [2]. And the news value (tabloid news value, indeed) of the hardships which the bankruptcy bill will cause or exacerbate would be at least equal to that of social security.

Another thing: it's hard not to compare the tidal wave of trivia served up by the media during the 2004 campaign (Kerry's butler, windsurfing, Swifties, cheesesteak cheese - I have embarrassingly little difficulty in supplying a catalogue of such crap) and the relatively scant coverage of the bankruptcy bill. Scant in proportion to its effect on American citizens, that is.

One inevitable factor is the evident loathing (mentioned here several times before) of political reporters for technical subjects - and they don't come much more technical than bankruptcy law. Gossip is much more congenial.

  1. There's perhaps a parallel with the psychology that means that, if the witness to an assault is a single bystander, he is much more likely to intervene than if he is part of a crowd, where he feels that, with so many others around, one of them will step in!

  2. And one that I'm sure has often been tested. Research for another time.

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