OTHER VOICES

OTHER VOICES

DETROIT NEWS:

Time Warner Inc. angered millions of viewers by yanking ABC from its cable lineup in a fee dispute with the network. Federal regulators were asked to intervene. But the fact that the two sides reached a temporary agreement . . . proves the market works best without government interference.

Indeed, excessive federal intervention in the broadcast business invited this very standoff. More interference certainly would not have improved matters . . . Years and years of Federal Communications Commission oversight has enshrined government as the supreme arbiter in every cable/network dispute. This has served only to deprive the parties of anything but an adversarial relationship.

Let's hope the current case has broken the pattern. By refusing similar entreaties in the future, the FCC would ensure that the private sector pays more attention to business than politics.

ATLANTA CONSTITUTION:

Whichever spot on the political spectrum you occupy, you ought to be delighted by a report . . . from the Treasury Department that it expects to pay down the national debt by a record $216 billion by the end of this year.

Add that to the $88 billion paid down in 1999 and the $51 billion paid down in 1998, and it means that in a mere three years the federal government will have reduced what had once seemed a permanent, ever-enlarging burden by $355 billion . . . .

Suddenly President Clinton's goal of paying off the national debt by 2013 and extending the solvency of Social Security and Medicare doesn't seem so farfetched after all . . . .

The trouble is, both major presidential candidates, Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, aren't nearly as committed to driving down the debt as they should be. Gore is fuzzy on the topic while Bush places too high a priority on a massive tax cut.

A concerned public needs to insist the two of them take the pledge to prioritize debt reduction and sign it in black - not red - ink.

MINNEAPOLIS-ST. PAUL STAR TRIBUNE:

In opposing a major overhaul of the nation's bankruptcy system, Sen. Paul Wellstone has thrown himself in front of a juggernaut that carries Congress' GOP majority, the powerful banking lobby and many moderates in his own party.

But this isn't mere obstructionism by the Minnesota Democrat. The bills that have been moving through Congress since last fall deserve to be slowed down. They offer both the wrong diagnosis and the wrong cure for the nation's debt dilemma.

The case for bankruptcy reform goes something like this: Americans have fallen in love with credit and have lost all shame about walking away from their debts. The American Bankers Association claims that ''tens of thousands of debtors who could afford to make substantial repayments . . . are allowed by the system to avoid their responsibilities.'' Bills passed by the House and Senate would crack down on bankruptcy filers . . . .

It's true that the number of personal bankruptcies skyrocketed during the 1990s, and it's probably true that some consumers abuse the system.

But independent research . . . simply doesn't support a story of rampant irresponsibility. Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren has shown that personal bankruptcies still tend to be associated with financial catastrophes - such as an expensive medical crisis - not with personal recklessness. Ian Domowitz, a finance professor at Pennsylvania State University, says that the great majority of Chapter 13 repayment plans still end in failure because the debtors simply can't make their payments. ''This idea that it's high-income people trying to skirt their obligations just doesn't hold up under scrutiny,'' says Domowitz.

Finally, the number of bankruptcy filings dropped sharply last year and appears to be falling again this year - a trend that is hard to reconcile with the view that debtors just don't care.

Wellstone suggests a different cause for the bankruptcy boom. Credit-card lending is highly profitable and banks have pursued new customers aggressively - as most Americans would attest after opening any day's mail. As they expand the pool of credit-card holders, lenders issue cards to customers who simply are bad risks.

This is not to say that lenders bear all the blame for the bankruptcy boom. But it does mean that Congress should adopt a more balanced bill, one that includes better education and disclosure provisions for consumers as well as tougher rules for debtors.

There is some evidence that the last time Congress tightened up the bankruptcy code the problem only got worse - lenders got more careless in pushing credit cards, knowing that the bankruptcy court would catch the deadbeats. Rather than repeating that mistake, Congress should unwind the cycle of debt and bankruptcy.