Monday, January 26, 2015

More evidence that the New York Times is totally clueless about the Student-Loan Crisis

Today's New York Times contained a full-page advertisement  (on page A22) with this message: "What our reporters are reading can be just as insightful as what they're writing." The advertisement contains a large color photo of Times writer David Carr wearing those round, horn-rimmed spectacles that people wear in Woody Allen movies--spectacles that convey sensitivity and deep intelligence.

Of course, the Times ad is true: What Times reporters read can be insightful. The problem is that the Times reporters are not reading enough and they are reading the wrong things.

And here's a case in point.  On the front page of today's Times is an article about the economic downturn Alaska is experiencing as a result of the recent drop in oil prices.  The article's author, Kirk Johnson, reports that "historians and economists say" that Alaska's economic crisis is unprecedented "in modern times."

That is simply not accurate. I lived in Alaska in the mid-1980s when oil prices turned down. Alaska's economy went into a tail spin, with a huge number of property foreclosures and several bank failures. I recall standing on a street corner in downtown Anchorage and viewing three financial institutions with plastic sheeting spread across their names because they had collapsed and been closed by federal financial regulators.

So what is happening in Alaska right is not unprecedented in modern times; and if "historians and commentators" told Times reporter Johnson that, they are certainly incompetent.

But that Times inaccuracy is a small matter.  More important is a pollyannaish article in last Sunday's Times about the student debt crisis. Times reporter Kevin Carey wrote favorably and uncritically about federal legislation that allows students to extend their student-loan payments out over 25 years. Apparently, Carey took a positive perspective on this development  because long-term repayment programs will reduce student-loan borrowers' monthly payments to a more manageable level.

 Carey ended his article by remarking that the federal government will probably replace the states as  the "primary financier" of American higher education. "Given how much unnecessary financial hardship has been imposed on students," Carey wrote, "this is a welcome trend." And Carey ends on this wholly unwarranted optimistic note: "The sense of pervasive student loan anxiety that characterizes much of the contemporary higher education conversation could become a relic of an older time."

What baloney! Essentially Carey has portrayed the federal push to get college student-loan borrowers  to sign up for long-term repayment plans as an entirely wholesome development.  And that simply is not correct.

First of all, the prospect of former students taking 20 to 25 years to pay off their student loans should be unsettling to everyone in the American higher education community, no matter how reasonable borrowers' monthly payments are. Surely when Congress adopted the first student-loan legislation back in the 1960s, its members never dreamed that 25-year repayment plans might someday become the norm.

In essence, as I have said before, long-term income-based repayment plans are turning Americans into sharecroppers, paying a portion of their earnings to the government for the majority of their working lives for the privilege of attending college. Who could be happy about such a prospect?

Second, as currently structured, long-term repayment plans operate as a perverse incentive for colleges to keep raising their tuition. Why should colleges try to keep their costs down when students can simply borrow more money to pay for tuition hikes and then pay it back in modest monthly payments over 25 years?

Third, long-term repayment plans remove incentives on students to minimize their borrowing. What difference does it make to students whether they borrow $30,000 to attend college (the current average) or $50,000 when the amount of their monthly loan payments will be based on their income and not the amount they borrowed?

Why has the Obama administration's push for long-term repayment plans been received so favorably around the country? I will tell you why. The only voices that are heard concerning the student-loan crisis are the voices of the insiders: colleges and universities, intellectually bankrupt think tanks like the Brookings Institution,and higher education's shamelessly self-interested constituency organizations like the College Board and the American Council on Education.

The people who are being injured by the federal student loan program have no voice; they are suffering in silence while working at low-income service jobs and fending of the federal government's hired loan collection agencies--which are making tons of money chasing down student-loan defaulters.

The Brookings Institution, in one of its typically vapid policy papers, argued for having people's student-loan payments taken out of their pay checks so that they would simply become another income deduction, like health insurance and Social Security.

And friends, that day will some day come. And when that happens, it will be apparent to everyone that the federal student loan program, which was intended to help worthy young Americans get a college education regardless of their income status, has become a massive fraud perpetuated on the American people by the higher education industry and the federal government.

If we continue in the direction we are going--and we are actually accelerating our headlong drive toward catastrophe--American higher education will be destroyed. But our policy makers, our legislators, and our college and university presidents don't care. By the time this time bomb explodes--and explode it will--all the people who engineered this disaster will be retired, writing their memoirs and drinking bourbon beside the golf courses of their gated entry retirement communities. The fact that these empty-headed bozos destroyed our nation's once premier system of colleges and universities will bother them not at all.


Kevin Carey. Helping to Lift the Burden of Student Debt. New York Times, Sunday Business Section p. 1.

Kirk Johnson. As Oil Falls, Alaska's New Chief Faces a Novel Goa: Frugality. New York Times, January 26, p. 1.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Who turned on the gas at Auschwitz? Reflections on student-loan debtors in bankruptcy

Gas Chamber Door at Auschwitz--Looking Out
My father spent most of World War II as a a prisoner of war in Japanese concentration camps.

He was captured in the Philippines when the entire American army surrendered to Japanese forces in April 1942, and he survived the Bataan Death March. He remained a prisoner until August 1945, after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Two thirds of the men who were captured with my father did not survive the War. Some were summarily executed during the Bataan Death March or later, some died of starvation or disease, and a number committed suicide. The experiences of the American prisoners of war in the Pacific are never compared to the Holocaust, but perhaps they should be.

In any event, my father's concentration camp experiences (which he often talked about when I was a child) have caused me to ponder again and again this question: How can people lose their humanity to the extent that they can kill defenseless people without remorse and even without thinking about it seriously? Who turned on the gas at Auschwitz day after day as all those Jews were gassed to death? And did those people go home to their families when their work days ended to eat a nice meal and perhaps listen to the radio?

Recently, I returned to this question  after reading several of the published bankruptcy decisions involving student-loan debtors.  In the Myhre case, for example, how could attorneys for the U.S. Department of Education oppose the discharge of student loans owed by a paraplegic man who was working full time and whose expenses exceeded his income?

And in the Stevenson case, how could lawyers for Educational Credit Management Corporation argue that a woman in her fifties who had a history of homelessness and was living on less than $1000 per month, be placed on a 25-year income-based repayment plan to pay off her student loans?

And in the Roth case, how could attorneys for the same company--headed at the time by a man who made more than $1 million dollars a year), stand before a bankruptcy judge and maintain that a woman in her sixties, who had chronic health problems and was living entirely off Social Security income of less than $800 a month, should not have her student loans discharged in bankruptcy?

I listened recently to the audio of a bankruptcy proceeding in California involving a man with more than a quarter million dollars of student-loan debt.  The man brought an adversary proceeding seeking to discharge his loans in bankruptcy.  His suit was opposed by two parties: the U.S. Department of Education and a private loan company.

Judging by their voices, the U.S Department of Education and the private company were both represented by young women.  Both argued that the man--in his 50s and making less than $2,000 a month, should not have his student-loan debts discharged.

I imagine both women graduated from good law schools, are kind to animals, and have progressive views on the political issues of the day--global warming, for example.

So how could these smart and presumably sensitive young women be working for a governmental entity and a private company engaged in the reprehensible business of stopping distressed student-loan debtors from bankruptcy relief?

I don't mean to compare these two young lawyers to the people who operated the Nazi death camps, but the insensitivity to the unjust suffering of others is somewhat similar. Millions of Americans are burdened by student-loan debt that is totally unmanageable and will never be paid off; and yet our government employs lawyers to prevent them from obtaining bankruptcy relief.

And, let us remind ourselves that the U.S. Department of Education, the agency that sought to deny bankruptcy relief to a paraplegic student-loan debtor in the Myhre case, answers to a president who won the Noble Peace Prize.

How long can the injustice and suffering spawned by the federal student loan program go on? A long time I fear. Slavery existed in this country for well over 200 years.

But ultimately, this trillion-dollar house of cards we call the federal student loan program will come tumbling down; and when it collapses it will take American higher education with it and perhaps the American economy.

That is something for American college presidents to think about as they fly around in their private jets and drink premium liquor with wealthy alumni.  University foundation board members should think about it as well before they execute multi-million dollar contracts with celebrity football coaches.

And mom and pop should think about it too before they encourage little Suzie and little Johnny to take out loans to go to an over-priced, pretentious East-Coast college.  Because when little Suzie and little Johnny take out those loans, they will live with them until they are payed off  in full or until little Suzie and Little Johnie are dead.

And if they try to discharge their loans in bankruptcy, a bright young lawyer who graduated from an elite law school--someone very much like the person who turned on the gas at Auschwitz--will be in federal bankruptcy court to keep that from happening.