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.






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