Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Lee Siegel foolishly touts the virtues of student-loan default in a New York Times op ed essay

Lee Siegel, a successful writer, defaulted on his student loans;  and he bragged about it in the New York Times.

In a Times op ed essay, Siegel admitted that his loans paid for a valuable college experience. In fact, Siegel wrote, his education "opened a new life to me beyond my modest origins."

So why didn't Siegel pay off his loans? Apparently because meeting his financial obligations would have destroyed his "precious young life" by forcing him to take a job that would have stifled his creativity.

Siegel was vague about his loan obligations in his Times essay. He did not say where he attended college, how much he borrowed, or how much he now owes. Nor did he say how he manages to live comfortably with a huge debt hanging over his head, although he advised defaulters to marry or at least live with someone who has good credit. Thanks for the tip, Lee.

Siegel described his philosophy as one of "desperate nihilism," but I would be surprised if there is anything desperate about his lifestyle. He writes for the nation's most prestigious journals, he has written books, he appeared as a celebrity guest on CNBC. He has probably traveled overseas on numerous occasions. Perhaps he vacations in the Hamptons.

I think it was a mistake for Siegel to brag about defaulting on his student loans in the New York Times. He may think his essay displays his edginess, even his nobility. But basically he told the entire world he is a deadbeat.

Most student loan defaulters enter a world of pain.
Fortunately, Siegel stopped short of urging others to default on their student loans; it is a tort after all to interfere with others' contractual obligations. He did suggest, however, that a mass number of student-loan defaults might trigger wholesale reform of the way higher education is financed.

But Siegel is wrong about that. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, 7 million people are in default on their student loans and 9 million more are not making loan payments because they are in some form of deferral or forbearance.  Another million and half or so are in income-based repayment plans, and half of the people in those plans were kicked out for not reporting their income on an annual basis.Those are big numbers, but the massive meltdown of the federal student loan program has not prompted Congress to reform it.

It is totally irresponsible for a successful writer to tout student-loan default as a noble course of action. Most of the defaulting millions have had their lives wrecked by their failure to pay off their student loans. Their credit is shot, their wages are garnished, their income-tax refunds are levied, and they are hounded by debt collectors. And, if they are elderly, their Social Security checks are subject to garnishment.   Is there anything noble about that scenario?

Moreover, the New York Times acted irresponsibly when it published Siegel's essay. Siegel's self-serving defense of voluntary student-loan default may encourage other people to take the same reckless course of action; and most people who default on their student loans will enter a world of hurt.

It is true, of course, that millions of student-loan debtors are morally entitled to have their loans forgiven. People who were lured by fraud or misrepresentations into worthless for-profit college programs should have their loans wiped out. Many naive young people who borrowed money to enroll in mediocre programs at elite private colleges are also morally entitled to loan forgiveness.

But many people who borrowed money to attend college have done quite well; and apparently Lee Siegel is one of them. It is the height of arrogance for someone in Siegel's position to say, in essence, that the taxpayers should pay for his college education, an education he admits was valuable to him.

I have said, and I say again, that a reasonable bankruptcy process is the proper way to determine which people are legally entitled to have their student loans discharged. People who borrowed money for worthless college experiences; people who fell on hard times due to a job loss, illness, or divorce; people who tried to maximize their income but were unable to make enough money to pay on their student loans--all these people should be legally entitled to bankruptcy relief.

But simply walking away from student-loan debt is not an option. In fact, people who default on their student loans suffer catastrophic consequences. The Times would serve its readers better by editorializing in favor of bankruptcy relief for oppressed student-loan debtors, rather than publishing Siegel's very foolish essay.

References

David Marans, This Author Called for A Student Loan Boycott, And CNBC Was Not Having It. Huffington Post, June 8, 2015. Accessible at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/06/08/cnbc-student-loan-boycott_n_7537432.html

Lee Siegel. Why I Defaulted on My Student Loans. New York Times, June 7, 2015, Sunday ReviewSection, p. 4.









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