Friday, July 31, 2020

College students, beware: Do your own COVID-19 safety check before moving into a dormitory this fall

When I was young, I practiced law in Alaska, and many of my clients lived in the Alaska bush--that vast terrain of mountains and tundra that is off the road grid. Consequently, I traveled a lot in small single-engine airplanes. The bush pilots who flew these planes were all young, and many were inexperienced.

I knew nothing about aviation. I figured--incorrectly--that the pilots were the experts and I crawled into many a small, antiquated airplane without a thought about the danger I might be in.

But my senior partner set me straight. "Richard," he said:
You are responsible for your own safety. Before you get in a plane make your own assessment about whether the plane is overloaded or whether flying conditions are less than optimal.  If you don't feel safe, don't get in the airplane.
That was good advice, and I'm passing it on to young people who plan to enroll in college this fall. Every American university has adjusted its curriculum in response to the coronavirus pandemic.  A lot of teaching will be delivered online, through Zoom, or in socially-distanced class spaces.

 But notice how many colleges are assigning students two-to-a-room in campus dormitories, even though we are in the middle of a pandemic.  All across the nation, thousands of young people--not known for social distancing or wearing masks--are going to live together in close quarters for three or four months.  A good many will experiment with weekend binge drinking at the local bars where they stand an excellent chance of contracting COVID-19.

How safe will that environment be? The colleges say they are concerned about your safety, but they desperately need the revenue from dorm rentals because many of the dorms were built with borrowed money.   The universities have got to have students' cash to service that debt.

Before moving into a dormitory, ask yourself these questions:

1) Will you feel safe sharing a dorm room with another student and sharing restrooms and showers with people you don't know?

2) Will you feel safe eating your meals in a communal dining hall?

2) Does it make sense to live on campus when most of your classes will be delivered online or by Zoom, and there will be few if any opportunities to socialize with your peers?

The colleges want students to live on campus because they want your money. But make your own decision about whether it is safe to live in a dorm this fall. You may conclude it is better to find your own housing arrangements or live at home with your parents.  Remember, the coronavirus doesn't care who you are or where you live.


The Cessna 185 Skywagon: Alaska's flying pickup truck


Thursday, July 30, 2020

Things fall apart: MBA programs are collapsing across the U.S. Don't get buried in the rubble

COVID-19 is shaking business education to its core, highlighting weaknesses that were already apparent even before the pandemic.  The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that 100 business schools closed their M.B.A. programs between 2014 and 2018. Nearly half the schools in a professional association of business colleges anticipate enrollment declines this fall.

What happened?

First of all, the M.B.A. degree lost its luster.  When the federal student loan program lifted the borrowing cap on graduate education, universities all over the United States created new programs or jacked up tuition on the ones that already existed. M.B.A. programs became cash cows for colleges that desperately needed to increase their revenues.

People who already had professional degrees in law, medicine or other fields, falsely believed an M.B.A. degree would make them more marketable.   But suddenly it appeared that everyone had an M.B.A. As The Economist observed four years ago, "Simply put, M.B.A.s are no longer rare, and as such are no longer a guarantee for employment."

Second, as enrollments began to decline in the U.S. market, many business schools began aggressively recruiting international students.  Last year, 40 percent of business-school applicants were from overseas.  Foreign students were especially welcome because they often paid full tuition--no scholarships or grants for those folks.

But foreign-student enrollment has slipped.  The coronavirus has made international students wary of studying in the United States. And no doubt the Asians have figured out that M.B.A. programs at the elite schools are too expensive.

Third, second- and third-tier universities created online M.B.A. programs, diluting the prestige of M.B.A. degrees.  Although a handful of schools have maintained their prestige and allure--Harvard, Yale, Stanford,  etc.--people with online M.B.A.s from second-rank schools discovered that employers were not impressed.

I sympathize with working adults who took two years off from working to obtain an expensive M.B.A. degree. I did much the same thing when I went to Harvard to get a doctorate in education policy.  I was out of the job market for three years and learned almost nothing.

The M.B.A. boom is being seen now for what it often is--a big scam by universities eager to boost their revenues.

So--if you feel stuck in your present job and think you can make yourself more marketable by going to business school, think again.

How much money will you need to borrow to finance your studies? What will you gain from leaving your job for two years to take classes? If you opt for an online degree from a lackluster school, what will that be worth to you when you put that M.B.A. degree on your vita?

If you decide--against my advice--to enroll in an M.B.A. program, at least remember this. Business schools need you a hell of a lot more than you need them.  Don't pay full freight to get a graduate degree in business. Make the bastards give you a grant or a scholarship.


Wednesday, July 29, 2020

It's Awful Quiet Out There in the American Economy: Is It Time for Americans to Circle the Wagons?

I grew up when western TV series dominated the airwaves: Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, Bonanza, etc. My childhood was one long cowboy show punctuated by irritating interruptions to eat and go to school.

How many times did I see that hackneyed scene of the settlers with their wagons in a circle, preparing to fend off an Indian attack?  Often the hero of the episode—Ward Bond maybe—would stand behind the wagon barricade staring into the darkness. He would hear a bird call—Native Americans signaling each other!

Then a trusted sidekick would say, "It's awful quiet out there." And the hero always responded laconically by saying, "Yeah, too quiet." And when dawn broke, all the Indians in Christendom would come howling down on the beleaguered settlers. Fortunately, the cavalry always galloped to the rescue just before the commercial break. "We're saved!"

Well, it's awful quiet out there in the American economy.  Life seems chaotic if you watch cable news—all those video clips of people rioting and burning down the cities. But who wants to watch that stuff? 

The stock market is doing fine, and millions of Americans are getting regular handouts from the government—payroll-protection checks, enhanced unemployment benefits, student loans. Tax breaks for the wealthy and food stamps for the poor. What could be lovelier?

But maybe it's too quiet. Why is gold drifting toward $2,000 an ounce while 10-year treasury notes earn only one-half of one percent interest? Why are people buying guns who never bought guns before? Why are people hoarding ammunition?  Why have Americans developed a sudden interest in growing their own food?

Even our television commercials are signaling that we have reason to worry. When we watch television, what do we see? William Devane at a country estate peddling gold. Tom Selleck trying to persuade elderly people to take out reverse mortgages. Joe Namath, hawking health insurance for people on Medicare. 'Get the healthcare coverage you deserve,' Namath tells us.

That's it exactly. Americans are afraid we are going to get what we deserve. We'll get what we deserve for electing thugs to public office. We'll get what we deserve for allowing our universities to become criminal rackets. We'll get what we deserve for mucking up our health care system and for creating an economy that silently eats away at the middle class.

Yes, it's too quiet. Ward Bond would tell us it's time to circle the wagons. And we know, as we await the catastrophe, that the cavalry isn't coming to our rescue this time.

Is it time to circle the wagons?


Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Rubash v. U.S. Department of Education: 60-year-old law-school graduate unable to shed student debt in bankruptcy

Peter Rubash is a sixty-year-old graduate of Duquesne University School of Law. He practiced law for a time but lost his job and eventually went to work as a project manager for a public agency.

In 2018, Mr. Rubash filed an adversary action in a Pennsylvania bankruptcy court, seeking to discharge approximately $230,000 in student loans. According to a medical expert, Rubash was depressed.

According to the expert, Rubash's "occupational failure as [a] lawyer and his resulting debt have caused, or at the very least, exacerbated his psychological dysfunction." The expert also said that Rubash was underemployed in his present position and was unlikely to obtain "suitable employment consistent with [his] education and past levels of employment" (p. 2).

The U.S. Department of Education opposed Rubash's effort to shed his student-loan debt in bankruptcy. DOE argued that Rubash earned enough money to make payments on his college loans.  The agency
presented a long-term income-based repayment plan (IBR) that would require Rubash to pay $838 a month.

Judge Carlota Bohm, who decided Mr. Rubash's case, agreed with DOE and refused to discharge Rubash's student loans. Rubash earned about $49,000, the judge pointed out, and he received additional income as a consultant.  In Judge Bohm's opinion, Rubash could make payments of $838 a month and still maintain a minimal standard of living. (Judge Bohm's decision did not specify the repayment period--probably 20 or 25 years.)

Judge Bohn justified her decision by citing ample citations to case law. But let's think a little bit more about Mr. Rubash's situation.

Rubash obtained his bachelor's degree 38 years ago and probably got his law degree within three or four years after getting his undergraduate degree.  He's 60 years old now.  If he enters into a 25-year IBR plan, he will be 85 before he finishes his repayment obligations.  That means he will make his last student-loan payment 63 years after he graduated from college.

Somehow, our society has got to come to terms with the fact that millions of people have taken out student loans to obtain undergraduate degrees and professional degrees that are not worth what they paid for them. I don't know what Mr. Rubash paid to attend law school at Duquesne, but today the tuition price is $46,000 a year.

 Thousands of law-school graduates have taken out six-figure loans to get J.D. degrees only to enter a saturated job market.  We've got to come up with a better way of addressing this problem than 25-year income-based repayment plans.

References

Rubash v. U.S. Department of Education, Bankruptcy No. 18-20449 CMBA Adversary No. 18-2028-CMB, 2020 WL 2554234 (Bankr. W. D. Pa. May 19, 2020).




Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Portland protesters: Are student loans and a crummy job market driving the anger?

Like many Americans, I have been surprised by the intensity of the Black-Lives-Matter protests that take place nightly in Portland, Oregon. Why Portland?

USA Today speculated yesterday that Oregon's racist past is fueling the city's protests.  As the newspaper pointed out, Oregon's territorial constitution, adopted in 1857, barred people of color from entering Oregon Territory.  And Oregon had a very active Ku Klux Klan during the early 1920s, as USA Today noted.

But I don't think Oregon's "dark history" of racism explains the violence in Portland's streets.  Portland is, after all, one of the most progressive cities in America. US News and World Report recently listed Portland as one of the nation's top ten best cities.

And no one can accuse Portland's politicians of being racist. The city's progressive political scene is so famous that the television series Portlandia lampooned it for eight seasons.

Nor is Portland torn by racial strife. Portland is a mostly white city in a primarily white state.  Only two percent of Oregon's population is Black, and only about one in twenty Portland residents is African American.  Compare that ratio to Baton Rouge, where I live. My city is 52 percent African American, and no one is rioting.

Watching the Portland protests night after night, I have been struck by the fact that most of the protesters are young, white people. I find myself wondering whether these enraged wokesters have college degrees, whether they have good jobs, and whether they have student-loan debt.

We know that millions of Americans are burdened by student loans that hinder them from getting married, buying homes, or saving for retirement.  And we know that a majority of these debtors are not paying down their loans.  Education Secretary Betsy DeVos admitted as much almost two years ago.

I'm guessing that a lot of the people who are protesting on Portland's streets have student-loan debt that is completely unmanageable. Although the demonstrators may have college degrees, those degrees did not lead to good jobs for many of them.

I am not questioning the sincerity of people who have taken to the streets of Portland this summer. I am sure most of them are genuinely disturbed by racism and economic injustice.

But I wonder: How many people who are throwing bricks and bottles at the police would stay in their homes at night, munch on popcorn and watch a Netflix movie if they believed they were financially secure, had a good job, and were not weighed down by student loans.

Portland protesters: most are young and white

Monday, July 20, 2020

Nursing School Dean is fired after sending an email that said "EVERYONE'S LIFE MATTERS": Does McCarthyism stalk the campus at University of Massachusetts-Lowell?

Leslie Neal-Boylan, Dean of the Solomont School of Nursing at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, was fired after writing "EVERYONE'S LIFE MATTERS" in an email message to the nursing school community.

Why was she fired? UMass Lowell won't say. It released this statement, drafted in the neo-Stalinist style of academia, that said this:

Leslie Neal-Boylan's employment at UMass Lowell ended on June 19, after she was informed she would no longer serve as dean of the Solomon School of Nursing. She had been in that role for 10 months. Although a tenured full faculty member she declined to join the nursing faculty. As with all such employment decisions, it was made in the best interests of the university and its students. Although we are not able to discuss specifics of a personnel matter, it would be incorrect to assume any statement by Dr. Neal-Boyland was the cause of that decision.
Dean Neal-Boylan apparently believes she was fired over her email message. In a letter obtained by Campus Reform that Neal-Boylan wrote to Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney and Provost Julie Nash, she reportedly said:
It seems clear that College Dean [Shortie] McKinney used my email regarding Black Lives Matter (BLM) as rationale to fire me. This is attributable to one phrase in my initial email that otherwise was very clearly a message to NOT discriminate against anyone.
So what did Dean Neal-Boylan's email say?  Merely this:
Dean SSON Comunity, I am writing to express my concern and condemnation of the recent (and past) acts of violence against people of color. Recent events recall a tragic history of racism and bias that continue to thrive in this country. I despair of our future as a nation if we do not stand up against violence against anyone. BLACK LIVES MATTER, but also, EVERYONE'S LIfe MATTERS. 
Some readers were offended by Dean Neal-Boylan's email, which someone posted on twitter. One person wrote that the Dean's "statement that 'all lives matter' was uncalled for and shows the narrow-minded people in lead[ership] positions." Shortly after Neal-Boylan sent the email message, she was fired.

This incident is reminiscent of McCarthyism in the 1950s when people in the entertainment community were blacklisted because they ran afoul of Senator Joseph McCarthy's paranoid, anti-communist agenda. Watch the movie The Front or Trumbo if you want to learn more about that shameful period in our national history.

Academia in the United States is now the home of a virulent strain of neo-McCarthyism. No one's job is safe. One false step, one carelessly expressed message, one unpopular personal viewpoint--and your university career may be ruined. 

So if you are a professor or a college administrator and you want to keep your job, my advice to you is: Keep your mouth shut.








Thursday, July 16, 2020

UWV police chief apologizes for displaying a "Thin Blue Line" flag in his home office: American universities are beginning to resemble Stalinist Russia

Go see Within the Whirlwind, a movie about Evgenia Ginzburg, a literature professor in Stalinist Russia, who is falsely accused of anti-Russian agitation. She gets sentenced to 10 years in a Siberian work camp.

 But you don't need to see Within the Whirlwind to get a feel for what Stalinist Russia was like. Just read the news about what is going on in our universities.  You say or do one wrong thing in those lunatic asylums, and you can lose your job.

Case in point. W.P. Chedester, West Virginia University's police chief,  recently sent a letter to the campus community, inviting people to attend a Campus Conversation about racism and injustice. Meshea Poore, the university's VP for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, joined Chedester in the invitation. 

So far, so good.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Conversation took place via Zoom, with Chief Chedester participating from his home office.  And this where the university's top cop screwed up. In the background of his Zoom image, viewers could see a "Thin Blue Line" flag--basically an American flag with one blue stripe. This flag is generally interpreted as a sign of respect for law enforcement.

Big mistake! 

Several WVU professors and students were offended by the flag and lodged protests to the university. Chief Chedester, a team player, took the flag down and issued a letter of apology.  "I sincerely did not have any intent to suggest that police lives matter more than Black lives, nor was I intentionally trying to cause any harm or offense."

Apparently, some WVU professors were not satisfied with his Chedester's apology. One professor tweeted that Chedester should still resign.

I admire Chief Chedester for his dignity and humility in responding to protests against his home decor. I probably would have responded like Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino) in The Godfather after a rival Mafia gang machine-gunned his bedroom one night.

"In my HOME!" Corleone shouted furiously. "IN MY BEDROOM WHERE MY WIFE SLEEPS! Where my children come and play with their toys. In my home!"

Yes, some people wanted Mr. Chester to lose his job because he hung an artistic expression of his personal beliefs in his own goddamn home.

And so, as I said, you don't need to see Within the Whirlwind to get a glimpse of what life was like in Stalinist Russian. Just take a tour of the WVU campus. I'm sure someone from the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion would be glad to show you around.


Joseph Stalin:

Note: Within the Whirlwind, directed by Marleen Gorris, was released in 2010. Emma Watson played Yevgenia Ginzburg, a Russian literature professor who was railroaded by the Communist Party and sent to a Siberian labor camp. According to her Wikipedia bio, Ginzburg served an 18-year sentence in the Gulag. I highly recommend the movie.














"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out." Reflections on Martin Niemöller, who stood up against the Nazis

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Martin Niemöller
 (1892-1984)

Like most Americans, I am familiar with Pastor Martin Niemöller's famous quote, but I knew almost nothing about him until recently. I knew he was a Protestant pastor who opposed Adolph Hitler during the 1930s, but I did not realize that Niemöller spent seven years in a Nazi concentration camp.

As William Shirer noted in his memoirs, Niemöller would seem to be an unlikely person to stand up to the Nazis. Niemöller had been a decorated U-boat commander during the First World War. He was a fervent nationalist during the post-war years, and he welcomed the day when Hitler became the chancellor of the Reich in 1933.

But Niemöller slowly became disillusioned with Hitler, and he spoke out publicly against Nazism from his pulpit. At some point, Niemoller realized that Hitler meant to wipe out Christianity in Germany and replace it with the National Reich Church.

Indeed, Hitler's national church publicly repudiated the "strange and foreign" Christian religion. The Reich church openly acknowledged that it intended to place Mein Kampe on church altars instead of the Bible.

With great courage, Niemöllerdefended his Christian faith against Hitler's paganism. In 1937, he was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Dachau.

Shirer, reflecting on the struggle between Hitler and German Christians during the 1930s, admitted that he had perhaps paid too much attention to it. After all, most Germans were not alarmed by what the Nazis were doing. "I should have realized," Shirer wrote, "that a people who had so lightly given up their political, cultural and economic freedom were not . . . going to die or even risk imprisonment to preserve freedom of worship."

Today, the United States is swirling in a witch's brew of cancel culture, Antifa, Black Lives Matter, and "wokedom." Elected politicians publicly denounce the police, and demonstrators feel free to throw bricks and bottles at police officers. Day after day, vandals posing as protesters destroy statues and monuments that memorialize America's heritage. Churches and businesses are being set afire, and almost no one is prosecuted.

If the United States had a free press and healthy universities, all this destructive rhetoric and criminal behavior would be thunderously denounced in the media, much as some newspapers denounced the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.

But America no longer has a free press. Instead, as Bari Weiss wrote this week in a letter to the New York Times," a new consensus has emerged in the press . . . that truth isn't a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else."

If our nation's universities were truly a marketplace of ideas, as the Supreme Court once described them, our intellectuals would speak up when a professor is bullied and even fired for failing to acquiesce to the destructive agenda of the cancel culture. But they are not speaking up.

For the most part, Americans are indifferent to the mass assault on traditional American values and our nation's democratic traditions. Our media and our universities are hell-bent on destroying American society, and few people dare to stand up to them.

We are like the Germans of the 1930s who stayed on the sidelines instead of opposing Hitler's thuggery. And like the Germans, we will eventually regret our cowardice.



Pastor Martin Niemöller spent seven years in a Nazi concentration camp.


Tuesday, July 14, 2020

"Don't bring your guns to town, son": Johnny Cash's mama gave good advice

Gun sales are skyrocketing in the United States. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (as reported by Forbes), Americans bought 2.5 million firearms in the first half of this year.

Even before this recent spike, Americans owned a lot of guns.  Today, Americans own 400 million firearms--that's a gun for every U.S. citizen, including toddlers and kindergarten kids.  And more Americans are packing heat when they travel.  As of 2019, 18.6 million citizens had concealed carry permits.

We've known for years that gun sales pick up in response to scary news events. Right now, people are worried about the coronavirus and urban violence in the wake of George Floyd's death. Many gun buyers don't actually want a firearm, but they are afraid they might need a gun one day and won't be able to get one.

This summer, however, we see a new development. Not only are people buying more guns, but they are also hoarding ammunition. As I write, it is virtually impossible to purchase handgun ammo in my city. A sales associate at my nearby Cabella's sporting goods store told me that ammo flies off the shelves as soon as it is stocked. "We sell out in about five minutes," he said.

Ammo.com reported that Texas saw a 1,000 percent increase in the purchase of 9 mm pistol ammunition this spring and a 2,400 percent increase in the sale of assault-rifle (223) bullets.

In my view, this is a worrisome trend. It is telling us that many Americans don't believe the police can protect them from crime and violence--that they are on their own when it comes to protecting their property and their families.

I'm not going to weigh in on the gun debate--the Second Amendment, yadda yadda yadda.  But I will say this. It is one thing for people who are trained to use firearms to keep securely-stored guns in their homes to protect their loved ones in the unlikely event that someone breaks into their dwelling, and the police don't arrive fast enough to deal with the threat.

It's quite another thing to carry a concealed weapon on a trip to the grocery store or to brandish a gun in public. Mark and Patricia McCloskey are famous now because they displayed firearms in their front yard when protesters came into their gated community in St. Louis. They say they were threatened and that the police didn't respond to their call for help. I believe them.

But wouldn't it have been better for Mr. and Mr.s McCloskey to have stayed in their home with the doors locked and call 911 repeatedly to ask for assistance? If someone broke into their house before the police showed up, the McCloskeys would then be well within their rights to protect themselves with guns.

But I don't see any sense in standing in one's front yard and waving a gun at people. I hope the McCloskeys aren't prosecuted for their misjudgment, but I also hope their personal drama is a lesson to the rest of us that we should heed Mama Cash's advice: "Don't take your guns to town, son. Leave your guns [inside your] home."





Monday, July 13, 2020

Two Hispanic cops killed while responding to a domestic disturbance in the border town of McAllen, TX: Do Brown lives matter?

Last Saturday, two police officers were shot and killed in the Texas border town of McAllen. Officers Edelmiro Garza and Ismael Chavez were responding to a domestic disturbance call at a local residence. When they arrived, a man identified as Audon Ignacio Camarillo opened the door and shot both men, who had no time to draw their weapons. Camarillo took his own life later that day.

What does Black Lives Matter have to say about this tragedy? Good cops are dead cops, perhaps.

And how about those lunatics on the Minneapolis City Council--the people who want to dismantle the police department even as they buy personal security for themselves. Do they have any comments?

And the "Defund the Police" nut jobs--what is their take on this?  I suppose they will argue that the city of McAllen should have sent a "woke" social worker to deal with Mr. Camarillo instead of two cops.

Both slain officers were Hispanic, shot in a town that is overwhelmingly Latino (or Latinx). Does ethnicity affect the way anti-police yahoos think about this tragedy? If blue lives don't matter, can they at least acknowledge that Brown lives matter?

All over the United States, the police will tell you that the most dangerous scenario for them is a domestic violence call. The guys who beat their wives are unstable and often have guns. Alcohol is frequently a factor.

What is the best way to deal with these perilous situations--which happen every day all over the United States? Do we dispatch a SWAT team in an armored vehicle? Do we send an unarmed community caseworker? Or do we ask the police to deal with guys like Audon Ignacio Camarillo?

Right now, our society sends cops--both men and women--to deal with domestic abusers, who are human time bombs that can explode unexpectantly.  It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it.

Is it too much to ask, then, to say that blue lives matter? Is it too much to ask Americans to say thank you?





Saturday, July 11, 2020

Not all white people live in a "place of privilege": Minneapolis City Council wants to dismantle the police department

Okie use' ta mean you was from Oklahoma.  Now it means you're a dirty son-of-a-bitch. Okie means you're scum.
John Steinbeck
The Grapes of Wrath 

Last month, the Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously to dismantle the municipal police force and replace it with an agency that will address crime more holistically. I take it that means more social workers and fewer guns.

Although the city council wants to deny police protection to the citizens of Minneapolis, some officials still want it for themselves. The city hired a private security firm to protect three council members at the cost of $4,500 a day. In other words, security for me but not for thee.

A CNN reporter asked Lisa Bender, president of the Minneapolis City Council, what people are supposed to do if their homes are being burglarized. "What if in the middle of the night my home is broken into," the reporter asked. "Who do I call?" 

Bender basically said the police aren't necessary to deal with a home invasion because if you're calling 911 to report a burglary, you're coming from a "place of privilege."  By privilege, I think Bender meant white privilege. 

If I follow her reasoning aright, Bender is basically arguing that white people don't deserve police protection from theft because they (or perhaps their ancestors) benefited unfairly from our society's structural racism.

But of course, that's bullshit. 

As far as I know, my family hasn't exploited anybody. My great grandfather on my father's side worked in a brick factory in England. Sometime in the 1880s, he immigrated to Canada with his wife and children and finally wound up in Kansas. No slaves on that side of my family.

My mother's people emigrated from Germany before the American Revolution. They settled in Pennsylvania, and several of my ancestors fought in George Washington's army. No slaves or racial exploitation on the German side of my family.

Even if you buy the tortured argument that my ancestors engaged in racial exploitation simply because they were white beneficiaries of a racist society, they certainly paid for that sin. Both sets of my grandparents lived in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression and suffered greatly. 

Although my immediate ancestors did not migrate to California during the 1930s, many of their relatives and acquaintances did. Much like today's Mexican immigrants, Oklahomans uprooted themselves and headed to the Golden State in search of a better way of life.

And when they rolled up to the California border in their broken-down cars, the state police would not let them enter. These economic refugees were referred to as Okies--a term almost as derogatory as the N-word.

Think of that: Today's California politicians want to abolish all immigration laws and allow anyone to enter the country--even criminals. But in the 1930s, the Californians denied entrance to American citizens who just wanted to work and feed their families.

American history is tainted with systemic racism to be sure. Africans were enslaved in the South, Chinese workers were abused in the West, and the Irish were exploited in the East. And if you want to know how the Okies fared in 1930s California, view John Ford's great movie, The Grapes of Wrath

But today, in the second decade of the 21st century, we all deserve to be treated equally and with respect. And if someone breaks into our homes, don't we all deserve police protection?


Okies, keep out of California.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Three moves equal one fire: In these troubled times, shelter should be the first priority.

In the early 20th century, a lot of Americans in the rural South were tenant farmers; and they often moved from farm to farm to remain employed. "Three moves are as bad as a fire," was a common observation because the disruption, property loss, and cost of moving could be devastating. Three such moves caused as much damage as one fire.

According to the Aspen Institute, as reported by Steve Rhode, "One in five of the 110 million Americans who live in renter households are at risk of eviction by September." Most of these people live in urban areas, but the trauma and loss caused by eviction are just as devastating for them as for the Southern tenant farmers who lost their homes a hundred years ago.

Being evicted often means that parents have to pull their children out of school in midyear, which disrupts their kids' education. Renting another apartment usually requires the new tenant to come up with a security deposit, which may be impossible for people who have no savings and no credit cards. Moving to a new apartment also means having to open a new account for electricity and water, and often the utility companies require a deposit.

Three moves equal one fire in modern America. And people who can't scramble successfully from one rented apartment to another become homeless.

Our federal government has distributed massive infusions of cash into the American economy to offset the economic calamity caused by COVID-19. Still, a lot of that money went to people who don't need it. More than 600,000 businesses benefited from the Payroll Protection Program, including 1,400 investment advisors.

Poor people, on the other hand, have received scant relief.  The government mailed out  $1,200 one-time checks a few months ago, but that amount may not cover a month's rent.  Congress fattened people's unemployment checks by $600 a month--a significant benefit, to be sure, but this aid is temporary.

We already see the disruption in housing caused by the coronavirus. The number of adults living with their parents has spiked upward to 24.8 million, with the most significant increases among people in their early twenties.  Sixty percent of young Black men are living with their parents or grandparents.

Matthew Desmond called for radical changes in housing policy in his 2016 book titled Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. He argues for universal housing vouchers to guarantee that every American would live in a home that is "decent, modest, and fairly priced."

In the short term, I don't see significant changes in national housing policy.  But this much seems clear. The federal government needs to devote a substantial amount of its coronavirus-relief money to making sure unemployed, and low-income Americans can stay in their rented homes.

Shanty housing during the Great Depression






Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Harvard University will go online this fall but will charge full tuition: $49,000 a year to take courses on your home computer

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Harvard University announced that all undergraduate classes will be taught online this fall. Harvard will allow only 40 percent of its undergraduates to live on campus, including all of its first-year students.

As several people have pointed out, Harvard's decision to teach students online this fall will prompt other universities to reassess their own teaching plans for the fall semester. After all, if mighty Harvard, with its $40 billion endowment, has thrown in the towel regarding face-to-face instruction, then many other colleges will surely follow suit.

Who are we--mere mortals--to question Harvard? Nevertheless, I don't understand the point of bringing first-year students on campus if they are going to be huddled over computers in their dorm rooms when taking classes. Why not let Harvard students stay home with mom and dad if they are not going to see their professors?

Harvard and other elite universities will weather the pandemic if it doesn't stretch on too long.  People who get admitted to Harvard will gladly accept any inconvenience to put Harvard University on their resumes. And, for a short time at least, Harvard can get away with teaching its courses online while charging full tuition--$49,000 a year!

But experts predict that the second- and third-tier colleges will see fewer students this fall. And those students will likely take price into account when choosing their schools.  After all, if students are going to be denied a traditional college experience—student clubs, dorm life, opportunities to develop romantic relationships—why not enroll in the cheapest school?

Without a doubt, most universities will have a lot of empty dorm rooms on their hands this fall, which means a significant loss in revenue. Privately owned student-housing complexes will also have vacant units, and many of these complexes were built with borrowed money.  The savvy cats who expected to make tidy profits on so-called luxury student housing may have trouble making their mortgage payments.

The coronavirus pandemic makes a lot of recent university projects look silly. Louisiana State University, for example, spent $85 million on a student recreation center that includes a climbing wall and a "Lazy River" water feature shaped like the university's initials. It looked like a smart move at the time, and the center was financed with student fees.

Now the Lazy River no longer seems so attractive.  Instead, it just looks like a great place to contract COVID-19.

Wigglesworth Hall at Harvard: Be sure to bring your home computer

Monday, July 6, 2020

Trejo v. U.S. Department of Education: A Texas bankruptcy judge grants student-loan discharge to 47-year-old single mom

The Sad Case of Jessica Trejo

In 2017, Jessica Trejo filed an adversary action in a Texas bankruptcy court, seeking to discharge $90,000 in student-loan debt. Ms. Trejo had borrowed about $65,000 to attend three Texas colleges. She also took out a Parent Plus loan for $13,522 to help pay for her eldest daughter's college education. And she owed a little over $7,000 in accrued interest.

At the time of trial, Ms. Trejo was a 47-year-old single mother with two dependent daughters. Both daughters were "afflicted with serious Type II diabetes, high blood pressure, psoriasis, eating disorders, severe depression, suicidal tendencies, and Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder" (p. 2). Ms. Trejo testified that she had to continually monitor her daughters' activities due to their depression and suicidal tendencies.

From 2008 until 2013, Ms. Trejo took college courses on a part-time basis at Tarrant County College, Hill College, and Texas Wesleyan University. Her ultimate goal was to get a degree in bilingual education. However, "because of her family and financial situation, she no longer intend[ed] to return to college or obtain a degree" (p. 3).

At the time she filed for bankruptcy, Ms. Trejo's financial situation was precarious. As Judge Mark Mullin observed, Ms. Trejo had not had a full-time job in the last 15 years. She had worked part-time at a nail salon, but she gave up that work to care for her daughters. Due to her daughters' disabilities, she received Supplemental Security Income (SSI) checks from the Social Security Administration, totaling $1470 a month.

The U.S. Department of Education opposed Ms. Trejo's request for student-loan relief, arguing that she should sign up for a 25-year income-based repayment plan. According to DOE, Ms. Trejo's income was so low that she would not be obliged to pay anything under such a program (p. 4).

Judge Mullin applies the Brunner test and discharges Ms. Trejo's student-loan debt.

Judge Mullin applied the three-part Brunner test to determine whether it would work an undue hardship on Ms. Trejo if she were forced to repay her student loans. In Judge Mullin's view, Ms. Trejo met all three parts of that test.

First, the judge ruled that Ms. Trejo could not maintain a minimal standard of living for herself and her two dependent daughters if forced to pay her student loans.

Second, Ms. Trejo had shown that her financial situation was not likely to improve in the foreseeable future.

Third, Judge Mullin ruled that Ms. Trejo had handled her student debt in good faith. Although she had not made any payments on her student loans, she never had the financial wherewithal to do so.

Implications of the Trejo decision

Judge Mullin made the right decision when he discharged Ms. Trejo's student-loan debt. Clearly, she could not maintain a minimal standard of living for herself and her family and pay back her student loans. And, as Judge Mullins recognized, it was highly unlikely that Ms. Trejo's financial situation would improve significantly in the years to come.

The Trejo decision is a significant decision for at least three reasons. First, Judge Mullin flatly rejected DOE's tired argument that distressed student-loan debtors should be forced into long-term income-based repayment plans instead of getting their loans discharged in bankruptcy.  Over the years, DOE has snookered some bankruptcy judges with that silly argument, but those days may be over. It is absurd to deny an honest debtor bankruptcy relief in favor of a 25-year plan that requires the debtor to pay nothing.

Second, Judge Mark Mullin is one of a growing number of bankruptcy judges who are interpreting the Brunner test compassionately and with a dose of common sense. Judge Mullin took great care to write a judicial opinion that will be difficult to overturn on appeal. His decision contained 124 footnotes showing that his ruling was based on evidence in the trial record.

Finally, the Trejo decision prompts us to think about the enormous cost of higher education today, particularly when we consider how often the college experience does not lead to a good job.  Ms. Trejo borrowed about $65,000 to pay tuition at three colleges and got minimal benefit from the experience. Nevertheless, all three institutions that took Ms. Trejo's tuition money get to keep it.

We need to find a better way to provide low-income people like Jessica Trejo with the postsecondary education and training they need to become self-sufficient citizens. Clearly, the federal student loan program, as it is now operating, is not doing a good job.