Sunday, August 30, 2020

Guns are more dangerous than they used to be: Don't carry a pistol

Back in 1987, Mr. Bob and Miss Smitty, beloved family elders, traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to see an exhibition of ancient Egyptian artifacts on display at a local museum. Smitty often carried a small, lady-like handgun when she traveled as protection against the hazards of the road. Mr. Bob was also known to occasionally pack heat when he traveled.

On the day the couple visited the Egyptian exhibition, Smitty was carrying a pistol in her purse, a fact she suddenly remembered as she saw her handbag moving down a rolling belt into the museum's metal detector.

Fortunately, Smitty had so much other metal junk in her purse that the attendant didn't notice her pistol, and she and Bob had an enjoyable day looking at Egyptian artifacts.

Why did Smitty travel to Memphis with a handgun back in 1987? Was she afraid that she and Mr. Bob might have to shoot their way out of the Memphis museum, like in a scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? Had she seen the movie Deliverance and feared she and Mr. Bob might be waylaid by a gang of genetically-deranged hillbillies on their drive home through Arkansas?

I don't know. But I do know this. Carrying a firearm is a lot more dangerous than it was thirty years ago.

It is fashionable now in some regions of the country for people to obtain concealed-carry permits that allow them to keep small pistols tucked into their clothing. And in my corner of the world, a lot of men keep handguns in their pickup trucks, which is legal in Louisiana.

But it is risky to carry a loaded handgun, and it is getting riskier.

A few days ago, just a half-mile from my home, Jayce Boyd, a 24-year-old young man, was arrested on a murder charge after he reportedly shot and killed a panhandler in the parking lot of Trader Joe's.

Was the shooting justified? According to some reports, the panhandler was aggressively harassing two young women, and Mr. Boyd had come to their defense.

A few days before that, Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old kid from Illinois, was charged with murdering two people during the protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin. I saw a video that apparently depicts this young man shooting at some people who were chasing him.  At least one of his pursuers appeared to be armed.

Was young Mr. Rittenhouse acting in self-defense? Ultimately a jury will decide.

Here's my point. I can hardly imagine any threat to my personal safety that would justify me killing someone in a public place.  In fact, I might be better off getting injured or even murdered by an attacker than dealing with the consequences of killing another human being--even in self-defense.

So I don't carry a handgun, and I never will even though the state of Louisiana allows me to openly carry a pistol without a license.

Who knows what will happen to Mr. Boyd and Mr. Rittenhouse? Will they be acquitted on their murder charges?

Maybe. But if you were to ask Mr. Boyd or Mr. Rittenhouse today whether he wishes he had not been carrying a weapon on the night he pulled the trigger, I feel quite he would say yes.



You'll never take us alive!


Saturday, August 29, 2020

COVID-19 is disrupting American higher education: That's a good thing

The coronavirus pandemic hit American higher education like a Cat 5 hurricane.   Virtually all colleges and universities shut their campuses down and switched from face-to-face instruction to a distance-learning format.

Many students didn't like the change and didn't like paying full tuition for a watered-down learning experience.  Lawsuits were filed. I myself was skeptical about the quality of online instruction.

However, I am teaching my second class as an adjunct professor using Zoom, and Zoom works great for me.   I can see my students on my computer screen and can talk to them directly, just as if we all were in the same room. To my surprise, I can teach via Zoom with no loss of quality.

In fact, I am beginning to think COVID-19 may be a blessing in disguise for American higher education. Here's why I take that view.

First, the latest generation of distance-learning technology (Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc.) closes the gap between distance learning and live instruction. Colleges now have a good strategy for dealing with this pandemic and any future pandemic.

Second, COVID-19 has caused many college students to skip the dorm experience, and this shift has been a wakeup call to colleges that went on dormitory-building sprees. The change also put the brake on privately-financed, so-called luxury student housing. Privately and publicly financed student housing was out of control. All across the United States, universities are now surrounded by massive, block-housing units, which are a dispiriting blight on the landscape.

 Now that students are shying away from multiple-occupancy apartments and dorms, this speculative overbuilding has slowed down.  That is a very good thing.

Third, the massive shift of public universities to online learning has undercut the for-profit college industry, and that is also a good thing. The for-profits distinguished themselves by offering online education for working adults who could not attend classes on college campuses.  Often the quality of for-profit instruction was inferior, and for-profit colleges were almost always a lot more expensive than public colleges.

Now that the public colleges and universities have embraced distance learning, there is absolutely no reason for someone to enroll in the University of Phoenix or any other for-profit school that offers online instruction.  The for-profits are losing students and revenues, which (I hope) will force them to shut down. 

Finally, COVID-19 will stop the arms race among colleges to offer expensive recreational facilities, which have become a public embarrassment. LSU's "Lazy River" seemed like a cutting-edge innovation when it was built, but what college would install one now?

COVID-19 will force many small liberal arts colleges to close, which is unfortunate. But this country has too many colleges, and we are long overdue for a pruning process.

American universities are discovering that they can offer instruction in a distance-learning format, and those fancy recreational facilities and "luxury" student dorms are not essential. Maybe high-quality online learning will help higher education can get back to its real mission--which is to offer worthwhile educational experiences that prepare young people to become intelligent, civic-minded, productive citizens.  Wouldn't that be a good thing?


What? No Lazy River?


Thursday, August 27, 2020

Colleges urged to go test optional: We don't need no stinkin' standardized admission tests!

More and more colleges are admitting new students without requiring them to take a traditional standardized admissions test: the ACT or SAT. According to the National Associaton for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), 55 percent of colleges nationwide have waived those tests for this academic year--that's more than 1,600 colleges.

Why? Some colleges have waived the tests because of the coronavirus pandemic. Taking those tests during the COVID-19 outbreak is a health risk, they say, and an additional burden on college-goers during an already stressful time.

Now the NACAC wants colleges to waive those tests for the 2021-22 admission cycle. According to this organization, requiring such tests makes colleges "appear to send the signal that college admission exams take priority over students' health . . . " The NACAC also maintains that some high schools now prohibit colleges that require applicants to take a standardized test "from engaging with their students through school channels." Really?

The NACAC goes on to make a couple of arguments against standardized test scores, which I view as nearly hysterical:
Should public institutions maintain that these test requirements, US Department of Education data suggest that they stand to lose tens of thousands of students (and correlated tuition)--both from within and outside the state--to institutions not requiring the tests.
In other words, NACAC claims that a college that requires standardized tests will lose students to institutions that don't, which will cost them tuition revenue. 

Moreover, the NACAC hints darkly, a college that requires applicants to take the SAT or the ACT could get sued for a civil rights violation!
They also risk [says NACAC] creating a disparate impact due to prohibitive costs of sitting for an exam, particularly among low-income and minority communities, which could expose state institutions, systems, and administration to civil rights actions.
Implicit in that statement is a warning that a college that requires applicants to take the ACT could be accused of racism.


Personally, I think the NACAC is sputtering pure bullshit. In my opinion, the reason hundreds of colleges have tossed out their standardized admissions test has nothing to do with students' health or their civil rights.

Colleges all over the country are in a jungle battle for students, as the demand for higher education ebbs. Schools must reach their enrollment targets to survive because they are dependent on tuition money--which means they are dependent on federal student loans.

By throwing out the ACT and the SAT, colleges make it easier for them to admit unqualified students.  Hey--these colleges are saying--just show up, fill out your financial aid application, and you are good to go. No need to take a stressful standardized test--a test that might document just how unprepared for college you really are.

But this trend, which is snowballing, is eroding the integrity of higher education.  As admission standards fall, more and more colleges are admitting students who are not capable of passing their courses under traditional academic standards. 

But the colleges need the tuition revenue, so weak students are not washed out. Instead, grading standards are lowered so that almost no student fails a course or even makes a D.

This trend is bad for nearly everyone. Many students who were not prepared for college-level study eventually get degrees, which deceives them into thinking they accomplished something. 

Students who are qualified to be enrolled--as evidenced by high scores on the ACT or SAT--get a watered-down educational experience as they sit in dumbed-down courses.

And jettisoning academic standards undermines the morale of faculty members--especially those who believe that students who come to college should have a basic grasp of grammar and diction. I myself have taught graduate students who had 18 years of formal education and still didn't know where to put a quotation mark.

But trash-canning the SAT and ACT is a good thing for colleges that have virtually become open-enrollment institutions(or at least nonselective institutions) but don't want anyone to know it.  It is so much easier just to admit nearly everyone who applies because even an unqualified student can get a federal student loan to pay tuition.

Already, we see the wreckage produced by a higher education industry that lowered academic standards to keep their enrollments up. Hundreds of thousands of people who were not prepared for college and incapable of completing a rigorous degree program are finding that their college experience did not equip them to get a job. Yet, they are saddled with student loans they will never repay and can't discharge in bankruptcy.





Saturday, August 22, 2020

Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot gets special police protection: "I have a right to make sure my home is secure": Friggin' A!

Chicago has endured a crime wave all summer. Murder rates and shootings have accelerated. Last week, rioters looted stores in the city's luxury shopping district--"the Magnificant Mile."

Critics accuse Mayor Lori Lightfoot of allowing crime to get out of control, but now she too is being threatened by violence. According to news reports, Mayor Lightfoot and her neighborhood are getting special personal protection from the police.

This is how the mayor explained her decision to beef up security for herself and her family.
We are living in very different times and I've seen the threats that have come in, and I have an obligation to keep my home, my wife, my 12-year-old, and my neighbors safe . . . I think that residents of [Chicago], understanding the nature of the threats we are receiving on a daily basis, understand that I have a right to make sure my home is secure.
To which I say, "friggin' A," which is slang talk meaning strong affirmation (according to Urban Dictionary).

Like Mayor Lightfoot, the Minnesota City Council also believes its members have a right to be safe. Three of them are getting personal security at the city's expense, even while the Council is trying to defund the police.

 So perhaps we can all affirm at least one basic principle: Americans have the right to keep their homes and families safe in their own neighborhoods.

Or perhaps we don't agree on that. Municipal officials in Portland, Oregon, have tolerated riots, arson, vandalism, and looting for almost three months.  Seattle allowed a so-called autonomous zone to establish itself in its downtown district for several weeks, although I think that thing finally fizzled out. Even nihilists get tired of living in their own feces after awhile.

But most of us--including Mayor Lightfoot, the Minnesota City Council, and me--believe we should feel safe in our homes.  So let's expand that concept out a little bit.

Why do Nancy Pelosi and other national-level politicians (including Republicans, of course) get personal security from armed guards while the rest of us crouch behind locked doors? Why does Governor Cuomo have round-the-clock police protection while the state of New York tries to shut down the NRA? Is our politicians' safety more important than the safety of their constituents?

And why do you suppose non-criminal Americans have gone on an unprecedented gun-buying spree? Why is there a run on shotgun ammunition?

We know the answer to those two questions. Because Americans don't feel safe, and too many of them are not safe.

I have some young relatives--a married couple--who live in New Orleans and have two pre-school children. Both work in the hospitality industry and contribute to the economic life of the city. After their apartment was burglarized, the couple bought a home in the Ninth Ward.

Within a month of moving in, one of their cars was stolen. Unfortunately, someone left the house key in that car. The next night, burglars got into their home with a stolen key, grabbed the key to their second car, and stole it too!

What do our urban politicians have to say to people like my young relatives? Your life doesn't matter?

At least they would be telling the truth. Our urban politicians are endangering the safety and happiness of people who want to live, work, and raise their children in safe and prosperous cities. Instead, our so-called public servants are coddling the criminals who prey on decent Americans.

I just don't understand.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot: "I have a right to make sure my home is secure."


Friday, August 21, 2020

Are humans more like water buffaloes or crocodiles? Let's consult Family Studies professor Bethany Letiecq

Years ago, while visiting Uganda, I took a boat up the Nile River to its source. Along the way, I saw a group of crocodiles sunning on the riverbank. They were nearly identical in size--all about 12 feet long.

My guide told me that one never sees large crocodiles and small crocodiles together because the big ones eat the little ones. "And," the guide added, "crocodiles will eat their young."

I remember thinking to myself: "God, why did you make crocodiles--or black mamba snakes, for that matter? If I ever get to heaven, I'll ask God to explain himself.

Later in the day, I hired another guide to show me some lions living in the wild. My hotel ran a guide service, but the touring vehicles were restricted to the roads. My guide, however, was an official lion researcher, and he could drive wherever he wanted.

I expected my guide to show up in a Robert-Mitchum-style safari hat and driving an ancient British Landrover. But he was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, and he drove a Toyota Corolla.

Nevertheless, the guide could indeed drive wherever he liked, and we were soon motoring over the savannah with no thought about whether or not we were on a road. Sweet!

Soon we came upon a large herd of water buffalos, who looked up alertly from their grazing. I noticed that the adult buffalos began putting themselves between our Toyota and their calves. My guide explained that water buffalos are very protective of their young. When lions are about, the water buffalos make a circle around their calves and can usually protect them from lions or other large prey.

I was deeply impressed by the water buffalo's natural disposition to protect their offspring, and I asked myself this question: "Are humans more like water buffalos or like crocodiles?

I think the jury is still out on that question, but perhaps we should consult an expert, someone like Profesor Bethany Letiecq, a family studies researcher at George Mason University.

Professor Letiecq criticizes the traditional nuclear family because it privileges its members over other family types. Thus, she argues:
Family privilege recognizes that some families are the beneficiaries of unearned or unacknowledged advantages in our society simply based on how they are configured. For example, our society values and privileges heterosexual marriages over other relationships, including couples who live together, raise children together, and choose not to marry.
I don't think Professor Letiecq believes the traditional nuclear family is intrinsically evil, but she does say it is "patriarchal and hegemonic at its base."  She maintains that marriage "was designed by White, heterosexual men to maintain their power and social-economic dominance and control over the 'other.'" So--hardly an endorsement of the Ozzie-and-Harriet marriage model.

Unlike Professor Letiecq, I am not a family studies researcher, but I know a lot about dysfunctional families. I grew up in one, and I've seen the evil effects of divorce on children.  I feel quite sure that children need the love and protection of two committed adults to grow up to be happy, healthy, and productive human beings. And although there are many models for raising children, I don't believe there is a better one than the family, which has been a venerated institution for thousands of years.

Thus, in my view, anyone who attempts to disrupt or disparage the traditional nuclear family is not advancing happiness and wellbeing in our society. On the contrary,  when it comes to the welfare of children, people who undermine the traditional family are less like water buffalos and more like crocodiles.

Baby crocodiles: tasty appetizers for Mom and Pop


Thursday, August 20, 2020

Google says you can skip college: Uh-oh!

Universities have been whistling past the graveyard for years, Ignoring the signs of rot in their industry, they just rolled along through the decades, charging obscene prices for educational experiences that were obsolete. 

Overall, college enrollment dropped ten percent over the past decade, but the universities did not reduce their costs. Instead, they hired recruiters who flew around the country trying to raid students from competing universities in other states.

In a desperate search for paying customers, colleges "rebranded" themselves with catchy slogans pasted on highway billboards--slogans like "Change Your Life. Start Hear, Life's Calling. It's Your Life."

Then they whipped up "cutting edge" college majors, upgraded their recreation facilities, and constructed "luxury" student dorms. They rolled out romantic study-abroad experiences in England, Spain, and Italy. 

To pay for this nonsense, colleges raised tuition. When sticker shock set in, they switched tactics and slashed tuition--slashed it by half for incoming freshmen. But neither tactic stabilized their revenues.
Last spring, the universities were hit by the coronavirus pandemic, which is forcing them to spend lavishly to keep their campuses safe. Many are closing their dorms in response to the crisis--another revenue loss.

Meanwhile, Americans accumulated $1.7 trillion in student debt--debt they incurred in the often vain hope that a college education (and perhaps a graduate degree) would lead to a good job.

And now, Google has launched an inexpensive professional certification program that can be completed in six months. As reported by David Leibowitz, Google "signaled to jobseekers that they would treat these certificates, which require no prior experience of undergraduate credentials, as the equivalent of four-year degrees by their hiring managers."

Or, as Google put it, "In our hiring, we will now treat these new career certificates as the equivalent of a four-year degree for related roles."

What! Can a young person actually get a good job after taking a six-month training program without having to sit through four years of bullshit to get a bachelor's degree--or six years of bullshit to get a master's degree?

Can people really earn a living wage, marry, buy a house, have children, and save for retirement without taking a course in transnational sexuality? Without taking out $50,000 in student loans that can never be paid back? Without having a professor teach them that Mom and Pop, by staying in a traditional marriage, were participating in the structured exploitation of women and people of color?

Can that be true?

By God, we better hope it's true because the lazy, dysfunctional, anti-intellectual, toxic, and often racist cocktail that we call American higher education ain't working for us.

And I use the word "ain't" advisedly, because Rutgers University says that mastery of standard English grammar is not absolutely necessary to communicate as an educated person. 




"Learning. Leading," at the University of Houston. Yuh think?












Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, has 444 students. Roughly ten percent tested positive for COVID-19. Think about it

 When I was four years old, my father told me the most harrowing story of my childhood--perhaps the most harrowing story of my life.
In the spring of 1942, my father was an Army Air Corps fighter pilot stationed in the Philippines. He was captured by the Japanese when the American Army surrendered after the Battle of Bataan.
The Japanese imprisoned the Americans in Manilla but later transported them by ship to Japan. The vessels weren't marked as prison ships, and American Navy dive bombers spotted them steaming out of Manilla harbor. The Americans bombed the ships, and the Japanese locked down the hatches so that the prisoners would drown below deck if the ship were sunk.
American planes sunk at least one ship, killing all the American prisoners. My father's vessel was more fortunate. An American bomb blew a hole in its side, and the prisoners scrambled up on deck. My father started swimming and was recaptured by the Japanese, who were retrieving prisoners in small boats.
But, my father told me, some American prisoners could not swim. They stood on the deck of the sinking ship, crying and begging their comrades to save them.
"Did you help them," I asked? My father said no. He said he knew he could only save himself.
Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, has about 440 students, and roughly 10 percent have tested positive for COVID-19. Those students are being quarantined, but life must go on. Bethel is not closing.
What does it cost to attend Bethel College? About $43,000 a year, including room, board, tuition, and fees.  Most students pay less because they get some form of financial aid. But even with financial aid, students will pay about $25,000 a year to study at Bethel.
Does that make sense to you? Does it make sense to take out student loans to attend Bethel College during a pandemic? It doesn't make sense to me.
A lot of small, private liberal-arts colleges are going to close within the next couple of years. You do not want to get a degree from a college that will be extinct before you pay off your student loans.
These ships are going down, and you don't want to go down with them. Take a lesson from my father-- save yourself.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

One in four young Americans contemplated suicide in June: Will they feel better if they take out student loans and go to college?

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirms what Americans already know: The coronavirus pandemic is harmful to our mental health.  And young people are particularly vulnerable.

According to the CDC, one out of four Americans ages 18 through 24 contemplated suicide in June. The CDC's study did not break down that age group between college students and other young Americans. Still, everyone knows (often from personal experience) that going to college can be depressing.

Experts worry that the financial downturn will be hard on college budgets, forcing schools to cut back on counseling services for students.  But maybe not. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 2018 that colleges have at least a limited duty to prevent their students from committing suicide. That decision is likely to prompt higher education to invest more resources in their students' mental health.

Personally, I think now might be the wrong time for young people to go to college. The job market is terrible, and no one knows for sure which industries will thrive after we conquer COVID-19. I think the financial turmoil will make it harder for undergraduates to pick a college major that will prepare them for a post-pandemic job.

The universities themselves are agitated by social unrest, with some institutions thinking about defunding their campus police.  Depending on how that goes, students may find themselves vulnerable to crime when they stroll across the quad on their way to Psychology 101.

And a college education has become incredibly expensive.  The National Center for Educational Statistics reported that tuition and expenses to attend a four-year college went from $5,504 a year in 1985-1986 to $$27,357 in 2017-2018 (in constant dollars). (My thanks to Steve Rhode for alerting me to those figures.)

That's a four-fold increase in college costs over 32 years. When prices are adjusted for inflation, the increase is less dramatic but not reassuring. Whose wages have kept up with inflation over the last 10 years? I know mine haven't.

If you are one of the millions of young people who graduated from high school and have no clue about what you are going to do for a living, don't take out student loans to find out. If you stumble into one of the flaky liberal arts or social studies majors (sociology, psychology, international relations, gender studies, etc.), you may well wind up with $50,000 or more in student debt and no idea how you will pay it back.

You think you are depressed now, how will you feel when your first student loan payment comes due?

If you decide to go to college anyway, do what you can to reduce the risk of depression. If you've read anything by J.D. Salinger, forget it and throw his books away. By writing Catcher in the Rye, Salinger has done more to depress young people than anyone with the possible exception of Bob Dylan.






Monday, August 17, 2020

Coronavirus alert: Mama, don't let your baby live in a college dorm this fall

I went to college during the Vietnam War. Men registered for the draft at age 18 and could be swept into the Army within a few months of registering and swiftly sent on to Southeast Asia.

There were two ways to avoid that fate: men could enlist in the Army Reserve or National Guard, or they could go to college and get a four-year exemption.

There was just one hitch for a guy who went to college. If he flunked out, he was immediately eligible to be drafted. Oklahoma State University, where I wasted four years of my life, flunked out about 50 percent of the first-year class.

 I lived in Cordell Hall, my first year at OSU. Cordell was a gloomy Georgian-style building, which may have been the model for the Shawshank Redemption.  Because it was an old dorm with no air-conditioning, Cordell was mostly full of poor, first-year students who came from small Oklahoma towns.

My dorm floor housed a bunch of these guys. They were away from home for the first time, and they had two things on their minds: beer and girls in that order. Were they worried about getting drafted? No, they were not.

Gary, a freshman from Midwest City, was my roommate. Shortly after arriving on campus, he met Susan, and he spent every waking hour with her. He never bought a single textbook, and he stopped going to class two weeks after the semester started.

In those days, male freshmen were required to enroll in ROTC, which included weekly drills and a strict rule about keeping our shoes shined and our khaki shirts clean and pressed.

Gary blew off all that stuff, and at the end of the semester, his parents received his grades. He failed every subject except ROTC, for which he received a D.

Gary was mystified. He understood why he failed five courses, but could not comprehend how he had passed ROTC without ever going to class.

We puzzled over this conundrum for hours and finally came up with two theories. Gary believed he passed ROTC because he never signed up for drill. Thus, he hadn't been counted absent, and the Army thought Gary had perfect attendance.  My theory was that the Army knew it was going to get Gary sooner or later and didn't want to discourage him so early in his military career.

Why do I tell this story? To make a simple point: 18-old college boys are oblivious to risk. Do you think college students give a damn about the coronavirus?  Can they drink beer while wearing a mask at a campus watering hole? Can they get to first base with a college girl if they socially distance?  No, of course not.

If you are a parent of a student who plans to go to college this fall, you probably received many official notices about COVID-19 and all the things the college plans to do to protect your child from becoming infected.

But you may also have noticed that the college still plans to pack students into residence halls, where they will eat and sleep close to other students, many of whom spent the previous weekend in drunken debauchery. Why all the attention to safety in the classroom but less focus on dorm life?

Why? I'll tell you why. A lot of universities built their dormitories in recent years through a legal device called a Public-Private Partnership agreement (P3).  As Rick Seltzer explained in an outstanding article for Inside Higher Ed, P3s allow universities to offload their debt from dorm construction to private corporations that assume the liability and run the dorms in return for a share of dorm-rent revenue.

This is an excellent deal for the corporations because they are virtually guaranteed a nice profit, especially at colleges that require students to live in campus dorms and even eat their meals there.

But what if the students don't show up this fall?  The money spigot gets shut off, and the corporation can't pay the mortgage on the debt. Oops!

Parents of college-age students should independently assess the risk to their child if he or she lives in a college dorm this fall. The colleges will do the best they can to keep your kid safe and will buy Purell by the barrel. Still, they may be under severe financial restraints because they have significant financial obligations to private partners that require the colleges to keep the dorms full of rent-paying students.

Waylen Jennings warned rural moms not to let their babies grow up to be cowboys--and indeed, that is an unsettling prospect.  But maybe a more useful lyric might be this: Mothers be damned careful about putting your kid in a campus residence hall this fall.


Saturday, August 15, 2020

70 college groups ask Congress for more coronavirus money: Feed me, Seymour!

Writing on behalf of more than 70 college lobbying groups, Ted Mitchell, President of the American Council on Education, wrote a letter to Congressional leaders earlier this month asking for federal money to help colleges cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

Congress had already sent relief money to American colleges and universities through the CARES Act, but Mitchell asked for more--a lot more!

Mitchell said colleges need a total of $46.6 billion to cover increased student aid and lost revenues, and they need another $73.8 billion to pay the costs associated with the COVID 19 pandemic.

One congressional bill (the Corona Virus Child Care & Education Relief Act) calls for sending the colleges $132 billion, and Mitchell says that will do nicely, thank you very much.  Other legislation falls short of what Mitchell says the college industry needs.

Mitchell also asked for some other stuff:

  • Colleges want flexibility in how they spend the federal money they want Congress to give them.
  • Colleges want more cash even if they don't fully reopen. Or, as Mitchell put it, none of the money should be based on "an institution's reopening status."
  • Universities with fat endowments (Harvard's endowment fund is $37 billion) should not be penalized just because they're rich.
Mitchell's letter contained some more requests, but the bottom line is this: American colleges and universities want more federal money. Feed Me, Seymour!

When Mitchell was asking for a federal handout, did he urge Congress to provide some relief for college students? College borrowers, after all, collectively owe $1.7 trillion in student debt.

Oh yes. Mitchell asked Congress to extend the moratorium on monthly student-loan payments and accruing interest for an additional six months.  Thanks for thinking about the students, Ted. So thoughtful!

Mitchell did not mention bankruptcy relief for distressed student-loan debtors or the tax status of forgiven student debt.  He did not mention the millions of parents who took out PLUS loans to get their kids through crumby colleges--loans that sabotaged their retirement plans.

No, Ted Mitchell's letter was all about sucking up more federal money so the college racket can maintain the status quo--which includes robber-baron salaries for college presidents, coaches, and administrators.

Of course, the higher education industry won't admit that it brought its financial woes on itself or that many colleges were sinking even before the coronavirus showed up and crapped in their mess kits. (See Jon Marcus's recent essay in the Hechinger Report.)

Public institutions refused to consolidate their regional campuses even as college enrollments dropped precipitously.  Private colleges continued to insist that the liberal arts degrees they cranked out were valuable, even though they had forgotten what a liberal arts education is all about.

Law schools and business schools refused to cut their tuition or shrink the size of their entering classes even though there was a glut of JDs and MBAs on the market.

And now the reckoning day approaches, and all the college and universities can think of to do as a group is to have their 70 lobbying organizations ask Congress for more money.





Wednesday, August 12, 2020

U.S.. should run a "blue light special" on bankruptcies for consumers and student-loan debtors

As a young man, I practiced law in a three-man law firm in Anchorage, Alaska. In the winter months, the firm occasionally experienced lean times when clients couldn't pay their bills.

But we three were young, optimistic, and confident. I remember one day during an especially lean winter month when our senior partner jokingly announced: "Gentlemen, it's time to introduce our Blue Light Special: Bankruptcy, name change, and a divorce for only $500!"

I have always been a firm believer in bankruptcy--a process that allows "poor but honest debtors" to get a "fresh start." Although few people know it, bankruptcy is enshrined in our Constitution, and the bankruptcy courts are the main reason why America doesn't have debtors prisons.

I never had to file for bankruptcy myself, but several of my law firm's clients did in the mid-1980s when Alaska experienced a real-life depression due to a steep downturn in oil prices.  These people wiped the slate clean of all their financial misfortunes and started over.

Today, millions of once-middle-class Americans are experiencing severe financial stress. As Steve Rhode recently reported in Get Out of Debt Guy, the economy is running on borrowed time.  Mortgage delinquencies are up, with Miami and New York City leading the way.  People are fleeing the big cities. According to the New York Times, five percent of NYC's population left the town over two months this spring--frightened by the coronavirus, soaring crime rates, and a deteriorating economy.

So far, our government has kept the wolves at bay by pumping trillions of dollars into the economy through Payroll Protection loans and enhanced unemployment compensation. Millions of student debtors have stopped making monthly payments on their loans, but the Department of Education granted a temporary forbearance that allows distressed college-loan borrowers to skip payments for a few months.

But significant sectors of our economy are going to come crashing down within the next twelve months. For middle-class families who are being swept up in this tidal wave of economic isolation, bankruptcy is their only hope of regrouping.

Unfortunately, Congress revised the Bankruptcy Code in 2005 at the behest of the banks. The nation's large financial institutions were worried about people shedding their credit-card debt in the bankruptcy courts.  The banks wanted to make consumer debt more difficult to discharge in bankruptcy, and Congress obliged.

The revised Code also made it almost impossible for debtors to discharge their private student loans. Under the 2005 Bankruptcy Reform Act, private student loans are nondischargeable unless the debtor can show "undue hardship," a term the federal courts have interpreted harshly. And, as we all know, that brutal standard also applies to federal student loans.

The corporate world has ready access to bankruptcy, and the federal bankruptcy courts have become a playground for big business.  But the little guys are not treated so kindly.

As the 2020 election season rolls along, we should all think about what it is we want our elected politicians to do.  Number one, in my opinion, is a revision of the Bankruptcy Code. We will never recover as a nation from the financial calamity that is bearing down on us unless working people and student debtors can get a fresh start--the fresh start that the bankruptcy courts were created to provide.











Saturday, August 8, 2020

Louisiana Supreme Court votes to allow 2020 law graduates to practice law without taking the bar exam: What's black and brown and looks good on a lawyer?

What's black and brown and looks good on a lawyer? A Doberman Pinscher. Isn't that funny?

When I was young, I practiced law in a small Alaska law firm. Those years were the best years of my life. I was proud to be a licensed attorney, under oath to protect the Constitution and to be honest.

A lot of Alaskans hate lawyers, especially outside the cities. I remember eating lunch with my family at a roadhouse on the Glenallen highway. I was chatting with some guy from the bush sitting at the next table.

The guy asked me what I did for a living, and I told him I was an attorney. He immediately became loudly abusive.  He called me a crook and a lot of other things. We had to leave the restaurant with our food half-eaten to get away from him.

I remember that I wasn't angry about the incident. I was just sorry that I had been unable to make this jerk understand that the law is a noble profession.

Later, I became a college professor, and I quickly realized that attorneys, on the whole, are smarter and more ethical than the people who work in the universities. A lot smarter and a lot more ethical.

I am very sorry to see the legal profession transforming itself from being an honest calling to a racket.  And there's plenty of blame to go around.

First of all, when the market for lawyers began shrinking in the late 1990s, the law schools didn't shrink their graduating classes.  They needed the tuition revenue, and the second- and third-tier schools began lowering admission standards.

Before long, pass rates on the state bar exams began going down because a significant percentage of law graduates weren't intelligent enough to pass the bar exam. In California, only 26.8 percent of bar-exam takers passed the state bar exam that was administered last February.

Second, as everyone knows, federal judges ceased being people who were dedicated to the rule of law and became political partisans. We see this trend most dramatically in the U.S.Supreme Court. We have Republican justices, and we have Democrat justices.

Among the lower courts, judges are being called out for corruption and bias. There are plenty of examples in Louisiana, but I saw cronyism and favoritism in the Massachusetts judiciary, and it's not a pretty thing to see.

A few days ago, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled 4 to 3 to allow 2020 law graduates to begin practicing law without taking the Louisiana bar exam--ever. What's the rationale for this boneheaded move? The coronavirus pandemic. Apparently, it is just too damned difficult to administer the bar exam through social distancing.

Louisiana Supreme Court Justice John Weimer, who voted for the move, has a daughter who graduated from LSU's law school this year.  Justice Weimer refused to recuse himself from voting on this important matter even though his vote benefited his daughter.

Typically, one out of four first-time test takers fails the Louisiana bar exam.  Thus, it appears that the Louisiana Supreme Court unleashed a fair number of unqualified people to begin practicing law in the Pelican State.

People used to say, "Let justice be done, though the heavens fall," a ringing endorsement of honesty and integrity in the American judicial system.  But we know now that the phrase is just bullshit.

Our new motto: It's a good thing to know the law, but it is a better thing to know the judge.


Louisiana Supreme Court Justice John L. Weimer: It's a good thing to know the judge.


Friday, August 7, 2020

U.S. colleges are in big financial trouble, and it's their own damn fault

I doubt that many college presidents listen to country music, but perhaps they should.

Country music is full of lyrics about people getting in trouble because they made poor decisions. In Mama Tried, Merle Haggard admits he wouldn't be in jail if he had listened to his mother. And of course, there are hundreds of country songs about guys who lost their marriages because they hung out in honky-tonks with loose women.

American colleges and universities, like country-music singers, have made spectacular mistakes. But unlike the hillbilly bards, college leaders won't admit it.  They just raise tuition and go on wild building sprees. Now they can't pay their bills.

As Jon Marcus wrote for The Hechinger Report, higher education's bad choices left it dangerously vulnerable when the coronavirus pandemic became its black swan.  What did the universities do wrong?

First of all, colleges continued hiring faculty even though they were attracting fewer students. As Marcus pointed out, overall enrollment in American colleges and universities shrank by 12 percent since the last recession (2008-2009), while higher education increased the number of employees by five percent.

In particular, many colleges didn't decrease staffing levels for programs that were in decline. Fewer and fewer students choose education or liberal arts as their major. Still, many institutions did not reduce staff or eliminated majors even though the professors had fewer students to teach.

Second, Marcus correctly noted that the trustees at many universities abdicated their leadership role to be "boosters, cheerleaders, and donors."  Many college boards paid their presidents lavish salaries with overly generous benefits, bonuses, and hefty retirement packages.  For example, Penn State University and Michigan State paid departing presidents millions of dollars in golden-parachute money after they left their positions in the wake of explosive sexual-abuse scandals.

Rather than trimming their financial costs or operating more efficiently, most colleges responded to rising costs by raising tuition, forcing students to take out larger and larger student loans. As students reacted to sticker shock, the colleges switched tactics by offering huge tuition discounts of 50 percent or more to lure students into enrolling.  That didn't work out well for most higher education institutions.  Their tuition discounts didn't reverse their financial woes, and revenues continued to drop.

Now the coronavirus has become an expensive problem for colleges and universities. Many of them will close. But they can't blame COVID-19 for their misfortune. A lot of colleges were "dead men walking" even before the pandemic showed up as a black swan event.


Thursday, August 6, 2020

A financial tsunami is coming to sweep away our huckster economy: Time to scramble to high ground

I confess I have always been on the lookout for disaster, and so far, I've never experienced one.

As a practicing lawyer years ago, I was drinking a beer with one of my law partners in a harborside bar in Juneau, Alaska.  We happened to catch a breaking news story on the bar's television about an earthquake out in the Pacific Ocean. The reporter mentioned the possibility of a tsunami hitting Hawaii or some other unspecified place.

I told my associate we were leaving the bar that very minute to find high ground. He could barely conceal his mirth, but I was his senior at our law firm, and he dutifully followed me out the door, leaving his half-consumed beer on the table.

There was no tsunami, it turned out, and I admit that I overreacted. But I had a vision of being buried under a wall of cold Pacific Ocean water pouring through the streets of Juneau. I did not want to die that way.

We know, however, that catastrophes happen from time to time. The Holocaust, for example.  Some people saw it coming and escaped before the Nazis showed up, and some waited until the goons beat down their front door.

In Night, Elie Weisel's personal memoir of the Holocaust, Weisel told the story of Moishe,  a neighbor who lived in Sighet, a Jewish village in Hungary. The Nazis arrested Moishe first be because he was a foreign Jew. The Hungarian police rounded him up with other Jews and shipped them to Poland in cattle cars. There the Gestapo took over and transported the Jews to an extermination site.  The prisoners were then forced to dig their own graves, and then they were shot one by one.   Moishe escaped, however, and came back to Sighet to warn his neighbors about what he had witnessed.

Nobody believed him. It was just too incredible.  The Nazis would never slaughter civilians wholesale, they reasoned. But of course, they were wrong.

On the other hand, some people can see the future clearly in all its horror. William Shirer was a news correspondent in Germany as the Nazis came to power.  Shirer's wife was Austrian, and she gave birth to her first child in a Vienna hospital. As it happened, she was in the maternity ward when the Nazis invaded Austria. A Jewish woman in a room across the hall heard the news and knew what it meant. She jumped out a window, killing herself and her newborn baby.

For our own sake and the sakes of our family and loved ones, we have a duty not to lull ourselves into complacency during a time when an unthinkable disaster looms on the horizon.  And we are now in such a time.

The hatred toward our President has not abated since the 2016 election. It has intensified. The Democrats and Republicans are at each other's throat, and they've turned a medical pandemic into a political event.

I don't think it will matter who wins the November election. Either way, Americans are screwed. The Federal Reserve Bank is propping up the stock market to postpone an economic calamity, but that can't go on forever. The market will crash soon,  probably in less than a year.

Then we will know who acted wisely as the storm built on the far horizon and who will lose everything. And the people who did this to us--the crooks on Wall Street and their corporate cronies--will still be living large because they know the party is over and are already taking steps to preserve their wealth.

When the economy collapses, the oligarchs will be drinking mai tais in Costa Rica. The rest of us will be scrambling to pay our mortgages--and we will be damned lucky if we don't lose more than our homes.


Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Police union posts billboard message: "Enter [Baton Rouge] at your own risk." Is it safe to attend LSU?

Last month, the Baton Rouge Police Union posted two highway billboards warning drivers to enter the city at their own risk. As of July 12, the police advertisement announced, Baton Rouge had experienced 47 homicides, a substantial spike over the previous year.

Baton Rouge is a college town with three universities and a large community college.  Baton Rouge is the state capitol, with thousands of well-paid and generally well-behaved public servants. Baton Rouge is the city where the state legislature deliberates and where our governor resides.

And the Baton Rouge police are warning citizens to enter the city at their own risk?

The Minneapolis authorities issued a similar warning to the residents of the city's Third Precinct. Carjackings are up 46 percent for the year, officials said in an open letter. Robberies are up by 36 percent. Police advised people to be prepared to give up their cellphones and to "do as they say" if they are accosted by robbers.

Minneapolis is another college town. Greater Minneapolis-Saint Paul has over 30 colleges and universities, and police are telling people to prepare for being a crime victim.

What's going on?

As students and parents make preparations for the upcoming fall semester, they should be aware that crime is up all over urban America. Moreover, many college campuses are being roiled by the defund-the-police movement. Faculty and students are making all sorts of demands, including disarming the police, cutting campus police budgets, and canceling agreements between colleges and the local police force.

Obviously, there is a political dimension to the policing debate. I don't have a dog in that fight, and neither should you when you are thinking about your own personal security.  Whether you are a defund-the-police advocate or a blue-lives-matter cop supporter, you want to be safe when you are on a college campus.

So if you plan to enroll at a university this fall, keep three things in mind:

First, has your college taken prudent precautions to protect you from contracting the coronavirus both in the classroom and in the residence halls?

Second, will your college survive the pandemic if enrollments decline as they are likely to do at many small liberal-arts colleges?

And finally, is your college committed to keeping you safe from crime, or will it bend to pressure from police critics and cut back on campus law enforcement?

That's a lot to think about.  And don't forget that you're probably taking out student loans to pay for your college education. You definitely don't want to borrow a lot of money to attend a university and wind up contracting the coronavirus, being a crime victim, or attending a school that will close before you get your degree.

Baton Rouge Police: Enter our city at your own risk.