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.