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Student Debt and the Passion of a Lost Generation

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Student debt can be a crushing burden. Decisions one makes as a youth can potentially weigh down an entire life. Often, students are told by parents, teachers, and university professors to pursue what they love, that passion is more important than money. And in the walls of a university, this is an appealing argument. Outside school, too, this should be the driving force of one’s life.

If you were a college student in the past 10 years or so, and are middle-class or lower, you probably took out student loans to pay for that degree. And if one loves books, or art history, or 13th century religious iconography, following that advice with passion will cause problems when you have to pay off those student loans. When you graduate, excited about the world and its opportunities, do something big and interesting. Because after that, you might find that the world doesn’t want to pay you, or at least not very much, to pursue your passion.

This is our own fault. Believe it or not TRC does believe strongly in personal responsibility. If you took out a 100K in student loans, you are responsible to the institution which borrowed you that money. It must be paid back, even if, at 25 years old, you realize that you made a terrible decision at 17, and will pay for it for the remainder of your adult life. Alas. These are the rules, which, even when soul-crushing, are still the rules.

The US is in an a difficult place regarding student debt, and it could have serious consequences. The nation now carries more student loan debt than it does credit card debt. The costs of tuition have been rising at staggering rates, and show no signs of tapering off, and in the meantime wages for graduates are decreasing. Student debt, it is being said, could drag this economic recession on and on, and leave a generation of college students unemployable. By year’s end, a projected $1 trillion in student loans will be outstanding in the United States. A trillion dollars. How is repayment going?

 Barely more than a third of loan holders are actively paying down their debts, indicating that the burden may be too much for many. What effect will the ballooning student debt load have on the economy in the long term? According to Alan Nasser, professor emeritus of political economy at Evergreen State University, the American dream is about to become the American nightmare.

That doesn’t sound good. Too many people are having too hard a time surviving and one cause of the difficulty is simply that middle-class kids did what they were told middle-class kids do: go to college. College is a benefit, and it should be encouraged. The college years are the best years of one’s life (they really were), and the intellectual pursuit is among the greatest endeavors of human existence (truly). It is not culture or society’s fault that millions of young, highly educated people are unable to get a job. But culture is not guilt free, either. There is plenty of responsibility for this $1 trillion dollars. The question should be, what are we going to do about it so it does not erase a generation?

Who knows. Are there any viable solutions? At Occupy Wall Street there is a growing cry for student debt relief. There is an argument to be made for debt forgiveness: if we forgive the crushing debt burden, individuals will have money to spend on goods and services rather than sending their money (or not sending money, as the case may be) to pay off interest on student debt. Mrs. TRC and I have discussed this. We are doing well in comparison, working and able to meet our payments. But if we didn’t have to make the monthly student loan payment we would immediately: buy a car, buy a computer, re-do our kitchen floor. Would it help if we opened up what little capital is available to Americans and allowed them to direct that money towards economic recovery? It seems reasonable, but I’m not economist.

Either way, that’s not likely. And no one should be surprised that our government does not forgive a trillion dollars in debt to its own citizens. It’s not our style, and it may not be the best solution anyway. A strong argument against simple debt-relief is that it is unfair to people to worked tooth-and-nail to pay their education off and did not accrue debt. This person, the argument goes, did not need a private school education, and found a way to pay for it without loans. That is true, and that individual deserves the praise of our society; that person is a role-model. I think there are too few of those individuals; I wish I had been one.

Another plan is out today from President Obama to help ease the burden of student loans. The President’s plan “allows borrowers to cap their loan payments at 10 percent of their income, a significant reduction from the 15 percent cap in current law. And the plan would allow for loan forgiveness on a remaining balance after 20 years of payments.” Pay 10% of your income for 20 years, and the rest is forgiven. That seems generous. Whether it will work or be welcomed remains to be seen.

There is also a third option that TRC has thought of lately, and it’s terrifying, but no less realistic. It is said that if you do not find a job within five years of graduation, the odds of ever working into the competitive position you could have decrease significantly (I heard this on MPR, and am looking for the source). That is going to be a lot of students in the wake of this recession. And it will not be just liberal arts majors who want to be curators or book-store owners, but law students and scientists, and individuals from every field with graduate degrees, and thus more loans, because why look for a job when there are none? Better to keep learning and acquiring degrees to be more competitive when jobs come back. One may disagree with this line of thinking, but it is not uncommon and results in a lot of MAs, MSs, PhDs, JDs, etc.

Millions, probably. And the vision of these over-burdened and underemployed college graduates making coffee around the nation will eventually, finally, demonstrate what people around the country have known for a long time: the university system needs to change. The system cannot be: take out loans to go to school to get a job to pay off the loans you needed to go to school. That is a heartless cycle, and will destroy too many people in its wake.

Or we’ll just stop attending higher-education. The US will continue to run colleges and universities that compete with the best institutions in the world and continue to increase tuition to meet costs, but Americans will not attend those schools, at least not the majority of Americans. And this would be a loss of monumental proportions. Learning what you are passionate about, like your teachers said, is what college is for, and learning how to follow that passion for the rest of your life should take priority over monthly interest payments.


Written by Christopher ZF

October 26, 2011 at 11:02

Tea Party, Who are you, Really?

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When the Tea Party burst on to the political scene in the US, we heard a lot about the mixed demographic population of the group. The Tea Party presented itself as a melting pot of angry Americans: disaffected Democrats and independents fed up with big government overreach joined libertarians and moderate Republicans who all decided to put small government and a decrease in spending as the highest priority. The issue at hand was economics, not social issues. The Tea Partiers were not political Americans but ‘regular folks’ who had just had it up to here. There were disparate groups and in-fighting due the local differences that arise throughout the US, but that was to be expected with any big-tent group. And liberals who painted a bloc picture of the Tea Party undersold its diversity and impact.

I never really bought that portrait, lovely as it might seem. The Tea Party always seemed to me a group of fairly staunch Republicans who wanted to make hay over small government in order to push for social conservative goals, like keeping Gay Marriage illegal, and furthering the cause of pushing religion in to government, and doing anything no matter what to never raise taxes. Maybe a touch of racism to boot.

Ezra Klein, the smartest wonk in the room, has a piece today that gets at the heart of TRC’s continued nervousness about the Tea Party. Klein reports on a study that interviewed a “nationally representative sample of 3,000 Americans” in 2006. Those same folks were interviewed this past summer, and  ”as a result,” they explain, “we can look at what people told us, long before there was a Tea Party, to predict who would become a Tea Party supporter five years later.”

So who became the Tea Party? Some highlights:

  • The Tea Party’s supporters today were highly partisan Republicans long before the Tea Party was born… In fact, past Republican affiliation is the single strongest predictor of Tea Party support today.
  •  The Tea Party is not a creature of the Great Recession…while the public image of the Tea Party focuses on a desire to shrink government, concern over big government is hardly the only or even the most important predictor of Tea Party support among voters.
  • They are overwhelmingly white, but even compared to other white Republicans, they had a low regard for immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they still do.
  • They were disproportionately social conservatives in 2006 — opposing abortion, for example — and still are today. 
  • Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics…they seek “deeply religious” elected officials, approve of religious leaders’ engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates. 
  • The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government.

A study like this may serve nothing but anecdotal evidence that is easy to brush aside. These are just interviews, after all. But they are interviews with quote rank and file Tea Party members, or put another way, voters. And as Klein points out, the above list of traits are not very popular in the general population as whole. Yes, Americans do want a smaller government (maybe) and a smaller deficit. But they do not want to see more religion brought into governance and they do not want to see deficit reduction only through cuts and never through tax increases.

And for these reasons, I continue to downplay the potential electability of a Tea Party candidate for US President. At the end of the day, when I do my politics round-up, I read the things that Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry say, out loud and on-camera, and I always am led to the same conclusion: S/he could never be elected president.

I comfort myself with the ‘conventional wisdom’ that Glenn Greenwald wrote about in Salon the other day, that the two party system by necessity draws out the middle-ground, status-quo candidates. That worrying this far out about some extremist candidate for President is not worth the sweat.

But that reassurance (or for Greenwald, terrible reality) might also mask the potential calamity of a true Tea Party President finding himself or herself in the oval office. After all, when the candidates are whittled down by the primary process, who will be the John McCain left standing?

Still, the Tea Party could never elect a president, right?

Written by Christopher ZF

August 17, 2011 at 15:35

Is putting people on Mars worth the money? A wandering series of thoughts on science, politics, and inspiration

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I would love to go into space, especially Mars, even if nothing ever happens there*. You know Mars, fourth planet from the sun, red, god of War. I want to go. But being a middle-class Midwesterner who works in energy policy instead of some kind of m(b)illionaire with money to burn  will likely keep that dream from becoming a reality. Alas.

Turns out though, lots of people want to go to Mars. And some people think that wouldn’t be all that difficult (difficult here being relative, of course). Life’s Little Mysteries has laid out a 5-step plan from Robert Zubrin to get humans to Mars, establish a base camp, and begin regular outgoing and return trips using technology that we already have. When you read the plan it seems that Mars is not that far away. Getting there would take billions of dollars, but that’s a political problem, not a scientific one.

That 5-step plan has me wondering if the hurdles to Mars are mostly financial and political. Isn’t this America? If we wanted to get to Mars, if we could overcome the politics, certainly the US could send humans to Mars. Damn right. As Zubrin says, “”We’re closer today to sending people to Mars than we were to sending people to the moon in 1969.”

But there is a real question to be asked: why should we go to Mars? Seriously. What argument would convince Americans that a trip to Mars is worth billions of dollars?

The first, and most obvious, answer is the knowledge. There’s a lot to learn, more than can be expressed in the sentiment ‘there is a lot to learn’, but why risk sending people on that trip? Take water. We’ve long since discovered that there is ice on Mars, a discovery that changes what Mars means. But now the evidence is mounting, (in full barsoomenating detail at BadAstronomy) that there is liquid water on the red planet. LIQUID! And it just might be that liquid water means life on Mars. Possibly. Well, maybe but worth looking for, for sure. For TRC, who is in a temporary political malaise, it’s a discovery that’s worth getting excited over, in the least, and maybe worth calling for manned Mars Missions, like Ross Pomeroy at Newton Blog:

It is my hope that a finding of this magnitude will spark renewed enthusiasm for devising a manned mission to the “Red Planet.” What could be more worthwhile than finally answering the question of whether or not life is only endemic to planet Earth?

If you stop reading the entry at this point, it is exciting. But it would also deny reality. Pomeroy continues:

Unfortunately, I doubt any such discussion could survive or even begin in the current political climate. A “we can’t” atmosphere has taken hold of Washington, D.C. Now, most politicians seem to look at everything through a narrow, short term lens that focuses purely on costs and poll numbers. Lost, in this distorted view, is the long-term picture.

This is what we’re doing. Focusing so narrowly on a political moment in time at the expense of the future. Is that over-simplified? Of course. Do we have serious short- and long-term political problems that need addressing? Of course. Do we need to work out this budget gridlock and our spending and debt problems? Of course. Should these political problems facing a country in 2011 involve themselves in the long-term scientific pursuit of knowledge and truth and life? A pursuit that needs steady certainty to move itself forward? No. These are politics of the moment, and we need to see beyond the moment. After all, just a flight to Mars is a political lifetime.

And this is Life on another Planet that we are talking about.

It might not be on Mars, but Life is what we’re really looking for, isn’t it? Deep down? The wonder of the cosmos, for TRC at least, is that somewhere some other life exists. Be it microbial or intelligent. It’s a marvelous thought. And that get’s to the second reason (of many) to go to Mars.

The search for liquid water and the implications for life on Mars can bring back what the American Space Program seems to be losing. Magic. Sending humans into space-to Mars, to an actually different planet than the one humans inhabit-is a mind-blowing endeavor. A collaborative, national mission to Mars is capable of inspiring literally millions of young women and men to engage in science and poetry and engineering and philosophy, and all the great pursuits of humanity. It can produce the next generation of innovators and dreamers that our nation seems to desperately need. That’s the romantic argument. The strongest one, really.

*couldn’t resist.

Written by Christopher ZF

August 10, 2011 at 16:07

The odd circumstance of Debt Ceiling negotiations

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It seems to TRC that the debt ceiling talks are taking a very unusual pattern of negotiating. A normal negotiation would start with two parties staking out claims that are far apart from one another. Each side has a list of negotiating tools, and those things are slowly whittled away until a couple of the things that each side can live with remain, and a compromise is reached. This could be visualized like this:

This does not seem to reflect the debt ceiling negotiations. Here, both sides staked out their positions and made their list of priorities. Then President Obama moved directly to the middle and offered what by many accounts was a very good deal for the Republicans. This was rejected by the Republicans, and ever since things got very strange. Because negotiating ceased. What resulted was the Democrats giving up more and more of their priorities, while the Republicans moved further and further away from their original position.  This looks more like this:

So, what’s going on here? Since when can anything that looks like the bottom be considered negotiations? Turns out it is not negotiating. Because the GOP must work with the Tea Party, and the Tea Party does not want to negotiate with the President. Compromising with the Enemy is a sign of weakness. And yes, President Obama is the capital-E Enemy. Glenn Thrush at Politico gets at the problem: “There’s no guarantee Boehner can get anything through his conference, so skeptical are rank-and-file members of anything Obama could possibly approve.”

Is that where we are now? Where any kind of agreement is a sign of not good enough. If the GOP makes an offer, and Obama takes that offer, well then, it must not have been asking for enough cuts, enough sacred cows, enough hardship for the President. Whatever he will agree to, the Tea Party must have more.

Written by Christopher ZF

July 25, 2011 at 14:43

A Government of the People, unfortunately

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Hopefully this won’t turn into a rant.
We have a political circus that is overflowing past the aisles, out the entrance, and into the streets. Why? Because raising the debt ceiling can only occur now if spending cuts are attached. That’s where we are, better or worse. And on the issue no one will back down, it seems, and no one will retreat, only advance. Two sides with advance only modes leads to, what? Mutual destruction? The rhetorical  destruction alone is getting seriously out of hand. These may just be editorials, but they are a dime a thousand, decrying the end of American days. I’m not always a reasonable political person, but there are limits.

Roger Simon, over at Politico, has a pretty damning article up today, calling out both sides on this debate, claiming a lack of patriotism, and too much hatred in our politicians. Serious accusations, but unfortunately, not all that hard to understand.

That’s right. Too many Republicans refuse to raise taxes on the rich, no matter what happens to this country.
And too many Democrats refuse to consider cuts in entitlement spending, no matter what happens to this country.
That’s the extremism crisis, which makes people willing to follow their ideologies off a cliff. Are the two sides equally to blame? No, I don’t think so.
But it really doesn’t matter because it has led to a paralysis that has brought us to an economic abyss. Talk to lawmakers about economic theory? Heck, some of them don’t even believe in evolution.

Simon’s last paragraph gets at the heart of TRC’s exhaustion, rage, disbelief and madness over this whole debt ceiling standoff. We have somehow created an environment where in all capacities and on all issues, there is a choice  to believe something or not, regardless of fact or experience. It may be true that we do not know what is going to happen if we pass Aug. 2 without getting a deal done on the debt ceiling. But one of the options seems to be pretty catastrophic.  Why risk that based on the fact that you don’t believe that will happen? That’s a pretty big risk. Especially if, as some believers say, the doomsayers are wrong because no one knows what will happen?

A friend of mine yesterday compared this situation to a man having tingling in his left arm, and chest pain and dizziness. He thinks about these feelings and says: I don’t believe I’m having a heart attack so I’m going to just sit this one out instead of going to the hospital just in case. And by the way, the hospital is across the street and you have free health care and there is a doctor waiting to see you. But, maybe its nothing, so I’m not going. We’ll wait and see what happens. In this case, you believe wrong. Your belief does not matter, your symptoms warrant a trip across the street.

So why can’t our nation cross the street? How did we get to such intransigence? Where belief in one’s own knowledge and rightness can trump anything anyone might say? Roger Simon reminds us:

They scream because they are afraid of losing their jobs. They don’t want to compromise, even if compromise would be best for this country and would avert a financial catastrophe.
And who elected these bozos? We did.

We elected a divided government filled with politicians convinced they know what’s best. And we expect those politicians to stand firm in their values, because in today’s USA, compromise is for the weak. How this happened, I don’t know. Maybe it isn’t new at all. But there is something different in the air now that the circus has taken over the streets. Something smells different now, and pretty soon it will reach a point where it won’t matter who is “right” on the issues, or what one “believes.” It will just be a disaster. This disaster is not inevitable. But it seems more possible every day.

So what should we make of this? I have political values, strong ones that I believe should be upheld at almost any cost. But only almost. There is no purpose in holding on to political principle to the point of government failure. Extended government paralysis doesn’t serve anyone’s political vision. This is why compromise is also a virtue, and should be considered as such.

In the debt ceiling argument you have two political visions: that of President Obama and that of the Republican Party (I know the GOP have about 14 political visions, but for simplicity’s sake…).  The political analysis of Relative Comment has determined that a truly substantive victory for either side is not likely, since both parties are pretty much infuriated at the failure of of the opposition to see how clearly the light shines on their side. So the most Obama or Boehner & co. can strive for is a largely political victory; and if they are lucky, it will be accompanied by a few substantive points.

There may even be a way for both sides to get political victories out this mess. But remember: our government, on some level, has failed by putting itself in a position where political victories are the most we can hope for. I hope my side of the political spectrum wins the political fight. Because losing the political fight yields the ability to move the nation towards one’s vision for government. You may have to compromise the substance on this fight, President Obama or Eric Cantor, but if you do not, and you lose the political fight as well, and lose the Presidency in 2012, you didn’t just lose this fight, you gave away a chance to move the country towards your political vision. This is the kind of cold political calculus that I abhor. But we as a voting nation put ourselves here. We shouldn’t forget that we elected these stalwarts to represent us, and we have to live with the results. Unfortunately, we are mostly a government of the people, and this is us.

The Relative Comment is not in the business of making political predictions, so we’ll just say this to our political leaders: Don’t give up on fighting for a country in which you believe. But don’t fight for that vision to the point of destroying the chance to bring that vision to fruition. That would truly be a loss.

Written by Christopher ZF

July 14, 2011 at 15:33

Who’s going to pay?

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Relative to: Everything written today, which was all about the Deficit Reduction Recommendati0ns

The election cycle the country just experienced put a great deal of emphasis on balancing the budget. Well the rubber must hit the road, and for the young, new politicians with a mandate to balance the budget to make hard choices regarding taxes. You can’t just cut taxes, cut spending, and expect it all to work out. Someone’s going to have to suffer.

On top of which, if we’re going to balance the budget, we’ll have to let the Democrats in office know that they’ll have to make tough decisions regarding social services. We can’t just raise taxes and continue to spend and expect it all to work out. Raise taxes, cut spending, cut services, cut taxes: it’s not my job to solve, its yours now. But someone is going to have to suffer.

Written by Christopher ZF

November 12, 2010 at 18:16