The Great Debt Debate


There’s nothing like a heavily disputed presidential primary season to bring exciting new ideas out into the open, and there’s nothing like new ideas to generate debate (or if you’re on the internet, scorn and abuse). One of the big ideas being tossed around among Democratic presidential hopefuls is the idea of alleviating some or all student loan debt. Whose, how much, and how are all part of the mix, and of course the ever-present “why?” raises its head in the discussion, particularly when the question makes its way outside the narrow corridor of progressive thought.

In a lot of ways I feel like I’ve had this discussion before, on any number of topics, pretty much anytime the subject of government intervention in the economy (or any kind of government spending really) comes up. The simple fact is that government spending exists for a lot of reasons, but it always has one of a few intentions:

  • Providing basic services. This one seems kind of obvious, but it doesn’t cover nearly as much ground as most people think it does. That’s because there’s a significant amount of ground between what you want and what you need. We’ve become accustomed to a government that provides an awful lot of wants in addition to a scant handful of needs. This is not intended to be a polemic against government providing those things, merely pointing out that there is a difference between the two. This also goes hand in hand with…
  • Making a moral statement. You might not think something as dry as taxation and spending would have moral implications, but boy would you be wrong. Consider the phrase “provide for the common weal”. What exactly does that mean? What does it cover? And how do you intend to collect the money to pay for it? Once you figure that out, you’ve taken a moral stance, and your budget and taxation priorities will reflect that stance.
  • Stimulating the economy (whether it’s effective or not). I’m going to be generous and pretend that every time politicians have said that their various taxation and budgetary maneuvers were intended to “stimulate the economy” they were being sincere, regardless of the actual outcome of those efforts.

    Please stop laughing at me.

 

So where does that leave us when considering the idea of relieving student debt? Well, a lot of that is going to depend on how you feel about it coming in. As Obi-Wan once said, “you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” Do you consider college to be a basic service? If so, then government should have been providing it all along, and of course people shouldn’t have to pay for it, either in the past or in the future. Pay off ALL the loans and make all public colleges free. Perhaps you believe this is a matter of economic justice, in which case something more akin to Elizabeth Warren’s plan is more to your taste, with only a certain amount of debt being paid off, and an income cut-off being involved to ensure it’s more progressive than regressive. Or maybe you’re interested in stimulating the economy, in which case you want something a bit more modest but even-handed.

Or perhaps your stance leans more the other way. I have heard arguments asking why student loan debt should be privileged over other kinds of consumer debt, such as mortgage debt or credit card debt. These are important questions, and worth addressing by those who would forgive or pay-off student loan debt. I have a few answers of my own, although not sufficient answers I am sure for those who are asking those questions.

Regarding comparisons to mortgage debt, mortgages have been privileged over other kinds of consumer debt for as long as the modern income tax has existed. Last I checked I couldn’t deduct my credit card interest or my rent payments from my income taxes, and while I can deduct the interest from my student loans from my income taxes, there’s one big difference on those that I’ll get to in just a moment. So suggesting that relieving student debt would be an anomaly because we would be “privileging” one particular kind of debt is disingenuous at best. While there’s a fair argument to be made that the price of the mortgage deduction has already been “baked in” to the price of housing, the same can be said for the price of tuition, with the cost of public four-year institutions increasing 213% in 10 years. I’d like to flip that house.

As for credit card debt, that’s a tougher lift. Despite the calls to limit interest rates at 15%, I haven’t heard any suggestion of relieving existing debts, nor do I seriously expect there to be any suggestion for that happening either (nor do I think such a suggestion would get any traction). Going back to needs and wants, there is an understanding in America today that you need a college degree; despite the realities that many Americans face of having to get by week to week using any means at their disposal, including high-interest credit cards, there is still a Puritanical moralism that says credit card debt represents wants. Regardless, though it has been made significantly more difficult in recent decades, there is still an option available to credit card debtors that is not available to student loan debtors: bankruptcy. Yes, it’s an ugly word in America. Yes, it will ruin your credit rating. But it sure does beat insurmountable debts. At least it does if it applies to the insurmountable debts you have.

I am not unsympathetic to any of these positions. I am a renter, and I have been a home owner. I have dug myself out of the bottom of a very deep hole of credit card debt more than once, and I know how awful it can be. Worst of all, I have carried substantial college loan debt for a quarter of a century, and every time I make a payment I am reminded of all the stupid choices I made that got me into that debt. I own those choices, I do not deny it. And I have been paying for them for over twenty years. It is not something I would wish on another human being.

The best answer I can give, ultimately, is the same answer I have always given when it comes to government policy or societal action: someone’s gotta take it in the shorts. It may not be “politic”, but it is absolutely egalitarian. It is the recognition that in a cooperative society, there are only two ways to manage things: everybody goes it alone, in which case the winners and losers make themselves, or we do things cooperatively, in which case we collectively make winners and losers. Either way somebody takes it in the shorts. There is no scenario in which everybody comes out ahead, but there are many scenarios in which everybody is worse off. The question we have to answer is which scenario we choose to pursue, and who ends up taking it in the shorts.

Anybody who says the student loan industry is getting it right is someone who is profiting off college students. And it’s not just teenagers. Veterans, working professionals, career switchers, stay at home parents returning to the workforce; these are all people who are trying to navigate a complex and often predatory environment, and they don’t have decades before retirement to pay back overwhelming loans. I’m not advocating any particular approach, I’m saying a conversation needs to be had now before the bubble bursts and it’s too late for a conversation, and all that’s left is to try to clean up the B.S.


I’ll Take Your Word For It


Just the other day I read two articles, literally back-to-back, that struck me as emblematic of one of the glaring problems in society today. I’m going to venture to call it an epistemological problem, because it seems like what is happening is that people of a certain social and political bent have a serious case of cognitive dissonance, carrying two completely different ideas simultaneously and not even recognizing how they cancel each other out.

The first article was about using the word “guys” to refer to mixed groups of boys and girls. You might assume I would go off on a rant about how the author of that article was blowing things out of proportion and needed to get over himself, and at first you would be right. But I gritted my teeth and read the whole thing, and I found he actually had a valid point (yes, even I can admit I’m wrong from time to time). The key take away is this: words have power. Words have meaning. When we use words, deliberately or casually, we need to think through and own the effect those word have, including the unintended consequences.

This is important for several reasons in our society today, not just for the reasons he cited in his article. Too many people try to hide behind “I was just joking” or “I didn’t mean it that way”. Perhaps not but you still said it, so own it. I don’t intend to give free reign to everyone who wants to take offence to anything and everything (see my last post about outrage culture), but the flipside to rights is responsibilities. In the case of free speech that means accepting the consequences of your speech.

Which brings me to the next article and where the disconnect comes in. It seems that in what turns out to be a surprise to approximately nobody there has been a significant increase in the number of male managers afraid to be alone with women. Do I think this is a good thing? Of course not. But I saw this coming two years ago, and so did a lot of other people. Why do I bring it up in this context? Because the key take away is this: words have power. Words have meaning. When we use words, deliberately or casually, we need to think through and own the effect those word have, including the unintended consequences.

#TimesUp. #BelieveWomen. These men are taking you at your word that you will believe any woman, any accusation, prima fascie. There is no room for negotiation, there is no benefit of the doubt, and there is absolutely no reprieve. In the absence of iron-clad proof to rebut any accusation, they are unwilling to risk their own careers. So just like teachers who will not be alone with a student to prevent any accusations of misconduct when a simple accusation itself is a career-ender, these men have chosen the same path, and for the same reason. When the narrative is that it is better that a hundred innocent men go to jail than one guilty man go free, fear takes hold.

Is that an accurate narrative? Is it fair? Depends on who you ask. And that’s a large part of the problem. There are arguments to be made both ways and fingers to be pointed in both directions. But accurate or not, fair or not, this is the unintended consequence of a movement that has done a lot of good but also had some serious failures. Not acknowledging self-inflicted wounds like these and attempting to find ways to do better moving forward only exacerbates the problem.


Some Questions for the Nominees


To this point I have (with great restraint) avoided voicing any sort of opinion on the Kavanaugh controversy, and I will continue to do so, except to say that I believe very strongly that the best course of action is to investigate the allegations seriously so as to avoid any uncertainty in the event that Judge Kavanaugh is confirmed.

Democrats also need to accept the reality before them, which is that even if Kavanaugh is not confirmed (whether he withdraws or is down-voted), the very real likelihood is that there will be another conservative justice on the court. The only way this wouldn’t happen is the near-impossible confluence of events whereby the current nomination is dragged out past the current election cycle, Democrats take over the Senate, they manage to keep any and all vacancies open for two full years, and then keep control of the Senate and win the White House. Impossible? Stranger things may have happened, but not by much.

What I am interested in however is the discussion that is not happening. Once again we are being presented, by both sides, with the rankest sort of hypocrisy, and nobody is being called out on it because it is politically unfeasible to do so. Without getting into the specifics of “did he or didn’t he”, “is she telling the truth or is she lying”, my concern is with the way both sides have already taken a stance on whether a person’s actions as a teenager should determine their fitness for higher office (much) later in life. This is particularly galling as in their standard approach to criminal justice the left and the right tend to have opposite stances to the approach they are taking in this case.

Liberals tend to be very much in favor of rehabilitation over incarceration, with the eventual goal being reintegration into society. Judging someone in their fifties by a crime they committed in their teens, let alone something they were merely accused of committing, is seen as a horrendous offense…usually.

Lest anyone think I am letting Conservatives off the hook, think again. Conservatives cast themselves as “law and order”, with incarceration being the law and “paying your debt to society” being the order. Like a loan shark that debt never seems to quite get paid in full for most people once you get under the thumb of Johnny Law… unless you happen to be of the privileged class. “Pearl clutching” and “NIMBY” are phrases that seem to have been tailor-made to go hand-in-hand for these folks.

Consider then that this year and in the years to follow we have hundreds if not thousands of individuals on both sides of the political divide who could be considered nominees for political office. With that in mind, I have a few questions I would like to pose to them:

  • If someone were accused of a misdemeanor as a minor, should they be able to vote?
  • Should they be able to hold any public office?
  • What if it was a nonviolent felony?
  • What if it was a violent felony?
  • What if they were convicted?
  • Same questions as above, only the crimes occurred when they were an adult.
  • If you answered “yes” to any of the above questions, is there any specific limit of time they need to wait? Are there any actions they need to take beyond serving their sentence if any (e.g. restitution) before they would be eligible?

Feel free to make your answers as short or as long as you like, but please none of the usual dodging or bloviating. Everyone seems both eager and capable enough to take a clear stand on whether or not they believe and support either Judge Kavanaugh or his accusers. Just this once it would be nice to get that kind of clarity on something else.


You Can’t Spell “Treason” Without “Reason”


Now that President Trump has expanded the definition of treason to include “anyone or anything that I personally don’t like”, I would like to be the first person to applaud his gross overreach of power disturbing authoritarian tendencies brilliant political insight and statesmanship. In that vein, I would like to “nominate” my own small but important list of people who are equally, if not more so, deserving of being branded as traitors as everyone Trump has levied the charge against to date:

·         Every kid who ever beat me up
·         The first girl who ever broke my heart
·         My 11th grade English teacher for failing me and making me take summer school
·         My “friend” who got me hooked on Magic: the Gathering
·         Everyone who ever laughed at me, not with me
·         The people responsible for “Highlander II: The Quickening”
·         My Not So Humble Sister (YOU KNOW WHAT YOU DID)
·         That one kid who stole my Halloween candy
·         The second girl who ever broke my heart
·         That one guy who gave me a wet-willie that one time

Hopefully we’ll see the kind of bold, decisive action we’ve come to expect from this administration against these traitors. If not, I’m sure we can expect to see the administration held accountable by Congress, where we have Republicans in control of both the House and the Senate. Otherwise I guess both sides are to blame.


The Government You Deserve


It’s another election year, and this one may be the most important year of all. Before you decide who to vote for this year, I’m asking each and every American to look deep inside and ask yourself one very important question: how do you really feel about your fellow Americans?

Let’s face it folks, anyone who says they actually “like”, “respect”, or “would piss on them if they were on fire” about their fellow Americans is spreading FAKE NEWS. Our country is falling apart faster than a meatloaf without breadcrumbs, and we all know who’s to blame: the other guy. That’s right, that low-down bastard who doesn’t really love their country, isn’t really a patriot, and would probably spit on the flag and/or a veteran first chance they got.

So what’s the answer? Sure, you could waste your vote by trying to go with one of the major parties, but let’s be honest, what have they done for you lately? The Republicans have had their chance, and they’ve managed to take things from bad to “we need a Space Force so we can nuke the site from orbit; it’s the only way to be sure”. As for the Democrats… oh the Democrats. Just when you think they can’t find new ways to snatch defeat right out of the jaws of victory, they look you right in the eye and say “hold my beer”. You think nobody can lose against Donald Trump? Think again. You think nobody can lose running against Donald Trump and a House full of spineless Republicans? Watch and see.

But there’s another way. A better way. Look deep inside yourself, and discover the Truth that’s always been there but you’ve always been afraid, nay, compelled to deny. Deep down, you know you really want someone who feels the same way you do. Deep down, you know you want:

The Misanthrope Party.

Yes folks, this year it’s time to send a clear message and vote Misanthrope. As that great moral philosopher A. Skywalker said, “Search your feelings; you know it’s true.”

What do I stand for? Absolutely nothing. Not in a nihilistic sense of “nothing is real, nothing matters”, but in a very real sense of “screw you guys, I’m going home”. I promise to not even bother to show up. I’ll just collect a paycheck and not even bother to show up for floor debates, because really, what’s the point? Everybody who isn’t already bought and paid for has already made up their mind, they don’t change anything, and nobody watches them anyway.

I already live near enough to D.C. that if I decide to show up for a vote because I’m bored I can drive in, which will make me look all fiscally responsible, which I hear some people actually like. I’m far enough away that I’m technically not a “Washington insider”, which apparently is the hip thing these days.

Here’s the best thing: I’m a completely dishonest politician in the classic sense, because I don’t stay bought. Want to buy my vote? Go ahead and try. I’ll take your money and I still won’t vote. The best you can do is pay me not to vote for an issue, and even then you’ll be left wondering: did we just get had? I’m not saying. I’ll just run for re-election.

Face it folks: At least I’m honest. And I’m as good as it gets these days.


How Far Is Too Far?


In a recent campaign ad for governor of the state of Georgia, Secretary of State Brian Kemp loads a shotgun and points it at a young man who (in the ad) is “interested in one of my daughters”. He then proceeds to grill “Jake” on why Mr. Kemp is running for governor and what qualities are essential in a young man who will be dating one of his daughters. Naturally, those would be “respect and a healthy appreciation for the Second Amendment, sir.”

Where do I begin?

As someone who has often stated my support for the Second Amendment and the personal right to own firearms, as well as a satirist in my own right, the casual reader might expect me to fully support this ad. After all it’s just in good sport, right? A little poking fun, ribbing the liberals, maybe the casual allusion to the classic “Southern dad with a shotgun” motif? There’s at least a few things wrong with that.

The first thing is that it’s not “just in good sport”. There are a two rules in comedy that are getting violated here. The first, and one that is getting a lot of play these days, is that you punch up, not down. Who exactly is Mr. Kemp punching up at? Gun control advocates? Liberals? Jake? It’s not clear, but like many other politicians these days, he is in a position of power already, and he is using that position to take cheap shots (pun intended) at those who oppose him.

The second rule in comedy that is being violated is that the secret to good comedy is timing. As the editors of The Onion once pointed out, the closer a joke is to the tragedy it’s making fun of, the funnier it needs to be. If you’re going to riff on a tragedy the day after it happened, that better be the funniest joke I ever heard. Given the proximity to the Parkland shooting (along with any number of other teen shootings in America, which may not have gotten the same level of publicity but are just as heartfelt to the victims), I just don’t think this one makes the cut.

The second problem I have with this commercial is that it’s not about liberals versus conservatives, it’s about responsible gun use versus careless or outright unlawful gun use. The first rule of gun safety, always, is to treat every weapon as if it is live, loaded, and ready to fire. A logical extension of this rule that all responsible gun users follow is “don’t point a weapon at anything or anyone you don’t intend to shoot”. I don’t know if it’s because he’s trying to intimidate Jake into voting for him, scare him away from his daughters, or he just doesn’t like his actors, but none of those is a sufficient reason to point a gun at someone. Well okay, maybe because he’s an actor. (See? That’s comedy.)

Finally, the trope of the “Southern dad with a shotgun” is tired, played out, and insulting. Speaking as someone who has both been “threatened” by a father with a shotgun on multiple occasions as a teenager, as well as someone who has actually once been held at gunpoint for real, I can say with authority this shit needs to stop. You are sending one of two messages: either you are a homicidal lunatic who doesn’t understand how to participate in civilized society; or you prefer to use threats, bullying, and intimidation and don’t understand how to participate in civilized society. Neither is something that we should be modeling in the media as something to aspire toward, and certainly not something we should look for in our elected officials.


I Guess the Joke’s on Me


Here’s a quick joke for you: What’s the difference between a comedian and a politician? A comedian knows how to tell a joke, but a politician doesn’t know how to take one. I know, it’s not very funny. Guess I would have fit right in at the White House Correspondents Dinner the other night with Michelle Wolf. See, she wasn’t very funny either, according to many inside sources. It seems she wasn’t given the approved list of topics in advance that she wasn’t allowed to make jokes about because it would have been “in poor taste” or “going too far”. As George Carlin and Redd Foxx roll over in their smutty graves and Richard Pryor curses a blue streak that causes thunderclouds to form, I have to wonder what in the world these people are thinking.

There are several reasons that attacking Michelle Wolf is wrong, but I’ll focus on three: defense of the comedic tradition, the fact that such attacks are thinly veiled misogyny, and finally naked self-interest for journalism itself.

The tradition of the comedy roast is a time-honored one, and vulgarity is a common component of such roasts. Is it a bit crude and arguably tasteless? Sure, but it’s still a tradition. Besides, as William Blake said, “The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom…for we never know what is enough until we know what is more than enough.” Or if you prefer Ferris Bueller, “You can never go too far.”

…Unless of course you’re the President of the United States. As many commentators have pointed out, Mr. Trump is well known for making gross, insensitive, and outright vulgar comments about women that are objectively as insensitive as anything that was said by Ms. Wolf. There are three differences worth pointing out. The first is that Ms. Wolf is being called out for her comments by a wide swath of people, some of whom have served as apologists for Mr. Trump. The second, and probably more notable difference, is that Ms. Wolf is a comedian whose job it is to make pointed and (to some) humorous observations about others; Mr. Trump is the President of the United States. Regardless of what they have to say, to at all put their language or behavior on the same level is ludicrous. Finally, by calling out Ms. Wolf without calling out Donald Trump for equivalent comments, there is the faintest stench of “ladies don’t talk that way”, the kind of “there, there” misogyny that says women aren’t capable of meeting men on their own terms.

And ultimately that is what it’s all about: meeting the haters on equal footing. The press is supposed to be a participant in and defender of the First Amendment, which sometimes means taking a stand for controversial speech. The accusations that the White House press corps has gotten too cozy with the administration are hard to ignore are defend against when the WHCA starts taking sides against the entertainer they brought in to mollify the man who has popularized the term “fake news”. I’m not suggesting that every journalist everywhere should stand up, cheer, and demand an encore. That’s a decision for every individual journalist to make. When the association as a whole starts turning on individuals for expressing opinions or even for doing the job they were hired to do, that creates what’s known in the biz as “a chilling effect”. You want to know that professional associations will have your back, not put a knife in it.

I expect politicians to make hay out of this; it’s what they do. I guess I just expected better from journalists. I guess I’m learning better.