Free College and Student Loan Forgiveness in the Democratic Debate

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., talk during in the first of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN Tuesday, July 30, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Last night, education policy was front and center. But only higher education. Both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have various proposals that aim at reducing the burden of college students and recent graduates. On the table are free college and student loan forgiveness.

Now, college tuition rates are insane. Some colleges are $73,000 for full cost of attendance. Yes, there are tuition discounts for merit and need, but lots of students pay full freight. That’s their sticker price. And some students do rack up significant amounts of debt, particularly if they tack on masters degrees, take a long time to graduate, and just make bad decisions.

You know that I’m highly sympathetic and have ranted about those issues for a while. But I’m worried about blank checks for college for a number of reasons.

It penalizes people who made hard choices to avoid debt: A school teacher who doesn’t take vacations but puts money in 529 accounts for her kids since birth. A college graduate who takes a boring job, rather than the dream job, to pay off the loans. A student who attends a community college for two years, before transferring to a four year college. The kid who goes to an in-state public college, solely because of cost.

It does nothing for students who can’t finish college, which may be even more of a serious crisis than debt.

It does nothing for students who need a degree from a trade school. Or don’t attend college at all, but still need training and employment support.

It does nothing to stop the cause of the problem – colleges. They are allowed to keep raising tuition, even at in-state public colleges, without any checks. Even, as they do in my state, waste buckets of cash on losing sports teams. And there is no pressure on them to improve quality. They keep replacing full time faculty with adjuncts.

There is no distinction between public and private colleges in their plans. A public college is a right, a private college is not.

As many have pointed out, it benefits the middle class without much trickle down help for working and lower class citizens.

Steve and I attended a grad school program that didn’t provide any funding for its grad students. Not even tuition. (Yes, majorly stupid, but let’s move on.)

I kept my loans manageable by working part-time, sometimes full time, at a policy institute at the same time as taking classes and writing a dissertation. I also taught a few classes. Steve taught a great deal, while doing his classwork. While students at other universities were building their CVs, we were ghost writing papers and teaching 50+ students at the Bronx Community College.

Even with all that, our combined student loan debt when we got married was over $75,000. We paid it off around my 50th birthday. We’re better off than most of our classmates, who were looking at bigger numbers. That debt was awful. It had a big impact on our careers and other life choices (children, homes). Grad school was a MAJOR financial train wreck. (I’m not even going to talk about the impact of beginning to save for retirement in your mid 30’s, rather than your 20’s.)

So, I am highly, HIGHLY sympathetic to anybody who wants to ease that burden on others. Yet, I’m not entirely happy with the current proposals, because they don’t check the colleges themselves, don’t distinguish between public and private colleges, penalize good behavior, and don’t help people who choose alternatives to college.

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Mueller Hearings, Impeachment, and 2020

I just spent an hour driving Jonah back and forth to pick up his car from Jimmy the Mechanic. The hand-me-down Toyota — 150,000 miles — that he uses to commute to his college for a summer class needed nearly $1,000 in repairs. Sigh. Some day, he’ll have a job, right?

On the way over, we listened to the Mueller hearing on NPR. I used the hearing to talk about the committee system, impeachment rules, divisions in the Democratic Party, and polling information about 2020. Jonah is a political science major, so I squeeze in mini-lessons whenever I can.

Mueller can’t indict a sitting president, because that’s the job of Congress. The House impeaches, and the Senate convicts. And the outcome is obvious. The House will impeach, but there aren’t enough votes in the Senate. That’s why Pelosi isn’t supporting impeachment at this time.

Impeachment would shutdown government for a year. That means no legislation on healthcare or anything really. It would be worth the sacrifice, if the impeachment would lead to ushering out Trump out of office. But it wouldn’t. In fact, the proceedings would make sure that every Republican who hates Democrats, more than they despise Trump, would show up to the voting booth on Election Day. Pelosi fears that a failed impeachment would hand the election to Trump.

There is no way that a diehard Republican is going to vote for a Democrat, but there is a chance that they might stay home on Election Day. That’s what we want. We want bored, lazy Republican voters, not energized, woke Republicans.

Most members of Congress know that an impeachment is unlikely, but they hope that the hearings will undermine Trump’s reputation. Give him a black eye or two.

Are you watching? It is working?

National Identity, Origin Myths, and Culloden

Road from Edinburgh to Inverness
Road from Edinburgh to Inverness

About midway through our trip to Scotland, Steve picked up a rental car and we headed north to Inverness. Inverness is in the heart of Highlands, where the kilt and the bagpipe and the clans ruled for hundreds of years.

Yes, Steve bravely drove on the wrong side of the road for several nail-biting days on our trip. He may or may not have dinged up the back bumper on a narrow road one day. He said the first day was stressful, but after Day One, he felt fine. We could have done just fine using the train and bus system for that part of the country, but a car was nice, because we able to really explore the quiet lanes of the country. It would have been cool to have more time to drive up the coast and see even more remote areas and islands. Next time.

One of our day trips was to the ancient battle site, Culloden. Here, in 1745, thousands of Scots — massively outnumbered, exhausted, and out-gunned — stepped onto the battle field knowing that they wouldn’t make it out alive. The dead bodies were later just dumped in mass graves with big rocks laid through the field with clan names.

The fields of Culloden

There’s a big museum commemorating the battle there and you can walk through the field to think about the despair and the bravery of the troops.

Urquhart Castle, Scotland

This battle and the ramifications of the massive Jacobite revolution is everywhere in the area. Later, we visited Urquhart Castle or the remains of it. It had been blown up at some point during the whole Jacobite mess. And every site we visited on our trip had been impacted in some way by the lost battle, the bravery of the men, the brutal oppression of the British afterwards, and the decimation of the clan system.

Memorial at Culloden

This battle was the core of their national identity. A battle that they lost and arguably was a stupid, stupid fight; there’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity. But I thought it was fascinating that a country could identity itself as losers, especially after looking up at all the monuments to winning in London; the English are not shy about their colonial past.

Southerners also embraced the loser identity for years, focusing on the bravery of the soldiers, rather than the fact that they were fighting for the slavery. I wonder how many Southerners were of Scottish descent and took their cues from that country.

Every country has its own origin myths. For us, it’s the George Washington and the cherry tree, Betsy Ross and the flag, and Thomas Jefferson in Monticello. We won our war, so that makes things easier. People like their myths clean and simple. For Scotland, it’s bravery and honor, regardless of the cost. For us, it is founding fathers and the birth of democracy. Even if things weren’t perfect in the beginning, the myth goes, our country had seen a gradual march towards greater freedom.

Trump and his supporters are struggling to maintain old notions of the American Origin Myth at a time when the contradictions are too clear. We’re in a period where we’re redefining ourselves as a nation and trying to make peace with the past. It’s fine to have an origin myth based on being losers, as the Scotland example shows, but you can’t have an origin myth based on evil. Maybe a country doesn’t need an origin myth at all. It’s fascinating to see how all this turns out.

Travel to London, A 1% City

Our trip started in London. We only had three days with the first day a blur; nobody slept on the red eye going over.

Staggering around the Tower of London with serious jet lag.

We knew that we were going to make mistakes on this trip, and would chalk up those errors as a learning experience for subsequent trips. The first mistake was make making a firm schedule or reservations for the first day. We needed a nap, but instead we put in ten miles criss/crossing the city, because I had already purchased nonrefundable tickets for the Tower of London and had booked a table at some Gordon Ramsey gastropub. Both were lovely, but I was too exhausted to remember much.

Lesson 1. Don’t expect that anyone in my family will sleep on a plane. Lesson 2. Don’t make reservations for Day 1. Lesson 3. Don’t make reservations for anywhere. They’re totally unnecessary and cramp your style.

The last time I was in London was the early 90s. It has changed quite a bit. Back then, my boyfriend at the time used to talk about the rough crowds in the pubs where he tended bar. Cockney guys who would drink too many beers while watching soccer matches and then regular beat each other in the face with their signet rings. Left a mark, apparently. It had the corny Queen tourist stuff, just as now, but it was mixed with granny traditions and a working class vibe. Punks in big hair and big boots were common place.

Cranes and St. Paul’s

Now, it’s no different from New York City. Just as New York has changed and lost it’s gritty artist, music scene, so has London. Even with Brexit, the city was still booming. Construction cranes were everywhere building luxury apartments and work spaces.

Rather getting a “plowman’s special” at a family pub with a warm beer like I did on previous trips, we ate in hip restaurants with chilled Italian beers and modern interpretations of English classic fare. We ate really well.

One night, we sat at one of those open air pubs drinking with Jonah, who was very, very pleased to be of legal drinking age. At the next table, was a group of girls about his age. They clearly weren’t backpackers staying at an $8 a night hostel like I did at their age. Dressed in heels and nice outfits, they were probably doing a summer abroad through their private colleges or had an internship.

Drinks at an underground pub with no signs. Only locals know about it. Got loaded there.

I met up with a friend of mine who works in the financial industry there. Her son, who went to a fancy private school in Westminster Cathedral, is now at an exclusive, but surprisingly cheap by American standards, college where he consorts with the children of Russian oligarchs who have homes in several cities, including New York, and vacation homes in Sardinia. Over flaming cocktails, she told me about the lifestyles of the ridiculously rich.

The ridiculously rich aren’t tied to one country, but many. Places like London and New York City are just one their homes. Their money has changed the landscapes of those cities for both the good and the bad. Don’t waste my time with nostalgia for the old 42nd street; it was a dangerous dump. But places like this have squeezed out ordinary folks, as well as the artists and creative types. Local culture has been lost to Gucci handbag stores and faux culture.

Clowning around at the Tate.

Since we live so close to Manhattan and my husband works there everyday, London didn’t feel like a huge adventure. The museums were lovely and would go back to see the ones that we missed on this trip, but it wasn’t a trip into a different culture. After three days, I packed up the few evening outfits that I brought for the trip, and we got on a train in King’s Cross for Scotland.

Elusive Equality

Back in my early 20s, after two years in the workforce and two years of gazing out the window at all the people jogging in the middle of the afternoon in Central Park, I decided that I wanted to go to grad school.

I decided on a terminal masters program at the University of Chicago in the social sciences. Looking back on it, it was a shockingly bad decision. It was a masters program, after all, no benefit in that. Masters programs are never funded, so I had to pay for the first trimester on my own before a dean saw my A’s and gave me money. And I had been doing really well in publishing. They were about to give me another promotion. Ugh.

Going to the University of Chicago may have been a terrible career move, but it was an amazing intellectual opportunity. I’ve never read so much, been so challenged, been so scared shitless of smart people. I mean it was an intense place. I knew people who totally lost their minds there. But it was also a brain-feast.

I took one class from an old German Jewish guy, who spent half the year in Israel, about revolutions. We compared the causes and outcomes revolutions in the US, France, China, and Russia.

I remember reading one paper that said that the French Revolution ended up with headless aristocrats and blood in the gutters, while the US was relatively less crazy, because Americans never had the goal of égalité. Americans wanted the equality of opportunity, but never thought that everybody should have the same piles of money. Equality of opportunity is a much more sober goal than perfect equality.

There was a lot of talk here and on twitter this week about whether schools can truly provide equality. (I can’t insert links right now, because I’m typing this up on an old iPad at my mom’s kitchen table as I wait for Ian to get out of his science exam.) On their own, schools can’t do much to move the needle on inequality, which shouldn’t be a huge shocker.

My comment section has had a fascinating discussion about inequality this week. Everybody seems to agree that inequality has risen. Causes discussed include tax changes, de-unionization, declining wages for certain jobs, and regional abandonment. (What did I miss?) Check it out.

So, how nihilistic should we be about schools? Can schools alone make up for all those changes in society and make things more equal? Can they at least create conditions for the equality of opportunity, so the most talented, hardworking people can rise to the top? Some schools do. I’ve seen it. But these are amazing, remarkable places led by charismatic crazy people who work like missionaries to change the work.

Ideally, I would like everyone, who is interested in a brain-feast like I got at the University of Chicago, to get it. It was transformative for me. While my parents didn’t pay for the program or help me in any way get in, they did all the groundwork from ages 0-18, so I that as a young adult, I could apply, figure out costs, and succeed.

And this is why there will never be true equality or even equality of opportunity. You can’t force families to be equal. And with such inequality baked into society, children are already vastly unequal before they even get to kindergarten. Schools can’t fix that.

For Things You Don’t Need

On Saturday night, my buddies and I rewarded ourselves for a long walk – my Fitbit was already way past 20,000 steps – with a beer and a burger at Fraunces Tavern, which is one of the oldest pubs in Manhattan and worth a visit if you’re in town.

After several hours of talking, which included such lovely topics as the new studies that found a connection between menopause and Alzheimer’s Disease and flaky college students, we started talking about politics.

I asked, “So, what do you think about the proposals that Democrats are starting to float about student loan forgiveness and free childcare?” Two of us have kids who are nearly done with high school, and the other never had kids. “Would you vote for someone who was putting forward proposals that wouldn’t benefit you at all?”

Our town pool has a special section that is just for older people. Nobody under 18 is allowed to be there. Every couple of hours, the life guards blow a whistle and everyone under 18 has to get out of the pool for 15 minutes, so the older people can do the side stroke in peace. The public library has senior reading clubs, introductory classes on email, and daytime movies. Without the buy-in from older citizens in the community, there’s a fear among local politicians that old folks will vote for people to defund those services. I’m sure those fears are justified.

People care about schools for a relatively short period of time. There care from the time that their oldest kid is five to when they’re about a sophomore in high school. Typically, parents are much more involved in schools for their oldest; subsequent kids are on auto-pilot. And then they stop caring about the local schools when they start thinking about SAT scores and colleges for their oldest and after their oldest fails to become the class president or the football captain.

Schools make a lot of enemies. For every kids that becomes the class president and the football captain, there are the parents of the hundred other kids who sit at the unpopular table in the cafeteria who want to throw a pitchfork into the school principal. Parents who aren’t in the audience for High School Awards Nights will never, ever vote for a school bond issue ever again. Screw ’em.

So, there’s only about ten to twelve years, when a person has a real stake in making better schools. And that’s why there are places in the country where teachers are paid around $30,000 per year and students have few chances to make it to college.

Childcare affects a family for three or four years, if you have multiple kids.

Student loans can haunt a person for ages, but for every person that defaults, there are nine others who paid off their loans working boring jobs and doing overtime.

And let’s be honest. Our grandparents didn’t have the material comforts that we have today. I mean we put in more hours at an office and have invested more in education, but that generation cut coupons and never bought prepared meals at Whole Foods. So, when they look at younger folks complaining about childcare costs, they’re thinking about how they survived on one income and never ever went on a vacation that involved an airplane.

So, really the question isn’t “”Would you vote for someone who was putting forward proposals that wouldn’t benefit you at all?” Instead, the real question is “would you vote for something that you worked really, really, really hard to pay for on your own, making lots of personal sacrifices, and destroying your own health in the process. And then the benefits went to people who you perceive to be privileged, entitled, smug, and unwilling to help you?”

My generation is in the middle. Gen-Xers have a foot in both worlds. We can remember the difficulties of juggling childcare and work, but we’re also done with it. It wasn’t easy, but we did it.

Self-interest is a basic component of human nature. The founders knew that and created a democratic system based on that notion. With a system of checks and balances, ambition would counterbalance ambition. A large nation, divided up with federalism, would create a large state with a multitude of interests, all checking each other, so no one group would dominate and abuse others.

So, lecturing people that they should vote for schools, student loans, and childcare because virtuous people do that, is pointless. I think we should look to the model of the local town pool and figure out ways to make sure that everyone benefits from childcare centers, schools, and colleges. I’ve always thought that childcare centers and senior citizen centers should be housed in the same buildings. Invite people from the community to give lectures in the high school on their expertises and careers. Colleges could provide job training to people with autism or provide free tickets to concerts to people in the community.

Free childcare and student loan forgiveness might get headlines and tweets from the 30-something crowd, but it’s a tough sell to those who are freaking out about menopausal plaque on the brains and are counting their steps on a Fitbit.

Counting Blessings and Adversity Scores

After a quick morning run, I’m cleaned up and wearing pink khakis and a white sleeveless htop. It’s spring here in Jersey’s suburbs and it’s fabulous.

Work went well this week. Two articles approved and started. I had an A+ interview yesterday that will made for a great lede in one of the articles. An article from this winter is finally going to pub next week. I’ve put some serious thought into the book project for the summer. (There’s no point writing education articles over the summer, because nobody wants to read about schools on the beach vacation.)

With some solid work under my belt, I’m taking the day off without guilt. I’ll catch the bus into the city to meet a friend from London, who is in town. She picked out a Korean place near Hudson Yards. Then I’ll kill a couple of hours. Writing in the New York Public Library? At the Met? Around 4:30, I’ll take the subway down to Wall Street. Jonah and Ian will take the train into the city and we’ll all meet up outside Steve’s office. We’ll find some place to get beers and snacks along the side of the Hudson and then take the Ferry across the river.

If I had to construct my own adversity score, it would be very low today. I’m pretty lucky, and I know it. I mean we’ve had our issues. I can’t possible quantify the impact that autism had on all of our lives. But then again, we’re lucky. Lots of people have it MUCH worse. Twenty years ago, we were under the poverty line, in (student loan) debt, and without job prospects. But, we were lucky enough that it was grad school poverty, and we were able to dig our way out of the mess.

I suppose that it’s a worth-while exercise to take a look at our lives and make columns of the privileges and disadvantages. I’m not sure how to make a science of those charts and then use them as a basis for college admission. But the thought process is still important for us as individuals. It’s the old “counting your blessings” notion. And looking around my house where there’s a pale and stinky college kid sleeping off the drama of finals week and a calendar of activities for my family, I’ve got it good.