Monthly Archives: May 2012

Rising Student Loan Debt: Student Loans and the University System Itself are Both Problems

Atlantic online business contributor Jordan Weissmann just wrote a good, mostly-disparaging review of Governor Romney’s proposal for how to address the mounting related problems of college cost inflation and student loan debt.  Some time around the beginning of the year total student loan debt exceeded the $1 trillion mark, meaning that student loan debt now greatly exceeds both credit card debt and car loan debt.

Well, that certainly sounds massive; I sorta wonder if it could be dangerous to the economy…

Governor Romney’s recent stump proposals for dealing with the inflated cost of college and rising student loan debt all emphasize freeing-up the private sector and universities to “innovate,” whatever that means and chips-fall-where-they-may.  (Republicans have an intenselyly-romantic ideological fervor as they refrain on this solution to so many different policy problems; curious that they seem unselfconscious about the irony that they often sound so much more-erudite in explaining unwanted effects of policies they seek to end than they are at offering any explanation of the “innovations” that will solve all our problems if only the market were set free!)  As set-out by Weissmann, Governor Romney had 4 basic proposals for dealing with the rising cost of attending American universities, and the corresponding problem of rising student loan debt:

1. Reduce Federal grants, such as Pell Grants, for poorer students to attend college;

2. Get the Federal Government out–and banks back in–to the student loan business;

3. Deregulate for-profit universities;

4. Deregulate the way universities establish course credit and confer degrees.

Weissmann’s article is definitely worth reading, but for those too-lazy to bother, his basic upshot is that measures  1-3 likely wouldn’t reduce the inflationary influences on American universities, while they would introduce a truly predatory aspect into the student loan business.  On the other hand, Weissmann thought measure #4–allowing universities to be creative in how they award credit and degrees–would lead to positive and cost-saving innovations.

I’m worried about inflationary pressures (as in, costs for tenured faculty and new construction, etc.) and inflationary inducements (as in expanding enrollment facilitated by grants and loans) in higher education. (Actually, I imagine “everyone” is concerned about this.)  This strikes me as being a bread-and-butter issue like housing or health care, in which hybrid but essentially-Conservative policies are being employed to address what are typically Progressive social concerns, and it isn’t working.  (Examples from the other issues in this class: Student loans create perverse incentives to raise college tuition the way Medicare and Medicaid do this for critical services in a health care system where primary care visits and preventive care can do much to control costs over the long-term, but they aren’t subsidized.  There’s a similar problem with housing: Both Federal housing policy and banks on their own motion have encouraged the working class and the poor to become homeowners, putting a lot of pressure on a housing market that is constrained to varying regional degrees by zoning, geography, access to water or the job market, and construction costs; the Federal Government protects loans to move people into homes but doesn’t really organize more-proactive measures such as New Jersey’s Mount Laurel decisions mandating working-class housing, housing that is kept affordable by regulation, promotion of renting or the like.  The result is that our housing policies put upward pressure on the cost of housing without either taking any blunt but effective policy measures to lower the cost of housing itself or giving real security to the people taking out the loans.)

Anyway, I can mostly just parrot what I (and the author of the Atlantic piece, Jordan Weissmann) have already said: Reducing or eliminating Federal Pell Grants and the like is cruel, since it puts all the onus for inflating the cost of education on qualified but needy students–a policy as damaging to our country’s competitiveness as it is un-American and perverse.

I think Romney has actually contradicted himself in attacking grants and Federally-backed student loans for inflating the cost of college, while at the same time promoting private student loans issued by banks. Does he want banks to engage in the sort of predatory lending to students that not too long-ago was the norm in the sub-prime mortgage market? Of course he would say no–but what would he do to prevent such a dynamic from developing through the market? If banks actually found lending to students profitable, they would try to get more students to take out loans; the author of the Atlantic piece actually pointed-out horror stories of uncompetitive private universities “recruiting” new enrollees and signing them up for student loans they couldn’t afford to pay-off! To privatize the student loan market without letting the banks reduce students to indentured servitude would require more Federal regulations than a fundamentally-Federalized lending system, so why bother?

I agree with Mr. Weissmann about the importance of allowing universities to innovate more in the granting of degrees. True, some universities may fudge who receives a degree, but those conducting hiring interviews already know whether a degree from a given university is worth something. Romney’s last proposal is his most-serious, his least-ideologically-driven, and I daresay the most-interesting. I hate to say it–I really do–but if the university education is the key component in the establishment of one’s job qualifications, then our universities may encourage too much of a “Renaissance man” approach, at least for undergraduates. We need to do a better job of providing students–of any age and circumstance–a clearer way to attain and demonstrate the practical skills they will need to handle several different types of job. Students should probably be tracked earlier, as they are in Europe, but in any event they should certainly come out of their undergraduate education more highly-specialized.

On a related note, universities are probably too genuinely “universities” to be cost-effective for most students. I think it’s great that Drew had a sports center, a center for the arts with theater, plastic arts, and music wings, and a science center while fundamentally being a school that focused on the literate humanities and the general social sciences, but while this made for a positive and liberating experience it also drove our beloved alma mater–like so many liberal arts colleges–into debt. The Ivy League schools, the “Little Ivies,” and their few private competitors such as NYU or Stanford may be endowed well-enough that they can allow their tuition rates to be set by their selectivity goals, and State schools are somewhat-compensated in this problem by (currently much-reduced) State aid, Federal and corporate research grants and the simple fact of their enormous enrollments, but some small liberal-arts colleges are actually going belly-up because their ambitions to grow into universities aren’t always well-thought-out. Small liberal-arts colleges are trying too hard to simply be small versions of competitive universities, and State universities such as my own University of Maryland–College Park sometimes obsess over becoming major research hubs, like UC–Berkeley, UC–San Diego, or the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor. Their pursuit of new faculty and facilities drives up their costs, leading to a pursuit of higher enrollment, often taught by overworked and ill-paid graduate students because the State schools can’t afford to hire more true professors.

I’m rambling now. I suppose I’d like to end by saying that I think we need more experimentation with how to confer a valid degree, such as continuing with vocational schools and encouraging students to attend local community colleges. In my heart of hearts, I don’t want to give up on that beautiful insular college experience or deprive physics majors of a music department or political science majors of lectures by renowned classicists. But our current 4-years-to-a-liberal-arts-BA-and-you-get-a-job-just-live-here model is eating through the savings of millions of families, cheapening the quality of the modal education, and leaving employers with little certainty what a standard BA is worth. I say we invest more in new modes to promote actual contact between students and professors, and to help students attain demonstrable skills rather than formalized and scheduled courses of learning. I certainly do not favor replacing Federal grants with privately-provided student loans that will be unregulated and just as inflationary. On that issue Governor Romney wants to have his cake and eat it, too; he can’t.


The Deer Hunter

The Deer Hunter isn’t about Vietnam.  It isn’t really a war film.

Before my recent viewing I last saw The Deer Hunter over 9 years ago; at the time I would have said it’s obviously a war film.  In actuality it is about friendship and post-traumatic stress, in that order.  3 patriotic steelworkers from suburban Pittsburgh–grown men who have known each other their entire lives–march off, (more or less) unafraid, to the war in the jungles of Vietnam.  Mere minutes are spent in combat in Vietnam because it is what these men reveal about themselves before the war, and how these idiosyncrasies are warped and intensified in the wake of its violence, that is the story.

Robert De Niro plays Michael Vronsky.  As the introspective witness to the way war shatters his friends, he is present almost constantly.  He is the leader of sorts of a group of 6 men who work the steel mills.  Maybe he is the leader because he is the best hunter in their group; perhaps it’s because he is the one who makes the craziest gestures.  It could also be that he is the leader because he sees the World so differently from the rest of them, and though most of them never say so, they all sense it and it resonates with them.

In any case our introduction to Michael hints at the tension of his life in the provincial suburbs of an industrial city like Pittsburgh.  He steps out of the steel plant and looks skyward, noting an ellipse of light around the Sun.  He claims that “the Great Wolf has blessed our hunt,” solemnly calling it “an omen.”  There is a touch of levity in his voice, of course, and the hint of an educated man.  This leads 1 of his friends to say that “The problem with you, Michael, is that no one understands you sometimes.”

Michael (to a Green Beret, before going into combat himself): “…What do you mean, ‘F*** it’?…Set him up with another round, all the same. Hey, man–F*** it!”

In the coming minutes each of these 6 men reveal things about themselves that foreshadow how they will spend the war years.  Brooding but wise, Michael will come back shaken by what he has seen, but he comes back whole.  Sensitive and perhaps naive, Steve will come back both wounded and traumatized.  Quietly-nervous Nikonar won’t come back at all.  John the bartender, a talented musician, brings music to the group of friends at their happiest and their saddest moments.  Seeing the movie again, his character really stood out to me: We see him singing in his Orthodox church choir, we see him singing with obvious classical training while his friends simply goof-off during the drive out to the hunting grounds.  Then we hear his beautiful and wistful playing of the piano in the bar when they return from the hunt.  4 of his normally-clamorous friends go silent; they have distant looks on their faces.  When John finishes he looks sad, as if he has confessed to a thwarted ambition.  Of all the memorable moments in the film this is 1 of the most-important to me, as it dispels any doubts we have that some of these men have real but rough-hewn talents, and had they been encouraged more or educated differently they might not work at the bar or at the steel mill.  They love the safety of their home but they seem to quietly bristle at its blindness to their talents at the same time.

Michael has family and friends, tradition, work, and a pastime in a free country: Upon reflection, his quiet patriotism and awed gratitude is easy to understand.

In Vietnam we see mere moments of the brutality of combat.  We learn that Michael is no stranger to them at this point in the story, but also that he is not the master of its fast-moving brutality.  His vaguely-survivalist philosophy–for some unexplained reason he believes “A deer has to be killed with 1 shot”–serves him surprisingly well when he finds himself in captivity.

The 2 Russian roulette scenes may be the most-famous from this film.  Even for our jaded film audiences of today they retain their staggering brutality.  Even the lighthearted, almost adolescent early scenes have a kind of gravity to them, so the surreal cruelty of peasants-turned-Viet Cong officers forcing South Vietnamese and American prisoners to take turns pulling the trigger and waiting to find 1 of the bullets loaded into a revolver is at once absurd and totally believable.  Steve screams and wimpers; Michael comforts him.  Nikonar very quietly undergoes a total spiritual implosion.

The large protest movement never did touch President Nixon’s “silent majority” of Americans.  It plays-out far indeed from quiet Clairton where these 3 soldiers are from.  When Michael goes home, he finds a town grateful for his sacrifice and apparently none the wiser that there is an antiwar movement.  But they also know next to nothing about what he experienced on the other side of the Earth.  A local store owner tells him, “You really won over there,” a meaningless statement in the face of the bloody chaos he left behind, and knows to be spreading towards the South-capital Saigon.  1 of his friends even crudely asks, “How does it feel to be shot?”

“I feel a lot of distance…I feel far away.” Having served with distinction, Michael comes home to a hero’s welcome, but all he wants to do is come in to town quietly. He misses his friends, but he is unable to take seeing them all at once.

“Don’t–” Michael begins.  “Don’t hurt, if that’s what you wanna know…”  Michael is quieter upon coming home, which is striking because he was quiet to begin with.  He looks older, though upon consideration the viewer realizes this is mostly because of the relatively stiff, alert way he carries himself.  De Niro is such a subtly-declarative actor in these scenes that we can almost see the adrenaline coursing through his veins when, during a hospital visit, a nurse noisily overturns a supply cart and he instantly imagines gunfire.

It occurs to me now that the narrative pitch of The Deer Hunter is aided by its point-to-point depiction of the journey: We see the massacre of a village–by American Air Cavalry and their South Vietnamese allies, no less, the murder of a remote Viet Cong dungeon, the underground space where Russian roulette is outrageously played as a high-stakes betting game, and the chaos of the American embassy as Communist sympathizers close-in around it in the days before South Vietnam’s fall.  Then we see Clairton, Pennsylvania.  There are no in-between spaces, because in spite of its deliberate pace and considerable length, The Deer Hunter is the story of a gulf of space so much as of being lost in a different world.  Michael makes it his personal mission to find Nikonar; what he finds is disturbing-enough that the Liberal Ironist recommends you see it for yourself.

A death among this group of friends carries the full weight of a burial.  It is handled by a montage, which is just as well as one can hardly imagine any words were said among these friends at the time.  That they should at times so clearly have something to say yet so often want for a better means of expression is interesting, and sometimes heartbreaking.  But at this moment that the war in Vietnam has exacted its last toll on them, the musician John has invited all of them over for a large brunch.  For a moment he is overcome with emotion, then halting at first, next with resonance, he begins to sing “God Bless America.”  Once Linda, a longtime interest who has become involved with Michael by degrees, joins in, they all do.  There are no bitter recriminations about the war; director Michael Cimino is not Oliver Stone.  This is not a political film, though it does carefully portray people who embody a very simple politics.  The people of this Russian-American community feel blessed to live and work in a free country, and they bear a loss that is deeply but not bitterly felt.  This is the proletariat of mid-20th century America, and in this account at least it is not alienated.

Angela: “What a grey day…”

Where it can be found, this sort of world ought to be defended.  This is a serious contender for the saddest film I have ever seen.  Seeing it now, I feel The Deer Hunter has as much heart as any film I’ve seen.  Rather than war, it’s about knowing where home is, and being able to go back.

On the Origins of Partisan Dysfunction: No Idea is More-Tired Than “Changing Washington”

Brookings Institution Congressional scholar Thomas Mann and American Enterprise Institute Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein have just published a book with the spoiler title It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.  Their thesis, which they discuss a bit in a recent interview for National Public Radio, is that our current partisanship paralyzing Congress (and gripping some closely-divided State governments as well) isn’t just not business as usual, but it’s damaging the efficacy of our public institutions.  They also assert that (the radicalization of) the Republican Party is to blame, period.

When I mentioned this proposition recently, I promptly received a rejoinder that, if the Tea Party could find a non-partisan Presidential candidate to deliver a message of making America strong again, he or she would take the Electoral College by storm.

This very sentiment is either symptomatic or a partial cause of the trouble we’re in.

I suspect that a majority of voting Americans (well, in 1992, 1996 and 2000 a plurality) embraced this message (with some variations, of course) when they elected President Carter in 1976, President Reagan in 1980, President Clinton in 1992, President W. Bush in 2000–wait, W. didn’t win the popular vote or, in all serious probability, Florida–and President Obama in 2008. Each of these Presidents promised that they would be different, argued (even with some plausibility in then-Senator Obama’s case) that they weren’t a part of the Washington establishment, that they would “change the tone” (George W. Bush’s phrase, embodying a sentiment he at least legitimately followed until September 11th) and rise above partisan politics, and deal with those bread-and-butter (or moral, or both?) issues to which the aforementioned Washington establishment is tone-deaf.

If we’ve been getting this message from successful Presidential candidates since 1976, and the country is supposedly going down the tubes, what could be the explanation? Is the message always and everywhere insincere? Is the message well-intentioned and serious, but the exogenous pressures of politics always enough to domesticate the reformer? Are We, the People (at least in voting majorities) actually no better at seeing past the b.s. than politicians are in transcending it, vainly trusting in our mysteriously-profound judgment of politicians but then gullibly believing that THIS politician isn’t a career political insider just because he or she says so?

Before I could respond to this expression of (Conservative-populist) optimism, a friend was ready with a quotation, spoken by the Chorus from Aristophanes’ ancient play The Clouds.  (By the way, the Chorus in that play represented the floating clouds themselves; he was making a point in having them celebrate Athenians’ democratic political instincts during the intermission.)  The line from the play: “You Athenians – you don’t put up with such injustice – you knew this Cleon was a rat and you threw him out and elected – Cleon!”

My friend’s point in quoting the Aristophanes play “The Clouds” is to suggest the latter–that we think much of our competence to judge politicians considering how often they manage to dupe us. The quote is from the intermission of that play, where the Chorus applauds the people of democratic Athens for being so good at “blundering through,” granting vast power in the Assembly to 1 populist, then finding he’s a crook, and rallying behind another, all the while applauding themselves for being so much more-moral and insightful than the politicians they follow uncritically for so long.

The Liberal Ironist is nowhere near as cynical about this as he sounds. I don’t despise or deeply-distrust politicians. I do share my friend’s cynicism (if he’ll allow that) towards populist reformers both because I think they claim a lot of complicated issues are simple (which gives ordinary and sometimes quite-careless people an excuse to get angry and blame someone personally for generational and international trends in commerce, technology, and consumption habits) and because what they often call a “non-partisan” and “broadly-popular” movement tends to be highly-partisan. The Tea Party is a great example. I began to wonder: How many people believe the Tea Party is a non-partisan movement? I gave them a pretty sympathetic hearing when they 1st emerged (I actually believed that they might be able to deliver Congressional Republicans from their post-2008 nihilism, heh!), but I never thought they were non-partisan for a second. The Tea Party is about making the Republican Party into the Conservative Party, period. They elected most of the freshman class in the House of Representatives following the 2010 Midterm elections, and what was the result? We now have the most-Republican House of Representatives since the mid-1940s, and the most-partisan House since just after the Civil War. That is not a non-partisan movement, it is a movement that thinks the Republican Party is not partisan enough–an idea I just can’t understand considering several of President Obama’s initiatives from his first 2 years weren’t supported by a single Republican in at least 1 chamber or the other.

The Liberal Ironist doesn’t think partisanship is inherently-bad. As this blog’s namesake Richard Rorty put it in his elaboration on a person’s “final vocabulary,” there are sentiments we hold that we do not submit for rational scrutiny, because we believe in them.  Ask probing questions about them and we’ll simply become angry and repeat ourselves. We’re partisans for these sentiments. The simple fact is that the 2 parties don’t believe the same measures will restore America’s prestige and promise, at least at home. (Democrats’ and Republicans’ current differences over foreign policy, interestingly, are almost an illusion.) Personally, I think Congressman Ryan’s budget plan (which has taken the Republican Party by storm) would endanger millions of Americans who live in poverty, foist the next generation of retirees back into the hated private insurance market, dangerously defund our highways and mass transit, reduce our technological competitiveness and essentially abandon students from poorer families. I’m pretty sure I believe this for the same reasons I’m a Democrat, not because I “see through the b.s. and just want the politicians to wake-up.” Frankly, I don’t really know what that means.

What I don’t like about current partisanship (and I mostly blame Republicans for this) is that, rather than accept that the other party has some good points–at least about their own constituents, whom as fellow-citizens really deserve to be heard–we have let ourselves believe that the other party is simply an alliance of the crass and the bigoted (the Democratic myth about Republicans) or that they are a motley crew of misfits who don’t value work and don’t love their country (the Republican myth about Democrats). This suggests one’s party shouldn’t listen to the other and should just listen to what “(40% of) the American People” want. Now we’re more-stalemated than ever. It’s populism and our vain conceit that we see everything clear that got us here in the 1st place; if we never give the 2 parties space to work with each other, they won’t be working at all.

It’s the activists that did this to the parties.