Our trust in democracy is under attack

This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on April 17, 2017.

Can we trust democratic institutions? To bring this home, think about a bank account. You deposit your paycheck; during the month there are automatic withdrawals, you use your bank card, write a few checks, and at the end of the month you get your online statement. You’ve actually seen few real green dollars. You balance it all out, hopefully, and start again the next month. We’re fine so long as the bank card works but are suddenly poor when it won’t. And when you’re standing in the checkout line at your local grocery store, who will the clerk believe, a person whose card won’t work or the bank on the other end of the computer? If you’ve ever had a credit card turned down you know the answer. The store believes the bank, so do the people standing in line behind you, and their belief is based upon trust in the checks and balances of the banking system.

How are votes counted? Like money in the bank, mostly by computers. We’re long past the day when a local election clerk, like an old-time bank teller who counted your green dollars and put them into a safe, actually counts the votes. Elections aren’t tallied by officials who know everyone in town and, after watching them vote, add it all up. So, it’s like bank accounts; we deposit votes into the computer, one by one, and then they’re spent by the candidates to get elected. But how do we know who actually got the most votes? How do we know it was all done honestly? The answer, again, is mostly trust. We trust the checks and balances of the voting system.

But trust itself is under attack; trust in science, the press, the legal system, academia, and trust in the democratic process. Before becoming President, candidate Trump questioned the integrity of the voting system. He told us the system was rigged. He’s not alone among politicians sowing distrust; some have been doing so for awhile, notably Kansas’ own Kris Kobach. Before the election, Trump, echoing Kobach and others, was telling us that we can’t trust voting because the system is riddled with fraud. And he’s kept on message. Even after winning he’s kept it up. Three million illegals, he says, voted for Hillary Clinton, thousands were trucked from one state into another state to vote for Clinton, cheating him of a popular vote win.

That Russian oligarchs, who have little use for democracy, have been working to make us doubt the integrity of elections is a story that continues to unfold. Reportedly they’ve been doing this for some time, influencing European elections. Last year their involvement in the Trump/Clinton contest was detected by the intelligence community. The New York Times reports that the internal debate within the national security establishment was whether the Russians’ goal was specifically to help Trump or generally to sow seeds of mistrust. The CIA thought the former, the FBI leaned toward the latter. An April 6 story in the NYT has congressional leaders sufficiently concerned by intelligence briefings that they sent a letter to local election boards warning “of unnamed ‘malefactors’ who might seek to disrupt the elections through online intrusion.”

Our legal system recognizes that conspirators rarely write agreements on paper. Rarely is there a document that says: “If you do this, I will do that.” So, criminal prosecutors routinely document the conduct and timing of suspected conspirators and correlate their words and actions. Actions that are synchronized can evidence a collusive agreement. Whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians is being investigated, and we’ll have to wait to learn what Congress and the FBI discover. Of course, ironically, at the end of the day we’ll be asked to trust the investigators, which is what the whole thing is about, because the FBI and Congress are themselves important democratic institutions, and it is trust in democracy itself that is under attack.

Distrust leads to disunity. What is clear is that we must resist siren songs of distrust, and fight against those who are determined to undercut the foundations of our democracy by spreading alternative facts as the seeds of doubt. Democracy is fragile and can easily be eroded by a fringe few who actively work against it. We are required to earn the power of decision every day by careful involvement — the only way of preserving trust in a democratic process.

Student debt situation is creating indentured servitude

This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on April 7, 2017.

Perhaps as much as half of settlement in the British American colonies was by indentured servants. Mostly under the age of 25, they lacked the money for passage to the New World and “indentured” themselves to repay the cost of getting here. Their time and labor was owned by their masters; they were not free to go where they wished, work where they wanted, or marry without permission. Their debt could not be discharged or avoided. If one escaped and was caught, he would be sent back, where he could be legally beaten by his master. Remember the book and movie “The Last of the Mohicans”? There’s a good chance the character played by Daniel Day-Lewis, Natty Bumppo, was the progeny of fugitive indentured servants. For generations this underclass lived on the edge of colonial society, squatting on wilderness land, often integrating into Native American communities. The stories of indentured “pilgrims,” like Natty Bumppo, are not often told, but now might be a good time to reflect on the earliest American slaves: indentured servants.

What prompted this column was a recent two-part series by Tina Rosenberg in the New York Times about the college dropout rate. The point of the articles was to explain an apparent anomaly. With the clear economic evidence supporting the long-term value of a college degree, how do we explain the college drop-out rate? The series reports that 25 percent of people in their 30s who attended college have dropped out. Why, the NYT asks, would anyone drop out when a typical college graduate working full-time earns 54 percent more than a full-time worker who attended some college but has no degree?

When I arrived at KU in 1970 tuition was less than $400 per year, and for that you could take as many classes as you could physically get to. One semester I took 21 hours; another I took 20. Of course, prices were lower then, but not by that much. Compared with tuition costs today, college was virtually free. We were the Baby Boomers, children of the post World War II GI Bill. By 1956 approximately 8.8 million veterans had gone to school on GI benefits, with 2.2 million attending college. Schools like KU exploded, expanding tenfold. How many became teachers, doctors, engineers, lawyers and the like?

This continued into my generation. The generation before us did not pull up the college ladder, but left it down for us. My wife and I graduated from KU in 1974, and I from law school in 1978, with less than $3000 of debt. We had to work some, but received, in essence, a free education paid for by the taxpayers of Kansas. And when we went from Lawrence out into the world we were free to go where we wanted, to buy cars and houses, and start having kids. We had no indentures that bound us to the wills of others, but were free to work for ourselves.

I don’t have to tell you that we have not left the world of educational opportunity as good as we found it. The average student today graduates with over $37,000 of debt, and for kids who attend $40,000 per year elite private colleges, or who seek post-grad degrees, debt can exceed $200,000. Over 44 million now owe more than $1.4 trillion, and 25 percent are delinquent. Interest rates are 6.8 percent, though the prime lending rate for banks is far lower, 4 percent, and the Fed Funds rate, what banks pay the Fed, recently has been between .75 and 1 percent.

As with the indentured servants, there is no way out through bankruptcy. Lenders have persuaded a friendly Congress to close the door on college debt. Most other kinds of debt can be discharged in bankruptcy, but not college debt. Donald Trump gets to use bankruptcy, but not an underwater college graduate. We even let lenders garnish Social Security payments to delinquent student debtors. We are ruthlessly soaking this generation and stifling their futures. Many can’t buy cars and houses, and many are putting off having children. When Bernie Sanders campaigned on the issue of student debt forgiveness and free college education, he hit a nerve with Millennials. Too bad the selfish old Boomers are still calling the shots. Natty Bumppo could take his long-rifle and melt into the frontier; where can today’s indentured servants escape?