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?

Founders believed we had a duty to help

This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on March 29, 2017.

From what some politicians are saying you’d think the makers of our nation were a bunch of bare-knuckled libertarians. A nation of hardy individuals and the Founding Fathers, this narrative goes, thought government an evil — the politicians say — because Americans don’t want help and feel no particular obligation to give it to others.

Government help, the argument goes, leads to weakness, making recipients dependent. Read the words of newly minted Kansas Congressman Roger Marshall. “Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us,’” he said. “There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves.” I cannot imagine the Jesus the Congressman is talking about, but I’ll focus first on the words the Founders used when they wrote our constitutions.

Their words reject the view that society is a brutish struggle by all against all. Instead, their words are the words that patriots would use who believe that we as Americans are all in this together. The documents they left to us presume the existence of a communal duty that each of us has to each other — through government — to provide for the basic welfare of all and, in particular, to victims of misfortune who cannot care for themselves.

Public goods, by definition, are the things that everyone, especially the least fortunate, need to live. Public goods are given by all — to all — and paid for by all through general taxation. There are good, practical reasons to recognize the existence of this communal burden, but that is for another day. Suffice it here to say that the legacy of our nation from the plain language of our national and state constitutions recognizes that promotion of the common welfare is a fundamental duty of democratic government.

Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to provide for “the general Welfare of the United States.” Seventy years later, when Kansans drafted their constitution, they made clear what “general Welfare” should mean. Public schools certainly, but also a duty to care for people who are “mentally or physically incapacitated or handicapped”; and those entitled to public welfare include people “who, by reason of age, infirmity or other misfortune, may have claims upon the aid of society.”

Recently, when the Supreme Court ordered the Kansas Legislature to make suitable funding for public schools, how did Gov. Sam Brownback respond? He said a better solution would be for Kansans to have more choice and that they could get that choice from a voucher system. But we all know that vouchers siphon money from public into private schools. That makes schools a private, not a public, good.

The recently failed Trumpcare plan played a similar shell game. People would have received tax credits to buy insurance. But, like vouchers for schools, the government dodged its responsibility to provide for the general welfare — particularly for those at the bottom who need it the most. Whether you give people vouchers for education or tax credits for health care, it makes no difference for the poor; it just won’t work. They would never have enough money. The poor can’t supplement vouchers to pay for private schools, and 44 percent of American households don’t pay income taxes so they won’t have any tax credits to use.

They would fall right through to the bottom. Their children would be forced into schools stripped bare by tuition vouchers, and, lacking the money to pay private insurance premiums, by the tens of millions, they’d drop out of health insurance coverage. The Congressional Budget Office predicted 14 million in the first year alone.

Ebeneezer Scrooge said to the philanthropist: “Those who are badly off must go [to the poor house].”

The philanthropist replied, “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

And Scrooge said: “If they would rather die they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

The words of Scrooge and Marshall are not the words of our Founding Fathers. They are not words of faith, and they should not be our words.

ERA not needed? Women still get raw deal

This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on March 12, 2017.

So, there is hope. It’s not quite like the play “Lysistrata,” in which women used the ultimate trump card to stop their men from killing each other. First performed in Athens, around 411 B.C., Aristophanes’ comedy had women on both of the warring sides, Athenian and Spartan, come together, organize and use the power of their bodies to bring about sanity. When they withheld sex the war was quickly ended.

And now, for me, some 2,400 hundred years later, there was no breakfast at the Ladybird Diner. Dutifully, at 7 a.m., I was at the door, but a sign waiting for me announced the staff had gone on strike. The grad student with a wonderful smile and her friend who knows my order without the need of saying it were not there — gone out on strike. The Ladybird men were also gone. Unlike the Saturday in January when it was man-service only, while the Ladybird women did the Women’s March, on this day the men, apparently, had also gone out in solidarity. I’d have to find my breakfast elsewhere.

USA Today reports that women get paid 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. My wife has a relic of the ERA – for those too young to remember, the Equal Rights Amendment. Out of some drawer, somewhere, she pulled out a pin that simply says “59¢.” That’s what women made for the same work in 1982. At the time the main argument against the ERA was that women’s rights were already protected by the Constitution, and we did not need to mess up the simplistic beauty of the document by adding unnecessary words. Besides, why do women need a declaration of equal rights any more than men do? The ERA fell three states short of ratification. That means 35 of the 50 states voted for, and 15 did not. The amendment needed 38 votes.

So, 35 years later, how has it turned out? Here I’ll focus just on the economic issues, ignoring issues such as birth control and abortion rights. Using USA Today’s 80 cents and trusting the truth of the 1982 59-cent pin, it appears the Constitution’s gender neutrality has not yet resulted in parity of pay.

My experience has taught me that our legal system doesn’t recognize much of the value in many of the most important things that women — primarily — do. Things women do within our homes and within our families are never transactional, never bartered in marketplaces where Adam Smith’s capitalistic invisible hand relentlessly reveals final economic truths. Few women stay home like the mythic June Cleaver, and those with children must now be both breadwinner (at reduced rates) and a nurturing wife or mother. But when we value women do we account for all of these things — invisible to the market — that women do?

I’m reminded of Helen Earline Riggs Pearson. My mother-in-law died too young, just a few months shy of 78, from a brain tumor. I think she was the victim of sloppy medical practice. During life she was the center of the lives of her four children and their 10 children. Every grandchild, most of them already adults, knew Grandma was watching over them, interested in everything they did, sharing every joy and disappointment. They telephoned for her advice and counsel, and her death left a giant hole.

But in the eyes of the marketplace Earline’s life had little monetary value. She had never made a “living” and all her kids were “full-growed.” In our justice system Earline’s economic value was mostly invisible.

I have not read that any female CEO went out on strike. But, the strike was not about them anyway, or even about female doctors or lawyers or architects or engineers. It was about the most vulnerable of women, the women who work in menial jobs, or fast-food restaurants, and particularly those who are raising families. The college and grad students who work at Ladybird, apparently, can miss a day’s pay, but the most vulnerable cannot. There are millions of women who would strike in solidarity if they could afford to, but cannot. So, it seems to me that the women of the Ladybird, and their male coworkers, struck on behalf of and as a voice for the others. Nothing wrong with that. A missed breakfast well worth the missing.

Trump’s message is exceptional fear

This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on February 27, 2017.

Donald Trump’s inaugural speech was a message of fear: Fear Isis, fear China, fear Mexicans, be afraid in both public restrooms and private bedrooms, and be afraid on city streets. Be afraid of now, and be afraid of the future. The reason to be afraid is people who are different from us and want our things; people with different languages, faiths, nationalities and skin colors. Safety comes from threat, war, torture, guns, walls, trade barriers and jails.

American exceptionalism has always been defined as a willingness — from strength — to help others for the sake of a common and greater good. It has always been directed toward a greater global connectedness, toward a shared global consciousness. Read the UN Charter, signed in San Francisco on Oct. 24, 1945. The idea is that America is willing to do what is right solely because it is right, and will not be governed by expedience. We have not always lived up to this exceptional view of ourselves, but it has been a constant vision and aspiration.

The new definition we heard in the inaugural address considers Americans exceptional as a birthright; solely because we are American. We, who are a melting pot of the rest of the world, Mr. Trump reasons, are somehow different and somehow better. But claims of nationalist or racial superiority are not new; they were the justification for anti-Semitic laws in Nazi Germany just 75 years ago. They were also the justification for Jim Crow segregationists and more recently for the murders Dylann Roof committed. And this vision of America is a vision of a mythic past that excludes many Americans.

Selfish fear is not exceptional. Every family, tribe and nation throughout history has been afraid. Every one of them has thought first of its own welfare. American exceptionalism since Dec. 7, 1941, has not been fearful or essentially selfish. American armies liberated most of North Africa, Europe and much of Asia, and in each instance immediately returned sovereign power to native people. American armies conquered Germany and Japan, at frightful cost, and again, returned sovereignty to the people of those countries and even provided aid to rebuild what the war had destroyed.

Thus, America First is the most common and ordinary of ideas — and cowardly to boot. Recently a Kansas legislator from Bonner Springs left a loaded handgun in a committee room. I’m not surprised or even mad about the mistake. People are always dropping things, losing them, leaving them behind. The significance to me is that a legislator thought it necessary to carry a handgun into the Statehouse. The only reason could be fear, and each day that fear is constantly reinforced every time the gun is seen or touched. It is reinforced for all of us by the increasing presence of guns.

As unsettling as 2016 may seem, 1932 was far scarier. The Great Depression had gutted the country, and the world. People were out of work, hungry, and there was no safety net, no Social Security. Many were starving while food rotted on farms. Totalitarianism had captured Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain, Tojo’s Japan, and was capturing Hitler’s Germany. Wars were raging in Ethiopia and Manchuria. But when Americans elected a president they elected a man who gave a very different inaugural address. In January 1933 Franklin Roosevelt’s message was of courage and faith based upon a belief in the exceptional qualities of the American Republic.
In his first inaugural address FDR said:

First of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.

But I am now afraid. I am not afraid of the problems that confront us in the world, but I am afraid that the choice of the man who now leads our country proves we are no longer exceptional. His is not a leadership of frankness and understanding. The next four years will tell the tale. Our exceptionalism must now manifest itself in a vigilant resistance to the message of fear.