Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Notes From The College Industrial Complex: Edu-Debt Springs Eternal

High wire fencing on the playground
High rise housing all around
High rise prices on the high street
High time to pull it all down

White boys kicking in a window

Straight girls watching where they gone

Never trust a copper in a crime car

Just whose side are you on?
--Tom Robinson Band, "Up Against The Wall"

Whilst looking up some other potential posting topics, I came across this whopper from the Campaign For America's Future, which focuses on a little-advertised fact about our glorious federal government -- if you borrowed their money to finance your college education, you'll be paying into your elder years...and pursued into them, as well, if you haven't managed to pay off the loan. According to the report, which I've helpfully posted below, an estimated 760,000 households headed by someone 65 or older are paying off student loans. That's worth roughly $18.2 billion in debt.

Unfortunately, one in four of these households (191,000) are in default, which allows Uncle Sam to grab up to 15 percent of your Social Security check (as long as it doesn't fall below $750 a month). As Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) observes, "Garnishing Social Security benefits defeats the entire point of the program -- that's why we don't allow banks or credit card companies to do it." Well, Congress didn't allow any garnishments to happen until 1996 -- when the Republican-led Congress carved out an exemption for student loan debt, as part of its "Contract On America." Oh, wait, you mean the "Contract With America?" No, I think the other preposition fits better.

Imagine the sticker shock awaiting millions of retirees -- who shouldn't have to worry about being hunted down for decades-old debt in their golden years (theoretical or otherwise). Of course, America is virtually the only industrialized nation that insists on clinging to this Rube Goldberg for-profit model of education (although Britain is doing its damnedest to catch up with our example). Still, other nations seem to get by just fine without all the malignancies clotting our college and university system -- such as the bloated administrations who see no problem with condemning future generations of instructors to permanet adjuncthood...but I digress.

Of course, the other problem is that, while edu-debt is exploding, along with cost of living, wages and salaries haven't remotely kept pace. As a June 2014 article on Yahoo Finance indicates, the cost of tuition and fees has soared by 1,120% since the government started keeping track of these matters in 1978. And, as Dan Hurley, a policy expert for the American Association of Colleges and Universities suggests -- such figures often obscure the bigger problem: "Instead of young adults purchasing homes and goods and services, they're paying [for college], which doesn't generate any income for the country."

The grind of working pay off edu-debt and other cost of living expenses also chips away at the one of the most important -- and rarely mentioned -- aspects of the college experience, namely, exposure to people and ideas that could change your life. I met four of my closest friends in college: one has since died, but the others remain part of my life.  I wouldn't have met them anywhere else: need I say more? Still, I'll own up and admit -- hand on heart -- I wasn't necessarily motivated by whatever sheepskin I was aiming to get. I imagined college being something like the British art school scene of 1964-65...with the Kinks, the Pretty Things and Yardbirds rubbing suitably inebriated shoulders...or the '76-'77 punk explosion, where you just might bump into Paul Simonon toting art supplies and canvases, looking for another abandoned ice cream factory or junkyard to turn into a mural. I thought it'd all be a lot like Carnaby Street, with myself and my co-conspirators plotting how to take the world by storm between rounds of some imported beer or other -- even, though, at times, I felt more like Catwoman's hapless victim, Carnaby Katz, during Batman's final soggy season on TV. Good, bad or indifferent, though, I wouldn't trade those times for anything.

Then again, I didn't have to work nearly the hours that grads face down these days...back then, jobs were basically excuses to pay the odd bill, or (better yet) buy silly punk records. If you didn't have enough money for those silly punk records, you'd hope to hustle some by cashing in your textbooks...or, as I eventually did...start can collecting, and turn it into a good side income. Some way or another, you found ways to get by, and get what you wanted -- I bought my first bass for $120, which I saved by dedicating one day of my weekly can collecting take to the cause. What students do now...or whether they could pull off similar scenarios...I can't imagine.

Given the one-sided nature of the present situation, it's not surprising that more and more grads are choosing to default (see the essay below)...though the bubble will likely have to swell quite a bit larger before all those greenbacks come bursting out of our undergraduate equivalent of Mount Vesuvius (or is it more like Krakatoa?). And that's before we even get to the other big questions that the Campaign's report raises: with fewer and fewer jobs requiring a four-year degree, should college be the automatic choice for everyone? More to the point, how do we force a greater degree of accountability from institutions that fight their workers as hard as a ninteenth century robber baron? Who knows -- the "Free University" idea of the 1960s looks better and better all the time. Giving such concepts a bigger stage could only improve the present system...even if our friendly neighborhood banker is dead set against the idea. --The Reckoner

And I said,
Look out, listen, can you hear it:
Panic in the County Hall?

And I said,
Look out, listen, can you hear it:
Whitehall (got us) up against a wall
They got us up against the wall...

Links 'N' More (Click 'Em Before
They Jack Up Your Tuition):

Tom Robinson Band: Up Against The Wall:

Campaign For America's Future:
Haunted By Student Debt To The Grave:
College Is Ripping You Off:

The New York Times:
Why I Defaulted
On My Student Loans:

The Wall Street Journal:
$555,000 Student Loan Burden:

Yahoo Finance: The Daily Ticker:
College Costs Unaffordable For Students:

Shock, Horror, Film At 11: The Wall Street Journal Doesn't "Get" '60s & '70s Radicalism

Reading this book reminds me of a comment in 1971, a documentary recently aired on PBS about the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI -- a group of activists whose break-in of the agency's satellite office in Media, PA, unmasked the agency's COINTELPRO program...and its snooping into millions of Americans' lives, to an unprecedented degree: in short, more or less like today's climate (just substitute the names of Edward Snowden, and the National Security Agency). Anyway, one of the former activist burglars makes a telling point by saying that, in many ways, he feels that America has never gotten over 1968.

The Wall Street Journal's review of Days Of Rage makes me feel the same way. Reviewer Peter Hellman co-authored Chief! with the late Albert Seedman, the New York Police Department's own Chief of Detectives, who spent a fair amount of quality time pursuing the era's radical bogeys -- including the Black Liberation Army, the FALN, and the Weather Underground, who get much of the ink here.

It's always fun to read what establishment voices think, and Hellman's review is no exception. Consider how Hellman characterizes the book's more significant scenes -- such as the November 4, 1984 capture of Ray Lavasseur, ending the bank robberies and bombings of his own United Freedom Front (whose fugitive partners also raised children on the run -- ponder the implications of that one for a moment). As Hellman writes, "Two days later, the United States reelected Ronald Reagan in a landslide. So much for Lavessur's dream of fomenting popular revolution." 

To which I would humbly retort, "Um, not so fast, grasshopper." While a massive effort to overthrow the U.S. government didn't materialize, it's a  stretch to imply that the Gipper's re-election invalidated concerns about America's social ills, which seem more noxious than ever (unprecedented levels of social equality, jobless recoveries, massive expansion of state and federal power at citizens' expense -- need I say more, or go on?). At that time, barely half the U.S. population voted -- so, when considered in that light, Mr. Reagan's so-called "mandate" looks far less impressive.

Hellman also misses the mark with this observation: "Arriving on the 50th anniversary of Selma, this book provides a rare chance to appreciate the true radicalness of Martin Luther King's non-violence, a strategy for creating social change that was scorned by the radical underground." His review glosses over the reason why groups like the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army ridiculed the idea -- because the feds didn't respond with love and kisses to anyone seeking to stop the Vietnam War, or halt any of their crazier schemes (as even a casual listen to Nixon's many infamous White House recordings will quickly attest). 

Similar responses occurred around the world, especially in Germany, where the Baader-Meinhof Gang/Red Army Faction rose in response to the federal police's excesses -- such as the June 1967 shooting of Benno Ohnesorg, a student demonstrator whose wife was pregnant with their first child. New research by federal prosecutors and Der Spiegel shows that a) police didn't shoot in self-defense, as claimed; b) the medical examiner was ordered to falsify the post-morterm report; and c) subsequent investigations covered up key points that implicated the responsible parties. Naturally, none of these facts will prove sufficient to hold any of them accountable.

While these facts weren't common knowledge among the German New Left of '67-'68, sufficient grounds existed to suspect them. The presence of numerous ex-Nazis in lower- or mid-level government positions and unrelenting hostility from a conservative media establishment also did nothing, one suspects, to dissuade radicals from believing that peaceful dialogue was possible...or desirable. Ulrike Meinof presumably had this climate in mind for her spring 1969 article, "Columnism," which offers a cogent critique of the mass media space that she herself occupied as a noted journalist:

"My criticism is aimed at the way publishers internalise the conditions of the market, and at the way editors internalise the publishers' focus on profits. We are not looking for saints. We simply want an oppositional stance. We do not want our subjugation to market demands to be presented as free journalism, or the art of meeting deadlines to be confused with the of presenting people with the truth. We do not want editorial democracy to grind like sand in the gears, and we want the columnists' freedom to be recognised for what it is: a prestige and profit factor, a fraud for the readers, a self-deception, a personality cult."

Whatever you think of Meinhof's subsequent murderous odyssey, the article offers a glimpse into her thinking -- which, by now, 
rejected the idea of working within the system, or trying to influence it in a non-militant way:

"It is opportunistic to claim to be struggling against the conditions that one is actually reproducing. It is opportunistic to use the methods that stabilise a system and claim to be seeking change. It is opportunitistc to clamp down on editorial freedoms and the extra-parliamentary opposition and cave in to the market, i.e., to profits. It is opportunistic to limit the anti-authoritarian position to the authoritarian form of the column." 


Of course, the radical leftists made numerous mistakes. The biggest came in assuming that Maoist- or Stalinist-style Communism could simply be transplanted, root and branch, into consumer societies that had not experienced traditions of revolutionary violence (except Germany, perhaps). Also, it's hard to think of a successful radical group that didn't have a political wing -- as exemplified by the African National Congress, or the Irish Republican Army.

At least Hellman acknowledges that the government committed plenty of excesses in pursuing these small radical groups, though it's curious that he doesn't see fit to question the John Wayne Complex that often grips law enforcement. A good example is the so-called 1974 siege that led to the Symbionese Liberation Army's demise. It's curious that police never entertained the idea of simply blockading Donald DeFreeze and his would-be revolutionaries until their food, water and ammo stocks ran out...then again, it probably didn't sound as attractive as the full-scale operation to kick weirdo butt on live TV.

Naturally, Hellman does dwell at length on the middle- or upper-class backgrounds that characterized radical poster children like Bernadine Dohrn -- but, far from discrediting their ideology, it only makes the whole story more poignant. If people from monied backgrounds doesn't think they have options, what does that mean for the rest of us? The answers aren't pleasant to contemplate.

Finally, Hellman also ignores one other point: if the nation's radical business really is a finished affair, done and dusted, why do so many conservatives and ultra-right-wingers continue running so hard against it? Think back to the 2008 election, when Obama's Democratic and Republican opponents tried to tar him with the Weather Underground brush. If those ghosts really are dormant, why do commentators like Pat Buchanan continue to resurrect them, when the need arises?

Read Hellman's review and draw your own conclusions -- though, per usual, it seems like a missed opportunity for the substantive discussion that the subject deserves. Perhaps he missed the implied memo of JFK's famous 1962 quote: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable." Then again...what else can we expect from the Paper Of The One Percent? --The Reckoner

Links To Go (Just Don't Shake That Molotov Cocktail):
Der Spiegel International Online:
New Probe Into 1967 Student Killing:
Police Covered Up Truth Behind Infamous Student Shooting: Ulrike Meinhof: Columnism:

PBS: 1971: FBI Office Break-In Changed Everything

The Wall Street Journal: A Pestilence of Bombs:

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Rising Tide Swamps All Ships: Michigan Kills The Earned Income Tax Credit

Trickle down economics is a scam, plain and sample. Like so many pet projects pushed by the ultra-right and its shadowy denizens -- the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and other Orwellian-sounding entities like them -- the premise never adds up. Over and over, we're told that if the upper classes were left to stash away as much as they wish, that money will float back down to those on the bottom...which is where you hear those same tired slogans, over and over. A rising tide lifts all boats. Not a hand out, but a hand up. And so on, and so forth.  Wash, rinse, repeat.

For the most part, the jobs never materialize, and those that do are typically of the low-wage, no-benefit, no-future variety. The tax breaks handed out left and right to businesses wind up as great going-away presents -- either when the management takes the enterprise offshore, or simply goes belly up, leaving the taxpayers stuck with the what-do-we-with-that-big-empty-white-elephant-now tab. And so on, and so forth. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Then again, it's not really about results, it's about shoving an ideology down everybody else's throat -- common sense be damned, objective review be damned, public opinion be damned. What else explains the Republican drive in Michigan to kill off the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) -- and justify it as part of a road funding package?  That's what happened earlier this month, when the Republican-led Senate put the icing -- or, should I say, the mayonnaise -- on top of the cake. And so on, and so forth. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The Senate version also includes a 15-cent increase in the gas tax, another regressive tax that those with modest means don't get to vote on -- and, in a commuter state where driving extended distances to work is the norm, will hit their pockets hard, too. Not to worry, though, because the Senate version includes a state income tax -- although only if the percentage increase from the previous fiscal year's general fund revenues exceeds a positive inflation rate. This "shift and shaft" approach is the hallmark of the Snyder era: "Businesses pay less, you pay more." And so on, and so forth. Wash, rinse repeat.

As the Detroit Free Press noted in its editorial (see below), one interesting aspect of the drive against the EITC is that its prime movers -- such as State Representative Jeff Farrington, for instance, of Macomb County, where 17.9 percent of its children still live in poverty. You can ead the nitty-gritty details for yourself below -- instead of me rehashing them here -- but, as the Free Press rightly suggests, whatever logic motivates these votes, "it's not concern for the constituents whose interests they're meant to represent. It's the noxious partisan principle that poverty is deserved, and that the impoverished require neither a hand up nor much compassion."  And so on, and so forth. Wash, rinse, repeat.

And, like most bills that Governor Rick Synder's zealous cohorts pass left and right, it's fair to say the average person isn't paying attention right now. The sticker shock will land next year with a hollow thud on the kitchen table, when folks realize that -- all of a sudden -- they'll owe  the state more than they're used to paying. In fairness, I'll note that Michigan's version of the EITC was much smaller than Uncle Sam's -- but, for people who are struggling, every little bit helps...until, of course, someone yanks the rug from under your feet. And so on, and so forthWash, rinse, repeat.

Don't think they'll return any money that you might accidentally leave on their table, either. At one time, The Squawker and I owed two years of state taxes, plus three years of federal -- until we were able to sign up for a voluntary tax preparer's help through the United Way, and learned (to our chagrin) that we could get a renter's credit to make Michigan's IOUs go away. It'll be interesting to see what happens next year, but you can bet on one other thing...with 40 percent of Michigan's residents still living in poverty, or stuck in jobs that don't cover basic needs, you won't hear a peep about this subject from the Republican zealots...or ALEC...or the Mackinac Center...or any of their shadowy ilk.

Like Erich Honecker in his twilight years, they'll shake their fists and chant, "Stay the course! Stay the course!" Only, instead of Honecker's fuzzy-minded brand of "consumer socialism" --one that required massive loans from the West to prop up his so-called German Democratic Republic -- we'll get served something far more insidious: socialism for Big Business. But, if you feel like calling them out, it might be fun to ask, "Where are the results?" Then wait for the sounds of crickets.  And so on, and so forth. Wash, rinse, repeat. --The Reckoner
Links To Go (Hurry, Before Your Tax Tab Skyrockets):
Detroit Free Press
Mich. Senate Road Plan May Be Worse Than You Think:
Michigan Can Improve The Economy
By Cutting Taxes For 95% For The People: