Among the Intellectualoids

Victimology 101

Tough love for the petit bourgeoisie? Who is the New York Times kidding?

By 6.7.10

In the Age of Obama one could be forgiven for assuming the failure of an interdisciplinary degree in religious and women's studies to cover student loan payments (or much else) would be more badge of honor than crying shame.

After all, during the 2008 presidential campaign Michelle Obama frequently bemoaned the burden student loans placed on her and Barack in the years before his books became bestsellers -- "It was like Jack and his magic beans," she mused, though, as Byron York noted, Michelle's salary at University of Chicago Hospital rocketing from $121,910 in 2004 to $316,962 after her husband's election to the U.S. Senate was magical in its own way -- yet the future First Lady nonetheless urged young smarty pants to "move out of the money-making industry and into the helping industry."

"Don't go into corporate America," she pleaded, shooing virginal idealists away from the den of decadent suckers who apparently do nothing useful save foot the bill for whatever Obamian delusions of federal grandeur are to be found at the top of that statist beanstalk.

Alas, as Ron Lieber's recent New York Times piece "Placing the Blame as Students Are Buried in Debt" demonstrates, such faux-martyr vows of poverty have consequences for those without access to supernatural legumes or patronage salaries. (The Congressional Budget Office's assessment of how many magic beans will remain available to President Obama once healthcare reform is fully implemented was incomplete at press time.)

Lieber introduces us to a representative victim, Cortney Munna, holder of the previously mentioned interdisciplinary degree in religious and women's studies, a New York University graduate with $100,000 in student loan debt currently recovering from "a blind faith that the investment would be worth it."

Lieber commiserates writ large:

So in an eerie echo of the mortgage crisis, tens of thousands of people like Ms. Munna are facing a reckoning. They and their families made borrowing decisions based more on emotion than reason, much as subprime borrowers assumed the value of their houses would always go up.

Most of us can sympathize: Overriding reason appears to be emotion's primary function, often as not. Sometimes you make a bad bet, and paying the piper is no fun, especially if Lieber's dire predictions of "decades of payments, limited capacity to buy a home and a debt burden that can repel potential life partners" prove prescient. (The latter repercussion attests little for modern love…"Baby, you are so, so beautiful, our personalities are so compatible I feel like God himself wrote our eHarmony profiles, but before we consummate this union, mind if I take a gander at your student loan balances?") Welcome to the tribulations of the American middle class. At least you don't have to haul your water home from a river every day.

HAVING ESTABLISHED THE REQUISITE semblance of individual accountability, Lieber goes off in search of the multi-headed, easy-to-vilify puppet master.

The "biggest share" of the blame, to the New York Times columnist's mind, rests upon college financial aid officers who had "an obligation to counsel students like Ms. Munna, who got in too far over their heads"; to tell her, if necessary, "that she simply did not belong there." Profligate Big Bank lenders, naturally, lurk in the shadows as well. Cortney's mother agrees, insisting to Lieber, "Had somebody called me and said, 'Do you have a clue where this is all headed?' it would have been a slap in the face, but a slap in the face that I needed." Mother, in fact, believes some N.Y.U. lackey should have explained to her daughter, "You are in deep doo-doo, little girl."

Sensible enough in theory, I suppose, but, lord, imagine the uproar were such policies ever to be put into practice! Picture university administrators parsing potential students' tax returns, then advising them to lower their aspirations according to their economic background. (Class war!) How many minutes would it take for a gender harassment complaint to be issued against the infantilizing sexist who pulled aside a women's studies major to inveigh, "You are in deep doo-doo, little girl"? Pray tell, indeed, what the New York Times editorial page would think of lenders plugging liberal arts majors into some fancy Future Potential Earnings matrix before explaining to starry-eyed sucklings eager to study social work or musical theater or art history where exactly to go fly their ain't-getting-no-edumacation kite?

Everybody wants a slap in the face…until they get a slap in the face.

Hell, the government is contemplating ways to subsidize and regulate media as if it were a public utility. Think the leviathan is going to sit by while provosts and chancellors set admission earnings standards closing every journalism school in the country? Uh huh. No one steals the new toy from Baby Big Government's crib!

This is all, essentially, a scale model of Michelle Obama's dystopia in which "many of our bright stars are going into corporate law or hedge-fund management."

And it is not going to happen.

Maybe the government seizes the student loan apparatus and we get even less sensible degrees at a greater cost borne solely by Monopoly Man caricatures that populate liberal fantasies, but we shall never, ever see the day when the federal government allows any regulatable entity to hold up a mirror to this nation's petit bourgeoisie and tell them anything except they look beautiful and are perfect exactly the way they are. Electoral bread must be buttered, after all.

SUBPRIME MORTGAGE LENDING is a good analogy, actually, if not in exactly the way Mr. Lieber aims -- it, too, lends itself to post-crisis moralistic grandstanding that wouldn't have been countenanced during the run-up.

Here, for example, is how Johan Norberg describes the prelude to the housing market debacle in his indispensible book Financial Fiasco:

The policy to expand homeownership, which was pursued with equal enthusiasm by presidents Clinton and Bush, enjoyed unprecedented success. The proportion of people who owned their homes had been fairly stable for about 30 years but suddenly rose from under 64 percent to over 67 percent between 1993 and 2000, and in 2004 it exceeded 69 percent for the first time. The left saw this as a way to reduce discrimination and marginalization; the right saw it as a way to build an ownership society and give low-income earners a stake in the American dream. Both sides used the federal government to drive this development.

To comprehend the animus serious opponents of the federal policies and institutional pressures that incentivized bad lending -- i.e. irrational, persistently low interest rates; the Community Reinvestment Act; the Federal Housing Administration's 3.5 percent down-payment -- would have faced had they spoken up at the peak of the housing expansion, before the deluge of foreclosures and stock market plunges, simply flip the positive spins Norberg laid out:'d like to increase discrimination and marginalization? Dismantle the ownership society and make sure low-income earners have no stake in the American dream? What a bastard!

This was a natural tic Barney Frank happily indulged in October 2008. Critics of well-intentioned, tragically ill-advised federal meddling in the housing market were seeking "to take things out on poor people," Frank said. "Let's be honest: The fact that some of the poor people are black doesn't hurt them either, from their standpoint. This is an effort, I believe, to appeal to a kind of anger in people."

Reading racist class resentment into policy disagreements, though…well, that's just good rhetorical manners!

As much as I commend Lieber for attempting to deliver the uncouth truth that not all education is created equal, even if he feels it necessary to create faceless corporatist boogeymen to make doing so palatable for himself and/or his audience, the truth is the failure of imagination occurs long before the loan papers are signed. "Ms. Munna understands this tough love, buck up, buckle-down advice," Lieber writes. "But she also badly wants to call a do-over on the last decade."

So? Who doesn't? If we could all live twice within this one life, we'd all get a lot more right. Instead we're left to learn from our mistakes, which means accepting responsibility for those unfortunate missteps rather than railing against those who supposedly fell short in their divine mission to save us from ourselves.

There may be audacity, there may be hope, but there are, sadly, no magic beans.

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