[The following is a chapter from Be a Hobbit, Save the Earth, originally titled, ‘Ignorant Hobbits, Bad Hobbits: Education Reform in the Shire’]
Give me a man or woman who has read a thousand books and you give me an interesting companion. Give me a man or woman who has read perhaps three and you give me a very dangerous enemy indeed. —Anne Rice, The Witching Hour
Fighting Ignorance is the most difficult battle of our modern, metaphorical War of the Ring.
Ignorance is rampant and much of it is of the Willful kind. The only effective way to combat such ignorance, is through education. But we are obviously failing on that front.
I’m a graduate student, as I’ve mentioned already. I came to Minnesota in 2007 to pursue a Ph.D. in history. There were or are many problems with that decision but the most poignant one has to do with economics.
My pursuit of an advanced college degree seemed to make sense when I originally decided to do it, back in 2004. That’s when I went back to school at East Carolina University to finish my bachelor’s degree in history, but I already knew that I wanted to continue to get my doctorate. Because I wasn’t independently wealthy at the time, or now, I had to take out quite a few loans to finish up my undergraduate degree.
I won’t say how much, but more than some students and less than others. The debt is enough to buy one hell of a car, but not a particularly nice home, especially not in the Twin Cities. Personally, I don’t like to think about it much, though I just got the bill a couple weeks ago for the first time; it was a bit of a shock which required a larger than small dose of bourbon to ease the throbbing in my cranium.
The cost of a college education in the U.S. has skyrocketed in the last 40-50 years. At the same time the pressure to get an undergraduate degree is suffocating and real. Without one, your prospects for livable wages are slim. Even with it, your chances aren’t great. But most of us just suck it up, take out the loans and hope for the best. Mostly, we’re disappointed.
In some cases, that disappointment turns to depression, deep depression.
I’ve been there. Even with a master’s degree I spent a year in 2012-13 looking for a employment before landing a job paying less than $15 per hour. Of course that’s almost twice the minimum wage, which is what most college students can expect to be paid if they take a part-time job while in school.
I’ve seen people, usually my age or older, say uninformed things, like, “When I WAS in school, I worked 170 hours a week [there’s only 168] and walked up hill in the snow both ways to work to pay for MY education!” you know, the ole bootstrap argument.
My bullshit meter goes off every time I hear this and then I blow a mental gasket. It takes all my Hobbity, Taoist restraint not to go all Gimli on them.
First off, these old geezers—and I’m just as old as they are—have no clue what college cost these days. Most of them are single, or married with no college-age children and have had their heads buried up their collective asses for the last 30 years or more. Back in the 60s and 70s, you could work about seven weeks a year, at minimum wage, and pay for your tuition to college: 7 WEEKS!
The figure is closer to 50 weeks now, and that’s just for the tuition! That doesn’t include books, food, lodging, transportation, clothing, you know, the luxuries in life. The cost of college in the U.S. has gone up drastically since the 60s. Hell, just since 2000 the cost of public college tuition and fees—don’t forget the fees—has jumped over 30%! The rise is well above the cost of living increase or even the rate of inflation! And we’re expecting our youngest and brightest kids to shoulder this enormous debt when they haven’t even secured a job? It’s insane. And stupid.
The cost of education is out of control, and if it is not reigned in soon we’re going to have a disaster on our hands. It might already be too late to avert it. The student loan debt in the U.S. is so enormous—1.2 Trillion Dollars—that it’s hard to fathom how those students are ever going to repay it, especially since the job market is so bad. But how can we fix this?
Loan Forgiveness: an Investment in the Future of the Planet
A handful of representatives at the federal level, namely, Elizabeth Warren
and Bernie Sanders, have proposed that we bail out our students, instead of the banks, and corporations that have put us into the financial situation we find ourselves. Obviously this has gone nowhere.
When that suggestion was shot down, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders proposed that we extend the ridiculous interest rates that the banks get from the government when they borrow
money—which is under 1%, by the way—to student loans. Student loan interest rates are much higher, and they aren’t afforded the option to wipe those loans out through bankruptcy.
If you owe a student loan and work for peanuts for a corporation, there is NO WAY for you to ever get out of that loan. You’re screwed. However, if the billion dollar corporation you work for gets into financial poo poo, they can file for bankruptcy, cancel their debt—all of it—and walk away. Many times they remain in business!
We loaned out over 29 Trillion Dollars—more than twice our GDP—bailing out the banks in 2008, but the students? the homeowners? “Sorry, pay up, or move out!” So for the moment you can forget about real reform from the top. Those institutions are too entrenched in our political system to ever allow such a thing. We will have to remove them from the loop before real reform can come, but let’s suppose-—for argument’s sake—that we had already cleaned up our government, and removed the influence of corporate money from the formula. What then? [I cover the steps to political reform in Removing Money from Politics]
Shire Jubilee! Clean Slate Time
Then we could, and should, cancel all student loans, both federal and private.
“Sorry banks, you had your chance and you screwed us all. Pay up, or move out!”
“But we can’t do THAT!” someone will say, lots of someones, “The banks will fail, and the economy will crash with them!”
If the banks fail, good.
But I don’t think the economy will do any such thing. Why? Because that debt–owed by ordinary citizens–is depressing the economy in ways that hasn’t been truly discussed, not in the media anyway.
Let’s say you have a large student loan and your payment is three to four hundred dollars a month—which is not uncommon. What could you do with that extra money every month? Eat real food? Go out to eat? Purchase a fuel efficient or electric car? Install solar panels on your house? Build a garden, a greenhouse, or make a large donation to your local neighborhood charity? Actually live without incurring more debt—usually via credit cards—just to cover the essentials? How about all of that? How do you think that would affect the economy?
Can we do it? Yes, and there’s historical and legal precedent for doing it. Cancelling debt was a common thing in ancient cultures. Read your Bible, the Old Testament. Every 50 years the Hebrews would declare a Jubilee, a year in which all debts were cancelled. Big parties were thrown, people danced in the streets, sang songs. Sounds like a good idea to me.
The problem with trickle-down economics—which I used to think was a logical idea—is that the wealth never actually trickles down, it runs up! Up to the top, where it stays. I’ve not seen any of it trickle MY WAY, have you? And I’ve been waiting for 34 years, since ole Ronnie took office in 1981. It hasn’t happened. And if it hasn’t, it’s not going to. It doesn’t work that way.The only thing trickling down is the warm, ammonia-smelling water running down our spine that they keep telling us is rain. It ain’t, it’s piss.
The point here is, if we can give 29 Trillion to the criminally run banks, to bail them out after crashing the economy, we can afford to take that back from them in the form of debt cancellation on student debts. There’s no difference between the two, except the second option would be way cheaper and actually help real, average Americans who need it, not fat-cat bankers who don’t, and don’t deserve bail outs and bonuses for cheating us into a depression. Yeah, I said depression, because that’s what it is.
Recession is a bullshit term invented by bankers to keep us from throwing them out of windows onto the pavement of Wall Street. It worked, last time. The next time it crashes? And it will. I wouldn’t lay a plugged nickel on a banker in that race.
Free Education: a Real Investment
While we’re at it, let’s eliminate the need for student loans to begin with; let’s make higher education, public universities, free for our citizens. “No way! How can we afford that?!” you ask. Well, let’s ask Denmark, or Germany, or a host of other countries around the world who have already done it, some of them a long time ago. By the way, all of these countries are ahead of us economically, if you measure the right things and I’m not talking about GDP, which is outdated and only measures volume of commerce, not value, which aren’t the same thing.
The standard of living in Scandinavia and Germany is significantly higher than the U.S., and a big part of that is their investment in the future of their citizens through education and other ways, like health care. More on that later.
If we, in the U.S., and other places that have similar problems with public higher education, want to compete—contribute might be a better word—in the future of the planet in a real way, then we need people with great educations who aren’t saddled with oppressive debt as soon as they enter the job market.
The average American graduate these days is so in debt by the time they reach the market that they can barely survive on the wages they can expect to find at an entry level position, and that’s IF they find a job at all. So many of them end up back in minimum wage jobs like flipping burgers at McDonald’s. It’s a sad statement for the most powerful country in the world. And it’s not acceptable.
Let’s put our money where our mouth is; let’s invest in the future by investing in the education of our youth and the re-education of those who need it and aren’t so young anymore. It’s not charity; it’s an investment in the mental, intellectual, and social infrastructure of our country and our planet.
Charity is something you give to corporations when they commit crimes of fraud and plunge the world into economic turmoil. I say we put an end to charity and start investing in what matters, the minds of our future leaders.