Student Debt: The View from 1987

They’re talking about rising interest rates on CBC’s Cross Country Checkup tonight and some of the callers are talking about the burdens of paying down student loans. It reminded me of an article from MacLean’s Magazine from October 5, 1987, which featured yours truly as a freshly-minted graduate with a student debt problem.

The main point of the article, written by Mary McIver and James Careless, is that the cost of post-secondary education was very high, leading to financial hardships for indebted grads upon graduation. I don’t think this has changed. Unfortunately the title of the article is “The Artful Dodgers,” which is somewhat click-baity (even though there was nothing to click in 1987) and could be seen as as somewhat dog-whistley for those who opposed the student loan program.  The first two-thirds of the article focuses on people finding ways to dodge payments — primarily through declaring bankruptcy — although overall the article does a reasonable job of showing how those people arrived at that point.

Declaring bankruptcy is a last ditch solution for anyone in financial difficulty, and such action is rare among recent university graduates. But Fuller’s case underscores the problem that an increasing number of undergraduates will eventually have to face. With the high cost of tuition and other expenses, many students turn to Canada’s student loan programs for assistance. But when they graduate they often find themselves saddled with heavy debt at the starting point of their careers. The salaries they make in entry-level positions—if they find jobs at all—may cover such basics as food and shelter, but leave little for loan repayment.

I appear near the end of the article, as someone whose first payments are looming.

The numbers in this article seem low by today’s standards, but remember, these are 1987 dollars. However, the debt I owed — $16,000 — might as well have been a million at the time. (Not mentioned in the article was another $3000 I owed in loans outside of the student loan program.)

You can read the full article here in the MacLean’s archive. The bit that includes me is here:

But however controversial the student loan programs are, many students are grateful that they exist at all. One is Ed Hawco, who spent two years at the University College of Cape Breton and four years at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., borrowing increasing amounts every year through the Canada Student Loan Program. He now faces a debt of $16,000, with repayment terms of roughly $250 a month over a 9½-year period.

Hawco graduated with a BA in sociology and psychology in May, and his first payment is due in late November. But the 27-year-old, who recently moved to Montreal to take a job as a photographer’s assistant at $12,000 a year, said, “There’s no way I can meet that first payment, and I don’t know how I’m going to pay any back at all, at least for this year.” On the one hand, Hawco said, “it is frightening to graduate with a $16,000 debt.” But he added, “Thankfully the system is there, because otherwise I couldn’t have gone to university.”

I’m happy to report that I did not declare bankruptcy, although the first few years were very hard. I was able to defer payments for about another year if my memory serves me, but once started those payments they were as much as, or more, than my rent. This went on for years. It took at least another five years beyond graduation (and after the publication of this article) before I really found my feet career-wise (and thus, money-wise). I made my last student loan payment in 1997, I think, ten years after graduating.

I was then, and I remain, grateful that the student loan program was there for me. I always resented people who wanted to shut it down or severely curtail it because of a few cases of people abusing the system or defaulting on their loans. My mantra has always been that this is simply the cost of having the system available for those who need it; that you cannot punish many deserving people because of the misdeeds of a few.

That said, many things can be done to make it easier to pay back the loans. First of all, recognition that it can take years out of school before some people obtain the financial footing they need to make the payments. The payments could also be tax deductible, which would help a little bit and would signal the government’s acknowledgement that education is an investment in the future of the country, not just the individual.

In my case, as hard as it was, I always tried to keep things in perspective. $16,000 at the time was about the cost of a Trans-am. Plenty of people my age in 1987 had Trans-ams. When things were bad I would remind myself that I could have spent that money on a goddamn car, or on six years of education. Which would give me the bigger return on investment (both financial and otherwise)? Right.

On men and women, Kavenaugh and Ford

As I listen to Christine Blasey Ford give her testimony at the U.S. Senate judiciary committee today I try to understand why there is such a rift between what men say and feel about this and what women say and feel. On the surface it’s obvious; in acts of sexual aggression it is almost always in the direction of men assaulting women, so it’s natural that when accusations surface the women back the women out of a sense of victim solidarity, and the men become defensive.

But surely there’s more to it. The female part of this equation is fairly clear, but why do so many men so predictably fall into the defensive stance, where they minimize the apparent effects of such aggressions, deflect into tangents about due process, and otherwise regress into the juvenile “bro” collective.

As I pick these things apart, some ideas emerge.

Why the focus on “due process?” There is a somewhat reasonable explanation for this, at least at first glance. In most western democratic countries we have pretty decent legal systems, if not always in practice at least in theory. One of the founding principles is that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty. People of a certain vintage might remember that in the Soviet Union, all one supposedly had to do to rid oneself of an annoying neighbour or co-worker was denounce them to the KGB or the Stasi. People in the western world were appalled at this and we congratulated ourselves on our principles and practices of due process.

Then along comes the Internet and the social networks, which elevated the “court of public opinion” to near-legal status. Now, if you play your cards right, you can just about orchestrate a KGB-like disappearance of someone by launching an accusation on social media and letting the tide of public denouncement do the rest. This is rightfully something to worry about.

But where does that fit in with the various accusations in the #metoo era? Non-critical thinkers of the knee-jerk-reaction variety will jump to the “lack of due process” question right out of the gate. A woman accuses a man of some sexual indiscretion or assault and the men all coral together and complain about a lack of due process, accusing the accuser of character assassination via the aforementioned court of public opinion and conjuring the shadow of the KGB and Stasi.

Well I have news for you. Due process is still a thing. Credible accusations lead to hearings. Do you think Jian Ghomeshi just walked into work one day and was shown the door out of the blue? Do you think Bill Cosby was picked up off the street and thrown into a black Lada and driven to Rikers Island based on a rumour? Was Harvey Weinstein just magically divested of Miramax Pictures by a wand-waving Tinkerbell and her Instagram followers?

No. Credible accusations lead to investigations and hearings. That’s what’s happening right now in Washington DC, where Christine Blasey Ford is accusing Brett Kavanaugh of some pretty nasty things, and she’s doing it in front of a U.S. Senate judiciary committee. Not Facebook. Not Sun News. A U.S. Senate judiciary committee.

This is how it’s supposed to work, so all those guys who complain about a lack of due process please shut up and listen to the hearing. Someone like Ford, an established professor at a respected university, doesn’t just make this up.

As to why men tend to go off on that tangent more than women, I have a theory. As I said earlier, these aggressions happen to women far more than they happen to men, and the perpetrators of the aggressions are more likely to be men. Right there you see a clear and understandable division in how these things will be thought about and acted upon.

Of course not all men are like that. But a lot are, or at least they were in their arrogant youth. I suspect one of the reasons why so many men tend to downplay these accusations is because many of them are guilty of them, either directly or indirectly, such as having witnessed it and done nothing, or having re-told the tasteless jokes over and over.

The mind is a funny thing, and it finds ways to make us feel less guilty over time. It rearranges our memories, and it comes up with distractions and tangents in order to justify the thing which may or may not have occurred. To the guilty mind these assaults were not assaults. Aggressions were not aggressions. It was long ago, and remembered differently. The lead balloon acquires gas over time so as not to weigh one down.

Well here’s a news flash: grow up! See with your eyes and your mind and not with your biases, justifications, and unreliable memories. This shit is real, and the people involved deserve your respect. Kavanaugh has a right to a hearing, and Ford and the other accusers have a right to tell their stories without coercion or threats. It’s not a question of just blindly believing every accusation; it’s a matter of determining the credibility of the accusation (the majority we hear about can be instantly identified as credible) and then moving to the next step; the hearing. And it’s no accident that it’s called a “hearing” because it involves listening. So listen.

(Published simultaneously on Facebook.)

Rare Disease Day

Rare Disease Day LogoToday is Rare Disease Day, an international day of observance to raise awareness of rare diseases (described on Wikipedia as “any disease that affects a small percentage of the population”).

I have a rare disease. It’s called Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy. Fortunately, there’s an acronym for that: CIDP. I was diagnosed in April 2013 after having felt the symptoms for several years, and having been to several doctors, none of whom had any idea what was going on.

CIDP is an an autoimmune disease in which your body’s immune system gets confused and attacks the insulation around of the nerves in your peripheral nervous system. The results vary from person to person, but in general it means reduced sensation and/or motor control in the extremities (hands and feet, although it can extend to arms and legs). It is not contagious. There is no cure, although remission is possible; as is relapse.

If you’ve ever heard of Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), CIDP is considered the chronic counterpart to that acute disease. In other words, GBS hits quickly and hits hard. GBS patients are usually paralyzed for days or weeks, and then they make a gradual improvement and are eventually cured, with most suffering no lingering effects. CIDP onset is slower (usually weeks but it can be months), there is usually no paralysis (largely due to effective treatment), but there is also no clear recovery path. Some people go into remission; most don’t. Some people are hit hard enough to require walking aids or even wheelchairs, and many end up on long-term disability. Many qualify for the coveted “handicapped” sticker, which gives them better parking options, so it’s not all bad.

Fortunately, I seem to be on the “mild” end of the spectrum. I receive regular treatments at the Montreal Neurological Institute (“The Neuro”), which consists of intravenous infusions of human immunoglobulins, derived from the plasma of all those excellent people who are kind enough to donate blood. My current treatment regime sends me to the Neuro every three weeks, where I spend about four or five hours plugged into a machine similar to what’s used to give chemotherapy to cancer patients. Thank goodness for Wifi and Netflix.

As a result of the treatments, I sometimes look a bit drunk when I walk instead of always looking a bit drunk. In particular, my right foot sometimes “flops” when I walk instead of always flopping when I walk. There are days when I can barely hold a pencil instead of never being able to hold a pencil. I can still ride a bicycle, but I use extra large pedals to help keep my feet from rolling off.

If you see me using a fork in a Chinese restaurant, don’t judge. It’s likely one of those days where my hands are simply not cooperating, so using chopsticks is out of the question. On other days, chopsticks are fine. Mostly. Soup dumplings are particularly difficult, but I don’t think that’s a CIDP thing.

All of this is largely invisible, thanks to the treatments I receive at the Neuro and my good fortune to not be severely affected by this disease. Many of the afflicted people I see in online forums, and the Facebook group for people with CIDP, have it much worse than I do. On the plus side, it has increased my tolerance for ambiguity, as I now understand how an appendage can be painful and numb at the same time.

On this Rare Disease Day, I also want to talk about what I’m grateful for.

I’m grateful to the doctors at The Neuro for figuring this out. It took several neurologists, a bunch of EMG tests, some MRIs, a battery of motor- and coordination tests, a nerve biopsy, a lumbar puncture (i.e., spinal tap), and a good hunch, but there it is. Nailed it.

I’m grateful to the nurses in The Neuro’s day clinic for their good humour and professionalism. They listen when I have a concern, and they’re always on the spot when the machine beeps.

I’m grateful to my employer for granting me flexibility in my work schedule. I started working there before my diagnosis, when I had flexibility built-in because I was on contract and billing only for hours worked. But when I transitioned to a permanent position (post-diagnosis) they understood my situation and my need to be away from the office on treatment days. We came to an agreement that works for both of us. I have known employers who treated their employees with resentment and disdain, who never would have offered such an arrangement. My experience here was the polar opposite.

I’m particularly grateful to Martine, for accepting my “new normal” and all the aggravations that go with it, such as my constant grunting and groaning as I move around on my leaden legs, or my reduced mobility in terms of needing to be close to the Neuro for my treatments every few weeks (so much for living in Berlin for a year). That’s not what she bargained for when we hitched our wagons together. (Is there an emoji for this?)

A few takeaways:

  • Although rare diseases are (ahem) “rare,” there are plenty of them, so you probably know someone with a rare disease, even if it’s invisible.
  • Mobility aids like wheelchairs and “handicapped” stickers are not just for paraplegics. There is a range of diseases and conditions that can make it difficult to walk sometimes or maybe always, or that make it difficult to walk very far. Don’t judge when you see someone get up out of their wheelchair and walk a few steps.
  • Yay Canada. I don’t pay for my treatments, but a lot of U.S.-based people with this disease struggle to get them. Even those who have insurance often have to fight to get their treatments covered.
  • Give blood.