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.)

Missing the Point(s)

Yesterday, millions of women and men in the United States and around the world came out to march against the Trump presidency. The reaction among the Trumpists was predictable. I am shocked, however, to see the extent to which otherwise reasonable people — mostly not even Trump supporters — have piled onto the bandwagon of “where were these people on voting day?”

That bandwagon and the thinking behind is so wrong, so unbelievably wrong, that I am almost rendered speechless. Fortunately I can still type, so here is why that sentiment is wrong and completely misses the various points behind yesterday’s Women’s March.

(1) Your math is wrong

You seem to think that if all those protesters had simply voted against Trump on election day, that Trump wouldn’t have won and they’d have nothing to complain about. First off, who says that the people in the marches are the ones who didn’t vote?

The low voter turnout is irrelevant. The people who marched are most likely the people who did vote. After all, if you’re too lazy to vote you’re probably too lazy to go to a march. While we will never be sure about the actual percentage of marchers who did or didn’t vote, assuming that even half of them were vote-skippers is naïve in the extreme (see above point about laziness).

Even with the most pessimistic of voter turnout numbers, that still leaves tens of millions of U.S. citizens that voted against Trump, many of whom we saw yesterday.

(2) Your assumption about sour grapes is wrong

Your gripe implies you think the point of the march was to complain about the outcome of the vote. No, that’s over and done with. Although many questions remain unanswered about the role of Russia, and the “popular vote vs. electoral college” question remains forever in purgatory, the objective of the Women’s March was not to complain about losing.

The objective was to state loudly and clearly that although the election is a fait accompli, there is much about Trump, the Trump cabinet nominees, and other aspects of the Trump Machine that is already worthy of protest. The lies are as thick as ever, the inauguration speech was downright frightening, the ethical problems with Trump, his family, and his nominees are eye-popping, and his presidency is only a day old.

People against Trump could see this coming. It is absolutely known among clear- and objective-thinking people (both democrats and republicans, as well as people from around the world) that the Trump presidency is a disaster in the making on multiple levels. The Women’s March was protesting the on-coming train wreck, not the vote count.

(3) You don’t understand democracy

You seem to think that democracy involves going out to vote every four years and then just rolling over and letting your elected dictator do whatever he or she wants. No. This is not the Soviet Union. This isn’t the Vatican. Democracy doesn’t end at the ballot box; that’s where it begins.

In a properly functioning democracy, those who are elected are not granted short-term dictatorships. They are accountable to the people from the day they enter office until the day they leave. The people speak through the media, through the various committees and organizations that actually run the country, and through direct action (read: protests).

That’s how it works. It doesn’t stop. Yesterday we saw millions of people come out and say “No.” These people are holding Trump accountable for what he says and what he does, and yesterday’s march sets the tone for the next four years.

If you are against Trump and against the Women’s March, then I don’t know how you can even see straight given the cognitive dissonance that must be ravaging your brain right now. Unless, that is, there is something in your view of democracy that makes you think it’s just a once-every-four-years inconvenience and in the interim you’re happy to be lorded over and dictated.

In Trump’s inauguration speech he said “we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.” Boom. That, right there, is the reason for the Women’s March on Washington (and its avatars around the world). The people standing up to the government, demanding to be heard.

(Published simultaneously on Facebook.)

The Squirt Gun: a Parable

True story: when I was seven years old I had a squirt gun that I really loved. It was a big yellow plastic thing that held about a litre of water and shot a stream long and true when the trigger was squeezed. One day my big brother — three years older — was teasing and annoying me for some reason that no longer matters. He wouldn’t let up, and my protests went unheard by anyone in a position to make him stop.

Finally, at the end of my rope, I threatened to smash my beloved squirt gun against a pile of rocks if he didn’t stop teasing me. Developmental psychologists will tell you that at seven years old, our sense of personal agency is very poorly developed, and we don’t have the intellectual or emotional capacity to realize that the world does not revolve around us. Destroying my squirt gun was a completely pointless threat, as I was the only one who would suffer; but in my immature and egocentric mind everyone would suffer if I suffered. Therefore, my brother would surely stop teasing me in order to avoid our mutual suffering.

He didn’t stop. So I threw my yellow plastic squirt gun against the rocks and watched in horror as it shattered. The episode concluded with me fleeing the scene, bawling hysterically. My brother didn’t suffer at all, and I suffered greatly.

My self-immolation was entirely without benefit. While it did put a short-term stop to my brother’s teasing, it was replaced by a greater suffering at the loss of my squirt gun and at my confusion and anguish over what had transpired.

And it didn’t stop my brother from teasing me the next time he was so inclined.

Whenever I hear about Quebec students boycotting classes as part of their ongoing protest against tuition increases, I think of this squirt gun story. It has nothing to do with my mixed feelings about the issue at hand, and nothing to do with the evening marches and other actions. It’s about the boycotting of classes.

Boycotting classes achieves nothing. It applies no pressure to anyone. There is no leverage at work. If the students were protesting the universities and CEGEPs themselves it would be different, or if they were protesting their teachers, or the curriculum. But they’re protesting the government. Staying out of school doesn’t put any pressure on the government. And it gives the appearance that what the students are fighting for – education – is not something they really care about very much.

The only people to suffer from the boycotting of classes are the students who miss their classes.

This is a bit of an old story now, and the boycott of classes seems to be evaporating as the fall semester begins and the election looms. Think of this blog as the sober second afterthought.

PS: For those of you who read too quickly and with only one eye on the text, this should not be seen as a refutation of the cause of the student protesters. It’s just a comment on this one tactic. There are many ways to make their point that actually does put pressure on their target (the government), such as the street protests that received so much news coverage. They could also protest directly at government offices, or engage in a handful of other direct actions. The point being that if you’re protesting against party A, you protest in a way that bothers party A. There is no point in bothering party B, especially when party B is yourself.

Update: Perhaps this story is not so old, as it seems the “strike” is picking up again now that the fall semester is starting.