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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

“Drive-By” Default: Lee Siegel’s Financial Advice Should Come as No Surprise

Chalk this one up to yet another New York Times liberal who wants others to pay his bills. (Paul Krugman must be proud.) On the 71st anniversary of what some considered the most important day of the twentieth century, a day where thousands of men, for the sake of others, paid with all that they had, the opinion pages of The New York Times ran the “brave” piece, “Why I Defaulted on My Student Loans.” (I suppose the author will receive the Bruce Jenner award for courage.)

The piece is by Lee Siegel. On what I’m sure is his well-guarded Wikipedia page, Mr. Siegel is described as writer and “cultural critic.” He is lauded as “one of the most eloquent and acid-tongued critics in the country” and hailed by The New York Times Book Review for his “drive-by brilliance.”

In describing his financial delinquency, Siegel begins by not remembering the institution which four-decades prior, seemingly lured him and his mother into signing away his life. Siegel began his college career at a “small private liberal arts college,” which, by the end of his sophomore year, required him to take out a second loan. After his father’s bankruptcy and his parents’ divorce, Siegel had to transfer to a state college in New Jersey. Ashamed that his academic career had taken such a turn and because he thought he “deserved better,” Siegel dropped out of the state school and went to work selling shoes.

To pursue his dream of being a writer, Siegel later entered Columbia University. Though not mentioned specifically in the piece, Wikipedia notes that in addition to his undergraduate degree from the Columbia University School of General Studies, Siegel obtained his master’s degree and Master of Philosophy from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. That’s three different colleges or universities and three degrees from a very expensive private university.

Also noticeably absent from The Times piece is any mention of income-producing work in the midst of his academic studies. In the significant fallout that was the result of what even the liberals at Vox called a “terrible idea,” Siegel said that though his debt was from the time he spent at all three schools he attended, his tuition at Columbia was paid for. Presumably then, the debt he incurred while at Columbia was to pay for living expenses.

One thing that Siegel does make clear in his op-ed is that after finding himself in the career that he wanted (a writer), which “opened a new life to me beyond my modest origins,” he is confronted with the fact that such a life was not going to allow him easily to get out from under the “crippling debt” he had amassed. Siegel bemoans the fact that “the education system was now going to call in its chits and prevent me from pursuing that new life, simply because I had the misfortune of coming from modest origins.”

Of course, as the title of Siegel’s piece makes clear, his solution to his “crippling debt” is simply not to repay it. He justifies his default by concluding that, though the “social arrangement” that is the current student loan industry might be legal, it is “not moral.”

I love it when liberals make an appeal to morality to justify their desires or behaviors. Not because I derive some perverse pleasure from their misguided arguments, but as we live our lives—going to school, going to work, attending church, entering into relationships, marrying, raising children, starting businesses, voting, making law, (participating in all of this, none of it, or somewhere in-between), and so on—the morality that directs such a life is profoundly important. And thus, I wonder, and get to ask: Upon what moral code is Siegel relying as he makes his arguments against the current student loan industry?

Is it the same moral code that tells him it’s okay to kill children in the womb, and that homosexual behavior is normal and healthy? Is it the same moral code that reveals that same-sex “marriage” is a right that any two (or three or more) consenting adults should have? Is it the same moral code that says that mankind is warming the planet and that governments across the world must decisively act to save us from climate devastation? Of course it is, and thus no one should be surprised at Siegel’s inane monetary moralizing.

This is especially the case for his liberal cohorts, as Siegel’s financial advice is right in line with the rest of liberal ideology. In fact, through one means or another, for decades across America, liberals have essentially preached the same financial message as Siegel: pay little attention to how much you borrow; pursue your “dreams” at all costs; look to the government to provide you with as much sustenance for life as possible; when that isn’t enough, demand that someone else be taxed so that you can have more. (Siegel, of course, advocates for a “universal education tax that would make higher education affordable” and longs for the government to “guarantee a college education.”)

My wife and I are both over 10 years younger than Mr. Siegel, and between us we have five college degrees. We both worked as we attended college and graduated with very little debt. In fact, as I’ve noted before, through applying the Christian principles of money management (as taught by the late-great Larry Burkett), Michelle and I have lived the last 16 years of our lives completely debt free.

This includes owning our home (never having a mortgage), always paying cash for vehicles (though always buying used), educating our four children in a private homeschool academy (in addition to piano lessons, karate, and the like), and so on. For the most part, all of this is done on a teacher’s salary. We budget, we save, we invest, we give, we coupon, and so on. Most of all, we realize that all we have is the result of what was given to us by our Creator, and we are simply trying to be good stewards.

Like Mr. Siegel (shockingly, he’s writing a memoir about money), we’ve (mostly Michelle) written a book detailing our financial story, which includes a great deal about debt (though we recommend you always repay what you borrow), and the three-and-a-half-year process of building of our home debt free. (See a couple of videos on our financial story here.) Our book is on my site, Amazon, and other online retailers.

As we discuss debt in our book, we make special note of student loan debt, and how so many Americans have become far too comfortable with large amounts of debt early in their lives. No doubt that there needs to be reform, financial and otherwise, in America’s system of higher education. In many cases, college in the U.S. is far too expensive, and far too much deception exists about what a college education can do for an individual. However, most of this corruption is due to the efforts of big government liberals.

Thanks in large part to liberal policies in financing education, in recent decades we’ve seen massive increases in the cost of higher education. As Mona Charen noted last year, “For decades, politicians have bought votes with promises to make college ‘more affordable.’ They passed legislation with names such as ‘The College Cost Reduction and Access Act’ (link is mine) and the ‘Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act’ (link is mine). There are Pell Grants and Stafford Loans, and much more besides.”

Unsurprisingly, as Charen also notes, such subsidizing has led to an enormous rise in the tuition and fees charged by colleges and universities. According to Anya Kamenetz in $1 Trillion and Rising, “Since 1978, the cost of college tuition has increased faster than the consumer price index in every single year. That’s not true for any other item in the basket of consumer goods.”

And as I noted in 2012, “The cost of tuition and fees has increased faster than healthcare costs. According to the Department of Education, if these trends continue, by 2016 the cost of a public college will have more than doubled in just 15 years. University of Tennessee law professor, Glenn Harlan Reynolds, in his book The Higher Education Bubble, reports that, with the easy availability of federal funds, tuition and fees have gone up over 440% in the last 30 years.”

We hear almost nothing from liberals today, whether politicians, or pundits like Siegel, that would stem the tide of such increases. In other words, just as is the case with campus sexual assault, when it comes to the cost of college, Siegel is bemoaning what his politics have helped to create.

(See this column at American Thinker.)

Copyright 2015, Trevor Grant Thomas
At the Intersection of Politics, Science, Faith, and Reason.
Trevor and his wife Michelle are the authors of: Debt Free Living in a Debt Filled World


  1. Thanks for the links. There are many adults taking karate at the studio where our kids take lessons. Although I don't see anyone like your friend, I can't say that I'm too surprised. And yes, I agree, much of today's higher education system is "a racket."

    P.S.: Here are videos showing each of our three kids who take karate at a tournament:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OqOXLSfLRbA (Caroline is in pink.)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LsnkwjQka78 (Jesse is at the far end. The 2nd match is a bit of a "scrimmage" with a kid who had no one in his division to fight.)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B8hevLJjhn4 (Caleb is in red.)

  2. You should be very proud to have these kids developing their skills. I imagine you have to sell a lot of lemonade to pay for those classes. As for my friend in Colorado, after selling him all kinds of crazy martial arts weapons, the instructor suggested he should also consider paying to attend festivals in California and even China. I think my friend finally had to draw the line there due to exorbitant costs. As Yogurt said in the movie Spaceballs: "Merchandising, merchandising, -where the real money from the movie is made."

    While the physical lessons are certainly important, there is a mental aspect as well. I spoke with an instructor who suggested the greatest benefit of his classes was developing the skills of self discipline, self control, and the ability to successfully manage adversarial social interactions to steer them away from escalation toward violence. He called that developing wisdom.

    By the way, I hope you have the kids in other sports too like little league, basketball, or golf. -Just for that well rounded competitive sports experience. Enjoy these moments. Before you know it they will be sending you videos of their own kids in karate classes and you'll wonder where the time went.

  3. Our two older boys did a couple of years of little league baseball. Our middle son and our youngest son are doing a baseball camp next week. I prefer the team sports (especially football, baseball, and basketball). This is mostly because that's what I grew up with.