Category Archives: Current Affairs

Student Loans and STEM

Blog 21 Oct 10 student debt

Random thoughts generated by observing all the PYTs (pretty young things) in the grocery store on a Sunday evening:

How many of the people just graduated from universities are hamstrung by their student loans? Anecdotally, most students graduating from college are saddled with about $20,000 worth of debt. If they’ve just graduated from law school, or earned an MBA, or gotten a Ph.d. in the sciences or liberal arts, it is likely double that. At a minimum, they have to figure out a way to come up with about $300 every month, for at least 5 years.

Easy enough if they are computer science majors, or hard science types whose diploma is in high demand. Not so much for your basic English Lit. major, or, even worse, those gender studies folks. For the latter, it’s likely a struggle to find any job, let alone a job that comes with a salary sufficient to meet the debt obligation.

So, for a lot of them, it’s a future that doesn’t include a shiny new car, or saving for a few years to accumulate a down payment for that first house. No, it’s back to the parents, or slumming with a few room-mates in that edgy part of town where the rents are low enough for a group effort to pay the landlord. Last year, the Washington Post reported that the total outstanding student loan debt was $865 Billion.

Every year, our institutions of higher learning churn out thousands of graduates whose educational achievement, for the most part, doesn’t promise a future of movement up the social ladder.

It is such a waste.

Here’s what I think. First, instead of wasting more money on crony capitalism, investing in solar panel plants, and lending money to Brazilians so they can sell oil to China, let’s write off existing student loans, subject to a few simple rules. Give each debtor a 2-1 tax credit for ever dollar invested in short term Treasuries. Suspend debt repayment while saving is occurring. Once the debtor has accumulated sufficient savings and tax credits, write off the debt. Allow the student to transfer the accumulated funds to savings program created for the establishment of a 10% down payment on a house or condo. I don’t think I have to spell out the benefits to our economy of such a program.

STEM2

Second, going forward, student loans would only be offered to students enrolled in a STEM degree. Remember, STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Those degrees just happen to have the highest starting salaries for new employees, represent the hardest degrees at most universities, and are those programs most needed for the US to continue as a dominant player in the world economy.

Want to major in gender studies, women’s contemporary literary issues, or African-American history? Feel free, but don’t expect a dime from the US taxpayer. Because you likely won’t be able to pay your debt, and you most likely won’t be able to find a job to support yourself. Which means the degree is essentially worthless. And that is a luxury this country cannot afford any longer.

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Damn Lies

My progressive friends, for the most part, are happy to point to graphs and tables which reveal that the reason for the huge deficits created in the last three years lies at the feet of the much hated George W. Bush, and before him, the Dark Lord, Ronald Reagan.

My conservative friends have, at their fingertips, equally compelling charts, trendlines, and datasets that lay the blame squarely on Barack Obama and his compliant side-kick, Congressional democrats, who wish to take more money out of the pockets of the earners and give it, in larger chunks, to the non-earners.

While the two sides fiddle, Rome burns.

It really doesn’t matter now who spent the money that our country doesn’t have anymore. We can blame the recession, which has reduced GDP to the point that the economy cannot pay for our future expenditures, or we can blame the tax cuts that reduced federal revenues during these perilous times. From this sofa, the situation is two sides of the same coin. That is, no matter how it is sliced, we tried to have it both ways. We wanted to drive that Cadillac without making the payments, and our buddies in Congress gave us the keys.

The only statistics that matter now are the ones that tell us that we cannot sustain this level of spending. The only question remaining is the point in time when the people we elected to give us anything we wanted finally realize that they cannot fulfill their promises. After that, the only question is whether our nation will have enough time, and the national will, to solve the problem.

Promises are going to have to be broken, either voluntarily, and in a controlled fashion, or involuntarily, with the subtlety of a dull knife. We cannot remain on this path.

The Sky Over Washington

The politicians in Washington are getting nervous. The level of discourse, never high to begin with, is dropping to new lows. Senatorial courtesy, a treasured myth of the chamber’s residents, appears to be nothing more than a lie. The President can’t seem to keep his famous cool, instead resorting to the personal attacks that are increasingly common in his public uttterances. The Secretary of the Treasury tells us that the Congress has to increase the debt limit by an amount sufficient to cover additional deficit spending through November, 2012, apparently so our elected officials can pretend the problem does not exist. The big banks are still to big to fail, home sales continue to decline, and the unemployment rolls continue to grow. Just last week saw Cisco announce the layoff of 13,000 employees, and NASA is dropping the hammer on upwards of 30,000 of its employees with the cessation of the Space Shuttle. Things are very tense in Washington….

 

 

The Last Chapter?

At 5:56 AM this morning I watched the Atlantis touch down for the final time. As a child of the 60s and 70s, I grew up with the space program. I was a callow 16 year old trudging through the mountains of North Carolina with Outward Bound when our team leader told us that we had landed on the moon. I remember, like yesterday, driving down the highway when the shuttle exploded as it climbed toward orbit. I remember the men cavorting on the surface of the moon, swinging golf clubs, driving recklessly in their lunar rovers, and bobbing over the dusty surface while singing and conducting their scientific experiments.

And, now, no more. No trips to low earth orbit, no plans to revisit the moon or make an attempt to get to Mars. We have taken our eyes away from the stars, with all of the attendant hopes and dreams, to stare at the mundane. In focusing on the near, we have lost our vision.

A sad, sad day.

UPDATE:

Bloggers and media types have taken to the internet today to praise the end of the shuttle program, noting that other space strivers like the Russians and Chinese shelved their shuttle designs due to the extreme cost and limited utility of the model. They observe that it is appropriate that private enterprise steps into the breach, and that efficiency and entrepeneurial spirit will provide the next burst of activity. Having had some time to reflect on that position, I can’t disagree.

So, come on Bert Rutan, et al! Let’s go to Mars and mine the rare minerals and make a huge profit!

Asymmetry

Without assigning blame, or naming names, and without the advice of an attorney, I’d like to point out the following:

1. Elderly grandmother, aged 81, takes her two great-grandchildren to a local retailer and leaves them in the car during a very hot day. In her defense, her attorney notes, she left the keys in the car with the kids so that they could turn on the air conditioning if they got too hot. Of course, concerned citizens observed the kids, called police, and Nana is put in jail until her family, of limited means, can raise the $50,000 bail. The children were not harmed.

2. Local cycling enthusiast, riding to work on a busy expressway, is hit from behind by a truck in the bike lane and hurled over the railing to the ground, some 40 feet below. The accident is fatal. After an investigation, the driver of the truck is charged with a minor traffic infraction, the maximum fine of which is $113 and 2 points on his driver’s license.

On the one hand, a person placed other people in a position where there was the potential for danger, without actually causing harm. On the other, a person actually harmed another person, without the intention to do so. And yet, society applies wildly unequal punishments.

Asymmetry.

 

The Post Office

Like its first cousin, Amtrak, the United States Postal Service is battling to stay alive. Lately, news reports have focused on the $8 Billion loss the post office faces this year and management’s fevered attempts to wring costs from the system. The latest idea does not impress the Overlords in Congress.

In its latest bid to shave costs, the Postal Service has said it will stop contributing to the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS), a move it says will save roughly $800 million this fiscal year.

But Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) said the mail carrier’s move was just a drop in the bucket. Issa and Collins both noted that the Postal Service is expected to run a deficit of more than $8 billion this year.

Issa, who was troubled by a recent contract for the postal workers union, said the service’s financial situation “would not be tolerated in a private company.”

“USPS needs fundamental structural and financial reforms to cut costs and protect taxpayers from an expensive bailout,” the chairman of the House Oversight Committee added. 

Representatives for USPS have said they are not seeking a bailout, with the service declaring Wednesday that it had reduced spending by $12 billion over the last four fiscal years — getting rid of 110,000 positions in the process.

In March, the mail carrier — which does not get tax dollars for operating expenses — said it was eliminating 7,500 jobs as part of a push for $750 million in yearly savings. 

But the Postal Regulatory Commission has also said that the USPS was overestimating how much money it would save by scrapping Saturday delivery. Collins and other lawmakers have said that change would disproportionately hurt rural Americans.

When I read this report, the first thought that occured was to ask why the USPS is losing money, laying off employees, and generally acting like an ossified, union-based sinkhole when ALL IT DOES IS DELIVER JUNK MAIL!

Most of my bills are delivered via e-mail, as are the corresponding payments. Cover letters and resumes from the last job hunt were similarly handled. Even meeting notices, doctors appointments, and social invitations are now delivered via the InterTube. The vast majority of items deposited in my earthly mailbox are junk – bulk mail flyers, credit card solicitations, and otherwise impersonal envelopes addressed to "Current Resident". Clearly, given the quantity of unwanted mailings, the post office is not charging the paper spammers enough to deliver their product.

Who needs snail mail?

Apparently the majority of the postal service’s customers are the junk mailers – the spammers of snail mail. And, in the rate structure of the USPS, guess who pays the lowest rates? This is idiocy, I tell you.

In the natural world, this beast would likely have been rendered extinct in the early years of this century, freeing up the niche for something else that can survive and prosper in this environment. In our world of political cronyism, however, evolution is regarded as the enemy of entrenched interests and change is fought with every tool at the disposal of the vested interests.

I predict a collision in the next year or two….