The Student Loan Rip Off

I have been thinking with increasing frequency about the scam of student debt and the incredible bubble we have created in our society by pushing young adults into universities regardless of career path and without regard for the process of education. We are saddling our twenty something year old workers with thousands of dollars of debt for degrees that are worth less and less, lining the pockets of for-profit businesses and lending sharks in the process.

In the 1950’s and 60’s a college degree did seem to be some kind of guarantee in life. Only 5% of people 25 and over had a college degree in 1950. In 2013 more than 40% of people 25 and over have an associate or bachelor’s. Sixty years ago, getting a degree after high school put you in an elite category. Today, almost half of the 25 and over job force has one.

And while the exclusivity of a degree from a college or university has worn off, the cost of the degree has increased exponentially. People are further into debt for college than they are for credit cards and car payments.

As this article shows, all that debt is not paying off. People are spending more and more for education and getting less and less.

Unsurprisingly: Student loan companies, colleges and universities are all spending more money bribing our government.

What we end up with is a system where 18 year olds are lent tens of thousands of dollars for degrees that are increasingly unlikely to get them jobs. The only reason banks will loan that much money with no collateral to these students is this: The government guarantees the loans. Students can never declare bankruptcy, they can’t avoid repaying, the government and the banks will follow these individuals for the rest of their lives taking as much money as they can until the debt and the fees and the interest have all been repaid.

Matt Taibbi summed up the tragedy and ugly corruption of this system here.

If you watched John Oliver this week, then you can agree with my conclusion: While we tackle this issue of what to do about the nasty decrease in the benefit-to-cost ratio of going to a university, we should all do our best to stop people we know from giving any money at all to for-profit-colleges.

The Five Principles for a Congress of the People

As long as the American government is malfunctioning and the $3.6trillion it spends is being channeled by the whim and desire of a tiny, tiny minority of Americans – our future is in jeopardy. (0.05% of Americans fund 86% of elections)

We start with the House of Representatives, we return this to the people and make it function as it was intended.  This is the way forward, this is the path to a better tomorrow for us and our children.

These five principles are designed to foster civil service in our Congress.  We need good folks doing the will of the American people in our House again.

Principle 1: Move away from the Republican and Democratic parties.  They’ve become something much more like large corporations than political parties and they are designed to make money and keep power instead of doing what is right for the American people.

Principle 2: More candidates who take small donations.  This means you, as a voter, have to go out and find them.  And if you’re thinking about running for Congress on small donations to fight corruption: Do it!

Principle 3: No Pac or Super Pac money.  If a candidate in your area is accepting this kind of dirty money: Don’t vote for them.  Make sure you cast your vote for a representative that is clean. 

Principle 4: Real people in our Congress.  One of the biggest problems we face is an insulated and detached permanent political class in Washington DC.  We need real Americans to run for Congress, win, spend up to 8 years in office, and then leave public service and go back to whatever it was they were doing before they were elected.  No lobbying job, no Washington reporting job.  Just back to work.  Let the next independent, small money candidate come in and do their years of service.

Principle 5:  Hold people accountable.  Too often our current corrupted Representatives get themselves off the hook with a bribe they’ve taken or a lobbying job they’ve secured using the power we’ve given them as representatives of US.  Our Congress returns to the people only when we’ve nailed down the offenders and made them answer for their crimes.

Voting in San Francisco

Most of us skipped the June 3rd primary this year.  About 30% of San Francisco voters turned out and we got a bad election.  Again.

Out of 8 candidates for Congress, two are put through to the November election.  Our two?  Nancy Pelosi (Democrat) and John Dennis (Republican).

This means we won’t have a race for Congress in November, 2014. Nancy Pelosi has certainly lost touch with the American people, but it doesn’t matter.  John Dennis is a Republican and it will be a cold day in hell before a Republican represents the people of San Francisco in Congress.

So Pelosi wins.  She wins without doing anything to win.  She wins by default, because she raised a lot of money for the Democrats, because she engages in the blathering, incessant, crippling nonsense that passes for politics in our country these days, and because she’s connected.  Boy is she connected in that permanent DC political establishment.

But is this good for the people of San Francisco?  We are a progressive town with progressive values, we are innovators and demonstrators and integrated sustainability experts.  We have the finest city in the country with really intelligent people doing incredible things with their lives.  We are leaders with strong values and an important vision of the future.

So why don’t we have an innovative, progressive, forward thinking representative?

It seems to me that we’ve become complacent over the years.  Like much of the country we are just sick of the incredibly stupid game our political leaders play and we’ve just given up.  Less than a third of us took the time to punch a ticket last month.

But let’s think about this: Our government is broken.  Our government is crippled by corruption.  One of the big ring-leaders of our corrupt and broken system pretends to represent our people and with all of our progressive values and our brave initiatives, we just skip elections and put our district on cruise control?

Is this the will of the people of San Francisco?

I don’t believe it is.  I believe that our people want to make a difference in this nation of ours, that we want to have a voice and that our voice won’t say the same silly things that are always being said, but will say something real.  We want a voice that will stand up and say “Enough!  Enough of all this corrupt bullshit!  You are supposed to be public servants!  We are supposed to be represented by our Congress, but you’re ruining it!  Your corruption is tearing this country apart!”

 

 

This November we will get Pelosi again.  Without the effort of a campaign, without having to go through the motion of pretending to promise anything to the people of San Francisco, without having to account for the widespread corruption in the Democratic and Republican parties, the people of San Francisco just maintain the status quo.

But what about in 2016?  Sure we may have missed an opportunity to take the lead in the fight against corruption this time, but wonderful news: We go again on June 7th, 2016.  Come out and vote June 7th 2016, my fellow San Franciscans.  And when you vote on that day, vote for an independent.  Let’s have a real election in November, 2016.  Let’s have a chance at a real representative for San Francisco.

Oh, and make it easy on yourself: Register to vote by mail.  That way you don’t have to burn your lunch break or hustle after work.

The Future of Religion

Today I am reading “The Evolution of God,” by Robert Wright.  It is a compelling work, illustrating the hypothetical roots of religiosity by detailing the known characteristics of primitive man’s beliefs in the supernatural.  An interesting point he makes: The transition from basic hunter-gatherer tribes (40-50 people each) to chiefdoms (1,000 – 10,000 people each) required a previously amoral religion to begin offering more moral structure for social cohesion.  When there are 40-50 people in your tribe, stealing or cheating or violence is unlikely: You have to live with those people, there’s nowhere to hide.  In a chiefdom of several thousand you can commit petty crime, stealing for instance, and sneak off.

“In this phase of cultural evolution – with personal policing having lost its charm but with government not yet taking up the slack – a supplementary force of social control was called for.  Religion seems to have responded to the call.  Whereas religion in hunter-gatherer societies didn’t have much of a moral dimension, religion in the Polynesian chiefdoms did: it systematically discouraged antisocial behavior.” (Pg. 55)

Wright goes on to show how we can see the roots of our modern religious attitude in many of the primitive rites and beliefs and he shows how these early religions likely evolved into our most popular brands today. One of his most compelling chapters is Survival of the Fittest Christianity, in which he shows the evolution of the Christian faith from its Roman precursors and how it became strong.  In the first century AD there were many versions of Christianity and much fighting among them.  Eventually the weaker strains were killed off, leaving only the strongest version to go forth and multiply itself.

Most interestingly, he concludes the chapter with what seems like a fondness for the Christian attitude: “It may sound paradoxical to say that a Jesus who exists only in imagination is the Logos, or anything else, made flesh.  But when Christians revere Christ as they conceive him, they may – according to the theology of the Logos – be revering something authentically divine…when Christians conjure up their image of Jesus, putting flesh around the message of love, the word, — the Logos – is in a sense being made flesh…And maybe worshipping a divinely sponsored illusion is about as close as people can get to seeing the face of God.” (Pg. 302)

Most compelling is Wright’s assertion that religion, having adapted itself over millennia, can adapt itself again.  While religion is valuable for social cohesion, he worries about the tendency of the claim to ‘specialness’ of each system of fixed beliefs.

“Is it crazy to imagine a day when the Abrahamic faiths renounce not only their specific claims to specialness, but even the claim to specialness of the whole Abrahamic enterprise?  Are such radical changes in God’s character imaginable?  Changes this radical have already happened, again and again.  Another transformation would be nothing new.” (Pg. 442)

In an age in which rapid technological development and radical expansion of the boundaries of communication have created the need for reassessment of our older and outdated modes of thinking, the implication of the possibility for the evolution of religion is refreshing and much less harsh than the call for the relatively unlikely end of organized worship.

Happening This Week

First: Across the country the movement against corruption in politics is gaining steam.  In California, dozens of activists marched on the state capital to demand political leaders acknowledge that our system has been corrupted.  That same day the California Senate passed AJR-1, making California the second state to call for a constitutional convention to address the problem of money in politics. The group of marchers, who began their journey in Los Angeles, plans to stay in the capitol until their demands have been met.  So far the police have arrested more than a dozen members, mirroring state efforts in New York last month and North Carolina this week.  Meanwhile, more than 50,000 protesters gathered on Saturday in the middle of London only to be ignored by the BBC and other major press agencies.

Second: The World Cup.  When the United States isn’t playing I root for Uruguay.  Sure, they have a weird player who bites people (the Uruguay fans still love him) however Uruguay is the birthplace of one of my favorite writers, Eduardo Galeano, and boasts the so-called “World’s Poorest President,” Jose Mujica.  Though Mujica was a Marxist guerrilla at one time, I admire him as one of the very few who do not expect great wealth to come with increased power.  As president he refuses to live in the presidential mansion, gives most of his salary to charity and when called ‘the poorest president in the world,’ Mujica says he is not poor.  He says: “A poor person is not someone who has little but one who needs infinitely more, and more and more. I don’t live in poverty, I live in simplicity. There’s very little that I need to live.”  This sentiment echoes the anti-Fifa protests across Brazil which sometimes use the slogan “Your party in the stadiums aren’t worth the tears shed in the slums.”

Conclusion: It would be nice to live in a world where you can’t purchase democratically elected leaders because they see themselves as public servants and don’t want your money.  Short of this utopia: Join 99Rise and their efforts to reclaim our democracy here.

How Libertarians Make Fascism Real

I’ve been concerned for quite some time about the mislabeling of Obama as a communist by the right and far right wing of the United States.

Those who make these gross charges miss two very important points:

First, the principles of communism are designed to help the poor, not enrich the government.  We have taken it for granted that when you give the government total power, it stops serving the poor or leveling the playing field and moves into a mode of hyper-self-enrichment.  Marx didn’t write about a system whereby Stalin gets to do whatever he wants and have as much power as he can grab.  It is simply that the idealism of Marx was twisted by Stalin to do just that.  Communism began as an idealistic attempt to lift those impoverished by the standing system into a relatively egalitarian state.

Which leads us to our second point: Obama has done more to attack poor and middle income people in the US than most presidents in recent memory.  While some look at his moves to expand government power as communist, they would be better described as fascist.  For instance, when he lifted a ten year ban on collecting food stamp over-payments in 2010 he gave governments across the country a club with which to beat poor people in order to excise more taxes.  (The Divide, Taibbi, pg. 341)  Instead of going after the bankers who ripped off pensions and defrauded municipalities, governments looking for cash began harassing and attacking poor people who may have been overpaid money as far back as thirty years ago for sums as small as 70 bucks.  Ohio alone made more than 22,000 attempts to get money back from poor people, many of whom may not have been overpaid at all and most of whom were overpaid by government error, not by their own fault. Instead of going after the millions and billions ripped off by corrupt bankers (bankers Obama plays golf with), Obama opened the door for the government to attack the poor people a hundred dollars at a time.

Hundreds of instances of Obama using government to protect wealthy criminals and attack poor people wash over the internet.  Even the mirage of Obamacare, which is labeled as some kind of communistic land grab, has one concrete result — a supreme court decision which granted the government the authority to punish citizens for the new crime of not purchasing health insurance.

This is not communism.  This is fascism.  Fascism is the enforcement of the big wins of the big winners in the free market by the government.  The libertarian movement and especially the anarcho-capitalists are to fascism as the ideas of Marx were to communism.  You start with an ideal, an unfortunately unattainable ideal, and you push the pendulum much too far in that ideological direction.  In Russia the radical communists won battles against the dysfunctional monarchy in a revolution.  In the US the Libertarians seem to be winning battles against the dysfunctional government bumbling our own future down the drain.

The next thing you know, instead of workers owning the means of production as Lenin had promised, they had Stalin.  Instead of the ultimate freedom to exchange as we see fit in a utopia spared the creativity stifling pressure of government, we will have fascism.  If we go far to the right, no matter how well intended, we will create a brutal regime which uses the incredibly idealistic goals of the libertarians to stomp on the faces of the vast majority of our American citizens for the of benefit a tiny, wealthy minority.

In both cases the pursuit of an unattainable ideal by a motivated and energized group ends in an Orwellian dystopia.  We watched it happen in Russia.  Must we watch it happen in the United States?

A Statement of the Problem

From The Divide, by Matt Taibbi (Buy it here)

 

“It turns out that we’re too lazy to govern ourselves, so we’ve put society on bureaucratic autopilot – and autopilot turns out to be a steel trap for losers and a greased pipeline to money, power, and impunity for winners.

“This goes far beyond the of-quoted liberal cliche about how we now have ‘two Americas,’ one for the rich and one for the poor, with different sets of laws and different levels of punishment (or more to the point, nonpunishment) for each.  The rich have always gotten breaks and the poor have always had to swim upstream.  The new truth is infinitely darker and more twisted.

“The new truth is a sci-fi movie, a dystopia.  And in this sci-fi world the issues aren’t justice and injustice, but biology and mortality.  We have a giant, meat-grinding bureaucracy that literally alters the physical makeup of its citizens, systematically grinding down the losers into a smaller, meeker, lower race of animal while aggrandizing the winners, making them bigger than life, impervious, super-people.

“Again, the poor have always faced the sharp end of the stick.  And the rich have always fought ferociously to protect their privilege, not just in America but everywhere.

“What’s different now is that these quaint old inequities have become internalized in that ‘second government’ – a vast system of increasingly unmanageable bureaucracies, spanning both the public and private sectors.  These inscrutable, irrational structures, crisscrossing back and forth between the worlds of debt and banking and law enforcement, are growing up organically around the pounding twin impulses that drive modern America: burning hatred of all losers and the poor, and breathless, abject worship of the rich, even the talentless and undeserving rich.

“No one is managing these bureaucracies anymore.  They are managing us.  Just as corporations are brainless machines for making profits, this sweepingly complex system of public-private bureaucracies that constitutes our modern politics is just a giant, brainless machine for creating social inequity.

“It mechanically, automatically keeps the poor poor, devours money from the middle class, and sends it upward.  And because it’s fueled by the irrepressibly rising vapor of our darkest hidden values, it attacks people without money, particularly nonwhite people, with a weirdly venomous kind of hatred, treating them like they’re already guilty of something, which of course they are – namely, being that which we’re all afraid of becoming.”

 

The only thing I can think finishing this book is this: We have to start voting for real representatives.  We have to vote for new leadership.  We have to see through the nonsense of the Republican v Democrat playfight, the MSNBC v FOX bullshit that fosters this nightmare. We need some real citizens in congress.

On Education

On the Vergara Trial:

People across the country are upset, reasonably and unreasonably at times, about the fact that it is often nearly impossible to fire bad teachers.  And we do need to make it easier to fire bad teachers, I agree with this.

Unfortunately much of the rhetoric around failing schools and the shouts of CRISIS! come from a number of groups who are looking to capitalize off of the privatization of public education.  They talk about reform and firing bad teachers, but they mean to make money by dismantling public schools.  This is very dangerous for our country.

The Vergara trial,which was in the news this week, targeted what is often mislabeled as ‘tenure’ for public school teachers.

An important note – public school teachers in elementary, middle and high school positions don’t get tenure.  University professors get tenure.  Public school teachers achieve permanent status after a period dictated by contract.  I think that this is an important distinction to make because permanent status is something common in all public employment.  Attorneys working for the state and law enforcement officials have job protections under something much more similar to teachers than to college professors.  Calling this a discussion of ‘teacher tenure’ is inaccurate.

In terms of the trial: You can read about the trial itself here and here and the opinions of the group running the trial, Students Matter, here. The plaintiffs in the case argued that bad teachers not being fired violated student’s rights, while teacher advocacy groups argued that there is much more to the picture than just teacher job protections.  The judge ruled for the plaintiffs, saying that teacher protections are unconstitutional because they violate children’s rights to an adequate education.

However, just firing bad teachers is not going to change the face of education.  As the New York Times argued this week the biggest problem we have in the US is recruiting and retaining top tier candidates in teaching.  What people don’t seem to understand is this: There isn’t a line of highly qualified teachers standing outside in the hallway, just waiting to take over these tough jobs in LA Unified, or anywhere in the country.  Firing off the bad teachers doesn’t improve education.

If you want to look only at education and not the bigger picture (we have a problem with how our country treats poor people), then at the least what we need to do is make the profession of teaching as honorable and desirable as we like to say we think it is.  Raising salaries, recruiting top candidates, changing the way our society views teaching and making the job more attractive will improve education in a way that simply firing bad teachers can’t.

 

The Sneakiest Among Us

Reading The Divide by Matt Taibbi I’m reminded of a truth in this struggle that is often lost.  While our country succumbs to an oligarchy of the most sinister mediocrity we can remember, it is important to see that this isn’t a fight between poor people and rich people.  This is a fight between the vast majority of Americans, something like 99.95% of us, and a very small minority who work to corrupt and manipulate the government, the market, our future and our way of life for their own personal gain.

The folks who own the Republican and Democrat corporations, the individuals and groups that spend time buying up congresspeople and who have our presidents and judges in their pockets, these aren’t just wealthy people.  These are wealthy, corrupt, mean spirited people.

Whether you make $3,000 a year or $30,000 a year or $300,000 doesn’t tell the story.  The question is: How far do you go to subvert our democracy with whatever money you have?

Certainly it is the case that a person making very little money will have a hard time influencing politics with it (a low threshold for corruption is spending around $5,000/year) but that should not confuse us as to who is who in this battle for the future of our country.

Wealthy, poor, successful, defeated, whatever race or sex or orientation or religious background or belief system you come from there are only two questions: 1. Do you use large amounts of money to buy our politicians?  2. Are you a judge, congressperson or president who consistently favors that wealthy minority over the rest of our American people?

I can answer that I won’t sell our people down the river for power or profit.  I’m sure you aren’t looking to buy your way to sustained success or inordinate access to power (99.95% of the time anyway).  We are on the same team.  Time to throw off this fake democracy and build the functional governance we deserve.

TV = Not Evil?

Two good things on TV this week:

First, for anyone who hasn’t watched the interview with Edward Snowden on NBC you can find it here.  Snowden talks about how he burned down his own life in order to deliver information to journalists.  He does not demonize the NSA, only a few top ranking officials who are taking power not granted to them.  My major takeaways: Snowden was a high ranking operative for the CIA, not some kid hacker, and he is much more intelligent than I was made to understand.  We need to do more to protect people with the courage to come forward when our government is doing wrong, especially with a president like Obama who is bloodthirsty when it comes to whistle-blowers.

Secondly, John Stewart is on a roll.  I’ve been critical of him in the past for giving Democrats a pass on his show, but earlier this year he absolutely stomped Pelosi into the ground (skip to 6:50 for embarassment, continue to extended interview for pure ugly) and this week he worked over Obama appointed secretary of treasury and famed jerk Timothy Geithner.  (The extended interview isn’t worth 40 minutes unless you like watching Geithner squirm and make excuses for screwing over the American people while protecting the banks.)

But before we get ahead of ourselves: The internet is abuzz with criticism of the way NBC edited Snowden’s arguments.  Some point out that NBC did everything it could to distance itself from Snowden leading up to the interview.  Well, what can we expect?  It is just TV after all.