Student Debt: Yours, Mine, and Ours (concluded)

          I know how concern about student debt affects life decisions. It had determined my law school choice and how I lived, which was frugally, trying to avoid any further loans. Even so, the issue of student debt was thrust at me earlier than I had expected. During my second law school year, I got a draft notice. I was able to push back the induction date until I had completed the school year. In that era of the Vietnam War, I had many concerns about going into the military. Among the minor ones was loan repayments.

          The undergraduate payments would be deferred if I remained in law school, and the school told me that it would also wait to get its money back until after the army, willing to be stiffed if I became a stiff in a rice paddy. The law school, however, was not so kind and told me that once I left their institution, no matter what the reason, I would have to start paying back my debt. I was both pissed and amused. My memory is that I was to get paid $110 a month as a private, but $40 a month would have to go to the law school. As it turned out, I did not have to find out how I might fare on $70 a month. As I have related elsewhere on the blog, I eventually got a medical deferment and was not inducted. (See post of March 15, 2017, “Big Government Makes Killers” Search Results for “”Big Government”” – AJ’s Dad (

          When I finished law school, though, I went into low-paying positions—first a civil liberties fellowship and then into the public defender’s office. Nevertheless, I had to start repaying the student loans. I owed $80 a month, which might not sound like much, but it was almost 20% of my monthly take-home during the fellowship and remained a heavy burden when I joined the Legal Aid Society.

          Sometimes the spouse and I discuss when it was that we first felt financially secure, and we both agree it was not until we had enough money to know we could make it to end of the month and pay the rent. We scrimped. One time, invited by some friends for dinner, we debated whether the free dinner was worth the four subway fares it would take to get there and back. Eventually, we attained what we considered financial independence, the result of a pay raise and the end of one of my loans. The college debt was less than the law school one, so we paid it off sooner. The removal of $40 from the recurring debit side of the ledger was a big event and a reason we did not have to worry about money every single moment. A few years later, the law school obligation was retired, and the disappearance of those monthly $40 payments almost made us feel we were middle class.

          When I no longer had student debt, I gave the topic little thought for a long time, even when I went into law school teaching. But as my academic career continued, I began to consider the financing of higher education more. The law school in which I taught was a private, tuition-dependent institution. As the costs of the school soared, I realized that most of the students could afford it only if they took out loans. I started asking students about their debt. The figures were astounding. Fifteen years ago, it went from $90,000 to over $200,000.

          I realized that I had little idea about their ability to service such loans because I knew little about the career paths of our typical graduates. Like many academics, I might hear about the outstanding successes but knew little about the average graduate.

          There was little data about our grads, but there were good studies of the legal profession as a whole. The initial salaries of law school graduates did not fall into a single bell-shaped curve as it did in other professions. Instead, starting pay was grouped into two bell-shaped curves that were far apart. The modal point for one group was $160,000 and the rest of the beginning attorneys were grouped around $60,000. The high-earning graduates were corporate attorneys going into large law firms; everyone else fell into the lower bracket. The corporate jobs were overwhelmingly staffed from the elite law schools, and my school certainly did not fall into that category. Nineteen out of twenty of our grads were headed to that lower range. Of course, they could expect a higher income as they became more experienced, but the sociologists of the profession also showed that few of those in the lower bell curve would ever jump into that higher group. Starting with lower pay, our grads would forever have incomes less than those other attorneys.

           I was in the teaching business for those who would not get the high-paying jobs. The corporate law firms were not going to have problems hiring smart, well-trained lawyers, but I was especially interested in a better criminal justice system, and I wanted a hand in preparing competent prosecutors and defenders where starting jobs were at best at the $60,000 point. So I compared the starting criminal justice salaries with what I earned in my first positions some thirty years before. To my surprise the money I was paid was, in inflation-adjusted dollars, more than the comparable attorneys were earning today. Starting salaries in many of the “do-good” and government legal jobs in constant dollars have been dropping. I had not found it easy to pay off my relatively modest debt. How were these graduates going to pay off so much more with less pay?

          I did not have the answer, but I did have some idea as to why present student debt was so large. The costs of higher education have increased at a much greater rate than inflation. For example, in the year I graduated from college, in-state tuition at my home state’s flagship university was around $350. My first two summers after high school I worked at minimum-wage jobs that paid me $50 a week. Living at home, I could have saved enough for the tuition, and working ten hours a week during the school year could have paid for the rest of college expenses. In today’s dollars, that $350 tuition would now be about $3,000, and a minimum-wage summer job could still cover tuition. However, today the in-state tuition at the University of Wisconsin is actually about $11,000, much higher than inflation would indicate. A summer job for ten weeks at even $15 an hour will cover only about half the tuition. And the out-of-state tuition, which more closely mirrors some private schools, was about $9,000 back in my day. Now that tuition is about $39,000, and no normal student jobs are going to pay that. Thus, increased student debt.

          There are now important debates about whether student debt should be forgiven. But along with those considerations, there should also be an examination of why the cost of college and graduate school has soared well beyond inflationary increases. Even if all the present student debt magically disappeared, as long as students have to pay the over-inflated costs of university systems, the student debt problem will remain.

The Words Fail (concluded)

Although I was a criminal defense attorney, that work included no child pornography cases. My first personal involvement with a child pornography charge came in my teaching career when a colleague–I will call him Fred–was arrested for having pornographic images of children on his work computer. Subsequently, many more such images were found on his home computer.

These events led to many reports in all sorts of media including on Fox’s O’Reilly show before charges of sexual harassment led to a change in Bill’s career path. (I was invited to enter that “no-spin zone” to discuss Fred’s situation. I declined.) In media accounts, Fred was invariably described as a “child pornographer,” and I began to think about what that label conveyed. What does the term elicit for you?

Fred, in fact, was in a long-term, successful marriage. He had two daughters doing well in elite schools. They described him as a loving, supportive father. He had a successful academic career. He had never sought out any untoward contact with any children. Neither colleagues nor students had ever indicated anything wrong with his behavior (other than that he could be boring.) He did look at images that most of us would find disgusting and that a psychologist did say indicated an arrested sexuality, but if so, no one could find any harm from it in his personal or professional life.

And when you hear someone is a child pornographer, what activities do you think that person has engaged in? Someone procures the children. Someone puts them into a sexual situation. Sometimes that may involve two similarly aged children, but it may also be an adult or older child raping or otherwise sexually abusing a child. Someone arranges the location of the activities. Someone takes pictures of the abuse. If it is internet porn, someone uploads images, perhaps to a website monitored by another person. If there are payments for others to view or download the images, someone operates a system to transfer funds.  Then someone views and often downloads the images. That person might keep this activity private or share images with others.

Fred was the last person in this chain. He had learned ways to download these images without payment, but he did not share the pictures with anyone. (He freely talked with the police when arrested. They were very interested in how such images could be viewed or downloaded without paying. Fred showed them how.) Every so often he looked at some of them; too many had been downloaded for all of them to ever have been viewed. It was his dirty, guilty secret; it was his addiction and sickness which had afflicted him from childhood.

I learned from Fred and from subsequent exposure to similar cases from public defenders that the downloaders–like Fred–were labeled “child pornographers.”  But I have also seen that in the all-too-rare circumstances when those who create or distribute the images are arrested, they, too, were called “child pornographers.” We don’t have separate terms for the different activities. It is as if the international drug smuggler, the meth manufacturer, the local drug seller, the doctor over-prescribing opioids, and the drug addict were all just labeled drug offenders without any distinctions.

The Senate “conservatives” who were trying to suggest that Jackson was soft on child pornography lumped this entire network of child pornographers into one category. If, however, a sentencing judge makes distinctions among the offenses and the offenders as she ought to do–and naturally would do for drug offenses–some of the sentencing would appear wrong to the simple-minded Senators.

Of course, the Senatorial simple mindedness may have been calculated merely to tar Jackson, but their motivations may have been even worse. A few years ago, it might have seemed unlikely that members of the august Senate would pander to QAnon conspiracists, who see child pornographers and sex traffickers around every pizza parlor. Now, however, “conservative” politicians do, and whether intentionally or not, the suggestion that the Supreme Court nominee favors pedophiles feeds the Q crazies.

Even if their questions were well-intentioned, the exchanges were still discouraging because they showed basic flaws in reasoning and revealed a frightening authoritarian streak. That Jackson gave “light” sentences to some has little meaning without comparisons. How often did she give “heavy” sentences to others convicted of pornography crimes? And what about the “control” group? How often have other judges given supposedly light sentences for child pornography? If many in the judiciary have done as much, this could indicate that there is something wrong with the sentencing laws covering these offenses. This should compel a congressional consideration of whether these laws can be made better, more nuanced. But, of course, while today’s Congress may revel in and seek to create gotcha moments, they seldom show much interest in making our laws better.

Finally, some Senators maintained the sentences were inappropriate because they were less than the prosecutor recommended. These Senators should be required to take many, many hours of remedial civics classes. We don’t need sentencing judges if they are supposed to unquestioningly follow what the prosecutor says. The Senators should know that if judges just do what prosecutors want, a little more of our freedom dies, but apparently that would be consistent with the new conservatism.