Periscope Depth

this is your payback, moneygrabber

Radley Balko is probably the best blogger publishing today. Not only does he write insightful stuff on important issues of criminal justice and civil liberties, he actually goes out and gets shit done. Take a look at his work on the Cory Maye appeal, or shedding light on Mississippi’s questionable medical examiner Steven Hayne. He’s the model of what 21st century citizen journalists should be, the ideal made manifest.

Which is why it’s distressing1 when he links to shit like this:

# The Nation laments the plight of an Occupy Wall Street protester who can’t find a job and has $35,000 in student loan debt after earning a degree in . . . puppetry.

Haw haw, right? The unspoken punchline being of course you can’t find a job, hippie. Who’s going to pay you to play with puppets all day? Look at those protesters, buncha losers, etc.

While I don’t want to discredit the notion that people who get degrees in puppetry have a hard road ahead of them – they do, and the degree isn’t helping – why is the protester the butt of the joke here?

For those of you who are still snickering, let me propose a slightly different text and see if the reaction is the same:

The Nation laments the plight of a single mother who invests her life savings in a startup company … only to find that the “startup” was a fraud run by a two-time ex-con

Now a few of you jackasses would still be laughing (“serves her right for not doing her due diligence! high-five, bro!”), in which case congratulations at having never been scammed. You must be so proud of your charmed lives. The rest of us, however, would find at least a modicum of sympathy for the woman. Depending on context, we might parcel blame in different ratios. If she fell for a contract written in Comic Sans on Kinko’s stationary, we might judge her more foolish than if she fell for a slick pitch by a pro whom she trusted. But we know that con games exist. Even the most doctrinaire libertarian recognizes the need to protect against fraud. And in these circumstances, we sympathize with the victim.

Am I saying that an institution which takes thirty-five thousand dollars of a young man’s money and hands him a piece of paper saying he has a Master of Fine Arts in Puppetry is equivalent to a con artist? Frankly, yes.

Look, I know a few puppeteers2. The work they do isn’t easy: sculpting plastic and foam rubber, creating cartoonish yet expressive faces, simulating a range of movements and emotions with lifeless textiles, keeping the attention of six-year-olds, etc. It’s not hard like coal mining is hard, but you couldn’t master it in a weekend. It’s not trivial. But it doesn’t take an MFA. There is not a master’s degree’s worth of material in puppetry. Extend the field to encompass every possible medium in which you could sculpt a puppet, the history of puppetry from Sumeria to the present, and several hours of apprenticeship in the field, and you would have, at most, a two-year associate’s degree. That’s it. I feel confident saying this because the puppeteers I know are successful despite not having MFAs in puppetry, despite not having MFAs at all. Like the overwhelming majority of college graduates, they went to work in a field aside from their major.

To take thirty-five thousand dollars from someone and give them an MFA in Puppetry is like taking thirty-five thousand dollars from someone and giving them the deed to the Brooklyn Bridge. It requires either unnatural malevolence, an indifference to the suffering of strangers or a cultivated ignorance of the consequences of your actions. And institutions thrive on ignorance. They lick the bowl. The bigger an institution gets, the less the left hand knows what the right is doing, and the easier it is for the whole thing to work mischief.

It’s not a faculty adviser’s job to dissuade Thierren (the victim of this con) from getting an MFA in puppetry: the kid’s just following his passion! It’s not an instructor’s job to dissuade Thierren: he’s just one face out of twenty-four in the crafts seminar. It’s not the registrar’s job to dissuade him from taking useless classes: in fact, the registrar will help him get into whatever classes he wants if the seats are available. It’s not the treasurer’s job to dissuade him from signing over a check: they’ve got administrators begging them for more funds every day. And it’s not the loan officer’s job to dissuade the kid either. And so the buck keeps getting passed, thirty-five thousand times.

You want to talk about riskless investments? Since student loans can not be discharged through bankruptcy3, Sallie Mae will see every penny they ever lent returned, with interest. They have no incentive not to issue loans and universities have no incentive not to take them. And an institution isn’t ten people conspiring to do evil: it’s ten thousand people with no incentive to do good.

Joe Thierren, I’m sorry to say, got conned. He bought a pig in a poke. And while it’s easy to laugh at him for making (to quote Marge Simpson) a terrible life choice, shaming those protesters off the street won’t make us better off. The institutions that perpetuate these unsustainable debts – the iron triangle of banks, universities and legislatures – need to be brought to account as well.

To his credit, Balko also recognizes the insanity of the student loan quandary:

None of which is to say the Occupy folks and others upset about student debt don’t have a point. College has become insanely expensive. But federal loans, grants, and subsidies are a big reason why. They’ve created a lopsided seller’s market for higher ed. When you have way more applicants than you need, there’s zero incentive to control costs.

He links approvingly to a suggestion that makes some sense to me, an idea proposed by Glenn Reynolds4 in the New York Post5: allow students to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy and put the university that issued the degree on the hook for 10% of the outstanding debt. I suspect we’d see a lot fewer universities taking thirty-five thousand dollar checks and handing out MFAs in puppetry in return.

1. I know, I know: just because someone shares your ideology on one aspect doesn’t mean they share your ideology in all aspects. This shouldn’t shock me. But we long for perfection in all things.
2. Which I never thought I’d be referencing for street cred.
3. Are they even discharged in death? Who inherits a dead person’s student loans?
4. I know.
5. I know!

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