Student Loan Pains

I’ve been seeing some misinformation floating around about student loans, and it’s a serious problem.

There’s been a number of memes recently centered around the “surprise” of “having to pay back student loans”, but they’re really missing the point.  The surprise isn’t that you have to pay back student loans, but just how bad the interest rates are on them.

A typical student loan interest rate is around 7% for a federal loan.  These rates are set by congress, so they’re non-negotiable and generally not affected by credit.  Private loans are worse, but it’s the federal loans I’m focused on right now because those loans should not be a major problem.

Once you graduate, the interest alone is easily $300-$500 a month, and if you don’t land a job right away the interest gets capitalized and grows.  It’s not unrealistic to see your student loan debt double even while making payments.

There is an “income based repayment plan”, but that plan’s “relief” is deceptive.  The amount you are required to pay is fixed at roughly the percentage of your income that would be savings, investment, or disposable income.  When 10-20% of your income has to go toward student loan payments, but that doesn’t even cover the cost of the interest, there’s no realistic hope of ever paying them off.

The 10 year “student loan forgiveness” option also is not real.  The current administration has indicated that “nobody qualifies” for student loan forgiveness.  Even if somebody did manage to qualify, all of the loan money “forgiven” is considered income and gets taxed.  So if you borrow $30,000, it balloons into $100,000 and then gets “forgiven”, you still wind up with a big tax burden.

The worst of it is the fact that student loans are not taken out for “luxury spending”, but to pay for education in an attempt to become more employable.  That kind of investing ought to be encouraged, not penalized.

Nobody is “surprised” that they have to pay back their student loans.  They are “surprised” that a $30,000 loan consumes all of their money for their entire lifetime, because the vast majority of the money you wind up forced to pay is hidden in the interest rate.


Federal Bumper, Local Burden

One of the arguments I’ve seen repeatedly touted is that immigrants who work “pay taxes”, but it seems like often they are not paying the taxes used for running the cities.

Most local funding comes from property taxes.  If you own a home, a car, or pay the license for a business, the taxes you pay to the county goes toward your local schools and local services.  Most of the income taxes you pay out of your paycheck to Social Security, Medicare, etc., don’t generally go directly to the schools, they go to the federal government.  We often have a state tax as well, but that doesn’t have as much impact locally.

So yes, when immigrants have jobs here without owning property (as is often the case with undocumented immigration), they do pay some taxes, but which taxes they pay and which benefits they receive are not coming from the same pool taxes.  It creates a burden locally that needs to be balanced, but currently is not, even in the most ideal of scenarios.  When undocumented immigrants are working “under the table”, they don’t even pay federal taxes, and their boss doesn’t have to pay payroll tax.  (Basically, every paycheck gets taxed twice – once with payroll tax, which is like a sales tax your employer pays that you never see, and again in the form of income tax that the employee pays.)

I think one of the big problems with our conversation on immigration is missing this local effect.  Immigrant workers are great for the Federal government because they don’t qualify for Federal benefits, but they still (through children and other local services) cause a local tax burden without contributing through local taxes.  We need a system where they get to contribute to offset those additional costs, and it has to find its way into taxes somehow.

Political Silencing

There was a demonstration at Charlottesville, VA sometime recently, and it has brought out strong feelings from nearly everyone I have seen comment or write on it.

I am aware there were people who openly identify as white supremacists in attendance.  While I disagree with their defining viewpoints, I do not want to see their opportunity to be heard stifled any more than I would want to see any other non-violent or political gathering (including the Black Lives Matter events) shut down, even (and especially) if the people are voicing their anger or frustration.  The ability to speak and be heard is essential to our political system.

I understand there were both the originally planned protests, and counter-protests being held by opposing viewpoints.  I would not want to see their voices stifled either, although it does seem like having both groups within a small space without any civil controls in place would create a shouting match with both sides fighting to be heard, rather than a healthy, if lively, discussion of opposing views.  The only solution I know for that is hosting public discourse, such as is done in town halls.

I understand one of the counter protesters did die while in attendance.  I wouldn’t want to condemn anyone in advance of their fair trial on the basis of hearsay alone, no matter how convincing the version of the story I heard, so I’ll just add a link below about it.  I think that death is tragic and was needless.  I do not think using violence is an useful way to make a statement.

I am also concerned because of a certain amount of vigilantism I saw, which prompted me to write this article.  A person is deliberately looking up the information of people in attendance and doxxing them.  Doxxing is when you reveal private, protected information to the public, usually with the intention of causing them harm.  It seems at least one person has already lost his job (and not a prestigious job) as a result of his participation in the event.

This speaks to a bigger problem in our country right now, which is that the right to participate in political discourse is becoming a privilege, and not a right.  That privilege is being reserved to the wealthy and powerful, who do not need to fear retaliation for taking a political position or voicing an opinion.  Working people are not able to participate or even voice an opinion for fear of losing their livelihoods.

There is a lot of anger, frustration, and dissatisfaction in the country right now.  That is much of what got Obama elected, and it is what got Trump elected.  The status quo is not working for the average American, and in a democracy that is a problem.  I feel like a big part of Hillary’s problem is that her message seemed to be “Everything is fine, what are you talking about?”

When people fear retaliation, they do not go out and protest.  Frequently, merely expressing an opinion that is unpopular or out of line with the official company position can lose your job.  This stifles the essential open conversation that must take place for our democracy to work, especially since complex problem (such as those in finance or medicine) might only be fully understood by the people who work in those fields.  I understand dismissal over a viewpoint when it is done on the job or using company resources (as happened recently at Google), but when a person chooses to express a particular viewpoint as an individual without involving their place of work, it seems inappropriate that they fear retaliation in the workplace.

Even if such a person is wrong, there needs to be discussion of why they are wrong, and not simply their condemnation, elimination, and silence.  Public discourse cannot advance without having these discussions.  Debate is not just between the interlocutors, because everyone is listening.  That kind of important discussion, where error can be corrected, cannot happen if people fear expressing their views.  That is how incorrect ideas are rooted out.  Human psychology is an ancient thing, and we frequently stumble upon the same wrong answers our ancestors had to learn from.

It seems like the whole country is more interested in being angry and fighting itself than making any kind of real progress toward a solution.  We need to discuss the ideas, not try to hurt the person holding them.

No Sympathy for Some Workers

I am a little frustrated with some of the things that I’ve been seeing and hearing. I’ve seen our current President’s support of coal, and my first instinct (as someone who is concerned about climate change and sustainability in general) was to be opposed to “reviving the coal industry”.
But the important thing to remember is that “saving an industry” isn’t really about the industry, at least not from the citizen’s perspective. It’s about saving the lives and/or livelihoods of our fellow citizens.
When the previous President supported the auto industry, a major regional industry with a large impact on the economy, any detraction from that was mostly booed as missing the big picture and being insensitive.
I don’t believe coal is the fuel of the future, but it is widely used now as a reliable source of energy across the country, and coal pensions are depended on in some of the poorest states in the country.  It is a job many people have worked for many years, and the disappearance of those jobs is just as serious economically as the departure of manufacturing to other parts of the country.
I think the problem is that the narratives in the stories I’m reading are being dictated by people who aren’t any more sensitive to the issues involved, regardless of their stated opinions. The big difference is who they happen to know and are friends with. For reasons similar to why so many people were sympathetic to an auto-maker bail out, we should probably be at least a little sympathetic to the fears of coal miners and the impact on their lives.  I am not a fan or supporter of bail outs in general, but I’d like to see more sympathy for people who spent their lives working an honest job who are staring down a problem we have seen and addressed before who are looking for a similar solution.

If the government is going to burden and destroy an industry in a state, even one destructive and unhealthy like coal, it needs to take action and provide relief for the economic damage it has done in service to the “greater good” for the citizens who suffer as a result.  I don’t think the businesses need to be bailed out, but the workers shouldn’t be forced to suffer for policy decisions.

Already Calling for Surrender

I think there’s a major problem with one of the major political parties in the United States.  I’ve been seeing a meme making the rounds on Facebook that asks “independents” et al. to “Get over it” and plan to vote for Democrats in the 2018 and 2020 elections.

Really?  You haven’t even nominated a candidate yet, but you already want people to vote for them?  You don’t have issues or policy, but think that the rallying cry of “This country is a dumpster fire” is going to win votes?  It will probably get some, but not enough.

I do my best to vote for what I think is the best direction to go.  I distinctly remember wandering through the brickyard (a courtyard, but covered with bricks), where the campus Democrats had set up a tent and were trying to encourage people to vote for some candidate (I forget who).  When I approached them, thinking they would be the best place to get their viewpoint, I asked “Why do you think I should vote Democrat?”

The student attendant responded “Well, look around.  Do you want four more years like we had under Republican leadership?”

I responded, “I’ve already decided I’m not voting Republican, but I don’t know who I’m voting for yet.  I don’t vote against candidates, I vote for them.  Why should I vote for yours instead of voting third party?”  At that point, my fellow student seemed to be at a loss for words, and stammered out some talking points verbatim from the brochures they were passing out.  It wasn’t terribly convincing.

That seems to be the problem with the Democratic party, that they think all they have to do is not be Republicans and that will be good enough.  There’s not a clear vision, beyond having everyone unified under their command.  Democrats seem more intent on just being part of a social club rather than having a vision for where they are trying to take the country, or some idea of how to get there.  It certainly explains why they are more likely to inflict emotional pain by calling people racist or sexist or Islamophobic, rather than making logical or moral arguments about why any of those things are wrong.

If Democrats (or any other candidates) want to win votes, they need to focus on problems and solutions.  I’d like to see our political discussion get back to focusing on real problems and their potential solutions, and get rid of the name-calling.  Insulting me will never win my vote.

Applauding Their Own Demise

I have seen a bit of a problem that I don’t understand completely.  I see people who are in their mid to late 50’s and even early 60’s who take a hard line in opposition to Medicaid, and it baffles me.

Now, I understand their firm belief that “people should pay their own way” and “if you can’t afford it you shouldn’t have it”, but the medical conditions people suffer from are usually the reason that they are not more productive and can’t work.  Often, the beneficiaries of Medicaid are the elderly and children, for whom the opportunity to work has not yet arrived or has already passed.  There are only so many jobs that people can continue to work in their old age, and for many people working is no longer an option.

Cutting Medicaid to children seems to be saying “Your potential is not worth the investment.”  Cutting Medicaid to the elderly is basically saying “You have outlived your usefulness, therefore it is time for you to die.”

What bothers me so much is seeing people who are likely to be on Medicaid in the near future cheering its demise.  That is some dedication to principle, to applaud the end of a program you will shortly be dependent on (or die).  Either that, or they have no foresight.

Yes, I Work for Money

One of the major problems in our American culture today is that even though every job is literally “working for the money”, there’s an awful lot of social judgment put on people for looking at and negotiating the financial aspect of their work.  That seems wrong, especially in a nominally capitalist system.

From Hollywood culture, there’s a lot of push to demonize people who “do things for money”, as if life should be spent doing only those things that bring you innate pleasure.  I am not oblivious of the irony of producing a for-profit movie whose message is that money does or should not matter, but it seems that many people take that message and try to apply it to a world that is not a contrived fiction.  This even trickles down and gets misrepresented as if being rich itself were some kind of crime.

Then there’s the problem of negotiating pay for work.  I realize that asking about money upfront is ill-informed (how could you know how much to ask for before you know what the job is?), but people need to be comfortable talking about money, and doing it as if their lives depend on it (because it does).  The fact that unpaid internships, volunteer positions, and actual jobs are sometimes advertised in the same spaces does not help anything, since there’s no way you can accept a position if you were looking for a job but discover it is actually completely unpaid.  Unrealistic employer expectations (that you will relocate and live at your own expense while working for their benefit) have not helped this process.

All this creates an atmosphere where talking about money is taboo, but it needs to be discussed openly because money and financial security are important.  Even if you don’t want to be wealthy, nobody wants to be poor.    I have been extremely frustrated by persons who advertise for unpaid internships on job boards who mislead me into thinking we are discussing an actual paid position when they have no intention of paying anyone to work, and equally frustrated by peers who literally told me “never, ever ask what a job pays; just take it and be happy to work.”  This is not a healthy for capitalism, and it undermines basic workers’ rights.

Making sure you aren’t being taking advantage of in the job-market requires knowledge and some negotiation skills, but it also requires that we remove that taboo on money.  Yes, the wealthy would rather we not discuss money and pretend it’s all about our moral character and willingness to work, but it’s not.  If you don’t negotiate for your pay, you let the employer unilaterally set your pay rate.  Could anyone realistically be a “pay what you want” professional worker, in any field?

And yes, sometimes that means taking a crappy job you don’t want just to get money because it’s all people are willing to pay you to do.  There shouldn’t be a great deal of shame in doing what needs to be done.  The problem is that not only has the system found a way to rip people off, it also stigmatizes them for being robbed of their just wages by the very same people who are also getting screwed over.  This is a completely backwards part of our culture, and it needs to be fixed.

Thoughts on Potential Voting Fraud

I am writing today regarding an issue I have seen discussed with increasing frequency in recent years, and that issue is “voting fraud”.  It has been said that “It does not happen”, and that is stated based on the almost non-existent evidence of that voter fraud.  I accepted for many years that lack of evidence implied lack of fraud, but on closer examination, the paucity of evidence for fraudulent voting seems to be a feature of the system’s design rather than the prevalence or absence of voting integrity.  That would cast extreme doubt on the entire voting system, which would need to be improved.

I have seen the issue come up repeatedly about whether elections might be tampered with or how easily they might be compromised. It was when I stumbled across the work of Project Veritas that the issue seemed urgent rather than hypothetical.   I realize their group is an extremely conservative group, so it must be considered with a hefty helping of salt simply because it is so likely to be biased and have an agenda.  However, their group recorded conversations which implied that voter fraud was very possible, and might even be prevalent in less secure states (see video below).  Further, the video seems to suggest that some members of the Democratic party may have been sympathetic to unethical or illegal voting practices and takes credit for getting them fired.  I’m aware that edited video can be biased and omit important facts, but these videos speak for themselves on the ease of potential fraud.

What prompted me to write this article was the article I saw in “The Intercept” (link below) about the leader of Project Veritas being sued for damages relating to the videos he made.  The article says the information that was gathered for this particular video was allegedly gathered “illegally”, because persons were allegedly “recorded without their knowledge”.  The article even says (and I quote):

“Basically O’Keefe and Maass were modern-day Watergate burglars. They used fraud to get Maass a position as an intern at Democracy Partners so they could steal documents and secretly videotape conversations,” said Joe Sandler, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs. “There is no question that, in doing so, they violated federal and D.C. law and should be held liable for the damages suffered by our clients as a result.”
(See “James OKeefe Sued Sting” below)

I don’t know whether any crimes were committed because I don’t know those laws, so I can’t speak to that accusation.  What troubles me is the possibility that the act of collecting the information which could or would reveal voter fraud could itself  be an illegal act.  It troubles me deeply that they were compared to the Water-Gate burglars over these specific videos (if they had been accused of stealing political strategies, the analogy would make sense).  These particular videos look more like a kind of journalism, documenting vulnerability in the system and how it might be exploited.  I recall that, at my local election, use of cell phones and producing photographic evidence of any vote was illegal.  If it is illegal to produce evidence that would confirm or deny voting fraud, that would explain why there’s so “little evidence” of it, and even imply it could be widespread even without evidence.

When I ran several searches about the voting machines themselves, I was disappointed to learn that the voting process on those machines had limited integrity.  It seemed as if the voting totals from some of the machines used to vote were, in many cases, unverifiable and thus unreliable (based on articles I read following the Green recount request).  It also seemed that it would be relatively easy to modify voting results after the vote was complete, to say nothing of the possibility of tampering prior to an election.  I realize that there’s a certain amount of security in place to prevent tampering, but I have serious doubts that volunteers would be able to observe and prevent tampering with voting machines when that could be done as quickly and easily as demonstrated in the article from Cylance below.  This is only one specific case; there are many articles online about insecure voting machines and how they need to be updated with better models.

My big concern is that voting might not be as secure as it was presumed.  Reportedly, barely more than half the country is participating in elections (See CNN article).  But if voting is not properly secure, can easily be tampered with and then there is no verification for the vote that was cast, then how can we trust the vote itself?  When Jill Stein of the Green Party called for a recount to confirm voting integrity, she was accused of “contributing to a lack of confidence in the system”, but is that confidence well founded?

Voting is a cornerstone of our democratic process.  It cannot be allowed to be compromised, and needs to be protected in a verifiable way.  When and if that cannot be done, then we should not be “confident in the system”.  We need a system that we can be confident about, and recent events have called it into question for good reason.  I am less concerned about who specifically wins than I am that the process is followed correctly and the proper candidate receives the correct votes.

Having a better, more secure voting process should be a priority.  I’m generally opposed to voter ID laws on the basis that they are used primarily for disenfranchisement (yes, $5 is a lot of money when you are dirt poor – there must be no poll tax at all as a barrier to voting), but if a voter ID could be implemented that was not a major burden to participation while maintaining the integrity of the election, I could tolerate that.  That would probably require (among other things) that the ID cards be provided at no cost to the individual, but the cost of running the election is something government should be paying for anyway.  Having secure, verifiable results is important.  Yes, I want to maintain that everyone eligible can participate, but I also want to make sure that there’s nothing illegitimate taking place.

I do not want my confidence in the American electoral system to be blind faith.  It is important that the integrity of our elections be protected, and if we’re going to go to the trouble of showing up in person to vote, then we shouldn’t be worried about whether the machine recorded the votes correctly or whether they might have been tampered with or whether somebody might have picked up a ballot for the deceased.  I could tolerate low voter turnout if people are really not showing up, but if the system is so vulnerable to foul play then even low turnout must be questioned.  There is a quote about voting, widely attributed to Stalin, that seems particularly apt here:

“I consider it completely unimportant who in the party will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this — who will count the votes, and how.”


An Unsettling Trend: Punching Nazis?

There’s a disturbing problem that’s been taking root in the country, and people have been calling it “punching Nazis”.  While I’m no fan of Nazis, I don’t think punching a person for holding a particular belief is the right direction for our country to move in.

Why is this such a problem?  First, public discussion and free speech are an important part of our political system.  If we cannot even discuss ideas, then our political process cannot work.  I’ve heard some people say “You can’t just espouse an opinion and not suffer the consequences of having that opinion”, but “being assaulted” is not one of those legitimate consequences.  It’s okay if you don’t want to be friends at the end of the conversation, but these people are still citizens, and if they’re otherwise obeying the law (which I must point out does prohibit punching people), then they are wrong but not criminals (which you are, if you punch them).

While some people have claimed that “free speech only applies to the government”, I think censorship causes problems more than it solves them, and censoring an opponent in an argument is in effect a frank admission that you don’t have a good counter argument.  If your position is better, then show and explain why it’s better.  We’re not there yet, but it’d be nice to live in a country where you don’t have to live in fear of losing your job based on your political affiliation – I don’t think a person should be fired for beliefs not directly related to doing their job, even though it surely happens.

In education, it is important for it to be okay to be wrong when you are still learning, and that extends into public discussion as well.  Yes, I’m asking for some maturity, but we’re mostly adults here.

When people talk about “right” and “wrong” viewpoints, I worry that they are forgetting history.  For example, for a long time (and still in many places today – see links below), people were attacked for having or even speaking about homosexual relations.  It was widely accepted that it was “wrong”, and that position was enforced with violence – yes, even by Nazis.  While it is dangerously tempting to human nature to use violence to maintain your power when you are able to do so, it sets a terrible precedent.  If nothing else, there’s usually a lot more of “them” than there are of most minorities.

There’s another compelling reason not to punch Nazis, and it’s because it makes them martyrs.  If they appear to want to engage in conversation, and somebody else gets violent, then they look like the reasonable, civilized person (which is a difficult position for a Nazi to gain in this day and age).  It lends credibility to their claims, because as I said before, if you had an argument to present, you could do that.  You don’t need to help them by giving them a bigger podium.

A compelling third reason that Nazis should be engaged in conversation instead of fisticuffs is because Nazis frequently appeal to people who feel excluded and left out.  Basic participation weakens the effect alienation has on them.

Lastly, and just in general, I am troubled that the application of violence is becoming so completely acceptable on a wide scale.  There are times and places for violence (the immediate defense of family and property, or when police pursue violent criminals, for example), but stifling another person’s right to speak and be heard is not an appropriate application of violence.  The line between general discussion and personal threats can get muddy, especially when open violence gets too acceptable.  I am concerned that if we decide punching Nazis is okay, then who does or does not count as a “Nazi” is going to depend (in part) on how much a person would like to punch them (note: The person getting punched in the video below does not self-identify as a Nazi).

I do want to make clear that I do think “Nazis” should be stopped from achieving their agenda; I just don’t think sacrificing the ability to discuss ideas freely and openly in public is the best way to do it.  Beat them on the debate floor, if you can set one up.  Even if you don’t convert your interlocutor, you can win the people who are listening.  Beat them in the election booth, if they ever get that far.  But please don’t beat them in the streets.  It only seems like a good idea at the time.



How I’m Seeing Net Neutrality

I’ve seen an awful lot of talk about “Net Neutrality” and how the Internet needs to be protected.  The fight was fought (and won) for an open Internet just a few years ago, but with the new Presidential administration it has come up again.

I think part of the problem is that the Internet, being the result of technology, confuses people on basic issues.  If we were talking about mailing letters or shipping boxes, the “debate” would be over already, so I’m going to lean on those for obvious parallels (even though the metaphor might not be perfect, the idea should come across).

Suppose you want to send a package somewhere.  If it’s a Christmas card, you probably sent it with a stamp at the lowest priority, because you didn’t worry too much about when it would arrive.  If you had an urgent package, you might choose to ship via an overnight service to make sure it arrives fast.  In both cases, since you’re paying the cost, you get to pick the service you signed up for.  When you sign up for an Internet subscription, you’re picking your service.  When I checked AT&T, I saw they were offering a 50 Mbps, 75 Mbps, and 100 Mbps connection – that’s like choosing your shipping service.

What this most recent “debate” is about is whether it’s really okay for you to go where you want to go on the Internet.  Large companies are upset that you might choose to look up a smaller competitor’s site, and in their view you are “donating” your bandwidth to that company.  They think that people on both ends should have to pay for a premium service, or suffer from lower quality.

That would be like deliberately slowing down an overnight package – not because you sent it to a remote part of Alaska, but because the receiver didn’t also pay for overnight shipping.  You already paid for the entire service, but the multi-billion dollar companies want to make it so that both parties have to pay.  I have no doubt that the cost will be “just out of reach” for non-billionaires.

We even have a historical example to show how this preferential treatment works out.  Rockafeller “worked together” or “colluded” with railroads (depending on who you ask) in order bankrupt his competitors.  This is exactly what the “net neutrality” discussion is about – whether the Internet will be available to everyone (similar to a common carrier), or whether it will favor some few people over many others.

I think competition is necessary for healthy business, and one of the reasons the economy has been in the toilet for so long is the lack of good competition between companies.  Many of the companies that are prospering are doing so through the Internet.  Our Internet services are already not competitive (and among the worst value in the world, thanks to high costs and low speeds), and billionaires using this to artificially stifle their competition should not be allowed.  Internet service was determined as a common carrier in 2015, and we need to keep it that way.