Bought and Paid For

A Federal District Court judge in Washington recently upheld new Obama administration rules that deny federal aid to career training programs that charge outrageous amounts, saddle students with crushing debt, and give them useless degrees in return.

As the New York Times editorialized

The ruling strongly reaffirms the government’s authority to regulate these often-corrupt programs — and comes at a time when federal and state investigations are uncovering fraud and misconduct by for-profit schools all over the country. Regrettably, however, Republicans in both houses are moving bills that would block the Obama administration from enforcing the rules.

As the editorial notes, the new rules were inspired by data showing that students in for-profit schools account for only about 12 percent of college enrollment, but nearly half of student loan defaults.

We the taxpayers have been footing the bill for these predatory practices.

Research has consistently shown that graduates of for-profit institutions are more likely than graduates of other institutions to have debt of more than $40,000 by the time they leave school, and far less likely to find the employment promised by those marketing these programs.  What is particularly odious about these “schools” is that they deliberately target veterans, minorities and the poor.

Republican attempts to block the new rules are not sitting well with organizations that work on behalf of consumers, veterans and the poor. This spring, a coalition of these groups sent a letter reminding Congress that 37 state attorneys general are jointly investigating allegations of fraud in for-profit schools. Various investigations have already uncovered deceptive tactics; dismal graduation rates; false or inflated job placement rates; and dubious sales and admissions policies that target veterans and students of color.

It’s hard to argue with the Times‘ conclusion.

At issue here is an industry that routinely exploits the country’s most vulnerable citizens and fleeces the federal student aid program at the same time. The administration’s effort to bring it under control deserves support, not legislative sabotage.

About Those Millennials

Oh those Millennials! We older folks wring our hands, ascribing to the younger generation all of the bad habits that our own parents ascribed to ours. One of the more popular accusations is that they don’t vote, and aren’t civically involved.

But what do we really know about the voting habits of this particular generation? A recent survey shines some light; from it we learn that 30% typically vote in presidential elections, but not in local elections, while 38% typically vote in both presidential and local elections.
Twenty-eight percent don’t typically vote in either.

A whopping 91% say they plan to vote in the 2016 presidential election. (File this one under “remains to be seen.”)

So–for those who do actually follow through and vote, for whom will they be casting those ballots? Forty-one percent identify as Democrats; 21% as Republican. (That difference ought to be a wake-up call to the GOP, but I’m not holding my breath.) The rest either call themselves independent or claim not to identify with any political party (I didn’t see how the question was framed, so I’m not sure what difference there is between these two choices).

Interestingly, although 31% admit to being politically influenced by their parents or family, 32% say their families are highly unlikely to influence their vote choices.

And what about the widely-held belief that social issues are of primary importance to the Millennial generation? Forty percent say financial issues are primary, 25% say social issues, and 35% say the two are equally important.

There’s much more. Millennial will follow the 2016 campaign on TV (72%) and Facebook (56%), trailed by online news sources, newspapers, Twitter and other social media.

The survey has sobering news for the growing number of lesser-knowns who are running for President:

59% have never heard of Martin O’Malley

59% have never heard of Jim Webb

67% have never heard of Lincoln Chafee

51% have never heard of Scott Walker

55% have never heard of Bernard Sanders

58% have never heard of Bobby Jindal

57% have never heard of Carly Fiorina

49% have never heard of Ben Carson

Finally, a bit of good news for Hillary Clinton: 70% of women say it’s very important to them that the candidate they vote for is a woman; 30% of men think the same.

Here is a link to the full survey. Have fun.

UPDATE: If the above link doesn’t work, try this one.

Arizona and a Sigh of Relief

Among the end-of-term decisions handed down by the Supreme Court was Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. It was an important case–had the legislature prevailed, it would have dealt a near-fatal blow to the ability of good government groups to address the practice of gerrymandering.

Some years back, via a referendum, Arizona citizens struck a blow against gerrymandering by establishing a nonpartisan commission to draw its election maps. The state legislature sued, asserting that language in the Constitution limits the right to regulate national elections to Congress and state legislatures.

In a decision that legislative scholar Tom Mann called “a model of constitutional reasoning,” a divided Court upheld the right of citizens to determine who shall 

…have the ultimate authority over who shall represent them in public office. The majority opinion quotes Madison to powerful effect: “The genius of republican liberty seems to demand . . . not only that all power should be derived from the people, but those entrusted with it should be kept in dependence on the people.”

As Richard Pildes wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed,

The main, and best, justification for direct democracy is precisely the need for this kind of check, just as the voters in Arizona exercised, on the self-interested temptations of power when legislators regulate the political process itself.

Direct democracy is hardly a panacea or a pure expression of “the popular will,” whatever that means; voters must be organized and informed, which takes resources and organizational skill. Still, direct democracy remains an important means of policing the inevitable temptations those in power have to entrench themselves more securely in power.

On Monday the court rightly recognized that, when the Constitution assigned the elections clause power to the “legislatures,” the framers were not making a judgment about whether states could create direct democratic processes as another way to regulate the national election process. Unlike their rejection of popular Senate elections, the framers did not reject popular regulation of elections: They just never considered the idea. To reject it in their name, the court wisely concluded, would have been perverse.

It isn’t easy to rein in the self-interested process of legislative line-drawing under even the best of circumstances; those who have power only surrender that power when they have no choice. Had the Arizona legislature’s challenge succeeded, redistricting reform would be virtually impossible.

File this one under “dodged a bullet.”

Planes, Trains and Buses–The Rest of the Story

Maybe I’m just not cut out for travel.

Some of you will remember my blog detailing the wild and woolly start of our trip to the West Coast–the mad dash to catch the plane, the belated realization that we’d left our car at the airport but we were returning by train…

That was NOTHING compared to the return.

My husband has long wanted to take a train trip across the Western U.S. We are big train buffs, and whenever we are in Europe or Asia, trains are our primary means of travel. Almost without fail, those trains have been modern, immaculate, fast and reliable.

Amtrak, unfortunately, cannot claim to be any of those things.

We boarded in Emeryville (just outside San Francisco) on Friday morning for a trip that was scheduled to arrive in Chicago at 3 pm Sunday. We had made (nonrefundable) reservations on a Megabus to Indianapolis for 6:00 p.m.–giving us three hours. Plenty of time.

Our first disappointment was the “top of the line” sleeper; not only were the cars 40+ years old and tired, but the design of the sleeper was baffling—when the lower bed was out, there was no room to walk and no way to use the washbasin. The upper bunk was much higher than necessary—nice for the person on the bottom, but making it impossible for the person on top to sit up. There were none of the clever storage solutions we’ve found on European trains—virtually no place to put even the most common items–and the tiny bathroom/shower left a lot to be desired.

And there was no Wifi. Fortunately, my techie son had explained how to tether our phones to our devices, but we burned through our data plan and then some.

As we went across the country, the scenery was magnificent, and the other passengers we met were interesting and pleasant. (I should note that the train appeared full–people really like trains!) But we steadily lost time; due to the condition of track, there were many places where the train had to slow down.

As we entered Nebraska  it became obvious we’d be well behind schedule. Before we even reached Omaha we were three hours late, so we made new Megabus reservations for six p.m.(couldn’t change the existing ones, thanks to that company’s requirement that changes be made five days in advance). (Did I mention that these tickets are non-refundable?)

Then we got to Omaha, where we were told that storms in Iowa the day before had washed out rail, and we were being re-routed onto a freight line’s track. Despite the fact that Amtrak obviously knew about this problem well before we left Emeryville–and well before they allowed other passengers to board in Denver without informing them of the problem–this was the first time anyone mentioned the fact that the previous day’s train was still stranded in Iowa.

The new route involved waiting for a new crew; we sat in Omaha for six hours. Although  announcements were few and far between–and, in our car, thanks to an antiquated PA system, basically inaudible–we were finally told that the estimated time of arrival in Chicago would be somewhere between 1:00 and 3:00 a.m. Monday. Yesterday.

Another nonrefundable ticket purchase from Megabus, this time playing it safe: 6:00 a.m. And given the schedule, no sleep.

The train finally arrived at Chicago’s Union Station. At 6:02 a.m. We waited 40 minutes for the checked luggage to appear (and when it did, it had evidently been dragged through a large pile of dirt.) No one was working in the baggage claim area, so there was no one to ask about the reason for the delay-or the dirt.

Our final non-refundable Megabus tickets got us on the 9:30 a.m. bus to Indianapolis.

The bus ride was uneventful until we hit the bridge repairs on I65, which brought traffic on that incredibly busy interstate to a virtual halt for over a half-hour. By which time, I was ready to throw myself off the damn bridge and end it all.

We finally got home at 2:30 in the afternoon. Dirty, sweaty, tempers frayed. We’d had no sleep and nothing to eat since Sunday afternoon. Amazingly, we’re still married….

So what have I learned, other than I’m an old broad who should just stay home and tend my (nonexistent) garden?

One of my father’s favorite sayings was: things worth doing are worth doing right. Other countries seem to get this; in the U.S., however, lawmakers seem averse to the concept of infrastructure maintenance. Our bridges are dangerously substandard, our rail beds deteriorating, our trains far past their prime. But rather than fixing our embarrassing rail system, Congress continues to degrade its ability to provide service by cutting Amtrak’s budget.

We sure seem to have plenty of money for weapons, though.

 

 

The Real American Religion?

Sightings is a twice-weekly publication of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. One of the newsletters is written by noted religion scholar Martin Marty; the second is an essay by another religion scholar. They are always thought-provoking, but I was especially struck by a recent contribution by one Bruce Rittenhouse:

My own research on consumerism supports the conclusion that the reason Americans remain attached to a consumeristic form of life is because it performs the religious function of providing them with an answer to the existential problem of meaning.

In my research, I defined consumerism as a form of life that sacrifices other consciously-valued goods in order to maximize the consumption of economic goods, despite the fact that this consumption exceeds any objective measure of need.

Rittenhouse offers a variety of research findings to bolster his contention that even the most economically challenged U.S. households prioritize consumption over savings, and he identifies the role that consumerism plays in the American psyche. He notes–accurately–that “economic goods are never simply objects of use.” Consumption becomes consumerism when the intent is to procure “social recognition,” when it is the way in which the consumer signals his or her “personal significance in a community,” allowing the consumer to “transcend personal mortality.”

In other words, in the absence of a different source of meaning, owning stuff serves that purpose– the consumerist lifestyle is “psychologically essential to the person who uses it to secure his or her personal significance.”

Rittenhouse’s conclusion is grim:

So long as American culture fails to provide a ground of personal meaning that calls for self-sacrifice for the common good and for future generations, the United States will remain unable to meet its current economic, demographic, and environmental challenges.

If Rittenhouse is right–and there is a depressing amount of evidence supporting his thesis–we have a very big problem, because the health of the American economy rests on our ability to generate consumption. One of the most persuasive arguments for raising the minimum wage is that consumption requires disposable income.

A change in the culture of consumerism won’t come without considerable economic upheaval. Assuming it comes at all.