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Neither a borrower nor a lender be



University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds has a piece in the New York Post about the student debt crisis, in law school and more generally. It’s obviously a good thing that this issue is beginning to get some real traction in the media, and we can hope will translate into among other things more attention for Brian Tamanaha’s terrific new book Failing Law Schools, which Reynolds cites.

As for immediate practical questions, Reynolds, like most of our generation, has a weakness for Polonius-like platitudes:

For students, piece of advice No. 1 is: Don’t go into debt. When I went to law school, back in the ’80s, I turned down free rides at a couple of excellent schools to go to Yale Law School, even though it meant taking on a lot of student-loan debt. I’m not sure I’d advise anyone to do the same thing today, even to go to Yale Law, the undisputed king of the law-school rankings — and I’m positive I wouldn’t make a similar tradeoff for many other places, even Harvard Law.

Debt is what gets people into trouble in bubbles: They borrow heavily because they think the value of what they’re buying, whether it’s a house or a tulip, will go up. When it stops going up, they’re sunk.

Today, the value of an education isn’t going up, but the price is. That’s a bad combination. So don’t borrow heavily.

This sounds suspiciously like a classic bit of baby boomer/one per center wisdom, i.e., take that Hamilton scholarship to Columbia over the sticker price Yale admit and you’ll do just fine kids.

Responding to my critique of Special Snowflake Syndrome, some correspondents have pointed out that SSS is in part a predictable product of something like simple desperation:

Imagine that you’re a 21 year old kid with a 3.2 in Political Science, History or English, you’re one year away from graduating into a crap economy, and your Mom and Dad are not the kind of people with the business connections that can help you land a job. What do you? Move home with Mom and Dad and go to work at Starbucks, or enroll in law school?

A law student points out that until very recently the approved cultural response to this dilemma was “who cares?”

When confronted with this scenario, the prevailing mentality in this country until 2007 was quite simply, “fuck that guy. If he is too stupid to make rational decisions, let him get buried under the weight of his own poor choices.” Then the bubble popped. And a whole load of people who never took out subprime mortgages, refinanced their houses to buy expensive consumer goods, or authorized bad home loans suffered. My father was laid off three times in four years because of a crappy economy. He’s always lived within his means, never purchased anything gaudy or expensive with home equity. His home value took a bath and he will now probably lose money on his house. A guy who worked hard for many years and made what most people would consider good decisions.

Another correspondent emphasizes that neither middle-aged boomers nor Kids Today have yet adjusted to an increasingly grim new normal, in which the wave of economic devastation that swept over much of the American working class in the 1970s and 1980s has now reached well up into the professional middle and upper middle classes:

I think something far more powerful at work than SSS is the now outmoded notion of “doing everything right” in America. It used to be that getting a graduate degree, especially a JD or PhD, really was a golden ticket of sorts. That time is now not only gone it has if anything passed through the looking glass into bizarro land, where having such a degree is a black mark. Making all the right choices no longer grant access to anything more assured than massive amounts of debt.

It’s hard to fault people for failing to come to terms with something that was heretofore inconceivable, especially among the striving lower-middle classes, without their insider knowledge of hedge funds and how to place one’s knife and fork on the plate at the end of a seven course meal.

One thing I haven’t sufficiently emphasized in my writing on this topic up until now is the extent to which the law school scam is both a product of and ultimately dependent on the slow motion collapse of an economic system which generated reasonable returns on investments in human capital for a much broader class of people than our modal prospective law student, hesitating between Yale at sticker or a full-ride scholarship at another top ten school.

People get scammed so easily by legal education because they don’t have good options, so they turn law school into a “good option” out of sheer psychological necessity.

My wits begin to turn.
Come on, my boy: how dost, my boy? art cold?
I am cold myself. Where is this straw, my fellow?
The art of our necessities is strange,
That can make vile things precious. Come,
your hovel.
Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart
That’s sorry yet for thee.

Perhaps the most disgusting bit of cynicism I’ve encountered in this business over the course of the last year has been the response of those in legal academia who, when contemplating the looming disaster of six figure debt and no real job facing something like a majority of current law grads, shrug their shoulders and remark that it’s not like these people had better options. In many cases this isn’t even true — law school has in fact made a bad situation worse for huge percentages of our students — but even when it is, what sort of justification is that for the continual self-dealing that characterizes the behavior of the contemporary law school faculty and administration?

That the law school crisis is embedded in a much larger social crisis is rather all the more reason to stop eating our young.

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