Is a College Degree Worth It?

Public discourse has turned (again) to the question of whether or not a college degree is “worth it”. I say again because in the tech industry, this question has been asked about computer science (CS) degrees over a decade ago. I was prompted to revisit this blog post from over 14(!) years ago by Scott Hanselman’s response to a TikTok video saying a computer science degree is never worth it:

 

Back in 2007, I was managing a team which consisted mostly of what Tarver calls “street programmers”.   In that particular experience, Tarver was wrong about street programmers being superior to formally-trained CS graduates.  The members of my staff who consistently turned out the highest-quality code (which not coincidentally was also the best-tested and the least likely to require re-work) all had CS degrees.  In my next role, one of my colleagues was an Air Force veteran who was self-taught in software engineering.  He was one of the most skilled engineers I’ve worked with in my entire career, and taught me a ton about the practice of continuous integration over a decade ago that I still use in my work today.  

In re-reading Tarver’s post, even he concedes that the combination of hands-on programming practice and a strong grasp of theory creates a superior programmer when compared to one trained only in university or only on-the-job.  The other thing which struck me as odd in retrospect was the lack of any mention of summer internships.  Back in the early-to-mid 90s when I was earning my own computer science degree, it was definitely the expectation that CS majors would complete at least one summer internship before they graduated so they had at least a little experience with programming outside of coursework requirements.  I found an on-campus job where I worked during the semester which at least had tasks that I could automate with scripts, as well as database work.  My summer internship with The Washington Post as a tech intern turned into a part-time job my last semester of undergrad and a full-time job offer at the end of the year.  So instead of a declarative statement such as “college is never worth it” or “college is always worth it”, a better answer to the question is more like “it depends”.

Quite a lot has changed since 2007 when it comes to the variety of ways available to learn about programming.  There are lots of programmer bootcamps now.  My current employer partners with one to train college graduates with degrees in fields other than computer science for entry-level software engineering roles with us.  Beyond instructor-led bootcamps, there are a wealth of online education options both free and paid.  Having worked with engineers who came into the field via the bootcamp route at two different companies now, I’ve seen enough inconsistency in the readiness of bootcamp graduates for professional work that most require more oversight and supervision at entry-level positions than graduates from computer science programs.

At least some of the discussion about the worth of college degrees (in CS or many other fields) is a function of tuition continuing to increase at rates triple that of inflation (and have been doing so for decades).  The total amount my parents spent on in-state tuition for my CS degree in the 90s might not even cover 2 years at the same school today.  A year of tuition at my 1st-choice school today, Carnegie-Mellon University costs at least triple the $24,000 they charged in 1992.  It might be possible to rationalize paying high tuition for a STEM degree with high long-term earning potential, but those high tuition rates apply regardless of major.

Another issue that discussions of whether or not college degrees are “worth it” consistently misses is how open different fields and companies within those fields are to hiring people without formal training.  Particularly in tech, that openness exists for white men in a way that it definitely does not for people of color.   Shawn Wildermuth’s documentary Hello World gets deep into why women and minorities tend not to pursue careers in software development and even with the credential of a college degree and experience, it can be very challenging to sustain a tech career–much less advance–if you don’t look like the people who make hiring and promotion decisions.

Count me in the camp of those who believe a CS degree is worth it.  I wouldn’t have the tech career I have today without it.

Thoughts on the Many Shades of Anti-Blackness

A friend shared the following tweet with me not long ago:

Whoever Jen Meredith is, she is hardly alone in sharing these sentiments.  Few routes to acceptance by the still-predominant culture in the United States are shorter and more reliable than implicit or explicit criticism of the black community in America whose heritage here stretches back even before the founding of the country as we know it.  There have always been people who buy into the model minority myth. The term “Asian” elides significant differences between its various subcultures (and erases the parts of that very large community which don’t support the immigrant success story in exactly the same way some white conservatives do).  People from the Philippines have meaningfully different backgrounds than those from South Korea, Pakistan, and Vietnam to take a few examples.

Meredith is (obviously) sub-tweeting American blacks with her entire comment, but the “no ethnic leader” part in particular betrays a very specific ignorance about the history of black people in the United States. Black people in this country have never just had one leader. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. are just the ones that recent history (the vast majorities of which have not been written by black people) has acknowledged. Less often-noted are men like Marcus Garvey, who while Jamaican (not American) nevertheless found a receptive audience among some black Americans (including the parents of Malcolm X).  A. Philip Randolph was no less important than either of those men. The same can be said of Bayard Rustin, Fred Hampton, W.E.B Dubois, or Booker T. Washington.

Asians in the United States may not have had a singular figure that history chooses to recognize in this way (or a Cesar Chavez, like the Mexican-American community), but perhaps that’s in part because they haven’t really needed one. This doesn’t mean they haven’t even experienced racism in this country. The federal government passed laws against Chinese immigration and some were even lynched in California the way they did blacks in the South. Japanese-Americans were put in concentration camps and had their property taken. But at least they had property to take, which could not be said of black Americans in many cases.  One Asian-American experience which may not be broadly known, but is emblematic of the subtleties of racism in this country, is that of the Mississippi Delta Chinese.  The entire project is well-worth reading and listening to in full, but here is one part which stood out to me:

After WWII, China was an ally to the United States and then the rules relaxed; I think it was in 1947 or 1948. After the war, Chinese kids were allowed to attend white public schools, so that was the year that I started first grade.”

Issac Woodard was just one of many black veterans of WWII who was attacked just for wearing his uniform around this time.  Some black veterans fared even worse than Woodard.  The US military didn’t desegregate until 1948.  Over two decades would pass before schools in Yalobusha County, Mississippi (and the rest of the state) would finally desegregate.  At the same time members of the Asian-American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) community were attending better-quality schools and building wealth, many black military veterans were being denied the benefits of the GI Bill.  Black people resorted to overpaying for housing via contracts, due to racist real estate covenants and redlining by the Federal Housing Administration.  All of this happened before you even get to the ways in which federal civil rights, voting rights, and fair housing legislation have been actively undermined or passively neglected from the Nixon administration forward.

When your experience (and your parents’ experience) of the United States doesn’t include the combination of chattel slavery, pogroms, property theft, terrorism, segregation, and other aspects of the black American experience, you’re bound to see this country differently. That’s why you can (unfortunately) hear some of the same anti-black American sentiments from black immigrants to this country. Particularly as someone who writes software for a living and leads teams of software engineers, I have more common experiences with my fellow church members, classmates, and co-workers from India, China, and the Philippines than I do with some black people with hundreds of years of heritage in this country.

Finally, it is exceedingly unwise to underestimate the growing political power of the Asian-American & Pacific Islander community. This movement with “no ethnic leader” (as Meredith claims) got federal legislation passed against Asian hate crimes—in our current political environment—when we still don’t have a federal law against lynching after over a century of attempts to pass one.  It’s all well and good to talk about having agency in one’s life.  I am doing my best as a parent to teach my own children the same lessons about making good choices that my parents taught me.  But criticisms of the American black community that fail to acknowledge how an unjust society increases the difficulty of making wise choices are dishonest.

Thoughts on Diversity in Tech

On April 28, I participated in a panel and Q & A on the intersection of race & technology.  My 2 co-panelists and I each had 15 minutes for a monologue regarding our personal experiences with how race and the tech industry intersect.  This post will excerpt my prepared remarks.

Excerpt of Prepared Remarks

How did I end up writing software for a living anyway?  I blame LEGOs, science fiction, and video games.  While I’ve never actually worked in the gaming industry, I’ve built software solutions for many others—newspapers, radio, e-commerce, government, healthcare, and finance. Tech industry salaries, stocks, and stock options have given me a lifestyle that could accurately be called  upper middle-class, including home ownership and annual domestic and international travel for work and pleasure (at least before the pandemic).
For all the financial rewards the industry has had to offer though, “writing software while black” has meant being comfortable with being the only one (or one of two) for the majority of my career–going all the way to my initial entry to the field.  As an undergraduate computer science (CS) major at the University of Maryland in the early to mid-nineties, I was on a first-name basis with all the other black CS majors in the department because there were never more than 10-12 of us in the entire department during my 4 1/2 years there–on a campus with tens of thousands of students.  In that time, I only ever knew of one black graduate student in CS.  My instructor in discrete structures at the time was Hispanic.  Even at a school as large as the University of Maryland, when I graduated in the winter of 1996, I was the only black graduate from the computer science department.
Unlike law, medicine, engineering, or  architecture, computer science is still a young enough field that the organizations which have grown up around it to support and affirm practitioners of color are much younger.  The National Society of Black Engineers for example, was formed in 1975.  The Information Technology Senior Management Forum (ITSMF), an organization with the goal of increasing black representation at senior levels in tech management, was formed in 1996.  The oldest founding year I could find for any of the existing tech organizations specifically supporting black coders (Black Girls Code) was 2011.  I’d already been a tech industry professional for 15 years at that point, and in every organization I’d worked for up to that point, I was either the only black software engineer on staff, or 1 of 2.  It would be another 2 years before I would join a company where there was more than one other black person on-staff in a software development role.
I’ve had project and/or people leadership responsibilities for 8-9 years of my over 20 years in tech.  As challenging as succeeding as an under-represented minority in tech has been, adding leadership responsibilities increased the scope of the challenge even more.  As rarely as I saw other black coders, black team leads were even scarcer until I joined my current company in 2017.  It basically took my entire career to find, but it is the only place I’ve ever worked where being black in tech is normal.  We regularly recruit from HBCUs.  We hire and promote black professionals in technical, analytical, managerial, and executive roles in tech.  There are multiple black women and women at the VP level here.  The diversity even extends to the board of directors–four of its members are black men, including the CEO of F5 Networks.
Perhaps most importantly–and contrary to the sorts of things we hear too often from people like James Damore and others about diversity requiring lower standards–this diverse workforce has helped build and maintain a high performance culture.  This publicly-traded company is regularly in the top 25 of Fortune Magazine’s annual best places to work rankings.  But this year–even in the midst of the pandemic–it jumped into the top 10 for the first time.
The company uses its size to the benefit of under-represented minorities in tech with business resource groups.  Two of the BRGs I belong to have provided numerous opportunities to network with other black associates, to recruit and be recruited for growth opportunities in other lines of business.  As a result, it’s the only company I’ve worked for in my entire career where I’ve had the ability to recruit black engineers to join my team.  These groups have even provided a safe space to vent and grieve regarding the deaths of unarmed black men and women at the hands of police officers.  When we learned that Ahmaud Arbery had been murdered, I had black coworkers I could talk about it with–all the up to the VP level down to the individual contributor level.  We were able to talk about George Floyd’s murder at the time, and in the aftermath of Derek Chauvin’s trial.  As long as these deaths have been happening, this is the only employer I’ve ever worked for where I know there is a like-minded community where I can talk through such issues with–as well as sympathetic allies.
Not only has this company put millions of dollars into organizations like the Equal Justice Initiative, they set up a virtual event for EJI’s founder, Bryan Stevenson,  to speak to us and field our questions.  Ijeoma Oluo and Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr have participated in Capital One events as well.  Capital One is just one of just three Palladium Partners with ITSMF.  I recently completed a program they created for us called the Leaders of Color Workshop for the purpose of helping black managers advance within the organization.
All the good things I’ve shared doesn’t mean it’s a perfect employer (as if such a thing existed).  I found it necessary to transfer to a different department and line of business in order to find a manager interested in helping me advance my career.  Talking to my classmates in the most recent workshop revealed quite a few stories of far more negative experiences than mine from people who have been part of company much longer than I have.   They’ve had at least a couple of instances of viral Medium posts from former employees whose experiences were far more negative than mine.  But at least in my experience, it’s been and continues to be a great place to be black in tech.
Because the majority of our workforce is women, and nearly 1/3rd of the staff comes from minority groups that are under-represented in tech, the company has done a pretty good job of avoiding the sort of missteps that can put you in the news for wrong reasons.  Seemingly just in time for the discussion we’re about to have, the founders of Basecamp (the very opinionated makers of the product of the same name and the HEY email client among other products) are taking their turns as the proverbial fish in a barrel due to their decision to follow the example of Coinbase in disallowing discussions of politics and social causes at work.  So it was very interesting to read the open letter published to them by Jane Yang, one of their employees currently on medical leave.  She writes in some detail about the founders’ decision to exclude hate speech and harassment from the initial use restrictions policy for their products.  Read Jason Fried’s initial post and David Hanson’s follow-up for fuller context.
Basecamp is a small example (just 60 employees), Coinbase a slightly larger one (1200+ employees), but they are good proxies both for many companies I’ve worked for and companies orders of magnitude larger like Facebook, Amazon, and Google who have recently been in the news for discriminatory treatment of underrepresented minorities in their workforce.  Their failures, and those of the tech industry at large to seriously address the lack of diversity in their recruiting and hiring practices has resulted and will continue to result in the creation of products that not only fail to adequately serve under-represented minorities, but actively cause harm.  In the same way monoculture in farming creates genetically uniform crops that are less-resistant to disease and pests, monoculture in corporate environments leads to group think, to more uniform, less-innovative products with a higher risk of automating and perpetuating existing biases.
I recently watched Coded Bias, a documentary available on Netflix (and PBS) that highlighted the failings of existing facial recognition technology and the dangers it poses–to people of color in particular (because it tends to be far more inaccurate with darker-skinned people) but to people in general.  Were it not for the work of Joy Buolamwini, a black woman research assistant in computer science at MIT, we might not have learned about these flaws until much later–if at all.  These dangers extend beyond facial recognition technology to the application of algorithms and machine learning to everything from sentencing and parole determinations, hiring and firing decisions, to mortgage, loan, and other credit decisions.  Particularly as a bank employee, I’m much more conscious of the impact that my work and that of my team could potentially have on the lives of black and brown bank customers.  Even though it’s outside the scope of my current team’s usual work, I’ve begun making efforts to learn more about the ML and artificial intelligence spaces, and to raise concerns with my senior leadership whenever our use of ML and AI is a topic of discussion.  Despite all the challenges we face being in tech as under-represented minorities, or women, or both, it is vital that more of us get in and stay in tech–and continue to raise the concerns that would otherwise be ignored by today’s tech leaders.  Current and future tech products are quite likely to be worse if we don’t.

False Unity and “Moving On” is Dangerous

Even before yesterday’s inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the new President and Vice President of the United States, there were calls for unity—even empathy—and not just from Joe Biden.  Such calls seemed very premature at the time, given the efforts of Trump and his allies to overturn the election result.  With the failure of those efforts, despite a literal assault on the entire legislative branch incited by Trump resulting in five dead, such calls for unity and healing look even more naive.

Too many so-called conservatives (and some of those further left on the political spectrum) would rather put unity ahead of accountability. MAGA adherents and believers in the QAnon conspiracy theory essentially invaded the  US Capitol and delayed the legislative branch from executing its responsibility to certify the Electoral College results at the urging of the president and his allies. They may have been aided and abetted in this insurrectionist act by multiple members of the GOP in both the Senate and the House. At least one shared the location of Speaker Pelosi on Twitter, as if to direct insurrectionists to her location.  The wife of a Supreme Court justice may have funded the transportation to the Capitol for some of these insurrections.  Even the death toll, the damage to the US Capitol, and the risk to their own lives did not prevent some Republicans from voting against certification of the Electoral College tally once the Capitol was secured.

Placing unity before accountability too many times before is what has led the country here. Unity before accountability killed Reconstruction, subjecting black Americans to almost another century of domestic terrorism, property theft, and subjugation at the hands of whites. The Nixon pardon, the Iran/Contra pardons, and the lack of accountability for those who engaged in torture and warrant less wiretapping of US citizens all placed unity before accountability.  All of these actions paved the way for President Trump to be acquitted despite clear evidence that he tried to shake down the president of Ukraine in exchange for the announcement of an investigation into Hunter Biden.

Less than a year has elapsed between the Senate’s acquittal of Trump on two impeachment charges and the insurrection on January 6.  Only a tiny number of GOP House members put their country ahead of their party in voting for a second impeachment.  A second acquittal for Trump seems likely–and we will live to regret it.

The Minimum Wage Debate is Too Narrow and Small

Recently I’ve found myself having variations of the same conversation on social media regarding the minimum wage.  Those to my political left have made statements such as “if your business would fail if you paid workers $15/hour you’re exploiting them.”  Those to my political right–some current or former business owners, some not–argue that minimum wage increases had a definite impact on their bottom line.

I have two problems with the first argument: (1) it oversimplifies and trivializes a very serious issue, (2) these days, the arguers tend to aim it at small business owners.  Worker exploitation is real, and conflating every employer who follows the law when it comes to pay and other facets of employment harms the cause of combatting serious harms.  The outgoing Trump administration has been trying to reduce the wages of H-2A workers.  Undocumented workers in sectors like agriculture, food, home-based healthcare, and others fare even worse.  In some cases, drug addiction treatment has turned thousands of people into little more than indentured servants, with complicity from judges and state regulators.  Until recently, large corporations like Wal-Mart and Amazon evaded accountability for low worker pay and mistreatment despite having significant percentages of workers on food stamps and Medicaid and a high rate of worker injuries.

Another variation of the first argument takes a starting point in the past (like the 1960s) then says the minimum wage should be whatever the rate of inflation would have grown it to be between then and today.  If you go back to when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was alive (for example), the minimum wage today “should” be $22/hour.  You can pick any point in time and say what the minimum wage should be based on inflation, but that’s not the same as grappling honestly with how industries have changed and/or how the nature of work has changed in the half-century plus since the civil rights era.

One challenge with the second argument is that the examples cited are typically restaurants or food services–businesses that operate at low margins and have high fixed costs in addition to being labor-intensive.  Even in that sector, the impacts of a $15/hour minimum wage are not necessarily what you might expect.  But not every business is the restaurant business, and a single sector cannot govern the parameters of debate for an issue that impacts the entire economy and the broader society get a broadly beneficial result.

At this point in the discussion, someone usually brings up automation, followed by someone mentioning universal basic income (UBI).  What I have said in the past, and will continue to say, is that automation is coming regardless of what the federal government, states, and/or localities do with the minimum wage.  As someone who has written software for a living for over 20 years, the essence of my line of work is automating things.  Sometimes software augments what people do by taking over rote or repetitive aspects of their jobs and freeing them up to do more value-added work.  But if an entire job is rote or repetitive, software can and does eliminate jobs.  The combination of software and robots are what enable some manufacturers to produce so many goods without the large number of workers they would have needed in the past.

Talking about UBI enlarges the conversation, but even then may not fully take on the nature of the relationship between government, business, and people.  We do not talk nearly often enough about how long the United States got by with a much less-robust social safety net than other countries because of how much responsibility employers used to take on for their employees.  Nor do we talk about the amount of additional control that gives employers over their employees–or the cracks in the system that can result from unemployment.  The usual response from the political right whenever there is any discussion of separating health care from employment is to cry “socialism”.  But the falseness of such charges can be easily exposed.  Capitalism seems to be alive and well in South Korea, and they have a universal healthcare system–a significant portion of which is privately funded.  Germany is another country where capitalism, universal healthcare, and private insurers seem to be co-existing just fine.

The conversation we need to have, as companies and their shareholders get richer, share fewer of those gains with their workers, and otherwise delegate responsibilities they used to keep as part of the social contract, is how the relationship between government, business, and people should change to reflect the current reality.  The rationale always given for taxing capital gains at a lower rate than wages was investment.  But as we’ve seen both in the pandemic, and in the corporate response to the big tax cut in 2017, corporate execs mostly pocketed the gains for themselves or did stock buybacks to further inflate their per-share prices.  Far from sharing any of the gains with workers, some corporations laid off workers instead.  Given ample evidence that preferential tax treatment for capital gains does not result in more investment, the preference should end.  People of working age should not be solely dependent on an employer or Medicare for their healthcare.  A model where public and private insurance co-exist for those people and isn’t tied to employment is where we should be headed as a society.  

We need to think much harder than we have about what has to change both to account for the deficiencies in our social safety net (that corporations will not fill), and an economy on its way to eliminating entire fields that employ a lot of people today.  Bill Gates advocated in favor of a tax on robots year ago.  The challenges of funding UBI and whether or not it’s possible to do that and continue to maintain the social safety net as it currently exists need to be faced head-on.  Talking about the minimum wage alone–even as multiple states and localities increase it well beyond the federal minimum–is not enough.

Why Conservatives Are Anxious About America

Rahmaan Mwongozi (@TheRocsWorld) recently had one of the few good-faith conversations I’ve heard in recent memory regarding the anxieties among those on the political right with Bo Winegard (@EPoe187) on his podcast.  Mwongozi is a talented interviewer, so I was very interested to hear this segment because I felt he would get real answers and he did not disappoint.  The segment is just 11 minutes, and well worth listening to in full.  I explore my take on the conversation below.
To summarize Winegard’s common thread, the angst stems from:
  • cultural domination of progressive views on race, sex, immigration and other topics in mainstream media and academia
  • the distortion or banishment of other views on those topics from those institutions
  • the prospect of irreversible cultural change
The first point is revealing in a number of ways:
  • It suggests that despite fairly broad, moderate conservative control of the country’s political institutions, conservatives want their views of race, sex, and immigration to control cultural institutions as well
  • it suggests that the ongoing, multi-decade project of building competing conservative institutions has failed to produce any prestigious ones
  • Note the absence of any explicit mention of economic issues in the list of topics driving conservative angst
Winegard’s argument that left-of-center views on race, sex, and immigration are more popular culturally seems broadly correct.  His argument that dissenting views are distorted or banished from mainstream institutions may be informed by his own experience (https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/03/12/assistant-professor-says-hes-been-fired-because-he-dared-talk-about-human-population), but there are plenty of counter-examples.  The opinion section of any major mainstream newspaper you can name has any number of right-of-center columnists and views on race, sex, immigration, and economics.  It’s true of the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal.  You can and do find conservative views from CNN, to MSNBC, to NPR, even PBS.  The prospect of irreversible cultural change is perhaps the most salient fear of conservatives–and as Winegard correctly says later in the interview culture is not merely about demographics but also norms.
Winegard mentions the Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1965 later in the discussion.  This law made it easier for my parents to come to the United States (though there were Jamaicans in this country well before then, despite the patently racist Johnson-Reed Act of 1924).  The point he goes on to make regarding immigration is that it causes consternation to people (especially more conservative ones) because they are attached to a vision of a country that is more stable.  “They want stasis.”
One problem I have with this argument is that there are at least as many conservative voices advocating not for stasis (and definitely not for celebration of the country’s current diversity, as Winegard does), but for a return to the composition of the country as it was much earlier than 1965.  Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, spoke at length and in laudatory terms of the Johnson-Reed Act and was among the first to support Trump’s Muslim ban.  A second problem with this argument is the idea of hurt or injury to people more attached to the country as it was in 1980 or 1990, to use Winegard’s years.  It would be one thing if he were citing economic examples, but he doesn’t do that.  He doesn’t mention immigrants doing the sort of low-skilled labor formerly done by working class white people (or black people for that matter).  He doesn’t mention outsourcing.  Winegard provides no qualitative description of the harm caused by immigration either.  A third problem with the stasis argument is the idea that people can become attached to whatever the particular demographics of their area are.  Believing that argument would require you to ignore the entire history (and present) of this country when it comes to segregated schools, segregated housing, and the white flight from diversity in both spheres when the number of black and/or brown people exceeds the level of curation that the legacy of redlining still imposes to a degree.
Mwongozi draws an analogy between the response of black & brown communities to gentrification (in the specific case of Oakland) and the response of white communities to changing demographics.  I can see the argument, but gentrification is not about co-existence.  The end result of gentrification is usually to price out and push out those who were there before.  Black & brown people leave gentrified areas under duress.  Winegard and others might argue that immigration is doing the same to them, but that argument is weaker–and not a strictly economic one.
Winegard takes great pains to draw a distinction between “ethnotraditionalism” and white nationalism, and doesn’t want to be called a xenophobe for advocating in favor of preserving the current demographics of the country.  Unfortunately for him, louder voices to his political right are the ones that characterize the restrictionist position.  An additional project of many who advocate immigration restrictionism is the political disenfranchisement of black & brown citizens of the United States.  That’s what every post-election lawsuit was about.  That’s what the sabotage of the 2020 census was about.  That’s what the Supreme Court majority’s evisceration of section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was about.  That’s what every resulting Voter ID law enabled by the Shelby County vs Holder ruling was about.  They do not want non-white citizens of the United States to have a say in the debates and conversations about the trajectory of the country.  It may not be fair to lump Winegard in with those who hold such extreme positions, but that background is why it happens–and will continue to happen until they are clear that they are pro-citizen, regardless of race or ethnicity.

Only a Little Forgiveness for Old Debts

I came across this parsimonious student loan forgiveness proposal in a tweet earlier today.  The author, Beth Akers, even had the nerve to call this stingy proposal a student-loan jubilee.  The $5000 (which isn’t even cash, but a 1-time tax credit), is just 1/6th the average total student debt for recent college graduates.  She ends her piece this way:

More than half of Americans have built their lives and made ends meet without a college degree.  Call universal student loan cancellation what it is: elitist.

The conservative think tank crowd never seems to have a problem with the government giving away money to businesses, and are quick to hand wave away any evidence of abuse of such programs by big businesses. But the moment there’s even a chance of the government doing something to help individuals, we get to hear a lot of concern about taxes and budgets, along with faux populism.

A cursory amount of digging reveals that the picture of who owes student loan debt is different than the stereotypical “whiny millennial” (some of whom are much closer to 40 than they are to 20).  A Forbes piece from February of this year is particularly enlightening.  The piece is worth reading in full but here are some of the facts I found most interesting:

  • Of the $1.6 trillion in student debt owed, Texas and Florida rank 2nd and 3rd in the number of borrowers and amounts owed (California and New York rank 1st and 4th).
  • Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan are also in the top 10 by number of borrowers and amounts owed
  • Arizona and Florida rank 1st and 3rd in the nation in average student loan debt per capita
  • Over $300 billion of that $1.6 trillion is owed by people aged 50 or older.
  • The 50+ cohort of student loan borrowers is about the same size as the 24 and younger cohort (a little over 8 million borrowers), but the amount they owe is nearly triple the size of their younger counterparts.

So not only is student loan debt not merely the province of the young, nor is it restricted to “coastal elites”.  You could be eligible for retirement and still owe Sallie Mae.  If the student loans you owe are private, there’s no guarantee that debt will be forgiven upon your death.

I am quite fortunate when it comes to student loan debt.  Graduating with a computer science degree from a state university with zero debt (thanks to parents who paid in full, and a state smart enough to subsidize in-state tuition) meant that I didn’t incur any student loan debt until I decided to go to grad school.  In the interim, I was able to buy a home.

Attending grad school part-time at night while working full-time (as my parents did for their undergraduate and graduate degrees, while raising my sister and I) and paying at least some tuition while in school mean that the amount I currently owe is well below the average for recent college graduates.  Even so, it will be another decade from now before I’ve finished paying off Sallie Mae.  I’ll be thinking seriously about higher education for my own children then, since my twins will be in high school 10 years from now.

What the green eyeshade crowd is missing is that the $1.6 trillion owed by students is preventing them from putting their earnings elsewhere in the economy, such as home ownership or investment.  That debt is almost certainly a factor in whether or not people choose to have children.  Akers harking back to an era where a college degree was not a necessity to live a middle class life does not change the facts about the type of globalized economy we live in today.  Nor does it change the fact that automation isn’t just changing “low-skilled” labor, but also some of the jobs that a college degree formerly provided a gateway to. If you actually want to grow the middle class in the United States in anything approaching a sustainable fashion, a solution to student loan debt (both the current amounts, and a mechanism to prevent forgiven debt from simply growing back to even higher amounts) is just one part of a larger conversation. 

Life and Religious Liberty for Me, But Not for Thee

With Amy Coney Barrett now on the Supreme Court and weighing in on cases, the payoff to the evangelical right for their unstinting support of Donald Trump becomes even clearer than it has already been.  She joined a narrow majority to block COVID-19 limits on church occupancy.  Despite numerous cases of COVID-19 outbreaks tied to church events (whether worship, choir practices, or other gatherings), despite over a quarter million Americans dead from COVID-19, the Supreme Court majority ignored the known science around how COVID-19 spreads because of “religious liberty”.  Much has been made of the fact that six of the nine justices on the Supreme Court are Catholic, but there were Catholic justices (including the Chief Justice) in the minority.  Even the Pope was critical of those protesting restrictions on church attendance.

As someone who felt compelled to quit my first full-time job out of college because of constant pressure from my employer to work on my day of worship (as a Seventh-day Adventist, my family and I typically attend church on Saturday), I am angry that religious liberty is being used as the pretext to invalidate measures intended to preserve public health.  When those measures (and stricter ones) have been applied elsewhere (parts of Europe, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand, etc), we’ve seen them work successfully in slowing and stopping the spread of COVID-19.  Particularly because the same Supreme Court was not at all concerned about religious liberty when it came to the Muslim travel ban (the Quakers, among others, see the hypocrisy clearly), the ruling seems especially hollow.  Plenty of churches (including my own) have stayed remote throughout the pandemic, either broadcasting services from empty sanctuaries except for themselves and musicians, or from home.  I’ve given offering and tithed online.  It is by no means an ideal experience, but given my own comorbidities it is better than risking my twins being orphaned.

Because Supreme Court confirmation fights (and the attendant press coverage) have focused so narrowly on where a nominee stands regarding Roe v. Wade, no attention has been paid to their stances regarding other issues quite relevant to life–and death. Invalidating restrictions on church occupancy during a pandemic is just one of the ways in which “pro-life” applies very poorly to describing where a justice actually stands.  As the clock runs out on the Trump presidency, the Department of Justice under Bill Barr is accelerating the pace of executions.  Barrett has already participated in her first capital punishment case on the Supreme Court.  She did not recuse herself, nor register her opposition to the execution going forward as justices in the minority did.

I suppose it has always been this way, but when a lot of people talk about religious liberty, they only want it for themselves–and no one else.

Rest In Peace David Prouse

I’ve loved science fiction and fantasy for as long as I can remember. But I hadn’t thought much lately about exactly where that love began until a phone call from my mom today. She called to let me know that David Prouse had died. While James Earl Jones was the unforgettable voice of Darth Vader, David Prouse was who we all saw.

Before tonight’s conversation, where she reminisced about taking my sister and I to see it in the theater, I distinctly remember her taking me to see Return of the Jedi in the theater when I was 9.  I remember the anticipation of seeing and just how much I enjoyed it.  But when she mentioned my sister being in a stroller, I paused.  Because my sister and I are 4 1/2 years apart, she wasn’t talking about when we saw Return of the Jedi.  My mom was talking about the preceding movie—The Empire Strikes Back.  While I’ve seen it many times since then in almost every conceivable format save LaserDisc, I didn’t remember the very first time.  She thought I would be scared of Darth Vader, but as she told me I mostly stared in awe.

So Rest In Peace to David Prouse.  Thanks to you—and my mom—for starting my journey into science fiction.

Empathy Now

Predictably, the calls for empathy for “the other side” have already begun.  This tweet from Ian Bremmer is one example:

While I understand the sentiment, I find these demands for empathy to be premature. The speed with which these demands have come (and the people they tend to come from) tell me that they do not know anyone who has been hurt by the effects of Trump’s policies–much less have been hurt themselves.

One of my former co-workers had his wife prevented from joining him here because of the Muslim ban. He and I were working on a contract at the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service at the time. Another co-worker from that time was married to someone from one of the banned countries. Imagine trying to explain to your child what the president said about the place you come from, and your faith.

For years I have listened to Trump and his supporters attack birthright citizenship–the very thing that makes me an American. I’ve seen his administration make it harder to become a citizen legally and try to strip citizenship from naturalized citizens like my parents. I have quite a few friends from the places Trump called “shithole countries”. I’ve stressed out along with my staff and friends at work about whether or not their visas would be renewed as they navigated a process made deliberately harder by the Trump administration.

The people who voted for Trump–twice in some cases–meant for us to endure another 4 years of these assaults on citizenship, faith, and dignity. Even as I write this, some of his supporters are amplifying Trump’s baseless charges of voter fraud. To ask those who opposed Trump to show empathy to his supporters now shows a real lack of understanding for the profound harm Trump’s presidency has inflicted on marginalized people (and likely will still inflict because his presidency doesn’t officially end until Inauguration Day in January 2021).

Sympathy may be possible later, perhaps even empathy–even though his supporters certainly displayed none who disagreed with them in 2016–because those of us who at least attempt to take our Christianity seriously believe Matthew 5:44 to be a command, not a suggestion. But it will not be on anyone else’s timetable.