Economy & Business

Student-Loan Deadbeats: Fashionable Theft


He was the greatest poet and critic of his time, but poetry and criticism do not in general pay all that well, and T. S. Eliot, unfortunately for him, lived in an age in which celebrity academics did not bank CEO money. He came from a well-to-do family — his father was a very successful businessman in St. Louis — but his family did little to support him financially. As a young man, Eliot taught French and Latin at both private and government schools, but marriage brought with it additional financial burdens, and in 1917 — two years after publishing “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” — he took a job at Lloyd’s bank, on the foreign business desk.

Eliot hated Lloyd’s. He worked in a sub-sub-basement and did not have an office, or even a cubicle — he worked on one of those comically long rows of clerks’ desks that you see in old movies. But he was diligent. As his literary career began to take off, one of his superiors at Lloyd’s advised him to keep applying himself to his work, suggesting that he might rise to become a branch manager, in time. Alduous Huxley sneered that Eliot was “the most bank-clerky of all bank clerks.” Eliot did not disagree: “How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot! / With his features of clerical cut. / And his brow so grim / And his mouth so prim . . .”

He continued writing, of course: poetry, essays, criticism, book reviews. In 1922, he published The Waste-Land, a landmark in English verse: “Mr Eliot’s trivialities are more valuable than other people’s epics,” the critic Edmund Wilson wrote. Eliot, he said, was writing “unforgettable poems, which everyone was trying to rewrite.”

Eliot stayed at the bank.

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At least, he stayed there for a few more years, five days a week plus one Saturday a month. He was nearly forty before he began working at Faber and Faber, the publisher where he was employed full-time for the rest of his career, eventually joining the firm’s board of directors. Even after having written a commercially successful play (The Cocktail Party), he was taking the bus to work.

I’d like to go on record here pledging to cover the full cost of a monthly bus pass for Lee Siegel, the somewhat less exalted writer and critic who in the Sunday New York Times explained: “Why I defaulted on my student loans.” And maybe why you should, too.

Siegel’s story is more than familiar to me, having been at one time in precisely the same position: forced to decide between pursuing my education at a less expensive and less prestigious state school or taking on a great deal of debt to finance an Ivy League education. My Calvinist terror of debt preceded, and has survived, my conversion to Catholicism, and I like to think that Yale’s loss was the University of Texas’s gain, though the view from Austin may be different. I was very fortunate to finish my college years with a net worth of approximately $0.00 — no assets to speak of, but no debts, either, which enabled me to go work as a newspaper editor in India without having to worry about much other than my immediate household expenses. To the taxpayers of Texas and the world oil markets — both of which contribute mightily to subsidizing English majors at the University of Texas — I am grateful.

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Siegel went the other way, borrowing what one assumes is a great deal of money to underwrite three degrees from Columbia University in New York City. Columbia is one of the most expensive institutions of higher learning in the world; New York City is not the least expensive place in the country to live. “I found myself confronted with a choice that too many people have had to and will have to face,” Seigel wrote. “I could give up what had become my vocation (in my case, being a writer) and take a job that I didn’t want in order to repay the huge debt I had accumulated in college and graduate school. Or I could take what I had been led to believe was both the morally and legally reprehensible step of defaulting on my student loans, which was the only way I could survive without wasting my life in a job that had nothing to do with my particular usefulness to society. I chose life. That is to say, I defaulted on my student loans.”

To default on a student loan because you do not wish to pay it back is theft, in this case theft from all of us.

The justifications are piled high: He comes from a modest background and finds it unfair that other people have had advantages denied him. He declares it “absurd” — making no case, only the declaration — that he could “amass crippling debt as a result, not of drug addiction or reckless borrowing and spending, but of going to college.” Never mind that his borrowing and spending was, in fact, reckless, and that an Ivy League degree or three is every much an item of conspicuous consumption and a status symbol as a Lamborghini. He complains that the system is legal but not moral.

We have a legal system because interpretations of morality vary from person to person and from community to community. Stealing is not highly regarded in most of them. To default on a loan that you simply cannot repay may be the result of bad luck, bad judgment, or the pursuit of an MFA. To default on a loan because you do not wish to pay it back is theft, in this case theft from all of us, since the federal government is on the hook for the loans in question.

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There is a great deal of bad thinking and bad advice (student loans are not normally dischargeable, even in bankruptcy, and the government can simply garnish your wages or put liens on your financial assets, just as it does with unpaid taxes, about which I know a little something more than I’d like) in his argument, but the telling phrase is “my particular usefulness to society.” We hear similar arguments frequently in the debate about college costs and student loans, with Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts speaking for the deadbeat constituency, which is very much politically fashionable at the moment. We are told that students have a right to an education (but an Ivy League education?), that the system is unfair and the burdens heavy, etc. And we hear variations on Siegel’s argument that education is a social good, that we should be glad to have spent whatever sum we spent in order to avail ourselves of his “particular usefulness to society.” This is an example of the special-snowflake philosophy of social organization: Yes, your feminist slam-poetry collective is very, very impressive — but even T. S. Eliot went to the office six days a week when literary life wasn’t paying the bills.

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It is true that society benefits from widespread access to college education. But that benefit is marginal in any given case, whereas the benefit accruing to those receiving education at public expense can be enormous. Michelle Obama complains in public from time to time that she was obliged to repay student loans as a young professional earning only in the low-to-mid six figures. She is oblivious, as Siegel is oblivious, that when institutions lend you money at ordinary market rates, that is business — but when institutions lend you money at below-rates, that’s a favor. You don’t simply owe interest and principal — you owe a bit of gratitude, too.

#related#Those of us who are able to make a living writing are among the luckiest people in the world (a condition for which I am deeply grateful to this irreplaceable institution and its supporters). The same is true of people who work in other creative fields, and all of those who are fortunate enough to earn a paycheck doing that which they would do for free. That is, as H. L. Mencken put it, “the life of kings.” But it is not a life to which any of us is entitled at the expense of others; the typical taxpayer left holding the bag by defaulters is more like Lee Siegel’s mother 30 years ago, struggling to help with her son’s education, than like a successful literary gentleman publishing the occasional apologia pro debitis suis in the Sunday Times.

We all have our obligations. T. S. Eliot was not too good to work a day job to meet his responsibilities. Neither is Lee Siegel.


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