The student loan scam, and other tales from the crypt

Writing anything about Donald Trump, the apparently unhinged and possibly treasonous occupant of the White House, is essentially impossible to do in a weekly column.

Nobody, probably including the man himself, knows what he will do next — any more than you can predict the behavior of a barrel of nitroglycerin in a bumpy train car.

More than a week ago, it became perfectly clear that Trump had not only obstructed justice, but had quite possibly committed the equivalent of treason by giving classified secrets to Russian emissaries right after he fired the FBI director.

James Comey was sacked, of course, apparently for investigating his administration's ties — you guessed it — to Russia. That's the situation as I am writing these words.

Of course, by the time you read these words, Trump may have declared war on Paraguay, announced he is the world's largest lemon drop, or offered to give Alaska back to the Russians if they let him open a Trump hotel in St. Petersburg.

We cannot know, but the collapse of our nation's democracy is entertaining, as long as you don't think too much about the long-term consequences for mankind.

Meanwhile back in the old U.S. of A., we are working hard to make sure the long-term consequences for our kids are worse than they were for us. Apart from home mortgages, what do you think is the biggest single source of consumer debt?

Auto loans? Credit cards? Not even close. It is student higher education loan debt, which is now nearly $1.5 trillion. Thanks to steadily declining government support for higher education, students — some of whom never graduate — run up obscenely bloated tabs, which many will never be able to repay.

Others, even those who get the jobs they wanted, will stagger along under this burden for decades, postponing, possibly forever, buying homes and having children.

You might call them the "student loan serfs."

Even as higher education in some form is more important to our students and the future of our society than ever, we're making it steadily harder to get. But the banks are getting rich.

The full dimensions of this swindle, which is becoming a crisis, are laid out in a new book with a clumsy academic title, The Neoliberal Agenda and the Student Debt Crisis in U.S. Higher Education, co-edited by Brandon Hensley, one of my colleagues at Wayne State University.

Sadly, much of the book is a little too academic for mainstream audiences. The authors also annoyingly blame this on "neoliberalism" by which they mean an ideology that thinks free market capitalism is the greatest good.

This is an entirely artificial definition; nobody ever calls themselves a neoliberal. But they really do zero in on the heart of the problem, which is that we have been brainwashed into believing that higher education is a personal luxury, like a Rolls-Royce, that anyone wanting it should have to pay for.

Actually, higher education is as or more necessary to our national security than the U.S. Armed Forces. We, or at least our government, was smarter back then. Education, not just technical education, was recognized as a national good.

The government paid the lion's share of the costs, and scholarship money was abundant. But now the Great Satan of Communism has fallen, and we are neglecting our future.

What we need, as this book concludes, is an ideological shift to a place where we recognize that we should have a public right to the higher education each of us needs — and a personal responsibility to use it in some way for the public good.

Until we do, the bankers will continue to get rich off people who can scarcely afford it, and the unsustainable pyramid of debt will come that much closer to crashing down.

Why not the best?

The Democratic Party has long consisted of a number of very different groups who may not much like each other, but who dislike the Republicans even more.

Fair enough. But one of the stupider things Michigan Democrats do is insist on an "ethnically balanced ticket."

That means, unofficially but practically, that at least one of the four major nominees — governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, and attorney general — has to be black, and at least one a woman.

Though voters select the gubernatorial nominee in next August's primary, the others are all picked in traditional smoke-filled room style at a statewide party convention around Labor Day.

You'd think that tokenism would be a relic of the past in a state and nation that twice elected Barack Obama — but then, some would say relics of the past is another term for Michigan Democrats.

This has often caused the party to throw away races it might otherwise have won. The worst recent example came in 2006, when Scott Bowen, a charismatic former judge from the Grand Rapids area, campaigned hard for the nomination for attorney general.

There's every reason to believe he could have defeated Mike Cox, the Republican incumbent. But Democrats wanted a black face on the ticket, so they instead nominated Amos Williams, a little-known Detroit attorney, to whom they gave little support and less money. He lost badly, but tokenism had been served.

Three years ago, they did much the same, nominating black lawyer Godfrey Dillard for secretary of state, then leaving his candidacy out there to wither and die. Dillard, who had really wanted to run for attorney general but was shunted into secretary of state instead, reportedly complained bitterly in internal party councils about tokenism, but kept quiet in public like a good boy.

Like Williams before him, Dillard lost in a landslide and hasn't been seen since. Next year the ticket may feature at least two strong women; Gretchen Whitmer, now the front-running candidate for governor, and Jocelyn Benson, the former Wayne State law school dean, who badly wants to be secretary of state.

One logical, if unconventional, possibility for attorney general would be Dana Nessel, the witty, passionate, and sometimes caustic 48-year-old attorney who played a major role in making both same-sex adoption and same-sex marriage legal in this state through her work in the precedent-setting case DeBoer v. Snyder, in which she and her legal team beat the pants off Bill Schuette in federal court.

That case was later consolidated with others, and resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court's June 2015 decision that same-sex marriage is constitutionally protected. Nessel, who now is managing partner of her own firm, also has a long record of experience as an Wayne County assistant prosecutor, going after everything from auto theft to police misconduct before specializing in child abuse cases.

She might well be the first attorney general since Frank Kelley to actually want to do the job and look out for Michigan's citizens.

She is gay, and has a lovely wife and twin sons by a previous relationship. They are about as normal and attractive a family as you'll find anywhere, and are really a poster family for the values Democrats, and most Americans, say they believe in.

It will be interesting to see if Michigan Democrats would be willing to give an unconventional choice a chance.

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