Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Times Most Emailed

Yesterday's Op-Ed just made it to the top of the Times' Most E-mailed List. This doesn't make it a better article, but it means it's striking a chord with lots of people, which is awesome to me. I have also gotten surprisingly overwhelmingly positive feedback via email and blog comments (One American Prospect blogger called it "brilliant").

One correspondent described the piece to me as dealing with the "economics of the overeducated," a phrase that sounds a little derisive out of context, but she's right. The school-to-work and labor market systems that we have now, they're not just bad for poor people. They're bad for middle-class people, and even some rich people, and society as a whole.

The second-most-emailed Times story this week is a great counterpoint to mine. It's about the trend of high school dropouts going to college, especially for-profit colleges, which accept them and their federal aid dollars in large numbers without regard for their low chances of success, in the ultimate in social promotion.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

That's Just, Like, Your Opinion, Man

I have an op-ed in the New York Times today, which expands on a digression I made in the book about the value of internships.

Update: I posted about it on the Huffington Post. I will be contributing to them occasionally from now on, and will post links back and forth.

Also, a number of the people who've responded have wished that I dwelled more on the unfair class implications of internships--the fact that you have to be able to pay to get your foot in the door. A story by Jennifer 8. Lee in the NY Times 2 years ago underlined this point, which I think is a very good one.

A reader writes:

I had several friends who were forced to make a choice over whether to gain valuable experience and connections as an unpaid intern or earn money that summer and live at home. Many of them were forced to choose the later thus leaving them out of the summer internship club with nothing to put on their resume and losing out to those with enough money. I call it a club because that’s exactly what it is – if your family has enough money then you’re in. If you’ve walked around Capital Hill in summer time you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Right on the Nose

International Herald Tribune via TimesSelect:

Globalization - the almost instantaneous movement across borders of ideas, technologies, capital and goods - is a tremendous creator of wealth. But more than a decade after new technologies and the Cold War's end started driving modern global economic integration, it's not clear the process is also a good distributor of wealth.

Indeed, there's plenty of evidence that the growing wealth disparities in countries from Latin America to Asia are attributable in part to the divide between those with the capacity to board the globalization train and those left stranded by it.

A case can be made that if slavery was the overriding moral issue of the 19th century, and totalitarianism of the 20th, inequality and poverty will be those of the 21st. Communism is passé; the issues that gave rise to it are not.

"Profound Effects" of College Debt

According to this survey, 42% of those with loans 1 to 15 yrs out of school are living "paycheck to paycheck" compared to 24% of those without loans; 34% have sold a possession to make ends meet compared to 17% of the debt-free.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Gore Poem

I saw Al tonight at Town Hall in Times Square. My post about it is up on the Village Voice website, but in the meantime, here is a poem on the necessity of increasing intensity when talking of the urgency of planetary alteration.

O Regal
Al Gore,
Go Real.
Are Log,
Or Gale,
Or LA, e.g.,
Go Lear!
Lo, Rage
O Large
O Regal
Al Gore.

Retirement Benefits Monster

Sez USA Today:
Taxpayers owe more than a half-million dollars per household for financial promises made by government, mostly to cover the cost of retirement benefits for baby boomers, a USA TODAY analysis shows. Federal, state and local governments have added nearly $10 trillion to taxpayer liabilities in the past two years, bringing the total of government's unfunded obligations to an unprecedented $57.8 trillion. (projected over 75 years).

I used to have this Sesame Street book when I was a kid called "There's A Monster At the End of This Book" where Grover is all scared of the monster, trying to stop you from turning the pages, and at the end he realizes...the monster is him.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

"Apocalypse Now"

I am an apocalyptic thinker by nature. I don't know how I got this way as I had a quite happy childhood, but my mind naturally trends toward the possibility of civilization-ending disaster. I think maybe it has to do with my first childhood fit about the finality of death, which came when i was 9 years old, trying to get to sleep the day after touring a small exhibit on the Holocaust at a local church. I remember distinctly the thought that this was a horror my mother could not take away, even though she managed to comfort me enough that I fell asleep. And it wasn't just my own death, although that was part of it. It was the possible death of millions.

Tonight I saw that Al Gore movie., presenting its three irrefutable, irreconcilable truths:
1. The tragedy is already in motion.
2. Its predictable consequence is the end of civilization.
3. The solutions are already known.

Irreconcilable. Except with immediate action.

Ps. Here is Bill Moyers giving a gloomy commencement speech:
"We're sorry. We're really sorry for the mess you're inheriting. We are sorry for the war in Iraq. For the huge debts you will have to pay for without getting a new social infrastructure in return. We're sorry for the polarized country. The corporate scandals. The corrupt politics. Our imperiled democracy. We're sorry for the sprawl and our addiction to oil and for all those toxins in the environment. Sorry about all this, class of 2006. Good luck cleaning it up."

You're going to have your hands full, frankly. I don't need to tell you of the gloomy scenarios being written for your time. Three books on my desk right now question whether human beings will even survive the 21st century. Just listen to their titles: "The Long Emergency: Surviving the Convergence Catastrophe"; "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed"; "The Winds of Change: Weather and the Destruction of Civilizations."

Monday, May 22, 2006

Microlending Online

Salon story on a site where you can sign up to borrow and lend money to peers, cutting out the credit card company middleman. Back to the days of personal trust and a handshake?

"Looking at it from 10,000 feet, this is a great idea," says Elizabeth Warren, a professor at Harvard Law School who's an expert on bankruptcy law. "It could have the wonderful effect of making markets work the way they should, driving down the amounts charged for loans to the true marginal cost."

The Ever-Dying American Dream

From a late review of Gen Debt last week in The Oregonian: "Kamenetz's underlying sense of entitlement to some lost guarantee -- the American Dream being guzzled by the boomers before our very eyes -- can be grating..."

From an essay by Meghan O'Rourke in Slate: "... what Philip Rahv once said was the ur-aim of American literature: to contemplate "the discrepancy between the high promise of the American dream and what history has made of it.""

I'm not saying that my book's a work of literature, but the theme is an enduring one.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Ralph Nader on Sallie Mae

Student Loan Justice sent out an email tonight about the reactions they've gotten since the 60 Minutes piece on Sallie Mae a couple weeks ago--
"So...I've received over a thousand emails in the past two weeks. I've answered them all personally. Its been pretty overwhelming, but I've been awestruck to read about all of your situations. Suicides, wrecked families, destroyed lives, being forced to leave the country, living "underground"--I've heard about all of these in the past two weeks. All because of Student Loans. STUDENT LOANS. How in God's name did this country get so badly off track?
I would say that at this point, this is a bonafide grassroots movement, and you are the first members- "

They pointed me to this essay by Ralph Nader on Counterpunch about Sallie Mae, which hits all the highlights:

Originally a government-sponsored enterprise like Fannie Mae, Sallie Mae was privatized in 1997 and is now the largest private lender to students. But not entirely private. The federal government is its guarantor. Michael Dannenberg of the New America Foundation told Leslie Stahl:

"It may be called 'private'but it's not private at all. Frankly it's a socialist-like system. It's not as if this private entity is assuming any risks. No, no, no. The law makes sure that this so-called private entity has virtually no risk."

Friday, May 19, 2006

Bogus Credit Counseling Agencies

I wrote an online piece for the Voice yesterday about the IRS crackdown on these places that are supposed to help you fix your credit.
You can do anything that a credit counselor can do, although they make it easier. That is, you can call your credit card companies yourself to negotiate lower interest rates and work out a payment plan. Making the payments on time is up to you.

Fast Company Story on Social Networks

I have a feature in the June issue of Fast Company magazine, about the social change potential of next-generation social networks (after Myspace).
...And the paper's editor is going on TV to talk about it!

Thursday, May 18, 2006

In these Times Gendebt Article

"Debt Becomes You." Clever.

Hit 'Em Where it Hurts

NY State proposes a special tax on commercial (for-profit) colleges to recoup the extra costs of policing the many that are fraud and scam artists. Read my take on the industry in Slate here.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Sign the Petition to Fix Complicated Student Loan Rules

This Project on Student Debt "administrative petition" advocates for some awesome reforms in the student loan rules that would help the people struggling the most. This is a regulatory petition with a real chance to influence quality. You can also send an email to Margaret Spellings, the Secretary of Education. Check out Edie Irons' guest post on the Rock the Vote Blog or the website for more info.

Credit Counseling Agencies are Bunk

The IRS is basically gutting the entire "credit counseling" industry, saying these nonprofits don't deserve their nonprofit status because of endemic corruption, herding people into plans where the payments are so low their debt just climbs higher.The 40 companies stripped of their tax status account for 40% of the industry's revenue. Heavy duty irony here--these are the guys (besides collectors) who make the profits off peoples' debt.

Hillary Apologizes for Maligning Gen Debt

I would be remiss if I didn't comment on this story: Hillary Clinton, on her mad rush to out-scold the GOP, said that my generation "thinks work is a four-letter word," only to apologize after being called out by her 26-year-old daughter Chelsea.

I have to say, I don't recall a similar case where a politician reversed herself after being publicly rebuked by his or her own child. That on its own says something about family relationships and authority between Boomers and Gen-Debt. Which goes right to the funny dynamic wherein the Boomers, who have been maligned all their lives as self-indulgent & entitled, who *created* this "instant gratification culture," point the finger at their kids for absorbing their very own values.

And what of the criticism itself? Facts, please. More young people than ever before are enrolling in college, and they're working an average of 31.6 hours a week while they're students. Young people make up a plurality of the retail, grocery, and department store workforce, and a majority of those toiling for minimum wage. Entitlement exists, materialism exists, throughout our culture. Scapegoating young people with it is--I daresay--kinda lazy.

Nationwide college graduation rate for blacks is 42 percent, compared to 62 percent for whites.

But structured peer mentoring programs can help, sez the NYT.

ps. That's a six-year rate, the standard way it's measured. That's 47% higher for whites. That's at both public and private colleges.

Best College-Grad Job Market in Years

sez USA Today. This is according to a recruiting industry organization the National Association of Colleges and Employers. I am thrilled to see this basically good news, of course. Yet the spin on the story is a little heavy handed, to wit:

"Stronger starting salaries: Nearly nine out of 10 employers say competition for college hires has increased, and more than 20% have raised, or plan to raise, their starting salaries, according to NACE."

Sorry, but shouldn't that read, "Though nearly 90% of employers say competition has increased, ONLY A LITTLE OVER 20% EVEN HAVE PLANS TO raise starting salaries" ? Plus the increases they quote, 5.4% for accounting and 5.3% for computer engineering? Not so much more than inflation, and less than tuition went up last year.

Dangers of SL Debt

I am quoted in a Christian Science Monitor story.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Change in the Air for Retirees

In Gen Debt I looked at evidence that the 60 year old American model of retirement--65, gold watch, and out--is fading, replaced by longer years of work and more uncertainty. The implications for all Americans, including Gendebt-ers are multifold: as caretakers, workers competing for jobs held by older and more experienced workers, and eventually retirees ourselves. Lots on this, if contradictory, in the papers lately.

The NY Times ran a Sunday story saying more people are planning to work part time after "retirement." "There are, of course, broad social and economic reasons for the emphasis on continuing work — notably, the decline in availability of traditional pension plans and health benefits, and the need for older workers to provide for themselves over a lengthening lifespan." Yet the LA Times has a study by McKinsey&Co showing "American workers, who face growing financial pressure to stay in the workforce, are far more likely to be forced into an early retirement than many expect, according to a study being released today." Reasons include health crises and downsizing, where older workers are eliminated first.

So people want to work longer but they may not be able to? This is kind of like the increased contingency for young workers. IF you're comfortable and self-supporting, it looks like flexibility and freedom. If you're struggling, it looks like a cold cruel world.

More NOLA photos

My latest post on is a slideshow of New Orleans neighborhoods.
I came home from my trip home (?) cautiously optimistic. But hurricane season is going to be constant anxiety.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Retirement Questionnaire for FRONTLINE

Posted on request--Reply by Wednesday, May 10, if interested:

I'm a researcher for FRONTLINE, the documentary show on PBS, and I'm currently working on an article for our Web site (www.pbs.or/frontline) about Generations X and Y and their views on retirement. I know it's a long way off for all of us, but the decisions our elected leaders are making now will dramatically affect whether many of us can retire comfortably when we want to or must continue working for as long as we're able.

So, I'd like to speak with a broad range of young people (ages 18-35), and use their stories as examples in my article. If you're interested, please answer the short list of questions below, and return your responses to me at ( by the evening of Wednesday, May 10th. I'll contact you by e-mail for any follow up questions and to let you know if I'll be including your information in my article.

The article will appear on the FRONTLINE companion Web site to a new film by Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Hedrick Smith titled "Can You Afford to Retire?" (May 16, 2006). Here's a brief synopsis:

"The baby boomer generation is headed for a shock as it hits retirement: boomers will be long on life expectancy but short on income. In addition to Social Security, the pillars of retirement income for Americans have been either lifetime corporate pensions or employee-contribution plans such as 401Ks. But both retirement strategies are in trouble. Buffeted by pension cuts, corporate bankruptcies, and the 2001-2002 stock market crash, most boomers now expect to be working into their retirement years."

NOTE: Please e-mail your responses to

Name (first/last)*:
Occupation (please provide title as well as a short description):
Location (city/state):

When do you plan to retire?

How do you plan to fund your retirement (savings, employer pension, 401(k), part-time work)?

How much money do you think you'll need to pay for your retirement?

What is the current balance in your retirement account?

If you have a 401(k) or 403(b) plan, how is your money allocated (stocks, mutual funds, bonds, etc.)?

What portion of your retirement do you think will come from Social Security?

How do you plan to pay for health care in retirement?

Which type of retirement plan would you rather your employer offer: a lifetime pension or a 401(k)? (With a traditional lifetime pension, an employee who works for a company a number of years receives a set amount of money every year for the rest of his life. With 401(k) accounts, an employee contributes a portion of his salary to an investment account, which pays out in a lump sum when he retires. Some employers will match a portion of the employee's contributions.

* If you are not comfortable being identified by your full name or your first name, please indicate why and how you would like to be identified in our article.

Sounds of the City

My latest piece, a Note from New Orleans in the Voice on hurricane housing for musicians.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

60 Minutes Piece on Student Debt...

Should be airing this weekend, May 7, possibly including interviews with some of my contacts in the student loan world like Luke Swarthout, Alan Collinge of Student Loan Justice, and Lynnae Brown the director of documentary "The Garnished Life."
I wish they'd called me but it looks like a good segment nonetheless and I still have a couple of big TV appearances coming up--stay tuned!

Fix Everything My A**

Here's a commentary I wrote for Tom Paine on the state of my hometown. I'm loving being down here and feeling somewhat optimistic about the pace of recovery overall, but it hurts to see so many citizens left out of the equation. I think it's a bad long-term strategy for renewal.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Note from New Orleans

The amount of activity here in my hometown is simply staggering, & it's hard to figure out what it all adds up to: a slow renewal, stasis, or a weird afterlife before the final end. I guess it all depends on who you talk to. Here are some pics from the weekend (published on the Village Voice website.)

Social Security&Medicare: Time is Running Short

New predictions for the exhausting of the Social Security& Medicare "trust funds": the Social Security deadline has been moved up a year to 2040, and Medicare has been moved up from 2020 to 2018.

Treasury Secretary John Snow, who is the chairman of the trustees' panel, told a news conference that the country faced a ''looming fiscal crisis as the baby boom generation moves into retirement.'' He said the administration stood ready to work with Congress to come up with a solution.

Don't hold your breath. In 1983, the last time there was a major overhaul, they waited until Social Security was literally days away from running out of cash.