Thursday, June 29, 2006

I'm Teaching A Writing Class

If you live in New York (especially Brooklyn) you can come take a non-fiction writing workshop starting in August. Go to the Sackett Street Workshop for more information.

We will use exercises, published work, and group discussion ofstudents' work to talk about craft as it relates to nonfiction. Eachwriter will have the opportunity to have their writing critiqued inclass, receiving detailed feedback from the instructor and theirfellow classmates.Class size is limited to eight writers to insure each participant'swriting receives the attention it deserves.We will also cover freelancing, pitching, and getting published.Each writer will meet privately with the instructor for a detailedanalysis. The instructorspends two or more hours on each critiqued piece.The fee for the 8-week session is $350, which includes a reading atNight & Day (5th Avenue, Park Slope, Brooklyn).Please apply at to submit a writing sample ofany type of nonfiction.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Democrats Take Up Student Loan Debt

As student loan interest rates hit 6.8% on Saturday, the Democrats are trumpeting their plan to cut those rates in half. Such a measure would save the typical student borrower (who they're putting at $17,600 in loans) over $5600 in interest through the life of the loan.
It's not exactly a comprehensive solution, more like a middle-class handout. But why shouldn't these loans be subsidized to be much cheaper than market rate, when the capital for them is underwritten by the federal government?

The Dems also have a forum with testimony now from hundreds of students and parents on student loans.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: i'm happy with anything that saves students money.

Solidarity, Class War, and Wal-Mart

A thoughtful debate on Slate over everyone's favorite corporate punching bag: Wal-Mart. I didn't think economists Jason Furman was making that much sense though. He seems to believe that low-wage workers are all people incapable of holding higher-skilled jobs, that they're defined by the crappy jobs they hold now, as in this comparison of Best Buy (low-pay, low-skill) and Stereo Exchange (higher skill, higher pay);

Imagine that Best Buys across the country were replaced by Stereo Exchanges. We would have more "good jobs" and fewer "bad jobs." The average wage in the electronics retail sector would go up. But where would all the former Best Buy workers go? Most of them wouldn't work at Stereo Exchange.

Barbara Ehrenreich sensibly asks him, why not?
She wants to see the working class fight for better conditions--a living wage, etc--more or less the way they did it the first time, through solidarity, in the streets. (Yes, she's a socialist. got a problem with that?) I wish.

Yeah, I'm talking "class war" as a solution to poverty and rising inequality. But remember, the working class didn't start this war and—mainly due to the weakness of the unions and the pusillanimity of the Democrats—has been fairly supine in the face of repeated attacks. I say it's time to fight back. What's your solution?

Right on!

The New American Dream

I was interviewed for an interesting column by Penelope Trunk in the Boston Globe about what our generation wants out of life. Essentially, since the old American dream has been taken away from us, now we want something else: mobility, flexibility, the chance to shape our own destiny. It's easy to be less materialistic when you actually have less stuff.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

CBS Evening News does "Generation Debt"

They featured a married doctor couple with $500,000 of education loans.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Good News on Interest Rates!

From the US Pirgs:

Yesterday afternoon Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Congressman George Miller committed to cutting student loan interest rates in half to 3.4% if the Democrats take back Congress.

Reason enough in your pocket to do some phone banking come the fall?

Sunday, June 18, 2006

A Marker

This blog went up exactly a year ago, at the end of June, as I was finishing up Generation Debt.
In August, I published a piece in the Washington Post Outlook Section about young people and activism. Then Katrina hit & I went home to New Orleans, turning in the final text literally the day before I left. Then $12.7 billion was cut from student loan programs and Sallie Mae's favorite congressman was elected house majority leader and the book got some press and I flew to Idaho to talk to high school and community college students...Now the column has ended, I'm preparing a new chapter for the paperback due out in January with a new subtitle, visiting more campuses, and writing about personal finance and debt and next-generation business.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Hear me on On Point Radio

Talking about student debt with Elizabeth Warren It was a pretty good hour.

Huffington Post on Daily Lattes

I'm blogging over at the Huffington Post these days. Here's my latest.

Born at the Wrong Time

New economic studies suggest that a graduate's first job does, in fact, determine their lifetime economic position:

"in today's economy starting at the bottom is a recipe for being underpaid for a long time to come. Graduates' first jobs have an inordinate impact on their career path and their "future income stream," as economists refer to a person's earnings over a lifetime."

Daniel Gross, any comment?

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Student Loans Top Dem Agenda

USA Today: WASHINGTON — Democratic House and Senate leaders are planning to reduce the cost of student loans and prescription drugs, raise the minimum wage and launch an effort to develop alternative fuels if they win back control of Congress.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Excellent Washington Post Op-ed

E.J. Dionne is right. This is a huge question mark.

"For the past 15 years, progressive free-market politicians have offered an appealing mantra about how to save the middle class: What's needed, they've said, is heavy investment in education and job training to allow people to make the transition from the "old" economy -- those auto jobs -- to the new. "What you earn depends upon what you can learn," President Bill Clinton said over and over.

There's certainly some truth to that still, but in the global economy, competition is fierce even for high-end jobs requiring great skill and education. To think otherwise is to deny the obvious: that the people of India and China, to pick just the two obvious examples, are gifted, energetic, ambitious -- and numerous."

Monday, June 12, 2006

Credit Report, Report

My second of two columns on the credit industry for This one is about the egregious situation with credit reporting.

Update: Posted to Alternet; dozens of comments. Many say, Hey, why not opt out of credit system?
Also, 2 number typos: correct FICO range = 300-850, and 700-677 = 23.

Um, Can I have my $1 million Now?

Go USA Today ! Front page story on graduates (mostly grad students) with eye-popping 6 figure loan balances. I think we've officially hit a tipping point here.
Mr. Swarthout comments astutely:

Still, students remain willing to load up on loans in large part because studies have long shown that an investment in college pays off. (Like students are really going, 'I've read the research on this and blah blah, college is worth it.') The Census Bureau has estimated that college graduates will earn about $1 million more over their lifetimes than individuals with only a high school diploma.

The problem for borrowers with heavy debts is that the loan payments arise long before the higher salaries do, says Luke Swarthout of the Higher Education Project. Most graduates are expected to start repaying their loans soon after they leave school. Besides earning modest starting salaries, they often have to shoulder the costs of moving to an expensive new city. "The problem is, you don't get the $1 million when you graduate," Swarthout says.

Debt was the Cover Story

Of the New York Times Magazine yesterday. I was quoted in the article on student loan debt, by Jon Gertner.

"It's not about whether these policies are stopping these people from applying to college, though there is some evidence that they are," Kamenetz, a 2002 Yale graduate, says of the rising borrowing rates. "It's whether they're fair, whether they represent our ideals as a society and whether in the long term they're effective as compared to the policies of other countries that are pulling ahead of us."

Wise words from Elizabeth Warren: "Warren is convinced that rising levels of undergraduate debt have diminished the potential — long taken for granted — of a four-year degree to deliver someone into the middle class. "We tend to talk about student loans in the abstract, 'Ten or twenty thousand dollars — it's not that much,"' she explains. "But I think it's really about what it means to be 28 and try to make loan payments and health insurance premiums and still put something aside for a down payment for a house. Think about how much extra room you have to have in your budget to cover those three things. Most can't do it."

I also found this ironic: While [Susan Dynarski] agrees that student borrowing has risen steadily, she counters that critics like Kamenetz need to put that debt into perspective: "Credit card debt is up, car debt is up, people are spending more," she says. "Among all of those sources of debt, a college education is one of the best reasons to go into debt."

I doubt Professor Dynarski was actually addressing this point to me directly, because when we met she told me she had read & enjoyed my book. Because the whole point of Generation Debt is precisely to put student loan debt into "perspective" alongside the debt that is engulfing our entire society. And that's exactly what this article, in the context of this issue, does.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Testimony by a Former Slate Intern

on the intern issue, using most of the same data points (and a link to my piece, thanks!). She actually talked to a labor lawyer, which is cool.

"But interns generally don't report their employers to the Labor Department for the weeks they spend at the copy machine. They're too grateful. "

There's that word again...

The "Plight" of Student Lenders

Solid op-ed by an Arizona congressman on the state of the student loan industry.

The Republican Congress keeps giving big favors to the big-pocket student loan lenders while students and families feel the brunt of their greed.
Congress must restore the real value of federal aid by cutting the student loan interest rate in half and moving towards a Direct Loan system. Only then can we begin to help students overcome debt burden and realize their dreams of going to college. The very competitiveness and strength of our country depends on it.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

A Coda

"Life's Work" in the Times this week is about kids competing for a PR internship at a big firm.
Eight of them, out of 20 finalists, out of 200 applicants, will be awarded a $400 a week summer internship. Hey, that's a living wage, so that's good! More specifically, you could easily afford to live here.
Lisa Belkin hits two themes that ring true for me:
....competition has ratcheted up over the years, and this generation of students — students who need a Nobel prize just to get into college — are conquering peaks to gain experience that might lead to their first jobs...
but on the other hand, there is
...a shift in the mind-set of the most sought-after candidates. Not only do they tend to respect something they must compete for, but they also demand more from a job than a future and a paycheck." These kids, they have dreams. Crazy, I know.

ps. a brilliant friend leapt gallantly to my defense vs this guy. The ensuing conversation focused on the question: should you be grateful to have a job at all?
In this economy, yes. All other things being equal? Gratitude is certainly what I experience every time I sell a story, or get off the phone with a kind editor. We all do work for lots of different motivations and have lots of emotions around work. I am reading a fascinating book that touches on that right now.

But good feelings are not sufficient. I think if you're performing useful work that you ought to be paid a decent wage; that's the contract implicit in work and it used to be federal law, before our minimum wage flatlined to a 60-year low. This belief, of course, makes me a BIG FAT LIBERAL.

W/r/t unpaid internships, the argument goes like this: EITHER the interns are doing absolutely nothing useful, in which case the value for them is nil and for the firm nothing but added expense, OR they are performing useful work that adds value to the firm, in which case they are subject to minimum wage laws.

In America as recently as the 1980s most people who had jobs also had employer-provided health care and a good number had pensions. These benefits were hard won mostly by union organizers over decades, first in the streets at risk of life and limb, later by big union bureaucracies working in collusion with government and business to provide deals that benefited all parties--not without corruption, on all sides. However, today, that instrument of negotiation on behalf of workers has essentially withered, and workers' benefits have withered right along with it.
(caveat: globalization blah blah, lots of other factors. But why no labor provisions in international trade agreements that enabled globalization?)
[Btw, the overwhelming reason young workers aren't unionized is not just that they're young but that the majority of them are employed in the minimum-wage, low-wage, service workforce, making up the bulk of that workforce. And the average age in unionized working-class jobs is going up because--surprise!--people hold onto those jobs.]

This generation of youngish influential educated workers especially seem to have internalized this "brand called me" New Economy crap that we're all entrepreneurs, and we're going to become the boss very very soon, so we don't need (or deserve?) benefits or any modicum of security. So yeah, I do think we need a more "agonistic labor-capital relationship". Just as a corrective. Some call it "resistance."
Oh, you guys got me--i'm a 'bloggin now!

Al Franken-berry

I'll be on the Al Franken show this afternoon at 1:30 pm. You can listen online.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Summing Up

I'll be on cable TV --somewhere--tomorrow morning to talk about this internship piece. Comcast cable network to be precise.
I can honestly say this is the most bloggoriffic response i've ever gotten to anything I've written. By the professional opinion-mongerers, I've been called everything from "baffling...a funhouse mirror" to "unbearably lame" to a "manure-spreading puppet" (a farm implement used in Bali?). And oh--for some reason this annoys me the most--"hot."
There's a lot of boys out there with time on their hands.
On the other hand, I am someone's hero. And someone else is "with me all the way." And someone else thinks I have "great points." Who are these analysts? Surprise! They are current unpaid interns/struggling college students.

This person thinks I stole her idea. It's a good article, but no--mine was assigned on May 7.
Anyway. I think the following comment--the last comment on this post--restates the main (strongest) point of my op-ed quite clearly and well.
I made a bunch of suggestions in the piece of a new way of thinking about internships. This was intended for people to mull over and compare with their own experience--it was far from a policy proposal, as some literal-minded DC types seem to take everything, and no, I am not an economics PhD (although I did have one econ PhD read it before I submitted it). On those terms, I guess I am proud of the whole thing, namecalling and all.

Lindsay wrote: I think we can all agree that unpaid and underpaid internships are, on the whole, regressive. Working for free is a luxury.
It is becoming increasingly common for students to take these unpaid stints, not only in public policy and alternative media, but also for more "glamorous" jobs in profitable companies. For example, internships in the entertainment industry and the established media are frequently unpaid or very poorly paid.

This isn't just a problem for students and their families. It's a larger social issue. We complain about the echo chamber and the bubble effect in the mainstream media. Unpaid and underpaid internships are increasingly important part of people's career paths in these fields. This is bad for the media and for society at large because it discourages anyone who can't afford to give away their time.

Friday, June 02, 2006

"Do you Get this A lot?"

From my email inbox:
Very nice op/ed in the Times. Impressive and true. I myself had to make the difficult choice between doing an unpaid internship on Capitol Hill or earning money back home, and, coming from a relatively modest Midwest background, was certainly aware of the "rich kids" club... But perhaps it worked -- currently I'm a staffer for a Congressman from Indiana.
One question, and I imagine you get this a lot: Isn't your agenda a bit whiny, considering your cause represents a bunch of overeducated twentysomethings blessed with countless advantages? I think you're on to a real problem, but isn't it way more important to worry about the truly poor and disenfranchised rather than graduates of our best colleges who can't find "good" employment right away? Personally, I'm more worried about the former.

My response:
Hi B,
Yes, I get this a lot, but not from people who really take the time to understand my work. If you'll read my book, you'll find that I devote equal time, space, and effort to both the college educated and the 2/3--the majority--of young people who do not have a college degree, whose 20s are likely to be a succession of low wage service industry jobs, credit card debt, and a degree of hopelessness about the future. In no way am I working only on behalf of privileged kids like you and me. But I'm speaking to kids like us because I think that educated middle class kids need to make common cause with the people their age in their cities, maybe even their former classmates in public schools, who have little chance of getting ahead in this economy. The way to do that is to realize how the current institutions hurt everybody. The high cost of college, for example, falls the hardest on the working class and racial minorities, keeping them out of school altogether at much higher rates. But it also puts a burden on the middle class and people on the edge of it who carry high loan burdens that affect their career choice, ability to buy a house and start a family.

I am working very hard to correct this perception of whininess. In some ways, it has to do with the way my book has been marketed--putting me and my story at the front and center, which really isn't appropriate since I am one of the most fortunate people I know (which I say right up front in the first pages of the book). It also has to do with the fact that the New York Times, for example, (which asked me to write this piece on this topic) is slightly more interested in printing stories about the children of its affluent readers than about people they don't know. Almost everywhere the book has been covered, reviewers focus on the "people like us" in the book and not on the many stories of working class young people, those who grew up on public assistance or as first-generation Americans.

His response:

Hi Anya, nice to hear from you. It makes me feel much better that you have the broader perspective. Whew :) I understand how the marketing thing can be frustrating -- it annoys me when reading the Times or even Newsweek that it's so obviously they're not speaking to, or even for, average Americans. Their "normal" is probably the top 10% of the population at minimum, and I hate how they write as if this is the everyperson's experience.

Hopefully the success of your message will give you a platform to press the broader issues you mentioned -- namely how our institutions aren't really good for anyone. Still, I'm not exactly comfortable with your idea of treating the problems of people like you and me together with the problems of those lacking college degrees, struggling through vocational school, etc. But definitely could be a winnnig political strategy.

My response:
It's more than a strategy to me. The way I see it, once you have accepted that there are problems and you are the type of person who thinks about them and wants to do something about them, then there are 3 options:
1) Advocate solely for people like yourself, on a basis of shared identity. You are on absolutely solid ground when it comes to "identity politics" and authenticity, BUT your problems might not be the worst ones out there.

2) Advocate for the people who you think are the worst off, while maintaining that you have nothing in common with them. "I am helping you, because I am altruistic, but obviously I am much more fortunate than you and therefore I am just lending you my advanced expertise and energy."

3) Advocate for yourself AND the people you think are the worst off. Ally yourself with people whose background and options in life may be very different from yours, on the basis of what you DO have in common (including both good things and problems), and advocate for what you think will honestly help both of you.

Any thoughts?

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Credit Counselors are often Scammers

Here's my latest Tom Paine column to that effect...

Education is a Right

Depressing report in the Times today from "Renaissance Village," a grim trailer park for hurricane refugees in Baker, LA, north of Baton Rouge, where the kids aren't going to school because of (take your pick) racism, depression, apathy, post-traumatic stress disorder, overcrowding, ignorance, lack of services. I wrote about this distressing situation back in October.