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The Big Rock Candy Nation Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Thursday, 20 October 2011

Oh the sinning and the sleaze
On the DVD’s,
And the easy fornication,
Where the grownups play
And the children pay
For that Big Rock Candy Nation!

In that Big Rock Candy Nation
The soldiers shake their hips,
The poor man swings his rings and things
From ears and nose and lips.
The traders run
To Washington,
The trough of milk and honey,
And snaff their fill
Of the national swill,
And all they need is money.
 

As I write, several thousand young people are squatting near Wall Street, insisting upon some kind of change or other. Change, of course, is the natural state of affairs on earth. “Change and decay in all around I see,” says the great hymn. 

Not so long ago people praised the virtue of steadfastness, the loyalty that binds the heart to this place, these neighbors, these children, this spouse, and God above all. To sever those bonds was to be changeable, that is, fickle. 

But there is nothing so definite about what these protesters desire. They are not holding placards that read, “Everyone back to his station! Long live the neighborhood!” No, they are there to protest some hypostatized “system,” though what exactly the system is, nobody can tell. 

Some seem to believe that “corporations” are free-floating entities brooding malevolently over the waters, creating misery for mankind. They do not consider that, if Godfather’s Pizza is to make a profit and return money to shareholders who have risked their investments, it must actually make something that people will declare to be good, and must offer it at a price that people will think reasonable. 

In other words, at the base of all businesses lie an idea (here is something that people will find useful or sweet), hard work (here is how we will create that thing), and capital put at risk (here is the means for making the creation possible). 

What the protesters are demanding, though, is magic – and that makes them strangely similar to the high-rolling brokers and financiers they despise. We’ve come far from the time when investors searched into the workings of a business, its ethos, the character of its managers, the skill of the workers, and decided to invest accordingly.

Some reforms of the financial market, if only to settle its dangerous volatility, and to discourage the building of air-castles, are in order. But they will require considerable perspicacity, and they are not going to be whipped up by silly children who are themselves building castles in the air, and whose education has left them foggy about what a percentage means, and how interest accumulates. 


          The Land of Cockaigne by Pieter Breughel the Elder (1567)

The protesters, for example, are demanding the forgiveness of all debt – an Old Testament jubilee year, without fields and farms and flocks, and of course without rejoicing in the love of God. 

No matter that such a thing, sprung upon an unsuspecting people, would constitute the greatest act of theft in the history of the world. No matter that banks would fail and that the savings of ordinary people would be wiped out. No matter that it would reward those who have not paid their bills at the expense of those who have. 

It should just “happen” – with a wave of a political wand. Glinda the Good Witch will simply appear out of a pink bubble and grant a clean bill of financial health to everyone, and Toto, too.

It’s easy to call the protesters a posse of spoiled children. They are that, but they have not simply descended like addled gods and goddesses from Columbia. We have made these children what they are. This fact bears some examination.

Catholic moral theology is consistent in its teaching that, although the natural appetites are good, our proneness to sin makes it hard for us to subject them to right reason. 

That is the task of the cardinal virtues, which, as Thomas Aquinas makes quite clear, are not easy to learn or to practice. They must be built up in us by hard work, including self-denial. That is why the pagan Romans called them virtutes in the first place. They are, literally, acts of manhood. 

But a life of pleasure-seeking – even if one defers gratification of this appetite as a strategy for the gratifying of that greater appetite later on – thrusts a dagger into the heart of virtue. 

Worse, if we teach our children that the highest virtue is tolerance, and that tolerance is not the silent and prudent bearing of a known evil, but rather indifference, then how can we expect them to scale the difficult heights of courage? 

How can we take the self-pleased and self-pleasing, and teach them to bend their wantonness under the yoke of temperance? 

How can we encourage them to believe that they are entitled to their “dreams,” whatever those hazy concoctions of the self-absorbed may be, and then expect them to subordinate their desires so as to give to others what is justly theirs? 

How can we expect them to apply moral norms in a prudent fashion, given the circumstances wherein they and their neighbors find themselves, when we deny that there are norms in the first place, and when we encourage a narcissism that necessarily divides us from our neighbors?

The protesters live in a Big Rock Candy Nation. I will come back again to this fact on this site and hope to take my pickaxe and chip away at some of the candy, to look at it closely and name it for what it really is.


Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest book is
Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College

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written by Manfred, October 20, 2011
A fine column with somewhat obvious observations. Zbigniew Brzezinski was awarded the Toqueville Prize in Normandy last Friday and his speech (you may Google) lends some credibilty to the dissatisfied public which is protesting WORLDWIDE. He states that in the U.S., 1% of the richest families own 35% of the wealth, while the bottom 90% own 25% of the wealth. He further states that most of the House, Senate and Executive Branch members are in that 1%.
Clearly, something is going on which these '"occupiers" in their inarticulate fashion are putting their fingers on. Many in my circles admit that their churches/synagogues, the Rotary Club, Independence Day parades, etc. have become increasingly irrelevant to them as they do not see how they "fit" in this New World Order where the Elite controls and dominates their lives and the lives of their children.
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written by Maria, October 20, 2011
$55,000...the cost of attending Providence College where the author is employed. This information is in the fine print on Providence College website. You have to look very very hard to find it. This figure is an injustice, and for those faithful Catholics who have large families it is an outrage. There is much information on the site about how to finance this through loans payable for the rest of one's life. Could my parents who sent 6 children to Catholic colleges forty years ago with out indebting themselves or their children do the same today? Please don't paint the protestors with such an uncharitable broad brushstroke. They have legitimate issues.
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written by Achilles, October 20, 2011
Dr. Esolen, excellent article. Of course it will be lost on those who put second things first. Materialists will use casuistry and specious reasoning to rationalize almost anything. If they went to public schools and university, this so called reasoning will be silly. Like you said Dr. the virtues are difficult to cultivate. It is time to pay the price for our ancestors choices.
Your essay lacks that sugary sentimentality and the requisite self esteem boosting.
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written by Beth, October 20, 2011
Are there no community colleges in your area? What does "best college" really mean? Unless you are going to an Ivy League school, does it really matter where you earned your degree? And that is only to say that Ivy League label may be the ticket, not necessarily your abilities.

I don't see the legitimate 'issues'. I see college students expecting to live as they have grown up, in 2.1 child families living beyond their means, incredible luxury, and super-abundant leisure time; expecting to live this way UPON GRADUATION.

I remember being a senior in college, daydreaming with a friend about how I wouldn't take anything less than $18,000 as starting pay......within six months I was the receptionist (at the firm I was sure would hire me just because I was ME) working for $11,000. It was only after several years of hard work and determination did some of the 'dreams' pan out---and the other dreams didn't and thank goodness........for after a few years in the workforce, the 'real world' so to speak, I matured to find out what is really important in life.

Looking forward to more on your take of the Rock Candy Nation, Mr. Esolen.
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written by Ray Hunkins, October 20, 2011
Dr. Esolen, you hit the nail on the head. As I reflect on my experiences over the past decades, I attribute the success I have observed to self-discipline (learned from imposed discipline), hard work and sacrifice. With notable exceptions,these are qualities which our society has not taught well. The result? They are qualities that are not admired by the few who find it easier to complain about disparity and inequality and demand implementation of policies that will redistribute. The good news is that these folks are not yet great in number and their cause, if such it can be called, is not widely admired.
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written by Titus, October 20, 2011
The veracity of the statement "society suffers from ills" does not necessitate the veracity of the statement "my solution, regardless of its content, is just and reasonable." Dr. Esolen's fine critique should not be criticized on the grounds that the two statements are related.
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written by Winefred, October 20, 2011
The usual insightful analysis we have come to expect from Prof. Esolen. One twinky little caveat, however: I wish you could have chosen a different song to parody. Big Rock Candy Mountain is a hobo's passing fantasy, not the creed of a bum. My grandfather, a Greek immigrant with a 3rd grade education, earned his railroad mechanic's papers at 15, and decided to hobo around the country with a friend before settling down to a life of hard work for his family. [His work ethic passed down the generations to a couple of great-grandsons who went to Providence!) He was adamant that a hobo was not a bum -- he never took a handout, but always did some odd job in exchange for bed and board before moving on to wherever the road took him. It would be great if the "occupiers" could be raised to the dignity of being hoboes. They aren't even close.
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written by crazylikeknoxes, October 20, 2011
"But a life of pleasure-seeking – even if one defers gratification of this appetite as a strategy for the gratifying of that greater appetite later on – thrusts a dagger into the heart of virtue."

Are you talking about Wall Street or the protesters here? It is difficult to distinguish.
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written by Patrick, October 20, 2011
jsmitty asks, "Let's hear your solution to this."

Well, jsmitty, for every one young American protesting for their "right" to be middle class, there are 20,000 Asians cramming for calculus exams. I know it's something of a stereotype, but the Seoul city government recently had to pass a law making studying after 10 pm illegal for children. (Apparently, children getting inadequate sleep because of excessive studying is a problem there.) There are definitely some cultural differences between Asia and the West regarding work ethics and sense of entitlements that might help explain why the middle class is shrinking in one place and rising in the other.

If you have spent your youth studying for 12-14 hours a day, have a master's degree or PhD in a marketable field (which is obtainable working and going to school part-time), and are still unable to find a middle-class job, then I can perhaps understand your frustration. But even then, no one owes you anything simply for taking up space.

(Having said that, yes, I agree the financial sector needs to be more strictly regulated. But unemployment is a separate problem.)
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written by Other Joe, October 20, 2011
The something for nothing crowd (it's magic!) is everywhere these days from managers getting huge bonus while presiding over business failure and homeowners who watched (and did precious little else) while their house values rose, to college graduates who wanted the best schools and had to borrow for the privilege and are now disappointed with reality. Most of these are merely foolish. Those who know better and yet manipulate false expectations for political and/or monetary gain are worse than foolish. Fairness is not the master virtue. It isn't even a virtue and when not backed firmly by wisdom it is a great evil for one man's fairness is another man's loss of property rights. The master virtue for a Catholic blog site must be said to be love. Given love (not the pale and empty concern of the political advocate) fairness no longer matters. Only in a secular worldview is fairness the master virtue, and a very poor and mischievous one it is.
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written by Achilles, October 20, 2011
J.S. Smitty, It is difficult to read your comments because clearly, it was difficult for you to read Dr. Esolen’s essay.
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written by jsmitty, October 20, 2011
Apparently Patrick cannot get his head around the idea that there is such a thing as involuntary unemployment.

All I am saying at this point is that student loan debts should in some cases be dischargeable by bankruptcy (as they currently are not.) Esolen obviously doesn't know that it is not that "banks would fail and the savings of ordinary people would be wiped out" but that the federal govt. who foolishly underwrote this massive subsidy to higher education, would take the hit.

Maybe then the federal govt. will stop underwriting these outrageous tuitions and that the schools themselves will be on the hook when their debt burdened students can't pay.

Then and only then will some sanity return to the higher education system. Fat will have to be wrung out of the budgets. Maybe liberal arts professors like (ahem) Anthony Esolen will find out that their skills of translating classic novels that hardly anyone actually reads don't really command as much on the open market as they thought, and that they'll have to take a pay cut.

No, no one is guaranteed a living in this world. And this too shall pass. Most of the OWS crowd will figure out something to do with their lives. But the author should not look down his nose 22 year olds who were in many cases sold a bill of goods and are angry about it. Especially when the author is someone who benefits from the current distorted system of higher education, and many of these kids were victimized financially by it.

Is that so hard to read Achilles?
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written by Louise, October 20, 2011
I was the fifth of an eventual six children. I was born in 1933, at the height of the Depression. My father had no job. My family had shortly before lived in Holliston, MA, and my mother used to tell us that my father had walked from Holliston to Bridgewater to take short-term work. I just measured the distance on Google and found it to be 27 miles. Yes, a person could buy a load of bread for a nickel, then, but if a person didn't have a nickel and had no prospects for acquiring a nickel, it may as well have cost a lot more. Protesters: have you seen photos of the people who lived during the Oklahoma Dust Bowl in the 1930s?

I have some sympathy for the Protesters regarding their loans, but nobody made them sign the applications. If their parents had advised against the loans, would they have listened? Of course not. The real culprit here are the universities that offer junk degrees at enormous cost--and the high-school guidance counselors--who push the forms under the students' noses and say, "Sign here." (BTW, Protesters. Are you aware that Mr. Obama has taken in all your loans now. Just think of the interest that the government is raking in. Go knock on Mr. O.'s door, not the bank's.)

There are more than enough villains to go around here, but nobody is taking a good look at the organizers who are pulling the strings. Among a thousand Protesters, it takes only 10 people who do know what it is all about to push the rest along in the direction that will never be revealed to the Protesters. Protesters: did you inquire about who was behind this movement before you fell into line? Who told you to pack a bag and go sit in the park, prepared for an extended stay?

You know, I never heard my father complain about trying to put food on the table for seven people when he had no job. But, he had been making his own way in the world since he was 18, so I guess he was used to fending for himself and then for his family.

As for us? My husband took a degree in chemistry under a Naval ROTC scholarship (which are still available, BTW). I raised my family and didn't go to college until I was 50 years old and then had a rewarding but shortened career in publishing. We lived from paycheck to paycheck for most of our years, but we made it. But then, we came of age in those awful, dreadful '50s, that you Protesters learned all about in college. I'm sorry that you Protesters are receiving so little sympathy, but at some point, you have to say, "It IS my fault."


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written by jsmitty, October 20, 2011
Obviously all sorts of people are there protesting for all sorts of reasons. But just limiting my consideration to students who are leveraged to the hilt with no immediate prospects...Louise, do you really think that turning down the loans and thus not pursuing a four year degree was really an option for any of them? Maybe they could have shopped around for lower tuitions but even the least expensive 4 year schools are very expensive and not everyone can get a ROTC scholarship; there are only so many to go around.

What I am amazed that so few people see is that this is not an ordinary hard luck vicissitudes of life story. Higher education has been for decades on a debt fueled binge...like so much of the rest of the economy. The schools have capitalized on the easy money and the fact that, while a four year degree didn't guarantee a middle class life, it was a practical sine qua non for one.

The party was always going to stop sooner or later and this unfortunate generation is left with the bill for the clean up. I'd be mad too!!!

I'm glad other Joe is there to give them "love." Why does his love blind him to such a systemic injustice. Not the worst injustice in the world, mind you, but an injustice nonetheless.
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written by Achilles, October 20, 2011
J.Smitty, yes.
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written by Ann, October 20, 2011
C.S. Lewis said it best, "We castrate, and bid the geldings be fruitful."
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written by Quaecumque Vera, October 20, 2011
Dear Professor Esolen: I know you want to make an important point about the lack of virtue or even moral vision in the occupiers but in doing so you reveal the narrowness of your own view. Justice is one of the cardinal virtues but your analysis does not include an assessment of how the corporate and political leaders of our current regime cultivate this virtue or fail to do so. As you well know the crisis is cultural. It will not be addressed by the tactics of the occupiers but neither will it be addressed by scholars who do not go deep with their diagnosis and who give a moral pass to those in power.
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written by Lisa, October 20, 2011
Louise -- I want to make this clear: Obama, Bush Jr., Clinton, every politician who sat back and let Wall Street get out of hand is as much of a culprit as Wall Street itself. This is not a left/right debate, and frankly, none of the people I have talked to supports any of the candidates in the next election. And, yes, we were made to sign the applications. Our parents, our guidance counselors, everyone told us it was for the best. But it's not even the loans we're protesting, it's the lack of jobs to pay them back, and the current unemployment crisis was caused directly by Wall Street.
Jsmitty -- At least someone here understands.
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written by Tony Esolen, October 20, 2011
I have been waiting for the train to hit the brick wall -- the massive injustice of higher education, overrated and overpriced. You put your house in hock up over the attic, all so that your kids can lose their faith and then their reason, not to mention other things along the way, and be simultaneously the most schooled and the most ignorant generation in the history of the world.

So, no, I have no sympathy for higher ed, and I can count on one fist the number of times, these last 22 years, our faculty senate met to discuss the rising cost of tuition. Indeed, we raised our tuition recently because some idiots on Madison Avenue persuaded the administration that we needed to, to make ourselves look pricey and therefore desirable.

SED CONTRA: Why is it that these prices keep rising? Why? Where's the market pressure to keep things reasonable? Why can't people see the plain truth here? Let me put it this way. Back in the 1980's, Grove City College was sued by the federal government, not because they engaged in illegal discrimination, but because they refused to sign a form stating that they would adhere to the HEW guidelines. Grove City said they were exempt from the guidelines because they accepted no federal money. They did, however, accept students who had federally backed loans. The Supreme Court, amazingly enough, determined that the students were merely bag-carriers of federal aid. And that is, alas, exactly how we ought to think of the "loans". The colleges take them into account and float their costs upward accordingly.

There are, of course, ways to get an education that don't involve these tremendous costs, and some people have noted them above. There are, however, several reasons why I'm not entirely sympathetic, either, with the students with the hefty loans due. In no order:

FIRST, a large portion of their debt is already financed by the taxpayer, if you have a loan whose interest does not begin to accrue until after you have graduated.

SECOND, the high default costs are also passed along to the taxpayer.

THIRD, most -- not all, sure, but most -- of these kids will end up earning a good living and will pay off the loans and then some. They will earn a great deal more than will most of their non-college counterparts -- and frankly I do not see why a college graduate should in fact earn all that much more than a blue-collar worker.

FOURTH, the admissions people at all the colleges will tell you that they are in a big race to turn their campuses into spas, with all sorts of amenities, quite foreign to the often spartan conditions that characterized many colleges a hundred years ago.

FIFTH, nobody -- nobody! -- ever proposes giving generous loans to young guys wanting to set themselves up as auto mechanics or suchlike.

There are a lot of things wrong with the financing of a college education -- and a lot of things wrong with the education itself. The answer is NOT to intrude the government even farther; and if you make a college education free, then it will have to be severely rationed, as it is in Germany.

I have no love for hedge fund managers and the other Big Rock Candy Mountaineers.

You want a job -- or you want an economy that produces jobs? Start thinking about the sorts of things that actually produce jobs. That is not what the silly protesters are doing. One thing I find missing from all these discussions about the rotten economy is the phenomenon of RISK. A guy who sells a new product has probably spent many hundreds of hours developing it, and might well have sunk his whole savings into the enterprise. Most such enterprises do not pan out. Some do -- and wealth is one of the rewards of that risk. It is unjust to demand from people a greater portion of their wealth without regard to the risks they have incurred for the common good. I'm not saying that the rich should pay the same percentage of their income to the government (in fact they do pay more). I'm saying that I miss any appreciation for the good that the successful businessman has done for everyone.

Enough for now ...
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written by Ron Paul, October 21, 2011
IT'S THE FED OWS. Take it away Doctor . . .

By RON PAUL

To know what is wrong with the Federal Reserve, one must first understand the nature of money. Money is like any other good in our economy that emerges from the market to satisfy the needs and wants of consumers. Its particular usefulness is that it helps facilitate indirect exchange, making it easier for us to buy and sell goods because there is a common way of measuring their value. Money is not a government phenomenon, and it need not and should not be managed by government. When central banks like the Fed manage money they are engaging in price fixing, which leads not to prosperity but to disaster.

The Federal Reserve has caused every single boom and bust that has occurred in this country since the bank's creation in 1913. It pumps new money into the financial system to lower interest rates and spur the economy. Adding new money increases the supply of money, making the price of money over time—the interest rate—lower than the market would make it. These lower interest rates affect the allocation of resources, causing capital to be malinvested throughout the economy. So certain projects and ventures that appear profitable when funded at artificially low interest rates are not in fact the best use of those resources.

Eventually, the economic boom created by the Fed's actions is found to be unsustainable, and the bust ensues as this malinvested capital manifests itself in a surplus of capital goods, inventory overhangs, etc. Until these misdirected resources are put to a more productive use—the uses the free market actually desires—the economy stagnates.

The great contribution of the Austrian school of economics to economic theory was in its description of this business cycle: the process of booms and busts, and their origins in monetary intervention by the government in cooperation with the banking system. Yet policy makers at the Federal Reserve still fail to understand the causes of our most recent financial crisis. So they find themselves unable to come up with an adequate solution.

In many respects the governors of the Federal Reserve System and the members of the Federal Open Market Committee are like all other high-ranking powerful officials. Because they make decisions that profoundly affect the workings of the economy and because they have hundreds of bright economists working for them doing research and collecting data, they buy into the pretense of knowledge—the illusion that because they have all these resources at their fingertips they therefore have the ability to guide the economy as they see fit.

Nothing could be further from the truth. No attitude could be more destructive. What the Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek victoriously asserted in the socialist calculation debate of the 1920s and 1930s—the notion that the marketplace, where people freely decide what they need and want to pay for, is the only effective way to allocate resources—may be obvious to many ordinary Americans. But it has not influenced government leaders today, who do not seem to see the importance of prices to the functioning of a market economy.

The manner of thinking of the Federal Reserve now is no different than that of the former Soviet Union, which employed hundreds of thousands of people to perform research and provide calculations in an attempt to mimic the price system of the West's (relatively) free markets. Despite the obvious lesson to be drawn from the Soviet collapse, the U.S. still has not fully absorbed it.

The Fed fails to grasp that an interest rate is a price—the price of time—and that attempting to manipulate that price is as destructive as any other government price control. It fails to see that the price of housing was artificially inflated through the Fed's monetary pumping during the early 2000s, and that the only way to restore soundness to the housing sector is to allow prices to return to sustainable market levels. Instead, the Fed's actions have had one aim—to keep prices elevated at bubble levels—thus ensuring that bad debt remains on the books and failing firms remain in business, albatrosses around the market's neck.

The Fed's quantitative easing programs increased the national debt by trillions of dollars. The debt is now so large that if the central bank begins to move away from its zero interest-rate policy, the rise in interest rates will result in the U.S. government having to pay hundreds of billions of dollars in additional interest on the national debt each year. Thus there is significant political pressure being placed on the Fed to keep interest rates low. The Fed has painted itself so far into a corner now that even if it wanted to raise interest rates, as a practical matter it might not be able to do so. But it will do something, we know, because the pressure to "just do something" often outweighs all other considerations.

What exactly the Fed will do is anyone's guess, and it is no surprise that markets continue to founder as anticipation mounts. If the Fed would stop intervening and distorting the market, and would allow the functioning of a truly free market that deals with profit and loss, our economy could recover. The continued existence of an organization that can create trillions of dollars out of thin air to purchase financial assets and prop up a fundamentally insolvent banking system is a black mark on an economy that professes to be free.
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written by jsmitty, October 21, 2011
Anthony Esolen is unsympathetic to students who have hefty loans:

Why?

FIRST, a large portion of their debt is already financed by the taxpayer, if you have a loan whose interest does not begin to accrue until after you have graduated.

me: OK so they get the $90,000-$100,000 for 3 -4 years interest free. Wow...they save oh $12000 give or take..on a tuition that you already admit is seriously inflated. And this doesn't even touch the principal mind you. Under what mathematical system this counts as a "large portion" is not clear. This is more akin to a teaser rate on a credit card, which actually promotes more indebtedness.

SECOND, the high default costs are also passed along to the taxpayer.

me: True...but do we want to set many people up to fail?!?! How does this comport with pagan virtutis that you supposedly are trying to inculcate? And then I guess we can forget about the failed banks and ordinary savers whom you invoked in the article

THIRD, most -- not all, sure, but most -- of these kids will end up earning a good living and will pay off the loans and then some. They will earn a great deal more than will most of their non-college counterparts -- and frankly I do not see why a college graduate should in fact earn all that much more than a blue-collar worker.

me: Based on what? Sorry read the fine print...past performance is no guarantee of future results. If we have another decade or two of very slow growth and more frequent recessions, then this will not be true by a long shot. And many are predicting just this! We cannot count on another decade like the go go 90's for a while or even the 00's. If so, across the board, students who take these loans will have a much lower standard of living, assuming they are able to pay them at all. But hey, you'll still have a tenured teaching job so nothing to see here.

FOURTH, the admissions people at all the colleges will tell you that they are in a big race to turn their campuses into spas, with all sorts of amenities, quite foreign to the often spartan conditions that characterized many colleges a hundred years ago.

me: Right...and this is listed as a reason not to feel sympathy for students?!?! Yes the students are to blame because the administrators cannot control costs. Makes perfect sense. And I'm sure you would not sully yourself by partaking in these shiny new amenities yourself. Right!

FIFTH, nobody -- nobody! -- ever proposes giving generous loans to young guys wanting to set themselves up as auto mechanics or suchlike.

me: What's your point...that we should be giving more loans to auto mechanics or fewer to liberal arts students?

I just found this piece arrogant beyond belief. You don't really see the extent that your own lifestyle depends on the whole bloated system that you pretend to criticize. I don't care how talented you are, the truth is if you're teaching classics or English lit you are lucky to be working at all. There are far more talented people in that field than there are jobs. But you don't seem to get it, which is why you think yourself so morally superior to protesters many of whom are struggling students. Well, I don't expect you to get it. A man doesn't understand much when his salary depends on him not understanding it.
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written by Other Joe, October 21, 2011
jsmitty - you've been had. The Big Rock Candy Mountain is built with debt, covered with sweet, but false expectations. The love I mentioned is meant in the broadest sense of charity. We look to the government (the people for whom the BRCM was shovel ready) for redress and charity (justice). It can't provide same because it is in the business of power. It has its own needs. If justice is thought to be only economic, it is false and will lead to trouble. We have become a nation of enablers. Everyone is spending the future. Unfortunately, you are the future. Oh well, all Ponzi schemes fail at some point and they work fine until they fail. True charity (I guess the word love has too many reality show associations) cares for the genuine welfare of the individual. You shouldn't really give a crack addict a hundred dollar bill, but it is easier and it feels good at the time. We have been walking away from each other with a shrug and a “what…ever” for as long as the state has been growing and attempting to assume all parental duties. Our family structures are broken down and our surrogate parents (Scolds in Power) tell us to eat our veggies, to talk nice to one another, to always wear a condom, stay away from trans fats while the same people systematically eviscerate our culture and spiritual lives. The trouble is their love is institutional, not actual. Welcome to the orphanage.
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written by Tony Esolen, October 21, 2011
I am well aware of my good fortune, teaching literature to the fine students of Providence College. Let me answer jsmitty's objections one by one:

1. If the student then goes to business school or graduate school, the amount of forgiveness on the loan grows still more. What I don't see, among college students, is the slightest awareness that anybody is actually paying for their loans, and that they are given a perk that nobody in private business could ever get. I think my example of the auto mechanic is instructive.

2. Yes, the taxpayer will have to pay the tab. Somebody up above suggested scornfully that I might next be calling for debtor's prison. Absolute nonsense. That's what bankruptcy laws are for.

3. IF WE FOLLOWED THE IMBECILIC RECOMMENDATIONS OF THE PROTESTERS, we might well have a "lost decade" such as Japan has had. Otherwise, our economy will recover, because we still have all the prerequisites for a vibrant economy (or we could have them if we wanted them). We should already be undergoing a booming recovery, except that the President decided, right when the recovery should have been taking place, to saddle businesses with a who-knows-what health-care bill, along with the other measures to suck money out of the private sector and cushion government at all levels. No, I don't doubt that, by far, most college graduates, despite the absurdly and unjustly high costs of tuition, will make a great deal more money than will their non-college counterparts -- though I do not generally believe that they will be worth those higher salaries. But that's another matter.

4. No, I don't make use of those amenities, thank you. I find them kind of repulsive, actually. I do note that a few colleges that don't accept the Federal swill do manage to keep their costs reasonable, partly by expecting the students themselves to work on the campus, as janitors, groundskeepers, cooks, and security officers.

5. Quit the sneering. How often do I have to say it? Higher education is a train that will someday hit a brick wall. It deserves to hit that brick wall. Yes, my salary comes from higher education. I'm also, according to the way the federal government looks at things, in business for myself. So -- I can't note the self-absorption of ex-students who don't begin to consider the plight of their classmates who weren't so fortunate as to go to college? Put it this way -- why should the guy who is breaking his back as a carpenter on a construction site have his wallet opened for the benefit of a college graduate who wants the government to allow him and all of his fellows to walk away from their loans?
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written by jsmitty, October 21, 2011
Yes, "Other Joe" it is a ponzi scheme. And it may already be in the process of collapsing. On that we can agree.

But before it collapses, I note that I have a special aversion to those on the upper rungs of the pyramid having a "let them eat cake" attitude to those at the bottom, and then having the gall to wrap their solipsistic attitude with shrouds of sanctimony masquerading as classical wisdom.

That's neither love nor charity!
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written by Tony Esolen, October 21, 2011
One more try:

I have plenty of sympathy for people paying off bloated student loans. I could write all day long about how we've gotten to this point -- and how government "help" and regulations have contributed to it. That's even before we start assigning blame to the pre-college folks, the schools that don't give ordinary people a half-decent education.

I don't have sympathy with people who are so self-absorbed that they don't bother to ask who they think will be paying for their debts -- and who are clamoring for more of the same measures that got us into this situation in the first place. And yes, in twenty years they'll be a great deal better off than will their non-college counterparts -- about whom they do not give a passing thought.
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written by SJM, October 21, 2011
According to the Gallup Organization, in 2000, the top two problems facing the country were: 1) Education and 2) Decline in Ethics (both were ranked over crime, poverty, drugs, taxes, guns, environment, and racism, to name a few). I think that both education and decline in ethics are key issues underlying the situation today.

There has been considerable erosion of ethics and integrity across all fields and across all age groups. Virtue is not a word you hear very often these days. On the other hand, evidence abounds in terms of greed, lust, sloth, gluttony, wrath, envy, and pride.

Entitlements, rights without responsibilities, and SELF-esteem/inordinate pride characterize many people today, young and old. The gods of today are entertainment and sports stars, and technology.

It's not corporations that are the problem but rather some people within them who lack a sense of ethics, as with students who cheat. There are certain injustices that need to be addressed but there is no quick and painless solution.

Thank you, Mr. Esolen, for getting at the root of the problems by addressing the virtues of prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude. Young and old alike need to get back to basics...
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written by jsmitty, October 21, 2011
I too will try once more.

Yes...some of the protestors are leftist jerks. No disagreement there. But beneath this all there is a serious problem here.

How were these debts incurred to begin with? Why would students as a whole borrow increasing sums of money to go to college? Why would colleges raise prices year after year faster than inflation? Why would the govt. subsidize this activity year after year with guaranteed loans? On the assumption that the economic growth that we’ve seen since the WWII could be extrapolated into the future ad infinitum, and people with college degrees would always earn more and more with each passing year.

Just like with the housing bubble where everyone from homeowners to bankers, to builders, to retailers planned their lives around the assumption that housing prices only went up—so also the whole country basically bought into a narrative of the earnings premium conferred by higher education. Everyone from the schools, to the loan servicers, to the students themselves, and implicitly to you yourself who have structured your life around the salary that higher education based on this assumption could provide. Thus far I don’t think we disagree.

But what if the assumption of an eternal higher ed wage premium turns out to be false? What if for years tuitions have been rising faster than the salaries students could earn? This cannot go on forever. Your replies thus far are all predicated on the notion that the wage premium is still in force. The wage premium that is priced into tuitions might have been greatly overpriced or even non-existent. You still assert without evidence that “in twenty years they'll be a great deal better off than will their non-college counterparts” which even if true may well be irrelevant since the “non-college counterparts” might be in a terrible state.

This is where your narrative of personal responsibility hits its limits. You in your mind no doubt focus on spectacular cases of individual irresponsibility–the protestor who borrowed $150,000 to go to film school–his girlfriend who owes $75,000 on the art history degree. But these are the tip of the iceberg. What we have are millions of students across the country who, having bought into the assumption, now have debts that are more than they can comfortably afford and in many cases will never be able to repay. What we have is a systemic problem of perfectly decent young people bearing a much heavier load than they should. Not merely a case of a few flaky twenty-somethings wanting to freeload off someone else. Sorry, but Dante and Shakespeare don’t offer any real insights here.

You ask who pays? In a systemic problem such as this, and like the housing bubble, everyone will pay in one form or another: school professors and administrators who will see heavy downward pressure on salaries in the years ahead; businesses who sell things to 20-40 year olds who now will be less able to afford them; the whole society through somewhat higher inflation and yes taxpayers too. Bubbles and bailouts are no fun. But there's no practical alternative. At some point, you have to take a bath and move on.

But who pays the most are the students themselves–collectively, who even if their loans are written down or written off will spend years of their working lives likely with a much lower standard of living than we had. And collectively it really isn't their fault that they arrived too late for the gravy train that you enjoy.

And that is an injustice that it would do you good to humbly acknowledge.
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written by Achilles, October 21, 2011
J.Smitty, my dad would tell me “better to be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt.”(I think it was Mark Twain)

Honestly jsmitty- I am afraid your teachers were too successful in building up your self esteem and disconnecting it from sustentative achievement. You mistake compassion for the virtues. Dr. Esolen has shown the utmost charity and humility for engaging you in a conversation, giving you logically consistent and ethically sound responses and you still spew ideologically driven party lines grounded in Pathos, rather than logos or ethos. You project your misunderstanding and narrowness onto his ideas and it just doesn’t work.

We can all see you feel strongly about these issues and perhaps your heart is in the right place, but it might be prudent take your fingers off the keyboard, open your mind and take in from a good man like Dr. Esolen, some ideas that might broaden your horizons and put you on a path to virtuous thinking.
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written by Brad Miner, October 21, 2011
it may be that the cost of higher education is inflated. And jsmitty is right in asserting that there has been an expectation of a high return on the investment students and parents have made obtaining college degrees. Perhaps all college solicitations ought to include language such as investment firms must use: Previous results are no guarantee of future earnings. In the past, it has tended to be true that a college degree guarantees higher lifetime earnings than a high-school diploma, and it probably continues to be true. Perhaps colleges should be more transparent concerning budgets; should explain what tuition is used to fund. But whether or not they do or they don't, consumers of education are not exempt from caveat emptor anymore than are buyers of cars, homes, or bratwurst. Indeed, tuition is high because nearly everybody wants a college degree. Universities do employ some smart people — smart enough to know basic free-market principles, even if classrooms are led by profs who trash capitalism. High demand + limited supply = rising prices. High prices in consequence of market forces are not ipso facto unjust. We are guaranteed the right to pursue happiness, but not the right to achieve it.
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written by jason taylor, October 21, 2011
Buyers of Bratwurst never have it drummed into their head that they have no chance of finding a decent place in society unless they eat Bratwurst, Brad.

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written by Achilles, October 21, 2011
Yes Mr. Miner, but it still ignores the reality that if we put second things first and first things second, we will lose both first and second things. (C.S, Lewis) Jsmitty is talking about rights and entitlements and consequences examined excised from free will choices.
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written by Frank, October 21, 2011
Two points of interest concerning Mr. Miner's last comment:

1) It its difficult for the buyer of a college education to be fully aware of the dangers presented by student loans because they are being so poorly served by those who should help them identify the danger. Their parents and guidance counselors have become convinced that a college degree is so necessary that any cost is justified. The primary loyalty of the financial aid office is to generating paid tuitions for their institution. But of these three groups of people, only the parents may possibly be exposed to the actual risks presented by student loans.

2) Behind high demand + limited supply = rising prices are other economic equations of interest. Such as the effect of the presence of a third party payer in the system. In this case, the third party payer is the expanding availability of government sponsored or guaranteed loans which by delaying the cost to the consumer, increases the demand beyond what it would be otherwise. So it is not market forces that have generated high prices in secondary education, but rather a government generated education bubble.
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written by Brad Miner, October 21, 2011
Frank: All loans — personal, auto, mortgage — delay costs. That's the point. If there's a villain here, it's the financial crisis (not caused by the rising cost of higher ed), which has had the effect of contracting the job market. We need reforms in the banking/investment sector . . . but prices will always rise and fall, and just as we don't indemnify deflated stock portfolios, we should not, must not indemnify the inherent risks in other investments, lest we find our selves in a Big Rock Candy Nation such as Greece.
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written by Tony Esolen, October 22, 2011
Thanks, all, for the comments.

If y'all examine the parody song above, you'll see that I've got in mind plenty of people, not just the mob of ruffians in New York, who hanker after the Big Rock Candy. The problem is pervasive. Let's send a roving reporter down to Zuccotti Park, and ask, "So, you don't believe that people should be so irresponsible as to try to get something for nothing, and to pass the costs of their irresponsibility onto others, who have to pay for the mess they've caused, right?" Ah yes, right. "Then of course you do not believe it is right to do the baby-making thing unless you're married and can provide a mother and father for the baby?" Um, er, huh?

"You believe that it is wrong to make money from the gullibility and the frailties of your brother?" Yes, right, nobody should do that! "You are then protesting state-sponsored gambling and Injun-run casinos?" Um, er, huh?

"You believe it's wrong to pick the pocket of ordinary hardworking non-financier Americans?" Absolutely! "You are then going to reimburse the resterateurs you've hurt, and whose lavatories you've used as if they were your own?" Um, er, huh?

"You believe that people ought to be held to their commitments? That they shouldn't use their own irresponsibility as a way of shouldering their burdens onto innocent third parties?" No way, that's absolutely wrong! "You do know, don't you, that that is exactly what you are recommending?" Um, er, huh?

IRONY ALERT: If the Republicans had one or two coglioni to share out among them in the halls of Congress, and if they pushed through a law eliminating the federal student loan program, on the grounds that all it did, ultimately, was to fuel tuition increases and saddle people with enormous debt, WHO WOULD BE THE FIRST TO PROTEST? The same people as are protesting now.

Somebody, by the way, should note that all of our founding fathers believed that mobs were inevitably destructive, irrational, and evil...
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written by Thomas Sundaram, October 29, 2011
It's an endemic problem born of sucking the government teat as a matter of expected societal course. Do you know how many people I have heard who associate college with loans? ALL of them. Yet they all get loans. Why? They want to go to college. Why? Not for abstract ideas of education; they want to make money. Do they? No. College loans are a perversion of justice built on a lie, a lie which Tony has said above is ridiculous, and that college graduates really don't deserve much more, so that we should stop perpetuating the lie by saying they will, when they won't.

Because government loans have shown themselves happy to oblige, and vice versa.

Because of soft-headed reasoning about being "entitled" to a college education, combined with the unrealistic expectations you mention, which are themselves compounded by nonsense collegiate elitism, perpetuated by the equivalent of academic masturbation, that paragon of uselessness, the "postmodern literary criticism" degree and its many children.

Sure.

Actually, I am virtually certain that you are picking on the one person in academia who is the opposite of your claim. Tony is, perhaps, one of the most caring and devoted teachers I know.

Maybe not on the issues, but on the ad hominem assumptions, yes, yes we do.

No big surprise there, since higher ed -- since the time of Dante -- has been possessed by the "swift and strong", fame seekers whose sin bears a certain kinship to pedophilia. See Canto XV, Inferno, the sad case of Dante's own teacher, Brunetto Latini.

That would be what we call a problem of government collusion, since business can't charge more than one is willing and able to pay at the time.

Agreed.

Isn't it? Or at least, the illusion of it? I mean, we discover after the fact that it isn't, but colleges still claim it, to perpetuate the lie. I went to college not to get a job, but to get an education, and the school I chose, humble in size and tuition, but strong in mission, provided me that education.

Sure, but consider that perhaps the wage premium was taken for granted by those getting the loans as much as those setting their amounts.

Agreed, except that you seem to think that this is not what Tony is advocating.

Yes; we call that "what happens when you institutionalize what should be the realm of charity." Scholarships should be encouraged; not loans!

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