Home > education, feedback loop > I burned my eyes reading the Wall Street Journal this morning

I burned my eyes reading the Wall Street Journal this morning

April 24, 2014

If you want to do yourself a favor, don’t read this editorial from the Wall Street Journal like I did. It’s an unsigned “Review & Outlook” piece which I’m guessing was written by Rupert Murdoch himself.

Entitled Telling Students to Earn Less: Obama now calls for reforming his bleeding college loan program, it’s a rant against Obama’s Pay As You Earn plan, and it’s vitriolic, illogical, and mean. It makes me honestly embarrassed for the remaining high-quality journalists working at the WSJ who have to put up with this. An excerpt:

Pay As You Earn allows students under certain circumstances to borrow an unlimited amount and then cap monthly payments at 10% of their discretionary income. If they choose productive work in the private economy, the loans are forgiven after 20 years. But if they choose to work in government or for a nonprofit, Uncle Sugar forgives their loans after 10 years.

Uncle Sugar? Is this intended to make us think about the Huckabee birth control debate?

Here’s the thing. I’m not someone who always wants people to talk about the President in hushed and solemn terms or anything. The president is fair game, as are his policies. And in Obama’s case, I am not a big fan. For that matter, I don’t think his education policy has any hope, even if it’s well-intentioned. But I just don’t understand how an article like this can be published in a respectable newspaper. It does not advance the debate.

For the record, college tuition has been going up for a while, way before Obama:




And it’s not just that tuition has been going up, at least at state school. It’s that state funding has been going down:


Next, it’s true that just supplying more loans to federal students doesn’t cut it: tuition rises to meet that ability to pay. In fact that’s part of what’s going on in the above picture.

What we have here is a feedback loop, and it’s hard to break. My personal approach would be to make state schools free to make the overall field competitive for college costs. And yes, that would mean the state pays the schools directly instead of handing out money to students in the form of loans. It’s called an investment in our future, and it also would help with the mobility problems we have. At some point I’m sure it seemed like a terrible idea to form a public elementary school system for free, but we don’t think so now (or do we, Rupert?).

The biggest gripe, if you can get through the article, is that Obama’s plan will allow students to pay off their loans with at most 10% of their salaries after college, and that certain people can stop paying after 10 years instead of 20. If you read from the excerpt above, this is an outrage and those unfairly entitled people are characterized as government and nonprofit workers, but the truth is the exemptions include people who work as police officers, as healthcare workers, in law, or in the military as well.

The ending of the article, which again I suggest you don’t read, is this:

The consequences for our economy are no less tragic than for the individual borrowers. They are being driven away from the path down which their natural ambition and talent might have taken them. President Obama keeps talking about reducing income equality. So why does he keep paying young people not to pursue higher incomes?

All I can say is, what? I get that Rupert or whoever wrote this likes private industry, but the claim that by encouraging a bunch of people to go into super high paying private jobs we will reduce income inequality is just weird. Has that person not understood the relationship between inequality and CEO pay?

I say if you are so gung-ho about private high-paying jobs, then you also need to embrace rising inequality. Do it in the name of free-market capitalism or something, but please stay logical.

Categories: education, feedback loop
  1. April 24, 2014 at 8:04 am

    Yes, the public discourse that has been coarsening for a long while, has crept into professional journalism… (I often see liberal viewpoints, that I agree with, expressed in a style that embarrasses me, as well). Careful, thoughtful arguments just don’t get the attention, eyeballs, or action, that more edgy, ranty harangues do… especially when one preaches to one’s own choir. Reading any Murdoch publication ought probably require keeping eye salve on hand!


  2. April 24, 2014 at 8:18 am

    Um…so I guess only the private economy is “productive” and working as a cop or a teacher means you’re just a big ‘ol moocher. Also, if more young people pursue the few “higher income” jobs, won’t that just lead to more competition for those jobs and therefore less pay. Fallacy of composition anyone?


  3. JSE
    April 24, 2014 at 8:29 am

    But what about the students who choose unproductive work in the private economy?


    • Min
      April 24, 2014 at 1:52 pm

      😉 😉 😉

      Right. Like writing editorials for the Wall Street Journal.


  4. April 24, 2014 at 8:44 am

    Your blog post reads like the childish rant of an adolescent. It seems that the WSJ editorial states facts that make you uncomfortable.

    You are correct that tuition was rising long before Obama took office, but that is irrelevant to the main point of the WSJ piece, which is that the cost of the Federal student loan program is exploding and unsustainable. The Obama administration introduced reforms in 2010 that were supposed to stop the bleeding; these reforms have failed.


    • April 24, 2014 at 9:10 am

      First of all, I never said I think Obama’s plan is good. It isn’t – it doesn’t address the feedback loop. Second, if the editorial had explained their actual concerns, with data rather than weird blaming tactics, then I would have been happy with it.

      I delete hostile comments, by the way.


      • April 24, 2014 at 10:17 am

        The editorial states its premise in the first sentence, and supports it with facts in the second paragraph.

        It’s your blog, you can run it however you like. Given the tone of your posting, though, what sort of response did you expect?


        • April 24, 2014 at 10:21 am

          Thanks for making me read that first sentence again: “The federal student loan program is becoming so costly to taxpayers that even President Obama is pretending to fix it.”

          And I guess you’re right, but I had so much trouble with the “even” and “pretending” that it was hard for me to concentrate on the content.

          And that’s my point of today’s blogpost. It’s too filled with rhetoric to actually be part of a useful dialog.


        • April 24, 2014 at 11:10 am

          I agree with you that the authors of the editorial should not have used the word “pretending” in the first sentence. It assumes bad faith.


  5. April 24, 2014 at 9:01 am

    Cathy, why present us with an editorial you don’t want us to read? I don’t read every editorial in the Journal, and I would have skipped this one had you not highlighted it.

    Similarly, When it comes to the NY Times I have a simple rule for preventing agita: skip Krugman and Friedman. I may not see eye-to-eye with the other op-ed writers but I’m likely to learn something from them.


    • April 24, 2014 at 9:11 am

      Well, you can read it if you want. I wanted to talk mostly about the distracting rhetoric on a real problem. We might be able to come to an agreement of some sort if we could actually have the conversation in a mutually respectful tone.


      • April 24, 2014 at 9:15 am

        Cathy, isn’t it a matter of conflicting weltanschauung? That’s why I read both the NY Times and the WSJ.


        • April 24, 2014 at 9:18 am

          Yes that’s why I read them both too. And yes, I am often embarrassed by stuff in the New York Times as well.


        • April 24, 2014 at 9:18 am

          p.s. “weltanschauung” is a great word!


        • Min
          April 24, 2014 at 1:55 pm

          Conflicting Weltanschauungen? Really? Variations on a theme is more like it, eh?


  6. Mike
    April 24, 2014 at 9:48 am

    It seems as positive rights accrue, so the discourse becomes more violent.


  7. griznog
    April 24, 2014 at 10:42 am

    I don’t think you can blame journalists or publications for articles like this being published. We have, for the most part, an adversarial society ad they are just blindly playing their roles. Our legal system is a perfect, and probably core, example of this. We tend to break everything into two sides and each side presents it’s case as far to the extreme as possible with the intention of pulling the resulting average as far in that sides direction as possible. In the legal system this should more or less work (mostly less) because judges and juries are there to take an objective average of the facts. In journalism one would hope that readers server the same purpose, reading the extremes on both sides and trying to determine the average somewhere in the middle.

    The problem in both situations is that in general people are extremely bad at providing an objective average. They get swayed one way or the other early on and then slowly start to filter information so that it reinforces their existing opinions. Instead of “fair and balanced” outcomes in both systems, we tend to get outcomes skewed towards the best theatrics. Theatrics cost money, therefore outcomes tend to skew towards the side with the most money.

    I’ve long disliked models for education where we force people to pay or in some sense punish them for trying to become more productive members of society or place arbitrary dollar amount restrictions on efforts to advance themselves in any way. There’s no more accurate phrase than “a rising tide raises all boats” why wouldn’t we all want a rising tide? My best guess based on observation is that a fair number of people don’t really care about how much they have in total as a measure of success, it’s all about how much they have *relative* to others. And one of the quickest ways to improve your relative status is to torpedo as many boats around you as possible, tide be damned. The Murdochs of the world seem to want to preside over a harbor full of shipwrecks. Unfortunately for us smaller boats who just want to keep going fishing and aren’t really armed for battle, they won’t rest until we all go down.


    • April 24, 2014 at 10:51 am

      You were doing so well until the last three sentences in your last paragraph, where you assume the other side is evil, as opposed to just having a different perspective.


      • April 24, 2014 at 10:52 am

        Not evil, just bad intentioned.


        • April 24, 2014 at 10:57 am

          But that’s exactly why as a nation we are so divided. Instead of assuming that people have different perspectives, we automatically assume that the other side is either evil or bad intentioned. In some cases that might actually be the situation, but in most, IMHO, it is not.


      • griznog
        April 24, 2014 at 11:03 am

        I guess evil is in the eye of the beholder and purely based on perspective. From the perspective of those firing the torpedoes they may be doing good work. From the perspective of those being torpedoed they are definitely the victims of evil. However, introducing terms like good and evil don’t advance the discussion.

        For me at least I just want to not be torpedoed by anyone, good or evil. There should be a place in the world for people who just want to be educated, do productive work and live in peace without accumulating a giant pile of money. Those accumulating giant piles of money increasingly make a plain simple life a goal you can’t reach in our society. Draw your own conclusion about the goodness or evilness of the approach they have taken.


    • Min
      April 24, 2014 at 1:57 pm

      “There’s no more accurate phrase than “a rising tide raises all boats” why wouldn’t we all want a rising tide?”

      So when the row boats don’t get lifted like the yachts, where is the rising tide?


    • Joshua
      April 25, 2014 at 3:46 am

      Relative position is definitely an important driver of happiness. Some rather old books reference the notions of pride and envy. Even economists agree that it seems to be true about real people (but not me, I’m a homo economicus).
      I’m sure there are better sources, but here is an example: http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic212792.files/Indices_of_Wellbeing/HSPH.pdf


  8. April 24, 2014 at 10:20 pm

    have been on edge of my seat for the WSJ to go downhill ever since Murdoch bought it, driving away literate/intelligent/classy readers maybe vaguely similarly to his recently driving away his own wife.
    the article is superficial & facile & doesnt do the basic math about whether students who go for high paying jobs are not really much better off in the long run (in some cases worse off) if paying off the college expense is high. “paying people not to pursue higher incomes” lol what a ridiculous shallow propagandistic slogan. 😈 wonder if they market tested that one? ranks right up there with “job creators” :p


  9. Joshua
    April 25, 2014 at 3:50 am

    The US doesn’t really have a system of free primary and secondary education, it is just that the tuition fees are collected indirectly through local taxes.


    • April 25, 2014 at 6:43 am

      It’s certainly free to those who don’t pay taxes. And for those who do pay but don’t own a house, the taxes are even more indirect.


  10. Larry Headlund
    April 25, 2014 at 7:54 am

    This is a question on your two charts. In the first, covering the period 1985 to present, tuition and fees, presumably per student, have risen about 450%. The second chart, for state colleges only, shows revenue per student declining about 20% over the same period and tuition increasing by only 100%.

    Since state colleges are a big part of the US college market I feel that the the two charts are measuring something different in a way that is not revealed.


  11. April 25, 2014 at 8:47 am

    I agree with mathbabe on this one. When I read articles, especially those from a media such as the WSJ, I expect fact and not all this drama. Please present the facts in a well written article that does not screw up simple words such as there and their or than and then. If I want drama, I’ll watch Law and Order.



    • April 25, 2014 at 9:48 am

      It’s an editorial. It’s an opinion piece. It’s supposed to be drama. Same goes for NY Times opinion pieces. At least the WSJ separates reporting from op-ed.


  12. JP
    April 25, 2014 at 7:39 pm

    You lost me when you got annoyed with the phrase “Uncle Sugar”.
    Are you trying to say that you are unfamiliar with the phrase “Uncle Sugar” and don’t use it at all? Ever?
    Urban dictionary:
    “Another word for Uncle Sam. The concept that Uncle Sam is everyone’s pimp because he takes his share of your money before you get your share.”
    And you associate with Huckabee of all people?
    Here are at least 256 instances of the phrase on a financial chat site. From five years prior to Huckabee.
    The editorial is inane, but it has nothing at all to do with the fact that it used the phrase “Uncle Sugar”.


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