This article popped up on my newsfeed the other day and I (as always) read the headline (“Why I defaulted on my student loans”), looked to see if it was posted by one of my sane or insane Facebook friends (no idea…), then promptly forgot about. Then I saw this response: “The New York Times Should Apologize for the Awful Op-Ed It Just Ran on Student Loans” (posted by a sane friend). Okay, let’s give this some thought.
Lee Siegel (of the first article) writes that he made some bad decisions and faced the prospect of either living a life he didn’t want, or defaulting on his obligation. The question then is “should more people follow his example?”
Choosing a major is essentially an entrepreneurial decision. You are investing in a set of human capital goods that you hope will provide a return in the future sufficient to justify the cost of the investment. One thing we know about entrepreneurship is that it usually fails. We also know that this failure is often not socially wasteful but simply a cost of experimentation. America was lucky to end up with a system of bankruptcy that is uniquely easy on defaulters… why lucky? Because it turns out that this system meant to merely shift resources towards farmers also allows entrepreneurs to quickly dust themselves off and get back to work on their next experiment. Some turn out to be brilliant and ultimately outweigh the costs of past failures.
But this wasn’t what Siegel was advocating. His decision was to not pay his debt but to stay in the line of work he trained for. His thinking was “sunk cost, and now it’s someone else’s problem.” Yes, the higher-ed industry is screwy on all sorts of margins, and yes, he probably didn’t have great information beforehand. But rather than learn from his mistake, he simply ignored it.
Using bankruptcy to subsidize risky experimentation turns out to make sense in some cases (it’s hard to believe, but there it is). And this might be justified in some cases in schooling… it might be worth it to subsidize 100 post-secondary schools that try all sorts of crazy methods on the chance that we learn something useful from the experience. And I think we can justify defaulting on student loans that were made in fraudulent circumstances (“Hey Buddy, wanna get a degree?”). It might be sensible to allow loan forgiveness for students who get a degree in a field that turns out to be obsolete by the time they graduate… as long as it’s paired with a policy requiring student loan applicants to watch a 12 hour long video course on employment projections and labor economics.
We might even justify subsidies by partial loan forgiveness for students studying art or some other field that might generate positive spill overs–but if we do, the decision shouldn’t be left to those who already owe a lot of money for attending an expensive school. It’s not up to Siegel to determine that he should get a subsidy. He wasn’t suggesting walking away from his mistake and starting fresh, he was suggesting letting someone else pay for the cost of his mistake while he reaped the rewards.
If there’s anything to learn from Siegel’s decision, it’s that understanding costs isn’t a requirement for writing in high profile news papers and so we should be leery of policy advice given by journalists. I think the second article I linked to makes a compelling case that Siegel is a bum.