On Cancellation of Student Debt

By JT Haines — November 21, 2020

Student loan debt cancellation is a good idea, and we should do it. There’s too much of it, we’re in an economic crisis which is exacerbated by a global pandemic, and most importantly, it would really help people. Though we might also want to pump the brakes on the whole “you’re an asshole” thing if you have additional feelings about it, especially vis a vis those who have already paid their debt off. Hear me out.

First it should be said that, for most, having student loan debt isn’t really as much of a “choice” as it is the product of a system that has been bearing down on people for decades. The growing student loan debt burden in this country is compounded by a predatory lending system, an increasingly burdensome (for students) approach to higher education, and an economic system that is failing young people more and more just in general. As usual, this is especially true for Black people, who, according to Harpers Magazine (“Skin in the Game,” December 2020) “owe on average nearly 50% more in loans than their white peers.”

And the fact that we casually, with little debate, suspend fiscal “rules” to spend trillions on corporate economic bailouts and foreign wars is all the more reason to act boldly and urgently on student debt in the face of multiple interconnected crises.

But if we can help it, I also don’t think it’s a good idea to completely discount the people who’ve already paid off their debt — often as a function of privilege, yes, but also sometimes at great personal effort. Some folks, I’m sure, have prioritized student loan payments over things like buying a car, or a house, or even starting a family, and may rightly feel some personal sense of achievement in having done so.

I don’t know how many of those folks there are in the grand scheme of crushing debt in this country, but I do know they exist. And some may even have some feelings about it.

At this point, I’m guessing we need to address whether this is all just a thinly veiled assertation of my own feelings, or whether I myself have debt. So I’ll just tell you, yes, I do still have student debt, around $20,000. So does my spouse. Most of mine is from a public university, and I’ve been paying on it — sometimes quickly, sometimes not at all (depending on my employment status) — since 2000. Cancellation of any part of that debt would be welcome news, and would have a meaningful impact on our finances.

The fact that I still have debt though is, in my case, also the product of choice. In the face of a job market that I’ve always approached with a certain level of suspicion, I have typically prioritized savings (and employment flexibility) over paying down loans. And, having observed the growing bubble of now over $1.6T in student loan debt nationwide, I’ve also often wondered if we might see some changes to monetary policy that could impact my situation. And I’ll be very honest, that hasn’t not figured into my choices.

There is privilege in that as well. How many of us with student loans have the luxury of actually choosing how to approach it from a strictly fiscal perspective? I am aware of this. And maybe that’s a good enough reason to downplay my own choices in the larger conversation.

I also wonder though — do we really want to exclude from this conversation those who have made different and possibly very hard choices in the paying off of their own debts? Especially in light of the uncertainty about government policy which we can now assume is a factor we all should’ve been considering all along? I mean, maybe a lot of folks are focused only on the go forward, and good for them, but is it fair to demand this level of goodwill from this subset of people only?

All of which is to say, if we’re going to bail out student loan havers in any form, I think it would be fair to also include in consideration those who have — perhaps at great effort — paid off their own debt in the relatively recent past. Maybe such an inclusion applies to loans acquired and paid off in the past 20 years. Maybe it’s pro-rated in some way, or subject to certain requirements, or heck, even optional. Maybe it’s simple, or probably it’s not.

Either way, one thing we minimally shouldn’t do is call those people assholes for having thoughts about something that may have been dominating their personal financial choices for decades.

So, yes, let’s move forward with student deb relief. We’ve made a big mess, and there are all sorts of reasons to address it now. But perhaps we can also include in the conversation not only payoff date, but acquisition date too.

Finally, and as long as we’re having opinions about this, I think we can also be prepared to discount opposition from anyone who went to public university for $400 in the 60’s. Thanks for reading.

JT Haines holds a JD from the University of Virginia and a Masters in Public Policy from the University of Minnesota Humphrey School, with an emphasis on economics. He taught cost-benefit analysis as an assistant for economics Prof. John Brandl (1937-2008).

Pride in Ownership: The United States Postal Service

By JT Haines — July 26, 2020

There’s plenty to be concerned about these days. Too much, obviously. With that said, there may not be a single issue more emblematic of the pickle we’re in as a republic than the bizarre and anti-factual attacks on the US Postal Service.

The USPS is an engine of democracy. It is a vehicle for connection. It is a jobs program. It is for many a matter of actual life and death. It delivers to every remote corner of our fair land whether it’s “profitable” to do so or not.

It is a “public good,” and a gem of one at that.

Investment in public services make sense when there are public benefits, as there very obviously are in the case of the USPS. This is true even when — especially when — those benefits are hard to measure. It’s incredible to me how often this needs to be explained.

Nonetheless there has been a lot of debate, especially in the last 15 years or so, about whether the USPS is “losing money.” A lot of this actually has to do with the special accounting for pre-paid retiree benefits required only of the USPS, but let me also have a little bit of an attitude here and say I don’t give a shit. It’s not supposed to be “profitable.” It’s a public service. In addition to doing all the things mentioned above, it also literally subsidizes private mail services simply by existing as the only universal service provider.

Rather than waste time listening to fools bloviate about whether the USPS made or lost $10 billion in a particular year, or whether we should attempt to save a billion dollars paying postal workers less or charging more for shipping, what we should be doing is focusing on how much this public good is worth.

Meanwhile $10 billion dollars is not real money. The Pentagon costs us $700 billion a year, and that doesn’t include all the secret unconstitutional stuff. We just spent multiple trillions of dollars in coronavirus bailouts mostly benefiting private interests and the rich.

It makes less sense to start from a proposition that the USPS should cost zero dollars than it would to just assume it is worth, and should therefore cost, $100 billion dollars. At least the latter would save us from stupidity about whether we should pay APWU members hazard pay during a damn pandemic. In any case, $10 billion is not a real thing, especially during a time when we need to be looking for smart investments not running from them.

Fortunately, it seems most people do actually understand this. A recent Pew poll found that the 91% of us favor the USPS, and 92% of us support direct financial aid as part of coronavirus relief. (Fortune). Thank goodness.

The US Post Office Department was created in 1792. We didn’t expect it to be “self-funded” until the Reagan 80’s. It has been a crown jewel of our democracy. It is real world evidence that good and smart government actually works, and that citizens of a republic are actually capable of understanding the importance of a public good. No wonder the right-wing anti-government forces spend so much time and energy attacking it. We need to ignore them.

And if we find out, as is lightly implied by this Fortune Magazine article, that the Trump White House is actually causing the USPS to impede democracy by (intentionally) slowing mail through (intentionally) terrible management, we must react vociferously. And we certainly cannot waste any time talking about whether the damn thing costs a billion dollars.

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” These are the words of men and women who actually care about our country. 

JT Haines holds a JD from the University of Virginia and a Masters in Public Policy from the University of Minnesota Humphrey School, with an emphasis on economics. He taught cost-benefit analysis as an assistant for economics Prof. John Brandl (1937-2008).

Update, Washington Post, July 30:

The U.S. Postal Service is experiencing days-long backlogs of mail across the country after a top Trump donor running the agency put in place new procedures described as cost-cutting efforts, alarming postal workers who warn that the policies could undermine their ability to deliver ballots on time for the November election.

There are no scruples here.

July 18, 2020 — JT Haines

The other side doesn’t care. There are no scruples here. It’s wave after wave of duplicitousness, the damage of which is done long before any efforts at accountability.

Unscrupulousness in large quantities is a strategy. And a bi-partisan affair.

Find the real people. Support them. It shouldn’t be as hard as it looks.

Why the Attitude? Is Back

July 2, 2020 — By JT Haines, Duluth MN

When I first started this blog in January of 2013, I dubbed it “Why the Attitude?” The name was a hint at my motivations for writing, which I described at the time as follows:

In 1984 I was 10. At night, in my light blue second floor bedroom, I sometimes thought about tornadoes and nuclear war. I liked the sound of the taconite train in the near distance. In summer, my bedtime was 9. But it stayed light later, and I could hear the kids still playing outside my window. It was a simpler age, but I had an inkling. Among other things, I hated pollution. And I thought the president should reduce military spending since we already had enough missiles to blow up the world many times over – including my light blue bedroom. I thought, I’m 10. Well here we are, almost thirty rapacious years later, and allow me to say goddammit. Goddammit I say. So, tiny apologies for the attitude.

The name served me well, and, I thought, provided something like a disclaimer for an audience managing their own time and energies. Let’s be upfront, right?

Under that banner and for two years, I wrote quite a bit — largely a product of the fact that at the time I was a solo practice attorney representing a single non-profit client, and I spent a lot of my mornings at the coffee shop down the street (first in Bronxville, NY, and then in St. Paul, MN). It was a “heady” time, as they say (though one also without a lot of income).

I haven’t had a lot of interest in external measures of success for a blog — consistency, visitors, and hopefully for at least a few people, financial viability — for me it’s mostly been about an outlet and a process I enjoy. Nonetheless, by 2015 I had over 500 followers, and more than 3,000 visitors to the site that year. Some of my pieces — about growth, water, mining, and sometimes politics — were getting cross-posted at minnpost.com. This was success to me, and my writing was becoming fairly regular.

I wondered, though, about seeing the name “Why the Attitude” linked at minnpost. I wondered if the name put me in a hole with the reader — as in, why do I want to suggest a level of crankiness before they even get through the first paragraph? Often, I wrote to disprove the title, bending over backwards to filter my voice and present a reasonable argument. This seemed counterproductive.

So, that year I changed the name to Newspeak Review. The new name was a reference to Orwell’s 1984, and the suggestion was that my interest was in presenting an alternative point of view to a mainstream narrative (i.e, it’s a blog). The idea was to present a more “neutral” face.

Some grasped the idea of the new name, though I don’t think many. And some actually expressed disappointment at the loss of Why the Attitude, which to them felt more genuine and a little spunkier. More cheeky than cranky.

If neutral was the goal, obtuse may have been the result.

In any event, larger forces intervened. In May of 2015, I moved to Duluth and started a job as a full time union organizer and negotiator. I was in the field for AFSCME Council 65, representing mostly public sector workers from Two Harbors to Hinckley, and as far as Milaca. I embraced a new community and a new work family, and for three years wore the many hats required of someone working in the field representing real people.

The role — if you’re trying to do it right — felt barely sustainable on its own, and by 2019 I had essentially stopped writing altogether. Here’s what that looked like:

This too was a heady time, and I have a lot of positive feelings about my experience with the members and staff of AFSCME Council 65 — perhaps someday I’ll write about that as well. But Newspeak Review was essentially on indefinite pause.

I’m hoping to change that now. My job today is as the Northern Minnesota Advocate for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. This job is also demanding and multi-faceted, and the work couldn’t be more important. But it also involves writing — about issues related to the issues I’ve been drawn to on this site — and it feels more sustainable in general.

With the long holiday weekend before us today, I have it in my head that perhaps I can find a groove to do more writing again here as well.

Which is to say, Why the Attitude? is back — at least in name. I hope the return to roots helps, in a small way, inspire some more candor in writing, maybe some more cheek, and mostly just some more writing in general.

We will see. Thank you for reading.

photo MPR News

Murphy for Clean Water? Reflections on #DFL2018

June 4, 2018 — By JT Haines

As expected, most clean water delegates entered the 2018 DFL State Convention supporting Rebecca Otto. This was certainly true of the Duluth delegation, with whom I work most closely. Clean water advocates have appreciated Rebecca Otto’s important defense of our watersheds and Minnesota’s taxpayers, and she has helped elevate the critical Glencore/PolyMet issue statewide. As far as I can tell, the majority of statewide Democrats actually agree with the outgoing Auditor on her underlying position on copper sulfide mining. Where we sometimes disagree is how, when, and whether to emphasize the issue politically. Clean water advocates, especially those downstream, say now, of course, and Rebecca Otto has helped with that.

After three short rounds of voting at the convention, though, and with the Otto campaign placing third and dropping from balloting, most clean water delegates were quickly considering Erin Murphy for governor, and almost all did vote to endorse her. How did this happen? And what should clean water voters around the state think about this turn?

Well firstly, Rebecca Otto entering the convention floor hand in hand with Tim Walz, right in front of a core of CD8 supporters, did not serve the purpose either campaign had hoped. It was a shocking move, with a truly unfortunate visual, and it certainly truncated people’s grieving period. For most outside the campaign, we wanted to see Team Otto marshall her moment in a more productive manner for the issues we care about. (Those inside the campaign have a different set of considerations, of course.)

But let’s talk about the now DFL-endorsed candidate for governor, Erin Murphy. There is a lot to like about Rep. Murphy and her running mate Rep. Erin Maye Quade. I’ll let friends who know them both better speak to the wide range of important issues the campaign stands for, but one can at least immediately say that they are progressive women who are energizing a diverse coalition. The ground game Saturday was stellar, a reflection of Rep. Murphy herself who has appeared confident, competent, and charismatic.

In terms of issues, health care is one of the most important of our time, and Rep. Murphy is a supporter of Senator John Marty’s Minnesota Health Plan, the strongest position among the DFL candidates on that issue. Yes, dozens of Minnesota legislators did support the MHP before Rep. Murphy did — a point that could legitimately be made by earlier adopters like Rep. Tina Liebling if they were so inclined.

But with that said, we are where we are, and Rep. Murphy supports the MHP now. The Minnesota Nurses’ Association, one of Rep. Murphy’s most important sources of support, is leading the way with Sen. Marty on single-payer health care, including in the streets, and they will have plenty to say about how a Murphy administration approaches the issue. If explained correctly, this position should help Team Murphy reach farmers, business owners, young people, and union members across greater Minnesota.

And, not for nothing, when Erin Murphy dances on stage it feels real, not forced or self-involved. I’ll be honest, that’s a refreshing look from a politician. Her speaking style on the radio I find effective and accessible as well.

All of these things will help Democrats in August and November.

The reservation about Representative Murphy among clean water advocates is that, in our minds, there are Democrats who address the Glencore/PolyMet threat directly, and there are Democrats who have sought to avoid and suppress it as a legitimate political priority. Rep. Murphy has, in the not distant past, seemed to be in the latter camp. Campaign volunteers have at times been dismissive of the issue on the phone, and the official line from the campaign is the “process” response, which advocates recognize as a means to say as little as possible on the issue, whatever its level of importance.

While we don’t agree with that strategy, of course, we can at least understand why it appears attractive in the short term. Choosing between a difficult political choice, and a catastrophic issue position, is a terrible place to be, and it is for that reason that I do have sympathy for people like State Chair Ken Martin (who should also be congratulated along with many others on a superbly run convention). The problem with the “process” approach, though, at least for the increasing number of voters who prioritize this issue, is that it does not address the legitimate concerns people have with the process itself, how it has failed, and how it will likely fail again. Plenty more to say about that, to be sure.

To their credit, though, Team Murphy started having this conversation with clean water advocates before the convention, and a commitment to continuing the conversation was made, making her a much easier second choice for delegates and someone we can hope to work with. There are, it should also be said, highly committed members of Team Murphy who are also highly fluent on Glencore/PolyMet and the threat those foreign billionaires pose, which gives me some comfort.

Does any of this guarantee that Rep. Murphy will be a friend of Lake Superior as Governor? Of course not — but we know enough to know that’s not how politics works. Issue advocacy is accomplished through good work on deeply felt positions. Political advocacy is accomplished through evolving power and relationships. My view is that based on what we know today there is room to work with the Murphy campaign, and I for one am encouraged by that.

I think it’s okay to be encouraged once in a while.

Speaking of which, all of our Duluth Mayor and legislators have endorsed Team Murphy, as have AFSCME, MNA, TakeAction, and many other organizations who are prominent in Duluth and statewide politics. These players don’t always prioritize our watershed the way we do, and that has been frequently disappointing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a priority for them at all. Perhaps I’m suffering from a moment of giddiness in the wake of an extremely active convention that will have me looking foolish sometime in the future, but for now it is a pleasure and frankly relief to be sharing a direct commonality of electoral interest with these folks. I hope that proves to be more than a blip.

All of this is to say, I think the meaningful support of Team Murphy shown by clean water advocates at the convention should be considered by my clean water friends for the longer term as well. Firm commitments on an issue that we consider an existential threat to our communities are desired, understandably, but we should also consider the advantages that that an energized Murphy campaign — which can progress on the water issue — may offer.

In any case, that’s where we’re at. The Erins are endorsed by the body, and the clean water delegates helped accomplish that. Glencore/PolyMet is an unacceptable threat to our precious water, and no political convention or alliance is going to change that core position. The best first option moving forward is to find ways to work together with Team Murphy while we continue our staunch issue organizing in parallel.

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A note about the Walz/Flanagan campaign. For the good things that may be said about Tim Walz, he has adopted — many assume directly — Rick Nolan’s approach to the Glencore/PolyMet issue, which regrettably has rendered his campaign facially unacceptable to most clean water voters. His convention strategy in Rochester reflected one of noise and brute force — a notable contrast with the positivity of the Murphy campaign — alienating many who were not wearing yellow. The core union support for the Walz campaign, in contrast to that of Rep. Murphy, tends to be from those who are the most vocally in support of the dangerous Glencore/PolyMet proposal — and that proposal, it should be said, in its best incarnation would tear up thousands of acres of critical habitat and of wetlands which currently serve as a carbon sink. (PolyMet’s proposal is not, as Rick Nolan has unbelievably suggested, a “climate solution,” it’s a climate catastrophe, and that’s the best case scenario.) US Senate candidate Richard Painter has it right. Glencore cannot be trusted under any circumstance. If they are given a foothold here, it will be “all bottled water and chain link fence” in Northern Minnesota. Tim Walz needs to abandon this marriage to have any hope of earning the enthusiastic support of clean water Democrats, and, more and more every day, Minnesota Democrats in general.

The unity path forward is to respect all communities, including those downstream, and the promise there is in the Flanagan portion of the ticket. Peggy Flanagan is a popular and progressive state representative, remarkably positive, and a staunch defender of wild rice and the sulfate standard which Glencore/PolyMet seeks to weaken — a matter to which she brings particular credibility as a woman of indigenous heritage. At this point I see her presence on the ticket as something to celebrate. In the event Walz does manage a primary victory in August, I suggest clean water folks will want to champion and promote Rep. Flanagan as co-governor.

[Update: Lori Swanson and Rick Nolan filed as well. To be clear, they may be able to buy some votes with TV money, but they are also an absolute non-starter for clean water voters and others. It will be a disaster for the DFL if that ticket succeeds in August.]

JT Haines is a lawyer, labor supporter, and clean water advocate in Duluth. A former union representative with AFSCME Council 65, JT is a volunteer organizer with Duluth for Clean Water and a member of its active committees. He has been writing about the PolyMet issue in Minnpost, the Duluth News Tribune, and on this blog since 2013.