Mark Cuban, Occupy Wall Street, and Your Predatory Student Loans

Mark Cuban
This man is the only person making sense.

I’m one of those people who tends to love Mark Cuban.  I love that he’s outspoken, I love that he takes risks, and I love that he’s a goofball who often acts, like my grandfather might have said, “like he doesn’t know what to do with himself.”   In short, Mark Cuban is good for America.

Last week, Cuban posted “soapbox advice” to the Occupy movement.   He talks about the evils of Wall Street, the lie that companies act in the best interest of their shareholders and other things you’d expect from a corporate (I’m sorry) maverick.  He makes a lot of great points, my favorite of which is his stance on student loans:

3.  Limit the Size of Student Loans to $2,000 per year

Crazy ? Maybe, maybe not.  What happened to the price of homes when the mortgage loan bubble popped ? They plummeted. If the size of student loans are capped at a low level, you know what will happen to the price of going to a college or  university ? It will plummet.  Colleges and universities will have to completely rethink what they are, what purpose they serve and who their customers will be. Will some go out of business ? Absolutely. That is real world. Will the quality of education suffer ? Given that TAs will still work for cheap, I doubt it.

Now some might argue that limiting student loans will limit the ability of lower income students to go to better schools. I say nonsense on two fronts. The only thing that allowing students to graduate with 50k , 80k or even more debt  does is assure they will stay low income for a long, long time after they graduate ! The 2nd improvement will be that smart students will find the schools that adapt to the new rules and offer the best education they can afford. Just as they do now, but without loading up on debt.

The beauty of capitalism is that people like me will figure out new and better ways to create and operate for profit universities that educate as well or better as today’s state institutions, AND I have no doubt that the state colleges and universities will figure out how to adapt to the new world of limited student loans as well.

Finally, the impact on the overall economy will be ENORMOUS. There is more student loan debt than credit card debt outstanding today. By relieving this burden at graduation, students will be able to participate in the economy

Okay, so we need to think more fully about the real issue of getting more low-income students into the nation’s best schools.  I agree that Mark’s not really there on that.  But you know what?  Schools like Princeton (Princeton!) are starting to give need-based breaks to students at levels never expected, in some cases forgiving the bulk of tuition out the outset.  They’re not doing it because the market or the government is making them.  They’re doing it because they are progressive, and because they can afford to.  I mean seriously, why should I go to a Michigan State, as great as it is, if I can go to a Princeton for (close to) free?

The bigger question:  why is no one but Mark Cuban talking about the outlandish cost of government and the outlandish ease with which one can secure outlandish student loan debt as anything other than an academic bubble?  That’s exactly what it is.  Worse, many, many of the folks who took out those loans banking on the kind of employment degrees from prestigious universities used to guarantee are currently unemployed.  Why?  Because the economy sucks, for one, and because everyone and their brother has an advanced degree these days.   The market is over-saturated with overqualified, over-debted talent.   We’re talking about an entire double-bound generation getting screwed on both ends of the equation.  Should everyone have known better and not taken out those loans?  Maybe.  Should all of the people whose homes were foreclosed have known better?  Saying yes to one of those questions is saying yes to both.

Let’s go ahead and say yes to both.  That doesn’t negate the predatory practices of commercial real estate lending during the housing bubble, and it doesn’t get student loan providers, including, ahem, the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT, off the hook, either.  Demonize the bankers till the cows come home, hang effigies of bad mortgage writers in Zaccotti Park, but don’t forget the role that cynical, opportunistic lending to aspiring students (we’re talking about 18-year-olds here, in many cases) who geeked out enough on the American dream to go to college in the first place play. Let’s not forget the indefensible tuition charged by many colleges, either.  In some cases, these institutions offer loan forgiveness for people in public service or low-income community-building vocations.  As a divinity school student, I spent a lot of time thinking about forgiveness, and it seems to me that we, the double-bound, aren’t the ones who need to be forgiven.

Mark, let’s burst the academic bubble.  Presidential candidates, what say you?

Assessing The NBA Finals with Joseph Campbell

Dirk Nowitzki
I'm really, really tall. (Wikipedia)

A few nights ago, I dreamt  I was playing basketball while talking about Joseph Campbell’s theory of the monomyth.  And also, I was playing basketball with Joseph Campbell.  After deftly receiving my in-bound pass, Campbell started explaining the archetypal hero of the monomyth to me:  “Some people find this hero in Beowulf or Roland or Hercules. Other people find it in him.”  With that, Campbell passed to Larry Bird, who was wearing a Mavs jersey.

It’s pretty clear that the ball was a symbol of authority and of the power to speak.  Ball’s in your court.  Get the ball rollingGive me the ball. Those “only the person holding the ____ can speak” totems from Youth Group.  Bird,  a quintessential Campbellian hero in his own right, also stood for a Dirk Nowitzki finally poised to vanquish the foe and bring back the Promised Land’s boon.

Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Mark Cuban, and Co: Congratulations.  You deserve it.  You persevered through years of not-yet frustration, losing the dance to a LeBronless, Boshless Heat in 2006…a finals team led by Dwayne Wade’s talent and will and more than a little closeout power from the old Diesel himself.

As for LeBron James, let’s end the whole “same breath as Jordan or Russell or Chamberlain or Abdul-Jabbar or West or Erving…” discussion.  That narrative’s over.  In a repeat of last year’s playoff loss to the Other Big Three,  LeBron shut it down when it mattered most, something Michael Jordan can never once be said to have done.  As far as that comparison goes, that’s it and that’s all.  James still has time to win lots of hardware, but this loss, coming when it does, as it does, is going to stick for a while.  King James, so far, just can’t close it.  Please note: I’m not making fun or delighting in this.  If James gets this block straightened out, we’ll see the player everyone expects him to be deep into the playoffs.  He will hoist trophies and win multiple rings.  His regular-season talent, aggression, and drive won’t abandon him on the big stage.  LeBron needs to talk to somebody and beat this thing, and I say that as someone who rooted against the Heat this year on principle.  Who doesn’t want to see this guy be the best he can possibly be?  Witnessing greatness excites us and reminds us of what interesting, compelling creatures we are.  That’s why we love heroes. That’s why we watch.  We are the narrative species.

In LeBron’s hero epic, the next step every year is always supposed to be the redeeming grace of the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy.  I’d make more Grail allusions if they weren’t so obvious, but I will suggest that redemption isn’t quite the right word for what a Heat win would have meant.  The Mavs’ win is vindication:  Nowitizki had none of the public ill-will LeBron carries.  Dirk had much to prove, especially to himself, but this win caps many good years that fell short, sometimes tragically.  The Mavs’ win feels like the proper end to an authentic quest.  It feels good and fitting and right.  A Heat win would not have vindicated or redeemed James in the same way.  It would have been an important Step One to those 8 or so championships James predicted last year, and only outdoing Bill Russell will really redeem the careless and off-putting hubris of the James to Miami saga.  No, a win for LeBron would have been accretion, one small step toward a compelling case for his kinghood and greatness.  That’s gone.  The Heat have to win the next 3 titles at least to start this process anew.  But first, LeBron has to learn how to close.  His archetypal, Campbellian enemy is not the media, public perception, or the Big Stage.  It’s whatever shuts down inside him when he’s playing on it.  Concur that Grendel, sir knight, and the basketball boons will follow.  Ignore it and you’ll retire having achieved far less than your talent makes possible, and, more importantly, without the long-lasting peace of knowing yourself and overcoming your fears.  That’s about more than basketball.  That’s about more than heroes.  That’s about a kind of fulfillment crass achievement can’t bring, and that’s the truly heroic journey we’re, all of us, on.