Education, USA

Student Loan Debt: One year in

A year ago last week, I officially started paying back my student loans. Although I finished my undergraduate degree in December of 2010, a unique set of circumstances allowed me (or forced me) to put off my payback for a number of years. Upon graduation, I immediately enrolled in grad school, and with the help of a scholarship, was able to pay for that tuition out-of-pocket. Because I was still a student, I did not have to make payments on my undergraduate debt during this two-year endeavor, not that I could have afforded to make them anyway.

Immediately after grad school, I took a teaching job in Mexico, and while my job paid plenty to enjoy a comfortable standard of living down there, it certainly did not leave me with enough pesos to pay back my growing debt up here. When converted into American dollars, my salary qualified me for what the banks called “financial hardship,” allowing me a yearlong grace period to get my financial shit together.

That grace period ended last October. Between my three banks, my total student loan debt as of October 17th, 2014, was $82,961.02. That’s how much it cost me to get a B.S. in Social Studies Education from Minnesota State University, Mankato.

It was worth every penny. My education from Mankato readied me not only for teaching, but for life. I am a better person today because of the things that I learned at that institution, and the knowledge and skills behind the paper diploma I ultimately received.

Do I wish that it had cost me less money? Yes. Do I think that it should have cost me less money? Abso-fucking-lutely. Higher education is way too expensive in this country, and even though my debt is partially the result of more than three years of untouched accumulated interest, it’s still a travesty that anyone could end up $80,000 deep for a four year degree from an in-state university. That being said, if I could go back in time and see that $82,961.02 price tag, would I still do it? You bet. Every fucking time.

But here’s the part that pisses me off: For twelve months, I have been making student loan payments of just over $500 a month. That means that over the course of a year, I put about a $6,000 dent into my student loan debt, or so I thought. On October 17th, 2015, a year to the day after I began paying off my loans, my total student loan debt was…

$82,264.27

If you don’t have a calculator handy, that adds up to just under $700—$700 out of the $6,000 that I put in. $700 that actually went towards reducing my nearly six-figure debt. $700: about 11% of the total amount paid, just enough to reduce my total debt by almost 1%. Where did the other 89% go? The other $5,300? Interest. Not interest that I gained during my time in grad school or Mexico, but interest that I earned over the year in which I was paying.

That’s fucked up. I mean c’mon, man, I understand interest. That’s why loans exist. The lender needs to see a return on their investment. I get it. But this is more than a return. This is a rip-off.

Full disclosure: I am making minimum payments. Had I chosen a different repayment plan and paid a little more each month, that huge number would undoubtedly be just a little bit slighter, that percentage reduction just a little bit greater. But the key words are “a little bit.” Either way, the lenders still win. They win big.

And those other repayment plans sucked anyway. Could I afford a little higher payment if I cut out some social outings, cancelled next summer’s travel plans, and scratched my monthly subscriptions to HBO and the WWE Network? Yeah, probably. But I enjoy those things, and I don’t want to sacrifice the quality of life that I enjoy today just so I can pay my loans off by the time I’m 48 as opposed to 52.

Some people say that these things are not mutually exclusive—that you can spend for today while also saving for tomorrow. That might be true if you’re making bank, but it’s not exactly true if you’re not. Every dollar spent now is a dollar not saved for later. Every dollar saved for later is a dollar you can’t spend now. And when you don’t have a ton of money left over at the end of every paycheck, this does turn into an either-or scenario, either you enjoy life now, or you enjoy life later. In other words, you’re either making bank, or you’re making decisions.

At the end of the day, I don’t expect people to feel bad for me, a middle-class white guy who, immense student loan debt aside, has it pretty damn good. However, I do expect people to be angry at those mother-fuckers who are keeping me, and millions of others like me, from having it a little better. Those greedy sons of bitches who rig the game in their favor and then force us all to play. Those lenders who are preying on the vulnerable, exploiting those in need of help for their own personal gain, and exacerbating the enormous gap that already exists in this country between the haves and the have-nots.

As for me, I’m hoping our political leaders will figure something out, that they’ll come up with some kind of combo-platter solution that offers forms of student loan forgiveness mixed with caps on the currently exorbitant interest rates that our lenders are allowed to charge. Until then, I’ll just continue being one of the millions of fucked-over young adults in this country, lucky and privileged enough to receive a college education, but not blessed enough to be born in an era where this kind of exploitation has been outlawed.

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Minnesota, Sports, USA

Why the Cubs and their ‘woe is me’ fans can suck it

Tonight begins the ALCS with Joey Bats and the Toronto Blue Jays taking on the returning American League Champ Kansas City Royals. There is a lot of intrigue around this matchup, especially considering the benches-clearing brawl that ensued the last time these two teams shared a field. But sports nation in general seems to be more looking forward to tomorrow night, when the new look New York Mets host the Chicago Cubs, a franchise looking to break out of a century-long slump of championship-less seasons, the longest drought by any North American professional sports team.

This factor has put a lot of people in the Cubbies’ corner, much like how folks from around the country got behind the Boston Red Sox of 2004, as they battled to bury their own impressive 86-year streak of World Series-less seasons. Everybody loves a good underdog, and no team seems to fit that mold better than the “lovable losers” themselves from Wrigley.

But I fucking hate the Cubs. I hate their team, I hate their fans, and I hate everybody that is rooting for them over this last half-month of baseball. Here’s why:

I don’t care how many years it’s been since their last World Series victory or how big of an asshole Steve Bartman is, the Cubs are not an underdog. You cannot be an underdog when you are a team from the third biggest city in the United States in a sport that has no salary cap.

It’s no coincidence that the city of Chicago ranks third on the list of cities with the most pro sports championships. Cities like that always have the advantage. They have more money, more media attention, and more appeal to make players want to play there.

Which makes the ‘woe is me’ Cubs fans all the more annoying—the intolerable pity parties that they throw at the end of every season where they get together and cry and bitch and moan about how sorry and unlucky they are, how they’re cursed, how the decks always stacked against them. You can be sure that if the Cubs follow suit and lose again this year, their pity party will get full coverage from First Take and SportsCenter.

The 2004 Red Sox were the exact same. They viewed themselves as these scrappy, bearded little underdogs trying to take down the evil, hegemonic Yankees.

They were right about the Yankees. I fucking hate the Yankees, too. But at least the Yankees fans know who they are. They are the privileged, they are the elite, and they don’t pretend not to be.

But so is Boston. As a matter of fact, do you know who had the second-highest payroll in baseball in 2004, right behind the New York Yankees? You guessed it, Boston. Moral of the story: you can dress yourself up as a working-class Irish asshole all you want, but you’re still as bought-and-paid-for as every and any clean-shaven Yankees player.

Chicago Cubs fans are no different. They think of themselves as underdogs because they don’t win. “We’re cursed,” they say. “Everyone is out to get us,” they say. Not so. I’ll agree that it is pretty amazing that their team hasn’t won a World Series in 107 years, especially when they play in a city like Chicago. But that is not because they are cursed. It’s because they suck.

And I would know a thing or two about sucking, just like I know a thing or two about losing, pity parties, and curses. That’s because I hail from a city with a real curse, and it’s not a fake curse from a fucking billy-goat. It’s the curse of living in flyover territory.

The Twins have two World Series championships, the last one taking place in 1991. And while 24 years isn’t exactly a drought to write home about, you know how long the drought has been for the rest of our Big Four franchises, the Wolves, the Vikes, and the Wild? Always. Forever. We were born in a drought, we live in a drought, and if everything else remains equal, we will die in a drought. For three of our four franchises, it has never rained and it’s possible that it never will.

And even though the Twins two World Series wins sound pretty epic, my generation is too young to remember them. I know they exist, but I never experienced them. I’ll tell you what I did experience though: the six NBA championships that Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls won in the 90’s, the three NHL Stanley Cups that the Blackhawks have won in the last six seasons, and the 2005 World Series won by none other than the Chicago White Sox. All this happened, may I add, while my clubs were rotating between moderate relevancy and laughing-stock status.

So suck it Cubs fans. Cry all you want about your Cubs if they let you down again this year, but don’t pretend that you’re an underdog. Don’t pretend that you know what it feels like to live in true sports misery. Don’t pretend that you live in Minneapolis, or Cleveland, or Kansas City.

There is a silver lining. If the Cubs win and the streak is over, maybe people will finally shut the fuck up with wondering aloud at the beginning of every season if this is finally the year that the Cubbies will take home the World Series title. Then we can focus on the true underdogs in sports, the ones that really have the decks stacked against them when it comes to being consistent contenders, let alone winning championships. Fuck the Cubs. Go Toronto. Go Royals. And, Go Twins.

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Education, History, USA

Textbooks are not neutral

A few weeks back, there was a news story about a rogue world geography textbook with a couple of historical inconsistencies. The main point of contention involved the choice of language that the textbook used to describe the Atlantic Slave Trade of 16th-19th centuries, particularly its description of the unwilling participants in this system most commonly referred to as “slaves.” Instead, the textbook labels these owned and oppressed peoples with the title of “workers,” and furthermore, refers to the system of human-trafficking that they were forced to endure as if it were a form of “immigration.”

It’s easy to see why these semantical slip-ups created such a stir. On one level, it’s just bad history. It’s an inaccurate portrayal of what the past was, and begs people to arrive at false conclusions when trying to answer the what’s and why’s of history.

On another level, this historical re-write could have potentially dangerous consequences. While words like “workers” and “immigration” certainly sound friendlier than the horrible truths that they replace, they could reinforce some dangerous disbeliefs regarding racism in the United States that far too many Americans already hold today. How are we supposed to convince people that racism is still a problem in the United States if they are taught that it never was?   How are we supposed to address the racism that still exists if we don’t understand where that racism comes from?

“Immigrating workers” may create a more digestable story, but it does so at the expense of a truth that we need to hear in order to fix a problem that’s still very real. We need to hear the ugly truth, not the pretty lie.

This story was treated as an anomaly, a crazy ass-outliner that somehow slipped past the all-seeing auspices of textbook publishers and district curriculum boards. But while this error may have been particularly egregious, what was missing from this story was a larger discussion about the ways that textbooks, particularly history textbooks, shape and sometimes distort the ways that we learn about the world, despite their claims of neutrality.

All textbooks are biased. They are over-simplified mono-narratives that emphasize the stories and perspectives of all things white, male, and European at the expense of those things with more colorful, feminine, or indigenous flavors. Voices of the former take center-stage while those of the latter are relegated to supporting roles and side margins.

This is no accident. The aforementioned geography textbook from publishing giant McGraw-Hill was approved, like most textbooks in the field of social studies, by the Texas State Board of Education, a conservative body responsible for buying 48 million textbooks a year. Approval from this body is often viewed as a green light for publishers to begin marketing nationally. Hence, no matter what corner of the United States we may happen to live in, it shouldn’t surprise us when our textbooks seem to have been baked and barbecued in Texas conservatism.

That being said, you would need to be pretty well practiced in the detection of ethnocentrism to pick up on that conservative bias. That’s because these books are supposed to be neutral—objective presentations that strike an unbiased balance between liberal and conservative principles. And while it’s possible that these books do indeed have a conservative agenda, I think it’s probably much more likely that they are just written by people with conservative worldviews, and that those worldviews are reflected in their writing.

And that’s why their neutrality is bullshit.

To be neutral means to not favor one side over another. It means to give equal voice to all parties, no matter how many parties there may be. This is impossible for a textbook to do, no matter how many pages the authors decide to include.

Nor is neutrality even neutral. The goal of neutrality is to not choose sides, but neutral is a side. By staying out of the conflict, neutral leaves things the way that they are. By refusing to challenge anything, neutral automatically legitimizes all positions, with no consideration given to whether or not all positions are equally deserving of legitimization. By neglecting to ask questions, neutral teaches its readers to do exactly the same.

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This is what makes “neutral” textbooks so dangerous. They portray themselves as objective truths, when in reality they are not. All bias is not created equal, and there are certainly more biased accounts out there, but there is a key difference. Usually when reading accounts more traditionally thought of as “biased,” the reader is conscious of that bias. They will evaluate the information with the proverbial grain of salt, and carefully consider how that bias will affect their consideration of what it is they are reading.

With textbooks, it’s the opposite. Readers read the textbook as a neutral report of the topic at hand, all the while being unknowingly persuaded and influenced by the hidden values of the author written between each and every line of text.

Referring to slaves as “workers” is pretty bad, and it deserved every ounce of bad publicity that it recieved. What I would like to hear is more discussion of the larger problem, the one that this particular incident is only a symptom of.

Textbooks have a place in the classroom as a resource, a version, a voice…but never should they be presented as the objective truth. Textbooks are as biased as Howard Zinn and Bill O’Reilly, no matter what they pretend to be. If we don’t treat them that way, if we refuse to be critical of them and challenge their versions of history, our students will continue to grow up believing that early black Americans were migrant workers and that Christopher Columbus discovered America—that important women are the wives of important men and that people of color only exist in the margins.

Slaves were slaves, Columbus was a jackass, and the stories and perspectives of women and people of color have always been important, whether or not society recognized them as important at the time.

Textbooks are not neutral. They do there due diligence in cramming the entire history of a world and/or nation into a 974 page volume, but they are still only one version of the truth. To pretend otherwise is to lead our students down a perilous path where they will believe everything that they read and hear and be susceptible to the very indoctrination that we were hoping to avoid in selecting a “neutral” resource.

So at the end of the day, neutrality is not only something we shouldn’t strive for, it’s something we can’t achieve anyway. History is objective in the sense that it happened the way that it happened, but we still rely on humans to tell us about it. And once a human puts their fingerprints on something, be it history, geography, math, or science, that neutrality ceases to exist.  That is what needs to be recognized and acknowledge, be it textbooks or otherwise.

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Economics, USA

Voting with the dollar

Some people are political junkies. They watch the political process with all the fervor and rabidity with which a Vikings fan watches a Teddy touchdown pass. Then there are those who are apolitical. The political process at best disinterests them, and for some even disgusts them. The apoliticians don’t watch CNN, they don’t listen to NPR, and they don’t follow campaigns. Many of them don’t even vote.

I don’t blame the disgusted for their desire to be politically abstinent. Washington is a slimy place. To choose between Republicans and Democrats can feel like choosing between the lesser of two evils—the proverbial Giant Douche vs. Turd Sandwich.  No one makes this point better than the current Democratic frontrunner herself, whose best advice to liberals whom are less-than excited about the prospects of having to support her seemingly inevitable anointment as the Democratic nominee was to just “be pragmatic and do it anyway.”

But no matter how politically abstinent a person may claim to be, I don’t agree that their apolitical agenda automatically extracts them from the political process. I challenge the notion that political abstinence allows someone to absolve themselves from the actions of their country. What is more, I challenge the notion that disengagement from what we typically think of as political behavior, things likes voting, signifies political abstinence at all.

Everything is political. We make political decisions every single day, decisions that have significant effects on others whether we choose to think about those effects or not. We also vote everyday, not with ballots, but with dollars.

What we eat, what we wear, where we go for entertainment—these are all political decisions, political decisions that we make with the dollars that we spend. We are voting with our dollars for competing entities in a competitive market, just like we vote between competing candidates for a political office. Every dollar we spend is a vote for what that entity is, what it does, and what it stands for.

Unfortunately, if you choose to trace your dollars back to their roots, to the people and practices they ultimately support, the truth of what we are voting for is pretty unsettling. We vote for fruits and vegetables picked by poor and mistreated migrant workers, meat from animals that live in absolute misery and suffer horrifying deaths, shirts and shoes manufactured by the hands of overworked and underpaid peoples in developing nations, many of them children, and for corporate giants who carelessly cause immeasurable and irreparable harm to both the planet and the people who live on it.

The links attached to the above examples are hardly the tip of the iceberg. The shelves of the Walmarts and Targets of the world are stocked front-to-back with human rights violations and environmental catastrophes. But rarely do we think about this when plucking something off of them for purchase.

I’m as guilty of this as anybody. I wonder if I’d even be able to afford the MacBook Pro that I’m typing on right now if it wasn’t produced by cheap, Chinese labor and shipped to me on the fumes of government subsidized, dictator-sponsoring oil.

But even if I were to try to wean myself off these luxuries of privilege, it would take some economic acrobatics. $90 is a lot to pay for a pair of new jeans at American Apparel when I can get two pairs of Wranglers for $30 at Kohl’s. $6 is a lot to pay at my local co-op for a liter of milk from grass-fed, drug fee, happy-go-lucky cattle, when I can get a gallon of the more questionable stuff for half that price at any mainstream gas station or super market.

But then again, maybe that’s just how much this stuff actually costs when so much of the price is not externalized, when we pay people living wages and treat animals with dignity and take care of the environment, when we as consumers actually pay the real price of what it takes to make shit. Maybe that’s just how much it costs when we cast monetary votes that match our values and beliefs, and reflect the vision that we claim to have for what we want our world to look like.

Nevertheless, I know that I’ll continue to use my votes to support things I abhor. I’ll provide funding and support for child labor, animal mistreatment, environmental degradation, and oppressive dictatorships as long as they continue to pump out cheap goods that make my life easier and more enjoyable. Comfort is the greatest benefit of privilege, after all. I just hate that my comfort continues to depend on the discomfort and misery of others.

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