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New America Foundation: Let the Sins of Grad PLUS Loans Be Visited Upon IBR

Introduction

I ran across Matt Leichter and the Law School Tuition Bubble blog while doing some research on the Koch Brothers cozening up to CAP after having seen Beth Akers and Matt Chingos write for Brookings a think tank which in the past has been careful about what type of funding it receives and from where. You might not know; but, both Matt and Beth the same as Jason Delisle are indirectly funded by Lumina Foundation who has close ties with Sallie Mae and they write on student loans. That is a topic for another post. Back to Matt:

Matt Leichter received his J.D.-M.A. in law (2008) and international affairs (2009) from Marquette University, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and spent a semester and summer of law school at Temple University’s Tokyo campus in 2007. Before law school, he taught English at Omiya High School in Saitama, Japan, for two years. He started the Law School Tuition Bubble in May of 2010. Matt writes about student debt. I read his post on Jason Delisle’s critiqe on Income Based Repayment for Masters level graduates and felt it was worthy for AB. Income Based Repayment (IBR) caps the amount of money a graduate is to pay based upon income.

Grad PLUS and the IBR

Jason Delisle and William Holt did an opinion piece on the Washington Post and a similar argument by Jason Delisle has popped up over at the Washington Monthly. Jason has claimed the Income Based Repayment (IBR) plan in Student Loans has first cost the government $21 billion and then cost the government $19 billion.

While Alan Collinge would tell you the IBR is nothing to crow about as it takes forever to be free of the student loan, I think he might take issue with the costs cited by Jason which are brought into perspective by Matt Leichter on his blog Law School Tuition Bubble. Matt performs an excellent take down of Jason and William’s points which I will paraphrase here:

1. No evidence is cited by Jason Delisle showing the resulting $21 billion cost is the result of the IBR. This is supposition and conjecture on the part of Jason and meant to cause consternation on the part of the reader as to the alleged abuse. Matt Leichter of Law School Tuition Bubble blog takes issue with Jasons stance and attributes the $21 billion to changes to the model inputs reflecting less job growth or could potentially be the result of greater participation in the program. Without the evidence of where the numbers came from, Jason’s opinion piece is speculation.

2. Matt continues the take down of Jason’s adding more points which the reader can dwell upon. Jason uses the $21 billion eye catcher to segue into graduate students abusing the IBR to back back less. The problem is Graduate Plus Loan Program causing the issue rather the IBR with its unlimited funding. While admitting this is an issue, Jason takes the opportunity to attack the IBR.

3. Grad students abusing the IBR program is more supposition on Jason’s part. He has not established a foundation of data and stats to support his contention. There is only a hypothetical with no data to support Jason’s conjecture. For example, some data might show how many Grad students are on the IBR, how many have high enough incomes to repay the loans in less than 5 years, and how many Grad students are on the IBR who could not afford to repay under the old programs.

Broad based data establishes a foundation to which we can ascertain how many students are abusing the IBR under its current rules. Answering the question of how many students are not paying back within 20-25 years as opposed to beneficiaries of the IBR may cause changes in the rules. Jason expects us to accept his hypothetical on pure faith.

4. To make his point Jason develops a hypothetical Law student just graduating, having $150,000 in debt and earning $70,000 annually.

Jason’s hypothetical student graduates with $150,000 in college debt and a $70,000 does little to bolster his argument. For example; while the $150,000 in debt is possible, the salary is not as it exceeds the median for a student just starting out as reported by the National Association for Law Placement, Inc. Matt correctly points out Jason’s hypothetical is in the upper 23% of household income for beginner lawyers. The true median income is ~$62,000 and would include part time workers and those unemployed as reported by the NALP.

Jason then add a spouse wife to the household to boaster his hypothetical. The spouse makes $80,000 annually which ratchets the couple into the top 10% bracket of houshold incomes. The question still remains of validity of this hypothetical as Jason never cites any data to support his contention. Once again we are left in the dark with Jason’s assumption.

Furthermore, the IBR does not take spousal income into account and Jason and William take the IBR to task for not doing so. Matt counters with an argument; “Are you shocked? Well, the response is, so what? Robert’s wife didn’t sign the master promissory notes any more than she would his gambling debts. If Robert wants to leave work to raise their kids, for example, it doesn’t imply that his wife would essentially assume his debts. Would the NAF say this if Robert were Roberta? How would unmarried Robert feel if he had to tell his bride-to-be that she’d be partly on the hook for his student loans if they got married? Again, what if Robert were Roberta, who would be more likely to take time off to raise children?

Delisle and Holts hypothetical do little to make their claim the IBR is at fault for this phenomena. In realty and as Matt correctly points out, the same could have occurred with a lottery winning by the parents or other gains neither of which have any influence on IBR policy. In the end, how many actually gain from the loophole in policy. Jason’s supposition again lacks data.

5. The claim of Graduates IBR being unfair beneficiaries is made again by Delisle and Holt and they comprise 50% of all recipients of the IBR program. Graduates also attend Bachelor programs (quelle surprise!). Here again no data is supplied and we are given an opinion of what may be taking it to the extreme. Jason creates another Pink Cadillac scenario, an image of graduates driving Pink Cadillacs to currency exchanges to cash their big checks are about all Delisle and Holt can conjure up. We are left in the dark to imagine this to be occurring on a regular basis.

6. IBR was never developed by lawmakers with Grad Plus Loans in mind. Rather than a problem with the IBR, the problem lies with the Grad Plus program which both Delisle and Holt overlook to make their attack. As Matt Leichter questions the credibility of the complainers contentions throughout their expose, no data is presented to support their claims of misappropriation of funds which is to the root cause. The claims are all hypothetical.

7. Jason takes this one-step further in his analysis, stating the Federal Government provides loans at a reasonable interest rate(?). This is so far from the reality of the situation it borders on the ludicrous. As I have stated before, no other loan made has such tight restrictions on it and can not be discharged through bankruptcy. The distinction between the two types of Loans is one can be discharged in bankruptcy and the other can not. Guess which one can be discharge? Students are bound by a signature to indentured servitude until the loan is paid off or 20-25 years pass of IBP. Matt make a common sense point on the real implicit contract between students, the government, and student loans; “the implicit contract was the Loans would make debtors into more productive workers filling higher paying and skilled jobs.” The evidence since the seventies does not support the advent of more and higher paying jobs to have happened and Jason’s version of contract has gone unfulfilled from the government side leaving many of its citizens economically harmed.

I can not add to Matt’s closing statement and will use it verbatim: “As far as contracts go, this one has been drafted in favor of the government. When its underlying assumptions are true, everyone wins, but when they’re not, the government won’t be held accountable for self-serving research, false promises, and reckless lending. Instead, attempts to help the debtors will face resistance by people like Delisle and Holt, who will howl at all the alleged benefits the supposed (me) lucky-duckies are getting—and right now we’re only talking about grad student debt! Consequently, you should expect the endgame for all this unpayable student loan debt to be really, really acrimonious.”

Reference:

“New America Foundation: Let the Sins of Grad PLUS Be Visited Upon IBR”The Law School Tuition Bubble blog, Matt Leichter, February 2015.

“A student loan blind spot”Washington Post,

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Alan Collinge of Student Loan Justice on CAP’s Current Efforts to Revamp Student Loans

It has been a while since I had last talked to Alan. I knew at the time he was at issue with a stance the Center for American Progress was taking on Student Loans which surprising are supported by some of our more popular consumer advocates. Kind of makes sense as we now see the Center for American Progress cuddling up with the Koch Brothers? Not what I would call a marriage made in heaven benefiting us and I wonder who will own whom in the end. Law and Order Koch Brothers suddenly concerned about the incarceration rate in the US? Yeah, right! Save that one for another post. Anyhow, Alan moved from Tacoma, Washington to Washington, D.C. to confront CAP on their stance.

Amongst loans, it is no secret student loans make money and make even more money in default. from the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP) student loan which comprises a majority of all outstanding student loans; the Department of Education can recover $1.22 (before collection costs, and the government’s “cost of money”) on every dollar loaned. Student loans are not a zero sum game as some critics might have you believe.

recovery-rate-graph

On refinancing student loans, one venture capitalist pointed out: It’s a trillion-dollar opportunity. You don’t get a lot of those,” gushes Brian Hirsch, cofounder of Tribeca Venture Partners, an early investor in CommonBond. (He sits on its board.)

Well, maybe not a trillion, but hundreds of billions. About 75% of the $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loan debt is eligible to be refinanced, and the creditworthy tranche of this debt–the part private investors are eyeing–totals at least $200 billion. So far Common Bond has made some $100 million in loans to current students and graduates of 109 M.B.A., J.D., M.D. and engineering programs at 50 brand-name schools. Another VC-backed company, three-year-old SoFi (for Social Finance), has refinanced more than $1 billion in student debt held by 13,500 graduates of 2,200 schools, making it the largest refinancer in the market. This leaves no doubt where some of the emphasis on refinancing student loans my be coming from today. I wonder if Moodys will rate it AAA as they did with tranched CDO/MBS and not care about the securty of the loan(s) in each tranche?

In particular the former statistic of payback after default refutes the arguments of student loan critics the likes of Jason Delisle (New America) and Brookings Beth Akers and Matt Chingos who advocate Fair Market Valuation of Student Loans to assess risk. It might make sense to do so, if a student loan was the same as a home mortgage or a piece of machinery in a factory; but, student loans are not the same. By a student’s signature, a student loan becomes a roach motel as there is no way out through bankruptcy. You can wait 20-25 years and get out of it on an IBP plan, die, become disabled, or do public service to get out of potions of it. If you default, the Government will garnish your wages, SS, Disability to collect their money besides disqualify you from any federal programs.

CAP’s How Qualified Student Loans Could Protect Borrowers and Taxpayers proposes returning bankruptcy protections to student loans. A closer examination of the plan reveals this program would disqualify many federal and private loans from having access to bankruptcy. Instead what is seen are alternatives to bankruptcy such as gainful employment, income based payment, service loan forgiveness, payment on tim interest reductions, etc. most plans of which are teasers with only a low percentage of applicants being accepted and successful. CAP and other liberal advocates push for these repayment programs which in the end result in the majority of people who try for the benefit being kicked out before anything is forgiven. CAP has recruited a former director of the Department of Education lending program David Bergeron who does not appear to have brought anything new to the discussion other than repayment programs which may cause more damage in the end. The issue still remains of bankruptcy protection in the form of what was given to big business and TBTF by Congress and in the end walked away from $billions in responsibility over the decades. Guess students do not get a benefit of the doubt.

Another proposal by David Bergeron and CAP is a federal refinancing plan for private loans. The plan would refinance private loans at lower interest rates, taking them over from private banks at book value and offering a better deal than what was offered to investment firms (made into banks by Geithner and given access to Fed money). Nonperforming loans would be included in this plan also as a bailout and makes the government a private industry bill collector for loans which more than likely should not have been made. The impact of this plan would help a few borrowers and in the end may hurt them as they lose protection under the statutes of limitations.

While Democrats favor the two aforementioned plans, Republicans are still stuck in the past of no bankruptcy protection for student loan holders, complaining of the high cost of repayment programs and the lending system, and suggesting private banks for student loans as subsidized by the Feds can do a better job. Students and parents would be at the mercy of the banks. Republicans would resurrect a taxpayer subsidized banking system such as what our venture capitalist would love and was put to its grave by Obama who stopped short of revamping the entire student loan system. There is no serious accommodation for middle and low income students coming from Republicans. Republicans have abandoned their free-market attitude by not affording students the same protection afforded TBTF and big business under bankruptcy and Democrats have embraced the past with people such as Bergeron from the Department of Education who help create today’s student loan and repayment environment.

What mostly brought the nation to today’s bad student loan environment is a Congress dead set against “supposed” lazy students escaping any responsibility for something they signed up for as 18 year-olds, a student loan system fraught with a profit motive forcing young people and their parents into an indentured servitude to banks with the Gov as the bill collector, nonprofit and for-profit colleges not having any responsibility for the loans offered to their students, uncontrolled college employee expenses due to the addition of staff beyond teaching staff, decreased state funding for colleges, federal grants and scholarships which have not kept up with inflation, etc. The only cost to have exceeded healthcare cost increases is that of the higher cost of education.

In the end, what many young college graduates earned in a living well beyond what could be made with just a high school education is far less when compared to decreased high school income and years previous. While the percentage difference may be the same, the actual income for college grads has decreased. Young couples with little or no student loan debt have accumulated higher levels of assets in comparison.

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In Which I try to Defend Janet Yellen from Brad DeLong

Fed Chair Janet Yellen said, among other things,

For this reason, if the economy continues to improve as I expect, I think it will be appropriate at some point this year to take the initial step to raise the federal funds rate target and begin the process of normalizing monetary policy. To support taking this step, however, I will need to see continued improvement in labor market conditions, and I will need to be reasonably confident that inflation will move back to 2 percent over the medium term.

After we begin raising the federal funds rate, I anticipate that the pace of normalization is likely to be gradual. The various headwinds that are still restraining the economy, as I said, will likely take some time to fully abate, and the pace of that improvement is highly uncertain. If conditions develop as my colleagues and I expect, then the FOMC’s objectives of maximum employment and price stability would best be achieved by proceeding cautiously, which I expect would mean that it will be several years before the federal funds rate would be back to its normal, longer-run level.

The news is that “some point this year” means “not next month” A possible increase in June 2015 used to be discussed a lot.

Brad DeLong argues that raising rates “sometime this year” would be crazy. The justification is that unemployment will be low and inflation will not be far below target. This would imply no normal reason to raise rates. Brad’s main point is that the speech includes no consideration of the risk of hitting the zero lower bound due to a shock after raising rates.

After quoting Brad, I’m going to go to a long boring comment. The main point, if any, is that a speech describing a sub-optimal plan for interest rates (as a function of future information) may be an optimal speech. But I also type about optimal control (both of us are trying to do math in our heads using plain English). I want to stress here that I think Brad is making a very important very valid point.

Finally I hand him the mike

If your control variable has a bound–like the zero lower bound on interest rates–the optimal control policy is different. The fact that you cannot lower your control variable below its bound adds an extra term to the math. This extra term makes it unpleasant to be even near the bound. So you should take steps to stay away from it–which means lowering your control variable closer to the bound as you get near it. And the nearer to it you are, the more you lower it below what it would be if there were no bound constraining it.

this bound principle has the implication that if do you wind up at the bound, you want to get off of it as soon as possible in a way that makes it highly unlikely you will wind back at it. Hence you stay at the bound until your optimal policy in the absence of the bound is well away, and then you move your control variable rapidly until it once again is expected to drift only slowly.

Thus Janet Yellen’s declaration today makes no sense: from an optimal control of you, you want to wait to raise interest rates until the economy is sufficiently strong that the appropriate interest rate raise is a substantial one.

I think the last words should be “is sufficiently strong that the interest rate which would be appropriate if there were no lower bound is substantially greater than zero” Way at the end of the post, I explain why this is different from what Brad wrote.

Most of my comment is after the jump

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Jeb Bush discovers a hypothetical he’s willing to address—and assures us that he, unlike Obama, would have ensured a second Great Depression. Jeb for President!

Questioned by a voter inside a sports bar about whether there is “space” between himself and his older brother on any issues, Bush offered a clear critique.

“Are there differences? Yeah, I mean, sure,” Bush said. “I think that in Washington during my brother’s time, Republicans spent too much money. I think he could have used the veto power — he didn’t have line-item veto power, but he could have brought budget discipline to Washington, D.C. That seems kind of quaint right now given the fact that after he left, budget deficits and spending just like lit up astronomically. But having constraints on spending across the board during his time would have been a good thing.”

–  Jeb Bush: George W. spent too much money, Eli Stokols, Politico, yesterday

Okay, so Bush has now found a hypothetical that he wants to discuss.  Two hypotheticals, actually: (1) what his fiscal policies would have been between Jan. 2001 and Jan. 2009; and (2) what his fiscal policies would have been between Jan. 2009 and, oh—at what point did the federal budget deficit decline dramatically?  2013? And … what is the deficit now, as compared with the Bush years?  And what role did the Bush tax cuts play in that?

But really, since these are to separate hypotheticals, we—well, the people who actually can ask and maybe get an answer (i.e., the news media; Hillary Clinton)—should ask two sets of questions.

First, we (they) should ask what spending, specifically, Jeb Bush would not have authorized during his brother’s presidency that his brother authorized.  The military spending for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?  The massive spending on increased security after 9/11?  The Medicare Part D prescription-drug law?  The frantic stopgap finance-industry bailout that George Bush’s Treasury secretary, Henry Paulson, put together in the fall of 2008 in order to try to fend off a near-complete collapse of the banking system?

Or maybe the initial part of the auto-industry bailout, without which George Bush said the unemployment rate would have jumped to about 20%?

So, would Jeb Bush—knowing then what we know now, about the near-collapse of the banking system, and of the economy, late in his brother’s presidency, and the fact that the Iraq war went on and on and on—have supported his brother’s two massive tax cuts, mostly for the wealthy, during his first term?

Just askin’.  Although I’d bet that’s a hypothetical that he’d take even longer to answer than the five days it took him to answer the infamous Iraq one.  Maybe even as long as 18 months.

Then, of course, there’s that second hypothetical that Bush answered yesterday—the one in which he said the budget deficits at the end of his brother’s term seem “kind of quaint right now given the fact that after he left, budget deficits and spending just like lit up astronomically,” indicating that he (Jeb) thinks Obama, in the face of the collapsing economy and banking system, should have … what, exactly?

Cut funding for unemployment compensation, or capped it at its 2007 level?  Refused to allow extensions of it?  Cut funding for food stamp access, or capped it at its 2007 level?

Ended the financial industry bailout begun under his brother?

Let Detroit go bankrupt?  (That wasn’t such a winning tack for Mitt Romney.  But, I mean, ya never know. …)

Ah. Maybe he means the stimulus bill, which provided funding for job training and college for hundreds of thousands of people, especially in states hardest hit by the collapse of the economy.  States like Michigan, Ohio, Nevada, Florida.  And the direct spending from that bill, on infrastructure projects and such.  Y’know, the stuff that virtually all mainstream economists now say helped keep the unemployment rate from reaching Great Depression levels and helped start the recovery.

It’s not surprising, I suppose, that the political media played up Bush’s comments yesterday–at least in headlines and soundbites if not in the actual reportage itself by reporters who wrote full articles about the comments (see, e.g. the quote at the opening of this post, and the title given the article)–as Bush Brother v. Bush Brother.  Because of course it’s the family saga, not the specifics of the policies, that matter, right?*

And some mainstream political reporters, including a couple of them from Politico, where (unrelatedly) the above quotes were originally published, couldn’t analyze their way out of a paper bag.  And Clinton herself pretty clearly has settled on a campaign of mindless clichés, Republican soundbites about federal regulation, and cutesy gimmicks.  Does she really not understand that most small business red tape has nothing at all to do with federal regulations? Or does she just think that most people don’t know the difference between private-bank business-loan operations and federal regulation, and between state and local business regulations—a.k.a., red tape—and federal regulations?  And that no one will ask her what regulations, exactly, she thinks are holding back small-business owners and aspiring small-business owners?

On that last point, she may be right, since she has almost no direct contact with the press and no contact at all with everyday Americans who haven’t been prescreened as props.

So maybe Bernie Sanders or Martin O’Malley—or Elizabeth Warren—will question the specifics of Jeb Bush’s answers to those hypotheticals.  And the specifics of Clinton’s claim that federal regulations are hindering small business.  Like, which federal regulations, specifically?  And maybe, at least regarding Bush’s, a Dem SuperPAC that is not coordinating with Clinton and her silly campaign, will run web ads or TV ads eventually that do that.

And maybe Sanders, O’Malley, Warren, or a progressive Democratic SuperPAC will point out that the biggest hindrance to small business loan availability, by far, is not federal regulation, or even state or local regulation, but instead federal deregulation—of the banking system.  Specifically, the disastrous repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act.  And mention the incessant Republican push to repeal the Dodd-Frank bank-regulation law, and their fight against instituting the Volker Rule.

Clinton is right that “[t]oo many regulatory and licensing requirements are uneven and uncertain” and that “[i]t should not take longer to start a business in the U.S. than it does in Canada, Korea, or France.” But small-business regulation is mostly, and licensing is entirely, state and local, not federal.  So maybe she’ll get around to pointing that out and detailing what she, as president, would propose as a national fix.  In any event she should not further the Republican misrepresentation that small-business regulation and licensing is done by the federal government. With the exception of federal tax laws, including FICA tax laws, and environmental laws and worker-safety laws, “cutting the red tape that holds back small businesses and entrepreneurs” means tackling state and local, not federal, red tape.

As for my earlier dismay at Clinton’s senior policy adviser Jake Sullivan’s Fox News-ish claim that Democrats support obstacles for small businesses, and are against small businesses having easy access to loans—we don’t want them to compete with Walmart, see—I now get it.  Sadly. Blame imagined Democratic anti-small-business sentiment, and big federal gummint, rather than the deregulated banking industry, for the labyrinthine high-hurdle event that is the small-business loan situation now.

Clinton speaks of her father’s success in opening and running a very profitable small business. His business loans, though, weren’t from banks competing for profits with multinational hedge funds masquerading as JPMorgan Chase Bank, Citibank and Bank of America.

But, as for Jeb Bush, at least he’s honest.  He’s told us now that had he, instead of Obama, been president in the aftermath of his brother’s presidency, he’d have ensured a complete collapse of the economy.  Vote for Jeb!

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Clinton has a God-given right to refer to others’ God-given potential. And I have a right, God-given or otherwise, to find her decision to do that really annoying.

This post of mine yesterday deals mostly with Clinton’s annoying “When women are [fill in the blank], families are [same word; slightly different meaning] slogans.  But toward the end, it also discusses Clinton’s annoying references to people’s “God-given potential.”  References to people’s potential, without injecting religion (at least without some elaboration on the religion injection), would be much better, I said.

In the Comments thread to that post, reader Mike B. exchanged these comments:

Mike B.

May 21, 2015 10:49 am

I’m not religious, but I think that, publicly at least, Hillary is. So I don’t mind her putting “God-given” in there (or “blessed”). The GOP likes to pretend they are the religious party, which isn’t true – they’re the party of the religious right. There are a lot of liberal Christians out there, and I don’t think it’s bad for people to be reminded of that. It’s true that Hillary didn’t have to put those words in there, but I doubt if it’ll put off many people.

Beverly Mann

May 21, 2015 1:17 pm

Mike, you’re absolutely right that Clinton has been a practicing Methodist all her life. I don’t begrudge her her right to make that point and mention Methodist teachings as Methodist teachings. And it did occur to me that by inserting “God-given” there, she thinks it could help persuade religious Christians who don’t think of trying to make sure that everybody has the same chances to live up to his or her own potential as something that government should do.

But I actually listened to the video she put out on Mother’s Day, in which she used the line about “God-given potential.” Most of the video was about her own mother’s life, and was really poignant. Her mother was truly a pretty awesome person who had had a really sad childhood. Clinton didn’t detail it in the video, but the tone of her voice in referencing it was touching enough that I checked out her mother’s biography on Wikipedia.

But near the end of that otherwise un-phony, touching video, when Clinton used the line about “God-given potential,” the word “God-given” was emphasized in a way that sounded like she had recut the video to insert that word, at the suggestion of some political adviser. She didn’t say “God-given”; she said “GOD-GIVEN.”

I myself would love to hear her talk about Christian teachings about caring about others—but as Christian teachings that nonetheless aren’t the exclusive property of Christians, or of religious people.

My problem with Clinton is that she’s incessantly invoking her gender, her Christianity, her … hit-the-political-buttons, early and often.  I keep automatically comparing her in my mind to Warren, who never, ever highlights her gender and doesn’t incessantly (or ever) appear to base her support for, say, meaningfully increasing the minimum wage on the fact that about two-thirds of minimum-wage earners are women. And, yes, universal access to quality child-care, and reliable work schedules, and other tremendously important work issues that Clinton and Warren both discuss, would make a difference to far more women than men, but Warren recognizes that it is utterly unnecessary to point that out.

No one thinks of Warren as a woman politician; they think of her as a tremendously articulate politician who has deep policy knowledge about certain economic and financial issues, and who is leading a progressive political movement. So she’s the ultimate feminist politician. But neither does anyone think of Warren as a Christian, or non-Christian, or religious, or non-religious politician. Her statements are purely policy-related, and the fact that her policy positions fit nicely with certain Christian teachings is irrelevant. She doesn’t mention it, and she knows she doesn’t have to.

Last week, in a post of mine that I’d hoped would get some attention (it didn’t, best as I can tell), I discussed Martin O’Malley’s flag-pin-wearing.  And not in a favorable way.  I’m very, very, very tired of Democratic politicians’ craven playing on the Republican Party’s playing field by subtly acceding to their Democrats-aren’t-patriotic and Democrats aren’t-religious-enough characterizations.

Which is what they do when they adopt the Republican Party’s chosen symbols on such things. Wearing flag-lapel pins and inserting God-given here and there as obligatory are classic examples of it. This should stop.  It’s not, by any stretch, politically necessary.

It just should stop.

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Clinton really, really needs to kill her incoherent “When women are [fill in the blank], families are [same word; slightly different meaning] slogan. Really.

When women are strong, families are strong.

Hillary Clinton, repeatedly

When women are healthy, families are healthy.

Hillary Clinton, a few days ago

Good news.  According to National Journal journalist Molly Mirhashem and h/t’d by Anna North of the New York Times, the Clinton campaign is no longer taking women’s support as a given.  So Clinton’s been demonstrating her commitment to racial and economic equality.  By mentioning that the gender wage gap is wider is wider for women of color (presumably meaning black and Hispanic women, not Asian or Middle Eastern women) than it is for white women.

In other words, the news is not all that good, after all.  It’s just okay.  Progress, but not much.

Mirhashem’s article is titled “What young feminists think of Hillary Clinton” and subtitled “It’s not quite what you’d expect.”  That, though, depends on who the “you” is, since it’s exactly what I expected.

The above-quoted sing-song slogans marry two of Clinton’s hallmarks: First, her belief that simply using the word “women” constantly is her ticket to victory—after all, isn’t that what matters to baby boomer feminists?  Well, that, and the fact of her gender itself?  Second, her preference for incoherent slogans intended just to indicate generic policy positions.  Shorthand.  Because, well, this is after all, the age of Twitter.  And all that matters is that Clinton lets us know, generically, which side of a policy issue she’s on.  The ones she wants us to know, anyway.

My reaction to her slogan, “When women are strong, families are strong,” each time I’ve heard or read it, is to think of the millions of women who hold down two low-paying jobs, some of them traveling to and from the jobs using uncomfortable and sporadic public transportation.  By definition, at least by the usual definition, of the word, these women are strong.  But some of them have families that are not strong.

And women who are seriously ill, say with cancer, may have strong families.

Taken at face value, the two slogans are incoherent.  They’re non sequiturs.  You get the general idea of what she means, but why doesn’t she just say what she means?  Sound-bite slogans are useful when they’re coherent and state something specific.  Clinton has borrowed Elizabeth Warren’s very effective slogan that the game is rigged, changing it to “The deck is stacked,” which means the same thing of course.  Both phrasings are effective because they say something clear and pointed; they don’t need to be translated into a coherent statement.  They’re not sing-song-y, they don’t use a play on a word, and they don’t mention gender or any such trigger. They tie together two things into cause-and-effect: The tiny handful of people who pay for political campaigns are the ones who write public policy; their politician benefactors are just their proxies, their puppets.

I’m no longer as hostile as I was to Clinton and her commandeering of the nomination process; the Democratic Party and the potentially strong but demurring progressive candidates such as Sherrod Brown have acceded to it.  And she’s clearly decided to become the non-Hillary-Clinton candidate that we progressives have wanted to see enter the race.

But she and her political and policy advisers and spokespeople need to stop condescending to progressives and to the public in general.  I don’t understand how a candidate who has so very many highly paid message strategists believes that nonsensical and pandering slogans and statements is the way to victory in the general election.  She really, really doesn’t have to preface the word “potential”—as in, having the chance to live up to his or her potential—with the word “God-given.”  She can just say that she and her husband are “going to fight to make sure that everybody has the same chances to live up to his or her own potential.”  She may think it’s politically necessary for her to insert “God-given” before “potential”.  But it just sounds like what it is: gratuitous and patronizing.*

Someone who isn’t paid vast sums to advise her should tell her that.  Because none of the folks who are paid vast sums to advise her will tell her that.  But she, of all candidates, should studiously avoid pandering. At least that sort of pandering.

In truth, the way to victory for her in the general election is to run against a Republican.  And since that’s what she will be doing, she should start, now, being a candidate who appears to have the moral strength to walk away from the 1980s and ‘90s political obsessions.  We Democrats are entitled to a standard bearer who has that.  We are.  Really.

—-

*The full quote is:

Bill and I have been blessed, and we’re very grateful for the opportunities we had.  But we’ve never forgotten where we came from, and we’ve never forgotten the kind of country we want to see for our granddaughter, and that means that we’re going to fight to make sure that everybody has the same chances to live up to his or her own God-given potential.

Added 5/20 at 10:41 p.m.

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The Missing Follow Up Question: Why Iraq is Still a Landmine for Jeb and Marco

Over the last week the various talking heads have come to a consensus on two points about Iraq. One, given what we know now OF COURSE it was a mistake to go to war on Iraq. And two, why on Earth weren’t Jeb and Marco prepared to answer this obvious question in that obvious way? Well I think there are any numbers of reasons why they fell into this trap, but perhaps the simplest is this:

“Governor Bush/Senator Rubio, having conceded that with the 20/20 advantage of hindsight that YOU wouldn’t have made the decision to go to war, and moreover insist that President G.W. Bush wouldn’t have either, why have you each hired as top foreign policy advisers people who were not only centrally involved in making that decision, but deny to this date that it even WAS a mistake?”

Jeb, who was a PNAC Vulcan, and Marco, who is positioning himself as the heir to Neo-Con-ism, are STILL relying on PNAC Signatories of either the 1997 Statement of Principles or the 1998 Letter to President Clinton on Iraq. It is one thing to agree “Mistakes were made” and another to say “Hey what the hell, why not give the mistake makers another bite at the apple?” Maybe because they don’t even AGREE that they made any mistakes to start with?

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Why does Clinton’s senior policy adviser Jake Sullivan think liberals support bottlenecks for small business loans? And does Clinton REALLY think that if Corrections Corporation of America and its chief competitor (Marco Rubio’s tacit business partner, GEO) reduce their prices, mass incarceration should continue?

“People often talk about the electorate moving left,” said Clinton senior policy adviser Jake Sullivan. “I think it’s more that the electorate is just getting more practical. For Hillary Clinton, that matches her evidence-based approach. The arguments that persuade her are evidence-based and progressive.”

He cited the growing consensus that mass incarceration is expensive and unworkable, and that the country is never going to deport all of the more than 11 million people who are here illegally.…

Sullivan also noted that some of Clinton’s early proposals “cut against the grain” of political liberalism, such as her emphasis on improving the playing field for American small businesses.

Clinton will debut policy proposals to ease lending bottlenecks for small businesses on campaign trips to Iowa and New Hampshire this week. The impetus came largely from conversations Clinton had in the run-up to the campaign and a six-month policy review led by Sullivan that looked at how Clinton might address a variety of national concerns.

“The thing she is most interested in is not what position is most popular, it’s what do people worry about,” Sullivan said.

– Clinton is banking on the Obama coalition to win, Anne Gearan, The Washington Post, today

Hmmm.  Okay, Dems.  We need to realize that we’re in trouble.  No, we’re not gonna lose the general elgection.  But our likely standard bearer thinks she’s boldly challenging her party’s base, Sister-Soulja-style, by emphasizing improving the playing field for American small businesses.  As against, say, Walmart. And JPMorgan Chase’s investment banking clients.

I mean … like … Wow.

So Clinton, or at least her senior policy adviser, has never heard of the Durbin Amendment.  Or else thinks that Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin is a Republican.  Or maybe a centrist Democrat rather than a very liberal one.  And that Clinton, who her campaign chairman, John Podesta, elsewhere in the article assures that “[s]he’s a proud wonk, and she looks at policy from that perspective,” thinks liberals were up in arms back in early 2010 at the idea that the federal government would interject itself into the by-then-long-running controversy between the credit card/ATM card companies and small retailers (including franchisees such as gas station owners) about the usurious charges that Visa and Mastercard were charging businesses for processing even very small purchases by their customers.

Apparently neither one of them had causal conversations with the three or four small business owners in the Ann Arbor, Mich. area that I happened to chat about it with back in, oh, 2009, 2009, 2010.  Including one I remember, the owner of an independent dollar store, who said that while Walmart could afford the charge for processing small credit/ATM card purchases, those charges cut significant into his profit.  And I guess neither one of them—Clinton nor her senior policy adviser—ever drove, back then, say, north on Pontiac Rd. from Ann Arbor and noticed the family-owned gas stations with signs highlighting the $.10-per-gallon, and then occasionally the $.20-per-gallon, discount for paying in cash.  That’s too bad.  But then, although it’s now lost in memory, Michigan had no Democratic primary in 2008 that year, because of a controversy concerning the state Dem Party’s decision to try to move its primary ahead of New Hampshire’s.  (Something like that; I can’t remember the details.)  So Clinton didn’t campaign in the state, and her current senior policy adviser, who had a high position in her 2008 campaign, would not have visited the state either.

Nor, obviously, are Clinton and her senior policy adviser aware of Paul Krugman’s columns and blog posts explaining the tremendous edge that the mega-banks, which no longer deign to actually make business loans to small businesses because, well, they’re doing just fine with their hedge fund and investment banking operations (I mean, well, usually they are), have over regional or local banks that do so deign.  And since they’re getting their take on liberals from Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, they also apparently don’t know that Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, and Jeff Merkley have used their positions on the Senate Banking Committee to try to enact legislation to break up the mega-banks by prohibiting banks that have standard so-called retail banking operations from engaging also in hedge fund and investment banking functions.  Which Clinton, wonk that she is, would understand would itself make it easier for the banks that would be operating as, y’know, banks to make loans, on decent terms, to small businesses.

Maybe Clinton and her senior policy adviser think Krugman and those three senators and, say, Durbin and Bernie Sanders, are Tea Party members.  Or centrists.  Or maybe they know of other liberals who are demanding justice for JPMorgan Chase and Citibank.

Or maybe they should get out more among, say, real live liberals.

For that matter, they also should get out more among moderates.  Most of whom, probably, think this country’s three-decades-long mass-incarceration policies raise profound concerns beyond the exorbitant direct expenditures, many of whom, probably, would question Clinton’s basic judgment if they knew that she thinks state governments should just drive a harder bargain with Marco Rubio’s tacit business partner, GEO, and its main competitor, Corrections Corporation of America—both of which, it turns out, have contracts with state and county governments in which the governments promise to keep the prisons or jails at or near capacity, or pay the corporations for the empty beds.  I mean, cots.

Both Clinton and her senior policy adviser hold law degrees from Yale.  So, who knows? It might even occur to one or the other to suggest that such contracts constitute wholesale violations of Fourteenth Amendment due process guarantees. And state constitutions’ separation-of-powers structure.  Perhaps Samuel Alito, who is deeply concerned about the constitutionality of public-employee unions’ very existence because of unions’ power to determine such things as the size of state government, can assist with legal theory.  Maybe they could ask him for suggestions.

I mean, they’re wonks, right?  How else would they know that mass incarceration is expensive?

And if Clinton doesn’t inform the public of that fact, they won’t know that fact.  luckily, she plans to tell the public, and support this assertion with detailed information about the math formula she used to discern that fact. And really, it is a fact.  Mass incarceration is very expensive. And that money could be used for … other things.  Good thing she’s a practical wonk.

But back to the nitty-gritty of using us liberals as foils to assure moderates that she’s not really so liberal even now, what with her cutting against the liberal grain of proposing to end bottlenecks to small-business loans, and all.  I will oblige her, and have my brick ready to throw through the window of a neighborhood Thai restaurant nearby that plans to expand after it gets a new loan.

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“We broke it, but you’ve got to fix it.”

Worthy of a read of (or if you want a listen to) a recent Commencement speech given by Ken Burns at Washington University calling on recent graduates to help fix what previous generations have left broken and incomplete. I have posted both the verbal and the written version for you to select.

A comment extracted from the speech:

“a tall, thin lawyer, prone to bouts of debilitating depression, addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum. The topic that day was national security.

“At what point shall we expect the approach of danger?” he asked his audience . . . . Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the Earth and crush us at a blow?” Then he answered his own question: “Never. All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa . . . could not by force take a drink from the Ohio [River] or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years . . . If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

It is a stunning, remarkable statement.”

Ken Burns answers what is wrong with America and why we have not been able to get it right after the Civil War and during Reconstruction. “You’re joining a movement that must be dedicated above all else — career and personal advancement — to the preservation of this country’s most enduring ideals. You have to learn, and then re-teach the rest of us that equality — real equality — is the hallmark and birthright of ALL Americans. Thankfully, you will become a vanguard against a new separatism that seems to have infected our ranks, a vanguard against those forces that, in the name of our great democracy, have managed to diminish it.”

*************************************************************

The Text: Chancellor Wrighton, members of the Board of Trustees and the Administration, distinguished faculty, Class of 1965, hard-working staff, my fellow honorees, proud and relieved parents, calm and serene grandparents, distracted but secretly pleased siblings, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, graduating students, good morning. I am deeply honored that you have asked me here to say a few words at this momentous occasion, that you might find what I have to say worthy of your attention on so important a day at this remarkable institution.

It had been my intention this morning to parcel out some good advice at the end of these remarks — the “goodness” of that being of course subjective in the extreme — but then I realized that this is the land of Mark Twain, and I came to the conclusion that any commentary today ought to be framed in the sublime shadow of this quote of his: “It’s not that the world is full of fools, it’s just that lightening isn’t distributed right.” More on Mr. Twain later.

I am in the business of history. It is my job to try to discern some patterns and themes from the past to help us interpret our dizzyingly confusing and sometimes dismaying present. Without a knowledge of that past, how can we possibly know where we are and, most important, where we are going? Over the years I’ve come to understand an important fact, I think: that we are not condemned to repeat, as the cliché goes and we are fond of quoting, what we don’t remember. That’s a clever, even poetic phrase, but not even close to the truth. Nor are there cycles of history, as the academic community periodically promotes. The Bible, Ecclesiastes to be specific, got it right, I think: “What has been will be again. What has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun.”

What that means is that human nature never changes. Or almost never changes. We have continually superimposed our complex and contradictory nature over the random course of human events. All of our inherent strengths and weaknesses, our greed and generosity, our puritanism and our prurience parade before our eyes, generation after generation after generation. This often gives us the impression that history repeats itself. It doesn’t. It just rhymes, Mark Twain is supposed to have said…but he didn’t (more on Mr. Twain later.)

Over the many years of practicing, I have come to the realization that history is not a fixed thing, a collection of precise dates, facts and events (even cogent commencement quotes) that add up to a quantifiable, certain, confidently known, truth. It is a mysterious and malleable thing. And each generation rediscovers and re-examines that part of its past that gives its present, and most important, its future new meaning, new possibilities and new power.

Listen. For most of the forty years I’ve been making historical documentaries, I have been haunted and inspired by a handful of sentences from an extraordinary speech I came across early in my professional life by a neighbor of yours just up the road in Springfield, Illinois. In January of 1838, shortly before his 29th birthday, a tall, thin lawyer, prone to bouts of debilitating depression, addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum. The topic that day was national security. “At what point shall we expect the approach of danger?” he asked his audience . . . . Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the Earth and crush us at a blow?” Then he answered his own question: “Never. All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa . . . could not by force take a drink from the Ohio [River] or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years . . . If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” It is a stunning, remarkable statement.

That young man was, of course, Abraham Lincoln, and he would go on to preside over the closest this country has ever come to near national suicide, our Civil War — fought over the meaning of freedom in America. And yet embedded in his extraordinary, disturbing and prescient words is a fundamental optimism that implicitly acknowledges the geographical force-field two mighty oceans and two relatively benign neighbors north and south have provided for us since the British burned the White House in the War of 1812.

We have counted on Abraham Lincoln for more than a century and a half to get it right when the undertow in the tide of those human events has threatened to overwhelm and capsize us. We always come back to him for the kind of sustaining vision of why we Americans still agree to cohere, why unlike any other country on earth, we are still stitched together by words and, most important, their dangerous progeny, ideas. We return to him for a sense of unity, conscience and national purpose. To escape what the late historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., said is our problem today: “too much pluribus, not enough unum.”

It seems to me that he gave our fragile experiment a conscious shock that enabled it to outgrow the monumental hypocrisy of slavery inherited at our founding and permitted us all, slave owner as well as slave, to have literally, as he put it at Gettysburg, “a new birth of freedom.”

Lincoln’s Springfield speech also suggests what is so great and so good about the people who inhabit this lucky and exquisite country of ours (that’s the world you now inherit): our work ethic, our restlessness, our innovation and our improvisation, our communities and our institutions of higher learning, our suspicion of power; the fact that we seem resolutely dedicated to parsing the meaning between individual and collective freedom; that we are dedicated to understanding what Thomas Jefferson really meant when he wrote that inscrutable phrase “the pursuit of Happiness.”

But the isolation of those two mighty oceans has also helped to incubate habits and patterns less beneficial to us: our devotion to money and guns; our certainty — about everything; our stubborn insistence on our own exceptionalism, blinding us to that which needs repair, our preoccupation with always making the other wrong, at an individual as well as global level.

And then there is the issue of race, which was foremost on the mind of Lincoln back in 1838. It is still here with us today. The jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis told me that healing this question of race was what “the kingdom needed in order to be well.” Before the enormous strides in equality achieved in statutes and laws in the 150 years since the Civil War that Lincoln correctly predicted would come are in danger of being undone by our still imperfect human nature and by politicians who now insist on a hypocritical color-blindness — after four centuries of discrimination. That discrimination now takes on new, sometimes subtler, less obvious but still malevolent forms today. The chains of slavery have been broken, thank God, and so too has the feudal dependence of sharecroppers as the vengeful Jim Crow era recedes (sort of) into the distant past. But now in places like — but not limited to — your other neighbors a few miles as the crow flies from here in Ferguson, we see the ghastly remnants of our great shame emerging still, the shame Lincoln thought would lead to national suicide, our inability to see beyond the color of someone’s skin. It has been with us since our founding.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote that immortal second sentence of the Declaration that begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…,” he owned more than a hundred human beings. He never saw the contradiction, never saw the hypocrisy, and more important never saw fit in his lifetime to free any one of those human beings, ensuring as we went forward that the young United States — born with such glorious promise — would be bedeviled by race, that it would take a bloody, bloody Civil War to even begin to redress the imbalance.

But the shame continues: prison populations exploding with young black men, young black men killed almost weekly by policemen, whole communities of color burdened by corrupt municipalities that resemble more the predatory company store of a supposedly bygone era than a responsible local government. Our cities and towns and suburbs cannot become modern plantations.

It is unconscionable, as you emerge from this privileged sanctuary, that a few miles from here — and nearly everywhere else in America: Baltimore, New York City, North Charleston, Cleveland, Oklahoma, Sanford, Florida, nearly everywhere else — we are still playing out, sadly, an utterly American story, that the same stultifying conditions and sentiments that brought on our Civil War are still on such vivid and unpleasant display. Today, today. There’s nothing new under the sun.

Many years after our Civil War, in 1883, Mark Twain took up writing in earnest a novel he had started and abandoned several times over the last half-dozen years. It would be a very different kind of story from his celebrated Tom Sawyer book, told this time in the plain language of his Missouri boyhood — and it would be his masterpiece.

Set near here, before the Civil War and emancipation, ‘the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ is the story of two runaways — a white boy, Tom Sawyer’s old friend Huck, fleeing civilization, and a black man, Jim, who is running away from slavery. They escape together on a raft going down the Mississippi River.

The novel reaches its moral climax when Huck is faced with a terrible choice. He believes he has committed a grievous sin in helping Jim escape, and he finally writes out a letter, telling Jim’s owner where her runaway property can be found. Huck feels good about doing this at first, he says, and marvels at “how close I came to being lost and going to hell.”

But then he hesitates, thinking about how kind Jim has been to him during their adventure. “…Somehow,” Huck says, “I couldn’t seem to strike no place to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see how glad he was when I come back out of the fog;…and such like times; and would always call me honey…and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was…”

Then, Huck remembers the letter he has written. “I took it up, and held it in my hand,” he says. “I was a-trembling because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right then, I’ll go to hell’ — and tore it up.”

That may be the finest moment in all of American literature. Ernest Hemingway thought all of American literature began at that moment.

Twain, himself, writing after the Civil War and after the collapse of Reconstruction, a misunderstood period devoted to trying to enforce civil rights, was actually expressing his profound disappointment that racial differences still persisted in America, that racism still festered in this favored land, founded as it was on the most noble principle yet advanced by humankind — that all men are created equal. That civil war had not cleansed our original sin, a sin we continue to confront today, daily, in this supposedly enlightened “post-racial” time.

It is into this disorienting and sometimes disappointing world that you now plummet, I’m afraid, unprotected from the shelter of family and school. You have fresh prospects and real dreams and I wish each and every one of you the very best. But I am drafting you now into a new Union Army that must be committed to preserving the values, the sense of humor, the sense of cohesion that have long been a part of our American nature, too. You have no choice, you’ve been called up, and it is your difficult, but great and challenging responsibility to help change things and set us right again.

Let me apologize in advance to you. We broke it, but you’ve got to fix it. You’re joining a movement that must be dedicated above all else — career and personal advancement — to the preservation of this country’s most enduring ideals. You have to learn, and then re-teach the rest of us that equality — real equality — is the hallmark and birthright of ALL Americans. Thankfully, you will become a vanguard against a new separatism that seems to have infected our ranks, a vanguard against those forces that, in the name of our great democracy, have managed to diminish it. Then, you can change human nature just a bit, to appeal, as Lincoln also implored us, to appeal to “the better angels of our nature.” That’s the objective. I know you can do it.

Ok. I’m rounding third.

Let me speak directly to the graduating class. (Watch out. Here comes the advice.)

Remember: Black lives matter. All lives matter.

Reject fundamentalism wherever it raises its ugly head. It’s not civilized. Choose to live in the Bedford Falls of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” not its oppressive opposite, Pottersville.

Do not descend too deeply into specialism. Educate all your parts. You will be healthier.

Replace cynicism with its old-fashioned antidote, skepticism.

Don’t confuse monetary success with excellence. The poet Robert Penn Warren once warned me that “careerism is death.”

Try not to make the other wrong.

Be curious, not cool.

Remember, insecurity makes liars of us all.

Listen to jazz. A lot. It is our music.

Read. The book is still the greatest man-made machine of all — not the car, not the TV, not the computer or the smartphone.

Do not allow our social media to segregate us into ever smaller tribes and clans, fiercely and sometimes appropriately loyal to our group, but also capable of metastasizing into profound distrust of the other.

Serve your country. By all means serve your country. But insist that we fight the right wars. Governments always forget that.

Convince your government that the real threat, as Lincoln knew, comes from within. Governments always forget that, too. Do not let your government outsource honesty, transparency or candor. Do not let your government outsource democracy.

Vote. Elect good leaders. When he was nominated in 1936, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.” We all deserve the former. Insist on it.

Insist that we support science and the arts, especially the arts. They have nothing to do with the actual defense of the country — they just make the country worth defending.

Be about the “unum,” not the “pluribus.”

Do not lose your enthusiasm. In its Greek etymology, the word enthusiasm means simply, “God in us.”

And even though lightning still isn’t distributed right, try not to be a fool. It just gets Mark Twain riled up.

And if you ever find yourself in Huck’s spot, if you’ve “got to decide betwixt two things,” do the right thing. Don’t forget to tear up the letter. He didn’t go to hell — and you won’t either.

So we come to an end of something today—and for you also a very special beginning. God speed to you all.

Ken Burns
Walpole, New Hampshire
Burns delivers call to action to Class of 2015: “Set things right again,” Washington University, May 15, 2015

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