Law School or Not?
Published: January 9, 2011
Part One of a Three Part Series
Someone, somewhere in law school needs to back out. There are too many students, and there aren’t enough job openings.
After one semester at the Seattle University School of Law, I hereby volunteer.
My decision, cemented as I write this post instead of doing the reading for the semester’s first class tomorrow, coincides with an explosion of information and discussion on the topic of law school and student loans. The New York Times published two articles this weekend, the first is likely the most comprehensive and up-to-date piece of journalism on the issue. The second is a more shortsighted editorial written from the armchair of a casual observer of the fray, passively and smugly judging those whose lives and families are being slowly and inexorably pulled into the thresher to which we commonly refer as the “credit industry,” or more colloquially, sharky debt collectors.
Personally, I engaged in a great deal of cognitive dissonance during my time in law school, likely because I was too preoccupied with studying and analyzing judicial opinions (which are, ironically, the same process by a different name) to worry about such an existential debate. Cognitive dissonance is the simultaneous balancing of conflicting ideas in one’s mind, with a tacit focus on individual bias confirmation. For example, a law student may ignore warnings about a bad job market, and instead focus on success stories. One may pessimistically call this “confirmation bias,” but when I was doing it during the Fall of 2010, it was simply staying optimistic. Law school is one of the most difficult challenges I’ve ever experienced, and I would have collapsed if I allowed myself to listen to such pessimistic (or realistic) arguments.
Argumentation continues to fascinate me. Everything is an argument, including whether to attend law school. For me, the dispositive argument was debt. Unforgivable, bankruptcy-proof, student loans. I am not yet in debt, but cutting the check for next semester would put me on the path to at least a decade of negative net worth. Realizing the indentured servitude that was sure to follow left me with an uneasy, creepy feeling that remains with me now.
More interesting than cognitive dissonance is temporal dissociation, the kind of behavior in which I found myself engaging to justify my potential loans. “Future Carl” has money. He is driving a BMW to the tennis club from his expensive suburban home. Future Carl lives in a magical world where the financial crisis ended in 2012, just in time for him to graduate from law school and get a decent job.
Future Carl can definitely spot me a few Gs.
Moral hazard and perverse incentive inferences are welcome as I make the following statement: When we take out loans, we’re literally spending someone else’s money. Most of us are 17 or 18 when we decide to take on this massive debt. A decade is too long a span for an 18 year old to fully internalize. Further, it is a fact of human psychology that we’re more likely to go deeper into debt once we’re already in debt. Whether it was intentional or not, our education system is unsurprisingly producing millions of deeply indebted Americans.
A Clueless 18 Year Old Pilot, You in Seat 16A
18 year old Carl is flying a passenger airplane. On board are dozens of other Carls of varying ages, all older than the pilot, who has no clue. He’s on the intercom, asking for advice, but we have no way to reach him. 18 year old Carl craves conformity. He does what his friends are doing. He does what he thinks will make his parents proud. He wishes he could have gotten better grades and an acceptance letter to Harvard, so he’ll compensate by going to an expensive, private, liberal-arts school instead of *gasp* state school. And he’s spending my money unwisely.
But I don’t blame him. I blame the unplanned, unconscious education system that we’ve pieced together based mostly on convenience and fear.
How will we save for the education of the 2.1 offspring we hope to create when we can safely expect to be paying our loans into the 2020s? How will we save for our retirement?
All we ever wanted was a little financial security. We’re obviously willing to work our asses off for it. The problem is that we listen to the system, and the system obeys the market. The market is as under control and predictable as the weather. How are we substantially different than a third world farmer praying for rain?
There is a dramatic shift coming in the way we educate our workforce. There is a fundamental change underway in the operation of our society and economy (perhaps synonymous terms). Pythagoreanism.com is simply a part of this change, by both action and word.
This is the first of three essays written on student loans, and their role in the American education system.