Entitlement Wasn’t Born Yesterday

Lee Siegel writes a powerful philippic for the New York Times Sunday Review entitled “Why I Defaulted on My Student Loans.”  It may not be entirely clear from his rant that he’s no kid, but the same age as me.  That being so, I call bullshit.  Siegel is full of crap and playing his audience for fools.

Siegel begins his facile spin in his first paragraph, painting the banker who gave him his student loan as his own personal merchant of Venice.

ONE late summer afternoon when I was 17, I went with my mother to the local bank, a long-defunct institution whose name I cannot remember, to apply for my first student loan. My mother co-signed. When we finished, the banker, a balding man in his late 50s, congratulated us, as if I had just won some kind of award rather than signed away my young life.

No. The “balding” man, an interesting detail recollected by someone who can’t recall the bank, didn’t congratulate Siegel “as if” he won an award, but as if he was just enabled to get an education.  It might fairly be said that is a prize, a college education which he would otherwise not be capable of obtaining.

Siegel wasn’t the first 17-year-old to come from a family of little means.  Most of us demonstrated a sufficient grasp of our parents’ limitations to make choices based upon reality.  Not Siegel. He was special.

By the end of my sophomore year at a small private liberal arts college, my mother and I had taken out a second loan, my father had declared bankruptcy and my parents had divorced. My mother could no longer afford the tuition that the student loans weren’t covering. I transferred to a state college in New Jersey, closer to home.

There is a vanity that goes with attending a “small private liberal arts college.”  So very elitist. But lest you put it in context of today, as Siegel seeks to do by throwing in his red-herring excuse farther down his op-ed, college tuition was higher at “small private liberal arts colleges” but hardly what it is today.

This is a trick, taking a problem out of context while concealing the difference.  And even within such colleges, there was significant variation in tuition that made some truly elite, while others more modestly expensive.  Since Siegel went to college, tuition has risen at multiples of the cost of living. Back then, it just wasn’t that big a deal.

And then, there were scholarships for the smart, but poor, kids. See anything about a scholarship in there? Neither do I. Maybe that was a message to Siegel, that however special he thought he was, it wasn’t shared by the institution. They would suffer his admission, but they weren’t going to finance him. He wasn’t worth it.

But he adds insult to injury, after being compelled to leave his small private liberal arts college to attend, gasp, a state school in New Jersey.  How dreadful. How humiliating. How worthless.

Maybe the problem was that I had reached beyond my lower-middle-class origins and taken out loans to attend a small private college to begin with. Maybe I should have stayed at a store called The Wild Pair, where I once had a nice stable job selling shoes after dropping out of the state college because I thought I deserved better…

And there you have it.  It’s not that there wasn’t a college for Siegel, but that Siegel was too special for a college he could afford. “Because I thought I deserved better.” Deserved, as in he was owed, he was entitled.  It was his right to have whatever he thought he deserved.

But Siegel’s not done testing the stupidity of his readers.

It struck me as absurd that one could amass crippling debt as a result, not of drug addiction or reckless borrowing and spending, but of going to college. Having opened a new life to me beyond my modest origins, the education system was now going to call in its chits and prevent me from pursuing that new life, simply because I had the misfortune of coming from modest origins.

There was no “crippling debt,” as one sees today. College tuition at the University of Pennsylvania in 1975 was $3,430. Per year. In 2014 dollars, that comes out to $15,401.89.  Still want to cry Siegel a river?

For someone as special as Siegel, however, the “chits” called by this onerous system were more than he could bear.

Years later, I found myself confronted with a choice that too many people have had to and will have to face. I could give up what had become my vocation (in my case, being a writer) and take a job that I didn’t want in order to repay the huge debt I had accumulated in college and graduate school. Or I could take what I had been led to believe was both the morally and legally reprehensible step of defaulting on my student loans, which was the only way I could survive without wasting my life in a job that had nothing to do with my particular usefulness to society.

I chose life. That is to say, I defaulted on my student loans.

Siegel has a choice, to honor his obligations or to be an egocentric, flaming narcissist, entitled to take money upon a promise to repay or to enjoy the life he wanted to enjoy, to indulge his happiness at other people’s expense.  Isn’t it all about him? Doesn’t he deserve to be whatever he wants to be. Is he not entitled to the life he wants, no matter what promises he made, obligations he undertook, responsibilities he assumed?

Of course he is. He’s special. Special people are absolved of promises, obligations and responsibilities. In fact, we are all absolved of promises, obligations and responsibilities, because we are all special.  Right? Right?!?

There is much wrong with the system of financing higher education today, and even more wrong with its costs. But none of this applies to Lee Siegel, both because things were very different when he took out his loans, when he went to college, and because he possesses the shameful ability to lie to himself and his readers to shift the blame off his own flagrant lack of integrity to everything around him, whether real or imagined.

Lee Siegel is a deadbeat.  It’s not because of any faux contention of moral reprehensibility, but a perverted self-delusion of narcissism and entitlement.  What he lacks is integrity, and no college, at any price, can teach him that.

41 thoughts on “Entitlement Wasn’t Born Yesterday

  1. Dan

    I went and read Mr. Siegel’s piece in its entirety after reading this post. Perhaps most offensive is his condescension towards working selling shoes. He adds in a line of snark about being district manager by now, clearly something he is too good for.

    Anyway, far, far better writers than Siegel have had day jobs, including TS Elliot, Herman Melville, Jack Kerouac and Kurt Vonnegut.

    Ugh. What a turd.

    1. SHG Post author

      But they were just writers. He is special. And given my ambivalence toward shoes, I chose not to go there.

      1. L

        “my ambivalence toward shoes”

        From now on, when I picture Scott Greenfield, he is wearing exactly one shoe.

    2. Turk

      Ironically, it’s the odd jobs, difficulties, hardships and experiences that good writers have had that often provides the material for their writing.

      No one ever won a Pulitzer for whining about student loans.

      1. Matt B

        Hey, man, it was just published yesterday. I’m pretty sure they wait a week or two before handing out the awards.

  2. David M.

    Damn. It’s not just the narcissism. It’s the flat affect that makes this op-ed truly epic.

    And then there’s “Live with or marry someone with good credit (preferably someone who shares your desperate nihilism)”. Ordinary people try for decades and never write something this good.

      1. David M.

        Maybe not your average everyday nihilist, but Siegel’s a special nihilist. A desperate nihilist. Plus, if he’s living with you, it’s your credit score he’s really interested in.

  3. Keith

    I see I wasn’t the only person put off by this one.

    I have any number of legitimate problems with the student loan system. But the notion that because you didn’t graduate, you should get some kind of special treatment strikes me as entitled & silly.

    1. SHG Post author

      Wait a sec. He didn’t graduate because he chose not to graduate. Of all the excuses for his default, that holds the least possible weight.

      1. Stephen

        In the man’s defense, that Wiki link contains a rather funny revision re: this very topic:

        “Since then, [Siegel] has defaulted on his student loans like a deadbeat, and is proud of it.[2]”

  4. Fubar

    Old morality, anachronistic,
    Must yield to the new, altruistic.
    Tuition for college
    Must be free, like all knowledge.
    That’s the new narcissistic heuristic!

  5. LTMG

    Yesterday I read Siegel’s piece on the NYT webpage. At about the same time as Siegel I also originated student loans and paid them all off on time. No place to leave a comment on that NYT page else I would have unloaded on Siegel. Some of the words spinning through my mind: scurrilous, scofflaw, poor example to young adults, immoral, etc. By failing to repay his loans he takes capital away from others after him who might have borrowed it for their educations. I hope his piece triggers an avalanche of collection action against him. Hope his credit rating turns to dust.

  6. John Barleycorn

    I wonder if Columbia (where he received his undergraduate credentials and eventually his Master of Philosophy) accepted any of his credits from his endeavors at state college in New Jersey?

    That is if he even earned any credits amongst the mundanes there, while crying in his soggy toast, in the twisted pursuit of his “particular usefulness to society”.

    Good thing his state school stint didn’t stick, because rest assured chances are pretty good he might have beer bong-ed a few beers with a future Supreme Court justice while pontificating about the evils of the Department of Education and bald bankers after they realized financing a revolution on credit card debt wasn’t going to work out as planned.

    I can’t wait to read his thoughts
    on the nomination of one of his college classmates, especially if he comes with something like, “Jill Justice Nominee and I came to realize we were special while studying at Columbia to become masters of the universe. We learned and now fully understand that certain social arrangements are legal, but not moral…”. With any luck these thoughts will be coming out just about the time his grandkids are taking their first algebra course and in due time will figure out they are truly fucked (unlike him) and grandpa might have had something to do with their predicament in a delicately delicious sort of way.

    P.S. Anyone know how many years it took this guy to graduate?

  7. Angie NK

    One of the more disgusting parts of this whole situation is that the guys mother cosigned the loans. So, by defaulting, he didn’t just ruin his credit, but his mother’s too. What kind of shitbag would stab his own mother in the back just because he’s too good for state college? If I were her, I would have disowned him.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s unclear whether he defaulted before or after his mother died. That’s one of the first things that jumped out at me too. If he burned his own mother, then the suck doesn’t get any worse.

    2. Not Jim Ardis

      He didn’t default because he was too good for State College, he defaulted because he didn’t want to give up vacations and nice things while living up to his obligation.

      With that as his motivation, I have little doubt that he is the sort of person to screw over family.

  8. Richard

    I also met with a banker (don’t remember if he was balding). Along with the loan came a serious talk on the pros and cons of borrowing money and the nature of adult obligations. I wonder if he got the same talk, but couldn’t hear it through his special ears.

  9. Captain Crunch

    I think the second part of the article, which you didn’t quote quite as extensively, is a lot more interesting than the first part, but on the whole I don’t quite understand the outrage and moral perturbation over the decision to default on a loan. If a business is in a contract for which the escape clause will ultimately cost less than the maintenance of said contract, I don’t think anyone would second guess their decision to cut and run, yet when an individual decides to do what is effectively the exact same thing, it’s seen as an enormous failing rather than an economic decision.

    1. SHG Post author

      Your comment is nonsensical. When the obligation is solely to repay money, choosing not to repay the money doesn’t give rise to some business decision. This isn’t like a home, where there is a physical property taken as collateral. There is no collateral here. There is nothing but a promise to repay, and not repaying is no different than stealing money. The reason everyone finds Siegel reprehensible is that this is an utterly scummy thing to do, no matter who does it.

      1. Captain Crunch

        There is nothing but a promise to repay, and not repaying is no different than stealing money.

        Which is why filing for bankruptcy is illegal, right? As a lawyer once told me “It’s legal, therefore it’s legit.” It may not be a contractual escape clause, but it is an allowable option under the laws we have here, and if banks don’t like the availability of BK, then they should either a) advocate for the laws to be changed (and it’s already extremely difficult to default on student loans even in the case of severe hardship, see the case of the woman who contracted cancer and got denied the ability) or b) don’t lend money unless you’re pretty sure you’re going to get it back.

        There is an argument out there that part of the reason that college tuitions and fees keep going up (other than that states keep cutting funding for higher education) is because they can- regardless of how ridiculously irrelevant to real life your degree is, and how insanely expensive the school is, I guarantee you can find someone willing to loan you your money. And if a bank is willing to float you 60k a year for a degree in underwater basket weaving, I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for them if they lose some money.

        1. SHG Post author

          Sorry, but this is a law blog, and you’re using words and concepts about which you have no clue. Bankruptcy isn’t a choice to keep one’s money, default and enjoy one’s life as a thief, but a status where a person is incapable of paying. It’s an entirely different concept. Default is not the legal or moral equivalent of bankruptcy.

          As for “don’t lend money unless you’re pretty sure you’re going to get it back,” that’s a great idea, since there is no collateral required for a student loan. Then there will be no student loans and no one who can’t afford college will get to go. Screw all those too poor to afford college. Brilliant.

          As for generic arguments about college tuition today, that has nothing to do with Siegel or the post. You’re done. You add absolutely nothing to the discussion except a double facepalm and absolute certainty that you’re shooting blanks.

    2. Myles

      If a business is in a contract for which the escape clause will ultimately cost less than the maintenance of said contract

      What are you taling about? It’s a loan. You get money. You pay it back. There’s no “escape clause,” like pay it back unless you don’t feel like it.

    3. MF

      If you are a business that has signed a contract with an escape clause, then that escape clause was negotiated as part of the contract. Both parties agree to the terms of that contract, including the escape clause. Default on a loan is not the same as exercising an escape clause.

      BTW, I am paying off over 100k in student loans used to get a PhD that has nothing to do with my current profession. I never considered defaulting and appreciate the opportunity those loans gave me even if it didn’t turn out as planned.

      No one forces you to take out the loan, no on makes you get a degree, you don’t have to go to an expensive school. I did all of those things but paying off the loan is the right thing to do and I am disgusted by Siegel and people like him.

  10. Turk

    The more I think about this, the less sense it makes. Defaulting is one thing. But bragging about it in the NYT?

    I would not be shocked to learn that this is BS, and that there is another piece waiting in the wings about the Internet outrage machine.

    Being a troll is the only thing that makes sense.

    1. SHG Post author

      You have pretty good radar for that sort of thing, so I tend to listen to you when you start smelling a skunk.

  11. Turk

    I would bet money on this being a hoax, with a big, fat juicy clue hiding in plain site on his Wikipedia page:

    Siegel is known for coining the term “blogofascism”, a term that he meant to describe what he considered the blogosphere’s dominant rhetoric of insult, intimidation, and attack, which he claimed was exemplified by Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas.

    He threw out fresh meat to the Internet to rage against. He fed us things that people want to hear; that we are somehow superior to the author, for we would never engage in that conduct. Lynch mobs are born from confirmation bias.

    He’s watching the reaction.

    And the NYT was the first to get taken.

    You hear that sound? That’s me giving a little golf clap for the hoax. Well played, Mr. Siegel, well played.

    1. SHG Post author

      You probably meant this as a reply and not a new thread to screw up the comments here, right? Still, you may be a little premature patting yourself on the back. You might want to wait until you’re proven right before building yourself a statue.

  12. Marc R

    There’s lots of good arguments for defaulting on certain student loans but moral entitlement isn’t one of them. Rutgers might not be as fun as Davidson or wherever he went, but no large state school won’t have more than adequate facilities, classes, and opposite sex.

    The immorality of certain creditors isn’t questioned but there are more efficient breach methods based on economics or predatory lending. Saying “it’s not fair” does nothing but show college was a monetary and intellectual waste for that person.

  13. William Doriss

    Seventeen years is under the age of “consent”. After two days, nobody has mentioned this?!? And IANAL. (Nor a lawyer wannabee!) I hate lawyers. But let’s get our facts straight: Siegel was not “legally” competent to sign any such student loan, irregardless of his mother being in attendance. Who knows if she was competent? This may be debatable, but nonetheless is absurd. Somebody has got to step forward. This is not a public stoning or a one-way street. Underage is underage, for godsake.

    The stewpid student dent loan programs are equally flawed,… in an effort to entrap unwitting and hopelessly naive “students” into signing “loan agreements” which everybody knows they will have difficulty repaying–and may never repay. Here is a voice for the flip-side of the argument which no one on this thread seems to appreciate.

    Let us not blame the erstwhile student defaulters. Let us blame the Federal Reserve and the banksters who kowtow to them in their greedy efforts to make an unearned buck and destroy overburdened students’ wills to live. You may parse it to your heart’s content, but taking financial advantage of the needy and naive is no virtue. Not in my book! Irregardless of race, color, creed, sex, etc. and so on.
    P.S.: I did not pay my loans either. They eventually were added to my taxable income, or some such accounting gimmick I fail to understand. Where there is a will, there is a Way Out.

      1. William Doriss

        Had to look it up. Ha. Did not know that the Trilateral Commission has suffered criticism from both the Right and the Left: Wikipedia. Thanx for the tip. Actually knew nothing of the T.C., but it does have a certain ring to it!
        There may have been a better way to express my sentiments, but I wrote what I wrote. Paying for an overpriced, expensive education at a minimum-wage job does not sound appealing to me. Looking back, my own “education” was a bargain: Would not wish it upon anyone!
        All the best,

  14. Seymour

    Mr Siegel’s piece is in part a personal attempt at justifying his financial sins. In recognition of “…his particular usefulness to society…” might I suggest he write–50,000 times on the chalkboard”–“I will not stiff the taxpayer”!

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