Continuing our adulthood theme for today, Erin O’Connor (who is awesomesauce, as my students might say) examines an intersection of a couple of topics I’ve poked at here — higher education and strategic defaults. Her comments are prompted by the case of one Elie Mystal, who did both undergrad and law school at Harvard, running up what we in the rhetoric biz call “a big honking debt” in the process. Young Mystal is trying to
welch on unilaterally renegotiate his debts, as he has discovered they make his life uncomfortable. His justification for blowing off the obligation he took on at the age of 22? “I was young and did dumb things.”
So did we all. Heck, some of us were older than that. Although I made it through my first two degrees without taking on debt, I did take some student loans for the Ph.D. (using them to pay primarily for stuff like day care for the Spawn), and although my loans aren’t huge, neither is my salary, and I expect to make payments on them for a long time to come. As I’ve said before, I was taking a gamble, and I knew it. Part of being old enough to gamble is paying up when you lose.
And the thing is, as both O’Connor and others note, it’s disingenuous of Mystal to claim he wasn’t aware that 1) Big-time law is not everyone’s cup of tea — in fact, it can be a huge grind (If it was unadulterated fun, you wouldn’t have to pay people large sums to do it), and 2) People who loan you heavy sugar expect to be repaid. After all, this guy is ostensibly bright enough to get into Harvard — twice — and we’re supposed to believe that he naively gave the lenders license to pick his pockets while he was distracted by the tall buildings. Gaw-lee!
Let me describe a different situation. I’ve mentioned that we didn’t have a great deal of money when I was a kid. One of the reasons for that was that my brother was born with the same congenital heart defect my mother had, but while my mom was able to survive until she was seventeen and able to have it surgically repaired, my brother needed the work done when he was six months old. Already strapped for cash, my folks borrowed the money for the surgery, and worked like hell for years thereafter to pay back the loan. This was not easy, either for my folks or us kids (we ate so many 19-cent frozen turkey pot pies I still can’t stand the sight of them more than thirty years later, and my suburban classmates were… less than graceful about the fact that Mom would work cleaning their homes because we needed the money.)
Because I was a reasonably bright, perceptive kid, it occurred to me when I was about 10 that if my folks bailed on the debt, we’d have more money to spend, and it wasn’t like the doctors would show up and undo my brother’s surgery. So one day in the garage, I asked my dad why they didn’t do that. “Because those people gave us money that saved your brother’s life, and they did it because they trusted us to pay them back.” And so they worked hard for years and paid it off.
Unlike Mr. Mystal, my folks didn’t want to be in a situation where they had to borrow money — they were forced into it by circumstance. But rather than griping about how unfair their burden was, they carried it, because that’s what adults do. Mr. Mystal chose his burden. He may claim he didn’t fully consider the ramifications of his choice (although as we’ve noted, that’s a dubious claim), but the fact is, the lenders trusted him to pay them back. Adults do all they can to live up to their obligations — including the trust others place in them. Overgrown children don’t.