Dubious Research: The More Debt Students Have, The Higher Their Self Esteem

It’s a sign of the times that your humble blogger is having to create finely stratified typologies for the various types of propaganda dubious research being deployed to promote the idea that rule by our new financial overlords, despite the considerable evidence to the contrary, really is for our own good.

We’ve already instituted the Frederic Mishkin Iceland Prize for Intellectual Integrity for special-interest-group- favoring PR masquerading as research.

However, Mishkin is a Respected Personage, and the initial Mishkin Iceland Prize recipients, Charles Calomiris, Eric Higgins, and Joe Mason, presumably knew they were writing utter bunk and were handsomely compensated for attaching their names to less than credible arguments. That suggests we need a separate category for the more mundane, bread-and-butter shilldom that is dressed up to look like serious academic work. Let’s call it the Lobsters Really Want to be Your Dinner Prize.

The name comes out of a Wall Street Journal front page story in the days when the Journal had only one section and the center column always featured a lighthearted human interest story. This one was on really bad research. Of all the examples, the one that struck me as being the most patently ridiculous was a University of Maine study that concluded that lobsters really liked being boiled to death. Since I have lobstermen in my family and have had to commend more than a few crustaceans to execution via steaming, I have to say that anyone with intact powers of observation would take issue with the University’s findings.

“Lobsters Really Want to be Your Dinner Prize” is admittedly very wordy, and something like a Pangloss Prize conveys the same general idea of strained rationalizations of things that by commons sense standards are pretty nasty as being actually all for the best. However, the image of lobsters clattering around in a pot trying to escape being cooked to death seems an awfully lot like what financiers have in mind for the rest of us, so I’ll provisionally stick with the longer label.

Joe Costello pointed out to us the study that is the first recipient of this award, which he found via Yahoo News and was published in Social Science Research in May. I confess to not having read the underlying article (I’m not paying $31 to support this sort of nonsense) but the abstract is sufficiently detailed to give a sense of how barmy the framing is:

Young adults at the turn of the 21st century came of age in a time of unprecedented access to credit but slowed growth in earnings, resulting in a dramatic increase in indebtedness. Debt has been little studied by sociologists, even though it is increasingly important in financing both attainment and a middle-class lifestyle, especially for youth in the transition to adulthood. We study the consequences of indebtedness for young adults’ sense of mastery and self-esteem as stratified by class. Young adulthood is a crucial developmental period for mastery and self-esteem, which then serve as a social psychological resource (or deficit) into the adult years. Research suggests that young people have divergent perspectives on debt: some focus on credit as a necessary investment in status attainment, while others worry that readily available credit invites improvidence that can erode the self-concept as debt encumbers achievement and future consumption and increases a sense of powerlessness. We find that both education and credit-card debt increase mastery and self-esteem, supporting the hypothesis that young people experience debt as an investment in the future, and contradicting the expectation that debt used to finance current spending will lower mastery and self-esteem. Our expectation that debt effects are accentuated for those of lower- and middle-class origins but blunted for those of upper-class origins is supported. We find, however, that the positive effects of debt appear to wane among the oldest young adults, suggesting the stresses of debt may mount with age. We conclude that further study of the long-term consequences of debt will be essential for advancing contemporary stratification theory and research.

It does take a certain skill to pack so much bad thinking in such a short space. Let’s start with the unexamined assumptions: debt is useful and necessary to enter or maintain a place in the middle class. That’s clearly backwards. A college education is typically seen as the most reliable way to assure a middle class lifestyle, although that is now very questionable (due both to high young adult unemployment rates and a proliferation of colleges, particularly for profit colleges, where the value of the degree even in better economic times is open to question). The price of college education, even for schools and degrees that even recently had some career potential, has escalated so much that most students have to borrow to finance their education, yet even when graduates do land jobs, it isn’t clear that the payoff is there. But it is really astonishing to see someone attempt this formulation: debt in college is conducive to joining the middle class.

Then we have the unproven assumption that enhancing self esteem is a good thing. This is the mythology underlying parenting norms of the last two decades and all it seems to have accomplished is increasing narcissism in the younger generation. Why do young people need more “social psychological resources” if they function adequately? As I’ve indicated in past posts, Goldman and McKinsey, and I imagine most elite firms recruit for insecure people (McKinsey was quite explicit about it). They are more easily controlled. So higher self esteem may in fact make young people less rather than more attractive in the job market.

And if people do have such lousy self esteem that it might get in the way of their education, job search, and career performance, getting in debt hardly seems like the best way to address that problem. Cocaine and meth also enhance self esteem; did it occur to these researchers to compare the “mastery and self-esteem” enhancing effects of debt with legal and illicit drugs?

The authors almost seem disappointed that “oldest” young adults feel stressed by debt, and blandly conclude that “the stresses of debt may mount with age.” This is simply embarrassing. They clearly failed to differentiate between the debt accumulation and the debt servicing/payback stages. I am sort of tempted to read the study to see the study methods; the summary smacks of prejudice, and I suspect the questionnaires were not validated adequately. Any kind of questionnaire based research, particularly if the questions were administered in person, are easily tainted by investigator bias.

If you think I’m being unfair, the lead author told the New York Times that students have come to view debt positively because they perceive it to be an investment in their future. If this were indeed true (and as indicated, I’d need to be persuaded), it’s bizarre to take this belief and rationalize it as “self esteem enhancing” rather than examine how it came about, since indebtedness, particularly so early in life, is clearly a millstone.

Indeed, I think the analogy to drugs is pretty exact. Spending produces a short term high. A lot of people benefit from creating addiction. The addicts feel in control even as their lives are falling apart. Getting and staying clean is remarkably difficult, particularly if they continue to associate with users.

The American Dream once meant upward mobility and financial independence; the same branding is being used to peddle debt servitude which is certain to erode financial security. The authors of this shoddy piece lack the ability to see what is in front of their noses.

PS A site contributor is looking for other examples of orthodoxy-justifying dubious research in the think tank/political/economic realm. Please describe in comments or send to me at yves@nakedcapitalism.com

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  1. attempter

    The verbiage of the abstract demonstrates that the authors have no scientific or scholarly goal whatsoever, but want to validate (and glom onto) an existing social trend. It’s an audition.

    The American Dream once meant upward mobility and financial independence; the same branding is being used to peddle debt servitude which is certain to erode financial security. The authors of this shoddy piece lack the ability to see what is in front of their noses.

    They’re certainly useful idiots. But by now I find it hard to believe that even an academic is so clueless about what’s happening that he doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing when he writes a paper like this. We see how most academics, especially in the “social sciences”, are servants of kleptocracy. I’d call this paper criminal. (Not that it’s likely to have much effect by now. But the point of the system in publishing it and propagating it through the likes of the NYT is to try to keep as many of the gullible still committed to self-indenture as possible.)

  2. F. Beard

    Bankers create their own demand for loans by driving up prices thus necessitating more borrowing thus driving up prices further and so forth.

    It’s called the “rat-race.” Why do we tolerate it? Because we think we can win? Maybe so individually but society as a whole can only lose.

    1. Indigenous Centurion

      driving up prices further

      ~~F. Beard~

      Same mechanism with medical insurance — as prices are driven up by the increased demand generated by insurance claims payouts to doctors, eventually all poor people will need medical insurance to survive the venereal diseases spread by the excessively wealthy who are entertaining your mother and your sister. All good citizens should Gandhi resist this mechanism by avoiding insurance policies. Avoid medical insurance and use birth control to prevent the birth of your daughter.

      You are my people, Populace.

      Start thinking, My People

  3. Hans Suter

    Sooner or later an intelligent writer cannot but look at reality like Howard Gossage did.

  4. Ccedric Regula

    I’m keeping an open mind. I graduated with no debt, and then the working word drove me face first into the ground.

        1. Economics 4dummies

          Figured that out

          You did, but I didn’t. I put out a *calling all cars — Google Search on “working word”*. I thought I was going to learn something

      1. ambrit

        Mr Regula;
        Just capitalize the W in woed and you have, “the working Word drove me face down..” Now you have established a case for Religious Persecution.

  5. RebelEconomist

    While there may well be a positive relationship between self-esteem and student debt, it seems to me more likely that the causation is the opposite of that suggested in the title – students with plenty of self-esteem are more willing to take the risk of borrowing a lot of money for their further education, because they are sure that it will pay off for them. This may well be sub-optimal from society’s point of view if self-esteem is not strongly correlated with ability, perhaps because self-esteem is more related to social background. I prefer the old British system – higher education was practically free, but limited and only accessible through anonymous and rigorous school examinations.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I neglected to include that point (the direction of the causality, assuming their research methods were any good) and it’s an important one.

      1. Foppe

        To quote a few of the key passages, and add a few words of my own:

        We cannot know with certainty outcomes that have not yet occurred. But it is possible to get early purchase on the role of youth debt in future attainments and transitions by looking at the consequences of debt for young people as they prepare to enter into their careers. Much of the popular and academic writings on youth debt concentrates on the aggregate patterns of rising indebtedness, but less on how youth themselves experience indebtedness and how debt affects key developmental processes.
        The deregulation of financial markets made credit much more widely available as banks were allowed to offer loans to individuals with less attractive credit histories and lending terms (and fees) proliferated (Black and Morgan, 1999). At the same time, companies increasingly invested profits in the financial sector, hugely expanding the liquidity available for loans (Krippner, 2005). The result has been a democratization of credit, where Americans at the turn of the 21st century have much more access to loans than in previous decades. This shift has been particularly consequential for groups historically overlooked by the credit industry, such as young adults (Kamenetz, 2006).
        While many in society are distressed by the increasing reliance on loans to finance education and argue for greater state subsidies for college tuition (Draut, 2006; Kamenetz, 2006), there may be little alternative for middle-class youth looking to secure their class standing and lower-class youth seeking upward mobility (Leicht and Fitzgerald, 2006). Growing earnings disparities between college graduates and those with less education have raised the stakes for gaining a college degree, making education increasingly important to status attainment (Morris and Western, 1999). … The increased availability of credit therefore brings potentially dangerous risks of minimum payment traps and ballooning balances. This situation could be extremely damaging for wealth accumulation among young adults, as future income will for years be used to pay for past purchases.

        Now comes the weird part, though. 2 very bad hypotheses, which are loaded with assumptions, and which present a horrible false dichotomy.

        A sense of mastery comes from the capability to control one’s circumstances, and self-esteem is built through good choices and a positive outlook for the future that contribute to a feeling of self worth. This reasoning leads to the expectation of positive effects of debt on self-concept:
        Hypothesis 1. College loan and credit-card debt contribute to a greater sense of mastery and self-esteem for young adults because they represents a necessary and reasoned investment in status attainment.
        Hypothesis 2: College loan and credit-card debt contribute to a lower sense of mastery and self-esteem for young adults because debt allows spending in excess of income, which results in financial stress.

        Hypothesis 3: The effects of debt on mastery and self-esteem are accentuated for lower-class young adults, who have fewer family resources to fall back on and worse labor market prospects than middle- and upper-class youth.
        Hypothesis 4: The effects of debt on mastery and self-esteem are also prominent for middle-class young adults, whose families are struggling to maintain their class status as it becomes more difficult to hold onto a middle-class job and standard of living.
        Hypothesis 5: The effects of debt on mastery and self-esteem are blunted for upper-class young adults, who are sheltered by family income and wealth unavailable to lower- and middle-class origin youth.
        Understanding the implications of the changing political economy of debt on the life course experiences of young adults thus requires class analysis. We expect significant divergence in the consequences of debt for the self-concept of young people from different class positions. Any such differences add to the impact of debt on structures of inequality as those with the fewest resources are affected the most – positively or negatively – by the expansion in the availability of credit at the turn of the 21st century.
        Conclusion: In summary, there are strikingly different effects of debt for youth from different class origins. Mastery and self-esteem are buoyed by both education and credit-card debt for the lower class – those who have the least access to credit and the fewest alternative resources. The middle class also gets a lift in their mastery and esteem from holding credit-card debt. The upper class, however, is essentially unmoved by debt, with no effect on their self-concept. The impact of debt thus appears to vary by the amount of other resources available, which affects the relative value of debt as a means to achieve investment or consumption goals.

        So while on the one hand they do mention it might be a necessary evil, on the other hand they assume that this is entirely normal, and that it is meaningful to research what kind of Stockholm syndrome results from the cognitive dissonance that having to borrow such extraordinary sums of money causes. The biggest failing on the part of the researchers seems to be that they do not understand at all that the economic context is not a historical given, or that it can be influenced by political action. In that regard, this is a pretty bizarre read; for instance, the researchers (apparently surprised by this finding) note that

        It is revealing that the negative effect for this oldest group arises from the educational debt and not credit-card debt. This may be a result of the sheer size of educational loans. Education debt also cannot be discharged in a bankruptcy, unlike credit-card debt, which may increase the stress of carrying education debt (Sullivan et al., 2000). While education debt is an investment – and is experienced that way by this oldest group – for those with larger debts, it increasingly becomes a burden.

        Basically, they seem to have really bought into all the tripe about the efficiency and neutrality of the free market, and consider economics beyond politics.

        At this point, what we can say is that young debtors experience debt as empowering – as increasing their sense of mastery and self-esteem and thus their sense of having prepared themselves to meet the future – at least until the full requirements of repayment ensue. Access to credit is still a problem for the poor, who might benefit from greater opportunities for college loans and other forms of credit. But on a broader basis, it is worrisome that young people are being forced to borrow against an uncertain future rather than receiving the education necessary for full participation in society as a forward looking investment by society – an investment that could be made through increased college scholarships or a return to earlier levels of public subsidy for colleges. Even if young people are optimistic about their debt, there are certainly reasons for caution. This caution is underwritten by an awareness that people’s estimates of their likely level of future earnings is itself influenced by their reading of ready credit as a positive signal about future earnings – leading to circular reasoning in which the only guaranteed winner is the lender. But even this optimism for lenders may be suspect. The current credit crisis based on loose lending practices in the home mortgage market suggests the possibility that difficulties in paying off excessive youth debt could someday contribute to the next wave of financial retrenchment.
        In spite of many cautionary signposts, young people appear to be more likely to see debt as investment rather than a burden as they begin their transition to adulthood. It is regrettable that researchers do not have crystal balls and so cannot provide with absolute certainty what would be a very useful answer to the question of whether these young people are right. Further information will be revealed as the current cohorts of young adults move through the lifecycle. Are their graduate education and occupational choices constrained by debt (Schneider and Stevenson, 1999)? Are family formation and home ownership delayed? Will mortgages be more difficult to obtain because of a preexisting debt burden? Does carrying debt eventually translate into greater stress and anxiety – as already suggested by existing research – with potential negative health consequences? And will economic shifts leave young people with debt burdens from more prosperous times that are increasingly difficult to repay? These questions suggest it will be increasingly important for life course researchers to pay more attention to the role of debt in transitions and status attainment, and to include a focus on class differences in the role of debt in transition to adulthood.
        More broadly, the sociological implications of the new debt society extend beyond the travails of the individuals caught up in this transition and their behaviors, stresses, and adjustments. The debt society also has important implications for the broader political economy of contemporary society. … Spiraling debt is thus not accidental or the result of a failure of character by the current generation. The privatization of college loans and the windfall profits accruing to lenders charging relatively high interest rates on loans that are guaranteed by the government and thus have limited risk is not an accident either. It is a result that has been directly engineered by political appointees to Sallie Mae and other government lending agencies that represented the interests of lenders over those of borrowers – including students (Schemo, 2007). These actions have implications for our nation as a whole, not just for young people, not the least of which is the privatization of what are in fact societal-level problems and shortfalls and the furthering of a society that mortgages the future rather than pays forward.

        As such, it is a fascinating historical document of sorts. They do recognize that there is a class bias going on here, and that private lenders are actually being helped by the government to indenture students, but at the same time their main hypotheses are utterly useless: they’re basically asking how the victims rationalize being victimized. It almost seems like they’re trying to be subversive and point out the failings of the system in a way that might appeal to the neoliberals/free-marketeers running it, and hoping they’ll figure out for themselves that ‘this really isn’t a good system’. That would be my most generous interpretation, though, and even if it were accurate, it would only serve to show the hopeless naivete of the researchers.

        1. Danb

          “they’re basically asking how the victims rationalize being victimized.” Excellent point, and it makes me wonder how young and in debt these researchers (victims?) might be. C. Wright Mills would find them pathetic and loathsome.

        2. Skippy

          Why go into debt[?]…when_they_will pay / subside your education…you only have…too kill for it…natural law…Hubertism…soft eugenics.

          Skippy…join now[!], *rationalization* or better yet ***glorification**** is_cheaper_than debt…eh.

  6. anon

    Of course getting handed money is going to boost your self-esteem for those years that you don’t have to make payments.

  7. Psychoanalystus

    >>> students have come to view debt positively because they perceive it to be an investment in their future <<<

    I see a lot of that among my own students. When I try to tell them to cut back on their loans because this country just isn’t going to be able to offer them many opportunities anymore, they look at me like I’m crazy. It just shows how brainwashed to believe in the system Americans really are.

    As far as this “research” having been written by PR firms, this is probably exactly what happened. It is happening in every industry. Pharmaceutical companies do this all the time. Right now, most so-called “scholarly” articles about medication and medical equipment being published in most top American medical journals is pure bullshit, and it’s best to ignore it. The articles are often written by hired ghostwriter agencies and then established academics put their names on it for a fee. Sounds scary? It should, especially if you or anybody you know has been taking for more than a few months one of these “wonder drugs” like Zoloft, Prozac, Paxil, Zyprexa, or virtually all psychiatric medication for that matter. I’ll give an example. Pfizer was sued for having hired a ghostwriter agency called Current Medical Directions to write scientific papers about Zoloft. Between 1998 and 2000 the agency prepared 55 articles and recruited high-profile psychiatrists (many from Harvard) as authors and paid them an honorarium to affix their names to the articles. Most of those articles were actually published in America’s top medical journals, including Journal of the American Medical Association and the American Journal of Psychiatry. Of these 55 articles, only 2 disclosed to readers that the alleged doctor-authors were paid by the agency or that “medical writers” were involved. Of course, not all specialties of medicine are nearly as criminal as psychiatry is, but they are not much better either. The whole medical field in this country is a scam. In any event, psychiatric medication is ineffective and dangerous and should not be taken for more than a few months, and that in much lower doses than usually prescribed. People who do not take this type of medication have much, much better chances of recovery and return to a normal life than those who are on it all the time (such as the 3.5 American children who are taking ADHD medication and will most likely end up disabled for the rest of their lives thanks to the medication – ADHD is a completely fabricated disorder, by the way).

    The good news is that most of the world is beginning to figure out that American medical research and its products are basically a fraud (very much like America’s financial system), and so they aren’t paying much attention to what the “geniuses” from this country spew out anymore. I suspect that the American empire will be left to wallow and drown in its own vomit of exceptionalist delusions, while the rest of the world just moves on.


    1. Psychoanalystus

      In my rant above, where I wrote about ADHD medication I meant to say “3.5 million American children”. About 3 million are on stimulants and the rest on heavy duty antipsychotics that are highly likely to permanently damage their brains and leave them irreversibly disabled for life by the time they reach adulthood.

      Here’s another interesting figure you never see mentioned on any of those criminal BigPharma commercials we get a zillion times an hour on the idiot-tube: In 1987, when very few children received psychiatric medication, there were only 16,200 children less than eighteen years old considered to be disabled due to mental illness, representing only 5.5 percent of the total 293,000 disabled children for all causes. By 2007, when medicating children with psychiatric medication became routine, there were over 561,000 children disabled due to mental illness, and by then the number of children disabled due to mental illness represented over 50 percent of all disabled children. That is a 34 fold increase in mental illness among children! And the severity of the illnesses has gone sky-high as well, with extreme versions of bipolar, psychosis, or depression only rarely seen before 1987 having become the norm now. And, by the way, these numbers come straight from the Social Security Administration, so anybody can easily check them out.


      1. stockdude

        I employed a young man, well 25, that because he had received medication as a child for attention deficiet disorder, was now fully convinced that he “he had it” and it showed in his work. Otherwise he was detail orientated. I do not honestly believe that it was drug related.

        But he was pre-screwed for life. And he relied on that prior “prescription” to allow his fully capable brain to occasionally/often just free-wheel, rather than using his brain as a tool. Forcing it to work like a vise-grip in a tough situation. Amazing what you can do when you force your brain to work like a tool.

        1. Dave of Maryland

          Years ago I remember meeting the occasional “post-hippie” 50-something whose brain had quite clearly been fried from previous recreational drug use. I have a very good friend who wrote a best-selling book back in the ’80’s (600,000 copies) who never wrote another one. When we chat I never know if I’m going to have a lively back & forth, or if she will go off on a mindless & unstoppable rant. Did a lot of LSD, among other things.

          The country is out of control. It’s every guy for himself.

          1. Psychoanalystus

            These “legal” psychiatric drugs are oftentimes worse than the illegal drugs, and usually they are pretty much the same.

    2. texas toaster

      This is certainly true of psychiatric medication and a fraction of other medication and there are other problems with the medical profession in America that other countries don’t suffer from…however…not all medical research coming out of the U.S. is flawed…or deeply flawed (all research is in some sense less than perfect).

      1. Psychoanalystus

        True, some of the cancer research done by the smaller companies in the last 10 – 15 years was quality and created some wonderful drugs that save many lives. The large Pharma corporations are the problem.

        As far as psychiatric drugs go, they are basically the same as what we had discovered (usually accidentally) in the 30s and 40s, with minor tweaking of the molecule, in order so they can patent it not because it is truly improved. All that SSRI and “chemical imbalance” talk is just pure bull created for marketing purposes. Despite thousands of papers written on the subject, there are no valid scientific theories supporting the idea of chemical imbalance. The only chemical imbalance is that created by these drugs when taken for a longer time.

        One must follow the money, and the truth will be revealed. A good new book on the subject is “Unhinged”, Daniel Carlat (here “unhinged” refers to the state of American psychiatry). But there are many other people who are starting to stand up to this monster, oftentimes with disastrous effects for their careers — speaking up against the crimes of BigPharma and corrupt universities such as Harvard can cost one his or her license to practice in this country.

        1. Anonymous Jones

          C’est vrai. Cherchez l’argent. People tend to like money, and more of it.

  8. Foppe

    Harvey also notes that this is a strange phenomenon, in a quote that you might like because it ties to the De Soto interview you linked to a few days ago:

    De Soto argued that poverty in the global South was self-inflicted rather than imperialistically, neocolonially, or capitalistically generated: the main barrier to development was the lack of clear title to ownership of assets, particularly land and housing. Ownership would open access to credit markets and integrate those in the informal economy into the global market, thereby ending poverty. The jmplementation of de Soto’s ideas, at first under his direction but later taken over by the Peruvian government and then by the World Bank, did not produce the expected results for the 1.2 million people who gained title in Peru. The one tangible effect seemed to be that adults worked more hours, while their children worked less. This was lauded in the World Bank and the mainstream press, as well as by Thomas Friedman, as a positive outcome. But, as Timothy Mitchell shows, the finding is probably more a product of how the data were collected than a reflection of people’s daily lives, to which I would add that even if it were properly substantiated, the idea that it is beneficial to the people who work more hours, as opposed to the people they work for, is far from proven.”
    The idea that individualized private property, as a universal value, is a necessary condition for economic development and poverty alleviation has, however, no historical substantiation. Britain stood at the origin and dominated the world of industrial capitalism for a century or more while the crown, the church, the Oxford and Cambridge colleges, and a. few aristocratic families controlled around two-thirds of the land. In practice, granting property rights to impoverished populations opens them up to market exploitations. In Egypt, the effect of reconceptuaHzing what used to be called “the informal economy” as a private property-led “micro enterprise” economy (along lines recommended by de Soto) and of integrating it into “microlending” credit structures is, as Elyachar reports, far from benign. It seeks to impose market valuations and discipline upon a traditional workshop culture and to extract value out of that culture at relatively high rates of return. While neoliberals applaud such projects, the real effect, as Elyachar depicts it, is to create a “market of dispossession,” Such practices are now gathering strength around the world as microcredit is more and more touted as the solution to global poverty. Initiated in the first instance as a noncommercial scheme to provide very small amounts of capital to large numbers of very poor people (especially women), microcredit projects are now touted by commercial financial institutions as a way to bring large numbers of people into the disciplinary apparatus of the market while extracting high rates of return (in some instances as high as 20 percent). This conversion of philanthropic microcredit into a commercially viable system of microfinance is of considerable significance. It is an attempt to impose the cultural change (a self-disciplinary apparatus) that Friedman considers crucial to creating the Hat world of neoliberalism. This now refracts back into philanthropic practices. A new school of philanthropists (trained in the ways of Wall Street) now believes, David Gross reports, that “fighting poverty effectively relies on the creation of low-wage factories, as well as the establishment of lending institutions that charge rates that many Americans would deem usurious.”
    This astonishing view that the poor will benefit the more they are disciplined by the market — and, incidentally, exploited by the rich — is not at all uncommon. Earlier, it was John Turner’s famous anarchist-inspired advocacy in the mid-1970s of self-help housing in thefavelas and slums of the world that was so delightedly seized upon by McNamara’s World Bank as the key to reducing the travails of poverty and underdevelopment. It was supposed to give rise to a populist capitalism that would work for all and thereby abolish poverty. The scheme failed to realize its aims (though some intermediaries became wealthy), and poverty is worse than ever, as excruciatingly documented in recent reports on the state of our “planet of slums.”8 Private property arrangements, we should remember, have any chance to work only when, as Grotius and Adam Smith long ago insisted, the “moral sentiments” that regulate social interactions are of the requisite quality. The noncommercial microcredit schemes for which Yunnus, the originator, received the Nobel Peace Prize, incorporated this moral element, while the now numerous commercially grounded microfinance schemes do not. (Harvey, Cosmopolitanism and the Geographies of Freedom, pp. 54-55.)

  9. Greg

    There are as many snakes down that hole as there are down the mortgage hole. And our government is equally unwilling to address it.
    Let’s all say it together: 1, 2, 3, PLUTOCRACY!

  10. Jim A

    Cause and effect, they’re doin’ it wrong. Those who are confindent are less bothered by debt and therefore more likely to have more of it. If you’re less confident about how much you’re likely to earn, you’re more likely to be debt averse. Theoreticaly, you want a level of self esteem that is an accurate reflection of your abilities. You don’t want to be so down on yourself that you don’t even try when opportunities present themselves, but you don’t want to be so overconfident that you continually waste time trying to do things that you don’t succeed in. But of course the “lake Woebegone” effect means that many people think that THEIR children are above average, and that only their lack of self esteem is holding them back.

    1. Anonymous Jones

      Yves mentions this in a comment above as well. Most of the people I know who are debt fiends are completely delusional in their self-assessment. I’ve even had some of them tell me that the reason they spend so much is that they are so confident they are ‘better’ than everyone else and will, by hook or by crook, easily pay back the money. Somewhat surprising that idiots publish this nonsense not realizing that they are going to be roundly mocked for not even dealing with the causation direction issue. So sad…

  11. bmeisen

    Many American students argue that education is a personal choice, not a public good. As such, it is in their view OK to go into debt, even lots of debt to achieve a substantial degree of self-realization, which correlates with individual achievement and may contribute to identity building. I interact with these students professionally and am stunned by the success with which this flawed belief has been transported into the American culture. The silence of American youth in the face of disproportional tuition increases and lending abuse contributes to the perpetuation of an extortionary regime. This research is deserving of the prize.

    1. Dave of Maryland

      Student self-delusion was already endemic in the mid-1970’s. A close friend graduated $10,000 in debt, a huge sum back then. It was a ten year obligation, she had no realistic employment prospects. When I pointed this out, she said she would pay a dollar a month if that’s what it took. I wonder what ever happened to her.

      1. taxpayer

        Student loans were not the beasts then that they are today. Depending on when (or if) she defaulted, she might have gotten out of them or had them reduced perhaps in bankruptcy.

  12. Dan Duncan

    Can’t help remember the following David Foster Wallace:


    Of course, he beats the subject to death (in lieu of boiling it), but he was a brilliant writer who was at his best, imo, writing essays.

    Ah what the hell…

    If a lengthy passage on the morality of boiling lobsters isn’t your cup of tea, at least read this much shorter piece by Wallace:


    Just a beautiful speech.

    1. sierra_hermit

      dan thanks for those links, dfw is incredibly articulate and entertaining as well as thought provoking.

    2. Anonymous Jones

      You like DFW???!!! I don’t know whether to (i) reassess your ridiculousness, (ii) reassess my love of DFW’s essays (boviscopophobia is the greatest word coined in the last hundred years, at least, imo) or (iii) convulsively vomit.

      I’m untethered. Hold me.

  13. Diogenes

    There is no middle class in America anymore. It is a chimera sustained by memories of an era when the distribution of wealth was both more even and more just. But debt sustains the necessary illusion that the middle class endures. For those struggling to start out in life this offers up nothing less than a Hobson’s choice: either to admit that the American middle class way of life has been irreparably destroyed over the past 30 years or to go deeply into debt in order to temporarily escape this painful truth.

    The analogy of debt to a powerful drug is most apt.

    Our so called consumer economy would literally fail to function if the formerly middle class recognized their fall into relative poverty and adjusted their consumption habits accordingly. From the standpoint of those wielding political power (and their corporate masters) it is very important to maintain this state of denial among the nominally middle class citizenry in order to complete the ongoing political transformation of the United States into a post-democratic society ruled by and for the financial oligarchs. The end game, however, is stunningly certain: American feudalism.

    1. Sufferin' Succotash

      A bit of quibbling here. Anachronistic overuse of the term “feudalism” tends to deprive the term of any meaning. Feudalism connotes the Middle Ages–serfs, knights, lords, castles, manors, or as some of my students write in their exam essays, “fifes and pheasants”. Feudalism also at least implies mutual obligations–lifetime service obligations and legal dependence in return for protection and guaranteed land use.
      If there’s one outstanding characteristic of today’s emerging New Order it’s the total lack of any sense of mutual obligation.
      As long as we’re trying to come up with new descriptive terms, why not try something more suitable than “feudalism”. If the emerging conditions in the “developed” world bear any resemblance to a past phenomenon,it’s to the impoverishment of peoples in areas subject to 18th and 19th century European colonialism.
      As Hannah Arendt and others pointed out, what happened in the colonies didn’t stay in the colonies when it came to governmental and legal practices. The same is becoming increasingly true of economic policies–the “logic of empire” has to involve transforming citizens into peons and coolies.

        1. Sufferin' Succotash

          How about Neo-Dickensian? The Marshalsea debtors’ prison where Dickens’ father spent six months was closed down by the time Dickens wrote Little Dorrit. In fact, the practice of imprisonment for non-payment of debt was on its way out in 19th century Britain. Now it might be making a comeback…

          1. ambrit

            Dear SS;
            The non-repudiable nature of education debt in America is a form of imprisonment. Modernday Debtors Prisons have been out sourced, to micro credit lenders, collection agencies, and employers who check your credit score as an aid to hiring decisions. You can say, “It’s all in your head,” but that doesn’t make the effects any less real. Stress is stress and slowly kills.

      1. DownSouth

        The ideology that underpinned feudalism was Christianity.

        The ideology that underpins capitalism is liberalism.

        Sufferin’ Succotash states the following:

        Feudalism also at least implies mutual obligations–lifetime service obligations and legal dependence in return for protection and guaranteed land use.

        If there’s one outstanding characteristic of today’s emerging New Order it’s the total lack of any sense of mutual obligation.

        But wasn’t it a highly corrupt Christianity, and along with it the breaking of the social contract that Sufferin’ Succotash speaks of—-the “mutual obligations”—-that led to the challenge of, and eventual dismantling of, the feudal social order and Christian ideology by capitalism and liberal ideology?

        In Darwin’s Cathedral David Sloan Wilson says “Religions seem to have a life cycle.” Christianity, for instance, began as a revolutionary, liberationist ideology. But, as with all religions, the “original faith” got co-opted. Or in other words, the Christian Church that Luther rebelled against had almost no resemblance to the early Christian Church of Jesus Christ.

        I believe that secular religions, like liberalism, follow a life cycle similar to what Wilson describes for traditional, nominal religions. Liberalism, upon its inception, was actually a revolutionary and liberationist ideology. As Reinhold Niebuhr observes in The Irony of American History:

        The earlier bourgeois man wanted to eliminate political power because it represented the special advantages which the old aristocracy had over him.

        Or as Daniel Yankelovich put it in Coming to Public Judgment:

        To the Enlightenment thinkers of the Old World, the enemy was entrenched inherited privilege embodied in the church and in most branches of European royalty in collusion with each other.
        However, with time, liberalism, just like the Christianity that came before it and that it replaced, became corrupted. As Niebuhr goes on to explain:

        The present bourgeois man wants to reduce it [political power] to a minimum because it represents the effort of a democratic society to bring disproportions of economic power under control. In the shift of motive from earlier to later bourgeois man lies the inevitable degradation of the liberal dogma.

        1. Sufferin' Succotash

          The “mutual obligations” involved in feudalism probably makes the system sound more benign than it really was. Just because the obligations were mutual doesn’t mean that there was anything like mutual consent.
          As usual, the powerful imposed the setup on the powerless because it was in their interest to do so. Compulsory labor services made sense in a subsistence-level economy where commercial activity only affected a relatively small number of people and where political authority only operated locally. Change those circumstances to a more market-oriented economy, larger-scale commerce and increased political centralization and feudalism no longer makes sense to the ruling orders. Instead, it pays to squeeze money out of the peasants in the form of rents and dues rather than labor. But that means the serfs have to be able to make money in order to hand it over to their rentier social betters and that means–dang!–they have to be legally free. Welcome to the last 600 years of Western economic history…but then, nothing lasts.

    2. DownSouth

      All ideologies, whether they are of the traditional nominal religious type or the new stealth religious type (where ideology comes cloaked as “science”), depart from factual reality.

      Nietzsche, who lived in times similar to our own where liberalism had completely gone off its tracks and had become thoroughly corrupted, placed a prominent “X” on the entire modernist project:

      To find the whole world sorry was an additional incentive to pessimism. How to adjust to this fact became a chief concern of Nietzsche’s philosophy: how to discover what was fundamentally wrong with the age, to explain how things came to go wrong, to find means to set them right again, and—-behind all this—-to construct a general Weltanschauung in which the very experience of such ugly times as the present should be justified.


      It is natural that Nietzsche, a German, should pay most attention to Kant and Hegel in his rejection of metaphysics. He sees them as, at bottom, merely “procrastinators” of the inevitable rise of atheism. The Kantian dodge was the limitation of rational knowledge, leaving room beyond for the arbitrary postulation of what one wished to believe. The Hegelian dodge consisted of reading a divine process of self-realization into history. Nietzsche considers both men dupes of the dying ideal.

      His own position, early metaphysics apart, begins with the skeptical elements of Kant and pushes them further. Metaphysical knowledge is not only impossible but meaningless. It is incorrect to say that we can never know “ultimate reality,” for the very notion of an ultimate or absolute is illegitimate. Hence, the traditional sense of the term, there is no Truth because there is no “True Being”: “everything is false.” Even science is anthropomorphic. No one has established its universal validity, or the “a priori synthetic judgments” on which it rests—-the Kantian proof reduces finally to the tautology that they are “possible” “by virtue of a capacity”. Science therefore appears no longer as the dictation of Natural Laws by Reason, but as the clever way in which a particular animal species simplifies its environment.

      Thus, though metaphysics is an illusion from the point of view of science, science in turn becomes but another stage of illusion as far as absolute truth is concerned. In ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ Nietzsche already attacks the scientific optimism of his time under the guise of “Socraticism.” The “theoretic man” pursues truth in the delusion that reality can be fathomed, and even purged of evil, by rational thought and its applications. But faith in the omnipotence of reason shatters, for the courageously persistent thinker, not only on the fact that science can never complete its work but chiefly on the positive apprehension that reality is irrational. As Nietzsche writes later, “We are illogical and therefore unjust beings from the first, and can know this: that is one of the greatest and most insoluble disharmonies of existence.”
      ▬George A. Morgan, What Nietzsche Means

    3. taxpayer

      That’s completely correct Succotash and in my mind not a quibble. Saying what is going on is a return to feudalism is inaccurate in that it makes it seem too nice. Pretty soon the financiers of Amerika will become indistinguishable from the Myanmar generals.

  14. craazyman

    I’d give this kind of thinking the “I Can Get a Date with Lindsey Lohan Anytime because Johnny Depp is a Movie Star and I Can Look Like a Pirate if I Wear a Dreadlock Wig” Prize.

    One might find a thread of inspired dot-connecting in that jumbalaya of nonsense, but its fantasia of non-logic succesfully evades both the range of variables at play in the phenomenon under analysis and any notion of lucidity in connecting them into a coherent analystical framework.

    The real answer is this: 1) The young person delusionally sees their ability to borrow as a confirmation of ego-worth from the adult world, which is transiently self-image boosting, and 2) All their overachieving friends are in hock up to the six figures, and so if they are too it confirms their identity as a member of the overachiever’s club, thus boosting their self-esteem.

    At some point they’ll find both forms of validation are con jobs, and then the growing up starts. And they’ll also realize that no matter how cool a dreadlock wig they have on, it won’t matter when it comes to dating.

  15. doom

    Or call it the Shmoo prize, because Shmoos are docile and affectionate and they jump right into the frying pan to make you happy, just like good Americans do.

  16. ex-PFC Chuck

    I had a good laugh seeing your choice of words when you wrote, “. . had to commend more than a few crustaceans to execution via steaming.” Was this an unconscious (or conscious?) attempt at putting lipstick on a pig of condemnation, or was it like the time my wife spewed her morning coffee as I patiently explained to my then-three year old daughter (now 40) that the fog on her window pane was “condescension?”

  17. Dave of Maryland

    A worthwhile study would be how human fertility declines with increasing student debt.

    Somewhere in Saki there is a passing reference to how residence in a particular London borough was unlikely to be passed on to one’s descendants.

    Student loans are like that, as the more debt you have, the less likely you are to have offspring.

  18. Marquis de Sod Landscaping

    “If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.” – Frank Zappa

  19. Jean

    Even today, especially today, I still remember very clearly when I received my freshman year National Defense Student Loan 30++ years ago. I was asked to raise my right hand, and take the oath to defend my country from all enemies, foreign and domestic. The dollars were repaid so long ago, but I don’t believe I have discharged the real obligation attached to my loan.

    1. psychohistorian

      Thanks for the memory. We are in the process of repaying the real obligation that we never thought we would have to.

      I did work/study as well so didn’t borrow too much and paid it off in a couple of years.

      The way I see it now Student Loans are a lock into the financial system owned by the inherited rich rather than a reciprocal investment in society by its citizens.

      It is sad to see us fighting for the scraps of life the inherited rich allow us to have. It shouldn’t be this way. I want that equal opportunity promise that can never happen in a world run by the inherited rich.

      1. Jean

        “I fight, so that my son can farm, so that his son can write poetry”

        I heard this decades ago, and cannot attribute it. And I now see the circular progression that escaped me in earlier years.

        “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” … Keats

  20. Elliot

    It’s not just education debt. It’s also fancy-toy debt (iphones), fancy car debt, satellite tv debt. All the trappings of “middle class” lifestyle as seen on Oprah or Martha stewart or whatever tv program is on. And just try to get someone who is struggling with debt and low income to let go of those things! Their identity seems bound up in the things they have, not in their own life.

    Mortgages are the same…. not that ownership is bad, on the contrary, having a home that cannot be taken from you that you don’t have to pay endless rent on is invaluable. But a mortgage that is killing you, that keeps you in debt slavery, while good for the bankers is not good for the human.

    This student debt article smacks strongly of the “slavery is good for the benighted slaves” garbage that was argued to support that peculiar institution.

    When I was in grad school (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth) it was possible with a combination of teaching assistantship and other jobs to graduate debt-free. I’m not sure that it is possible today.

  21. Phichibe

    I started to read the purple prose of the ‘research’ but ennui combined with a mild hangover left me too enervated to complete the task. I would love to see the funding proposals these guys send out.

    Yves, I like the Lobster Want to Be Boiled award idea, but agree that it’s a little long. Borrowing a page from the awards created a decade ago to recognize cool web sites which are informally called the “Webbies”, may I suggest calling your awards the “Lobbies”, perhaps with a little plastic lobster affixed to a pedestal; receiving a “Lobbie” award would also have a nice congruence since much of the work you’ve called our attention to is so blatantly used to advocate a policy that will enrich the sponsor. A “Lobbie” for a lobby, so to speak.



  22. SageRaven

    Ah, yes, junk science pops up everywhere: Young adults’ self esteem is increased by incurring debt, climate change is a myth, we didn’t really contribute to the environmental mess we’re in, and cancer patients apparently cause their own disease through their personality or emotional traits.

    The sad part is that junk science (and junk social science) mostly goes unquestioned even by people with a college or university education. Considering the amount of money these folks have paid (whether up front or through paying back student loans), one might have hoped they would have learned some really useful skills such learning to think critically and evaluate what they read or hear through various forms of media.

    If I can find the journal article in my public library, I’ll definitely be reading it, rolling my eyes and trying not to laugh.

  23. donna

    Reverse of cause and effect. If you have higher self esteem and belief in your earning power, you’re willing to take on more debt. Duh.

  24. David

    Okay, thay have higher self esteem now while they are incurring the debts. What happens to that self esteem when they have to pay the money back and can’t?

  25. EB

    As someone that has gone to great pains avoiding debt I don’t doubt the finding that people with debt are more self-confident. I’ve observed fellow students and recent grads (in undergrad and more specifically law school) pay little concern to the amount of debt they are taking on. It must be nice to not care or appreciate the risks you are taking in terms of student loans.

    In time, they come to learn how much of their future they mortgaged with those loans (particularly law school–when I graduated undergrad in the late 90s the debt was not nearly what it is now). Then they have to learn how to do without the instant gratification buying items gets you. They also have to start living a more frugal life.

    Most of my co-workers as young attorneys still have a good lifestyle. But the problem is for people that aren’t finding well-paying jobs–there aren’t nearly enough for lawyers now. What are they going to do?

    The point I’m making is that I don’t doubt students living off their loans have more self-esteem–they aren’t worrying about money. But I agree with Yves that the conclusions drawn from this fact are bizarre. It is true that people justify student debt differently, and say it’s a worthwhile investment (although many programs are not)–but that doesn’t make all student loans ok. That’s where people are getting into trouble, going to school is not a no-brainer anymore–you have to consider your job prospects and what program you’re going to.

  26. Check's in the mayo

    “I won’t say ours was a tough school, but we had our own coroner. We used to write essays like: What I’m going to be if I grow up.” — Lenny Bruce

  27. rps

    The absurd article about student debt as in most matters of financial congames has been obfuscated to misdirect the conversation; 18yrs with little understanding about the indentured servitude of decades of nondischargeable debt. The allusive job dangled at the end of 4yrs coupled with another 2 to 4yrs of graduate work will surely be the ticket to the “Promise Land,” a good job to support their future lives. Where’s the job guarantee on the synthetic sheep skin? Where’s the discussion of how the Education Industral Complex has co-opted most levels of the job market? Experience and on the job training have been thrown out the window as the resume without the degree is tossed aside. How many of those off-shored jobs required degrees?

    The questions not asked: 1. Why does the US Dept of Education charge 6.9% – 9% on student loans?

    2. Should the US govt Profit on the backs of our young financially naive populace(citizens)?

    3. Isn’t it the job of the government to encourage the education of a populace and innovation that leads the country’s future forward rather than held backwards by an outrageous debt-load?

    4. How can this country move forward if college graduates are debt-laden? Can they marry, create a family, buy houses, furnishings, cars, travel, and all those accouterments of a lifestyle that propels jobs, industries and services of the consumer life-cycle?

    There are no free markets if the next generation has been swindled with nondischargeable debt living in their parents basement. Mom and Dad also got swindled handing over savings and retirement funds with the false belief of a future for their kids. Mom, Dad, and kids are broke and in enormous debt. This is the real crime perpetrated upon the citizenry.

  28. ep3

    this is exactly what is happening with health care as well, yves. people are bragging that they pay 12,000 a year in premiums yet never go to the doctor. it seems to be the size of the number, not the component of it, that matters.

  29. Jessica6

    There have also been studies that people with depression have a more realistic assessment of their life’s lot – how liked they are by others, socio-economic status and so forth, while often people with high self-esteem truly have rose-colored glasses, where their brains naturally filter out anything negative.

    So it could be that these debtors (certainly the ones I’ve known too!) just aren’t living in what most of us understand as ‘reality’.

    1. rps

      Perhaps Depression is the response when the veil of ignorance has been lifted and the Confidence game realized….hoodwinked into non-dischargeable debt.

      There’s a sucker born every minute. PT Barnum

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