Student Loans And Shrinking Choices

We’ve all heard a lot lately about college students graduating with crushing amounts of student loan debt.  A recent Washington Post article brought home the grim and spiraling reality of student loan debt — and made me wonder what its long-term ramifications are for the families of those students and the economy as a whole.

The Post article compares consumer debt loads in 2005 to those in 2014.  Nine years is not a long time — less than a decade and only one presidential administration ago — but the changes are dramatic.  The percentage of 20-somethings with mortgage debt has fallen from 63.2 percent to 42.9 percent, and the percentage with student loan debt has almost tripled, from 12.9 percent to 36.8 percent.  In short, fewer are borrowing to buy a tangible asset and more are borrowing to acquire an intangible asset with uncertain value.

We don’t know how far up the age scale this exchange of mortgage debt for student loan debt extends, but the homeowners among us should consider what a shrinking pool of potential buyers means for the value of our property and our chances of selling it.  Banks won’t view young people who owe tens of thousands of dollars in student loans as good candidates for hefty mortgage loans, and young people who can’t find the high-paying job they need to make debt payments won’t want to be saddled with a house that might interfere with their freedom to move to where jobs are more plentiful.  The upshot is shrinking choices for debt-addled 20-somethings and shrinking options for the rest of us.

But the impact goes even farther.  The Post article shows that people in their 60s also have increased their student loan debt, and that more families in every income bracket are borrowing to pay for college.  The cost of a college education thus affects entire families, with credit-worthy senior citizens taking out loans to help their children and grandchildren pay for that diploma.  The acquisition of new debt by 60-somethings runs counter to the most fundamental rule of retirement financial planning, which is that people nearing retirement should pay off debt rather than taking on more.  How many older people are deferring retirement to pay off student loans — and in the process hanging on to jobs that might otherwise be available to those recent college graduates?

For too long we have viewed a college degree as a kind of holy grail that will inevitably produce a successful career and have geared national policy to make college more “affordable” by increasing the availability of student loans.  That approach has removed any incentive for colleges to hold down costs, and the result is sharply increased tuition costs funded by long-term consumer borrowing that affects entire families.  I’m as much of a fan of a college education as anyone, but isn’t it time to challenge our colleges and universities to figure out a way to provide that education at lower cost?

Closet Clean-Out

This morning I am tackling a project that I’ve been putting off for months.  (I’m using the word “tackling,” incidentally, because Ohio State has another off-week this week, so I’ve got to get my football fix in somehow.)

IMG_3437It’s my closet. It’s filled to overflowing with stuff, and it’s time to go through the shelves and hanging items, clean it out, and either toss things in the trash or contribute them to the Volunteers of America — a great organization that makes good use of second-hand items.

It’s amazing what you accumulate as the years roll by.  A t-shirt that you bought from a street vendor on an overseas trip that shrank down to elfin size after only one washing.  A generic “Tucson” sweatshirt that from a long-ago trip to Arizona where you discovered to your surprise that the Grand Canyon State actually can experience cold weather.  A polo shirt thoughtfully purchased by a relative that is made entirely of itchy artificial fibers that cause you to sweat inordinately whenever you put it on.  A crass bright orange t-shirt that you bought on a beach vacation in the ’80s that now really shouldn’t be worn anywhere.  And how in the world did I end up with six pairs of sandals and flip-flops?

Among it all are many perfectly good articles of clothing that are just too small or too big or that I can’t imagine ever wearing again — as well as worn out shoes, belts that are falling apart, overly bulky sweaters, and other assorted bric-a-brac.  Out with them all!

I’ve ended up with a closet that is now more manageable and organized — for now, at least — and I hope that some people end up wearing the too-big and too-small items that I don’t need anymore.  Finishing this long-deferred job feels good, and liberating, too.

A Fine Friday Afternoon Thought

IMG_3433We’ve been working — OK, technically, Kish has been working — on cleaning out our overstuffed basement.  The process uncovered some of Russell’s wall paintings dating back to his high school days.

This particular piece seems well-suited to developing positive thoughts on a Friday afternoon, after a long week of work.

Off The Board

Tomorrow I attend my last meeting as a regular member of the Board of Trustees of the Ohioana Library Association.  I’ve been a member of the Board for more than 20 years.

During that time Ohioana has morphed from an obscure archival organization crammed into ridiculously inadequate space into a vibrant, active member of the central Ohio and state arts community.  We’ve navigated the rocky waters of budgeting, mounted a first-ever capital campaign, partnered with WOSU TV and radio to develop some very cool programming, introduced and changed a website, and rolled out great new events like the Ohioana Book Festival.  It’s been very satisfying to see this wonderful piece of Ohio culture and history grow and evolve as it has, and to play a small part in that process.

I thought having long-time Board members was a good thing that showed commitment, but my perception was jarred a bit during a Board retreat some months ago.  (And after all, isn’t the purpose of a retreat to challenge perceptions?)  Our facilitator, who was terrific, noted that many Boards have term limits to make sure that new ideas and viewpoints are always represented.  That concept made sense to me, and I told Board leadership that it was time for me to step aside — and now that time has come.

I was recruited to the Ohioana Board by a female partner at our firm who was one of a long line of Vorys lawyers who had served.  I’m glad she reached out to me, because otherwise I probably never would have heard of Ohioana, or had a chance to get to know the great people who have worked so hard at Ohioana, my fellow Board members from across the Buckeye State, and the volunteers, authors, and artists who have helped to make Ohioana events such memorable ones.  Being a Board member on a charitable organization requires dedication and hard work, but it is rewarding.  I’m glad I did it.

Our firm will continue to be represented on the Ohioana Board by a new, energetic lawyer whom I’ll call Young Buck.  He’ll be a great addition.

A Small Price To Pay

Today I got a notice from WordPress.com, the website that hosts the Webner House blog, provides the software that allows the easy creation of postings, and keeps an archive of our blog running back to the first posting in February 2009.  The notice said it was time to pay for another year of our family’s little contribution to the internet.

The price?  $20 for 10 GB of space.

What a bargain!

I don’t pretend that the Webner House blog means much in the grand scheme of things.  It’s not setting public opinion or providing essential insight into modern culture.  But it is fun.  I long ago told Richard, who set it up and presented it as a Christmas present in 2008, that the Webner House blog was the best present I’ve ever received.  It allows me to vent and satisfy my nagging writing Jones, it makes me feel like I haven’t totally lost touch with the modern world, and it provides a forum to give an occasional shout-out to people and things that make my life better.  And I like it when I hear from EJ, or am challenged by Winship, Doug, or Marcel.  If you can’t defend your opinions, maybe you shouldn’t have them in the first plact.

As I’ve mentioned before, blogging is great because it allows Joe Everyman to have his say.  It is the First Amendment and Speakers’ Corner writ large, where technology means that anyone with a computer can conceivably reach anyone else with a computer and voice their views.  Their position may be rejected or approved, be treated as enlightened or idiotic, but at least it is made public and, potentially, heard.  And that is a great thing.

All of that for only $20?  Rarely, if ever, will you find more value for the buck.

A “Good News For Penny” Update

Many of you have asked about how Penny is doing.  We appreciate your concern about our long0time pet and occasional Webner House contributor.

IMG_3408I’m happy to report that today we received the results of Penny’s biopsy.  The tests indicate that she doesn’t have cancer, for which we are grateful.  Instead, according to the vets, she has some kind of acute case of gastrointestinal disease/chronic  inflammatory bowel disease.  It sounds disgusting, and it is, but it can be controlled with steroids, which lessen the swelling that cause the incontinence.  Kish has the happy chore of getting Penny to consume steroid pills that she really doesn’t like — but it’s a price we’re happy to pay.

Of course, there’s always a downside.  In this case, it’s that the steroids make Penny incredibly thirsty . . . which in turn causes her to drink copious amounts of water . . . which in turn causes her to periodically have accidents around the house.  Oh well!  They say that into each life a little rain — or other fluids — must fall.

Wrestling With A Life-Or-Death Decision

We’ve been dealing a big health scare with Penny.  It’s frightening because we don’t know the exact status of her condition or what is causing it, and it’s uncomfortable because it has caused us to start talking about very difficult end-of-life decisionmaking.

Penny is having gastrointestinal problems.  We’ve had to buy her special food, and at times she can’t keep it down.  If you know Labs, you know that is a warning sign; normally Penny would gladly eat her own weight in just about anything.  Last week, things took a turn for the worse.  Penny was losing it from both ends without regard for what she was doing, leaving our carpets terribly stained and the house smelling like a latrine.  She also was disoriented, apparently uncomfortable sitting, and moving and wandering aimlessly.

-1Thursday Kish took her to MedVet, a local emergency room for pets.  They concluded that she had a severely inflamed stomach and intestinal lining and was dehydrated.  They kept her for two days, gave her intravenous fluids, prescribed steroids for the inflammation, and did a scan and biopsy to try to determine the cause of the problem.  The fluids helped her disorientation, and the diarrhea stopped.

We brought Penny back home on Saturday, with her belly and bands on her forepaws shaved, and have held our breath hoping that she is okay.  So far, she hasn’t had any accidents — thank God! — her appetite seems to have returned, and this morning she had a solid bowel movement, which was a cause for minor celebration in the Webner household.  That’s the way it is if you are a pet owner.

We still don’t know why Penny had this problem in the first place, though, and we’re waiting on the biopsy results to see if it was caused by disease, environmental factors, or something else.  In the meantime, Kish and I have talked about the possible scenarios.  If Penny has a disease that leaves her unable to control her bowels, what alternatives do we have?  She’s a house dog, not an outdoor dog, and her prior bout with this problem was intolerable.  How comfortable is she?  If she does have a disease, what are her prospects?

The discussion includes difficult, almost mathematical calculations.  Penny turns eight next month, and Labs typically live to 11 or 12.  If she has a problem that could be addressed by surgery, what would it mean for her likely life span, and what would her post-surgery quality of life be like?  If it could be treated by medication, would it have side effects?  And lurking behind all of the scenarios are uncomfortable considerations of cost.  Penny is a member of the family, but if the news is bad how much should we be willing to pay — on top of what we will have to pay already — to give her another few months or a year?

This kind of decision-making is profoundly difficult and depressing.  I don’t want to be the Grim Reaper, making life-or-death judgments about a pet.  We’re keeping our fingers crossed, hoping that the tests indicate that this was a one-time thing, and dreading what we might have to decide if we get bad news instead.