SCALIA’S VACANCY — NEWS v. OPINION

The battle lines are drawn: President Obama will name his choice to succeed Justice Antonin Scalia on the U.S. Supreme Court; Senate Republicans are determined to block it. One aspect has become striking: Which side has the better argument that history supports its position? It turns out, there’s another battle happening there: news versus opinion.

On the same day, February 16, 2016, two of the most widely read newspapers in the world, carried these contradictory headlines:

“In Court Fight, History Backs Obama” appeared in The New York Times.

“No Clear Confirmation Parallels in Recent Court History,” said The Wall Street Journal.

Who’s Right?

Unless you read both newspapers, you wouldn’t think there was any disagreement on the question of historical precedent for filling the current Supreme Court vacancy. The Times article appears on the paper’s op-ed page. But here’s the real kicker: The WSJ carries its version as a straight news item.

The Journal’s readers saw “news” declaring “no clear confirmation parallels” to the present situation. It cites and purports to distinguish only two earlier precedents.

In 1968, the Senate prevented President Lyndon Johnson’s lame-duck appointment of Justice Abe Fortas to succeed the retiring Earl Warren as Chief Justice and the naming of Judge Homer Thornberry to the Fortas seat. Eventually, President Nixon filled those vacancies. (The Journal doesn’t mention that it took Nixon two unsuccessful nominations — Haynsworth and Carswell — before getting Blackmun over the hump.)

The other Journal example is the oft-cited case of Justice Anthony Kennedy. A Democratically-controlled Senate approved him unanimously in 1988. Apparently believing that distinctions without a difference matter, WSJ reporter Brent Kendall notes that prior to Kennedy’s confirmation, the Senate rejected President Reagan’s first choice, Judge Robert Bork, and that his second choice, Judge Douglas Ginsburg, withdrew.

At the end of his article, Kendall identifies Jess Bravin — Wall Street Journal Supreme Court reporter with a bachelor’s degree from Harvard and a J.D. from University of California-Berkeley — as having “contributed to this article.”

Another Opinion

At best, The Wall Street Journal article is incomplete. Ironically, The New York Times op-ed includes more facts than the Journal’s news item. Professor Timothy S. Huebner notes: “On 13 occasions, a vacancy on the nation’s highest court has occurred — through death, retirement or resignation — during a presidential election year. This does not include the most recent and frequently cited example, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was nominated by Ronald Reagan in November 1987 to fill a vacancy and won confirmation from a Democratic-controlled Senate in February 1988.”

Professor Huebner continues, “In 11 of these instances, the Senate took action on the president’s nomination. In all five cases in which a vacancy occurred during the first quarter of the year the president successfully nominated a replacement.”

What’s the Difference?

The distinction between news and opinion matters.  Editors have a responsibility to make that difference clear, especially in our age of political polarization. Due to the power of confirmation bias, consumers of media tend to limit themselves to views they embrace. It keeps people comfortable in belligerent adherence to an understanding that may, in fact, be incomplete or even wrong.

In October 2014, PEW Research reported, “Those with consistently conservative political values are oriented around a single outlet — Fox News — to a much greater degree than those in any other ideological group: Nearly half (47%) of those who are consistently conservative name Fox News as their main source for government and political news.” Both Fox News and The Wall Street Journal are parts of the Rupert Murdoch family’s media empire.

Liberals tend to be, well, more liberal in their choices of news sources. According to the PEW study, “On the left of the political spectrum, no single outlet predominates. Among consistent liberals, CNN (15%), NPR (13%), MSNBC (12%) and the New York Times (10%) all rank near the top of the list….”

The predispositions of their constituencies create a special obligation for the media. There’s money in fomenting divisiveness. Blurring the line between “news” and “opinion” might advance a political agenda or sell advertising space, but it’s making the country’s problems worse.

In my opinion.

THE STRANGE CASE OF STUDENT LOAN DEBT

The Obama administration has a multifaceted approach to the student debt crisis. It’s time for a policy consistency checkup.

— The President says he wants all young people to pursue higher education and he hopes parents will encourage their kids to do so.

— The President says he wants to hold colleges and vocational schools accountable financially for graduates’ poor outcomes. At many schools, those outcomes include stunning rates of attrition and dismal employment results for graduates.

— The President says he wants to end soaring tuition that creates enormous student debt.

— And the President says students should avail themselves of income-based repayment (IBR) and loan forgiveness, even though those programs will produce large long-term hits to the federal treasury.

— But when students and their parents find themselves swamped in educational debt because graduates can’t find jobs offering a realistic shot at repaying their loans, the President’s Department of Education jumps to the schools’ defense. In its vigorous resistance to discharging school loans in bankruptcy, the administration provides another layer of protection to marginal schools that remain unaccountable for their students’ poor outcomes.

A Case in Point

In 2012, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney suggested famously that, if necessary, students should borrow from their parents to attend college. It’s not Mitt’s fault, but two years before he become governor of Massachusetts and continuing through 2007, one of his constituents, Robert Murphy, took out a loans totaling $221,000 to do exactly that for his three kids.

Unfortunately, when Murphy’s manufacturing company closed and moved overseas in 2002, he lost his job as its president. Since then, he hasn’t found work. He’s now 65 years old.

To cover living expenses, Murphy’s IRA retirement account valued at $250,000 in 2002 is now gone. He and his wife live on $13,000 a year that she earns as a teacher’s aide. In 2014, their $500,000 home was worth $200,000 less than the mortgage on it — and was in foreclosure.

As interest accrued, the balance due on Murphy’s educational loans for his kids increased to more than $240,000 by 2014. He now represents himself in a bankruptcy case that has reached the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. The issue is how the court should interpret and apply the “undue hardship” requirement for discharging educational debt. The statute doesn’t define the phrase and the federal appeals courts have adopted differing standards. All are difficult for debtors.

Enter the Department of Education

In this and other cases, the government’s primary educational debt servicing contractor, Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC), has urged courts to apply the toughest possible rule in deciding whether to grant relief to student loan debtors. At the request of the court hearing Murphy’s appeal, the U.S. Department of Education intervened on October 12.

Murphy calculates that if he found a job paying $50,000 a year and worked until he was 77, the student debt he owes would actually increase — to $500,000. His government doesn’t care. The Department of Education spares no adjective in describing the parade of horribles that would follow upon discharging Murphy’s debt.

For example, allowing him off the hook would “impair the fiscal stability of the loan program…” Repaying the loans may require “that he remain employed at or past normal retirement age,” it argues, even though “his income may top out or decrease” and “further employment opportunities may be limited.” The government regards retirement account contributions, fast-food dinners, cell-phone plans, and nutritional supplements as “luxury expenses.”

Absent showing a “certainty of hopelessness,” the government urges, no debtor should get relief from student loans: “[A] debtor must specifically prove a total incapacity in the future to repay the debt for reasons not within his control.”

Welcome to America’s 21st century version of debtors’ prison.

Confused Priorities

What matters most, the government urges, is “protecting the solvency of the student loan program.” But if solvency is a function of how much the United States receives in return for the money it lends, aren’t income-based repayment and loan forgiveness greater long-run threats to the solvency of the program? Oh, I forgot. The long run is always someone else’s problem.

Even more to the point, debtors in Robert Murphy’s position will never be able to repay their loans anyway. Simply put, the government’s failure to write off Murphy’s bad loan — and others like his — just means that its accounting methods haven’t caught up with reality.

When that reality hits, some may look back and ask why today’s policymakers ignored the bad behavior of marginal schools at the front end. In fact, government policies encourage misbehavior. As the President delivers his “get more education” message to students and parents, marginal schools beat the bushes for enrollees who represent revenue streams of federally insured loans. Why isn’t the ability of those students to repay their loans the focus of efforts aimed at preserving the student loan program’s solvency?

Ask the Right Questions

Currently, schools have no financial stake in student outcomes and marginal schools have exploited the resulting market dysfunction. Did students complete degrees? Did graduates find decent jobs?

Anyone looking for a true picture of the “solvency of the student loan program” might consider those questions, along with this one: How many students are repaying their loans? Last month, the Obama administration released a new report providing some troubling answers to that one.

Three years after their loans had become due, more than one-third of all student loan borrowers had made no progress toward repaying their educational debt. None. And the bar for “progress” was as low as it could be: one dollar.

Profiting from Market Failure

At 347 colleges, more than half of borrowers had failed to pay down a single dollar of their principal loan balance after seven years. Of that group, almost 300 are for-profit schools. Through the federally insured student loan program that relieves them of any debt collection responsibility, some for-profit schools and their investors are making a lot of money off the rest of us.

Many of those same investors decry government intervention in anything. Like Mitt Romney — a vocal supporter of for-profit colleges during his 2012 campaign — they embrace competitive markets as the only proper way to produce correct decisions. But they’re delighted to exploit a student loan market that doesn’t work at all. Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, divided the country into “takers” and “makers.” A lot of those for-profit college investors feeding off government student loan largesse sure look like “takers” — albeit in nicely tailored clothing.

So much for the probative value of divisive partisan labels.