Toto, We’re Not in Kansas
Parshat Tazria 5779
Sutton’s Law, a rule taught in medical schools around the country, is named after Willie Sutton, one of the most famous bank robbers in US history. Willie stole over two million dollars from banks over the course of a forty-year crime spree which included three prison breakouts. His most famous line, which he later denied saying, was reported in a 1952 newspaper interview, where allegedly the reporter asked him why he kept robbing banks, and he replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” Sutton’s Law in medicine is a reminder to doctors to first look for the most obvious explanation for presenting symptoms before exploring more arcane and uncommon diagnoses.
Criminals, corporations, and conspiring individuals still use Sutton’s logic when deciding where to put their creative talents to work. Banks are no longer where the money is. The average bank branch usually has between $50-$200K on hand at any time, and that money is usually not all accessible at once. As a matter of fact, the FBI reported that in 2006, the average bank robbery netted only $4,330. On top of that, bank robbery carries with it a very high risk of spending many years in a facility with mediocre food, a very uninspiring dress code, lots of armed guards, and barbed wire walls all around you.
Today, when people look for where the money is, they look at the US Government. The government prints lots of money, about $541,000,000 a day, but more importantly is the trillions it spends, without ever printing it out, digital money zooming out of the treasury and into the hands of all sorts of government contractors. That’s where the money is.
The US collects about $3.6 trillion dollars, and spends a bit more than $4 trillion, and while this is a number so astronomical that almost no one can comprehend its enormity, one can become a very wealthy scallywag by getting even a minute fraction of that number. We’ve all heard about $10,000 toilet seat covers, members of Congress shoving appropriations for pet projects into spending bills, or the $1.2 million spent on researching the social habits of monkeys. But that is small fry; the smart corporations latching onto the government spending hose are in the game for billions, and often are more than happy to let the little guy sink in the process.
Let’s talk for a moment about student debt. While most people think that the big looming debt crisis is credit card debt, it’s not. Total credit card debt in the US today is about $1.03 trillion. Total student debt is at $1.56 trillion and rapidly rising. And those two kinds of debt are not at all the same, credit card debt is forgiven when someone declares bankruptcy, most student debt is not. Student debt is an albatross that can hang around your neck for life. People say that “student debt is good debt,” ostensibly because the degree you earn gives you more earning power, and while that is certainly true for some people, about one quarter of the people holding student debt never graduated. In addition to that, many people took out large loans for degrees that will never pay large salaries. How did we get here?
Remember Sutton’s Law? People will go to where the money is. If the government is loaning money, people are going to position themselves on the other side of that money spigot, especially when they are not on the hook for repaying it. In this case, it is universities, colleges, public institutions, private institutions, non-profits and for-profits, and dozens of other companies that remain in the background while Hoovering up the billions of dollars the government gladly lends to students, creditworthiness and ability to pay back is not a factor.
If you haven’t noticed, college tuition has skyrocketed lately. In the last twenty years, the cost of tuition at public four-year colleges has doubled, and in the past thirty years it has tripled. At private schools, it has only doubled, but that is because it now routinely reaches over $50,000 for one year of tuition, fees, room and board.
This doesn’t make sense from an economics perspective. Usually when the cost for something rises dramatically, fewer people can afford it, which makes room for less expensive competitors to enter the market. But everyone can afford college thanks to Uncle Sam standing at the entrance handing out larger and larger loans, so the prices can continue to rise without causing demand to go down. By the time students realize what they’ve gotten themselves into, they are up to their necks in debt, and it’s too late. It turns out that graduating from Duke University with a Bachelors in Canadian Studies, or from Brown University with a degree in Egyptology, or from Mississippi State University with a degree in Floral Management (all real degrees!) and $150,000 in student debt, doesn’t work out in the real world.
But we’re not done. Let’s talk about online university degrees. Today, online university degrees are a multi-billion-dollar industry, and it all started in 2000 when Kaplan Inc, the company formerly known for SAT prep courses bought a chain of vocational schools called Quest Education. Most of its schools were not accredited by the government, but one of them, Davenport University, was, and it was all that Kaplan was looking for. An accredited university is needed if you want to connect yourself to the spigot of government dollars, as only they can be the recipients of federal monies. And thanks to a 1998 law pushed in by the Clinton administration to encourage distance learning, anything Davenport University did online also qualified for federal funding.
Kaplan Inc, under the name of Davenport University, began offering fully online degrees that year, and Pandora’s box was opened. They spent enormous sums on digital marketing, offering fully accredited degrees that would be paid for by Uncle Sam (loan!), and you could do the whole thing sitting in your living room in your PJs! University of Phoenix followed, and then came the scam artists. Companies were paid to enroll students, and they enrolled students by the millions. Many of the students had no idea what they were getting into. One company said it charged only $4,000 per term, but forgot to mention to the prospective students that they ran on a five-term year instead of the standard two-terms. One company literally bussed homeless people in from lower income neighborhoods, and recruiters proudly told students that they would be accepted if they could, “breathe, scribble their name, and have ID showing them to be older than 18.”
Eventually, the government caught on, and made some rules to discourage the abuse, (and to some degree they were successful) but they couldn’t imagine the next move from the people clamoring to get at Uncle Sam’s green juice spigot. John Katzman was the founder of the Princeton Review, the biggest competitor to Kaplan Inc, in the SAT prep business. When he saw Kaplan go low, by creating online Fauxniversities, he went high by creating a new company, 2U, and partnering with the biggest and most recognized universities in the country. He worked with University of Pennsylvania, USC, UNC Chapel Hill, Georgetown, UC Berkeley, University of Maryland and the like.
He offered them a great deal; he would develop the courses, all the backend technology, the software, the registration, pretty much everything, and all they would give him was their name and access to some of their professors. He would get 60% of the revenue, and they would get 40%. The deal was that much sweeter because it wouldn’t hurt their rankings. In the world of universities, the ranking in the US News and World Report is of utmost importance. The reason why colleges limit class size and are selective about the GPA of applicants is to score higher in the ranking. But online courses were not subject to the US News and World Report ratings, so these name-brand universities could accept people they would never accept to their campus based programs, collect revenue on them while doing almost no work (2U would be doing all the work), and best of all, they would charge exactly the same price despite the fact that the online students would not incur any campus upkeep costs! A Master’s in Social Work at USC (University of Southern California) costs $107,484, whether you get it on campus, or sitting at your home in your PJs.
The green juice doesn’t stop flowing there. While the government only lends money for part of an undergraduate degree, the law is that master’s programs can be fully funded by money borrowed from Uncle Sam as long as it is from an accredited college, which means that people can sign up for a $107,484 online Master’s in Social Work and never have to put up a dime of their own money. It’s party time! Everyone started getting in on the party. The University of Pennsylvania offers an online Master’s in Applied Positive Psychology, which only requires a $66,000 loan, and twenty months later you are a master of feeling happy about yourself! There are no prerequisite courses and anyone with a 3.0 GPA or higher can apply.
To understand how corrupt the whole online fauxniversity program is, we can look at the online Master’s in computer science program from the Georgia Institute of Technology, also known as Georgia Tech. The program was created because Georgia Tech recognized that the US needed a lot more computer engineers if it wanted to remain competitive in the global economy, and it also recognized that many students didn’t pursue higher degrees because of the high costs.
So Georgia Tech set about creating a program that would simply break even, not lose money, but not make money. They got a grant from AT&T of $4 million to cover the startup costs. They now offer a master’s in computer science for $6,600. The computer science department at Georgia Tech is rated #8 in the country. Columbia University’s computer science program is rated #13, and they charge $64,595. University of Southern California is ranked #20 and they charge $60,150. Toto, we’re not in Kansas…
Let’s summarize. The US is swimming in student debt. Massive defaults are already taking place, and experts assess that we’re going to have 40% defaults or more by 2030. Who’s at fault? EVERYONE! The US government is at fault for giving out loans that no private company would ever give. Private companies assess risk before loaning money and the US government doesn’t because they have no risk, they can just print more money. The students are at fault for taking out massive loans to obtain degrees that will both not give them the true training and skills they need to compete in their fields, and will not enable them to earn enough upon graduating to pay back those loans (it turns out, there are very few jobs for Egyptologists in the US these day). The universities are at fault for selling an outrageously overpriced product to students that they know will hurt them down the road far more than help them.
Does this sound familiar? It should. In the early 2000’s we had a very similar situation in the US. In 1999, in an effort to expand affordable housing (even to those who couldn’t afford it), the Clinton administration put pressure on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to offer more government-backed loans to lower income families. Soon you could see billboards saying things like, “No Income? No Problem!” or “105% Loans – No down payment necessary!” When people didn’t have any skin in the game, they borrowed more and more money, and housing prices shot up. Mortgage debt in the US soared. Who was guilty in the roaring 2000’s? EVERYONE! The government for backing loans that clearly could not be paid, the people recklessly taking out loans they could never repay, and the companies running after as many consumers as possible, signing them up for products that they knew would not be of value to them, hurting them down the road far more than helping them. How did that work out?
It’s all one big party with everyone dancing on both sides of Uncle Sam’s green juice hose, until the sun comes up, the light of day shines, and everyone crawls home, bruised and battered.
Soon we will be sitting down to our Pesach Seder. At the Seder, we do something called Yachatz, where we split the middle Matzah, and hide the bigger portion until later in the Seder when we eat it as the afikomen. What is the idea behind this bizarre tradition?
Pesach is all about freedom, and the most important thing to understand about freedom is that freedom comes with responsibility. My five-year-old son doesn’t have the capacity to make responsible choices so we don’t give him freedom, we tell him when to go to bed, when to wake up, we make his lunches for him, and require him to go to school to get a proper education. On the other hand I’m free; I can stay up as late as I want, spend money on whatever I want, eat whatever I want. But that carries enormous responsibility. If I stay up all-night-long playing video games, I won’t be able to effectively earn a living and my family will go hungry. If I spend money recklessly, I won’t be able to marry off my children or have a respectable retirement. If I eat whatever I want, I won’t be healthy and will likely not make it to 75.
A slave has no freedom, he can’t make good choices. A real slave is governed by his master, and can’t save up for retirement because he gets no salary, can’t eat healthy because he doesn’t get to pick his menu. An emotional slave is one who believes he can’t make proper choices, a person who thinks they are stuck in such powerful negative traits that they have no ability to overcome them. An emotional slave will spend foolishly, borrow (and lend) recklessly, and act in ways that will bring him great remorse down the road.
At the Seder, when we put away the larger piece of the matzah for later, we are showing that we are free people. We recognize that we can’t just think about what will make me happy right now, but rather what I need to do to ensure I’m ok down the line too. Every decision I make as a free man is based on what will bring my life better good for the long run, not just for today. When Ha-shem took us out of Egypt, He was giving us the ability to be free and responsible adults, and fifty days later, he gave us the Torah which is instruction manual for responsible living! Pesach is a celebration of freedom, but as such is not just a time to say thank you, but also a time to introspect and ensure that we are using our freedom in a responsible manner, in a way that will ennoble us for decades to come.
Pesach is a time to make sure we spend our life setting aside the Afikomen.
Parsha Dvar Torah
The portion of Tazria includes a detailed discussion of an affliction known as Tzara’at, one of the most misunderstood concepts in the Torah. Because Tzara’at afflicts the skin, it is commonly mistranslated as leprosy. Nachmonides explains, however, that Tzara’at was not a physical malady, but a spiritual ailment that manifested itself physically on the person’s body. This affliction was the result of committing one of several transgressions, the most common of which was lashon hara, or gossip, and slander.
The Torah goes into great detail when discussing the various forms of Tzara’at that may exhibit themselves on a person’s body. Should a person discover a suspicious-looking patch of skin, a Kohen must be brought in to examine the affected area. There are several stipulations that must be fulfilled in order for the Kohen to declare the person spiritually impure and afflicted with Tzara’at, and there are times when the individual must be quarantined and then reexamined. However, one situation is absolutely clear-cut: If the Kohen looks and sees that the person’s entire body is covered with what appears to be Tzara’at, the law is that the Kohen must declare the person pure.
At first glance, this seems completely counter-intuitive. If a small patch of Tzara’at renders a person impure, certainly this should apply when the person’s entire body is covered. On closer consideration, it becomes clear that the Torah is teaching a fundamental lesson about the Kohen’s relationship to those in need of spiritual guidance. If the Kohen sees someone as totally blemished, without even a single redeeming speck, he must not be seeing the person properly, and therefore is not in a position to declare him “afflicted,” or, even more significantly, to help him. Only when the Kohen sees some healthy skin, i.e., some good in the person, may he then declare him “impure.” In such a case, the declaration is the beginning of the individual’s journey back to spiritual health, rather than a permanent judgment about his status.
A great Chassidic Rabbi used to lead his congregation each Yom Kippur for the Kol Nidre prayers. One year, everyone stood quietly waiting, but the Rabbi wasn’t moving from his place. He seemed entirely lost in thought, and no one dared to disturb him. Finally after a protracted wait, he finally began in his usual manner. His followers were intrigued. After Yom Kippur, a few of them approached the Rabbi to ask him what caused the long delay. The Rabbi explained:
“I try to never lead the Kol Nidre prayer until I can find one area in which each person is better than I am. Only with the recognition that we are all flawed, and that some of us are greater in some areas, and some in others, can I approach G-d with my prayers. This year, just before I was about to begin, someone walked in who behaved so rudely that I simply could not find any redeeming qualities in him. After thinking about it for a while, however, I realized that he was in fact greater than I in one respect: If I was as rude as he is, I would never come for Yom Kippur services! Once I came to this realization, I was able to begin the prayers!”
In one way or another, each of us serves as a mentor or guide to someone else at some point in our lives. It may be to our children, a younger co-worker, a study partner, or friend. Sometimes we come up against a situation in which the other person appears beyond hope. However, this week’s portion demonstrates that the status of being beyond hope is more of a problem with the mentor than the person in need of guidance. If our view of someone else is so tainted that we cannot find any redeeming qualities, it is a sign that we are not viewing his situation – or our relationship with that person – properly. Finding the good in a person is the seed from which all of our efforts on their behalf can bear fruit.
This week, we will read from two scrolls. From the first we will read this week’s parsha, Tazria, which begins with laws of impurity associated with childbirth. The idea is that life alone in not an end, rather life’s purpose is that we elevate ourselves. To this end, when a child is brought into this world the mother goes through a process of impurity which then leads to purity. This mimics the type of life she wants her child to lead – one of growing, and elevating themselves from their basic state to a higher state.
After that, the Torah launches into the laws of tzara’at (see above) for the rest of the Parsha. It talks about the different forms of tzara’at, the way the Kohen makes his diagnoses, and what the metzora does after being diagnosed. One major part of his “medicine” is the law requiring him to sit in isolation for a week. This is supposed to help him realize how he made others feel when he spoke negatively about them, and caused rifts, dissension, and isolation.
The last section of the parsha deals with tzara’at that appears on clothing. (No, that reddish or greenish blotch on that suit is not the latest styling from Versace, it is actually a spiritual disease manifesting itself on clothing!) Our Sages explains that because of G-d’s great compassion, one does not immediately get tzara’at upon his body. Rather, he first gets it on his house, as is described in our second Parsha, Metzora. Hopefully, he learns his lesson and stops gossiping and slandering, however, if he doesn’t, it starts to afflict his clothing (a little bit too close for comfort). If the person continues to ignore these blatant cues telling him to shape up, he then gets the full force affliction on his body, for which the atonement process is the longest.
From the second scroll, we read Parshat Hachodesh, in which G-d commands the Jewish people to set their calendar by the moon, the celestial being that goes through constant renewal. May we combine the lesson of renewal with that of humanities goal of constantly elevating ourselves, and may we energize ourselves to go through frequent bursts of renewal, ever striving higher!
Quote of the Week: Friendship is honey, but don’t eat it all! – Moroccan Proverb
Random Fact of the Week: Our sense of smell is 10,000 times stronger than our sense of taste!
Funny Line of the Week: I saw this wino, he was eating grapes. I was like, “Dude, you have to wait.”
Have a Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham