Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Democrats and the Patriot Act: How Much Cynicism Is Too Much?

Obama signs one-year extension of Patriot Act

My personal favorite snippet from the article: "The Senate also approved the measure, with privacy protections cast aside when Senate Democrats lacked the necessary 60-vote supermajority to pass them. Thrown away were restrictions and greater scrutiny on the government's authority to spy on Americans and seize their records."

So a giant scheme to enrich health insurance companies at the expense of young people is important enough to warrant discussion of using reconciliation (a legislative tool with an Orwellian name if there ever was one), but defending fundamental civil liberties isn't. I guess Democratic Party impotence cuts both ways. Ah well, maybe I'm overreacting. It's not like we've replaced warrants with names scribbled on post-it notes or anything.

FBI Replaced Legal Process with Post-It Notes to Obtain Phone Records


That'll teach me to open my big mouth, I guess.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that without fundamental changes--not just "vote the bastards out," although that would be a good start--all we can expect from Washington is further looting of our pocketbooks and tightening of the handcuffs clamped on our wrists.

Take action while you still have circulation in your hands.

Monday, February 22, 2010

In Which I Decline the USSA's Request to Lobby Senatory Casey About Student Aid

The United States Student Association is a lobbying group that somehow got my email address because I'm the head of a student organization. I know they are allocated money by Pitt's student government, but beyond that I don't know much about them.

Anyway, I had an interesting email exchange with a rep of USSA which, upon reflection, is essentially a blog post. So I'm posting it.

The original mass mailing:
Dear student leaders,

My name is Nila Devanath, and I am the president of the Pitt Chapter of the United States Student Association. I am contacting you today to ask for your support in fighting for student financial aid reform, an issue that affects all students in higher education.

This coming Thursday at 3pm, the USSA Pitt Chapter will be sending a delegation of students to meet with Senator Casey about the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA). SAFRA is a federal bill that supports a better system of financial aid for college students and it is currently on its way through the House and Senate.

Senator Casey is in a crucial position for casting a vote in favor of the bill, allowing it to pass. However, he is currently being lobbied by banks and lenders that have been traditionally unfavorable to affordable student aid to vote against the bill.

We will be holding a short press conference at the Regional Enterprise Tower at 425 Sixth Ave downtown around 3:45pm, and we invite and encourage you to attend to show Senator Casey that college students support SAFRA and encourage the passage of the bill.

If passed, SAFRA legislation will:

- Convert subsidized federal education loans to the Direct Loan Program with low interest rates
- Increase Pell Grants
- Increase Perkins Loans
- Simplify the FAFSA and more

For further information, please visit:

It is important to have a student presence because Senator Casey sits on the Education Committee but has a strong relationship with Sally Mae, an education lender that is against SAFRA. Our presence will encourage him to place students over banks.

Please let me know if you can attend! It would be greatly appreciated.

[Signature omitted out of courtesy]
Here is my initial reply, which I sent to everyone who got the initial note:

I have no idea why I got this email, and I imagine many of you are in the same boat. That said, if you were planning to lobby Sen. Casey to vote for this bill, I urge you to reconsider.

If the bill is actually as characterized in the email, the net effect of this bill would be to bid up the price of tuition even higher, and saddle students with more debt. I urge everyone to fight this measure.

Grant Babcock
The USSA rep hit "reply all" right back, writing:
Dear Grant,

Thank you for your prompt response. The e-mail was sent out to all presidents of student organizations at Pitt to encourage support for SAFRA from the USSA Pitt Chapter student group.

I believe you may be confused about what SAFRA legislation would entail. Please take a look at the link again or feel free to look for information in other sources. The link again is .

SAFRA will help students get rid of debt by going directly through the federal govt. instead of going through banks and lenders as a "middle man" for loans and grants. I encourage you to research more information about SAFRA on the web.

Once you've taken another look, please let me know how you think SAFRA would increase student debt.

Thank you.

[Signature again omitted]
Well, I was invited to explain myself, so I did:
[Name omitted],

I have just read your link and what I saw was not reassuring in the least, I'm afraid.

The bill increases the volume of student loans and student grants. This means there are more dollars available to spend on college tuition. This would not lead to an increase in tuition rates if all of the money would be spent by people who otherwise would not enroll, but this is highly improbable and history has shown it not to be the case.

The result is that those who are able to get grants see a nominal decrease in the cost of tuition for themselves, and everyone else sees a nominal increase. Those who cannot afford to pay this increase out-of-pocket are forced to drop out or incur debt.

Where these loans come from is immaterial. Either we're borrowing from the banks at a pure market rate, or we're paying with our tax money. Subsidized loans are not free. Replacing subsidized loans from banks with subsidized loans from the government doesn't change this.

We run into the same problem with grant money. It has to come from somewhere. In this case, we run into the rather ironic problem of taxing people who can't afford college to pay for other people to go to college. A certain number of people will be able to attend college on grants who couldn't otherwise, but at the same time the tuition increases would put college beyond the means of other prospective students and their families.

On top of all this, the bill includes payoffs to historically black colleges which I imagine are designed to ensure their support, and pork spending on community colleges and public schools. None of this spending seems to have any bearing on university education in general.

The link you sent also says that this will save taxpayer dollars because the direct loan program will be cheaper than the existing system. My skepticism about government cost estimates aside, what would save taxpayers even more money and reduce administrative costs even more would be for the government to get out of the student loan business entirely. Moreover, whenever you see the words "public-private partnership," you can be sure that some bureaucrat's drinking buddy is going to make a killing.

I hope this note sufficiently clarifies my position to the extent that I no longer appear confused. In any case, I'm sure most people would rather I didn't clutter their inboxes any further, and I've said my piece.

Please do not support this legislation.

Grant Babcock
Obviously I glossed over a few of the nuances an ignored most of the peripheral issues, but I think I got the point across pretty well. Two folks complained about me filling their inbox with junk mail, and two others sent me notes of thanks and encouragement.

I doubt much will come of this, but I thought it was a teachable moment. I'll update if anything else significant comes up.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Choo Choo!

I just put up a post over on about trains. Specifically high-speed commuter rail transport. I told my friend this, and we have been saying "choo choo!" to each other for the better part of this week as I have been putting on the finishing touches.

Check it out here: