Student debt relief was a good first step. Now we need systemic reform.

Tuition was surprisingly affordable during the Middle Ages

Much of the whining you hear about President Biden’s decision to cancel some student loan debt is coming from people who have no idea what has happened to the cost of a college education.

When I was attending Northeastern University in the 1970s (like many back then, I was the first in my family to graduate from college), the cost was trivial. Not only that, but editors at the student paper, The Northeastern News, received generous tuition stipends. Today, the paper, now known as The Huntington News, is independent, and the students get nothing for their hard work.

Not only did I graduate without debt, but I was also able to get my master’s in American history at Boston University by attending night school, paid for in full out of my crappy newspaper salary. It turned out to be the best investment I ever made: Years later, when I sought to return to Northeastern as a faculty member, the first question I was asked was if I had a master’s.

So I certainly don’t begrudge the relief more recent graduates are getting as a result of Biden’s action. If anything, many people will still find themselves deep in debt, though somewhat less than they are now. I do, however, think debt relief raises two questions that need to be answered.

• What about the role of colleges and universities, whose costs have risen far in excess of inflation during the past generation? Federal loan guarantees were part of that, as it gave them an incentive to compete on amenities rather than price. Shouldn’t we play some part in solving the problem? At the very least, maybe  institutions that fail to hold annual increases within a certain range should become ineligible for federal loans.

• What about future graduates? Their debt burden is going to be just as heavy, if not heavier. Are we setting ourselves up for round after round of debt forgiveness? Or might it be possible to construct a more equitable, sustainable system that doesn’t revolve around ever-rising costs, massive loans and calls for debt cancellation?

Those of us who work in higher education are well aware of the sacrifices our students and their families are making, and we often talk about what will happen after the bubble inevitably bursts. There are already some early signs, with young people seeing less value in college than was the case a few years ago. We need to change the way we do business.

Andrea Campbell, in visit to West Medford, says she’ll push for open government

Andrea Campbell. Photo (cc) 2022 by Dan Kennedy.

Andrea Campbell said Tuesday that she would work to strengthen the state’s notoriously weak open-meeting and public-records laws if she is elected attorney general this November.

“I’m on the record in supporting legislation that would expand it to include other bodies of government,” she told about two dozen supporters at a meet-and-greet in West Medford. “In order for folks to be meaningful participants in their government, to be civically engaged where it matters, you have to know what’s going on.”

Campbell, a former Boston City Council president and an unsuccessful candidate for mayor in 2021, is one of three Democrats seeking to succeed the incumbent, Maura Healey, who’s running for governor. The other Democrats are Shannon Liss-Riordan, a labor attorney, and Quentin Palfrey, a former Obama administration official. The winner of the Sept. 6 primary will face Republican lawyer Jay McMahon in November.

Liss-Riordan and Palfrey also support reforming the open-meeting and public-records laws, according to their campaign websites.

Readers of Media Nation know that I’m not out there covering the state election campaigns. But the Campbell event was hosted by our neighbors Gary Klein and Betsy Schreuer, who live less than a minute’s walk from our house, so it seemed like a good opportunity to meet one of the candidates. Besides, we no longer have a news outlet in Medford.

Despite the state’s progressive reputation, Massachusetts ranks near the bottom nationally when it comes to government transparency. Back in 2020, Northeastern journalism students asked every candidate for the state Legislature whether they would support extending the open-records law to the Legislature, which is currently exempt — as is the governor’s office. Although most of those who responded said they favored reform, only 71 of the 257 candidates provided answers despite our students’ repeated attempts. Their findings were published in The Scope, a School of Journalism vertical that covers social-justice issues.

Although it’s not the attorney general’s role to propose legislation, that official can nevertheless serve as a visible leader for open government. The AG also has a crucial role in enforcing the laws, which cover the executive branch of state government as well as local and county offices. Campbell said Healey (who has endorsed her) has done “a decent job” of enforcing the current laws, but added she would emphasize greater enforcement. Campbell cited a lawsuit filed by the ACLU after the Plymouth County district attorney’s office demanded $1.2 million in fees to produce public records, as reported by Wheeler Cowperthwaite in The Patriot Ledger. “How does an AG, working with the secretary of state and others, work in partnership so that doesn’t happen?” she asked.

According to a recent poll by the MassINC Polling Group, the Democratic attorney general’s race is wide open. Campbell led with 24%, followed by Liss-Riordan at 16% and Palfrey at 4%. But 50% were undecided or refused to answer. Without naming her, Campbell and several others made several references Tuesday evening to the vast sums of personal money Liss-Riordan is dumping into her campaign — a total that could reach $12 million, according to Lisa Kashinsky of Politico.

Campbell was introduced by Klein, a lawyer and consultant who at one time worked for Attorney General Healey, and by former Attorney General Martha Coakley, who also lives in West Medford. Other Medford political figures on hand were state Rep. Paul Donato, school committee member Melanie McLaughlin and Neil Osborne, the city’s chief people officer.

Most of Campbell’s brief remarks were what you would expect at such an event — an upbeat speech along with calls to vote and make a campaign donation. She also got personal, telling those on hand about the death of her mother, who was killed in a car accident while on her way visit her father, who was incarcerated. Her twin brother died at the age of 29 while in pre-trial detention.

“And yet, every single day,” she said, “I make an intentional choice to turn that pain into purpose.”

Geoff Diehl thinks we need to be more like South Dakota

South Dakota is growing! Photo (cc) 2006 by Pete Markham.

The Boston Globe’s Samantha Gross attended a fundraiser for far-right gubernatorial candidate Geoff Diehl and has written a highly entertaining report. I think we can all agree that we’ve had more than enough of Ernie Boch Jr., who hosted the event. But there’s one piece of Gross’ story that I want to pick up on — the presence of South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who wants us to know that her tiny state is growing.

She shook hands, posed for photos, and touted South Dakota’s low unemployment rate and population growth in a speech to attendees inside Boch’s ‘auto salon,’” writes Gross. Later in the story comes this:

“The states aren’t as different as you’d think,” Diehl said, referring to ruby red South Dakota. “The big difference is their state is actually gaining population. I want to make sure we catch up to what they are doing as far as listening to people and deliver for the state of Massachusetts.”

Well, then. According to U.S. Census data, the population of South Dakota grew between 2010 and 2020 from 814,180 to 886,667, an increase of 72,487, or 8.9%. Impressive! But Massachusetts, starting from a far larger base, added 482,342 people over the same time period, growing from 6,547,629 to 7,029,917, or 7.4%. In other words, South Dakota added a Framingham. Massachusetts added more than two and a half Worcesters. (According to Census estimates, we did experience a slight blip downward between 2020 and 2021, but it’s hard to know how seriously to take that given it was in the midst of the pandemic. Even if it’s accurate, our population is still much higher than it was in 2010.)

No big deal (see what I did there?) if Noem doesn’t understand that Massachusetts is growing. But what’s Geoff Diehl’s excuse?

Newt Gingrich and the Republican Party’s devolution into white supremacy

Newt Gingrich. Photo (cc) 2010 by Gage Skidmore.

The Washington Post today has an excerpt from Dana Milbank’s new book, “The Deconstructionists: The Twenty-Five Year Crackup of the Republican Party.” Here’s a free link so you can read the whole thing. Milbank offers some pretty bracing stuff. For instance:

Admittedly, I’m partisan — not for Democrats but for democrats. Republicans have become an authoritarian faction fighting democracy — and there’s a perfectly logical reason for this: Democracy is working against Republicans.

Milbank traces the degeneration of the Republican Party into an antidemocratic force animated by white supremacy to the rise of Newt Gingrich in the early ’90s. I’d go back further than that, but there’s no question that Gingrich represented something new and terrible, or that it reached its full flowering in the form of Donald Trump.

Baker’s had seven years to fix the T. It’s worse than ever.

Photo (cc) 2022 by Dan Kennedy

A Twitter thread on the decline and fall of the MBTA under Gov. Charlie Baker:

More than seven years ago, after Snowmaggedon brought the #MBTA to its knees, Gov. Baker was given unprecedented authority to fix it. We now know he didn’t use that opportunity wisely or well. (1/x)

If there was an assessment made of what work needed to be done, it was obviously inadequate. We’ve seen one issue after another come up during the past year, and especially the past few months. (2/x)

With proper planning, much of the work could have been done during the pandemic shutdown. Instead, we’re now dealing with Orange and Green Line closures just as employers are trying to entice their workers into returning to the office. (3/x)

It’s not all Baker’s fault. The last governor to take issues involving the T seriously was Michael Dukakis. There’s no political gain in fixing the T because the benefits are invisible. (4/x)

Baker does deserve credit for saving the GLX after Deval Patrick nearly gold-plated it into oblivion. Overall, though, Baker failed, and his term is ending with the T in a state of collapse. (5/x)

Notably silent: Maura Healey, who’s as sure a bet to be elected governor as you get in politics. This is not a time for caution. What is her vision for the T? If she remains silent, then she won’t have a mandate to carry it out. (6/x)

Like many, I depend on the MBTA to get to work and elsewhere. I use commuter rail, subways and buses. I really have no good alternatives, so I’m being patient. What choice do I have? But all of this is incredibly dispiriting. (7/7)

The day after: Pence’s integrity, Cheney’s revenge and Cipollone’s weakness

Mike Pence. Photo (cc) 2016 by Gage Skidmore.

Three quick thoughts on Thursday’s hearing by the Jan. 6 commission.

• I know a lot of people on my side of the ideological divide who give Mike Pence little credit for his actions during the attempted violent coup. I disagree. Look, he’s a religious-right Republican who was attached to Donald Trump at the hip from the moment Trump picked him as his running mate. But when everything was on the line, Pence didn’t hesitate to act with courage and integrity. He deserves our gratitude.

• Like everyone, I laughed at the video of Josh Hawley hightailing it away from the insurrectionist mob. But my reaction to the slo-mo replay was one of awed appreciation. It struck me as Liz Cheney’s handiwork — a giant “screw you” to a highly deserving target. She learned at the feet of the master. She can’t waterboard Hawley, although she’d probably like to. But she can humiliate him. Well done.

• I am weirdly fascinated by former White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who is either the best of the bad guys or the worst of the good guys. He’s certainly no hero. Yes, he may have been among the last people in Trump’s inner circle who was giving him rational, reality-based advice, but so what? And he’s still protecting Trump, refusing to answer questions about what Trump told him under the guise of attorney-client privilege.

Ron DeSantis, public education and the authoritarian impulse

Ron DeSantis. Photo (cc) 2017 by Gage Skidmore.

Update: CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale reports that faculty and students would not be required to answer the survey, although colleges and universities will be required to administer it.

There isn’t a high-ranking elected official in the country today who embraces repression more than Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.

DeSantis, a Republican who’s positioning himself to run for president in 2024 if Donald Trump doesn’t — or maybe even if he does — has a particular fixation on education, pushing through the state’s notorious “don’t say gay” law (which prohibits classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity) and, through his allies, banning three professors at the University of Florida from serving as expert witnesses in a lawsuit against the state involving its restrictive voting-rights law (he backed down).

The latest outrage is a bill DeSantis signed into law this week that requires public universities to conduct a survey in which faculty members and students would be required asked to reveal their political beliefs. As Ana Ceballos reports in the Tampa Bay Times, the measure is part of DeSantis’ ongoing war against leftist beliefs on campus, and that “budget cuts could be looming if universities and colleges are found to be ‘indoctrinating’ students.” She quotes DeSantis as saying:

It used to be thought that a university campus was a place where you’d be exposed to a lot of different ideas. Unfortunately, now the norm is, these are more intellectually repressive environments. You have orthodoxies that are promoted, and other viewpoints are shunned or even suppressed.

Writing in Salon, Brett Bachman adds: “Based on the bill’s language, survey responses will not necessarily be anonymous — sparking worries among many professors and other university staff that they may be targeted, held back in their careers or even fired for their beliefs.”

Freedom of expression on college campuses has become a crusade on the right — yet it seems that the more grotesque examples of campus censorship come from the right, whether it be a campaign to delay tenure for the 1619 Project journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones at the University of North Carolina, to Trump’s threat in 2019 to cut federal funds to institutions that failed to protect free speech as defined by him, to DeSantis’ various outbursts.

DeSantis is one of the most dangerous politicians in the U.S. — a smarter, more disciplined Trump who might very well win the 2024 election, especially given the media’s desire to normalize him and get back to the business of covering politics like a sporting event. His attempts to silence the academy ought to serve as a signal as to what he’s really all about: the unsmiling face of authoritarianism.

There’s nothing hypocritical about calling out the tyranny of the minority

Benjamin Harrison. Photo (cc) 1998 by Monroedb1. Painting by T.C. Steele.

I recently sketched out some ideas for how the Constitution could be rewritten in order to get ourselves out of a dilemma that’s become a crisis — rule by a shrinking minority of voters, grounded in the reality that our smallest states have disproportionate power in the Electoral College and the Senate.

The most immediate result is that we now have a Supreme Court with three members who were chosen by a president who lost the popular vote and confirmed by Republican senators who represented far fewer Americans than the Democrats who voted against them. If that’s not a crisis of legitimacy, I don’t know what is.

After I wrote that post, the feedback I got on Twitter was partly favorable, partly unfavorable. I think the most substantive criticism is that I’m being hypocritical — that I wouldn’t care if the situation were reversed. I’ll plead guilty to one small part of that argument: I’m thinking that the time may have come to trim the Supreme Court’s immense powers, and that’s something that didn’t bother me when it was issuing landmark decisions on reproductive rights and same-sex marriage. (Then again, more rights shouldn’t be controversial since no one is being forced to avail themselves of those rights.)

But for the larger point I was trying to make? No, no hypocrisy. And that’s because the situation we find ourselves in is unprecedented, at least not since the Gilded Age. I recall sitting in the green room a few weeks before Election Day in 2000, waiting to go on “Beat the Press,” when one of the other panelists, Tom Fiedler, started talking about the possibility that the popular-vote winner might lose in the Electoral College. Impossible, I replied. These things have a way of working themselves out. After all, it had been 112 years since Benjamin Harrison, a Republican, had been installed as president despite losing the popular vote to Democrat Grover Cleveland. It wasn’t going to happen again.

Well, we all know how the 2000 election unfolded. George W. Bush became  president thanks to the Electoral College, even though Al Gore won the popular vote. But that seemed like an outlier, and we were all far more riveted by the shenanigans in Florida than we were by the undemocratic nature of Bush’s victory. The belief that Bush stole Florida overshadowed the Electoral College issue.

What drove the Electoral College to the forefront, of course, was the 2016 election, which Hillary Clinton won by nearly 3 million votes. Thanks to the way the vote broke down geographically, Donald Trump won the Electoral College. In 2020, Joe Biden won by 7 million votes — a landslide by modern standards — yet still came uncomfortably close to losing in the Electoral College. It’s not at all inconceivable that the next Republican to win the Electoral College will also lose the popular vote by 8 million to 10 million people.

The Senate is, if anything, even less democratic. Tiny Wyoming (581,000 residents) gets two senators, who are virtually guaranteed of being Republican. California’s 39 million residents are also represented by just two senators, both Democrats. Yet at least in the post-New Deal era, the situation in the Senate was muddled enough that such geographic inequities didn’t really come into play. The Senate was Democratic for virtually all of that time, but the racist Southern Democrats really made the Senate a three-party body. Northern Democrats often worked with liberal and moderate Republicans (yes, there really were some). Coalition-building was possible. The filibuster was rarely used.

In today’s New York Times, Jamelle Bouie, whose writings on the Constitution and the state of democracy are indispensable, has this to say:

As for the constitutional crisis, it is arguably already here. Both the insurrection and the partisan lawmaking of the Supreme Court have thrown those counter-majoritarian features of the American system into sharp relief. They’ve raised hard questions about the strength and legitimacy of institutions that allow minority rule — and allow it to endure. It is a crisis when the fundamental rights of hundreds of millions of Americans are functionally overturned by an unelected tribunal whose pivotal members owe their seats to a president who won office through the mechanism of the Electoral College, having lost the majority of voters in both of his election campaigns.

Our current system favors geography over people and the interests of the minority over those of the majority. This has nothing to do with minority rights. A properly functioning liberal democracy is ruled by the majority with certain rights guaranteed so that government doesn’t deteriorate into a tyranny of the majority. Like, you know, not being forced to quarter troops in your home in peacetime. Or the right to a speedy and public trial. Or the right to exercise control over your own body, or marry the partner of your choosing.

I truly believe that when something can’t go on forever, then it won’t. At some point, the majority is going to rise up and demand change. Imagine what would happen if the next Republican presidential candidate loses the popular vote by 10 million yet wins the Electoral College with the help of dirty tricks in a few Republican states — dirty tricks that are being enshrined into law even as we speak. You can say that Democratic leaders won’t do anything, or won’t do enough. But you know what? It’s going to be taken out of their hands.

I wish you all a great Independence Day — and I look forward to a day when we can all reclaim our independence.

Minority rule is destroying the country. Here are some ideas on how to change that.

There’s something about writing a proposed constitutional amendment that has the whiff of nuttery about it — some guy sitting at home in his underwear (hey, that’s me!) raving about something that has no chance of influencing anyone.

But, having complained quite a bit about our slide into undemocratic minority rule — a consequence of small, Republican states having a disproportionate advantage in the Electoral College and the Senate — I thought I’d lay out one possible solution. Or solutions.

We could move to a parliamentary system, and that would certainly be an improvement on what we have now. But I thought it would be interesting to see what it would look like if we tried something less radical, but still comprehensive. So here we go.

The presidency

  • This one is simple. Abolish the Electoral College. Elect the president by popular vote. One person, one vote should be our lodestar. Let’s end the absurdity of voters in tiny Wyoming having nearly four times as much power as Californians.

Congress

  • The Senate is unfixable because of its two-senators-per state requirement. That makes it far worse than even the Electoral College. Let’s make the Senate a mostly honorary body whose members are appointed by the states. I would restrict the senators’ powers to choosing the wine at weekly social gatherings they would be required to attend.
  • House members should be elected to four-year terms in presidential-election years. No more midterms. House districts would be drawn by nonpartisan commissions. States would be free to set up multi-member districts if they choose. (Actually, they are free to do so now, but no one does.) For instance, Massachusetts could have three House districts instead of nine, and each district would elect three members.

The Supreme Court

  • The nine members would each be appointed to a single 16-year term. Each president would be guaranteed two appointments per term. Proposals to curtail the justices’ power ought to be considered as well, but I’m not going to address that here.

Elections

  • All federal elections would require a majority winner. If the first-place finisher in a multi-candidate field receives less than 50% of the vote, a runoff would be held.
  • Attempts to regulate campaign spending would be deemed not to be in violation of the First Amendment.
  • Needless to say, attempts to restrict the vote of the sort that a number of red states have adopted would be taken out with the trash and burned.

Problem solved! Two hundred thirty-four years of accommodating the former slave states are enough.

Giuliani’s descent began in New Hampshire in late 2007 — and I was there to witness it

Rudy Giuliani at the 2016 RNC. Photo (cc) 2016 by Gage Skidmore.

Ever since Rudy Giuliani took the podium at the 2016 Republican National Convention and started screaming incoherently, I’ve wondered: What happened? Of course, he’s only gotten worse since then, devolving into Donald Trump’s ultimate toady. In Sunday’s New York Times, Andrew Kirtzman traces Giuliani’s fall (free link) to his failed 2008 presidential campaign, a failure that he writes set off years of depression and heavy drinking.

As it happens, in December 2007 I covered a Giuliani event in New Hampshire for The Guardian, a moment when he was in mid-flop. So did my friend and old Boston Phoenix running mate, Seth Gitell, who was at that time working as a columnist for The New York Sun. We drove up together. You can read Seth’s piece here. Below is my Guardian piece, which is also still online. I’ve left the Britishisms intact. Rudy, you coulda been a contendah.

Tactical retreat

By pulling out of New Hampshire, Rudy Giuliani may live to campaign another day

By Dan Kennedy | The Guardian | Dec. 18, 2007

Rudy Giuliani made news in Durham, New Hampshire on Monday. But unless you’re attuned to the inside game as played by the political class and the media, you might have missed it.

The former New York mayor brought his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination to Goss International, a printing-press manufacturer located in an office park on the outskirts of this small, snow-blanketed college town. Giuliani bounded on stage, about a half-hour late, spoke for a few minutes and took questions from employees.

In person, Giuliani can be compelling. If what he had to say was a familiar and predictable blend of free-market nostrums and 9/11, the way he said it was nevertheless worth paying attention to. He manages to come off as informal and conversational while still speaking in complete sentences; to bond with the crowd while retaining an air of authority.

But Giuliani, ahead in the national polls for months, is suddenly in trouble, especially in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, whose first-in-the-nation primary will be held on January 8. His blueprint all along has been to hang in until big states like Florida hold their primaries. It was always a dubious plan, since early success generates momentum that is hard to stop.

Add to that a passel of problems — from the federal indictment on corruption charges of his former police commissioner, Bernard Kerik, to a kerfuffle over taxpayer-funded security provided to his third wife, Judith Nathan, back when she was his mistress — and Giuliani is suddenly looking a whole lot less inevitable than he did during the summer and fall. The news this week was that Giuliani was pulling back on his advertising in New Hampshire, a move that could be described as tactically necessary but strategically desperate.

So it was actually the most innocuous-sounding sound bite Giuliani provided that had the most news value. “I’ll be spending some of my Christmas holiday here in New Hampshire,” he said toward the end of his talk. He made a joke about skiing, too. Was Giuliani still planning to make a serious play for New Hampshire?

“Rudy Giuliani is not pulling out of New Hampshire,” insisted his state campaign chairman, Wayne Semprini, as a gaggle of reporters surrounded him after Giuliani had left the room. Semprini added that “55-60% of the people are still undecided,” holding out the prospect of a late surge for Rudy.

Next the journalists started talking with each other. Brad Puffer of New England Cable News stuck a microphone in front of New York Sun columnist Seth Gitell, a Bostonian and an old friend with whom I had made the trek north that morning. Gitell described Giuliani’s Christmas-holiday remark as “a symbolic attempt to maintain some presence in New Hampshire”. David Saltonstall, who’s covering Giuliani for the New York Daily News, told me it looked as though the former mayor was trying to keep his campaign in New Hampshire alive while simultaneously cutting back. “He’s walking kind of a tightrope with voters here, I think,” Saltonstall said.

It’s the perverse game of expectations, which often proves to be more important than the actual result. If Giuliani is perceived as having scaled down his campaign here but still manages to do well — say, coming in second to Mitt Romney, whose victory would be discounted because he’s the former governor of Massachusetts, a bordering state — then he could live to fight another day. (The flavour of the moment, Mike Huckabee, is not likely to be a factor in New Hampshire, where his fundamentalist religious views are nearly as unpopular with local Republicans as taxes and restrictions on gun ownership.)

Predictions are futile. Four years ago, I came to New Hampshire to watch John Kerry perform at an event that I described as an elegy for a campaign that had failed to anticipate the rise of Howard Dean. A few weeks later, Dean had collapsed and Kerry had all but wrapped up the Democratic nomination. Giuliani could win. Stranger things have happened.

But Giuliani’s problem is that he may have peaked too soon. No one expects Huckabee to win the nomination, but Romney, John McCain and even Fred Thompson all seem to be exploiting the turmoil created by Huckabee’s rise more adroitly than Giuliani has.

Giuliani told the lunch-time crowd that his platform comes down to two broad themes: “being on offence against Islamic terrorism and being on offence for a growth economy”. Trouble is, when it comes to politics, Giuliani these days is strictly on defence.