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  • What it feels like to stop paying student loans (dramatization)

I don’t know whether Megan McArdle intended to pay Lee Siegel a compliment. Probably not. Siegel, a cultural critic who used to go to Columbia University, published an essay in the New York Times last week explaining why he blew off his student loans. Then McArdle wrote an essay for Bloomberg View—reprinted in the Tribune—marveling that Siegel “described his decision in the least sympathetic terms possible. He offered not one good reason that he couldn’t pay his student loans; the best he could do was to say he didn’t want to pay them.”

A juice loan enforcer would put Siegel’s head in a vise for a stunt like that, and it looks like a lot of other people want to. For instance, Jordan Weissmann at Slate called Siegel an “unrepentant leech” and advised the Times to apologize for his “deeply irresponsible op-ed.” And at americanthinker.com, Trevor Thomas jumped on “yet another New York Times liberal who wants others to pay his bills” and posed what he considered a $64 question: “Upon what moral code is Siegel relying as he makes his arguments against the current student loan industry? Is it the same moral code that tells him it’s okay to kill children in the womb, and that homosexual behavior is normal and healthy? Is it the same moral code that reveals that same-sex ‘marriage’ is a right that any two (or three or more) consenting adults should have? Of course it is, and thus no one should be surprised at Siegel’s inane monetary moralizing.” Does McArdle like Siegel’s argument more than they do? She agrees with him that there’s a lot wrong with the expensive college educations students have to take out huge loans to pay for, and she makes it clear he’s far from being the first person to write about defaulting on those loans. But normally, she observes, the writer “strains to include details that evoke sympathy.” Siegel “tried an entirely novel approach.” He didn’t.

It’s nice to think McArdle was tempted to give Siegel props for not going all goopy on us, but in the end Siegel’s “guiltless confession” seems to annoy her. Like almost everyone else, she prefers causes whose champions tried to do the correct thing, wound up bruised and tormented, and now count on us to feel a little sorry for them.

Yet it could be Siegel thought he was playing that card. He explains in his essay that after college he’d discovered his “vocation”—writing—but he faced “huge debts.” Writing being what it is, he saw no way to pay those debts without “wasting my life in a job that had nothing to do with my particular usefulness to society.” Hence, “I chose life. That is to say, I defaulted on my student loans.”

But a ringing “I chose life” isn’t enough to persuade McArdle or anyone else—including me—that you had a brush with death. Even so, I like Siegel’s argument for its coldness. It makes it stronger. We don’t march against the king behind the beggar we give alms to. “If people groaning under the weight of student loans simply said, ‘Enough,'” writes Siegel, “then all the pieties about debt that have become absorbed into all the pieties about higher education might be brought into alignment with reality.” That’s a call to arms, which is the wrong time to solicit pity.