Secrets of NYU

At 174 years and counting, New York University

Secrets of New York

May 14, 2015

New York University is centered around the iconic Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.

As the largest private research university in the United States, however, its reach extends far beyond Manhattan into Brooklyn to Shanghai and Abu Dhabi. Though it has far-flung foreign outposts, NYU’s strongest presence is certainly in the city, with over 50,000 graduate and undergraduate students and dozens of buildings, including 23 residence halls, throughout the city. And with the university pushing a polarizing plan to expand its main campus in Greenwich Village, its footprint in the historic neighborhood could grow by up to 2 million square feet in the coming years.

At 174 years and counting, the university has its fair share of fascinating details and hidden gems. Here are just nine of them.

Felipe De La Hoz is studying journalism and politics at NYU, set to graduate in 2017. He is a freelance journalist and senior editor at the Washington Square News, the student daily. Follow him at @FelipeDLH.

Pioneer of gender neutral housing for students

NYU was one of the first universities in the country to adopt protections for students with different gender identities.

According to Monroe France, assistant vice president for student diversity, the university first included gender identity and expression in its nondiscrimination policy in 2002. “Gender expression for me is important because it includes not only how you identify but how you choose to express yourself,” he said.

As of 2012, the school also allows students to live in gender neutral housing, which is available by request.

Cian Compton-Lujin, a transgender junior who lived in gender neutral housing, said he appreciated the practice, though there was still work to be done: “It’s not perfect, but there’s a lot of places where these policies don’t exist at all.”
The cemetery under Washington Square Park
Washington Square Park is built atop as many as 20,000 burials, according to the park’s 2005 archaeological assessment. Historically, it was “the site of at least one church cemetery,” and a city potter’s field, or public burial site, starting in the late 18th century.

In 1965, Con Edison workers discovered 25 individuals inside of a vault under Washington Square Park, which “not only documents that burials still remain, but also that rather than individual burials, or burials in pits or trenches, the church plots may have comprised large vaults.”

The park was first established as a public space in 1826, and named the Washington Military Parade Ground, to host the national jubilee of the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. It was named, of course, for George Washington. Since its creation, the park has undergone various renovations, including the addition of a park house, comfort station, play area, and dog run in 2013.
The mysterious ‘Timekeeper’
Remembered fondly by students and Greenwich Village residents alike, John Votta a.k.a. The Timekeeper, was as much a Washington Square Park staple as the arch.

An elderly man who seemed to have no obligations or desires but to look after students, he was known as The Timekeeper because he would yell the time left until class, relying on one of four watches he would wear on his wrists. He would also direct traffic and scold students who were late.

Though he passed away in late 2012, he remains a part of NYU folklore.

“I think it was because he was always there, it was that consistent thing, you knew that going to class you were going to see The Timekeeper,” said Melody Ladd, an undergraduate student. “He was almost like an authority figure. You wanted to get to class on time.”
The fatal fire that sparked reform
NYU’s Brown building, located at 29 Washington Place and now home to the chemistry and biology departments, was the site of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

On March 25, 1911, a fire started on the eighth floor of the building, which housed the Triangle Waist Company garment manufacturer, and ripped through the structure. A total of 146 people — mostly young immigrants — died in the blaze. The tragedy led to widespread shock and eventual workplace safety reform across the country.

Vincent Alvarez, president of the NYC Central Labor Council, said, “They got together, and they massed in the street, thousands and thousands of workers, immediately following this accident, and they changed the industry for the better.”
The ultimate global university
NYU is currently the only United States university with degree-granting campuses in Asia and the Middle East, according to Mattie Bekink, deputy director of public affairs for NYU Global Programs and Sites. These are the university’s campuses in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E., and Shanghai, China, which prospective students can apply to directly and graduate from.

The university has study abroad sites in 11 other cities around the world, which Bekink said offer students the opportunity to continue to work towards their degrees while studying overseas.

She cited how “pre-med students can study biochemistry in Tel Aviv, or organic chemistry in London; psychology students can take courses in Florence, Sydney, Berlin or Accra.”

After The New York Times published an article in May 2014 detailing abuses like beatings, deportations, poor living conditions and passport confiscation of workers at its Abu Dhabi campus, the university commissioned a study of its own. This study found that around 10,000 workers were not treated up to the standards NYU had set.

NYU President John Sexton has promised to “take responsibility for the lapses that occurred,” and to try to address them.”
“Twentysomething,” the class for twentysomethings
NYU, like many large universities, offers an array of classes that range from the common and straightforward — political theory, calculus — to the bizarre and idiosyncratic. There are classes on the video game Starcraft, the science of happiness and performing comedy.

Professors Ursula Diamond and Yamalis Diaz teach the class “Twentysomething,” which Diamond describes as addressing the “hole in the literature right now about what happens between being an adolescent and becoming an adult.”

Diaz adds that, given that the students are in the stage which the class is meant to examine, the professors are able “to watch them shift and change over the course. It’s like you watch them develop into mini-emerging adults.”
The only Chick-fil-A in NYC
NYU currently houses the only Chick-fil-A in the city. Though the restaurant chain has announced that it will be opening up a full restaurant on West 37th Street, as of now, anyone looking to fill up on the chain’s food will have to seek it out at the Weinstein Residence Hall, on University Place, in the upstairs food court known as “Upstein.”

Some students called for a boycott of the eatery in 2012 because of its financial ties to anti-gay groups. But a student council declined to ban Chick-fil-A and NYU officials said the company was licensed through its restaurant vendor.

NYU has the only graduate student employee union

NYU has the only graduate student employee union among private universities in the United States. GSOC-UAW Local 2110, as the union is called, is affiliated with the United Automobile Workers and has been around since 1998.

They’ve had ups and downs with the university, failing to gain approval for a new contract in 2005, but renegotiated a contract in 2013, and have been in deliberations with the university since then. In April, following a strike, they reached an agreement with the university involving points like minimum wage and healthcare subsidies.

Jessica Feldman, a spokeswoman for GSOC, said that they hope to be “a model for future unions at other private universities,” adding that the struggle had taught them lessons like “the importance of union democracy.”

Near NYU’s main Washington Square location, running between

Near NYU’s main Washington Square location, running between University Place and 5th Avenue just north of the park, is a little cobblestoned street known as the Washington Mews. It’s owned by the university, and most of the small buildings that line it are faculty offices.

If the street looks like a horse-and-buggy wouldn’t be out of place, that’s because in the 1830s the Mews housed stables for horses and coachmen serving wealthy residents in the townhouses lining the northern edge of the park. It looks much the same 140 years later.

The university’s French center, La Maison Francaise, sits on the south side of the street’s University Place entrance, while the German center, Deutsches Haus, sits on the north side. For students, the Mews can sometimes provide a break from the energy of the classroom.

After all, stepping onto its cobblestones is like stepping into another time.

Posted in Uncategorized

Daily Report: Uber Ruling Spurs Debate Over Workers

In a ruling that fuels a long-simmering debate over some of Silicon Valley’s fastest-growing technology companies and the work they are creating, the California Labor Commissioner’s Office said that a driver for the ride-hailing service Uber should be classified as an employee, not an independent contractor, Mike Isaac and Natasha Singer report.
The ruling ordered Uber to reimburse Barbara Ann Berwick $4,152.20 in expenses and other costs for the roughly eight weeks she worked as an Uber driver last year. While Uber has long positioned itself as merely an app that connects drivers and passengers — with no control over the hours its drivers work — the labor office cited many instances in which it said Uber acted more like an employer. Uber is appealing the decision.
The ruling does not apply beyond Ms. Berwick and could be altered if Uber’s appeal succeeds. Uber has also prevailed in at least five other states in keeping its definition of drivers as independent contractors. Yet the California ruling stands out because officials formally laid out their arguments for why Uber drivers are employees. That could bolster class-action lawsuits against the company in the state. California law expressly requires employers to reimburse employees for business expenses and several suits proceeding against Uber are based on that state law.
Companies like Uber and its rival Lyft, and Instacart, a grocery delivery service, have long faced questions about whether they are creating the right kind of employment opportunities for both the economy and for workers. The technology companies have contended that their virtual marketplaces, in which people act as contractors and use their own possessions to provide services to the public at the touch of a smartphone button, afford workers flexibility and freedom. Read more »

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Anesthesiologist trashes sedated patient — and it ends up costing her

Anesthesiologist trashes sedated patient — and it ends up costing her
Sitting in his surgical gown inside a large medical suite in Reston, Va., a Vienna man prepared for his colonoscopy by pressing record on his smartphone, to capture the instructions his doctor would give him after the procedure.
But as soon as he pressed play on his way home, he was shocked out of his anesthesia-induced stupor: He found that he had recorded the entire examination and that the surgical team had mocked and insulted him as soon as he drifted off to sleep.
In addition to their vicious commentary, the doctors discussed avoiding the man after the colonoscopy, instructing an assistant to lie to him, and then placed a false diagnosis on his chart.
“After five minutes of talking to you in pre-op,” the anesthesiologist told the sedated patient, “I wanted to punch you in the face and man you up a little bit,” she was recorded saying.
When a medical assistant noted the man had a rash, the anesthesiologist warned her not to touch it, saying she might get “some syphilis on your arm or something,” then added, “It’s probably tuberculosis in the penis, so you’ll be all right.”
When the assistant noted that the man reported getting queasy when watching a needle placed in his arm, the anesthesiologist remarked on the recording, “Well, why are you looking then, retard?”
There was much more. So the man sued the two doctors and their practices for defamation and medical malpractice and, last week, after a three-day trial, a Fairfax County jury ordered the anesthesiologist and her practice to pay him $500,000.
The plaintiff, identified in court papers only as “D.B.,” wanted to maintain his anonymity and did not want to comment about the case, said his attorneys, Mikhael Charnoff and Scott Perry.
The anesthesiologist, Tiffany M. Ingham, 42, could not be reached for comment, and her attorney, D. Lee Rutland, did not return messages seeking comment. Ingham worked out of the Aisthesis anesthesia practice in Bethesda, Md., which the jury ruled should pay $50,000 of the $200,000 in punitive damages it awarded. Officials there did not return a call seeking comment. Ingham no longer works there, an Aisthesis employee said, and state licensing records indicate that she has moved to Florida. An anesthesiology practice in Tavares, Fla., said she no longer worked there. Calls to a number believed to be Ingham’s were not returned, and there was not an answering machine or voicemail at that number.
On the opening day of the trial last week, the gastroenterologist who performed the colonoscopy, Soloman Shah, 48, was dismissed from the case. Court documents state Shah also made some insulting remarks — “As long as it’s not Ebola, you’re okay,” Shah was recorded saying during the rash discussion — and did not discourage Ingham from her comments or actions, which included writing on the man’s chart that he had hemorrhoids, when he did not.
Neither Shah, who did not return a message left at his office, nor the lawyers on either side would comment.
The lawyers also would not discuss whether Ingham or Shah faced disciplinary action from the Virginia Board of Medicine. No actions are listed against either on the board’s Web site.
The jury awarded the man $100,000 for defamation — $50,000 each for the comments about the man having syphilis and tuberculosis — and $200,000 for medical malpractice, as well as the $200,000 in punitive damages. Though the remarks by Ingham and Shah perhaps did not leave the operating room in Reston, experts in libel and slander said defamation does not have to be widely published, merely said by one party to another and understood by the second party to be fact, when it is not.
“I’ve never heard of a case like this,” said Lee Berlik, a Reston lawyer who specializes in defamation law. He said comments between doctors typically would be privileged, but the Vienna man claimed his recording showed that there was at least one and as many as three other people in the room during the procedure and that they were discussing matters beyond the scope of the colonoscopy.
“Usually, all [legal] publication requires is publication to someone other than the plaintiff,” Berlik said. “If one of the doctors said to someone else in the room that this guy had syphilis and tuberculosis and that person believed it, that could be a claim. Then it’s up to the jury to decide: Were the statements literal assertions of fact? The jury apparently was just so offended at this unprofessional behavior that they’re going to give the plaintiff a win. That’s what happens in the real world.”
One of the jurors, Farid Khairzada, said that “there was not much defense, because everything was on tape.” He said that the man’s attorneys asked for $1.75 million and that the $500,000 award was a compromise between one juror who thought the man deserved nothing and at least one who thought he deserved more.
“We finally came to a conclusion,” Khairzada said, “that we have to give him something, just to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”
The colonoscopy took place in Shah’s surgical suite on April 18, 2013, according to the man’s lawsuit. While being prepped for the procedure, the man apparently told Ingham that he had passed out previously while having blood drawn and that he was taking medication for a mild rash on his genitals.
Because he was going to be fully anesthetized, the man decided to turn on his cellphone’s audio recorder before the procedure so it would capture the doctor’s post-operation instructions, the suit states. But the man’s phone, in his pants, was placed beneath him under the operating table and inadvertently recorded the audio of the entire procedure, court records show. The doctors’ attorneys argued that the recording was illegal, but the man’s attorneys noted that Virginia is a “one-party consent” state, meaning that only one person involved in a conversation need agree to the recording.
The recording captured Ingham mocking the amount of anesthetic needed to sedate the man, the lawsuit states, and Shah then commented that another doctor they both knew “would eat him for lunch.”
The discussion soon turned to the rash on the man’s penis, followed by the comments implying that the man had syphilis or tuberculosis. The doctors then discussed “misleading and avoiding” the man after he awoke, and Shah reportedly told an assistant to convince the man that he had spoken with Shah and “you just don’t remember it.” Ingham suggested Shah receive an urgent “fake page” and said, “I’ve done the fake page before,” the complaint states. “Round and round we go. Wheel of annoying patients we go. Where it’ll land, nobody knows,” Ingham reportedly said.
Ingham then mocked the man for attending Mary Washington College, once an all-women’s school, and wondered aloud whether her patient was gay, the suit states. Then the anesthesiologist said, “I’m going to mark ‘hemorrhoids’ even though we don’t see them and probably won’t,” and did write a diagnosis of hemorrhoids on the man’s chart, which the lawsuit said was a falsification of medical records.
After declaring the patient a “big wimp,” Ingham reportedly said: “People are into their medical problems. They need to have medical problems.”
Shah replied, “I call it the Northern Virginia syndrome,” according to the suit.
The doctors argued that the Vienna man did not suffer any physical injury or miss any days of work. The man’s complaint said that he was “verbally brutalized” and suffered anxiety, embarrassment and loss of sleep for several months.
“These types of conversations,” testified Kathryn E. McGoldrick, former president of the Academy of Anesthesiology, “are not only offensive but frankly stupid, because we can never be certain that our patients are asleep and wouldn’t have recall.”

Editor’s note: a clip of the recording is available online.

Source: WSJ

June 24, 2015

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Posted in Law, Medical Education, Uncategorized

Young Lawyers Could Face ‘Tax Bomb,’ Says Professor

Source WSJ

Associated Press
Thousands of recent law-school graduates have taken advantage of a pair of programs aimed at easing student-debt burdens.

The plans require federal student-loan borrowers to pay back as little as 10%-15% of their discretionary income each month over 20 to 25 years. After that period, any remaining balance is forgiven.
As attractive as the terms may be, some law-school graduates enrolled in the programs could be facing what one law professor dubs a “tax bomb” down the road.
Specifically, it’s set to go off in 2032, the first year when the loans qualify for debt forgiveness. At that point, the forgiven debt turns into “cancellation of debt” income under the tax code, taxed as ordinary income, says Southern Methodist University law professor Gregory S. Crespi.
In a draft paper published online, highlighted by Paul Caron’s TaxProf Blog, the professor estimates what that could mean for a lawyer who wraps up the repayment period with a hefty amount of unpaid debt:
[A] large proportion of those enrollees who have incurred loan debts to finance law school studies will as a result have over $150,000 and perhaps even in some cases as much as $300,000 or more of unpaid principal and accrued interest still owing and then forgiven at the end of the applicable 20- or 25- year repayment period. With such a large amount of forgiven debt included in their income along with their other earnings for that tax year these persons will almost all be paying taxes on that forgiven debt at at least a 28% marginal federal income tax rate, and often closer to a top-bracket 39.6% marginal federal income tax rate, on this additional attributed income. In addition, many states also impose a state income tax on the income recognized by the federal government, in some instances with relatively high upper-bracket marginal rates that would usually here apply given the large size of the debt forgiven.
For an IBR or PAYE law graduate enrollee with a $200,000 or larger unpaid debt at the time of their debt forgiveness this may well mean a combined federal and state income tax bill on this additional attributed income of at least $50,000 up to perhaps $100,000 or more, and an enrollee with $300,000 or more of forgiven debt may owe additional income taxes in the neighborhood of $125,000 or even more!
The two loan programs he’s referring to — the “Income-Based Repayment Plan” and the newer “Pay As You Earn” program — don’t treat law school students differently than other graduate school borrowers. But Mr. Crespi says the high cost of a legal education combined with uncertain future salary prospects for lawyers these days make law school students more vulnerable.
He says a revised Pay As You Earn program expected to launch in December greatly diminishes the impact of the tax “bomb” because of its less generous terms. Under the proposed “REPAYE” program, spousal earnings are now included in the calculation of discretionary income.
So, he’s talking about a four-year window — roughly 30,000 borrowers who left law school between 2012 and 2015.
In his paper, Mr. Crespi says those graduates shouldn’t expect Congress to eliminate their tax obligations before they explode years from now. If there’s a bailout, a more likely, and in his view preferable option, would be a tax-code adjustment that allows borrowers to stretch out the IRS payments over several years without a penalty.
A Department of Education spokesman did not have an immediate comment about the paper.

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Posted in Department of Education, forgiveness, IRS, Legal Education, Statistics, Student Loans

GAO: CMS Too Reliant on Doctors When Setting Medicare Pay Rates

CMS is too reliant on the American Medical Association when setting provider reimbursement rates, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report, the New York Times reports.

The report focused on CMS’ process to set provider payment rates that account for more than $70 billion in federal spending each year. CMS uses a fee schedule to set the rates, which are determined based on the “relative value” of each provider service. Services determined to be more time-consuming or difficult are reimbursed at higher rates than those that are less demanding. For example, hip replacements are reimbursed at higher rates than cataract surgeries or regular office visits. When setting the rates, CMS takes into account the amount of time it takes to perform the services, the physical and mental efforts required and the technical skills needed.
According to the report, CMS uses a panel of 31 providers formed by AMA and medical specialty societies, called the Relative Value Scale Update Committee, to help inform their payment rate decisions. The group’s meetings are open to the public, but attendees must sign confidentiality agreements prohibiting them from disclosing any information about the meeting’s considerations.

Panel Might Be Biased

The report noted that the panel could be biased when helping CMS to set the rates because the provider group could have conflicts of interest. According to the report, provider groups “donate [more than] $8 million” annually in services to the committee and “hundreds of physicians” volunteer for the panel.

Further, the report found that along with AMA’s influence, flaws in data collected by AMA “could result in inaccurate Medicare payment rates.” According to the Times, medical societies collect information about their physicians’ work through member surveys. The data are intended to help determine the time and intensity required to perform certain services, as well as the costs associated with them, including expenditures related to:


-Malpractice insurance;

-Office space;

-Supplies; and


However, the surveys usually have low participation rates, which spur questions about the data’s accuracy. Further, CMS does not have a means to verify the data, according to GAO. The report noted that such weaknesses “could lead to inflated Medicare payment rates” in some instances.

Overall, the report noted that CMS “does not fully disclose information upon which its decisions were based” and does not use a “standardized process” for determining the relative value of services performed by providers.

Medicare Rates Influence Rest of Health Care Industry

According to the Times, the payment rates set for Medicare often have a ripple effect on the rest of the health care industry and a direct effect on consumers. Medicare beneficiaries usually pay for around 20% of the provider reimbursement fees. Further, many private health insurers use Medicare’s fee schedule to help determine how much they will reimburse providers for specific services. In addition, physicians might be more likely to perform more of services that are overvalued by Medicare.


Barbara Levy, who has chaired the RVSUC for the past six years, said she did not see the conflicts of interest on the panel. She noted that the committee does “not tal[k] about dollars or money,” but “about the time and resources that are necessary to perform a procedure.” She said, “I can’t imagine how anyone other than a group of physicians could provide that kind of expertise.”

However, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), a member of the House Ways and Means Committee’s Subcommittee on Health, said that while “Medicare certainly needs clinical expertise to appraise the value of doctors’ services,” CMS “give[s] medical specialty societies an undue influence on their own payments.”

Meanwhile, the American Academy of Family Physicians has long called for including more primary care physicians on the RVSUC, as well as consumer advocates, employers and health economists.

The Obama administration said it is seeking more information on the issue so that it can determine more accurate Medicare payment rates. Under the Affordable Care Act, CMS is required to reassess the value of physician services. Congress in 2014 allocated $2 million for the agency to collect its own data to help inform Medicare reimbursement rates. However, GAO noted that the agency “does not have a specific timeline or plan for using these funds” (Pear, New York Times, 5/31).

Source: California Healthline

June 1, 2015

Posted in Conflict of Interest, Economics, Ethics, Healthcare, Medicare, Policy

Mounting Student Debt Shapes Rough Job Outlook For Young College Graduates

This year’s pack of departing college seniors claims a dubious distinction: The class of 2015 is now the most indebted graduating class in history — though, if past years are any indication, the honor won’t last long. Next spring — barring any unexpected generosity from Washington or college administrations — the class of 2016 will take over the title.

Graduates this year owe an average of about $35,000 in student loan debt, according to an analysis of government data by Mark Kantrowitz, publisher at, which covers planning and paying for college. That’s up from about $10,000 more than 20 years ago.
The $1.3 trillion cloud of loan debt looms large over American social life. Research suggests it’s holding people back from the rituals of home purchase and marriage. But some recent graduates are also finding debt shapes their plunge into an already stormy labor market. It’s another stress for young college-educated workers, who, as Friday’s jobs report highlights, suffer from an unemployment rate about 30 percent higher than the national average.
Historical American Household Aggregate Debt | StartClass
Cody Hounanian, 24, earned his undergraduate degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2013. A political science major, he owes $30,000 in federal loan debt. Excited by the prospect of quickly paying down that sum, the left-leaning graduate applied for a job at a nearby public relations firm that “astroturfs” [creates the impression of public support by paying people in the public to pretend to be supportive] for corporations and developers. “I can’t believe it,” he says, looking back. “I was willing to compromise my views.”

Hounanian never got the gig. Soon after, he moved to Los Angeles, where he found a job as a manager at Whole Foods and prepared to apply to law school. But eventually, he realized, it made little financial sense: “I couldn’t even fathom taking out more loans.”
Now, he works part time — about 20 hours a week — at a nonprofit that focuses on student debt. “Ideally, I would be doing this type of political work full time, but I can’t,” says Hounanian, who also works 40-hour weeks at Whole Foods, from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. at night. His future career? “I’m kinda on pause now.”
Clear data on how debt shapes the professional paths of graduates isn’t easy to come by. For one thing, it’s difficult to separate people with debt from those without it. It’s also hard to know the real reason why someone chooses a certain job. But in a recent paper, Jesse Rothstein and Cecilia Rouse seized on major student aid reforms at an anonymous, highly selective university to study the topic. They found that “debt leads graduates to choose higher-salary jobs” and “appears to reduce the probability that students choose low-paid ‘public-interest’ jobs.”
Rouse, a former economic adviser to President Obama, now serves as dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. The school’s “no loan” policy replaces loans with grants that students don’t need to pay back. Still, Rouse says that today’s college students, “whether driven by student loans or scarring from the economic downturn,” seem to be “fairly concerned about the income prospects of their careers.”
Debt can also influence where recent graduates choose to settle.
Hannah Flake, 23, graduated from the University of North Carolina, Asheville in 2013 with $30,000 in debt. A native of Chapel Hill, she moved to Washington last year — reluctantly.
“I would have loved to stay in Asheville, and I really tried to, but all of the entry-level jobs I found were in the $20,000 to $30,000 range,” says Flake. While she’s happy with her current job at an environmental nonprofit, she laments debt’s toll on young people who’d prefer to live in medium-sized towns and cities. “I don’t think smaller communities are able to offer the salaries that graduates need to pay down debt.”
On the other hand, debt recently pushed Melissa Byrne, 36, an organizer, away from Washington. She had to leave the city, one of the nation’s most expensive, because of mounting financial pressure, driven in part by $300 monthly loan payments. “I finally had to come to terms with it,” says Byrne, who now lives in Philadelphia and soon plans to launch a campaign around reducing student debt. “I was coming to the point where if I hit a bump in the road, I had no safety net.”
Byrne isn’t optimistic she’ll ever be debt-free. “I don’t see a path out of it,” she says. “I don’t see a path for ever not paying them.”
By Cole Stangler @colestangler 

on June 05 2015

Posted in Debt, Economy, forgiveness, Johns Hopkins University, Millennials, public interest, Statistics, Student Loans, wages

Holy Writ


I didn’t set out to be a comma queen. The first job I ever had, the summer I was fifteen, was checking feet at a public pool in Cleveland. I was a “key girl”—“Key personnel” was the job title on my pay stub. I never knew what that was supposed to mean. I was not in charge of any keys, and my position was by no means crucial to the operation of the pool, although I did clean the bathrooms. Swimmers had to follow an elaborate ritual before getting into the pool: tuck your hair into a hideous bathing cap (if you were a girl), shower, wade through a footbath spiked with disinfectant that tinted your feet orange, and stand in line to have your toes checked. This took place at a special wooden bench, like those things that shoe salesmen use, except that instead of a miniature sliding board and a size stick for the customer’s foot it had a stick with a foot-shaped platform on top. The prospective swimmer put one foot at a time on the platform and, leaning forward, used his fingers to spread out his toes so that the foot checker could make sure he didn’t have athlete’s foot. Only then could he pass into the pool. I have never heard of foot checkers in any city besides Cleveland.
I am not particularly nostalgic about my foot-checking days. Nor do I wish to revisit my time at the Cleveland Costume Company, where I worked after graduation. I had gone to Douglass College, the women’s college of Rutgers, in New Jersey, and returned ignominiously to Cleveland because I couldn’t think of anything better to do. The costume company was fun for a while. I stuck it out through the Christmas season, and then I called a local dairy and asked whether there were any openings for milkmen.
I had had a fantasy for years about owning a dairy farm. I liked cows: they led a placid yet productive life. “We’ve never had a lady drive a milk truck, but there’s no reason not,” a man at the plant said. The route they gave me was in Fairview Park, a suburb west of Cleveland. The milk truck had two sets of pedals, one with the standard three for a stick shift, for driving sitting down when you were going long distances, and the other for driving standing up, when you were hopping between houses.
I had half a mind to stay in Cleveland and try to marry the boss’s son (he raised beef cattle), but I gave up the milk route to get a master’s in English at the University of Vermont. One summer, I worked nights in a cheese factory, packaging mozzarella. A team of women, wearing white rubber aprons, yellow rubber gloves, green rubber boots, and hairnets, pulled bricks of mozzarella out of vats of cold salt water, labelled them, bagged them, sealed the bags, boxed the cheese, and stacked the boxes. I had a secret yen to operate the forklift truck. Also, while in graduate school, I started reading The New Yorker.
I sometimes visited one of my brothers, who lived in New York. He had gone to the Art Students League, where he made friends with a woman in his portrait class named Jeanne Fleischmann. She was married to Peter Fleischmann, the chairman of the board of The New Yorker. His father, Raoul Fleischmann, had been the co-founder of the magazine, with Harold Ross. On one visit, I picked up a copy of the magazine. It was dated February 24, 1975. Eustace Tilley was on the cover, and the contents included a piece by E. B. White: “Letter from the East.” It was the anniversary issue—The New Yorker’s fiftieth.
Eventually, I met the Fleischmanns. I was doing research for my master’s thesis, on James Thurber, and while Peter was away on business he let me sit in his office and look through bound volumes of the magazine. At the Morgan Library, in an exhibit of books that had belonged to writers, I found a grammar mistake on the wall label accompanying Thurber’s copy of Hemingway’s “Green Hills of Africa,” in which he had made pencil drawings of Papa and Memsahib on safari. I was given permission to examine the book. (I made freehand copies of the illustrations and appended them to my thesis. My examiners were not amused.) In Vermont, I kept two stacks of magazines on my lobster-crate coffee table, one of Hoard’s Dairyman and one of The New Yorker.
I made up my mind to move to New York in the fall of 1977. I drove there in my old Plymouth, with my cat, my books pared down to the bare essentials, and two hundred dollars. The Fleischmanns, whose grown children had moved out, were still in parental mode, and they befriended me readily. I spent many a cocktail hour in their den, drinking their Heineken and listening to Peter’s stories. Peter drank Scotch-and-water, chain-smoked, and swallowed Maalox by the handful. He told war stories (he was in the Battle of the Bulge) and stories about Yale and about his father, Raoul (the family came from Austria), and croquet games with Harpo Marx making an impossible shot by sawing up a tire and wrapping it around a tree trunk.
That fall, I had a reverse commute from the financial district to Paterson, New Jersey, where I was washing dishes in a friend’s restaurant. The friend paid my bus fare and gave me all the beer I could drink. In return, I tried not to throw away the silverware when I scraped the dishes. Often, I got off the bus on the way home and walked over the George Washington Bridge. I worked on my thesis, and sometimes despaired. Peter pointed out that even if I never finished the thesis or got the master’s degree, it was no reason to despair. Peter had no influence in the editorial department—like his father, he kept business and editorial strictly separate. But he offered to call Robert Bingham, the executive editor, and ask him to talk with me. We met, and Bingham was very nice, but there were no openings.
I quit the dishwashing job and worked as a cashier at Korvettes during the Christmas rush. I could not figure out whether to be sad or relieved when the management did not recognize my talent and keep me on. I did temp work. I was on the verge of trying to get a hack license so that I could drive a cab when Peter, possibly sensing an ambulance in my future, suggested that I give Bingham a follow-up call.
There was an opening! Two, in fact, one in the typing pool and one in the editorial library. I flunked the test for the typing pool. It was on an electric typewriter, and I was used to a manual—at least, that was my excuse. If my hands trembled over the keyboard, the typewriter took off without me. The other interview went better. Once I got a whiff of the library—that bookish, dusty, paste-and-paper smell so peculiar to libraries—I felt that I was in my element. Helen Stark, who was only the second person ever to be in charge of the library, had a noble head—you could see her profile on a coin—and strong features. She and three girls sat at desks that faced each other in a cloverleaf arrangement. Helen gave me a typing test—on a manual typewriter, cramming words onto an index card (I aced it)—and borrowed an empty office for the interview. I remember her arranging her skirt, which was black and wide at the hem, when she crossed her legs. (My skirt was a forest-green Danskin wraparound that a friend had picked up at a thrift shop in New Jersey, and I didn’t realize until the next time I wore it that one end of the hem hung some eight inches longer than the other.) I was all aglow, and Helen warned me that it was not a glamorous job. But she knew from experience that nothing she said could dim my enthusiasm or overturn my conviction that I would soon be one of the “young friends” whose “letters” were published in The Talk of the Town.
I started work on Monday, typing summaries of the fiction in that week’s issue and indexing it under key words. As Helen and I were leaving that night, an editor named Pat Crow got on the elevator at the eighteenth floor with us. I noticed his boots—big mud-green rubber boots—and said, “Those are the kind of boots we wore in the cheese factory.” He looked at Helen and said, “So this is the next stop after the cheese factory?”
Eventually, I became what was known as a collator—a Bartleby-like occupation that computers have since done away with. In collating, you used a pencil to carefully transfer changes from various proofs from the editor, the author, the proofreaders (usually two), the lawyer, and the fact checker onto a clean proof for the printer. It was not a job I was born for: it demanded legible handwriting, and my penmanship had been deteriorating since third grade. But you learned how the place ran: collating was the nexus, it was where everything came together.
The big challenge in collating was what were called Gould proofs. Eleanor Gould was The New Yorker’s head grammarian and query proofreader. She was a certified genius—a member not just of Mensa but of some übergroup within Mensa—and the magazine’s editor-in-chief at the time, William Shawn, had complete faith in her. She read everything in galley—everything except fiction, that is, which she had been taken off of years earlier, as I understood it, because she treated everyone the same, be it Marcel Proust or Annie Proulx or Vladimir Nabokov. Clarity was Eleanor’s lodestar, “Fowler’s Modern English” her bible, and by the time she was done with a proof the pencil lines on it looked like dreadlocks. Some of the fact pieces were ninety columns long, and Mr. Shawn took every query. My all-time favorite Eleanor Gould query was on Christmas Gifts for Children: the writer had repeated the old saw that every Raggedy Ann doll has “I love you” written on her little wooden heart, and Eleanor wrote in the margin that it did not, and she knew, because as a child she had performed open-heart surgery on her rag doll and seen with her own eyes that nothing was written on the heart.
Then I was allowed to work on the copydesk. It changed the way I read prose—I was paid to find mistakes, and it was a long time before I could once again read for pleasure. I spontaneously copy-edited everything I laid eyes on. I had a paperback edition of Faulkner’s “The Hamlet” that was so riddled with typos that it almost ruined Flem Snopes for me. But, as I relaxed on the copydesk, I was sometimes even able to enjoy myself. There were writers who weren’t very good and yet were impossible to improve, like figure skaters who hit all the technical marks but have a limited artistic appeal and sport unflattering costumes. There were competent writers on interesting subjects who were just careless enough in their spelling and punctuation to keep a girl occupied. And there were writers whose prose came in so highly polished that I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to read them: John Updike, Pauline Kael, Mark Singer, Ian Frazier! In a way, these were the hardest, because the prose lulled me into complacency. They transcended the office of the copy editor. It was hard to stay alert for opportunities to meddle in an immaculate manuscript, yet if you missed something you couldn’t use that as an excuse. The only thing to do was style the spelling, and even that could be fraught. Oliver Sacks turned out to be attached to the spelling of “sulphur” and “sulphuric” that he remembered from his chemistry experiments as a boy. (The New Yorker spells it less romantically: “sulfur,” “sulfuric.”)
When Pauline Kael typed “prevert” instead of “pervert,” she meant “prevert” (unless she was reviewing something by Jacques Prévert). Luckily, she was kind, and if you changed it she would just change it back and stet it without upbraiding you. Kael revised up until closing, and though we lackeys resented writers who kept changing “doughnut” to “coffee cake” then back to “doughnut” and then “coffee cake” again, because it meant more work for us, Kael’s changes were always improvements. She approached me once with a proof in her hand. She couldn’t figure out how to fix something, and I was the only one around. She knew me from chatting in the ladies’ room on the eighteenth floor. I looked at the proof and made a suggestion, and she was delighted. “You helped me!” she gasped.
I was on the copydesk when John McPhee’s pieces on geology were set up. I tried to keep my head. There was not much to do. McPhee was like John Updike, in that he turned in immaculate copy. Really, all I had to do was read. I’d heard that McPhee compared his manuscript with the galleys, so anything The New Yorker did he noticed. I just looked up words in the dictionary to check the spelling (which was invariably correct, but I had to check) and determined whether compound words were hyphenated, whether hyphenated words should be closed up or printed as two words, or whether I should stet the hyphen. It was my province to capitalize the “i” in Interstate 80, hyphenate I-80, and lowercase “the interstate.”
In Part II of “In Suspect Terrain,” I came to this sentence and thought I might have spotted an error: “But rock columns are generalized; they are atremble with hiatuses; and they depend in large part on well borings, which are shallow, and on seismic studies, which are new, and far between.” The itchy-fingered copy editor hovered at the threshold. I wanted to let her in. I wasn’t going to touch the comma, but I was desperate to correct that “new, and far between” to “few, and far between.” I could save McPhee from making a horrible mistake! But many people with finer minds than mine were lined up to read the copy when I was through. They would not assume that “new” was a typo for “few,” and if they had any doubt they could query it, asking the author through his editor, and there would be no harm done. But I was hellbent on rectifying what might be a glitch in a cliché. It was a Friday—I remember, because I knew that if I made this change I would have to live all weekend with the possibility, which could swiftly morph into a certainty, that I had made a mistake. Two mistakes: I would have gone beyond my province, and I would have introduced an error into McPhee’s carefully wrought prose.
So I stayed my hand, the itchy-fingered hand with the pencil in it, and spent the weekend with a clean conscience. As soon as I left the office, I felt relieved that I had let it alone. What ever made me think that McPhee would misspell, or even mistype, the word “few”?
That was more than thirty years ago. And it has now been more than twenty years since I became a page O.K.’er—a position that exists only at The New Yorker, where you query-proofread pieces and manage them, with the editor, the author, a fact checker, and a second proofreader, until they go to press. An editor once called us prose goddesses; another job description might be comma queen. Except for writing, I have never seriously considered doing anything else.
One of the things I like about my job is that it draws on the entire person: not just your knowledge of grammar and punctuation and usage and foreign languages and literature but also your experience of travel, gardening, shipping, singing, plumbing, Catholicism, Midwesternism, mozzarella, the A train, New Jersey. And in turn it feeds you more experience. The popular image of the copy editor is of someone who favors rigid consistency. I don’t usually think of myself that way. But, when pressed, I do find I have strong views about commas.
The comma as we know it was invented by Aldo Manuzio, a printer working in Venice, circa 1500. It was intended to prevent confusion by separating things. In the Greek, komma means “something cut off,” a segment. (Aldo was printing Greek classics during the High Renaissance. The comma was a Renaissance invention.) As the comma proliferated, it started generating confusion. Basically, there are two schools of thought: One plays by ear, using the comma to mark a pause, like dynamics in music; if you were reading aloud, the comma would suggest when to take a breath. The other uses punctuation to clarify the meaning of a sentence by illuminating its underlying structure. Each school believes that the other gets carried away. It can be tense and kind of silly, like the argument among theologians about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. How many commas can fit into a sentence by Herman Melville? Or, closer to home, into a sentence from The New Yorker?
Even something as ostensibly simple as the serial comma can arouse strong feelings. The serial comma is the one before “and” in a series of three or more things. With the serial comma: My favorite cereals are Cheerios, Raisin Bran, and Shredded Wheat. Without the serial comma: I used to like Kix, Trix and Wheat Chex. Proponents of the serial comma say that it is preferable because it prevents ambiguity, and I’ll go along with that. Also, I’m lazy, and I find it easier to use the serial comma consistently rather than stop every time I come to a series and register whether or not the comma before the “and” preceding the last item is actually preventing ambiguity. But pressed to come up with an example of a series that was unambiguously ambiguous without the serial comma I couldn’t think of a good one. An ambiguous series proved so elusive that I wondered whether perhaps we could do without the serial comma after all. In my office, this is heresy, but I will say it anyway and risk being shunned in the elevator: Isn’t the “and” sufficient? After all, that’s what the other commas in a series stand for: “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” A comma preceding “and” is redundant. I was at risk of becoming a comma apostate.
Fortunately, the Internet is busy with examples of series that are absurd without the serial comma:
“We invited the strippers, J.F.K. and Stalin.” (This has been illustrated online, and formed the basis of a poll: which stripper had the better outfit, J.F.K. or Stalin.)
“This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”
And there was the country-and-Western singer who was joined onstage by his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings.
“Who’s God?”Buy the print »

The bottom line is to choose one and be consistent and try not to make a moral issue out of it. Or is it? Maybe it’s better to judge each series on its merits, applying the serial comma where it’s needed and suppressing it where it’s not. Many newspapers, both American and British, do not use the serial comma, which underscores the idea that the news is meant to be read fast, in the dead-tree version or on the screen, because it’s not news for long. It’s ephemeral. Print—or, rather, text—should be streamlined and unencumbered. Maybe the day is coming when the newsfeed-style three dots (ellipsis) between items, like the eternal ribbon of news circling the building at One Times Square, will dominate, and all text will look like Céline. Certainly advertising—billboards, road signs, neon—repels punctuation. Leaving out the serial comma saves time and space. The editors of Webster’s Third saved eighty pages by cutting down on commas.
But suppose you’re not in a hurry. Suppose you move your lips when you read, or pronounce every word aloud in your head, and you’re reading a Victorian novel or a history of Venice. You have plenty of time to crunch commas. If I worked for a publication that did not use the serial comma, I would adjust—convert from orthodox to reformed—but for now I remain loyal to the serial comma, because it actually does sometimes prevent ambiguity and because I’ve gotten used to the way it looks. It gives starch to the prose, and can be very effective. If a sentence were a picket fence, the serial commas would be posts at regular intervals.
The term “Oxford comma” refers to the Oxford University Press, whose house style is to use the serial comma. (The public-relations department at Oxford doesn’t insist on it, however. Presumably P.R. people see it as a waste of time and space. The serial comma is a pawn in the war between town and gown.) To call it the Oxford comma gives it a bit of class, a little snob appeal. Chances are that if you use the Oxford comma you brush the crumbs off your shirtfront before going out.
There is a fancy word for “going beyond your province”: “ultracrepidate.” So much of copy editing is about not going beyond your province. Anti-ultracrepidationism. Writers might think we’re applying rules and sticking it to their prose in order to make it fit some standard, but just as often we’re backing off, making exceptions, or at least trying to find a balance between doing too much and doing too little. A lot of the decisions you have to make as a copy editor are subjective. For instance, an issue that comes up all the time, whether to use “that” or “which,” depends on what the writer means. It’s interpretive, not mechanical—though the answer often boils down to an implicit understanding of commas.
Think of the great Dylan Thomas line “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” It’s a bit unfair to consider this as an example, because (1) it’s poetry, and we can’t all write (or drink) like Dylan Thomas, and (2) nobody remembers what comes next. It goes like this: “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / Drives my green age.” A gorgeous line. Although it is verse, and quoting any more of it would confuse the issue, it nevertheless passes the test for determining whether to use “that” or “which”: if the phrase or clause introduced by a relative pronoun—“that” or “which”—is essential to the meaning of the sentence, “that” is preferred, and it is not separated from its antecedent by a comma. Maybe some inferior poet would write, “The force which through the green fuse drives the flower” (the audience at his reading would snort), or, worse, “The force, which through the green fuse drives the flower, / Drives my green age” (this writer would never make it into print, unless he hired a good copy editor). “The force” has no meaning without “that through the green fuse.” Take it away and you are left with “The force . . . drives my green age,” leaving you to wonder, What force? Are we watching “Star Wars”? “May the Force, which through the green fuse drives the flower, be with you.” I can hear Bill Murray saying this, but not Dylan Thomas or Han Solo.
The New Yorker practices a “close” style of punctuation. Or, as E. B. White once put it, “Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.” If the sentence has an introductory clause (like this one), we separate it with a comma. But if the introductory clause follows a conjunction we don’t. We do make exceptions for “since” or “although.” If the meaning of the introductory clause is restrictive we don’t use the comma. A restrictive clause does not want to be separate from what it modifies: it wants to be one with it, to be essential to it, to identify with it totally. (She was a graduate of a school that had very high standards.) Everything else is nonrestrictive. (He graduated from another school, which would admit anyone with a pulse.)
It’s not always easy to decide what’s restrictive. That’s where judgment comes in. For instance, here is a sentence, chock-full of commas, from this magazine, that was quoted by Ben Yagoda in an online article for the Times: “Before Atwater died, of brain cancer, in 1991, he expressed regret.” Yagoda wrote, “No other publication would put a comma after ‘died’ or ‘cancer.’ The New Yorker does so because otherwise (or so the thinking goes), the sentence would suggest that Atwater died multiple times and of multiple causes.” He added, “That is nutty, of course.” The Times—along with Yagoda, who teaches journalism—prefers an “open” style of punctuation, where the words stream together and every phrase or clause is of equal moment, leaving the reader to figure it out. Some readers are especially proud of their ability to figure it out and like to write letters of complaint and, put, a, comma, after, every, word, to show us the error of our ways.
Secretly, I wondered if I agreed with Yagoda. Once, when I was collating a Gould proof, I had the unsettling thought “What if Eleanor ever loses it?” What if all these commas and hyphens and subtleties of usage prove to be the products of a benign delusion? That was during the Reagan Administration, when many of us suspected that Reagan had some form of dementia, but no one could do anything about it. The country was running on automatic. What if that was the case with Eleanor and The New Yorker? She was getting old, and she went deaf in her later years, so she was tragically isolated from the sounds of speech that were represented in the words she groomed. There was not a single thing anyone would be able to do about it. No one would enter the copy department and say to Eleanor, “Drop the pencil and step away from the desk.” We were in her thrall, as the nation was in Reagan’s thrall. I jumped up and went to a colleague’s office and said, “What if Eleanor goes crazy?” From the expression on her face—“You’re only figuring this out now?”—I knew that we were all well advanced down the path.
Having been teased in the Times about New Yorker commas, I took a good, hard look at the magazine’s policy, and I persuaded myself that in fact these commas were not indiscriminate. They marked off segments of the sentence that were not germane to the meaning. The point of the sentence Yagoda had chosen for mild ridicule, as I pointed out in an online response, is that Atwater expressed regret before he died. What he died of and when he died of it are both extra details that the author, Jane Mayer, provides only to satisfy the reader’s curiosity. They aren’t essential to the meaning of the sentence. They are nonrestrictive.
A while later, a reader wrote in objecting to the commas in this opening sentence of a piece by Marc Fisher: “When I was in high school, at Horace Mann, in the Bronx, in the nineteen-seventies, everyone took pride in the brilliant eccentricity of our teachers.” The gist of that sentence is that at Horace Mann students enjoyed interacting with their crazy teachers. But if all you see when you read it is the commas, you miss that. Close punctuation is not meant as a guide to stops and starts, like Dickens’s and Melville’s commas. The New Yorker isn’t asking you to pause and gasp for breath at every comma. That’s not what close punctuation is about. The commas are marking a thoughtful subordination of information. I really don’t see how any of them could be done without. The writer went to only one high school, a very special, one-of-a-kind private school that happened to be in the Bronx, and the time that he went there was the nineteen-seventies. None of that is particularly interesting except in the context of a piece that promises to be about the bond between students and teachers. The punctuation is almost like Braille, providing a kind of bas-relief, accentuating the topography of the sentence. It looks choppy, but you don’t have to chop it up when you read it. It is Aldo Manuzio’s comma taken to its logical extreme. It’s not insane—it’s not even nutty. It’s just showing what’s important in the sentence in a subtle way. Another publication would let you figure it out for yourself. And, if that’s what you want, you can always read some other magazine.
In the summer of 2013, in New Haven, where I had gone for the wedding of a friend, I picked up a copy of “Light Years,” by James Salter. I started it in an old hotel, the Duncan, feeling slightly sad that I had never gotten to go to Yale.
“Light Years” is about a marriage, its surface—an enviable round of dinner parties and indulgent Christmas projects (the daughters of the house actually have a pony) in a picture-postcard setting within commuting distance of Manhattan—and its coming apart from underneath. James Salter is a pen name; the writer’s name is James Horowitz. His other novels include “A Sport and a Pastime” and “All That Is.” The New Yorker staff writer Nick Paumgarten had recently written a long piece about him, and there was so much buzz about it in the office that I read it on my own time.
This was my first taste of James Salter himself, and his prose is exquisite, so well groomed that I was surprised to come to a sentence with what I considered a superfluous comma: “Eve was across the room in a thin, burgundy dress that showed the faint outline of her stomach.” It stopped me. Usage guides say that if you can substitute “and” for the comma it belongs there. I gave James Salter the “and” test, and “thin and burgundy” did not pass. If this had crossed my desk, I would have taken the comma out and made it “a thin burgundy dress.”
The logic behind this rule is that the two adjectives are not coördinate: they do not belong to the same order. One adjective (“burgundy”) clings more tenaciously to the noun (“dress”) than the other (“thin”). Bryan Garner, the expert in American usage, offers another test: reverse the order of the adjectives. Would you ever say “a burgundy, thin dress”? I wouldn’t.
I wondered whether this was the author’s comma or whether it had slipped past the copy editor. I doubted that it was something a copy editor would add. This edition of “Light Years” was typographically flawless. Was it possible that the comma was retained at the author’s insistence? Consider the context: “Eve was across the room in a thin, burgundy dress that showed the faint outline of her stomach.” Was the author trying to emphasize the thinness of the fabric in order to linger over the “faint outline” of her stomach? If so, I thought he was misguided, not to say lecherous. (Her name is Eve: she’s obviously a temptress.) But was I going to let a superfluous comma prevent me from enjoying a good read? It didn’t stop me in Dickens, and it wouldn’t stop me in Salter. I persisted.
I was not completely impartial. “Light Years” had an introduction by Richard Ford, whose work I once tried to take a comma out of. The offending comma followed the word “So” at the beginning of a line of dialogue, and Ford preferred to retain it. The choice of Richard Ford for the introduction suggested to me that James Salter, like Richard Ford, might be stubborn about his punctuation. He might be one of the “ear” guys, the ones who think they have to orchestrate each sentence.
Then it happened again: “She smiled that stunning, wide smile.” The phrase “stunning and wide” doesn’t make it for me, and neither does “wide and stunning” (although I would have read right over “wide, stunning smile”). The narrator has already remarked on the wideness of the character’s smile (hence the “that” in “that stunning, wide smile”) and is intensifying its attractiveness at the second reference. “Stunning” qualifies the wide smile. Adjectives not coördinate. No comma.
Again: “It was as if they were aboard ship: some old, island steamer.” An “island steamer” is a kind of boat. There is no danger of someone’s misreading the phrase as a steamer from “some old island.”
And another nautical reference: “The ship was enormous . . . the vastness of its black, stained side overwhelmed them.” This comma seems to be trying to repel a hyphen hovering between “black” and “stained.” It is not a “black-stained side” but a black side, stained: a black stained side.
It’s not that these four extraneous (to my ear) commas diminished my enjoyment of the book, but I did stop and wonder where they came from, the author or the editor, and whether there was any discussion about them. James Salter clearly has a sharp ear and a fine eye. His pen name evokes the word “psalter” while suggesting earthiness. In doing without a hyphen in the title “Light Years” (Webster’s spells it “light-year”), he cubes the meaning: carefree years, seen from an astronomical distance. Just for balance, here is one of his finest commas: “He sailed on the France in the noisy, sad afternoon.” Sad and noisy, noisy and sad. “Noisy” is especially effective because it evokes “nausea,” from the Greek for “seasickness.” Could a writer so sensitive to language have a thing for kinky punctuation?
It was enough to make me doubt my comma sense. Some days, “thin and burgundy” sounded just fine. At work, coming to the phrase “a stout, middle-aged woman,” I automatically started to pluck the comma out and then became unsure. “Stout and middle-aged”? I don’t think so. “Middle-aged and stout”? Definitely not. Wasn’t it the same as “a fat old lady”? “Fat and old”? “Old and fat”? An old fat lady? “An old fat lady” suggests that the fat lady in the circus is being hounded out of her job by an ambitious new fat lady, at which point she will become just another fat old lady. I was driving myself mad.
I decided to write to James Salter and ask him about his commas. He wrote back:
“I sometimes ignore the rules about commas although generally I follow convention and adhere to the advice in Strunk and White. Punctuation is for clarity and also emphasis, but I also feel that, if the writing warrants it, punctuation can contribute to the music and rhythm of the sentences. You don’t get permission for this, of course; you take the liberty.”
When a writer who is not a poet invokes rhythm, copy editors often exchange looks. But Salter went on to describe the reasoning behind each of the commas in question. As I had suspected, with the comma in “Eve was across the room in a thin, burgundy dress that showed the faint outline of her stomach,” he was trying to emphasize the contours of the stomach under the dress. “It wasn’t a thin burgundy dress,” he wrote. “It was a thin dress, burgundy in color. I wanted the reader to be aware of the thinness. So you are right. The copy editor probably marked out the comma, and I wrote stet.” He was doing the same thing with “stunning, wide smile,” trying to control the impact of the “stunning” by smacking it with a comma as one would put English on a cue ball. Of my next example, he wrote, “I suppose that there’s no chance of a reader thinking it’s an old island, but I felt an instant of hesitation about old and island as I read the words and wanted to eliminate that.” For this reader, the comma added rather than eliminated the hesitation. As for the last, he wrote, “I think black stained side is too loose. It’s not, as you say, black-stained, but black and also stained. The comma fixes that.” Though Manuzio invented the comma in order to separate parts of a sentence, it can tie words together as efficiently as it keeps them apart.
Some would scoff at these explanations, but I am grateful for them, even if Salter does have some untoward ideas about what you can do with commas and imputes to them a power that verges on magic. The writer is not always the best judge of his own effects, but at least he’s thinking about them. The comma does not fix everything. Sometimes it gets in the way. Salter ended his letter with a recommendation for further reading: “The commas are better in ‘A Sport and a Pastime.’ ”
While in graduate school in Vermont, I decided I should learn how cars worked. I wanted to be self-reliant. I drove a ’65 Plymouth Fury II, in dark blue-green. It had a huge expanse of windshield, which was great for scenic drives and winter sunsets, and a V-8 engine, which meant nothing to me. I knew how to pump gas and check the oil and change a flat tire, but that was about it. My father, a fireman, had discouraged me from learning anything about the workings of the internal-combustion engine. When I said I wanted to learn how cars worked, he said, “It’s easy. I’ll tell you everything you need to know. You put the key in the ignition and you turn it.”
Thanks, Dad. To his credit, he had also advised me to cultivate a mechanic at a local gas station. But out in the Vermont countryside there were no gas stations—just a pump at Marble’s Store, where you could leave the keys in the car and Marble would move it if it was in the way. So I registered for an adult-education class in auto mechanics one night a week at the local high school. On the first night, the auto-mechanics teacher used a word I had never understood the meaning of: “gasket.” I had blown one once, on a friend’s car, driving too fast on hair-raising canyon roads in Utah, and I knew that it cost a lot to replace, and the car was never the same. (Sorry!) Now, at last, I was going to find out what a gasket was. So I raised my hand and asked, “What’s a gasket?” The teacher, who looked like a used-car salesman, defined “gasket” by using three other words that I didn’t know the meaning of: “crankcase,” “pistons,” “carburetor.” I’m still not sure what a gasket is.
Grammar also has some intimidating terms, and grammarians throw them around constantly, but you don’t need to know them in order to use the language. E. B. White once said that before working on “The Elements of Style” he was the kind of writer who did not have “any exact notion of what is taking place under the hood.” You notice a gasket only when someone blows it. To understand how the language works, though—to master the mechanics of it—you have to roll up your sleeves and join the ink-stained wretches as we name the parts. But if that doesn’t work for you, just put the key in the ignition and turn it. 

Source: The New Yorker

February 23, 2015

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Obama Administration Opens Door for More Student-Debt Forgiveness

By Josh Mitchell

June 8, 2015 1:30 p.m. ET

The Obama administration said it would forgive federal student loans owed by Americans who can show they were lured to colleges by fraudulent recruiting, a move that potentially could involve billions of dollars and is one of the most aggressive measures yet to ease student debt.

The move, announced Monday, is designed first of all to help former students of Corinthian Colleges Inc., a big for-profit chain that collapsed into bankruptcy reorganization this spring. Federal officials accused the company in 2014 of lying to prospective students about its graduates’ job success.
Among the most egregious allegations, officials accused Corinthian-owned schools of paying temp agencies to hire its graduates for as short a time as two days so they could count as employed. One campus counted a 2011 accounting major as being employed in her field of study based on her job as a food-service worker at a Taco Bell, the Education Department said.
Corinthian officials didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The forgiveness push, though, would reach far beyond Corinthian and even the for-profit school sector.
Officials said that under the emerging plan, the government will consider forgiving any loans made directly by the government—those held by the majority of the 43 million Americans with student debt—so long as the borrower can document a school persuaded him or her to take out the loan under conditions that would violate state laws.
The Education Department plans to use a provision of a decades-old federal law that allows borrowers to have loans discharged if they can prove their schools broke a state law—such as by using false advertising or other deception—to lure them to apply and borrow funds.
Federal officials acknowledged the potentially high cost of the policy. In the case of Corinthian alone, the Education Department said 350,000 Americans who owe roughly $3.5 billion in loans could be eligible for forgiveness. In all, Americans owe more than $1.2 trillion in outstanding student debt.
Federal officials declined to disclose the potential total amount of loans that could be eligible for forgiveness.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a conference call with reporters that the administration is “determined to crack down on colleges that leave students with huge debt, worthless degrees and few job prospects.”
Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell said the agency realized the move could invite applications from across higher education, whether from community college students or law-school graduates. The agency said it would hire a “special master” to figure out many of the details, including what standards the department should use to determine whether a school had violated state law. The department also would likely hire additional personnel to handle the applications.
“The law is clear about giving students redress when they’ve been defrauded,” Mr. Mitchell said. “We think that while there may be a significant cost to that, this is a right that students have under the law.”
The plan comes after months of demonstrations from former Corinthian students and pressure from some Democratic members of Congress, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Some of the former students organized a “debt strike”—refusing to make payments on their loans—as they pressured policy makers to forgive their debt.
Critics of the plan said it would spur a flood of false claims from borrowers who simply don’t want to repay. The plan comes as costs linked to the administration’s earlier efforts to reduce student-debt burdens are surging, such as a program to set borrowers’ monthly payments at a small share of their incomes, while also promising to forgive some of the debt after 10 or 20 years of on-time payments.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.), chairman of the Senate committee on education policy, said the new measure would establish a bad precedent by punishing taxpayers for actions taken by colleges. “If your car is a lemon you don’t sue the bank that made the auto loan; you sue the car company,” he said in a statement. He added that he would seek legislation this year to “address the right way” to help students who were defrauded.
Andrew Kelly, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, said the administration’s action “opens up a potentially massive liability to taxpayers.”
“The slope gets really slippery pretty quickly,” Mr. Kelly said. “There’s so much room here for interpretation on the part of the department. At the very least it’s going to open up this enormous burden on Department of Education staffers, many of whom will become full-time adjudicators of loan forgiveness claims.”
The department made clear the move is designed to crack down on for-profit colleges, which represents a small share of higher education but a large share of student-loan defaults.
Mr. Duncan, the education secretary, said Corinthian won’t be the last company to come under close government scrutiny. “There may be more,” he said.
Various arms of the federal government have become more aggressive in pursuing for-profit schools for misrepresentations. Ashworth College, an online college based in Norcross, Ga., agreed late last month to settle Federal Trade Commission allegations that the school misrepresented how well it prepared students for certain vocational licenses and whether students could transfer credits from Ashworth to other schools.
Meanwhile, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced in May that it had brought fraud charges against ITT Educational Services Inc. and two of its top executives, alleging they misled investors about the financial prospects of some internal student-loan programs.
A number of state lawmakers also have been investigating for-profit colleges for years, alleging they oversold students on their programs’ educational value.
—Melissa Korn contributed to this article.
Write to Josh Mitchell at

Posted in Debt, Department of Education, Education, forgiveness, Student Loans

Sluggish wages, more freelancers, lots of part-timers limit US economic might

Job Market Less Bang For The Buck-1.jpg

In this April 22, 2015 photo, Ralph Logan, general manager of Microtrain, left, speaks with James Smith who is seeking employment during a National Career Fairs job fair in Chicago. The U.S. economy is churning out a lot of jobs but not a lot of financial security for many of the people who hold them. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green) (The Associated Press)

WASHINGTON –  The U.S. economy is churning out a lot of jobs these days but not a lot of financial security for many of the people who hold them.

Pay growth, though improving, remains tepid. Many workers have few opportunities to advance. Others have taken temporary, part-time or freelance jobs, with little chance of landing full-time permanent work with benefits.

As a result, many jobs don’t deliver as much economic punch as they used to. Part of the reason is that U.S. workers have grown less efficient in recent months. When they produce less per hour of work, their earnings power shrinks. So the economy doesn’t fully benefit from the fuel that healthy job growth normally provides.

The result is a disconnect between the high number of job gains and a nagging dissatisfaction among some, both job holders and job seekers.

Lena Allison lost her job as a private-school kindergarten teacher in layoffs in September. Allison, 54, of Los Angeles has since worked temp jobs and struggled to find permanent work. Online job listings, she says, have made it hard to get face-to-face interviews.

“More people may be working jobs, but they’re like these serial part-time jobs,” she said. “They’re not life-supporting jobs.”

Allison’s experiences, shared by millions of other workers, contrast with the economic momentum suggested by the May jobs report released Friday. The government added a solid 280,000 jobs. The unemployment rate ticked up slightly to 5.5 percent, but for a positive reason: More people decided to start seeking a job, and some didn’t find one.

Hiring surged in the health care, retail, construction and hospitality and leisure sectors. Many analysts and investment managers cheered as average hourly wages rose at an annual rate of 2.3 percent from 2.2 percent in April, slightly ahead of inflation.

“Not only are the labor markets stronger today than at any point in the past 20 years, but we are beginning to see the start of broad-based wage growth,” Rick Rieder, chief investment officer for fundamental fixed income at BlackRock, said in a client note.

That declaration is rooted in the economic data. But it would surprise many Americans.

Nearly half of Americans say they couldn’t afford an emergency expense of $400 without borrowing or selling something they own, according to a survey released by the Federal Reserve. A striking 60 percent of those surveyed said they expect to go without a pay raise over the next 12 months.

Ben McBratney, 25, accepted a job in tech support last month at a Chicago payments company — his third job since graduating from college with a computer science degree in 2012. He’s hopeful that this one will provide a chance for advancement.

“Each job has paid me a little less than the one before it, which is not the trajectory that I wanted,” McBratney said.

One reason the number of new jobs has stayed strong despite sluggish economic growth is that workers have grown less efficient. Lower productivity can force employers to hire more in the short run. But it also holds down pay. Higher productivity, by contrast, would enable employers to pay more without having to raise prices on their products.

But productivity — which measures output per hour worked — plunged by a 3.1 percent annual rate in the first three months of 2015 after a 2.3 percent drop in last year’s fourth quarter. It was the first time in more than eight years that productivity had fallen for two straight quarters. Productivity had expanded 2.1 percent annually, on average, since 2000.

Since the recession, companies have been slow to invest in machinery, computers and other equipment that would enable their workers to produce more.

“The concern is that there is no way to produce this many jobs in a slow economy without simultaneously having poor productivity growth,” says Douglas Holtz-Eakin, an economist and president of the conservative American Action Forum. “Over the long term, the absence of productivity growth is bad for workers and firms alike.”

Many of the jobs added since the Great Recession ended in 2009 have been part time in low-paying industries. Those jobs deliver less economic fuel. Nearly 6.7 million part-timers would prefer full-time work — a figure that’s fallen in recent years but remains far above the pre-recession level of 4.6 million.

The number of self-employed has also jumped nearly 1.6 million in the past year to 16.2 million, nearly back to pre-recession levels.

The self-employed include independent construction contractors and high-priced consultants but also freelancers who struggle to get by. Growth in those areas suggests that more Americans are cobbling together livelihoods from piecemeal work.

MBO Partners, which provides business services to independent workers, calculates that the number of freelancers rose to 17.9 million last year from 15.9 million in 2011. CEO Gene Zaino says the desire of companies to limit costs is driving a shift toward contract and freelance work.

“Rather than hiring people, there’s a very strong inclination to get work done on a project basis,” he said. New online platforms that link freelancers with projects have facilitated the process.

Many freelancers value the flexibility. But such jobs provide few or no benefits and require independent workers to track and pay taxes on their own. A report by Congress’ Government Accountability Office found that independent workers endure greater job instability and lower incomes than full-time permanent workers.

Source: AP


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Posted in Economy, Freelancer, GAO, Statistics, wages

Why I Defaulted on My Student Loans

JUNE 6, 2015

ONE late summer afternoon when I was 17, I went with my mother to the local bank, a long-defunct institution whose name I cannot remember, to apply for my first student loan. My mother co-signed. When we finished, the banker, a balding man in his late 50s, congratulated us, as if I had just won some kind of award rather than signed away my young life.

By the end of my sophomore year at a small private liberal arts college, my mother and I had taken out a second loan, my father had declared bankruptcy and my parents had divorced. My mother could no longer afford the tuition that the student loans weren’t covering. I transferred to a state college in New Jersey, closer to home.

Years later, I found myself confronted with a choice that too many people have had to and will have to face. I could give up what had become my vocation (in my case, being a writer) and take a job that I didn’t want in order to repay the huge debt I had accumulated in college and graduate school. Or I could take what I had been led to believe was both the morally and legally reprehensible step of defaulting on my student loans, which was the only way I could survive without wasting my life in a job that had nothing to do with my particular usefulness to society.

I chose life. That is to say, I defaulted on my student loans.

As difficult as it has been, I’ve never looked back. The millions of young people today, who collectively owe over $1 trillion in loans, may want to consider my example.

It struck me as absurd that one could amass crippling debt as a result, not of drug addiction or reckless borrowing and spending, but of going to college. Having opened a new life to me beyond my modest origins, the education system was now going to call in its chits and prevent me from pursuing that new life, simply because I had the misfortune of coming from modest origins.

Am I a deadbeat? In the eyes of the law I am. Indifferent to the claim that repaying student loans is the road to character? Yes. Blind to the reality of countless numbers of people struggling to repay their debts, no matter their circumstances, many worse than mine? My heart goes out to them. To my mind, they have learned to live with a social arrangement that is legal, but not moral.

Maybe the problem was that I had reached beyond my lower-middle-class origins and taken out loans to attend a small private college to begin with. Maybe I should have stayed at a store called The Wild Pair, where I once had a nice stable job selling shoes after dropping out of the state college because I thought I deserved better, and naïvely tried to turn myself into a professional reader and writer on my own, without a college degree. I’d probably be district manager by now.

Or maybe, after going back to school, I should have gone into finance, or some other lucrative career. Self-disgust and lifelong unhappiness, destroying a precious young life — all this is a small price to pay for meeting your student loan obligations.

Some people will maintain that a bankrupt father, an impecunious background and impractical dreams are just the luck of the draw. Someone with character would have paid off those loans and let the chips fall where they may. But I have found, after some decades on this earth, that the road to character is often paved with family money and family connections, not to mention 14 percent effective tax rates on seven-figure incomes.

Moneyed stumbles never seem to have much consequence. Tax fraud, insider trading, almost criminal nepotism — these won’t knock you off the straight and narrow. But if you’re poor and miss a child-support payment, or if you’re middle class and default on your student loans, then God help you.

Forty years after I took out my first student loan, and 30 years after getting my last, the Department of Education is still pursuing the unpaid balance. My mother, who co-signed some of the loans, is dead. The banks that made them have all gone under. I doubt that anyone can even find the promissory notes. The accrued interest, combined with the collection agencies’ opulent fees, is now several times the principal.

Even the Internal Revenue Service understands the irrationality of pursuing someone with an unmanageable economic burden. It has a program called Offer in Compromise that allows struggling people who have fallen behind in their taxes to settle their tax debt.

The Department of Education makes it hard for you, and ugly. But it is possible to survive the life of default. You might want to follow these steps: Get as many credit cards as you can before your credit is ruined. Find a stable housing situation. Pay your rent on time so that you have a good record in that area when you do have to move. Live with or marry someone with good credit (preferably someone who shares your desperate nihilism).

When the fateful day comes, and your credit looks like a war zone, don’t be afraid. The reported consequences of having no credit are scare talk, to some extent. The reliably predatory nature of American life guarantees that there will always be somebody to help you, from credit card companies charging stratospheric interest rates to subprime loans for houses and cars. Our economic system ensures that so long as you are willing to sink deeper and deeper into debt, you will keep being enthusiastically invited to play the economic game.

I am sharply aware of the strongest objection to my lapse into default. If everyone acted as I did, chaos would result. The entire structure of American higher education would change.

The collection agencies retained by the Department of Education would be exposed as the greedy vultures that they are. The government would get out of the loan-making and the loan-enforcement business. Congress might even explore a special, universal education tax that would make higher education affordable.

There would be a national shaming of colleges and universities for charging soaring tuition rates that are reaching lunatic levels. The rapacity of American colleges and universities is turning social mobility, the keystone of American freedom, into a commodified farce.

If people groaning under the weight of student loans simply said, “Enough,” then all the pieties about debt that have become absorbed into all the pieties about higher education might be brought into alignment with reality. Instead of guaranteeing loans, the government would have to guarantee a college education. There are a lot of people who could learn to live with that, too.

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