This blog post has to do with honor and integrity. It is in response to an editorial article in the New York Times by Lee Siegel entitled: Why I Defaulted on my Student Loans.1 In his article, Siegel rationalizes that he was bamboozled into signing up for a student loan when he was 17 years old with his mother in tow to co-sign. When I first heard of this article really hit a nerve with me. My contention is that when someone has a loan or a debt, they are obligated to pay it. It is a matter of honor and integrity.
In his article, Siegel talks about the whole student loan experience in derogatory terms. He uses inflammatory words and characters. From the stereotypical “50-year old balding banker”, to the obligation he and his mother agreed to as “signing my life away”. Siegel lamented how he had come to a crossroads in his life and had to decide whether he would pay his student loans or default. He said he had decided to work as a writer, which did not, apparently, pay well enough to meet his obligations. Siegel made the choice to not take a job which would provide for sufficient money to pay his debts because he claimed he would be “wasting his life in a job which had nothing to do with [his] particular usefulness to society”.
Siegel’s article further deteriorates by recommending default to others who are in student loan debt. He continues his rant against the evil system by going on to recommend a more socialist system of funding education and escape obligations. He describes how to game the credit system by amassing a large collection of credit cards before abandoning obligations to creditors.
He’s Not Alone
Unfortunately, Mr. Siegel is not alone in his feelings against student loans. Although some may sound like they are in favor of honoring one’s obligations with article titles like Bloomberg’s The Debt Debate and What About Honor?2 , the article subtly goes on to berate the idea of honor: “At its root this (honor) is a very conservative, old-fashioned idea: A debt is a moral obligation”. The Bloomberg article goes on to complain about how the U.S. is managed with its mountain of debt and makes the logically faulty statement: “What suckers! If the nation isn’t going to pay its debts, why on earth should its citizens?”
In all of the searches of articles on the subject, most of them come back with multiple offers from Wells Fargo for more student loans and how to get out of paying debt obligations. They miss the point which seems to be lacking in these author’s writings; the basic, foundational principle of integrity.
This principle is basic to the Judeo-Christian value system which is a foundation for the western world. The bible tells of Job’s trials and his commitment: “ And the LORD said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil? and still he holdeth fast his integrity, although thou movedst me against him, to destroy him without cause?” (Job 3:3). I think Job had it a little bit worse than Mr. Siegel and he held to his commitments. Others better understand the importance of honoring commitments. John Marks Templeton was known as one of the greatest stock market minds of the 20th century: “Not paying one’s debts is a form of stealing. The creditor who extends a service is making a contract. Not paying that creditor on the agreed terms is a violation of contract. It takes another’s property without rightly restoring it in the agreed upon time” 3. I am also reminded of an address I heard several years ago about a man in an airport who was with a friend who had just sold his company for several million dollars. The multi-millionaire friend put a quarter in a newspaper machine and then started handing out newspapers to his friends. The author of the story told how he would not accept the ill-gotten newspapers and he told his friend he wouldn’t accept the paper; “for 25 cents, I can maintain my integrity”4. The friend was seen later stuffing quarters into the newspaper machine, apparently an effort to recover his dignity.
Integrity and Relationships
The foundational principle of integrity is a key element in relationships. Those who do not live their lives with integrity will find few, if any, meaningful relationships because the person on the other side will grow tired of the dishonesty. Those who do live with integrity will find multitudes of meaningful relationships because others know they can trust what the person with integrity does and says. On a broader scale, a society which does not value and practice the principle of integrity is doomed as the rest of the world will distance itself from that group and avoid interactions because of the lack of dependability which exists when integrity is lacking.
Back to our original article by Mr. Siegel; even with student loan debt topping a trillion dollars, over a hundred billion in 2010 alone 5, this does not excuse a lapse in integrity. When a person signs a contract, he should honor it. It was his choice to begin with to take that risk that he would graduate and find a job which pays enough to honor his obligation. It may require doing an unpleasant job to fulfill his contract. Just abandoning his integrity and blaming it on a plethora of other people and circumstances is not only irresponsible, it reflects in his character and the quality and quantity of relationships he will enjoy throughout his life.