Month: July 2015

ABA Task Force Dodges Student Debt Reform

Oh you knew I would not ignore the results of the ABA Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education. It was a long time in coming, but it required a careful read. My review is at The American Lawyer.

I would’ve told y’all sooner, but I just got back from vacation, which got an extension thanks to a thunderstorm in New York grounding planes in Chicago. Grr.

Office of Management and Budget: +$1.4 Trillion in Direct Loans by 2025

Projected Direct Loan Balances (OMB, Billions Current $)

(Source: OMB FY2016 Mid-Session Review (pdf))

…But we all knew it was going to say that. Also, that number includes other loan programs that aren’t student loans, but those aren’t nearly as big.

The good news, though, is that the actual amount of direct loans keeps coming in below the projections. Here’re the estimates from the mid-session reviews since FY2010 against the actual.

Direct Loan Balance Projections (OMB Billions Current $)

The FY2010 estimate was $161 billion more for 2014 than turned out to be the case. This variance implies that the government is overestimating future direct lending. It isn’t much, but it’s something to keep track of.

I should add that in general the OMB predicts that direct loan debt will even out at about 9 percent of GDP.

LSTB Site Update: Blog Inversion

Sometime this spring The Law School Tuition Bubble concluded its fifth year. (I’m not going to bother looking up when exactly.) I started the site in 2010 to keep my mostly unemployed mind from atrophying into a Tetris and music-addled pulp.

And wow did I succeed!

I’m certain that I learned more in the four years after I began writing than in the four years I spent in law school and grad school. Yet, despite what I say about the “human capital” or “signaling” models of higher education, I acknowledge that those former years did set the foundation for my personal intellectual journey.

But back in 2010 I didn’t believe it would become a moral journey as well, notably my discovery of Henry George and similar thinkers who envision a society that promises true freedom without the sacrifices everyone else says are necessary.

Consequently, my writing has outgrown law school tuition per the site’s title, but I think moving the whole show to a new blog would disserve my readers, to say nothing of everyone who has graciously linked to or cited my work here. Additionally, it’s well known that the best way to maintain a constant Web presence is to never ever change a single URL.

To those ends—and to cleave to the themes I write on—I think it would be best to invert this site. Just as U.S. corporations avoid our deadweight income taxes by merging into foreign companies, going forward The Law School Tuition Bubble will “host” my new blog, The Last Gen X American, which is inspired by the “Late Gen X Nostalgia” tag I use with usually off-topic posts. I am also taking the domain, which will link back here to both redirect confused readers and symbolize the land hoarding that George excoriated.

As for the topics I will cover, they will be largely the same. The only difference is that I will feel less out of position blogging about Georgism, music, Vox‘s armchair comparative politics, or even horse racing. I will, naturally, continue writing about law school and student debt, since I know that stuff cold.

All you, cherished reader, need to do is stick around, listen to my music recommendations, artfully disagree with my weak points, and laugh at my jokes. Peace be with you and take care.

-Matt Leichter

Steel Links

Haven’t done a links post in a while, but there are a few things worth writing about in brief.

Allison Schrager, “Becoming a Doctor or Lawyer Is Still Worth It,” Quartz, July 14, 2015.

Of course, that doesn’t mean going to law school is still worth it because, of course, the article carefully points out that not all law school graduates work in high-paying professional jobs and lawyers have a notably high attrition rate.

Wait, it didn’t point that out? Oops. Then maybe we shouldn’t be saying that the return to law school is so high. (I should add that the underlying paper at least discusses this.)

Molly Hensley-Clancy, “LegalZoom Wants to Be ‘The Good Guys’ in the Shady World of Student Debt Relief,” BuzzFeed, July 6, 2015.

Fun fact: BuzzFeed does investigative reporting. I’m happy to serve it a compliment. What it found is that everyone’s favorite legal disruptive innovator is making money by … charging federal student loan debtors $700 to sign them on to income-sensitive repayment plans. Which they can do for free on their own. LegalZoom swears it’s informing borrowers of that fact, but that’s not what happened when BuzzFeed‘s reporter called in posing as a debtor. (Yes, really. This is what journalists are supposed to do.)

Did I mention that a couple weeks ago New York’s Student Protection Unit shut down a financial services company for charging student debtors money for signing them onto IBR plans without telling them they could do so for free? Did I also mention it paid a $10,000 fine? Does anyone call these companies legal disruptive innovators?

Now, to editorialize: If you couldn’t tell, I think LegalZoom’s impact is hyped, UPL or not. It’s quite possible that it makes money by (a) offering services lawyers wouldn’t charge for, as in the above case, or (b) serving clients for legal issues they might not bother going to a lawyer for anyway, e.g. a no-income, no-asset, few creditors, chapter 7 bankruptcy filing. Neither of these activities takes business from traditional lawyers.

In fact, in 2014 30 percent of LegalZoom’s revenue came from subscription fees, meaning it wasn’t selling actual legal services. Also, one of its biggest sources of revenue appears to be incorporation documents for California businesses. Perhaps it offers needed services, but consumer regulators need to catch up with it.

Gainful Employment Rule Post

Yeah, this link is for me. Because readers forwarded around my post applying the Gainful Employment rule to all law schools, I went back and updated it so that the table showed only the results from the total income test. I figure in case researchers want to cite it or replicate my results, they’ll have an easier time understanding what I was doing. I realized that the results of both tests produce the equivalent number, so even if a law schools’ graduates’ discretionary incomes are lower, the table now shows the equivalent income graduates would need to be making. I didn’t update the post’s text, so bear that in mind.

Expert Institute’s Best Legal Blog Contest

A generous reader has nominated the LSTB for the Expert Institute’s Best Legal Blog Contest. You can read about it here. As ever, I am grateful to you, my readers, for your support.


…Is what I think about now whenever someone brings up the economics of Star Trek. For those unfamiliar, the title refers to a character from Star Trek: The Next Generation, Tasha Yar, who grew up on a politically collapsed colony populated by … rape gangs! Think Mad Max only ham-fisted. It’s also a reference to the 2007 combined tour of the bands Ifihadahifi and Replicator, “IfIHadARepliTour.” Yup, a show I never saw was so memorably named it stuck in my head for eight years.

Today’s “Economics of Star Trek” adventure appears courtesy of The New York Times, “A ‘Star Trek’ Future Might Be Closer Than We Think.” Reporting on the upcoming book Trekonomics– I know, I know, I hear you groaning in agony at your screens.

Okay, so the Times interviewed one of the authors and claimed:

When everything is free, said Mr. Saadia, objects will no longer be status symbols. Success will be measured in achievements, not in money: “You need to build up your reputation, you need to be a fantastic person, you need to be the captain.” People will work hard to reach those goals, even though they don’t need a paycheck to live.

Wrong. When you have teleporters—and set aside the obvious philosophical issues of voluntarily walking into a disintegrator beam so a duplicate of yourself can be incarnated somewhere else—you will have crime, mass terrorism, mayhem, and social collapse. Come on folks, show a little realism about human motivation.

So, now that we’ve dismissed the subject on the merits, we can pick it for less entertaining reasons. Let’s look at Star Trek without transporters. Would objects no longer be status symbols? Would people live to work and not work to live? Would we have … “post-scarcity”?

Hardly. We’d squabble over all the stuff that we can’t replicate, just like today. That’s the rub with productivity: There isn’t a whole lot of difference between mass-producing stuff cheaply versus for free. However, stuff that can’t be produced or easily substituted, i.e. positional goods, won’t disappear. This is precisely why I believe the concept is so important and write about it so frequently. Indeed, Trekonomics‘ author’s assertion that everyone needs to be the captain proves my point and discredits his: We can’t all be the captain. Someone will need to clean up replicator spills, so the future looks more like Red Dwarf than Star Trek.

Consequently, you’re going to need to produce something more substantial than menial labor to afford the location costs to live in San Francisco, Star Trek‘s preferred Earth location. But if the landowners of Trek can get everything they want for free, then we’re back to the robots-substituting-for-workers problem that I’ve addressed before.

And don’t waste your time arguing that people can always leave Earth for more space. That’s just kicking the can forward and ignoring the fact that even when land is free, poverty still exists in urban centers. Henry George observed this in the 1870s (and he cut his chops in San Francisco). At some point, “post-scarcity” stories only work if you tap location values. Nothing less will do.

Ultimately, “Economics of Star Trek” discussions raise two questions. One is concerned with filling the gaps created by the showrunners’ (mis)understandings of political economy, and the other is applying existing social science knowledge to the show. The first question disserves the show. It’s aspiration, not social theory. The second question, going by the author’s quotations, still needs work. We’re a long way from the characters chatting about how in the 21st century people actually believed consumption taxes were a good idea.

Oh, and since I’m talking about Ifihadahifi, here’s its Scott Walker protest song:

LSAT Tea-Leaf Reading: June 2015 Edition

Make that three administrations in a row that the number of LSATs has risen, so no broken records and pop music jokes. Cast your eyes in horror:

No. LSAT Takers, 4-Testing Period Moving Sum

23,238 people took the LSAT in June 2015, raising the four-testing-period moving sum to 103,124 (+1.4%). Maybe it won’t fall below 100,000 after all.

In other surprising news, the number of law school applicants is … about the same as last year.

No. Applicants Over App Cycle

No. Applications Over App Cycle

It appears going to law school is becoming a thing again—at least later in the application cycle. Color me baffled as to why this is. A year ago, I predicted the bottom had not been reached, but maybe I was mistaken. Still, I’m left with two thoughts. One, is this just random noise or is it evidence of success for the now-is-the-best-time-to-go-to-law-school-ever crowd? Two if so, will we see change in the distribution of applications as opposed to change in the total number of applicants? More people applying to elite law schools that aren’t hurting while continued problems for those lower down.

I have some thoughts on how to test those hypotheses, but that’ll wait for another time.

Brooklyn Law School Building Might Sell for 7 Times Assessed Value

Readers might recall a year and a half ago the glee with which I reported that Brooklyn Law School sold a number of its buildings for triple their assessed values. It’s unusual that I can discuss legal education and land values at the same time, so when the opportunity presents, I pounce like a lion.

Yesterday, the New York Daily News contributed a sequel to the story: BLS plans to sell a “prime Brooklyn Heights” building, the 39-unit 2 Pierrepont Street. The sale hasn’t occurred yet, but the figure being thrown around behind the scenes, according to the article, is $30 million.

…Which shouldn’t be at all surprising. As former Brooklynite, I can tell you that Brooklyn Heights is absolutely gorgeous. Catastrophically under-built given its proximity to lower Manhattan, but absolutely gorgeous.

As one might expect, the assessed value of the 2 Pierrepont St. parcel is a laughable $3.88 million, even though BLS paid just $2.2 million to acquire it back in the 1980s. Thus, the alleged asking price is nearly 8 times the assessed value, strongly implying that the property is absurdly under-assessed. Given the location’s value, the article suggests the building will either be torn down or transformed into condos. Those BLS students never realized how good they had it, and they’ll probably never live in such an expensive neighborhood again.

As with last year’s post, the joke is on New York City. Because BLS is a nonprofit it can play land speculator while only being asked to pay $10,000 to the city after lopping off its full bill for “faculty and student housing.” Hopefully NYC will get more from 2 Pierrepont Street’s successors. The law school, though, is cashing in.


Appendix: 2 Pierrepont Street’s assessment and tax bill:

Notice of Property Value–2 Pierrepont St

Property Tax Bill Quarterly Statement–2 Pierrepont St

Sign of Progress: Good NYT Article on Property Taxes

Sadly, I have to be quick as my work-week starts this lovely Sunday.

There are many accurate and persuasive points in Josh Barro’s, “The Inevitable, Indispensable Property Tax.” Notably, the author discusses the stability of the property tax base as opposed to the income or sales tax bases, which diminish more rapidly in economic downturns. But there are a few points deserving criticism.

But economists like property taxes for the same reason taxpayers hate them: They’re hard to avoid.

I’ve never seen a survey of economists asking them which taxes they like and why. Technically, their opinions only matter due to the weight we’d give them as experts. It’s the arguments for or against them that are more important, but I’d wager they prefer income taxes because like everyone else their minds have been poisoned by income tax ideology. Additionally, I believe taxpayers hate taxes other people can evade rather than ones they can’t evade themselves.

Indeed, despite pointing out that property taxes fall in part on land, which doesn’t disappear when taxed, Barro writes:

Sales tax, which falls disproportionately on the poor, is what economists call regressive. Property tax is often perceived as regressive, but because wealthy people own much more property than poor people do, it is more progressive than sales tax, though not as progressive as income tax.

See what I mean? No reason is given.

Why should a tax on wealth be seen as more regressive than a tax on incomes? Most people’s “incomes” are their labor earnings, and taxes on those discourag work, as the author observes. Another portion of “income” is capital gains, but much of that is land values that are baked into financial assets. (Buildings almost never appreciate.) To the extent that’s progressive, it’s because it’s a circuitous property tax.

Meanwhile, as the earlier quote on which taxes economists like suggests, property taxes are often characterized as a tax only homeowners pay. Far from it: landowning businesses large and small (but not nonprofits) pay them too. The most valuable real estate is in urban centers, often large buildings. This explains why corporations so enthusiastically invert themselves to Ireland or other countries with low corporate income tax rates. Most homeowners can’t get away with that.

It’s dicta, but if you don’t believe me read the article’s comments: income taxism gone rabid.

Finally, in passing, Barro adds:

In rare cases, property taxes can get so high that they encourage people to abandon their property (see Detroit).

I’ve never seen evidence that property taxes destroyed Detroit, implying landowners deeded their properties to the city rather than pay the tax. I doubt this is true.