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Liberal Media Is Desperate to Prove That Student Debt Is a Huge Problem

The backlash against David Leonhardt's New York Times column may be unwarranted

David McNew/Getty

On Tuesday, David Leonhardt published a column in The New York Times about a new study from the Brookings Institution that suggests that concerns about rising levels of student debt have been overblown.

Choire Sicha (who has edited and published me at The Awl) quickly published a post criticizing the column’s spin and attacking the Brookings study, which he called “garbage.” In left-leaning media circles on Twitter, his post was widely shared with great enthusiasm, and it remains the most popular post on The Awl as of this writing. Everywhere I turned on Twitter, victory was declared for Sicha’s perspective: Student debt is a massive crisis and don’t let Brookings or the Times tell you any different.

Maria Bustillos tweeted:

Michelle Dean of Gawker mocked the Times column for being credulous about the study:

Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times:

Heidi Moore of the Guardian:

Katrina vanden Heuvel of the Nation pronounced the post a "good critique."

Maura Johnston's tweet was retweeted 56 times:

I found all this depressing and a little scary. Without taking on Sicha's claims one by one—because my point here is not really about student debt—let’s reason our way through what is happening here.

Sicha's post presents itself as a thorough dismantling of the study that forms the entire premise of The New York Times column. If you were to approach the piece with no ideological baggage, you might notice that if we accept all of Sicha's criticisms as sound, we are required to also accept that David Leonhardt published a column without noticing the totally corrupt methodology of the study he was writing about. One of Sicha's significant allegations is that the sample size of the study is not sufficient to draw broad conclusions. If that were true, it would be a really egregious and basic error on the part of the Brookings Institution, and ipso facto the column would represent an egregious and basic lapse on the part of Leonhardt, his editors, and The New York Times. You do not have to be an expert on the topic to find this pretty implausible. It is possible, yes, but just on its face, consider how unlikely it is. And all it took was a look at the methodology! 

Pretty soon, Freddie deBoer, who knows more about student debt and statistics than I do, came along and pointed out some serious problems with Sicha's critique. For instance, he says that relative to the prevailing norms, the Brookings sample size "isn’t just big, it’s enormous.” DeBoer is not an ideological opponent of Sicha's on this issue, really. Like Leonhardt, deBoer thinks student debt is a big problem; he just also wants to note the evidence that suggests it is not the massive problem many media reports have implied. To buttress this case, he recommends an infographic published last year by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic, headlined “The Myth of the Student-Loan Crisis.” Thompson draws data, deBoer points out, not only from Brookings but from the NCES, the NBER, the BLS, Harvard, and the University of Chicago. The broad data pool is in itself a very effective rebuttal to Sicha’s post, because Sicha's primary means of attack is to criticize Brookings’ methodology. As deBoer says, maybe all theses institutions are ”in a conspiracy to underestimate this problem! But I doubt it.” There is some evidence that runs counter to deBoer's and Thompson's conclusions, but Sicha did not provide it in his celebrated post.  

My guess here is that left-leaning media types immediately and prematurely declared victory for Sicha because they want it to be true that student debt is a major league crisis—because if it is, their prior commitment to that idea will be proved correct. Moreover, sticking up for people drowning in debt puts you on the side of justice. Who wants to defend extracting interest from these young people who can’t get jobs? This is a well-known phenomenon called “motivated reasoning,” and it is visible everywhere you look. We are all prey to it. I want it to be true that the 2014 Boston Red Sox are much better than their record suggests, and I greet evidence of that notion with open arms; I avoid and have a hard time accepting the more persuasive evidence that they are actually terrible.

We ought to be on guard against this kind of thing. The student-loan issue is perhaps a particularly uncomfortable instance of the problem, because it would appear that Sicha's enthusiastic readers were unhappy to encounter evidence in the Times that student debt is manageable. They were happier to see evidence of disaster. The same unsettling tone of celebration often emerges when new facts suggest that climate change is approaching catastrophic levels. The logical endpoint of this is: “The world has spontaneously burst into flames. I WIN.”

Compare this with a decidedly muted response to news that cuts the other way. Among the same general cast of left-leaning media types I follow on Twitter, the unanimous Supreme Court ruling that warrantless searches of mobile phones are unconstitutional was greeted with a cheer that quickly died away. Everyone seems happy. But not really all that happy. A lot of people have been busy tweeting about the Aereo ruling, which is totally insignificant in comparison. If you are a supporter of the ACLU or of Occupy, if you are an opponent of law-enforcement overreach, if you have been at all alarmed by Snowden’s disclosures and by encroachments on civil liberties, the cell-phone ruling is an enormous victory. The only problem with the ruling is, it does not fit well into a narrative in which America has become a surveillance state, in which privacy is dead, in which the judiciary merely plays politics and does not check government power, in which Clarence Thomas is always wrong. If you have been utterly committed to that narrative, what do you do now? You adapt it to accommodate new facts. Adapting is hard, but there’s no good alternative.