Loan Forgiveness (or Why Dave Ramsey Doesn’t Know What He’s Talking About)

“Oh! You’re the student loan tweet guy!”

This is a response that I heard a lot while introducing myself to people recently at FinCon, a conference for money writers and podcasters. It’s a strange thing to be known for after spending two and a half years writing about finances without ever really touching on the topic.

That said, the tweet led to a lot of interesting conversations, both in person and on Twitter, about student loans. In particular, a lot of people were very interested in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program in which I am participating.

Some people objected to the program on financial grounds, but many raised political or policy issues.

Because of this, I thought that the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program would be a topic worth exploring during our month of politics.

A Brief Introduction

I generally build my articles around research or scientific studies. I rarely talk about my own life or situation.

This is part of why my student loan story never made it to the blog in the two and a half years that I’ve been writing. I knew a lot about my own situation and the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program but it didn’t really seem widely applicable, so I kept it to myself.

The tweet going viral showed that I was wrong and that my situation connected with a lot of people. It also showed that there are a lot of misconceptions around the idea of PSLF and public service generally.

To get there, though, I think I need to break with my standard approach and tell a bit of my story.

My Story

I graduated from college with degrees in History and Classical Humanities. (No, I don’t regret it. There is a ton of often-overlooked value to a liberal arts degree. But that is a whole different article.) At different points I contemplated routes to becoming a high school history teacher or a classics professor. Ultimately I decided I would become a lawyer.

Law school made sense because I naturally think like a lawyer. I challenge assumptions, I drill down to first principles, I problem-solve creatively, and I spot issues well. And I love puzzles. I did well on the LSAT without preparing. People complain about the Logic Games section of the test, but I actually had fun with it. I don’t say this to brag – there are plenty of things that I am terrible at – just to note that the law is a particularly good fit for me.

I graduated law school and wanted to put my skills to work helping people, so I looked into public service jobs. The problem is that public service jobs pay relatively little and I had a lot of student loan debt.

I graduated with around $250,000 in student loans, averaging a 6.8% interest rate. On a standard 10-year repayment plan, that would mean paying around $3,000 per month. I would need to subtract at least $35,000 from my after-tax salary before getting to any money that I could actually spend. And that’s if I want to take the full 10-years to pay it off.

Now, I could have done that. I got a good degree from the top school in my niche and had good work experience. I could have gone to a big firm and made a lot of money. But that’s not where I wanted to exercise my skills and not how I wanted to spend my time.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program gave me another option. PSLF said that if I committed to public service I could make payments based on my income. The payments would be 10-15% of “discretionary income,” which basically means that they subtract 150% of the poverty line from your income before they calculate what you owe. If I make those payments on time for ten years (and jump through a bunch of procedural hoops), then the balance will be forgiven.

Basically, I would have to make sizable loan payments every month for ten years, but those loan payments would never be large enough to impede on my ability to feed and shelter my family.

After ten years, the slate is wiped clean.

It’s Not About the Money

Before getting into anything else about the program, I need to say up front that the decision for me was not about the money.

That sounds like a crazy thing to say. Obviously it is about the money to the extent that the program allows me to take on a job that I otherwise could not afford.

What I mean is that it is not about maximizing my wealth.

A lot of people questioned the return on investment of choosing public service over the private sector. They asked whether I would make more just taking a private sector job and paying off the loan. They speculated that the lower income from public service work would cost more in lost wages than what I would gain from forgiveness.

And they’re right.

If I had gone to a big firm and paid off my loans, I would have built much more wealth much more quickly than taking a public service job and working towards forgiveness.

It’s not about the money, though. If there’s one theme I’ve tried to drive home with this blog, it’s that it never really is about the money. More money is great, but not at the expense of other aspects of our life.

I wanted to serve the public. I also wanted to spend more time with my family than a big law job would allow. Those two goals are worth giving up all sorts of wealth in my eyes.

The Taxpayer’s Dime

Perhaps the most common response, though, was the complaint that taxpayers would be picking up the tab for my loans.

I was told that I was selfish for my choice to pursue public service. I was told that I must be a terrible public servant. I was told that I was a welfare recipient and a leech and that I was relying on a taxpayer bailout. I was told that I was a jerk stealing money from the public.

There were a lot of creative variations on this, but the theme was the same: the taxpayer should not have to pay my loans.

The superficial answer to this is that this is actually a great deal for the taxpayer.

A few years ago I had the option to jump from my public service job to a big firm. The big firm wanted me to do the exact same work that I was doing on the public service side, but they were offering to pay me almost triple what I was making.

I presumably would have been expected to put in more hours at the big firm, so the per hour price for my services would be closer to double what the government was paying rather than triple, but it is still a lot of extra money. If the government paid me market rate for my services, my salary would increase by enough to pay off my loans in three years. Instead, the public gets ten years of my services for that same amount of money.

Seems like a good deal.

Public Service is for Everyone

The more meaningful response, though, is this: Public service shouldn’t be a privilege belonging only to people with family wealth.

I was told that I shouldn’t have taken on the debt if I knew I wanted to go into public service. But without my parents paying for school, there was no other way to get a law degree. (Someone else suggested that I should have earned the money to pay for school as I went. Presumably this is a Baby Boomer that has not followed the slow growth of wages and the ridiculous growth of education costs. If anyone can point me to a part time job that pays $70,000 a year and leaves time to study, let me know.)

If only people without debt can work for the public, then you will only ever have public sector lawyers or doctors or others with expensive degrees that come from wealthy households. My parents weren’t poor by any stretch of the imagination, but they didn’t have an extra $100,000 a year lying around to pay for me to go to law school while my brother was going to college. Most families don’t have anywhere near that kind of money.

The only way the government can function well is if you get talented people to work as public servants. We need to do more to encourage this. We need more great people becoming teachers and public defenders. We need to be expanding the pool of people that want jobs that benefit the public, not shrinking it by only allowing the wealthy to consider a career in public service.

99% Rejected

Another common response was a reference to the recent MarketWatch article on the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. The article noted that 99% of applications for forgiveness have been rejected.

This is obviously not great, but the article provides much more nuanced information than the headline.

First, 28% of applications were rejected because they were missing paperwork. Those rejections don’t really say anything about the underlying program other than the fact that there is probably a lot of paperwork involved in having tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt forgiven.

The next thing to remember is that this is the first cohort that could possibly be eligible under the program, as it has been in place for only ten years. Only someone that began participating in the program as soon as it launched and has continuously worked in public service and made on-time payments since then would be eligible for forgiveness.

On top of that, there was a lot of confusion at the beginning of the program. Remember those hoops that I mentioned you had to jump through? They are confusing for everyone.

I didn’t start until 2013 and I still was given bad information by Sallie Mae that caused my first year of payments not to count towards forgiveness. On top of that, when I told Navient I was going to be using PSLF, they had to consolidate my loans into direct loans. Somehow they screwed up the process and $30,000 of the loans ended up ineligible. The mistake wasn’t caught for four years, so now I would need to work an extra four years for that chunk to be forgiven.

I am sure that I am not alone and that things like this happened to other people. As the MarketWatch article notes, the number of applications for forgiveness that will be approved is expected to rise dramatically over the coming years. I am confident that I have jumped through the necessary hoops and will complete the necessary paperwork to avoid rejection.

(If you are in the PSLF program, immediately ask to have your loans moved over to FedLoan Servicing. They have been great for me and have spotted all of the mistakes that Sallie Mae and Navient made. They also make it easy to confirm the exact number of payments you have made in the past that qualify towards forgiveness. If you’re not with them already, ask to be switched over. It will be great for your peace of mind when articles like the MarketWatch one come out.)

Dave Ramsey Doesn’t Know What He’s Talking About

After I had planned out everything that I have written above, I was sent a video of Dave Ramsey recently talking about PSLF.

What I learned is that Dave Ramsey doesn’t really know what he’s talking about.

I’ve already taken a lot of your time on this subject today, so feel free to quit now. But in case you’re interested, I’ve pulled Ramsey’s points from the video and responded to them below:

 “The answer to [Public Service Loan Forgiveness] is always ‘Don’t do it.’ Get your loans paid off as quick as you can. For God’s sake don’t stay in debt for ten years.”

All else being equal, sure. It is unpleasant to be in debt for ten years. But if loan forgiveness is the only way to take on a job that would bring more meaning to your life, then go for it.

One of my biggest problems with Dave Ramsey is his penchant for making definitive declarative statements about what people should or shouldn’t do. Personal finance is personal and everyone’s situation is a little bit different. There is no advice that applies to everyone. Life is nuanced.

Ramsey’s advice here is bad. Live the life you want to live, not the one some “guru” wants you to live.

“The government is questioning whether they’re actually going to do this or not.”

No they aren’t. Ramsey reads from the MarketWatch article saying that 99% of applications in the first batch have been rejected and takes from this that the government is just arbitrarily deciding not to forgive people’s loans. This is just false and Ramsey is lying to his listeners.

“If you’re waiting on the government to fix your life, you’re screwed.”

This seems to be based on the mindset that the random twitter users had that this is a government bailout program. That public servants are like the auto industry or the big banks and we need the government to step in and correct our mistakes. That’s not what this is at all.

The government offered a benefit that would somewhat offset the low salaries that it pays. A bunch of us took that offer instead of cashing out in the private sector. It has nothing to do with needing the government to “fix our lives.”

“To start with, let’s just assume you were one of the 96 [applications for forgiveness that have been approved]. You still waited ten freaking years to start your life. You waited ten years to start your financial life. That’s asinine. It’s ridiculous.”

This is more nonsense. I have a wife and a baby and a job that I really like. I have a pretty great life. I’m not waiting to start living until after I get loan forgiveness. I’m not even waiting to start my financial life. I’m maxing out my retirement accounts every year and investing in a taxable account on top of that. I am contributing to a 529 for my son. I can’t think of anything that I am not doing financially that I would be doing if my loans were gone.

I know plenty of people that are still waiting to start their financial lives, and none of them are waiting because of PSLF.

[Talking about people that do “debt free screams.”] “They weren’t waiting on welfare to fix their life. When you wait on welfare to fix your life you get screwed.”

Again. Not welfare. Don’t need my life fixed.

“Some of you have been jerking around with this, thinking ‘I’m gonna win this. I’m gonna play the government game. I’m gonna dumb my life down to the bell curve. And I’m gonna wait ten freaking years for them to forgive a portion of my debt – the portion that I have not reduced. Oh I forgot. I didn’t check into this. I don’t meet the requirements. I’m ineligible.’”

I’m not quite sure what this means, but it seems to be based on the idea that this is some sort of gaming of the system to try to get a government handout.

I have no idea what he means when he says that public servants are dumbing down their lives. I’ve met some really brilliant people in the public sector and I’ve met some not-so-brilliant people. I’ve met some smart people in the private sector and some dumb people in the private sector. Your place of employment doesn’t determine your intelligence. Whether or not you could afford school without debt is not an indicator of your intelligence. This is all nonsense.

“I bet you buy lotto tickets too. The government is gonna pay off my student loan debt and I’m gonna win the lotto. Two statements made by fools who thought they were gonna build wealth.”

Whether or not I’m a fool is up for debate, I suppose, but I have built wealth and I continue to build wealth. That is happening right now! I am not waiting for some future occurrence to make it possible.

I also don’t buy lottery tickets, in case you were wondering.

“Nope. You’re not gonna build wealth that way. You’re gonna build wealth when you take control and don’t wait on dumb luck and government programs to fix your life.”

I did take control! That’s the whole point! The PSLF allowed me a choice between working in the private sector, making a ton of money, and paying off my debt quickly or working in the public sector, making less money but in a more meaningful way, and having my loans forgiven after ten years. That option gave me choices. It gave me control. No dumb luck involved.

And again, wealth is already accumulating. This comment that you can’t build wealth on PSLF is just flat wrong. I’m willing to give Ramsey the benefit of the doubt, though, and say that he is just ignorant rather than actually lying this time.

“Are you going to believe in unicorns? Are you going to believe in mythology? When you say the government is going to fix my life, that is the definition of mythology. The government is actually going to help me generally is mythology.”

Ramsey is definitely off the rails by this point. Loan forgiveness is not mythology. It is a real government program that is actually in existence. This first round of applications had a lot of rejections for reasons that we’ve already discussed, but that doesn’t negate the program’s existence.

Ramsey himself stated in this very clip that the number of applications approved is expected to rise dramatically. You can disagree with whether a policy should exist, but you can’t disagree with whether it does exist.

His comment about the government never helping people is also pure nonsense. The government helps a lot of people. The government has helped Dave Ramsey immensely.

Dave Ramsey built his first multi-million dollar fortune on real estate, thanks largely to a whole bunch of tax expenditures that make real estate a good investment. Then, when he overextended himself by making bad investment decisions, he used government-created bankruptcy laws to bail him out. Instead of actually paying off his debt, he used government policies to get his debt forgiven.

These days, Ramsey relies on the government’s copyright laws to support the income-producing capabilities of his 19 books as well as the free press laws to allow the existence of his radio show. Without the government’s help, Ramsey would not have built his fortune, recovered from his bad decisions, or built a new fortune.

“I’m not angry at the government. I’m angry that the government has convinced a bunch of you that it is a source of hope. I believe in you. I don’t believe in them. I don’t trust them. I don’t think there’s malice involved, I don’t think they’re a bunch of crooks, I don’t think it’s a conspiracy theory. I think it’s the largest case of incompetence in human history. They meant well, but they absolutely do not know how to do well. They want to help people but they absolutely cannot seem to get out of their own freaking way to get there. And this is proof of it yet again.”

This is just more anti-government ranting. He’s basically saying that the government doesn’t help anybody because it is filled with incompetent people. Even if this were true, it would be a great reason to promote the PSLF program rather than eliminate it. PSLF opens public service up to a wider variety of people and allows more competition and better hires for government positions. If you want more competence in government, then promote more loan forgiveness and pay government workers a lot more!

“If you’re waiting on them to get you out of student loan debt, you’re dumber than a rock. You really are. You’re asking for a mess because you believe the mythology when someone said ‘Hi! I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ When you hear that you should run. Run.”

I feel oddly honored to be called dumber than a rock by Dave Ramsey. He has been wrong in just about everything that he said in this entire rant, so I’m going to call that a win.

Join the Conversation!

What do you think about loan forgiveness for public servants? What other questions do you have? Let us know in the comments!

17 thoughts on “Loan Forgiveness (or Why Dave Ramsey Doesn’t Know What He’s Talking About)”

  1. I’m becoming more convinced by the second that to be popular and relevant as a money expert, you have to rant and rave and say things that are nonsensical, insensitive, and abrasive. Tell people they’re stupid so you look brilliant in comparison to those who don’t know any better.

    PSLF is a very common strategy in medicine, too, and while I don’t believe the program was created to help doctors and lawyers escape student loan debt, it does incentive people like you and lots of docs I know to steer clear of private practice and work for a non-profit facility.

    In medicine, “non-profit” is a bit of a nebulous designation, but nevertheless, most physicians pursuing PSLF could be earning more money working in a different capacity, just like you are.

    Don’t let the angry mob get to you. They don’t know what they’re talking about and are not living your life.


    1. I think you’re right about money experts. More controversy –> more attention –> more money. Doesn’t matter whether you know what you’re talking about or not.

      I believe during the Obama administration they proposed a cap on the amount that could be forgiven under PSLF. The argument was that there were too many doctors and lawyers getting huge balances forgiven. Even if we weren’t the target demographic, though, I think it’s a great way to give talented people with a lot of debt the option of serving the public rather than going for the big bucks.

      Thanks for stopping by, PoF!
      Matt recently posted…Why We Need to Talk About PoliticsMy Profile

      1. Obama did propose limiting forgiveness to $57,500, the undergraduate borrowing limit. That didn’t go anywhere. Trump has proposed killing the program. That hasn’t gone anywhere yet either.

        What most people including naysayers like Ramsay fail to realize is that both proposals have specifically been written to affect *future* borrowers. No one has seriously proposed pulling the rug out from people already planning for/relying on the program.
        Ben recently posted…PSLF Double EmploymentMy Profile

        1. For sure. I pointed this out once early in the tweet thread, but people didn’t seem to get the concept. It seems like most people view it as a binary on/off choice, rather than something that could be phased out by barring new people from joining.
          Matt recently posted…Why We Need to Talk About PoliticsMy Profile

  2. Thank you for this! I was also worried that the program wouldn’t be as effective as I had hoped, so ended up not pursuing it. I’m going out on maternity leave pretty soon and still looking for what I want to do after, so I may end up doing more nonprofit or service work, which is what I wanted to do anyway. Hopefully I can learn from someone else’s mistakes and make sure that my loans actually qualify.

    I also have problems with Dave Ramsey’s approach to debt sometimes. General principles are good, but considering we’re looking at a 20-year payoff, living that long with “gazelle-intensity” and without a significant emergency fund or retirement account is just not feasible.

    1. If you do end up going that route, fill out the application right away and submit it ASAP. I believe that anyone that submits the PSLF application now has to be transferred over to FedLoan Servicing, which has become the specialist. Get out of the Sallie Mae/Navient trap!

      And agreed on Ramsey. I wrote a whole post about how and why I disagree with his 7 Steps. It seems like he found something that worked for him and has made a fortune insisting that the same strategy will work for every person in every situation.

      Thanks for the comment!
      Matt recently posted…Why We Need to Talk About PoliticsMy Profile

  3. Great insight on a topic I know little about. Agreed with the comment above from PoF that the biggest names in money don’t always give the best advice. However, it’s hard to argue with their ability to reach people even if they do it in a nonsensical and abrasive way. Unfortunately that’s how media works and I wish it was different.

    I’m overall a Ramsey supporter (I even lead a FPU class). As others have put it, he’s great at getting people motivated to pay down debt, but not so great with investment advice. It seems that some of his advice in niche areas such as loan forgiveness also needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

    Thanks for the helpful info. I learned a lot from this article.

    1. I respect Ramsey’s ability to build a massive audience. To the extent that he has been able to get people focused on their finances that otherwise would not have, I think that’s great. I like to think of him as more of a first step on the personal finance journey rather than the end all be all that a lot of people find him to be, but something is better than nothing and he’s reaching a lot of people.

      Thanks for stopping by!
      Matt recently posted…Why We Need to Talk About PoliticsMy Profile

    1. Thanks, Liz. There are a lot of government programs that would be much better if they weren’t so difficult to access. It’s as if every bill Congress passes is a compromise between a desire to help people and a desire to save money by not helping people. There’s no good reason for a lot of the hoops that people need to jump through just to get access to programs like PSLF.

      Thanks for the comment!
      Matt recently posted…Why We Need to Talk About PoliticsMy Profile

  4. I am also on the PSLF program, as is my wife. In fact, I was actually featured in a CNBC article today on the whole thing. I am actually trying to get my loans forgiven through the recent “fix” TEPSLF. That aside, I think your advice is spot on. You can certainly build wealth while you are doing this. My investments are well over six figures and I continue to save a good chunk of money. I am lucky in that my job allows me to travel and I have the ability to make a good life for myself and my wife (and hopefully soon our kid) despite six figures in student loan debt. I am actually going to link this article with my PSLF presentation that I give to our faculty every semester. Excellent article.

  5. So let me preface this with the note that you seem very well informed, I really support this program, and Dave Ramsey can be a nitwit. It would be obvious financial advisor malpractice to tell people at age 62 they HAVE to claim social security because who knows when it will be yanked and they shouldn’t be relying on The Government to solve their problems anyway. I don’t see PSLF as any different than SS that way.

    THAT SAID. I have some serious questions about you advocating FedLoan servicing. As I’m sure you know, they are under investigation by the US Department of Education and are being sued by the Massachusetts Attorney General for their mismanagement of PSLF (as well as the teacher specific grant program TEACH). I once had student loans serviced by Navient/Nelnet and I was far from a big fan. So I have no particular reason to think FedLoan might not be the best of a bad bunch, but since you are a lawyer I would be interested in your opinion on the legal issues here.

  6. Hey man. Full disclosure. I am a Dave Ramsey fan. I try to understand the reasoning behind his positions. And I don’t buy into the religious stuff. But I do agree with the values stuff.

    And I got to ask. In an earlier tweet, you said.

    “My loans totaled $250,000. I’ve been paying for 7 years. I owe $330,000.

    It’s…not great.”

    Now I try to not judge people for their choices. We all make choices. We are all adults. But the tone of this seems a bit regretful. But, given that you are an intelligent person, and you made the decision to take on loans of such an expense, live and work in an expensive city, and then not take a job that you admit could have paid them off quickly. Isn’t the burden you face your doing? I am going to assume this is doubly so since law school is taken later in life and should be done so with a more rational mind. I am going to assume triply that, if your end goal was to be a public servant, going to an expensive school did not affect your ability to get or be effective in a public service job.

    I have read a bit about what you have written. You are articulate and seem to be very intelligent. And you have done your research. Still though. It is hard to deny that going the path you have gone is causing more uncertainty. By uncertainty, I mean a greater variance of outcome. I noticed you are investing. Everything I have learned about investing has stated that the number one factor affecting internal rates of returns is behavior. It is well known that behavior is affected by uncertainty. So this uncertainty is a real and meaningful thing you must pay for. I am trained in probability theory. So I see this as affecting your future expected return.

    And the thing about this is you sort of admit that this pathway wasn’t really necessary. The option seems open to not have gone to as much of an expensive school OR to have worked and paid of your loans quickly. You often talk about how undesirable this is. But, if your career is going to be decades, what does a few years of hard work matter? What you have essentially done is made the decision that avoiding a few years of hard work , or going to an expensive school, is worth paying the uncertainty of a lifetime of living with debt. Like I said. You are an adult. This is your decision. But it must have been a design made with some level of clear thinking. So why rationalize it? Why express regret?

    You bring up Ramsey. And hey. I get it. He seems harsh. I don’t agree with everything although I follow the plan to a T. I think he makes his decisions largely based on the bible. But I think to him, and sort of to me, the bible is moresoe a case study in human nature. It is this reason why I am not so trusting of the government. I have noticed that it always makes promises or attempts to solve a problem, but it does so without mind to the actual price signals and resources required to execute said solution. This is why I fundamentally am skeptical of its promises economically. Economics works so well when done with mind to what markets want.

    I see the student loan forgiveness program as one of them . It might work as stated, but I do not have much faith it will. There are some realities that I question it can hold up to. The money to pay for the loans has to come from somewhere, yet the government runs up budget deficits. The government, itself, must take on debt or ask the fed to cause inflation in order to finance its behaviour. But lets think about this for a second. What does this really mean? Money is not real so what is really happening? In reality this means that society is becoming less efficient. More people are causing waste, engaging in beauracracy, or engaging in services that are sort of meaningless and/or unnecessary.

    This factors into your decisions to. You went to a school that gave you an education that is too expensive for the kind of work you eventually ended up doing. Given that the instructors, facilities, and resources were expensive, this was done at the expense of someone being given a suitable education that would end up doing suitable work for suitable clients. And yes. Clients that can afford it are suitable. If things were ideal, the loan would not have been given to you in the first place, if it would have, then it would have been given at a higher interest rate. Consider that, actuarially, it is not profitable to issue said loan at such a rate. This means that the difference is made up in taxpayer money….except not really since taxpayers don’t have enough money. So its made up in … inflation… And that effects everybody… including the poor.

    Dave Ramsey’s ideas are mindful of this. Even though they are emotional, they are rational. Here is the kicker. If it truly was your intention to provide the most benefit to the needy, why not become wealthy and be generous? Be generous with your income or generous with your time. You follow personal finance. You should know that having a lawyer’s income, and a modest lifestyle, means you become financially independent very quickly. You could have been a debt-free millionaire at 40 and then spent 20, 30, 40 years working public service or pro bono work. Then you could even leave some amount of money as a legacy for people to enjoy after you are gone. Being in debt the way you are gives a meaningful possibility of this not happening. The only reason to not do this is if you want the experience of doing public service work your entire life. But I think the case can be made that this does not compare to the amount of altruism you would have accomplished doing the former.

    Ok that is my case. Those are my arguments. I am sure you will pick them apart. And I kind of look forward to it. I learn something from those that disagree with me, even though I Think my reasonings is well prepared.

    1. Hi Elliott,

      Thanks for your comment. I am going to assume it is in good faith and I will try to respond to as much of it as I can. I apologize if I miss some things, but there’s a lot there.

      As an initial matter, you are right that my debt is a result of my choices. And I do not regret those choices. However, it is also a result of the system in which we live, and I do regret that we have created a system where people that aren’t born into wealth have to take on such huge amounts of debt to serve the public. But yes, I knew what I was getting into when I signed the loans and when I took public service jobs.

      Next, I want to correct a misconception that appears a few times in your comment and that other people have also suggested online. There is, for some reason, a view that if you are going into public service, a cheaper degree is “good enough.” There’s this idea that the smartest people with the most qualifications should go into the private sector and whatever riff raff is leftover can have the government jobs.

      If we want to have an efficient, effective, and well-run government, however, we need top minds and highly-qualified people to work on behalf of the people. Especially in the world of attorneys, there needs to be a parity of talent between the government and the private sector. If the private sector is able to run roughshod over the government because corporate attorneys are that much better than government attorneys, then the taxpayer ultimately pays the price.

      You say that I went to a school that gave me an education that is too expensive for the kind of work that I am doing. (And, separately, that going to an expensive school did not affect my ability to get, or be effective in, a public service job.) Both of these ideas are incorrect. I went to the school that had the exact program that I needed to prepare me for the work that I am doing. I would not be where I am doing what I do if I did not have this degree.

      I understand the temptation to equate salary with level of skills/qualifications/etc. because that’s how we are trained to think of things in the private sector. But private sector and public sector work are not really on the same scale. The government underpays high-skill workers. That lower pay does not come with a decrease in the necessary skills or qualifications. When I litigate, I can go up against a biglaw partner making a million dollars a year. The fact that I make low-six figures does not negate the fact that we are arguing the same case and have to do the same amount of work and exercise the same skills. I don’t get a cheat code that comes with my lower pay to make the case easier for my side.

      This brings me to the next misconception (and again, you are far from the first to believe this). You frame going to a law firm to pay my loans as “a few years of hard work,” and frame my decision to go into public service as “avoiding a few years of hard work.” As I noted above, the work that I do is not easier than the work that attorneys at firms do. In many situations it is functionally the same exact work. Depending on the agency and the type of work, some lawyers do get better schedules and work fewer hours (especially compared to the bigger firms). The hours I put in at my current job are probably on average similar to a mid-tier firm while hitting the hours requirements of big firms in some years. (My previous job was a much lighter schedule, with most weeks being 45-50 hours, albeit with major spikes for trials.)

      Either way, the purpose behind going public has nothing to do with wanting to avoid hard work.

      I don’t particularly follow your point on uncertainty. It sounds like you are saying that my debt will affect my behavior which will affect my rates of return on my investments. If that’s the case, then I can assure you it is not negatively affecting my investing behavior. All of my investing is automated and I have taken emotion out of the equation entirely. If you meant something else, feel free to elaborate and I will try to respond.

      I understand your deficit argument in theory. The size of the PSLF program is just not large enough to cause the macro-economic consequences that you outline, however. CBO estimated that eliminating PSLF would save the government $17 billion over ten years. Over the same ten years, the tax cut that Republicans passed last year is projected to increase the deficit by $1.5 trillion. PSLF has barely more than 1% of the impact of that tax cut.

      CBO’s projection said that eliminating PSLF would save about $300 million in the first year. The government as a whole spent $4.1 trillion last year. We’re looking at less than 0.01% of the budget. The point being: I understand your argument, but if the deficit is a problem then there are much bigger fish to fry and PSLF is having a negligible impact.

      The other point related to this is that the program is not at all expensive compared to the alternatives. The government could either (a) pay market rate to attract talent, which would be far more expensive than PSLF, or (b) hire less qualified people, which would result in a number of negative consequences for taxpayers including, on the litigation side, unnecessary losses or worse settlements that would cost more than PSLF. Either way, the view that this is a burden on the taxpayer is a bit facile and shortsighted. (I’m sure that comes off more harsh than I intend – I understand this view as it is the most obvious conclusion to draw and most people don’t spend time thinking any more deeply about the program or public sector workers generally.)

      Your point that people can do more good by getting rich and giving it all away is probably right for most people. There is an interesting discussion on how to analyze what you can do with your career to do the most good for the world in the book Doing Good Better by William MacAskill. The takeaway is that most people can do the most good by getting rich and donating 90% of their salaries to highly efficient charities.

      But public service work still needs to get done. The question to ask yourself is whether you think you have a particular skillset or ability that will do more than whoever would take your place. I’ve previously written about comparing my career decisions to Value Over Replacement Player in baseball. I don’t ask myself how much good I would do in that job. I ask myself how much more good I can do than whoever would have that job if I didn’t apply. If I did not think that I was bringing extra value to the public sector, I would go get rich and donate my money. Your point is valid and I keep it top of mind when assessing each next career decision, but for now the public sector is the right place for me to do good.

      I hope that answered your questions. Feel free to follow up if you want clarification on any of this or if I missed anything.
      Matt recently posted…A Response to a ManifestoMy Profile

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