Good Reads: From student debt, to Bloomberg’s last stand, to the Russian justice system

This week's round-up of Good Reads includes predatory college lending, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's last term, an expat's return to the United States, the tangle of Russia's justice system, and why Egypt is no longer a regional leader.

Mark Humphrey/AP
The freshman class at Vanderbilt University spells out their graduation year.

Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone magazine has a penchant for over-the-top, flame-throwing invective. So who better to stir up some outrage over America’s escalating student-debt burden? You don’t read Mr. Taibbi to understand. You read Taibbi to get motivated to understand.

The average student loan is now $28,000. Some loans are close to mortgage-level amounts, saddling students with heavy payments for decades. Taibbi fingers two villains. First, tuition levels at colleges and universities continue to run laps around inflation in the rest of the economy. Very little of the increased cost is for education per se. Instead, much of it is “gilding,” building more attractive health clubs and dorms and bringing on celebrity professors to compete for students.

But why not compete by cutting prices? Because the growth of student loans has brought vast new sums of money into the system – supplied by young people from the least-affluent families among the college bound. The greater villain is the highly profitable government-run lending program itself. Taibbi calls it “a government-sponsored predatory-lending program that makes even the most ruthless private credit-card company seem like a ‘Save the Panda’ charity.”

Bloomberg's last stand

As New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg nears the end of his three terms in office, The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta assesses a career that defies categorization. With a net worth estimated at $27 billion, Mr. Bloomberg never needed to raise money to campaign, and he prides himself on being able to say no to special interests. On his watch, crime has fallen dramatically and post-recession employment has grown much faster than the national average. His “stop and frisk” policy has set liberal teeth on edge. His ban on selling large sugary drinks has made conservative eyes roll. His effort to promote gun control nationally has put conservatives on the warpath. “Now he is clearly vexed by the challenges of envisaging his own future and a City Hall without him,” writes Mr. Auletta.

A return to ‘awesome’ America

After 18 years in London as a correspondent for The New York Times, Sarah Lyall has returned to the United States and offers readers some compare-and-contrast observations. The British have become more American over the years, she notes, but retain their traditional reserve. “Sometimes in London I felt stupidly enthusiastic, like a Labrador puppy let loose in an antique store, or overly loud and gauche, like a guest who shows up at a memorial service wearing a Hawaiian shirt and traumatizes the mourners with intrusive personal questions.”

America has changed, too. Brooklyn became the heart of trendy New York, “awesome” became the “Starbucks of adjectives,” and “[a] few Americans started going only to restaurants with lovingly reared, locally sourced unpronounceable ingredients; the rest started going only to restaurants with All-U-Can-Eat Fat Plate specials.”

The British are busy figuring out their place in the world; the Americans are quite confident of theirs. She compares the British attitude toward America as that of “a teenager worried that his more popular friend is using him for extra math help but will snub him in the cafeteria.”

Surviving Russia’s justice system

Michael Lewis is one of the best storytellers in journalism, with a particular gift for making the arcanely technical worlds of finance and Big Data into readable narratives. In the latest Vanity Fair, he delves into the case of a Russian-born computer programming genius who was convicted, then later exonerated, of stealing code from his erstwhile employer, Goldman Sachs.

Sergey Aleynikov’s trial, in Mr. Lewis’s portrayal, shows a justice system hopelessly out of its depth at understanding what it meant or didn’t mean when the programmer mailed himself a copy of some code he had worked on as he left Goldman. The FBI and prosecution seemed to be totally in Goldman’s hands.
Lewis sketches a portrait here of a hypercompetitive corner of the economy and a character that stands as its almost saintly opposite. Mr. Aleynikov spent years in prison before his appeal came through, and he came through it without resentment or regret. He actually appreciates what prison did for his life. He lost everything, but now has closer friendships and a stronger relationship with his children.

Egypt the stunted

Longtime Middle East watcher Bobby Ghosh of Time magazine lifts the veil from the assumption that embattled Egypt is the cultural and intellectual heart of the Arab world – that Egypt is really very important to the rest of the world.

It used to be. In the 1960s and ’70s, he writes, Egypt was “the fulcrum of the Arab world.” It produced great cinema, TV, music, art, literature, and news media. It had the region’s best religious and secular universities. And it represented a threat to Israel.

“Egypt today is none of those things, and for two reasons: the Middle East has changed, and Egypt has not,” writes Mr. Ghosh. Its main relevance now, he says, is as a potential breeding ground for Islamist militancy.

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