SWEET SMOKE: Now is the season of political high dander by which time all hats need to have been “thrown in the ring,” a phrase rooted — not coincidentally — in roughly the same stratum of antiquity as “blowing smoke up one’s ass.” This latter expression, it turns out, refers to the once common medical practice of administering tobacco smoke enemas to near-drowning victims in hopes of clearing their lungs. By the time medical authorities figured out this practice was a nonstarter, they’d already invested significant sums in their smoke enema kits and sought out other purposes to which they could be put.
As the nation shifts its attention from Iowa to New Hampshire, we in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties cast our gaze to the battle currently unfurling for the 24th Congressional District. Of the nine candidates who’ve hurled their headgear, only one — Jeff Oshins — actually wears a hat. Typically, Oshins wears a broad-brimmed straw boater that I associate with riverboat-gambler types. On occasion, he wears a ball cap. Either way, Oshins’s campaign manager — a lanky muscular son of a former Alaskan governor and a longtime family friend — will see to it as a matter of stage craft that Oshins appears hat-free for the duration.
Of the nine candidates, Oshins falls into the unviable category of being not viable, but serious. That means he has something to say but not the funds necessary to be competitive. I’ve known Oshins for a good while; he’s one of those guardian angels who swoops parapetically into my life, unbidden, to fan the smoldering ashes of any literary ambitions not already pulverized by exhaustion, distraction, or my Chronic Lack of Initiative Disorder, otherwise known as CLID. Smart, funny, and thoughtful, Oshins lards his outrage with gobs of absurdity, making him fun and easy company. When we grabbed a cup of coffee last week to discuss his entry into the Congressional race, I figured I’d encounter a gleeful mix of his various alter egos: Kinky Friedman and Colonel J.T. Cornpone, the suspender-snapping, seersuckered Candidate for Congress. Instead I got a mix between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
In other words, Oshins was all business. More to the point, he was all about the business of student loans and student debt. We met three days before Sanders would win the rowdiest applause of the night when inveighing against the predatory loan sharking miring millions of college students in perpetual debt during his “victory” speech at the Iowa caucuses. Oshins grew up in the sprawl of Washington, D.C., his mother a high-octane political hostess of considerable charm and formidability. For 10 years, Oshins worked as a staffer for the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Congressional Committee, where he fussed and finessed legislation encompassing both foreign and domestic policies. He also functioned as traveling op for the Democratic Party for the presidential campaigns of George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, and Michael Dukakis. In other words, Oshins probably remembers where all the bathrooms are. He might still have the keys.
But without a doubt, Oshins knows where the votes are. Throughout the 24th Congressional District, it turns out there are roughly 87,434 college and university students. In campaigns past, this district has posted some of the highest voter-participation rates in California by the 18- to 24-year-old demographic cohort. Given that the 24th is one of the exceedingly rare districts in California — if not the nation — not so gerrymandered as to still be genuinely competitive, those political numbers are big enough to make the needles dance.
As the cost of higher education has grown, so too has the size of the debt incurred by those trying to pay their freight. Currently, total education debt hovers at $1.3 trillion. Last year alone, it jumped by $100 million. That’s because the cost of a college education has grown 300 percent in the past generation and it usually takes more than four years to graduate. Typically, the federal government guarantees private loans by private companies specializing in educational loan portfolios. These companies make their profit by “buying” risk-free money cheap and selling it high to students seeking a toehold in an increasingly slippery economy. And, of course, the feds get their cut — $175 billion projected over 10 years. Nationally, more than two-thirds of all college grads took out loans to get through school. The average debt load for the average grad is about $30,000. At UCSB — where 56 percent of the students take out loans — it’s about $21,000. But for some — like those entering the medical professions — it’s much more. Crushing educational debt load is one of the biggest reasons the United States faces an equally crushing shortage of primary care doctors. Medical students graduating a few hundred thou in debt gravitate to high-paying medical specialties by economic necessity rather than the less lucrative but much-in-demand primary care. Oshins is outraged private companies selling students these federally guaranteed loan packages can — and do — declare bankruptcies while the recipients of such loans have long been barred by congressional fiat of doing the same. Student loans remain the only form of debt that by law cannot be reorganized and worked out via the bankruptcy process. Those who can’t pay become delinquent and default, thus screwing up their credit histories forever. Right now 6.8 million educational loans are either delinquent or in default. That’s a lot of forevers. It’s an old story, but until Congress passes debt-relief legislation — allowing students, for example, to consolidate the debts accumulated from multiple loans and refinance them at lower interest rates — it promises to get older still.
Jeff Oshins’s chances, I admit, hover between nil and null. But neither is he blowing smoke up our collective recti. And for that, he can keep his hat on.