BA -- the New Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card

TOM LUTZ teaches at UC Riverside's Palm Desert Graduate Center. He's the author of "Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers and Bums in America."

AJOURNALIST recently asked my one and only son how it felt being described, in the first chapter of my latest book, as a slacker. Now, to be fair, I didn’t really say he was a slacker. I just explained how, when I saw him lying on the couch in the middle of the day when he was 18, I felt the need to write a book about slackers and their lackadaisical history over the last couple of hundred years.

Cody, who is a good sport, said he didn’t really mind. And then he speculated that perhaps I had spent all those years researching and writing the book in an elaborate ploy to get him to go to college.

I didn’t, but I’d gladly write the book that would, because there can be no more firm believer in the value of a good liberal arts education than myself. In the almost 20 years I’ve been teaching at universities, I’ve argued for it in various ways: in Enlightenment terms; in life-preparation terms; in ethical, financial and social terms; in terms of the basic pleasures learning provides.

But I hit upon the best argument yet in the news recently: Andrew S. Fastow. Fastow, college graduate and former chief financial officer of Enron, was sentenced to six years in prison for his part in the high thievery at the company that ended with the loss of thousands of jobs and millions of investor dollars and pensions. Last month, former Enron executives (and college graduates) Timothy Despain and David W. Delainey were sentenced — Despain to four years of probation and a $10,000 fine, Delainey to 30 months in prison.

I know this doesn’t sound, offhand, like a great advertisement. But consider this. In a nearby courtroom, Dale Stuart Sisson, who had never been to college, was convicted of robbing $400 from Spicy N Hot Liquor in Sealy, Texas. He was sentenced to 40 years in jail.

We’ve long known, of course, that a college degree increases earnings. But I was glad to be reminded of these further benefits. If, by chance, your income involves some lawbreaking, and you get caught, your prison time will be chopped way down if you have a bachelor’s degree.

Fastow, who graduated in 1983 from Tufts University with a bachelor’s degree in economics and Chinese, by some counts was looking at as much as $45 million in ill-gotten gains. Divide that by his six-year sentence, and he is serving one day in jail for each $20,458 he stole. If only Sisson had gone to college, he might have spent 28 minutes in jail instead of 40 years. Based on Sisson’s sentence, Fastow, without a college degree, should be spending the next 4 1/2 million years in jail, give or take a couple hundred thousand years for good behavior.

Yes, Sisson had a gun. It was a pellet pistol; it was not fired; nobody was hurt. The 2001 California energy crisis precipitated by Enron shenanigans resulted in several deaths. Why were there no manslaughter charges brought? Surely because the Enron co-conspirators were loaded with diplomas. There were no allegations of drug use in the Sisson case; Fastow’s lawyers requested a specific prison where he could get treatment for his addiction to anxiety drugs. Why were there no prescription abuse charges? Clearly, the educational attainments of the criminal.

Sisson’s accomplice, Monica Marie Bennet (no college degree), received eight years for driving Sisson and his ill-gotten $400 from the liquor store. Fastow’s college-educated accomplice, Delainey, was sentenced to roughly 12 minutes for every $400 he helped steal. The college-educated Despain received no jail time, and he was fined roughly 2/100 of a cent for every dollar he stole. At that rate Bennet should pay a 9-cent fine.

So there you have it. Not only do college graduates steal 112, 500 times as much money, they pay one-kerbillionth of the fines and do one-gazillionth of the prison time per dollar if they get caught. I’m not sure about these last two figures, actually, since I get a little lost with all the zeros. I tested out of the math requirement for my college degree.

But Cody: Don’t break the law until you get that sheepskin, son.