A Philosopher's Blog

Bachmann and the EPA

Posted in Business, Environment, Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 31, 2011
Environmental journalism supports the protecti...

Job killer?

Michelle Bachmann was recently in Florida and she made a few interesting claims.

One claim is that radical environmentalists are preventing the United States from tapping its energy resources, thus forcing us to “beg” for energy. There are a few problems with this claim. First, radical environmentalists hardly seem to be a major power in American politics. Unless, of course, “radical environmentalist” is defined in a very broad way.  Second, even if it is assumed that radical environmentalists are a major power in current politics, this does not explain why we faced the same energy problems during the Bush years. Unless, of course, the radicals were a great power even then and were able to hold sway over congress and the president. Third, some of the main challenges to securing some sources of energy are technical and economical. For example, processing oil shale has not always been very cost effective.

That said, all of these points can be countered. Once we have a neutral and appropriate definition of “radical environmentalist”, it will be possible to start sorting out their role in this matter. Perhaps they do truly hold sway in this country and perhaps whereas no one else (not even Dick Cheney) has been able to stand against them, Michelle Bachmann will be able to render them powerless or at least weaken them.

Bachmann also said that she would eliminate the EPA, in part to defeat the radical environmentalists. This is justified, as she seems to see it, on two grounds. Firs, as noted above, the EPA is supposed to be in the service of radical environmentalists who have, for some reason, locked up America’s energy. Getting rid of the EPA will, presumably, allow that energy to be exploited. Second, this lock down is supposed to cost America jobs.

She is somewhat right about this. Without an EPA to regulate things like air quality, water pollutants, radiation levels, and other such things, energy sources will be far easier to exploit. Imagine, for example, if a coal company did not need to worry at all about the impact of strip mining coal and the nature and volume of toxins that it released into the environment. Imagine, as another example, if oil companies did not need to worry about what oil spills would do to the coasts of America or what the emissions from oil products might do to humans and animals. Free from such restraints, they would be able to produce more energy and make more profits. These might (or might not) lead to more jobs. Of course, there would be a price for this-a price that everyone else would pay. After all, there are good reasons Nixon established the EPA.

This is, of course, a matter of value: would more energy be worth the environmental impact? I am inclined to believe that regulation of such things is generally good for the country. To use an analogy, food companies could tap all sorts of food resources if they did not need to worry about regulations regrading such things as consumer health and safety. Similarly for drug companies. They could peddle snake oil, just like was done in the old days.  A lack of regulation would certainly open things up. However, history shows clearly what happens when people are free to do as they will when it comes to such things. As such, I am inclined to favor keeping the EPA. I do not, of course, think that the EPA is perfect and it should be subject to criticism.

Bachmann also claimed that the corporate income tax needs to be lowered. Her argument is the stock one: this must be done because companies are leaving the US to take advantage of the lower taxes overseas. However, as I have argued in earlier posts, this argument is fairly weak because its key premise is rather questionable. American companies pay little (or no) taxes here and hence the tax savings are most likely not the main cause of their departure.

A more plausible reason is that companies can pay far lower wages in many places overseas. There is also the fact that other countries often let companies get away with things that would not be tolerated here. As such, the most effective ways to lure jobs back here would seem to be to lower wages and lift regulations. That is, transform the United States into a third world country (at least in certain respects). Getting rid of the EPA would be a good first step in this process.  Bachmann, of course, did not want to say that she would lower the minimum wage. However, she was not willing to say that she would not.

AP/The Huffington Post) POINCIANA, Fla. — Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann claims the U.S. has more energy resources than any other country but isn’t exploiting them because of radical environmentalists.

Bachmann says with shale oil, natural gas and coal, the United States shouldn’t be “begging” others for oil and energy supplies.

She said “we are the king daddy dogs when it comes to energy.” But she says environmentalists are preventing resources from being tapped.

As president, Bachmann said she would unlock those resources and eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency.

“The radical environmentalists have demanded that we lock up all our energy resources,” she added. “President Bachmann will take that key out of the door. I will unlock it.”

The crowd at the upscale retirement community cheered wildly.

And Bachmann got a similar reception when she promised to eliminate the “job killing” Environmental Protection Agency, saying that she would close the agency down in a single trip. “We will turn out the lights and we’ll lock the doors,” she said.

Bachmann spoke at a town hall meeting in a central Florida retirement community Saturday.

Speaking in Jacksonville one day earlier, the Minnesota congresswoman told supporters at a packed sandwich shop that the corporate income tax needs to be reduced because companies are moving to other countries to save money. She was later asked by a reporter whether changes to the minimum wage should also be considered to balance the cost of labor here and overseas.

“I’m not married to anything. I’m not saying that’s where I’m going to go,” she said.

She did say she wants to look at all aspects of doing business, from regulations to tax codes, and will consider anything that will help create jobs. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

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Drug Testing for Welfare Recipients

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 30, 2011
011: Card-Carrying

Image by vociferous. via Flickr

In July the state of Florida started testing welfare applicants for drug use. If an applicant tests positive, s/he is not reimbursed the $30 (or so) testing fee and is banned from welfare for one year. If the applicant passes, s/he receives a refund for the test and is allowed to receive the money if s/he qualifies.

While the testing has only been going on for a short while, the initial results are quite interesting. 2% of applicants tested positive, 96% tested drug free and 2% did not complete the application process. So far, at least 1,000 people have been tested. Taken as a study, this would (based on the population) have a margin of error of +/- 3%. Of course, there is the obvious question of whether or not this data is representative of the welfare population. However, it is a large sample population and all welfare recipients have to be tested. Hence, the results will (assuming the tests are accurate and reliable) provide a fairly accurate picture of the drug use of welfare recipients.

Assuming the tests cost $30 apiece and that 1,000-1,500 people are tested each month, this will mean that the state will have to refund $28,000-$43,000 per month. Since the average monthly cost of welfare is $134 per person, the state will save $2,680-$3,350 a month. However, as noted above, a failed test bans the applicant for a year, so the savings have to be calculated based on this fact. This would,if all the assumptions are correct, result in a savings of $40,800-$98,000 per year. The program itself is estimated to cost $178 million, so the savings are rather small relative to the total expenditures. However, small savings can add up. For example, those savings could be used to pay the salaries of one or two teachers.

Of course, these savings do assume that everyone who tests positive for drugs would have otherwise been eligible. If not, the savings would be a bit less. There is also the bureaucratic cost of the program-handling the paperwork as well as dealing with challenges is not free. While the exact cost is not known, it seems plausible to believe that it will not be inexpensive. As such, the savings might well be eliminated or exceeded by the cost of running the program. Or perhaps not. However, even if it assumed that there is zero cost for the program, the savings would still seem to be relatively minor. But, they might be worth it.

There is also the potential legal costs. The ACLU has been highly critical of the program (and other Scott ventures) and if a law suit is brought, then the cost of defending the program will erode its savings. Of course, it could be argued that this is a cost that would be imposed by the ACLU and hence this should not be considered a mark against the program. Unless, of course, the program does actually violate people’s constitutional right. Some critics, including myself, have contended that it does so. While arguments against this view have merit, the arguments for it also have merit. As such, it does seem that a legal challenge would be legitimate. It must be noted that the legal cost would probably be a one time cost, incurred until the matter is settled. If it is settled in favor of the program, the long term savings might eventually offset the legal costs.

Even if the program did not save money, it could be argued for on moral grounds: the state should not be providing money to drug users who might be using the money to buy illegal drugs. Governor Scott has claimed that welfare recipients are more likely to use drugs than the population as a whole. If he is right, then it would seem that it might be worth singling them out for special testing.

Somewhat ironically, the drug testing seems to indicate that welfare recipients are less likely to use drugs. As noted above, 2% tested positive. It is estimated that 8.7% of the population over 12 used illegal drugs. Older folks (26+) have a lower 6.3% rate. As such, welfare recipients seem to be less likely to use illegal drugs than the general population.

Naturally, these numbers can be challenged. It could also be argued that the people applying for welfare took steps to pass the tests and hence their numbers are not accurate. However, it also makes sense to infer that the numbers are lower because people applying for welfare actually do use drugs at less than the general rate. This might, as some might argue, be because they are poor and hence not as able to buy drugs as, for example, college students or professionals.

A final point of concern, raised by others, is that the testing is limited to welfare recipients. People who receive state scholarships, state contracts or who hold office are not tested-even though they receive state money. State workers are, however, tested. It might be suspected that this testing is not motivated by a desire to save money or to keep state money from being spent by people who use drugs. If it were, the program would apply to all recipients of state money-including the governor. Rather, it seems that it is aimed at the poor who are being unfairly cast  as drug users. One might even say that they are being demonized.

Since I am committed to truth over ideology, if it turns out that the welfare recipients are, in fact, using drugs at a rate significantly higher than the general population, then certain points I have made would, of course, be incorrect. After all, if the poor are like this, then there would a be relevant difference that could justify imposing drug tests on the poor and no one else.

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The Start of Classes

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on August 29, 2011
Florida A&M University College of Law

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Today is the first day of classes, although I have been back on contract since August 8. I started teaching at Florida A&M University in the fall of 1993, right after I graduated from graduate school. Back then, I was sure that I knew it all. Now I know better.

I was born in 1966 (a year which, in the eyes of my student, is distant history) and started college in 1984. This year I will have students who were born in 1993 and are now starting their freshman year in 2011. I will have to check, but I think that this officially makes me old.

In most ways, school is still the same. The basic methods of education have not really changed, aside from the fact that professors now bore students using PowerPoint rather than overhead projectors and show videos from the web rather than from a film projector or VCR.  While the university bureaucracy has far more advanced computers, everything still takes about the same amount of time. That is, too damn long. One major change, however, is that students have a far greater capacity to distract themselves. Back when I went to school, the distractions were analog: other people, a newspaper, homework for another class, or the window. Today, the distractions are mainly digital: almost every student carries a smart phone, tablet or laptop to class and has the entire digital world available to compete with me for attention. I freely admit that the rest of the world is generally far more entertaining and interesting than I am and what I have to offer. After all, how can Plato compete with porn? Leibniz does not stand a chance against LoLcats. Not even Foucault can match the power of Facebook.

True, I can fight back a bit in the “smart classrooms.” However, I still have classes in the “dumb” classrooms where it is just me, my notes, a whiteboard and an Expo marker. I don’t even have writers, props or extras to help me out. I do have a husky, but she is addicted to Netflix and hence would be no help at all-she’d be up on a desk, staring at an episode of Weeds over a student’s shoulder.

I am certain that my predecessors, the folks who had to teach me and my fellows, thought similar things about us. After all, we had the Sony Walkman and the newspaper. They just had chalk and an overhead projector. Somehow they managed to provide us with a pretty good education and I am, of course, obligated to do the same for the current generation. Naturally, some of them will go on to be professors and I can only imagine what they will be competing with. I’m guessing solid Facebook holograms and Hookerbots. I can hear them now: “Those old professors had it easy! We didn’t have Hookerbots back then, just plain old Facebook!”

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Anti-Social Writers

Posted in Miscellaneous by Michael LaBossiere on August 28, 2011
Medieval illustration of a Christian scribe wr...

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While I do not make my living as a writer, I do consider myself part of that sometimes disreputable clan. While much can be said about writers, one thing that I hear rather often is that writers tend to be anti-social (at least when they write). Since I know numerous self-proclaimed writers who make a point of writing in very social settings, I am well aware that the anti-social label is not one that should be considered universally applying to all writers. It should also not be taken to apply to writers at all times. After all, while I consider myself to be a bit anti-social when writing, I am otherwise a rather social person-especially for a nerdtastic introvert.

As far as why I consider myself anti-social as a writer, it is because I prefer to avoid interacting with people when I am trying to write. When I am seriously engaged in writing, I do not check my email, I do not have any chat software going (okay, I never actually do), and I feel ever increasing resentment with every ring of the phone. While I can tolerate having people around when I write, I feel a perhaps irrational level of irritation with every interruption inflicted upon me. As such, when I am writing I endeavor to be away from people.

It is not that I do not like people or consider my writing to be of greater value than interacting with people. What it is, I think, is something that appears to be inherent in the nature of writing-or, more accurately, in the nature of my writing.

While I can hack out words under almost any circumstances, true and proper writing seems to require the right sort of conditions. These seem to involve relative quiet and a freedom from interruptions and distractions. Since other people are an abundant source of interruptions and distractions, it is natural for writers to try to avoid them while writing.

I have also found that writing shares a lot in common with running. While I can almost always run or write, there are times when I am in (as they say) the zone. In the case of running, I feel like I am flying over the terrain. In the case of writing, the ideas and words are pouring forth in an almost magical stream. Of course, this can be broken. In the case of running, if someone or something stops me, it is hard to get back into that zone again. The same holds for writing-if someone interrupts me and forces me to stop, the spell is broken and the magic is gone. Sometimes I can get back into that writing groove, but I often cannot. I can still push the keys, but it is just not the same.

Non-writers, as the Tea Party folks might say, generally don’t get it. Since they do not understand, they tend to resent any resentment shown by writers who they interrupt-especially when their interruption was an attempt to do something they regard as nice. For example, a husband might bring his wife a beer while she is writing and try to engage her in conversation about her writing with the intent of being supportive. However, he might not realize that she was in the middle of a very good idea and now has found that the thread of thought has become tangled. Writers, not surprisingly, often over-react to interruptions, thus making them rather annoying.

Some writers attempt to address this problem by making it clear that they should not be interrupted while writing (except for matters of importance). Wise writers are careful to make sure that this practice does not damage their relationships with other people. After all, many people find the idea of someone placing themselves “off limits” to be annoying. However, it can be useful to discuss the matter with such people and get them to understand by drawing analogy to activities they do that they do not want interrupted (such as watching a movie, engaging in a hobby or sleeping).

This method can be effective, provided that it is done with due respect for others and handled in a tactful manner. Of course, some people just cannot resist interrupting and annoying other people.

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Ineligible for Survey

Posted in Miscellaneous, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 27, 2011
The main Grooveshark Logo

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While I am not inclined to waste my time on “entertaining” surveys, I am willing to spend a few minutes doing those that actually offer something worth my time. For example, Grooveshark offers points in return for surveys that can be used to get the premium or mobile services. I have also done the Home Depot survey each time I’ve shopped there (a few minutes is worth  a shot at a $5,000 card, I suppose).

While I have been able to do a few of the surveys, I have found that I am often ineligible for them. Usually I am informed of this after I am asked my age, gender and race. Apparently I am not in a prime demographic-or perhaps companies and politicians know all they need to know about middle-aged white looking guys. After all, we apparently dominated the world for quite some time.

While it is wise not to read too much into survey questions and how they sort the eligible from the ineligible (or desirable from the undesirable), these surveys do provide some basis for speculation regarding what the hot demographics might be.

I have noticed that nearly every survey asks if I am Hispanic, usually in the first or second question. Since Hispanics are a rapidly growing segment of the population, politicians and pitchmen (and women) now want to know as much as they can about Hispanics so they can sell them stuff ranging from soap to politicians. Naturally, they want to know about other folks, but Hispanics seem to be the hot demographic now.

I have also noticed that age often seems to be a deciding factor. In general, there seems to be more interest in the youth in these surveys. This might be, of course, because there is still an assumption that the internet is for the young. Or it might be that the marketing folks think they know enough about the older folks already and they wonder what the youth think.

If these surveys are any indication, I suspect that in upcoming elections there will be a concerted effort by many politicians to appeal to young Hispanic voters. It will be interesting to see how things will be changed relative to past elections. I also suspect that some politicians will take a sort of reverse approach and appeal to the fear some people have regarding the youth and Hispanics (and especially young Hispanics).

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Kinder & the Non-Scandal Scandal

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 26, 2011
Peter Kinder

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Missouri’s lieutenant governor Peter Kinder has become embroiled in a sexless sex scandal. A photo of him and  former Penthouse Pet Tammy Chapman has been making the rounds and the problem is that the photo was taken at a pantless bar. Kinder was, presumably, wearing pants and the photo does not show the Pet below the waist.

Kinder’s handlers initially tried to blame the liberal media for manufacturing a scandal. However, this defense failed as it turned out the story was correct in its details. Of course, there is the question of whether or not this situation is really a scandal. While I am generally skeptical of the unceasing cries about media liberal bias, I do agree that the media has a bias in terms of tending to present stories in ways calculated to attract attention. This seems to result in the media folks casting non-scandals as scandals. After all, the term “scandal” catches peoples’ attention. So, I shall endeavor to sort out whether this is a scandal or not.

While I would not go to a strip club myself (mainly because they seem like sad, pathetic places), this aspect of the scandal hardly seems all that scandalous. While strip clubs are typically looked down on by folks who want to take the moral high ground, they are legal and a (somewhat) accepted part of the culture. Kinder is also single hence there is not even the small moral concern that a married man is staring at half naked women. As such, this part is a bit creepy, but not a scandal.

However,  Chapman alleges that Kinder was obsessed with her in the 1990s and that he recently offered her the chance to live in a condo paid for by his campaign finances. If this is true, then this would clearly be a more serious matter. Obviously enough, using campaign money to provide someone with a condo is morally unacceptable and most likely illegal. Naturally it should not be assumed that Kinder actually made such an offer, nor should it be assumed that even if he did mention such an offer that it was intended seriously. As such, until it is shown that Kinder did something wrong, he should be regarded as innocent. But,  if this accusation has merit, then it would provide grounds for a scandal.

Oddly enough, Kinder tried the “youth defense” regarding his past involvement with Chapman. While it is well established that the youth generally have worse judgment than the more mature, there are two obvious replies here. First, being young is still not a good excuse. Second, Kinder was 40 when he was first involved with her. As much as I would like to regard the 40s as a time of the folly of youth, that is not the case. So, the youth defense fails.

Of course, being involved with a former Penthouse Pet is not illegal nor would I be inclined to take it as evidence for being unfit for office. If he were married or if he was cavorting with hookers, then things would be rather different. However, Kinder casts himself as a conservative and this sort of behavior has not endeared him to the social conservatives in his party. After all, a good social conservative is not supposed to hang out at strip clubs. However, this does not seem to really hit a level that is worthy of being a scandal. True, it can be manufactured into a scandal, but this hardly seems justified.
While the truth of Chapman’s allegations are not yet known, one thing that is known is that Kinder has spent thousands of taxpayer dollars on hotel stays. While staying in hotels on the taxpayer’s dime is not illegal (provided the proper procedures are used) this does stain his Tea Party credentials. After all, the Tea Party is supposed to be all about reducing government spending and Kinder’s taste for luxury hotels and tax dollars runs afoul of this. However, Kinder certainly seems to have done nothing illegal, hence all that can be said is that he seems to fail to practice what he preaches.  This is hardly a scandal.

 

 

“I am sorry, but the price of cavorting with Penthouse Pets in your 40s is that you don’t get to be governor of a Bible Belt state in your 50s,” Garrison wrote.

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Libya

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 25, 2011
Coat of arms of Libya -- the "Hawk of Qur...

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Since being at war seems to be our natural state it is hardly surprising that our three main wars have drifted in and out of media focus. Our most recent war, Libya, seems to be going the best. While we are providing critical air power and support, the actual ground fighting is not dominated by American forces. Also, this war has been rather cheap as far as wars go-mainly because others are involved and we are not (at least not yet) dumping truckloads of cash in an attempt at “nation building.”

At this point, the rebel forces seem to be well on the path to victory. The obvious questions now are “what happens next?” and “what will the role of the United States be?” As far as what happens next, the most likely scenario is that Gadhafi will come to a bad end and the rebels will be faced with sorting out who will run the show. This might lead to another round of fighting or there might be  a more peaceful solution.

The role of the United States hinges, obviously enough, on how things pan out with the rebels. So far we have followed a a fairly limited engagement strategy and have not gone the invasion route that has proved rather costly in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though the situation might change, I see little advantage in having yet another invasion. Given our economy and our involvement in two other wars it would make sense to keep our involvement in Libya limited.

That said, there is the concern that the  post-Gadhafi Libya might be such that the United States will need to step up its level of involvement. After all, Libya has oil and has some strategic importance. We certainly would not want, for example, the Chinese to gain too much influence in the region. Ideally, of course, the rebels will create a stable and pro-Western government. Failing that, perhaps we can get the French to take this one.

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Getting Things Done

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 24, 2011
Character co-created by Will Eisner. Image fro...

Mr. Effective?

While philosophers are often cast as the sort of fine folks who achieve nothing, I have a modest reputation as a person who gets things done. When I was in high school, I briefly picked up the nickname “Mr. Effective” because of this. While it was intended to mock me, it actually sounded pretty cool-I can imagine a super hero (or villain) with that name.

When I was an undergraduate, I also had the annoying habit of getting things done and this continued in graduate school. One of my professors still talks about the time I turned in a draft for a paper before the semester had even started. When I became a professor,  I still stuck with my ways and created anew a reputation for getting things done.  I crank out publications, I complete all my duties quickly, and so on. One rather serious downside of being a person who gets things done is that people are always bringing me things to do, which can be rather tiring. s you might suspect, I am the facilitator for my academic unit (like being a chair, but with no benefits. None at all.) and often end up chairing committees. I also get stuck with the lion’s share of paper work (although an actual lion would probably just piss on the paper rather than doing any paperwork).

Not surprisingly, people have asked me about the secret of my ability to get things done. When I was a student, it was mostly about getting papers done. My answer was both obvious and honest, although a bit of a joke: “everyone writes their papers in two days. I just do my two days at the start of the semester, rather than at the end.” While I was trying to be funny, I realized that what I said was actually pretty close to the mark: I did not really work harder than most people, I just did not put things off.

I thought about this over the years and it developed into one of my basic principles: the way to get something done is to do it. That, of course, seems like an obvious truism. However, it is a secret of my success: I get stuff done because I do it. What strikes me as odd is that, as some folks would say, many other people just don’t get it.  I’ve noticed that many other people talk about how much they have to do. In fact, they talk a great about it. But, they are as short on doing as they are long on talking. However, things do not get done unless they are done. It really is often as simple as that.

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Tea Partiers and Muslims

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on August 23, 2011
Description: A Ku Klux Klan meeting in Gainesv...

A racist group.

I recently had an interesting discussion about the Tea Party and Muslims. It began with a Tea Party person being upset about the accusations of racism against the Tea Party. I think I surprised him a bit when I agreed that the Tea Party folks are often accused of being racist on the basis of a very visible fringe element-the sort of folks who carry signs depicting Obama as witch doctor. I also made the point that a group should not be defined by its fringe element or by the worst of those who claim to belong to the group. Rather, a group should be assessed on its actual values and the general behavior of its core. So, for example, the various Tea Party groups are not racist groups. In contrast, something like the KKK would be a paradigm of a racist group. That said, there are some grounds for being concerned about what seem to be racist elements in individual Tea Partiers. Of course, the same can be said about Democrats.

The conversation then switched to the matter of Muslims and how they pose a threat to the United States. I did the obvious move and pointed out that he had just agreed that a group should not be judged by its fringe or worst elements. To be consistent, what applies to the Tea Party should also apply to Muslims. After all, just as the fact that there are racists in the Tea Party does not make the Tea Party a racist movement, the fact that there are Muslim terrorists does not make Islam a terrorist faith.

As I expected, the counter was that Islam is inherently a religion of terror while the Tea Party is about taxes and not about race. This is a reasonable counter in the sense that it is based on the principle of relevant difference: if being a terrorist is part of being a Muslim and being a racist is not part of being a Tea Partier, then all Muslims would be terrorists while Tea Party members need not be racists.

While I do agree that most Tea Party folks are not racists, I do not agree that all Muslims are terrorists. While people do point to quotes from the Koran, people also point to some rather bad stuff in the bible. Just as I would not infer that all Christians are pro-slavery based on what the bible says, I would not infer that all Muslims are pro-terror based on what the Koran says about jihad.  Fortunately enough, most people do not follow their holy books to the letter.

My considered view is that labeling the entire Tea Party as racist is just as unfair and unjust as labeling all Muslims as terrorists. As such, the Tea Party folks who resent being called racists should extend the same courtesy to Muslims and refrain from labeling them all as terrorists. Sure, there are Muslims who are terrorists-just as there are Tea Partiers who are racists.

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Text Books

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on August 22, 2011
The Text Book of Weightlifting

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While the Fall 2011 semester does not get started until next week, I have been dutifully preparing my classes since my contract kicked in (August 8). As happens every two years, the text book I use for my Critical Inquiry class has been updated to a new edition. While new editions of text books are sometimes created for good reasons (new material, improvements, and so on) it is common for books to be “updated” just to make past editions obsolete. For example, I used a text book that “updated” by changing the cover color and removing a few of the readings I actually used. I stopped using that book and switched to creating my own custom reader.

Since publishers are in the business of making money, this practice makes sense. After all, if the books were updated only when an update was actually needed, then the folks making the money would be those selling and reselling the old books over and over again. In contrast, the publishers (and authors) would be out of the loop after the initial sale. By updating books on a regular basis the publishers are able to stay in the money chain. Being a writer myself, I understand this. However, I also expect that the update be a real update as well-I am not going to make my students go with a new edition just because it has a new cover and fewer readings. Honesty also forces me to note that I would rather not update my own class material unless there is a good reason to do so. I do not consider helping a publisher make money a good enough reason.

Another point of concern about text books is their cost. The paperback book I use for my Critical Inquiry class sells for $91.35 on Amazon. It is color and has 546 pages. By way of comparison, the Pathfinder Core Rulebook is hardcover, 30 pages longer and sells for $60 less on Amazon. I do find it increasingly hard to justify the cost of a textbook. After all, companies like Lulu can print books for very little and then there is the matter of ebooks which have incredibly low distribution costs.

When students do ask me about the cost, I am honest and say that the prices certainly seem needlessly high. I do, however, note that the process of creating a professional text book can be expensive. Such books are written by professionals and must be evaluated by other professionals before they are published. As such, part of the cost of a book is ensuring that it is a proper textbook and not junk (although there is plenty of junk out there). While cranking out fiction is challenging, producing a good textbook is a great deal of work. After all, one cannot just make stuff up (even in philosophy). As such, the difference in content can also be seen as justifying the pricing distinction between a paperback copy of Harry Potter and a physics text.

There is also the fact that some text books come with considerable online additions. For example, the text I use for Critical Inquiry includes an extensive array of online material such as interactive exercises and other educational goodies. Taken as an entire package, the price is reasonable. Almost.

There is also the matter of market size. While a popular paperback will sell a large number of copies, text books are generally not best sellers. After all, they are aimed at a small population (college students) that is made even smaller by the fact that books are field and even class specific. Also, there are many different books on each subject which means that a critical thinking text might only be used by a few professors at a few universities. To make a profit, the cost per unit must be fairly high. Of course, telling students that the publishers have to charge a lot because they cannot sell enough books to charge less does not really go over well.

One impact of the cost is, of course, that students usually try to avoid buying the book. I am, as all professors are, asked if the book is necessary for the course (weirdly enough people still ask me this when the book is a free download). Presumably the publishers have estimated how much they would make if they lowered prices to encourage purchasing. Perhaps they have found that a lower price would not result in an increase in revenue.

Because of the book problem, I use public domain works in most of my classes and make them available as a PDF “course pack.” Fortunately most of the best material in philosophy is in the public domain. Other subjects do not have this as a viable option. For example, learning engineering from books that have gone into the public domain due to time is probably not the best idea (although there are no doubt some very good old books on the fundamentals).

Yes, you do need the book.

 

 

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