A Philosopher's Blog

Free College?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on May 31, 2013
Massachusetts Hall, Harvard University, Cambri...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The cost of college has increased considerably since I was a student. Back then, college was expensive but it was still possible for students of modest means to go to  a good school and graduate with a modest amount of debt. That is, in fact, what I did. Now that I am a professor, things are different: college is far more expensive (even factoring in inflation) and students are often burdened with crushing debt. In some cases this debt is due to poor decision making on the part of the student. In many cases it is due to a combination of the high cost of college and poor economic times.

Not surprisingly, some have suggested that the public higher education system follow the model of the K-12 education system. To be specific, it has been suggested that college should be free. While this certainly would initially appeal to parents and students, it is rather important to consider what is meant by “free” here.

In one sense, K-12 public education is free. That is, the students are not charged to attend school and the parents do not receive specific bills from the schools. In another sense, K-12 education is not free. After all, someone has to pay for the buildings, buses, salaries and so on. Those someones are, of course, people like me and (most likely) people like you. We pay for the schools through various taxes and various other means. As such, the free education is not really free. Rather, what “free” means in this context is that the cost is shifted from the students and parents to the whole population of people who pay the taxes and such used to fund the schools. That is, we have what some folks would regard as the socialization of education. While there has been an increased push towards privatization of education via voucher proposals and such, few have advocated removing the public funding of public education. The usual concern has been about where the public money is funneled.  However, we have generally had a collective agreement that public funding of K-12 education is a public good worth funding, albeit in rather unequal ways.

Following the K-12 model, free public college would be free in one sense and not free in another. That is, the students and parents would not be specifically billed by the schools and thus the education would be free. However,  someone would have to pay for all the campuses, salaries and so on and those someones would, once again, be people like me and (most likely) you.

The main benefit of shifting to “free” public higher education, is that the shift in cost from the students/parents would presumably allow more people to attend college and would, obviously, allow them to graduate without any debt (at least from the cost of education). While there is considerable debate about the value of college education (and whether or not everyone should go to college) it does seem reasonable to think that a college degree is generally a plus. Also, it would certainly be advantageous for students to graduate without facing the burden of education debt (although they would still face non-academic debt).

The most obvious concern about “free” public education is that funding it would obviously require replacing the income that was once generated by students/parents paying for school. This would most likely mean that the cost would be largely spread across the general population of taxpayers. That is, while parents and students would pay less than before, everyone would have to pay more to allow for “free” college.  Also worth considering is the fact that making college free would increase college enrollment, thus increasing the cost to the taxpayers relative to the current system (which does include some funding of public colleges/universities).

One moral concern is whether or not this shift in costs would be fair to people who did not attend college or send their children to college. However, the arguments in favor of “free” K-12 education could be modified a bit and pressed into service here. Likewise, arguments against “free” K-12 education could be modified a bit and used to argue against this. Naturally, new arguments could be forged against “free” college education because of the differences between college education and K-12 education.

Since I greatly value education and think that it is a public good, I would tend to favor “free” college n the same grounds that I favor “free” K-12 education. I would, of course, have to accept the need to put my money where my values are and be willing to pay more to allow “free” college, even though my college days are long past and I have no children. However, I obviously do not speak for everyone and the question of whether the public good generated by “free” college education would be worth the cost to the public.

Returning to the practical matter of cost, one way that the decrease in revenue would be addressed is by (ironically) reducing (or at least not increasing) enrollment. After all, rather than generating extra income each student would generate only extra cost.  While this approach would help offset the lost income, there would need to be a system of rationing education. Currently, education is distributed primarily based on wealth (and to a much lesser extent merit). That is, the ability to pay is the main selecting factor for who goes to college. When the cost of school is taken out of the matter, then another selection system will be needed, especially when “free” college would probably entail that many more people would want to go to college. While the system used might be fair and just, this seems unlikely-especially because of what already occurs in the K-12 system. In any case, making college “free” would thus not seem to broaden the access to college. Unless, of course, college is made “free” and the loss of income is not countered by reducing or maintaining enrollment.

If college were made “free” and enrollment was not reduced or kept the same, then schools would obviously need to grow enough to handle the influx of students. This would seem to have two possible results. The first is that the citizens would need to pay more for this growth. This would raise, once again, the question of whether the increased cost would be worth the gain (if any) for the general good.  The other is that resources would need to be spread ever thinner. For example, my typical class might go from 35 students to 140 (or 350) as demand surged. Or, of course, both would probably happen: people would pay more while resources are spread even thinner. Naturally, online classes could help with this, but there would still be questions about the quality of such massive education systems.

It is worth noting that even if public education was free, then private colleges and universities would still  not be free. While this might initially hurt them (why pay to go to Marietta College when the University of Maine is free?), if public education becomes rationed or diluted, then private schools could still do quite well. After all, people with adequate money sometimes chose private K-12 education over the “free” public education. There is also the fact that, for example, an expensive degree from Harvard would be worth far more than a “free” degree from a public school and thus paying for education could still be a good investment.

While “free” college” is an idea worth considering, it must always be remembered that “free” just means that the cost is shifted, not that there is no cost.

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College & Critical Thinking

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on May 29, 2013
Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With the ever increasing cost of college education there is ever more reason to consider whether or not college is worth it. While much of this assessment can be in terms of income, there is also the academic question  of whether or not students actually benefit intellectually from college.

The 2011 study Academically Adrift showed that a significant percentage of students received little or no benefit from college, which is obviously a matter of considerable concern. Not surprisingly, there have been additional studies aimed at assessing this matter. Of special concern to me is the claim that a new study shows that students do improve in critical thinking skills. While this study can be questioned, I will attest to the fact that the weight of evidence shows that American college students are generally weak at critical thinking. This is hardly shocking given that most people are weak at critical thinking.

My university, like so many others, has engaged in a concerted effort to enhance the critical thinking skills of students. However, there are reasonable concerns regarding the methodology used in such attempts. There is also the concern as to whether or not it is even possible, in practical terms, to significantly enhance the critical thinking skills of college students over the span of the two or four (or more) degree.  While I am something of an expert at critical thinking (I mean actual critical thinking, not the stuff that sprung up so people could profit from being “critical thinking” experts), my optimism in this matter is somewhat weak. This is because I have given due consideration to the practical problem of this matter and have been teaching this subject for over two decades.

As with any form of education, it is wise to begin by considering the general qualities of human beings. For example, if humans are naturally good, then teaching virtue would be easier. In the case at hand, the question would be whether or not humans (in general) are naturally good at critical thinking.

While Aristotle famously regarded humans as rational animals, he also noted that most people are not swayed by arguments or fine ideals. Rather, they are dominated by their emotions and must be ruled by pain. While I will not comment on ruling with pain, I will note that Aristotle’s view about human rationality has been borne out by experience. To fast forward to now, experts speak of the various cognitive biases and emotional factors that impede human rationality. This matches my own experience and I am confident that it matches that of others. To misquote Lincoln, some people are irrational all the time and all the people are irrational some of the time. As such, trying to transform people into competent  critical thinkers will generally be very difficult, perhaps as hard as making people virtuous.

In addition to the biological foundation, there is also the matter of preparation. For most students, their first exposure to a substantial course or even coverage of critical thinking occurs in college. It seems unlikely that students who have gone almost two decades without proper training in critical thinking will be significantly altered by college. One obvious solution, taken from Aristotle, is to begin proper training in critical thinking at an early age.

Another matter of serious concern is the fact that students are exposed to influences that discourage critical thinking and actually provide irrational influences. One example of this is the domain of politics. Political discourse tends to be, at best rhetoric, and typically involves the use of a wide range of fallacies such as the straw man, scare tactics and ad hominems of all varieties. For those who are ill-prepared in critical thinking, exposure to these influences can have a very detrimental effect and they can be led far away from reason. I would call for politicians to cease this behavior, but they seem devoted to the tools of irrationality. There is a certain irony in politicians who exploit and encourage poor reasoning being among those lamenting the weak critical thinking skills of students and endeavoring to blame colleges for the problems they themselves have helped create.

Another example of this is the domain of entertainment. As Plato argued in the Republic,  exposure to corrupting influences can corrupt. While the usual arguments about corruption from entertainment  focus on violence and sexuality, it is also important to consider the impact of certain amusements upon the reasoning skills of students.  Television, which has long been said to “rot the brain”, certainly seems to shovel forth fare that is hardly contributing to good reasoning. While I would not suggest censorship, I would encourage students to discriminate and steer clear of shows that seem likely to have a corrosive impact on reasoning. While it might be an overstatement to claim that entertainment can corrode reason, it does seem sensible to note that much of it contributes nothing positive to a person’s mind.

A third example of this is advertising. As with politics, advertising is the domain of persuasion. While good reasoning can persuade, it is (for most people) the weakest tool of persuasion. As such, advertisers flood us with ads employing what they regard as effective tools of persuasion. These typically involve various rhetorical devices and also the use of fallacies. Sadly, the bad logic of fallacies is generally far more persuasive than good reasoning. Students are generally exposed to significant amounts of advertising (they no doubt spend more time exposed to ads than critical thinking) and it makes sense that this exposure would impact them in detrimental ways, at least if they are not already equipped to properly assess such ads with critical thinking skills.

A final example is, of course, everyday life. Students will typically be exposed to significant amounts of poor reasoning and this will have a significant influence on them. Students will also learn what the politicians and advertisers know: the tools of irrational persuasion will serve them better in our society than the tools of reason.

Given these anti-critical thinking influences, it is something of a wonder that students develop any critical thinking skills.

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Working to the Rule

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on May 27, 2013
State Seal of Maine.

State Seal of Maine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The May 2013 issue of the NEA Higher Education Advocate featured “Working to the Rule in Maine” by Ronald J. Mosley, Jr. In his article, Mosley notes that the last time the faculty in Maine’s public higher education received a raise was four years ago. He also adds that the faculty have been working two years without a contract and that mediation and negotiation with the administration have failed. Oddly enough, this situation is not the result of a financial crisis: there have been three consecutive years of the highest annual surpluses in Maine history.  Mosley’s claims match those of my father, who just retired from the system this month.

As Mosley points out in his article, faculty have traditionally voluntarily engaged in service activities and often do so beyond what is actually expected (or contracted). While it might be tempting to some to dismiss this service as valueless,  faculty often contribute a great deal to their school and the community. In terms of schools, faculty often engage in service that is essential to the operation of the university and to the students, yet is not compensated. To use a concrete example, I am currently contracted at 20% to teach one summer class. That is all my Assignment of Responsibility (AOR) specifies. As such, I have no contractual obligation to do anything beyond that class. However, students still need advising in the summer and I have administrative tasks that need to be completed, such as serving on a critical accreditation committee and handling the various matters required to run the philosophy & religion program. In terms of the community, faculty also provide services to the professional and general community. To use one concrete example, I serve as an (unpaid) referee for professional journals and engage in other (unpaid) community service activities. These extra services, then are often rather important.

In normal conditions (although what is normal now seems to be rather abnormal) faculty willingly engage in such extra efforts “for the good of the_____” (insert “students”, “school”, “community” and so on as needed). There is also the fact that in better times, faculty are treated with some degree of respect and are reasonably well compensated and thus morale (and generosity) can be good.

However, as Mosley points out, conditions are not normal (or there is a “new normal”): while the cost of living increases yearly, there are few (or no) raises to even match this increase-thus faculty are effectively paid less each year.  There is also the fact that faculty are expected to do more each year. While Mosley does not mention this, the new obsession with assessment has added to faculty workloads and there seems to be a general trend in shifting more administrative burdens to faculty (while, bizarrely, the number of administrators and their salaries increase).  For example, I served on nine committees and ran a program review last year-all on top of my usual duties. As a final point, there is also the feeling that faculty are less (or not) respected. Such things rob faculty of motivation and income and this is certainly not good for the faculty, the schools or the students.

In response to the situation in Maine, Mosley has proposed that the faculty work to the rule. By this he means that the faculty should conscientiously complete the requirements of their contracts, but do not go beyond them. He does note that each faculty member should decide whether s/he will go beyond what is contracted. After all, students depend directly and indirectly on much of the “free” work done by faculty and many faculty members will want to work beyond the rule to avoid hurting the students. I suspect that some administrators count on this and perhaps cynically hold students “hostage” to get faculty to do uncompensated work. After all, most faculty will not refuse to advise students in the summer even if the summer contract includes no assigned advising duties.

Not surprisingly, I agree with Mosley (and not just because we are both Mainers). As a general rule, a contract is a contract and thus defines the obligations of the parties involved. While it might be nice of one or both parties to go beyond the contract, this is obviously not obligatory for either party. That is, just as the university is not obligated to drop some extra cash in my account just because it would be “for the good of Mike”, I am not obligated to put in extra hours “for the good of ___” when it is not in my AOR.

The usual counter to this view is that there are things that need to be done (such as advising or meeting the requirements for accreditation) that go beyond what is spelled out in the AOR. The rational counter to this is that things that need to be done should be added to the AOR and properly compensated. After all, if something is important enough to be done it would seem to be important enough to actually pay someone to do. If it is not important enough to pay someone to do it, then it would seem to be not worth doing.

As another point, it is worth reversing the situation. If a faculty member shirked his duties, it would be fair and just of the school to reduce his compensation, fire him or otherwise respond to such a failure to act in accord with the contract. But this would entail that the reverse is true: if the school decides to push the faculty member beyond the contract, then due compensation should be expected.

One way universities “get around” this is by having vaguely defined obligations for salaried faculty. Various other techniques are also used. For example, at my university the typical faculty member teaches four classes each semester. Each class counts as 20% of her work, thus leaving 20% for other duties. This 20% seems to be infinitely divisible-that is, no matter how many things are added to the 20%, it is always 20%. In the 2012-2013 academic year, my 20% included being the facilitator for the philosophy & religion unit, running the department web pages, advising, publishing, professional service, running the seven year program review and being a member of 9 committees.  Another faculty member might have her 20% consist of much less than my 20%, while another faculty member might (God forbid) have even more jammed in there.

Until recently, schools have been able to rely on the willingness of faculty to engage in extra work. While some of this was done in order to earn tenure, much of it was done out of a sense of obligation to the students and school and, perhaps, from a sense of being a valued member of a worthy community. However, this willingness seems to be eroding in the face of administrative decisions and attitudes. Interestingly, we might see the academy become rather like a business with each party sticking tenaciously to its contracted obligations and refusing to do more for the general good, since this notion has no place in the business model being exalted these days. Well, except as a tool used to milk free work from unwary faculty and staff.

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Scandling

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on May 24, 2013

English: Barack Obama delivers a speech at the...

The current narrative is that the Obama administration is floundering in three major scandals: Benghazi, IRS TPT (Tea Party Targeting), and the DOJ’s AP incident. I agree with Socrates’ view that the “gadflies” have a duty to keep the “horse” that is the state from falling into laziness and corruption. But, of course, I also agree with Socrates’ view that we should better ourselves rather than endeavoring to tear others down with deceits. As such, I believe it is rather important to find and properly consider the truth in these matters.

During the first four years of Obama’s administration, those who wished to attack Obama had to generally rely on made up and often absurd attacks, such as the infamous Birther and Secret Muslim movements. Obama was also charged with being a socialist, a communist, a tyrant and so on. However, these charges only seemed to stick within certain minds-those who wished to believe the worst of the president regardless of the evidence.  Interestingly, real problems such as drone assassinations, the grotesque disparities in wealth, the endemic problems in the VA, and so on were largely ignored by most folks on the left and the right. Someone more cynical than I might suspect that the pundits and politicians work to focus public rage in what they regard as safe channels.

The start of the second term saw what the folks at Fox probably regarded as a gift from on high, given that they had been desperately flogging Benghazi with little effect: two scandals that might actually have some substance. Interestingly, even the “liberal” media jumped onto the scandal bandwagon. However, the question remains as to whether or not there is any true substance behind these alleged scandals.

Again, someone more cynical than I might suggest that the pundits and politicians are focused primarily on scoring political points against Obama rather than operating from a desire for justice and ethical government. After all, some of the conservative pundits who are expressing outrage at Obama are the same people who embraced contrary views when their favorites engaged in worse misdeeds. Peggy Noonan is, of course, one of the outstanding examples: when it came to Iran-Contra, she claimed that Reagan did not know and was failed by his people. In the case of Obama, she contends that the President is fully accountable. Such blatant inconsistencies nicely reveal the truth of the matter. Naturally, folks on the left do the same thing: many of those who railed against Bush give Obama a pass on the same matters, presumably because he is their guy and Bush was not. But, left or right, such inconsistency is intellectually and morally wrong.

Someone far more cynical than I might even spin a tale of conspiracy-that outrage is generated, managed and directed so as to divert attention from real problems. After all, if the media and the people are in a froth over the IRS or the DOJ, then they have little outrage to spare for such matters as the pathetic state of our infrastructure or the fact that congress engages in legal insider trading. But, to get back to the main subject, I turn to the IRS scandal.

On the face of it, the IRS scandal is being sold as the IRS specifically targeting conservative groups. The flames of the scandal certainly have been fanned by the fact that Lerner pleaded the Fifth before Congress. While she might have been reacting out of fear because of the inflammatory rhetoric, this sort of thing is rather like when Romney refused to release his tax information: it leads people to believe that the damage that could be done by whatever is being hidden is far worse than the damage done by trying to hide it. However, let us go with the facts that are actually available.

One key part of the narrative is that the IRS only targeted conservative groups. However, the numbers show that this is not the case: only 70 of the 300 groups looked at were tea party organizations. There is also the fact that the IRS is required to determine whether or not those applying for tax-exemption are “social welfare” groups or are engaged in the sort of political activity that is forbidden to such groups. As such, the IRS was actually looking for exactly what the law required. As far as why they flagged the 300 rather than everyone, this seems to be a practical matter: the IRS was apparently faced with a flood of documents.

Another part of the narrative is that the IRS harmed those targeted for this review. However, the tax exempt status is not actually contingent on the IRS approving it: such groups can operate with that status even before official approval. Somewhat ironically, the only groups denied this status were three progressive groups: Emerge Nevada, Emerge Maine, and Emerge Massachusetts. The reason they were denied approval was because they were created to support Democrats, a violation of the law.  The IRS commissioner at the time was a Bush appointee.

The facts would seem to reveal that there is not much here in the way of  a scandal. The IRS and the administration can, however, be dinged for their poor handling of the matter. The Obama administration does have a poor track record of addressing the “scandling” from the right. Most infamously, they threw Shirley Sherrod to the wolves without even bothering to check on the facts. As such, I would say that one true scandal of the administration is how it handles allegations of scandals.

Interestingly, some conservatives are still trying to turn Benghazi into a scandal, and ABC News’ Jonathan Karl apparently engaged in fabrication, only to be exposed by CNN.  There real scandal here would seem to be on the part of those who are trying to make Benghazi into a scandal.

It might be countered that the Obama administration is so bad (perhaps a socialist, communist, Muslim tyranny) that all of these tactics are justified. That, for example, it is acceptable to manufacture a scandal so as to undercut Obama’s support (and pave the way to the White House in 2016). The easy and obvious reply to this is that if the Obama administration is truly as bad as claimed, then there would be no need to manufacture scandals. One would merely need to provide evidence of the badness and that should suffice.

I do actually think that there is considerable badness. However, this badness is of the sort that neither party wishes to expose or bring to attention of the public. Thus, we generally get a war of manufactured scandals while the real problems remain festering in the shadows.

There can, of course, be real scandals. However, what is to be rationally expected is actual objective evidence from credible sources supporting the key claims as well as a rational value assessment regarding the seriousness of the scandal. For example, the DOJ AP scandal might be a real problem-if so, a presentation of the actual facts and a rational evaluation of the wrongdoing should reveal the scandal. These rational standards are generally ignored in favor of  partisan interests and the desire to keep the eyes of America looking a certain way.

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FACTS

Posted in Business, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on May 22, 2013
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools

Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Academic institutions are expected to undergo rigorous assessment as part of their accreditation process. Roughly put, this process is supposed to show that the institution is doing what an academic institution is supposed to do. Having served on numerous committees relating to SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools), I can attest that the process is rather extensive and generates massive amounts of paper.  However, there have been proposals to change this process.

Here in Florida,  the Florida Accredited Courses and Tests Initiative, was proposed. If it, or something like it, were to become a reality, the accreditation process would radically change.  One main change would be that rather than having accreditation at the institutional level, individual courses would be accredited. Within this broad change is also a more specific change: “any individual, institution, entity or organization” could create an accredited class. Thus, I could create my own course (and so could you) and get it accredited. Companies looking to make money could also do the same thing.

One reasonable argument for this initiative is based on the claim that the existing institutional model looks at the institution as a whole rather than examining every single course. Because of this, a properly accredited university could have some classes that are lacking in rigor and quality.

While this argument has appeal (and everyone in academics knows about crappy classes at accredited schools), one obvious reply is that institutions are required to engage in assessment at all levels. As the facilitator for Philosophy & Religion at FAMU, I have to complete a detailed assessment of the program and  courses each academic year. Every 7 years the unit goes through a complete year long review, featuring an outside consultant who is an expert in philosophy and/or religion. I also serve on committees that are focused on insuring quality and rigor in individual classes. This is all required. Thus, the idea that individual classes are free from supervision is in error.

It could be countered that there should still be review of  each class individually to ensure that there is rigor and quality. On the one hand, I do agree with this. After all, I do exactly that every year. On the other hand, there is the practical concern with  having every single class subject to individual review in terms of the costs in resources and time. The obvious question is whether such resources needed to do this  properly would be better used in another capacity and whether or not such micro-managing would have positive results that could not be provided by the current system. This, of course, lays aside the concern about academic freedom: impositions of “rigor” and “quality” might be used to suppress certain ideas.

Interestingly, the plan that has been proposed does not seem to involve the rigorous examination of individual classes for rigor and quality. As it stands, the proposal is that the head of Florida’s public school system and the chancellor of the state university system would handle the certification process.

One obvious concern, which echoes one talking point against Obamacare, is that it would really remove the decision making regarding college curriculum from faculty and schools and place it in the hands of two political appointees. That is, a bureaucrat would come between students and their education.

From the standpoint of well-connected vendors, this would be an ideal situation. Rather that having their “educational products” subject to evaluation by educational professional and subject to a rigorous accreditation environment, they would simply need to lobby these two appointees to certify their courses.

On the one hand, this could be a gold mine for me. I am comfortable with technology, have crafted online classes and I have that PhD  that companies probably want to stick on their education product. Although I lack political connections, I could conceivable create MikeED and make far better money selling online classes than I do actually teaching classes for real.

On the other hand, there is the serious concern that such academic products would be lacking in quality and that students would be overcharged and exploited. After all, with all their defects public schools are dedicated to education rather than profit. While the profit motivation can lead to good results, there is the concern that those who are motivated by profit will be more concerned about profit to the detriment of education. After all, the for-profit schools have shown a dismal record in terms of cost, quality and job-placement.

The second major aspect to the proposal is to create statewide tests for K-12 and college undergraduates. These tests, which would be run by contractors rather than institutions, would allow students to get college credit by taking a test rather than a course.

The idea of students getting credit from taking a test is not new: Advanced Placement, ​International Baccalaureate and College Level Examination Program, and CLEP all provide students with this option. However, under the current system it is up to the schools to decide whether they accept the credit or not. Under the proposed system, public schools in Florida would have to accept the credits. These tests would, presumably, be online.

On the one hand, this does have some appeal. In the ideal, well-prepared or talented students could save time and money by taking a test rather than a class.  After all, if a student has already mastered the skills of English 101, it would certainly be  a waster of her time to be forced to take the class just because it is required. Because of this, I do favor the idea of well-designed tests that would allow students to do just this sort of thing.

On the other hand, there are the obvious worries. One is the likelihood of corruption in such a system. A second is that students will be able to pass such tests without actually learning the skills and knowledge that such courses are supposed to provide. That is, a student could just prep to pass the specific test rather than any learning the subject.  To be fair, a student could do the same sort of thing in a traditional class and pass without learning. However, the course setting would seem far more likely to impart skills and knowledge.

I do expect and even hope that technology will change and improve education. I also favor education reform: college is too expensive and there are numerous defects in the existing system. However, this proposal seems to be obviously focused on allowing certain folks to turn the public education system into a source of profits. My own worry echoes that of a Republican law maker: this proposal would seem to ring the dinner bell for scam artists.

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Apple & Taxes

Posted in Business, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 21, 2013
A Macintosh 128k, the first Macintosh model, i...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The U.S. senate has called shenanigans on Apple’s clever tax strategy.  While congress has been rather tolerant of other corporations who avoid taxes (such as GE), the senators have apparently decided to go after Apple.

In some ways, this situation is entertaining. After all, liberals who are against corporations are supposed to be all gooey about Apple, thus putting them into an emotional predicament. Also, conservatives who are supposed to not be fans of Apple’s alleged liberal leanings must be torn over going after a corporation on the issue of taxes. Someone more cynical than I might speculate that Apple’s main “crime” was failing to pay the most important tax of all, namely the congressional tax that is paid via lobbying.

The main attack on Apple is that the company was able to engage in some clever (or dubious) tactics that allowed them to avoid paying all the taxes that the company should have paid. Apple has pointed out that the company pays the most (billions) in taxes, but folks in the senate have claimed that Apple should still be paying more.

While I do have some concerns that the senate is unfairly singling out Apple while giving a free pass to companies that are infamous for not paying taxes, this situation does have some positive aspects to it.  Perhaps most importantly, it is drawing attention to the dubious tactics employed by companies to avoid paying taxes. Of course, I suspect that little reform will come out of this in terms of the more outrageous offenders when it comes to dodging tax obligations.

Someone more cynical than I might note that the existing system is, in many ways, a protection racket run by congress. They create harsh tax laws and then allow tax breaks for those who pay the congress “tax.” Companies generally consider this an acceptable deal-the congress “tax” is still less than what they would have to pay if they were fully subject to the corporate tax rate set by congress. Naturally, it would be better if the tax laws were both fairer and simpler, but it seems unlikely that enough folks in Congress are willing to make such changes.

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A Review of Travels in Elysium

Posted in Book Review, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 20, 2013

Travels in Elysium
William Azuski
539 pages
2013
Iridescent
$18.90

While it is tempting to embrace subjectivism when it comes to matters of art, experience has shown me that what I feel about a work merely reveals what I feel. When I was more foolish, I took this feeling to reveal the quality of a work. However, I have found that works that I rather like can actually be of rather poor or dubious aesthetic value while I can also recognize the aesthetic merit of works I dislike. I make these points because honesty compels me to say that I did not like or enjoy Travels in Elysium, which is billed as “a metaphysical mystery set on the Aegean island of Santorini.” The work did remind me a bit of the most famous “metaphysical” mystery books, namely Dan Brown’s works—which I also do not like or enjoy. I do freely admit that the failing might lie within in me rather than within the pages of this book. I will, however, endeavor to present a just assessment of the work.

The protagonist of the tale is 22-year-old Nicholas Pedrosa who is drawn into the drawn out story by Marcus James Huxley, an archaeologist (or something like that). Huxley has found 5,000 year old writings on Santorini and Pedrosa is hired to be part of his expedition to uncover the ancient mystery of what happened to the people when their city was buried by a volcano. Unlike in Pompeii, there are no signs of the inhabitants.  Pedrosa also walks into another mystery: Huxley’s previous “young assistant” has died.

Azuski endeavors to work in some philosophy, namely Plato’s (rather brief and not very philosophical) tale of Atlantis. Being a professional philosopher, I am generally interested when a work of fiction makes effective use of some aspect of philosophy. However, the tale of Atlantis is more a work of Platonic fiction than Platonic philosophy. The mere fact that something is written by a person who is a philosopher, even in the context of a philosophical dialogue, need not make the content philosophical. However, people tend to take a broad view of philosophy—most especially when it comes to the much distorted field of metaphysics. As such, this could be regarded as a metaphysical mystery with philosophical elements—at least in some sense of these terms.

In the course of the story, the narrative shifts around in time—jumping from the present setting to the distant past and back again. While I do enjoy a well done time shift in a narrative, the shifts in this novel are abrupt and rough in a way that seems to disjoint (rather than enhance) the narrative. I will note that some readers might be more adept than I in such matters, so perhaps this is a failing on my part as well.

Some critics have already pointed out that Azuski’s tale suffers from technical defects, namely in regards to his descriptions of how archaeology is conducted and how active and erupting volcanoes work. While such errors can be regarded as a defect in a work, I tend to go with Aristotle in this matter. That is, such errors are faults, but they are not defects in regards to the artistic aspects of the work. To paraphrase Aristotle, to badly present the facts of archaeology would be a factual error, but to present a story of archaeology poorly would be an artistic error. There is also the fact that, as readers will find, perhaps the seeming errors are not errors because of the final “twist ending” of the story. But, as just noted, from the standpoint of assessing the work as a work of art (and not a report on archaeology or volcanoes) what matters is the aesthetic qualities.

Some works are so well-written that reading them is like sledding down that perfect snow covered hill: the mind goes smoothly and pleasantly over the words. While such works can contain matters that must be wrestled with, the writing aids one in this struggle rather than impeding it. When I started reading the work, it reminded me of the times when my sled ran out of snow and hit patches of dirt or gravel—slow and painful going. Since I was asked to review the work, I pressed on. The sledding improved a bit, but it was rather like sledding in a storm—I found the work confusing (and not in the good way that a mystery should be initially confusing). Again, this could be a failing on my part—I am not, as a rule, much of a mystery fan. However, I will say that the author seems to overuse the red herring device and does not use it to good effect (that is, to advance the plot and enhance the mystery). It felt as if the author had written multiple stories and, not wanting them to go to waste, simply copied and pasted them into the text of the novel to serve as red herrings.

After 538 pages, the novel ends on page 539. To avoid spoiling to book, I will not reveal the “surprise” ending. However, I did find the ending disappointing and unsatisfying. I had hoped to at least be rewarded with an original and interesting ending after slogging through so much text, but this was not the case.

This novel had, I believe, considerable potential. However, it would have benefited greatly from some considerable pruning, editing and rewriting. While I did not enjoy the book, those who like Dan Brown might find this metaphysical mystery appealing.  Kirkus has a very positive review of this book and I recommend that readers of this review read that to get an alternative view of the text.

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DOJ vs AP

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 17, 2013
Seal of the United States Department of Justice

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During the Bush administration, I was critical of the misdeeds of government. Being consistent, I apply the same standards to the Obama administration.

While Obama failed to close the infamous prison and has run a drone assassination campaign of dubious legality and morality, his administration  has largely avoided the volume of scandals that have hit previous administrations. While the same Republicans who said very little about 54 attacks on American consulates/embassies under the Bush administration worked tirelessly with the Fox News allies to make Benghazi into a scandal, it would seem that Fox News’ dream has come true: two true scandals on Obama’s watch.

The first involves the IRS which apparently flagged conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status for special review. While it has yet to be proven that Obama was directly connected to this, I do hold that leaders are accountable for the actions of those who fall under their authority. This is, of course, can be mitigated by various factors such as reasonable knowledge and the extent to which the leader directly oversees those in question. For example, the CEO of GE is obviously not accountable for a low-level employee stealing office supplies in some office overseas.

While some claim that this scandal has been deflated, this matter probably needs more sorting out.

The second involves the Justice Department obtaining two months of the Associated Press’ telephone records.  As happened so often in the Bush Administration, this apparent violation of rights was  defended by concerns of national security. In this case, the concern was in regards to a criminal investigation of leaked information in a May 7, 2012 AP story about the CIA stopping an al Qaida bomb plot in Yemen.

During the Bush years, I was critical of using appeals to national security to warrant violations of rights and liberties. Being consistent, I must be critical of the same approach when it is used under Obama.

As I have argued before, such apparent violations can sometimes be properly justified by appeals to national security. In the AP case, there do seem to be legitimate grounds for an investigation. However, the handling of the phone records by the DOJ certainly seems to be excessive and unwarranted and it seems to have grotesquely violated the rights of the reporters and editors, not to mention assaulting the foundation of the free press.  This is clearly an unjust act on the part of the department of justice.

Naturally, I cannot help but compare the views expressed on Fox News and by some Republicans when a Republican administration was engaged in violating rights (such as illegal wire tapping, illegal detention and torture) as well as other wrongful and/or incompetent behavior (such as the invasion of Iraq on the basis of lies). This time around, Fox News and I are sort of on the same side in that we are critical of the IRS and DOJ. However, I am acting on the basis of a consistent application of moral principle and the folks at Fox News are presumably following their usual approach of attacking Obama.

 

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Ruins of Ulthus Free on Amazon 5/16/2013-5/21/2013

Posted in Pathfinder by Michael LaBossiere on May 16, 2013

Ruins-of-Ulthus-CoverA Pathfinder Role Playing Game compatible adventure for 2nd-5th level characters.

Description

After the Empire expanded into the Aegus region via the transport towers, Imperial scouts searched for valuable resources. Investigating tales about a mountainous island containing wealth and monsters, Imperial scouts (Althus, Altus, and Ulthus) located caverns that contained rich veins of copper-already being mined by Troglodytes. Eager for the resources, the Empire slaughtered many of the troglodytes and enslaved the rest as miners. A small village, Ulthus, grew up around the mines and a large town, Altus, grew on the coast. The influx of wealth enabled the town to thrive and even construct a theatre for the entertainment of the people. While the theatre was originally a place of the finer arts, as the Empire became more debased, so too did the performances. Eventually, corruption spread throughout the town, infecting even the church.

When the Cataclysm struck, Altus was cast into ruin. The theatre and those who frequented it became the focus of much of the curse. They were transformed to match the evil and depravity in their souls, creating a dangerous and vile show upon the accursed stage. The church also met a terrible fate, becoming a haven for undead beings.

While Ulthus was mainly spared the direct effects of the Cataclysm, the destruction of Altus gave the troglodytes the chance they had been waiting for. They rose up and fought their enslavers. The battle was brutal and costly, but eventually the troglodytes won and were free to go back to enslaving their own kind to work the mines for their mysterious masters.

Available on Amazon

Downloads

Ulthus Monsters & Maps

Hero Lab Portfolio Folder

See paizo.com/pathfinderRPG for more information on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

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Tea, Taxes and Tyranny

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 15, 2013
Seal of the United States Internal Revenue Ser...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Somewhat ironically, during the 2012 campaign season the IRS decided to flag for review applications for tax-exempt status from groups whose names included “Tea Party” or “patriots.”  Not surprisingly, this has created some furor. While an IRS spokesperson has claimed that the extra attention was not at the behest of the Obama administration and an apology has been issued, this matter certain deserves greater scrutiny.

As should come as no surprise, Republicans (and some Democrats) have already called for a congressional investigation and a review by the administration.

The obvious point of concern is that the IRS was involved in partisan politics. After all, groups with “Tea Party” and “patriot” in their names would generally tend to be anti-Obama (if not pro-Romney) and if they were singled out for special review, this would certainly suggest partisan motivation. What would be more damning would, of course, be evidence that the IRS denied tax-exempt status unfairly to groups with such names. As it stands, the IRS claims that none of the groups in question were rejected (at least not yet).

While such flagging for review would seem to be partisan, perhaps the motivation was not partisan. An alternative explanation is that the IRS folks involved in this were concerned that such groups might be more likely to have “problematic” applications because of the Tea Party’s view of taxes (that they are taxed enough already) and hence flagged them for more careful review on that basis.  While such a motivation (if it actually existed) might be understandable, it would still be problematic in that it would still have the effect of targeting on partisan lines and the IRS should avoid even the appearance of being partisan.

It might also be the case that folks involved were concerned that such groups would be more likely to be involved in partisan politics, which is supposed to deny them tax-exempt status. However, if they only flagged “Tea Party” and “patriots” rather than any phrases  or words that would be indicative of partisan politics, then they could be justly accused of focusing on conservative groups. This would, obviously enough, be unjust.

The IRS also endeavored to play the usual “rogue employee” gambit. In this case, the claim is that the targeting was the work of a few lower level revenue agents in Cincinnati rather than as a general policy taken by the IRS.  If this can be proven, there would still be a problem-but obviously not as bad as having the IRS engaged in such behavior as a matter of general policy. If it can be proven that this matter reaches up the chain of command, it would be rather bad for the IRS and also for the Obama administration.

On a somewhat related note, there are also concerns that while the IRS flagged certain applications, the agency has been lax in enforcing the law forbidding tax-exempt  501(c)(4) groups from engaging in partisan politics. While these groups can collect anonymous money and spend it on advertising, they cannot endorse candidates or parties. They can, however, engage in political advertising, provided they at least make a token effort at creating the illusion that they are non-partisan. Thanks to the absurd Citizens United decision, corporations can spend unlimited money in federal elections and they have certainly been doing so, to the detriment of democracy in America.

While I am concerned about the claim that the IRS has engaged in partisan politics, I am also concerned that the law essentially allows the creation of tax-exempt fronts for money to be funneled into “non-partisan” political advertising for the left and the right. As might be imagined, to not even properly enforce such a toothless law would be a serious failure on the part of the IRS.

 

 

 

 

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