A Philosopher's Blog

Unlimited Campaign Contributions

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 4, 2014
Official 2005 photo of Chief Justice John G. R...

Official 2005 photo of Chief Justice John G. Roberts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a young political science/philosophy major I learned about the various types of governments. Among these is the plutocracy—rule by the wealthy. I recall thinking, in my young anarchist days, that all governments were, are and will be plutocracies. After all, the rich always have influence proportional to their wealth and society tends to head in the direction desired by the wealthy. I was aware, of course, that there can be momentary disruptions of the plutocracy. For example, a rebellion or revolution might result in the old rich being killed, exiled or stripped of their wealth. However, history clearly shows that a new rich always emerges (or the old rich return). Even in the allegedly communist states, a wealthy class has always appeared. As such, the plutocratic system seems to be eternal.

As might be imagined, my cynical view was countered by some of my fellows—they insisted that America was a democracy and not a plutocracy. After all, it was argued, the rich do not always get their way in everything and money did not always decide elections. In fact, it was pointed out that there were strict restrictions on political spending. A plutocracy would obviously not have such limits.  As such, it was reasonable to conclude that my younger anarchist self was in error. But perhaps I was right after all—there is an ongoing trend to make America into a plutocracy by eliminating restrictions on political spending.

One major move in this regards was the Supreme Court ruling that allowed unlimited campaign spending by corporations on the grounds that corporations are people, spending is speech and people have a right to free speech. The idea that corporations are people can be easily disproven by a simple reduction ad absurdum: If corporations have the right to free speech because they are people, then they cannot be owned. After all, the constitution expressly forbids slavery (that is, the ownership of people). To contend that corporations can be owned yet are people who have freedom of speech is to either accept slavery or to fail to grasp the logical notion of consistency. So, a corporation can have freedom of speech, provided it is set free from being owned. Since it is blindingly obvious that corporations are things that can be justly owned, it should be blindingly obvious that they are not people. As such, they do not get freedom of speech. Naturally, the actual people associated with corporations have their right to freedom of speech. What remains is, of course, the matter of whether spending is speech or not.

The Supreme Court, or at least five of the current judges, holds that spending is speech. On 4/2/2014 the aggregate campaign contribution limits were struck down. This was based, not surprisingly, on the Citizens United ruling in 2010.  That ruling included the apparently absurd claim that the influence and access offered by such unlimited spending is not a concern in regards to corruption.

The case at hand was brought by Shaun McCutcheon—a very wealthy Republican donor. The impact of his victory is that a single donor, such as McCutcheon, will be able to contribute millions to parties, candidates and PACs. The ruling does leave some limits in place: an individual can give:  $2,600 per candidate, per election; $32,400 to political party committees per year; and $5,000 per PAC, per year. The main change is that there is no longer an overall cap to the total donations. Previously, a donor could not give more than $123,200 to all political committees, with limits of $48,600 to candidates and $74,600 to political parties and PACs.

McCutcheon claims that this is a grassroots victory against the status quo:  “With the ruling, we continue to chip away at the long entrenched status quo from the grassroots—a status quo that has kept challengers, better ideas, and new entrants to the political arena mostly locked out. Ensuring that citizens are able to contribute to multiple candidates or causes who share their views only provides further support to a system in which ‘We the People’ hold the ultimate reins of power.”

This seems like an odd claim, given that it primarily benefits those who are wealthy enough to make such donations as opposed to the average citizen who will lack the funds to take advantage of this ruling. This ruling would seem to weaken what little grasp the people still have on the reins of power and give the very wealthy a stronger grip. Not surprisingly, this ruling will be a boon for the Republican party. In recent years it has done poorly with small donors (that is, the vast majority of the citizens) and relies very heavily on large donors. This ruling will allow the Republicans to greatly reduce the need for grassroots financial support and instead rely on a few very wealthy donors for financial support. While it is true that the Democrats also have their wealthy supporters, the Democrats rely more heavily on large numbers of small donations.

As might be imagined, there are concerns that this ruling will lead to increased corruption and increased influence on politics by the wealthy. On the face of it, these seem to be the obvious consequences of lifting such restrictions and allowing the money to flow more freely into politics. After all, the original purpose of the restrictions was to address problems with corruption and influence buying. While those who support it insist that corruption and influence buying will not be increased (which seems patently false and unsupported by evidence) they also appeal to a core principle, namely that of freedom. As Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner said, “What I think this means is freedom of speech is being upheld. Donors ought to have the freedom to give what they want to give.”

The basic issue, then, is whether such spending is speech.  In regards to spending being free speech, that seems dubious. Suppose that spending money for political purposes is considered speech. Now, it is clearly acceptable to try to persuade a politician by speaking to him or her. If spending is speech, then I should be able to try to persuade politicians by speaking to them with money. However, this sort of thing already has a name, specifically bribery. But, if spending is a form of free speech, it would seem that bribery should be acceptable as a form of free speech. This seems absurd, to say the least.

It might be countered that the contributions cannot be direct bribes in that there can be no direct giving of money in return for specific actions or promises to act. However, it would be extremely naive to believe that campaign financing is not intended to do just that—namely to influence behavior by providing money and support. After all, it would seem rather ludicrous to imagine that millionaires and billionaires would donate millions of dollars and expect nothing in return. While this is not logically impossible, it is exceptionally unlikely.

However, suppose that spending is taken as a form of speech and thus protected by the right of free expression. It does not, of course, follow that such speech should be free of limits. After all, limits are justly placed on speech in other cases. The stock example is the yelling of “fire” in a crowded theater in which there is no fire. In the case of allowing this sort of spending, it would do serious harm to the political process by increasing the influence of an individual based on his wealth and thus proportionally decreasing the influence of those who are less wealthy. To use an analogy, it is on par with having a public discussion in which the wealthy are allowed to use a powerful sound systems up on the stage and less wealthy individuals are expected to try to shout out their views from the crowd.

To counter arguments like this, Roberts made an analogy to newspaper endorsements. As he said, there is no limit to the number of candidates a newspaper can endorse. As such, by analogy, it should follow that there should not be a limit on the number of candidates a person can donate money to. There are two easy and obvious replies. The first is to go back to the original argument that spending is not speech. While a newspaper endorsement is clearly speech—it is the expression of ideas and views, handing people money does not seem to qualify as an expression of ideas and views. When I buy a pair of running shoes or pay my entry to a race, I am not engaged in expression—I am trading money for goods and services. Likewise, when a person donates to a political cause, they are trading money for goods and services. But, if it is accepted that spending is speech, there is still a significant difference. A newspaper endorsement works by persuasion—one is either swayed by it or not. In contrast, large sums of money have far more impact: money allows people to become viable candidates and it allows them to run campaigns. As such, the influence of money is clearly more significant than the influence of a newspaper endorsement and this increases the likelihood of corruption.

This returns to the corruption issue. My contention is that such a flow of money will lead to corruption and grant the wealthy even more influence, while reducing the political influence of the less wealthy even more. The competing claim is that allowing this sort of spending will not have any negative impact. Given the usual effect of large sums of money, I would claim that increased corruption seems to be the likely outcome. However, I will consider any arguments and evidence to the contrary.

 

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A Fair Price for Drugs?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on March 24, 2014
A pill

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are about three million Americans and about 170 million people around the world infected with Hepatitis C. In the recent past, the cost of treatment could be up to $300,000 in extreme cases. A new drug, Sovaldi, would reduce that cost to about $84,000. On the face of it, that seems like a great deal. However, the company manufacturing the drug has generated some outrage. The reason is simple: the company, Gilead, plans to charge $1,000 per pill.

While $1,000 for a pill might seem exorbitant, Gilead has made the reasonable point that they have the right to recover the cost of developing the medicine. This is certainly correct—the expense of developing a product can be legitimately passed on to the customers.

In the case of Sovalidi, Gilead “developed” it by buying the company that developed it for $11 billion. While this is a certainly a large sum of money, if 150,000 people are treated at the asking price of $1,000 per pill, the company will have recovered what it spent to buy the company that developed it. This is a not uncommon practice in areas with high initial development costs. For example, new technology initially comes at a premium price and then the price drops as a company recovers its development costs.

When asked if Gilead would reduce the cost once it recovered its money, the vice president of the company said, “”That’s very unlikely that we would do that. I appreciate the thought.” One way to justify this is by contending that the cost of producing the pill warrants keeping the price high. After all, the cost of production is clearly a legitimate factor in calculating a fair price for a product.

However, the drug is most likely fairly cheap to produce. According to Andrew Hill, who is in the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics at the University of Liverpool, the cost per treatment would be $150-250 per person. If this is correct, the company would be making truly massive profits off a drug that is rather cheap to produce. On the face of it, such a mark-up would seem to be unfair.

It might be contended that the free-market will sort this out. However, there are two major concerns here. The first is that Gilead’s ownership of the drug rather limits the competitive force of the market. Until another company produces a competing drug, Gilead has an effective monopoly. Competing companies would need to spend considerable sums to develop a competing drug and they would have to avoid infringing on the ownership rights of Gilead. Whether this is seen as wrong or not depends on how one looks at the matter. On the one hand, there is the view that a company has the right to its government enforced monopoly and can use this to charge any amount it deems fit until competition forces it to reduce prices. On the other hand, there is the view that it is wrong for a company to use the coercive power of the state (the state ensures that the drug cannot be copied and sold by others) to exploit the very citizens that the state is supposed to protect from exploitation. The second is that the treatment is not a luxury item for the patients but a necessity—without it they risk severe illness and death. As such, the customers are coerced by their condition and this is being exploited by Gilead. If Gilead were selling $84,000 watches or cars, people could elect to buy them or not—so Gilead would need to make the product match the price. In the case of medicine, Gilead can set its price and give people a choice between buying and dying.

Interestingly, Gilead does plan to offer lower prices in countries such as India, Pakistan, Egypt and China. While the price is not set, the estimate is that “It’ll be from the high hundreds to low thousands for these types of markets.” This rather obviously indicates that Gilead could sell the pills for less in the United States. This lower cost could be seen in at least two ways. One is that Gilead is being nice by offering people in these other countries a price break. Another is that Gilead knows that it will simply not be able to sell the pills for $1,000 each in such countries and are settling for taking what they can get. That is, some profit is better than none.

If Gilead is giving patients in these countries a real break—that is, selling the product with a very narrow profit margin, then the company would seem to be acting in a laudable way by providing an important treatment while only making large profits. However, given the estimated cost of providing the treatment ($150-250) the company would be making very large profits by selling the treatments for the high hundreds to low thousands. The company would also be making what might be regarded as obscene profits in countries like the United States where the pills would sell for $1,000 each.

Given that Gilead would recover its costs quickly and the actual cost of providing treatment is relatively low, what remains to be determined is what would warrant charging such a high price for a essential treatment.

Alton presents a standard reason for this:  “Those who are bold and go out and innovate like this and take the risk — there needs to be more of a reward on that. Otherwise, it would be very difficult for people to make that investment.”

Alton’s basic point is reasonable. Developing new medicines is a risky business since most drugs never actually make it to being a sellable product. As such, this increases what companies must spend to actually develop a product they can sell.

One point of concern is the degree of risk that Gilead took when it bought the company that developed the drug. If that company took risks and developed the drug, then that company certainly earned the right to recover the cost of the risks it took. However, it is not clear that Gilead was bold, innovative and risk taking by buying that company.

Another point of concern is determining the cost and value of risk. That is, sorting out how risk taking legitimately contributes to a higher price. Oversimplifying things a bit, it would seem fair to consider the cost of legitimate attempts to develop drugs that failed as part of the legitimate operating expenses of a company and thus these can justly passed on to the consumer. However, as noted above, Gilead will recover the cost of buying the developer of the drug quickly and hence will lose the justification that it must charge a high price in compensation for its risk. Even if it is granted that risk taking warrants charging high prices, this should not warrant the high prices when the cost of the risk has been recovered. At that point a new justification would be needed for the high price. In the case of the medicine, the cost of providing the treatment would not warrant the high price. Also as noted above, the market is effectively not free since the state ensures that Gilead has a monopoly on the medicine it bought and the patients are coerced by their illness. If the patients tried to produce the medicine on their own by copying the pills, the state would send police to arrest them and they would face severe legal action.

It could be replied that $84,000 is a bargain compared to the current cost and this justifies the high price. To use an analogy, if one surgeon charges $300,000 to do a procedure and I will provide the same results for $84,000 then that seems like a good deal. However, if it only costs me $250 to treat the person, that would hardly seem to be a fair price. It would be a better price—but better is not the same as fair.

I freely admit that I have not settled the matter of what is a fair price. However, it does seem clear that $1,000 per pill is not a fair price.

 

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Tuna

Posted in Business, Environment, Ethics, Law by Michael LaBossiere on March 21, 2014
Large open water fish, like this Northern blue...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The March 2014 issue of National Geographic featured Kenneth Brower’s article on Bluefin tuna. While the article has the usual National Geographic balance, it certainly led me to consider the issues raised by the handling of the tuna harvest.

Like many species, the Bluefin is in decline. This is, obviously enough, due to human activity—primarily overfishing. While the dangerous decline of the tuna population is well-established, the powers-that-be are handling it in the usual way and are following the usual template that leads to resource depletion and perhaps extinction.

Like most industries, the tuna industry has a regulatory organization, the International Commission for the Conservation of Tuna (ICCAT). Given the name, one might suspect that it aims at conserving tuna. However, critics jokingly claim that ICCAT stands for “International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna.” While this might not be completely accurate, ICCAT does seem to act in ways that ignore scientific data and in favor of keeping the catch limits high.

For example, in tracking catch volume ICCAT divides the North Atlantic into western and eastern zones. The problem is that the management data is not accurate—the fish are treated as two distinct stocks that do not mix, but they actually do so. As such, fish caught in the western zone could very well be from the eastern zone and vice versa. As another example, the ICCAT models also fail to consider illegally caught fish—although this is apparently significant.

Like many regulatory entities, the ICCAT often elects to simply ignore its own scientific panel. In the case of ICCAT, catch limits are set considerably higher than the recommended levels for sustainability and it seems to ignore the fact that the actual catch levels are at least double the limits it sets. Scientists have recommended that the catch limits be reduced and that fishing be suspended during most of the spawning time for the fish. These recommendations have been ignored so far.

While some might claim that these recommendations are the result of the alleged liberal agenda to destroy the fishing industry and from a hatred of all that is good and holy in capitalism, the recommendations are actually aimed at achieving sustainable fishing. That is, the recommendation is aimed at preserving the industry rather than destroying it.

It might be contended that the fishing companies would not engage in behavior that would destroy their industry. However, this is clearly not true. One reason is that there is a “strip mining” mentality in regards to handling resources. The basic idea is to get as much short-term profit as fast as possible and to not be concerned too much about the long term consequences. This approach is also fueled by the usual human tendency to discount the future and to focus on the short term at the expense of the long term. For example, people often buy things they want (but do not need) on credit and end up suffering financially later. The same sort of mentality also applies to handling resources such as tuna. Or, as some might prefer, living creatures like tuna.

This also ties into the “move on” attitude which is the view that once something has been stripped of its value, the thing to do is simply move on to another area in which to gain fast and maximum profit. That these attitudes are prevalent is clearly shown by the way that other resources are often managed, such as fossil fuels and forests.

As such, it is certainly reasonable to believe that fishing companies and their regulators would engage in the seemingly irrational activity of destroying their own industry by overfishing. After all, this has been done before. At one time Monterey Bay had a thriving sardine industry and then in the 1950s this industry crashed in part due to overfishing. What has been already occurred can surely occur again, only this time with a different species. While the big financial fish can easily move on to new profits, there is always a terrible price paid by the little fish—that is, all the people who depended on the resources for their livelihood and now find them exhausted.

It might be contended that it is possible to keep moving on—that is, to shift to a new species once one species is eliminated. This is, of course, possible—but there is clearly a finite limit to how often this can be done since there are a finite number of species. It is also worth pointing out that human activity tends to hit many species at once, which will also reduce the ability to switch species.

It might also be contended that a solution will be found that does not require engaging in sustainable fishing—people like to point to past forecasts of doom that did not come true because of some innovation or invention. While human ingenuity is impressive, to simply assume that we will be able to solve every such problem would be mere wishful thinking.  Naturally, if there is a clear and plausible plan for solving the problem, that would be another matter.

In addition to ignoring scientific data, there is also the standard tactic of “massaging” science.  A common method is to make an appeal to uncertainty. The idea is that uncertainty in the data warrants simply sticking with business as usual.  In the case of tuna, the claim is that there is uncertainty about the stock assessments in terms of numbers and the impact of human activity. This uncertainty is then exploited to warrant expanding or at least maintaining quotas. The reasoning seems to be this: since the exact numbers and effects is are not known with certainty, the new limits suggested by scientists are not warranted—so stick with the old ones or set them higher. This same approach is taken with the environment in general, as has been the case with climate change. A general pattern is also to deny that humans are having the alleged effect and attributing it to other causes—and claiming that thus there is nothing we can do (other than staying the course).

In an interesting parallel with fossil fuels, biologists who are funded by the tuna industry have claimed that there might be as-of-yet undiscovered tuna spawning grounds so the fishing can continue at the current rate (or increase).  While this is possible, there is no actual evidence for this claim. However, this sort of wishful thinking (to be generous) allows business to go on fueled by false hope unsupported by facts.

Given the growing world population, effective management of resources is critical not only for the profits of the few, but the survival of the many. As such, action should be taken to ensure a sustainable harvest of tuna. However, it is most likely that business as usual will continue and the tuna population will crash as other fish populations have crashed before them.

 

 

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Chance, Success & Failure

Posted in Ethics, Law, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on March 10, 2014

“The amazing, the unforgivable thing was that all his life he had watched the march of ruined men into the oblivion of poverty and disgrace—and blamed them.”

-The Weapon Shops of Isher, A.E. van Vogt

 

Dice for various games, especially for rolepla...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a previous essay, I discussed the role of chance in artistic success using Matthew Salganik’s virtual world experiment as a focus. In his discussion of this experiment, Salganik noted that it was likely to have implications for success (and failure) in a much broader context. Sorting out the role of chance in success and failure seems both interesting and rather important.

One obvious reason why it is important to sort out the role of chance is to provide a rational basis for assigning praise and blame (and the possible accompanying reward and punishment). After all, success or failure by pure chance would not (in general) seem to merit praise or blame. If I win a lottery by pure chance, I have done nothing that would warrant being praised—aside from acquiring a ticket, I had no substantial role in the process. Likewise, if I do not win the lottery, I do not warrant being accused of a failure.

This also, obviously enough, ties into morality: chance can mitigate moral responsibility. If the properly maintained brakes on my truck fail as I approach a stop sign at a reasonable speed and I thus crash into an innocent pedestrian, I am not to blame—this was a matter of chance. Likewise, if my truck were to crash into a person attempting murder in the street, I am also not responsible for this fortuitous outcome.

Somewhat less obvious is the tie this matter has to setting rational public policy and laws. After all, to set public policy on such matters as unemployment benefits and food stamps without properly assessing the role of chance in success and failure would be a grave moral error. Suppose that, as some claim, people end up unemployed or in need of food stamps because of factors that are within their control—that is, they essentially decide their way into unemployment or need. If this is the case, then it would be reasonable to set public policy to reflect this alleged reality. The general idea would seem to be that there should not be such support. To use an analogy, if someone throws her money away foolishly, I have no obligation to give her more money. Her poor decision making does not constitute my obligation.

However, if chance (or other factors beyond the control of the individual) play a significant role in success and failure, then it would seem reasonable to shape policy to match this alleged reality. Suppose, as some claim, people do often end up unemployed or in need of food stamps because of chance. In this case, public policy should reflect this alleged reality and such aid should be available to help offset chance.  To use an analogy, if someone stumbles across some muggers and is robbed of the money she needs to buy food for herself and her children, then her situation does obligate me—if can help her at reasonable cost to myself, I should certainly do so.

Thus, it would seem that sorting out the role of chance in success and failure is a rather important matter. Unfortunately, it is also a very complex matter. However, I think it would be helpful to use an example to show that chance does seem to be a major factor in success in factor. Since I am most familiar with my own life, I will do a short sketch of the role of chance in my success and failure.

As I mentioned in the previous essay on this matter, I have been accused of believing in choice because I want to get credit for my successes. As might be imagined, people who are successful tend to want to believe that their success is due largely to their own decisions and efforts—that they have earned success. Likewise, people who are failures often tend to blame chance (and other factors) as the cause of their failures. Both sets of people tend to also apply their view to the opposite of their situations: the successful also attribute the failure of the failures to the decisions of those who have failed while those who are failures attribute the success of others to chance. People do, quite clearly, embrace the narrative that pleases them most. However, what pleases need not be true. As such, while I like to believe that my success is earned, I am willing to carefully consider the role of chance.

One blindingly obvious factor that is entirely a matter of chance is the matter of birth: it is, if there is chance, a matter of chance that I was born in the United States to a middle-class family and that I was healthy and normal. It is also largely a matter of chance, from my standpoint, that I had a family that took care of me and that I was in a society that provided stability, healthcare and education. If I had been born in some war and poverty ravaged part of the world and had horrible health issues, things would obviously be much different.

The rest of my life was also heavy with chance. For example, I almost ended up a Marine, but budget cuts ended up preventing that and instead I ended up at Ohio State. I ended up meeting a woman there who went to Florida State University and thus I ended up in Tallahassee by chance. This allowed me to get the job I have—which was also largely chance (Florida A&M University needed a philosophy professor right away and I just happened to be there). I could, easily enough, go through all the matters of chance that resulted in success: meeting the right people, being in the right place at the right time, avoiding the wrong people, and so on.

Of course, my desire to take credit for success drives me to add that I surely had a role to play in my success. While chance put me in the United States with a healthy body and mind, it was my decisions and actions that got me through school and into college. While chance had a major role to play in my getting a job as a professor, surely it was my actions and decisions that allowed me to keep the job. While chance has surely played a role in my book sales, surely the quality of my work is what wins people over. Roughly put, chance put me into various situations, but it was still up to me to take advantage of opportunities and to avoid dangers.

While my pride drives me to seize a large share of the credit for my success, honesty compels me to admit that I owe a great deal to pure chance—starting with day zero. Presumably the same is true of everyone else as well. As such, I think it wise to always temper praise and condemnation with the knowledge that chance played a major role in success and failure.

 

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Emergency Rooms & Obamacare

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 24, 2014
Typical scene at a local emergency room

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the face of it, the idea seems reasonable enough: if a person has health insurance, then she is less likely to use the emergency room. To expand on this a bit, what seems sensible is that a person with health insurance will be more likely to use primary care and thus less likely to need to use the emergency room. It also seems to make sense that a person with insurance would get more preventative care and thus be less likely to need a trip to the emergency room.

Intuitively, reducing emergency room visits would be a good thing. One reason is that emergency room care is rather expensive and reducing it would save money—which is good for patients and also good for those who have to pay the bills for the uninsured. Another reason is that the emergency room should be for emergencies—reducing the number of visits can help free up resources and lower waiting times.

As such, extending insurance coverage to everyone should be a good thing: it would reduce emergency room visits and this is good. However, it turns out that extending insurance might actually increase emergency room visits. In what seems to be an excellent study, insurance coverage actually results in more emergency room visits.

One obvious explanation is that people who are insured would be more likely to use medical services for the same reason that insured motorists are likely to use the service of mechanics: they are more likely to be able to pay the bills for repairs.

On the face of it, this would not be so bad. After all, if people can afford to go to the emergency room and be treated because they have insurance, that is certainly better than having people suffer simply because they lack insurance or the money to pay for care. However, what is most interesting about the study is that the expansion of Medicaid coverage resulted in an increase in emergency room visits for treatments that would have been more suitable in a primary care environment. That is, people decided to go to the emergency room for non-emergencies. The increase in emergency use was significant—about 40%. The study was large enough that this is statistically significant.

Given that Obamacare aims to both expand Medicaid and ensure that everyone is insured, it is certainly worth being concerned about the impact of these changes on the emergency room situation. Especially since one key claim has been that these changes would reduce costs by reducing emergency room visits.

One possibility is that the results from the Medicaid study will hold true across the country and will also apply to the insurance expansion. If so, there would be a significant increase in emergency room visits and this would certainly not results in a reduction of health care costs—especially if people go to the expensive emergency room rather than the less costly primary care options. Given the size and nature of the study, this concern is certainly legitimate in regards to the Medicaid expansion.

The general insurance expansion might not result in significantly more non-necessary emergency room visits. The reason is that private insurance companies often try to deter emergency room visits by imposing higher payments for patients. In contrast, Medicaid does not impose this higher cost. Thus, those with private insurance will tend to have a financial incentive to avoid the emergency room while those on Medicaid will not. While it would be wrong to impose a draconian penalty for going to the emergency room, one obvious solution is to impose a financial penalty for emergency room visits—preferably tied to using the emergency room for services that can be provided by primary care facilities. This can be quite reasonable, given that emergency room treatment is more expensive than comparable primary care treatment.  In my own case, I know that the emergency room costs me more than visiting my primary care doctor—which gives me yet another good reason to avoid the emergency room.

There is also some reason to think that people use emergency rooms rather than primary care because they do not know their options. That is, if more people were better educated about their medical options, they would chose primary care options over the emergency room when they did not need the emergency room services. Given that going to the emergency room is generally stressful and typically involves a long wait (especially for non-emergencies) people are likely to elect for primary care when they know they have that option.  This is not to say education will be a cure-all, but it is likely to help reduce unnecessary emergency room visits. Which is certainly a worthwhile objective.

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Tobacco Free

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 22, 2014
Florida State University

Florida State University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While I teach at Florida A&M University, I regularly run through the Florida State University campus. In December, I noticed that the campus had been plastered with signs announcing that on January 1, 2014 the entire campus would be tobacco free (presumably enforced by killer drones). I was impressed by the extent of the plastering—there were plastic signs adhered to the sidewalks and many surfaces to ensure that all knew of the new decree.

While running does sometimes cause flashbacks, seeing those signs flashed me back to my freshman English class at Marietta College. For one writing assignment I argued in favor of various anti-smoking proposals, including some very draconian ones. I did include area bans on smoking. My motivation was, to be honest, somewhat selfish: I hate the smell of tobacco smoke (except certain pipe tobacco and certain cigars) and react rather badly to it (my eyelids swell and I have trouble breathing). As such, like a properly political person of any leaning, I thought it good and just to recast the rest of the world according to my desires and beliefs.

I thought the paper was well argued and rational. However, the professor (an avowed liberal) assigned it a grade of .62 (I am still not sure if that was out of 1, 4 or 100…). She also put a frowning face on it. And she called me a fascist. Interestingly, almost all that I proposed in the paper has come to pass (the campus wide ban being the latest). On the one hand, I do feel vindicated—if only in regards to my prophetic powers. On the other hand, I wobbled between anarchism and fascism in those days and that paper was clearly written during a fascist swing. Now that I am older and marginally wiser, I think it is worth reconsidering the ethics of the area ban.

While there are various grounds used to warrant area bans on certain behavior, three common justifications include claiming that the behavior is unpleasant, offensive or harmful. Or some combination of the three. In terms of how the justification works, the typical model is to ban behavior based on its impact on the rights others. That is, the behavior is unpleasant, offensive or harmful to others and thus violates their rights to not be exposed to unpleasant, offensive or harmful behavior.

While I have no desire to observe behavior that is unpleasant I do question the idea that I have a right to not be exposed to the merely unpleasant. After all, what is unpleasant is highly subjective and area bans on the merely unpleasant could easily result in absurdity. For example, I would find someone wearing a puke green sweater with neon pink goats unpleasant to view, but it would be rather unreasonable to have an area ban on unpleasant fashion. Roughly put, the merely unpleasant does not impose enough on others to warrant banning it (providing that the unpleasant acts do not cross over into harassment, etc.). As such, the mere fact that many people find smoking unpleasant would not warrant an area ban on smoking,

Obviously, I have no desire to be exposed to behavior that I find offensive. However, I also question the idea that I have a right to not be exposed to what is merely offensive. Even it is very offensive. While the offensive might be a bit less subjective than the unpleasant, it still is very much a subjective matter. As such, as with the merely unpleasant, an area ban on merely offensive behavior would seem to lead to absurdity. For example, if the neon goats on the sweater mentioned above spelled out the words “philosophers are goat f@ckers”, I would find the sweater both unpleasant and offensive. However, the merely offensive does not seem to impose enough on my rights to warrant imposing on the right of the offender. Naturally, offensive behavior can cross over into an actual violation of my rights and that would warrant imposing on the offender. For example, if the sweater wearer insisted on following me and screaming “goat f@cker” into my face all day, then that would go from being merely offensive to harassment. Thus, there mere fact that many people find smoking offensive would not warrant an area ban on smoking. Interestingly, it would also not warrant bans on public nudity.

Obviously, I have no desire to be harmed by the behavior of others. Equally obviously, I do believe that I have a right to not be harmed (although there are cases in which I can be justly harmed). For those who prefer to not talk of rights, I am also fine with the idea that it would be wrong to harm me (at least in most cases). As such, it should be no surprise that I would find area bans on behavior that harms others to be acceptable. The grounds would be Mill’s argument about liberty: what concerns only me and does not harm others is my own business and not their business. But, actions that harm others become the business of those that are harmed.

While the basic idea that it is acceptable to limit behavior that harms others is appealing, one clear challenge is sorting out the sort of harm that warrants imposing on others. Going back to offensive behavior, it could be claimed that offensive behavior does cause harm. For example, someone might believe that his children would be terribly harmed if they saw an unmarried couple kissing in public and thus claim that this should be banned from all public areas. As another example, a person might contend that seeing people catching fish would damage him emotionally because of the suffering of the fish and thus fishing should be banned from public areas. While these two examples are a bit silly, there are clearly some legitimate grey areas between the offensive and the clearly harmful.

Fortunately, the situation with smoking is clear cut. Tobacco smoke is known to be physically harmful to those who breathe it in (whether they are smoking or not). As such, when someone is smoking in a public area, she is imposing an unchosen health risk on everyone else in the area of effect. Since the area is public, she clearly has no right to do this. To use analogy, while a person has a right to wear the “goat f@cker” sweater mentioned above, she does not have a right to wear one that sprays out poison or has been powdered with uranium. To use a less silly analogy, a person in a public area does not have the right to spit on people who get close to her. While they could avoid this by staying away from her, she has no right to “control” the space around her with something that can harm others (spit can, obviously, transmit disease). As such, it is morally acceptable to impose an area ban on smoking.

I would, however, contend that behavior that does not harm others should not be subject to such bans. For example, drinking alcohol in public. Provided that the person is not engaging in otherwise harmful behavior, there seems to be no compelling moral reason to impose such a ban. After all, drinking a beer near people in public causes them no harm. Likewise, campus dress codes would also seem to lack a moral justification—provided that the attire does not actually inflict harm. Merely being offensive or even distracting does not seem enough to warrant an area ban on moral grounds.

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Poor Fraud

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 17, 2014
Fox News Channel

Fox News Channel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

One stock narrative is the tale of the fraud committed by the poor in regards to government programs. Donald Trump, for example, has claimed that a lot of fraud occurs. Fox News also pushes the idea that government programs aimed to help the poor are fraught with fraud. Interestingly enough, the “evidence” presented in support of such claims seems to be that the people making the claim think or feel that there must be a lot of fraud. However, there seems little inclination to actually look for supporting evidence—presumably if someone feels strongly enough that a claim is true, that is good enough.

 

The claim that the system is dominated by fraud is commonly used to argue that the system should be cut back or even eliminated.  The basic idea is that the poor are “takers” who are fraudulently living off the “makers.” While fraud is clearly wrong, it is rather important to consider some key questions.

 

The first question is this: what is the actual percentage of fraud that occurs in such programs? While, as noted above, certain people speak of lots of fraud, the actually statistical data tells another story.  In the case of unemployment insurance, the rate of fraud is estimated to be less than 2%. This is lower than the rate of fraud in the private sector. In the case of welfare, fraud is sometimes reported at being 20%-40% at the state level. However, the “fraud” seems to be primarily the result of errors on the part of bureaucrats rather than fraud committed by the recipients. Naturally, an error rate that high is unacceptable—but is rather a different narrative than that of the wicked poor.

 

Food stamp fraud does occur—but most of it is committed by businesses rather than the recipients of the stamps.  While there is some fraud on the part of recipients, the best data indicates that fraud accounts for about 1% of the payments. Given the rate of fraud in the private sector, that is exceptionally good.

 

Given this data, the overwhelming majority of those who receive assistance are not engaged in fraud. This is not to say that fraud should not be a concern—in fact, it is the concern with fraud on the part of the recipients that has resulted in such low incidents of fraud. Interestingly, about one third of fraud involving government money involves not the poor, but defense contractors who account for about $100 billion in fraud per year. Medicare and Medicaid combined have about $100 billion in fraudulent expenditures per year. While there is also a narrative of the wicked poor in regards to Medicare and Medicaid, the fraud is usually perpetrated by the providers of health care rather than the recipients. As such, it would seem that the focus on fraud should shift from the poor recipients of aid to defense contractors and to address Medicare/Medicaid issues. That is, it is not the wicked poor who are siphoning away money with fraud, it is the wicked wealthy who are sucking on the teat of the state. As such the narrative of the poor defrauding the state is a flawed narrative. Certainly it does happen: the percentage of fraud is greater than zero. However, the overall level of fraud on the part of the poor recipients seems to be less than 2%. The majority of fraud, contrary to the narrative, is committed by those who are not poor. While the existence of fraud does show a need to address that fraud, the narrative has cast the wrong people as the villains.

 

While the idea of mass welfare cheating is thus unfounded, there is still a legitimate concern as to whether or not the poor should be receiving such support from the state. After all,  even if the overwhelming majority of recipients are honestly following the rules and not engaged in fraud, there is still the question of whether or not the state should be providing welfare, food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid and similar such benefits. Of course, the narrative does lose some of its rhetorical power if the poor are not cast as frauds.

 

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Is the NSA a Fascist Tyranny?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 20, 2013
Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Munich, G...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As anyone who follows the news knows, the NSA has been engaged in a massive spying program that seems to involve activities that are both immoral and illegal. However, it is interesting to consider whether or not the NSA is more than just a violator of the law and ethics. As such, I will endeavor to address the question of whether or not the NSA is a fascist tyranny.

While the term “fascism” gets thrown around loosely by both the left and the right in America, it seems best to defer to one of the experts on fascism, specifically Benito Mussolini. Mussolini claims that “fascism denies that the majority, by the simple fact that it is a majority, can direct human society; it denies that numbers alone can govern by means of a periodical consultation…” The NSA nicely fits into this model—it has operated without the approval or even the knowledge of the majority of the citizens of the United States.

It can be objected that the approval of certain elected officials and secret courts suffices to preserve the core democratic values of majority rule and consultation of the governed.  After all, there are many activities that are handled by representatives without the citizens directly voting.

This reply does have some merit: the United States is primarily a representative democracy and the will of the citizens is, in theory, enacted by elected officials. However, the NSA certainly seems to be operating largely outside of the domain of public decision and informed agreement. The extent of its intrusion into the lives of the citizens and the scope of its power certainly seems to demand that the NSA be subject to the open channels of democracy rather than allowing decisions to be made and implemented in the shadows.

One key aspect of fascism, at least according to Mussolini is that the “Fascist State organizes the nation, but leaves a sufficient margin of liberty to the individual; the latter is deprived of all useless and possibly harmful freedom, but retains what is essential; the deciding power in this question cannot be the individual, but the State alone….”

The NSA seems to, sadly enough, fit this concept of fascism. The NSA is literally organizing the nation and it is clearly denying citizens key liberties by its intrusions. Fittingly enough, these grotesque violations are defended in terms that Mussolini would appreciate: no important liberties are being infringed on…but it they were, it would be to protect the state from harm.

Rather importantly, the way the NSA has been operating shows that the deciding power has been the State (that is, secret courts and officials in the shadows of secrecy) and not the citizens.

Thus, it would seem that the NSA is fascist in nature. This is hardly a surprise given that this sort of police state surveillance system is a hallmark and stereotype of the oppressive fascist state. What remains to be seen is whether or not the NSA is tyrannical in nature.

As with “fascism”, people on the left and right throw around the term “tyranny” without much respect for the actual meaning of the term. To ensure that I am using it properly, I will go back to John Locke and make use of his account of tyranny. Given his influence in political philosophy and the American political system, he seems like a reasonable go-to person for this matter.

Locke defines “tyranny” as follows:

Tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to.  And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate advantage.  When the governor, however entitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule; and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.

While the extent of the wrongdoing by the people at the NSA might never be known, it is clear that the power handed to them has generally not been used not for the good of the people. Those in charge have made their will and not the law their rule—despite being basically let off the legal leash by compliant courts and public officials, the NSA still engaged in illegal activity and thus acted tyrannically.

Some folks at the NSA even abused their power on the basis of “irregular passion.” One rather pathetic example is that some NSA personnel used the resources of their employer to spy on those they were romantically involved with or interested in.

As such, it would seem evident that the NSA is tyrannical—or at least a tool of tyranny. What remains is to consider the proper response to tyranny. Locke, not surprisingly, had a clear answer:

Where-ever law ends, tyranny begins, if the law be transgressed to another’s harm; and whosoever in authority exceeds the power given him by the law, and makes use of the force he has under his command, to compass that upon the subject, which the law allows not, ceases in that to be a magistrate; and, acting without authority, may be opposed, as any other man, who by force invades the right of another.

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Trigger Point

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 22, 2013
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One rather important matter is determining the appropriate trigger point for regulation and law. The basic challenge is determining the level at which a problem is such that it warrants the creation and enforcement of regulations and laws.

While it would be unreasonable to expect that an exact line can be drawn in all or even any cases (to require such an exact line would be to fall into the line-drawing fallacy, a variation on the false dilemma fallacy), a general level can presumably be set in regards to tolerance of harm.

Naturally, the level of reasonable tolerance would involve many variables, such as the number of cases of harm, the severity of the harm, the cost of regulation/laws, and so on. For example, paying a cost to regulate or outlaw something that causes no harms would seem to be unreasonable and wasteful.  As such, the various “morality” laws that regulate consensual sex between adults would be unreasonable and wasteful. As another example, paying a modest cost to regulate or outlaw something that causes considerable harm in both numbers and severity would seem reasonable. Thus, the regulation of alcohol and tobacco seems reasonable.

While the specifics will vary from case to case, there should be a consistent approach to these determinations based on general principles regarding costs, number of incidents, severity of the harm and so on. In general, a utilitarian approach would be sensible—weighing out the likely benefits and harms for the various approaches to determine the most reasonable approach.

Not surprisingly, people tend to approach the trigger point of law and regulation very inconsistently. As with most matters of law and regulation, people tend to assess matters based on what they like and dislike rather than rationally assessing the relevant factors.

As a matter of comparison, consider the gun related deaths of children and voter fraud. While there is some dispute about the exact number of children who die from accidental gunshot wounds children obviously do die in this manner.  Not surprisingly, some people have endeavored to strengthen the regulation of guns and pass laws that are aimed at preventing the accidental death of children from gunshots. It is also not surprising that the National Rifle Association (and other similar organizations) have lobbied against such efforts and have argued about the statistics regarding the gun related deaths of children. While the N.R.A. is obviously not in favor of the death of children, the approach taken has also included the standard method of contending that the problem is not at the trigger point at which new regulation or laws should be created and enforced. The general idea is that the harm being done is not significant enough to warrant new regulation or laws regarding guns, such as rules for the safe storage of weapons. In support of this, the N.R.A argues that the death rate from accidental shootings is less than falls, poison or “environmental factors.” That is, not enough children are dying to warrant new laws or regulation (I will assume that the death of a child is regarded as being a serious harm).

There is also considerable dispute about voter fraud, although even those who regard voter fraud as a serious problem admit that the number of incidents is tiny. However, after the recent Supreme Court ruling regarding the Voting Right Act several states enacted laws alleged to be aimed at addressing voter fraud. These laws include those requiring voters to have the proper ID (which former Speaker of the House Jim Wright was not able to get) and those aimed at reducing or eliminating such things as early voting. In general, these laws seem to be ineffective in regards to actual fraud and the existing laws seem to be adequate for catching fraud. For example, eliminating early voting would not seem to have any capacity to deter fraud. While the voter ID laws might seem to have the potential to be effective, actual voter fraud typically does not involve a person voting in person as someone else. Even if it did have some value in preventing voter fraud, it would do so at a great cost, namely disenfranchising many voters. Overall, the main impact of these laws is to not reduce voter fraud (which is miniscule already) but to disenfranchise people. In some cases politicians and pundits admit that these laws are intended to do just that and in some cases they get in trouble for this.

Given the low number of incidents of voter fraud and the considerable harm that is done by the laws allegedly created to counter it, it would seem that such laws would be rather unjustified when using a rational approach to setting a trigger point for new laws or regulations. It could, of course, be argued that the harm done by allowing a miniscule amount of voter fraud is so serious that it warrants disenfranchising people—that is, trying to prevent a few fraudulent votes is worth preventing many legitimate votes from being cast.

Interestingly enough, some of the folks who are pushing hard for new laws to “prevent” voter fraud are the same folks who push hard to prevent new laws to reduce the deaths of children. This presents an interesting look at how people actually make decisions about trigger points.

 

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Expatriation & Crito

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 18, 2013
Biometric United States passport issued in 2007

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An American citizen can voluntarily renounce his citizenship and a permanent resident can “turn in” her green card—this is known as expatriation. Interestingly, there has been a 33% increase in expatriations since 2011 with a total of 2,369 people doing so as of the third quarter. The main reason for this seems to be for the wealthy to avoid paying American taxes.  This does raise an interesting moral issue.

In the case of permanent residents who turn in their green cards, this would seem to clearly be morally acceptable. After all, being a permanent resident and not a citizen is most likely a matter of convenience or advantage for the person in question. As such, they would seem to have no special moral obligation to the United States. To use an analogy, if I rent a house from a family, this creates no special obligation to that family beyond paying my rent and taking reasonable care of their property. If I wish to end my tenancy and move somewhere else, then that would be my right—provided that I settled my debt before leaving.

The case of citizens is a bit more complicated. On the one hand, it can be argued that a person has a moral right to give up his citizenship for any reason. This would seem to apply whether the person received his citizenship by being born a citizen or by being nationalized. A person who was born a citizen did not chose to be a citizen and thus would seem to have the right to make that choice as an adult. To use an analogy, a person does not pick his birth family, but he can later elect to not be a part of that family.

A person who decided to be a citizen and then elects to cease to be a citizen would seem to have as much right to make that choice as she did when she decided to become a citizen. To use an analogy, just as a person has a right to enter into a marriage she has a right to leave that marriage.

Another avenue of argumentation is to focus on the right of a person to act in ways that are to her advantage. In the case of the wealthy renouncing their citizenship for tax purposes, it can be contended that they have the right to act in their self-interest and avoiding taxes in this manner is a rational calculation. While they do give up the advantages of being a United States citizen, the tax savings could be well worth it—especially if the wealthy person has little need of the advantages of being a United States citizen or can get comparable advantages by being a citizen of a state that will not tax her to the degree that the United States does. Of course, it is worth noting that the wealthy generally do not suffer under severe tax burdens in the United States and they are generally adept at using the arcane tax laws to their advantage. However, a wealthy person might regard even these taxes as too burdensome relative to the advantages she gains from her citizenship.

On the other hand, renouncing citizenship for the tax advantages seems, at least to me, like an act that is morally dubious. Laying aside the appeals to patriotism and the condemnation of selfishness, I will instead borrow and rework Socrates’ approach in the Crito.

The Crito takes place after Socrates trial (as recounted in the Apology) and involves Socrates addressing the question of whether or not fleeing Athens to avoid death would be unjust. While the matter at hand is not about death, it is a similar matter: would a citizen renouncing his citizenship to avoid taxes be unjust? I believe that it would be and offer the following argument (stolen from Socrates).

For the sake of the argument, I will assume that the citizen was not compelled to be or remain a citizen and that the citizen was not tricked into being or remaining a citizen. That is, the citizen was not trapped by fraud or force. A person who is forced or tricked would have a legitimate claim to renouncing such a compulsive or fraudulent relationship.

A person who was born a citizen or became a citizen enjoyed the advantages of being a citizen. The person very likely was educated by the country (by the public school system). Even if the person did not receive a public education, she did receive the protection and goods of citizenship. If the person is renouncing her citizenship solely for tax reasons, this would indicate that she does not have a profound disagreement with American values or the other aspects of citizenship. As such, the person would be renouncing her citizenship solely for the financial advantage. This would seem to be unjust—to repay the country by renouncing her for the sake of money. To use an analogy, this would similar to a person renouncing membership in the family that raised and took care of her because now her parents are old and require the support they once gave their child. This would seem to be an act of profound ingratitude and shameful in its base selfishness.

The obvious counter to this is to contend that the relationship between the citizen and the state is not analogous to that of a family or even a community. Rather the relationship is one defined purely in terms of self-interest and assessed in terms of the advantages and disadvantages to the individual. On this view, a person would ask not what he can do for his country. Rather, his question would be to ask what his country can do for him. And if it is not doing enough, then he should end that relationship.

Taking this view does come with a price: it must be applied consistently to all relationships to the state. For example, a citizen who sells secrets to another country or merely leaks them because he sees it as being to his advantage cannot be accused of a betrayal. After all, he is doing what the wealthy renouncers are doing: acting for his own advantage. As another example, to expect citizens to make sacrifices by serving the country would be an unreasonable expectation. Citizens should only do what is to their advantage and be properly compensated for this. In short, this view is that the relationship between citizen and country is a business one and that a citizen is essentially a customer. Interestingly enough, some people want to have it both ways: using the idea of nationalism when it is to their advantage and treating citizenship as a business relationship when doing so is to their advantage.

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