A Philosopher's Blog

Capsizing the Ship of State

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 7, 2011
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One perk of being a professor is that I get a chance to talk to experts in other fields about various issues. Recently I was discussing the matter of income inequality in America in the context of both historical empires and recent events in the Middle East.

No doubt some folks will accuse me of being a “professional leftist” or engaging in “class warfare” by discussing such matters. However, I will show that my goal is not to cause class warfare but rather to argue how it can be avoided. My motivations are grounded both in morality and patriotism.

Income inequality in America has increased significantly since the middle of the 1970s. Those Americans in the lower 80% have seen a reduction in their share of the big economic pie. In stark contrast, the top 1% has seen its slice expand over 120%. Now the top 10% of Americans earn roughly 75% of all the income. As such, 90% of Americans only get 25% of the pie. As is often said, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Not surprisingly, some folks will argue that this is a good thing or at least fair. People can speak about trickle down economics and claim that the rich earned their income. I will not argue any of this here. Rather, I will focus on the consequences of this concentration of wealth.

While there are many factors that lead to the fall of empires, there are at least two that are directly linked to income disparities. The first is that the disparity in income is harmful to the general body of society. To use an analogy, society is very much like a human body (which is nicely illustrated by the cover of Hobbes’ Leviathan). It has various parts that make it up and these parts have varying degrees of importance. However, all need resources to survive. In the case of the body, if some organs receive the vast majority of the resources while the others do not receive enough, then those parts of the body will weaken, wither away or even die. In some cases, such as with fat, this is fine and even desirable. However, in other cases this can be very bad indeed and lead to the death of the whole. The same applies to the political body: its parts need enough resources to survive otherwise this can spell the death of the body.

Assuming this is correct, it follows that extreme income inequality is actually a threat to the entire society. Even if the extremely rich argue that they earn every cent, this does not change the fact that such concentration of wealth can prove to be rather harmful.

One obvious reply is that it is not the concentration of wealth that is the big worry. Rather, the worry is that the other parts of the body have enough resources to keep going. As such, there could be great inequality in income while the body as a whole does well.

This is, of course, a reasonable reply. Obviously enough, we are currently in a situation of massive inequality, yet the body as a whole certainly seems healthy enough. No doubt the Romans said the same thing. However, this does not entail that the inequality is not harmful nor does it entail that inequality can continue to grow without leading to harms to the political body as a whole.

Some might suspect that I will call for a redistribution of wealth and are ready to lash me with the whip of socialism. However, I do not advocate forced distribution of wealth via socialistic means. Rather, what is needed is a more equitable tax system and an economy that is more open to competition. Currently the state often serves the needs of the established wealthy very well and protects them. This leads, as it always has, to an ever increasing concentration of wealth. This is not due to a “free market”, but largely due to a market that is manipulated by politicians who are guided by those who hold this wealth. See, for example, the state of Wisconsin.

A second factor is that citizens need to believe (correctly or incorrectly) that they have a stake in society. When citizens believe they no longer have a stake or something to gain, they tend to “check out” of society. This can begin with simply electing not to vote and can end in actual rebellion.

Income, obviously enough, plays a significant role in this belief. True, propaganda can be used to convince people that they have a stake in society and people can also believe they have a stake based on factors other than income. However, income is still an important factor as shown by the situation in the Middle East.

The countries in the Middle East that have been rocked by revolution have many factors in common. One of these is that that wealth is highly concentrated.  Others include the fact that unemployment was high and opportunities where low. Naturally, the repressive nature of the states is also a critical factor. However, the economic inequality has clearly been a major driving force.

Interestingly enough, the folks at Fox News, such as Glenn Beck,  have claimed that the events in the Middle East are comparable to the protests in Wisconsin. Interestingly enough, Beck was right to make the comparison. The people in the Middle East realized that the system was favoring a small, wealthy minority and had little or nothing to offer the majority. Hence, they checked out of the system and rebelled. In the case of Wisconsin, people are seeing that the state government is beholding to the Koch brothers and is intent of serving the interests of the wealthy minority at the expense of the many. Hence, people are protesting. Obviously, the Middle East is a far more extreme situation, but many of the core causes are the same.

Currently, most Americans have good reasons to stay checked in, even though many people do not vote. However, the concentration of wealth and the economic situation means that more people will have less reason to stay checked in. The pundits at Fox, the forces behind much of the Tea Party and others are doing their best to keep people convinced that corporate greed and selfishness are virtues and are in the best interest of the people. They are also working overtime to brand any suggestions that the inequality is a problem as “class warfare” or socialism. Some people do buy into this propaganda. Hence, you see lower income people rushing to defend corporations, the rich, and the free market despite the fact that the system ensures that they will remain in the lower classes. It is indeed a brilliant trick to get such people to passionately defend the rich and rail against those who would do things to make the situation of the middle and lower classes better. However, as Lincoln said, one cannot fool all the people all the time.

I do not, of course, see the solution to the problem in socialism. Rather, what is needed is a means to ensure that the good aspects of capitalism remain in play while ensuring that the concentration of wealth does not reach the point where too many people are checking out. At that point, as has been seen throughout history, a society collapses, is conquered or falls into rebellion. I do not want to see any of these happen here, hence I believe that income inequality must be addressed.

Interestingly enough, the really rich also have an interest in an adequate distribution of income After all, they need a society around them to provide stability, order, products for them to consume and people to work for them. Presumably some of the rich also have a sense of patriotism and community as well. As such, it would seem that everyone has a good reason to ensure that the concentration of wealth does not hit the tipping point.

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SOTU Draft

Posted in Humor, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 28, 2011
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The following text was sent to me by a freedom loving patriot. He apparently managed to hack into Obama’s Blackberry and acquire a rough draft of the speech. He said that he was hampered a bit by the voices in his head-apparently his tinfoil hat was slipping because he was sweating out of fear that he would be brought before a Death Panel. Here is the draft he found:

Comrades,

I am here to speak before you of the state of the Peoples’ Republic of America, long may the Proletariat Revolution Live! (Pause for the adoration of the media and Democrat sheep).

As I had hoped, the job killing health care is killing jobs at the rate of 10 million per day. At this point, it is actually almost done with America and will soon have to travel to other countries to kill jobs. After that, other worlds, other galaxies and finally other realities.  Hell, it might even travel back in time and kill past jobs, too. This killing machine will not rest until all the jobs are dead. Don’t worry Bill, it won’t kill the blow jobs. (Pause for laughter).

Speaking of killing, the Death Panels are in full operation. Even as I speak, black helicopters are circling the houses of key conservative pundits and Tea Party activists. In fact, the Secret Gestapo just texted me that Glenn Beck has been darted, bagged, tagged and will soon be brought before a Death Panel. I wonder what the verdict will be? (Pause for laughter).

On a more serious note, I am pleased to report that the Government now owns nearly 90% of all businesses in America. Productivity has dropped and inferior products are being made-if they are available at all. The rich will be rounded up and brought before Death Panels and their money will be used to teach pimps how to run their businesses. Any leftover money will be used to fund research into a machine to make everyone gay. (Pause for even more adoration)

Taxes have been increased two billion percent and we have borrowed five hundred gazillion dollars for China. In return I have promised the Chinese your children and your children’s children. And their children, too. (Pause for applause-consider joke about Tiger Moms)

I am also pleased to announce that Sharia law will replace the Constitution, although atheism will also be mandated while Islam will be the official religion. On a related note, I am pleased to announce that I will bringing in religious teachers from my home country of Kenya.

Sieg Heil!

(Pause while the Republicans are rounded up and marched off to Death Panels).

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Stephen Colbert a Threat to Philosophy

Posted in Humor, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 18, 2010
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In a recent show, Stephen Colbert used the  expression “begs the question” in a way that moved him onto the Threats to Philosophy Board (#1 Threat: Hemlock). This is because he used the phrase incorrectly and while wearing a tie.

When people use “begs the question” in this manner, they actually mean “asks the question” or “raises the question.”However, the term “beg the question” already has an established usage as the name of a logical fallacy.

To beg the question is a logical fallacy that involves assuming what is to be proven. For example, if someone says “cheating on a test is wrong because it is wrongfully taking a test”, then he is begging the question. In effect, the person is saying “the reason cheating on a test is wrong is because it is wrong.”

One might wonder why this should be regarded as a problem. After all, it might be argued, people ought to be able to use words anyway they wish. If people use “beg the question” to mean “raises the question” then so be it.

While it is true that the meaning of terms is largely a matter of convention, it seems to make little sense to use “begs the question” to mean “asks the question.” After all, there are already perfectly good phrases to say “asks the question”, “raises the question” and so on. There thus seems to be little need to steal “begs the question.”

The matter of putting him on the threat board was not taken lightly. He was already under consideration for his use of “truthiness” and the damage that was doing to logic. Students now ask about “truthiness” tables and think that there is something called validityness (an argument such that if all the premises have truthiness then the conclusion has truthiness).

Obviously, Colbert must be stopped before he does to philosophy what hemlock did to Socrates and what MSNBC does to itself.

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Signs & Portents

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 10, 2010
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For the superstitious, birds are often omens of good or bad fortune. In ancient times, people would claim to see signs and portents in the behavior of birds. Interestingly enough, Glenn Beck is seeing signs and portents in geese.

As Beck’s rally to restore America’s honor got started, a flock of geese flew overhead. While this might seem to be a mere coincidence,  Beck saw it as something more:

“I want to show you first that miracle that happened at 10:59. There are several versions of this, or at 9:59. There are several versions of what was happening. Do we have the videotape? At 9:59, what happened was there was a flock of geese. It was a flyover if you will. Somebody caught it on tape. Here’s the flyover. This was happening just as the opening music was starting. We wanted to have a flyover, but you can’t flyover in the District of Columbia. It was perfect coordination and perfect timing. Coincidence? Maybe? I think it was God’s flyover. It was not supposed to happen. We couldn’t get a flyover. We couldn’t even get anybody dressed in a military uniform to present the flag. We tried for almost a year. We couldn’t get it done. Thank God, we had our flyover.”

While Beck does briefly consider that it might be a coincidence, he infers that it was God’s flyover. His reasoning seems to be as follows:

  1. I wanted a flyover for my event.
  2. I could not get a flyover for my event.
  3. A flock of geese flew over just as my event was starting.
  4. Therefore, God sent the geese.

This, obviously enough, seems like quite a leap. In order to rationally infer that God sent the geese (that is, that divine intervention is the best explanation) it would have to be shown that there is no better or more plausible explanation for the event.

As noted above, Beck does consider coincidence. That is, the geese just happened to fly overhead at that time. While the odds of a flock of geese flying over a specific  event at its starting point are fairly low, the probability is hardly zero. After all, it just requires that geese do what they naturally do at the same time some event is starting.  Such an occurrence hardly seems to be a divine sign. If it is, then I have seen many divine signs in my life. For example, once when I was starting my run, I saw a turkey run out of the woods. I’d never seen a turkey in the area before, but there it was. I can only assume that God was blessing my run. As another example, my gaming group was about to start playing Call of Cthulhu when a squirrel landed on the room’s skylight. While this was not a bird, surely squirrels can also be signs of divine favor. As such, I must infer that God blesses Cthulhu.

Sarcasm aside, the flying of geese is such a mundane event that it can hardly be considered a sign of divine favor. After all, if an omnipotent being wanted to show his favor, surely he could provide a clearer and more impressive sign-one worthy of such a being. So, for example, if a squadron of angels had flown overhead, then that would have been a clear sign of divine favor.

As a final point, signs and portents are often the result of selective attention. That is, people think nothing of (for example) the times when geese just happen to be flying by and then assign special meaning when the same thing happens in conjunction with some other event. This is, of course, poor reasoning.


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Rational Threat Assessment

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on August 30, 2010
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A seemingly unbreakable law of nature is that all things die. This seems to apply to individuals as well as collectives, such as nations and empires. As history shows, empires rise, stumble, and then fall. Perhaps the end comes in war (as WWI spelled the end of some empires), due to environmental changes or some other means. But, the end has always arrived.

While the United States is regarded by some as being exceptional, we do not seem to be imbued with a special immunity against the death of empire. In fact, it seems certain that some day the dawn shall come and there will be no United States. While this end, like the death of any one of us, seems inevitable, it need not come soon. Just as a person can hold death with good choices and some luck, so can the collective that is the United States.

The first step in doing this is recognizing the real dangers that we face. This requires doing a rational threat assessment rather than following the usual methodology of the pundits and the politicians.

This usual method involves presenting as a serious threat whatever they happen to think people will fear the most or what will result in the greatest profit for those whose interests they serve. Obviously, those on the left and the right do this. Folks on the right tell us that the shabby terrorists who come up with shoe and underwear bombs, who have no warships, tanks, or standing armies are the supreme threat. Well, almost supreme. There are, after all,  the illegals who want to cross the border to steal our jobs, commit crimes and drop anchor babies. Folks on the left tell us that we face sure destruction from climate change, warn of the infinite evil of all corporations (by posting on Facebook using their iPhones), and think we should be rid of guns once and for all. Obviously, I do exaggerate a bit. But just a bit.

Since I teach critical thinking, I am naturally inclined to want people to use the methods of critical thinking and logic when assessing threats. As with assessing anything, it is rather important to attempt the assessment in an objective manner. This does not mean setting aside one’s values or feelings. But it does mean being aware of how these values and emotions impact the assessment. To use an analogy, it is like knowing that you are looking through lenses that are tinted and a bit distorted. Knowing this, you can do a better job of determining what you are really looking at. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) we cannot remove our emotional and value lenses. But we can learn to correct for any distortions they might create in our perceptions.

Doing this also means being able to take into account one’s biases, interests and prejudices. For example, someone who can profit greatly from their being a war on terror would be rather motivated to see terrorism as a huge threat that requires very expensive countermeasures. As another example, someone who has invested heavily in “green” technology would be rather motivated to push the idea of climate change. Being aware of these factors can be difficult. Being able to set them aside when making assessments is even more challenging.

Being able to see how these factors impact one’s assessment is a difficult thing. Being able to regulate their impact is even harder. However, it can be done. To use an easy and obvious example, I (and many other educators) can grade papers in a very objective manner. To use another example, although I am sometimes accused of being horribly biased, I seem to do a reasonably good job considering the various sides to issues and their merits and problems. In any case, I obviously consider views that oppose my own and do not, for example, delete replies that criticize me or my arguments.

An obvious question is, of course, why do we need to have rational threat assessments? Can’t we just muddle along as we have, dragged left and right by the pundits and politicians?

Well, we can. But that is like being aboard a ship where the wheel is pulled left or right not based on where the rocks really are, but based on where the folks with the loudest voices say they are. Or, even worse, having the wheel pulled based on fears of imaginary sea monsters or by those who see a minnow as the Leviathan come to devour the ship. This is, obviously enough, a recipe for disaster.

While I generally disagree with Glenn Beck, I do agree that the United States does need some repairs. However, the first repair must be to the way we judge the threats and dangers. We face real dangers, big and small. However, we need to properly sort out the real from the unreal and the big from the small. Then we can do the rational thing and address the real problems based on how serious they really are.


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Beck: Bringing Honor Back

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 28, 2010
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Glenn Beck is holding a rally today to restore honor. Today is also the anniversary of Dr. King’s speech, a fact regarding which Beck had made a claim of ignorance.

While I am all for true honor (not the vanity and false pride that masquerades as honor), Beck’s “Restoring Honor” title clearly implies that honor has been lost. Otherwise it would not need to be restored.

I do agree that America has suffered a loss of honor in recent years. Our invasion of Iraq damaged our honor. The way we conducted the war on terror also damaged our honor. Pretty much everything about the economic collapse damaged our honor. As such, Beck is right to claim that we are in need of an honor restoration. I am not sure that Beck is the man for the job, however.

Will he lead people to right the wrongs that have been committed in our name and by us? Will he guide people on the honorable path of truth, virtue and righteousness? Assuming, of course, that honor in this case is taken as being a measure of goodness. Does he have the knowledge of virtue that it takes (as per Aristotle) to serve as the moral educator of America?

Somehow, I think not. But, I do not like to judge in haste. Let us see if Beck fulfills his promise and restores honor. After all, it is easy to talk about what is right. It is a simple thing to draw things on a blackboard. It is no trouble at all to tape up images. But, it is a hard thing to guide oneself and others to an honorable life.

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Here is the News

Posted in Humor by Michael LaBossiere on April 1, 2010
Benjamin Franklin

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This morning Sarah Palin exercised an obscure constitutional power: the ability to fire and replace the President. Apparently the constitution has a clause that a governor who quit prior to the end of his term can do this, provided that “she is smoking hot” and has “killed the beasts of the land from a flying machine.” This seems to have been put into the constitution by Benjamin Franklin as  a joke, most likely after a night on the town with his drinking buddy Samuel Adams.

Prior to being sworn in, Palin said she would undo what Obama has done and she would begin by “destroying all hope and undoing all change.” Five minutes after being sworn in, she held an impromptu press conference and resigned, blaming the hateful liberal media and claiming that she would do more good in a private capacity. This placed Obama back in office and led Joe Biden to say something too stupid to print here.

After returning to office, Obama quickly signed the health care bill after driving the moose out of the oval office. Immediately those affected by the bill became either Stalinist communists or Nazis. Naturally, the two groups could be told apart by the differences in the mustaches that they suddenly grew.

While the new Stalinists and Nazis threatened violence, it turned out that being socialists they were lazy and incapable of engaging in competition. So, instead of trying to destroy America or force abortions onto unwilling women, they merely stayed home to watch TV, surf the web and devour Cheetos. Many were hospitalized due to their overindulgence and were promptly euthanized by Obama’s Death Panels.

Seeing this weakness in America, Al Qaeda sent  wave after wave of bombers to attack the United States. These included the jock strap bomber, the eye patch bomber, the hemorrhoid bomber, and the sphincter bomber. Due to poor bomb design, all the bombers ended up merely burning various parts of their anatomy, thus leading them to insist on being water boarded (at least until the fires were out). Nothing was heard from Dick Cheney, who was apparently busy having his 666th heart attack. He is expected to recover fully, at least as long as he can escape the Obama Death Panels.

Meanwhile, the liberal media continued to do its best to destroy God, Apple Pie and America. Fortunately, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Fox News were able to warn America about the media threat through the media. The irony was lost on them, as it always is.

In closing news, God showed up to say that the entire planet was under water due to a bad sub prime loan (and not due to divine wrath). Apparently, we are being evicted to the moon. Hearing this, the moonbats rejoiced: at long last they would get a free trip back home.

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Rhetoric & Responsibility

Posted in Ethics, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on March 27, 2010
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Threats and vandalism have been following in the wake of the health care bill. Given the acrimony surrounding the matter, this is hardly surprising. While the topic of health care provides a myriad of issues to discuss, I’ll be focusing on the ethics of the rhetoric used in the debate.

While the health care reform bill is a matter of considerable controversy, the language used by politicians and pundits often went to extremes far out of proportion to the reality of the situation. Listening to the rhetoric, one would think that the health care bill was a an ultimate battle in the war between good and evil. Pundits such as Glenn Beck tried to link the bill with socialism, communism and the Nazis. There were calls to “eradicate” people and to engage in vandalism. Some even shouted “baby killer.”

While such posturing and rhetoric is part of politics, I will present two moral reasons why the pundits and politicians should reign in such rhetoric.

First, such extreme rhetoric is inconsistent with good decision making. The public depends on the politicians and pundits to provide information about such matters and the use of such extreme rhetoric serves to contaminate the information pool. It might, of course, be argued that politicians and pundits are not teachers and have no obligation to present matters fairly, accurately and objectively so as to properly educate the people. In fact, their jobs are to push a specific political agenda based on their specific interests.

Of course, the matter could be put even more bluntly: politicians and pundits  have no moral obligation to be honest. However, such an obligation seems to universal and being a politician or pundit does not seem to grant a person a special exemption.

It can be replied that the politicians and pundits are being honest, that they really believe what they are claiming when they shout things like “baby killer” , when they claim that the health care bill will lead to death panels, or when they claim that the bill will save America. In this case, I would say that they have an obligation to be better informed and more in control of their emotions.

What would best serve the public good is an honest and calm discussion of the facts without the extremes of rhetoric. Naturally, if something is truly extreme, then it is perfectly acceptable to use language that is proportional. While it can be difficult to sort out this matter, it is clear that more effort could be used in doing this.

Second, such rhetoric is harmful in that it can influence people to act badly, as the current situation shows. As noted above, there have been threats made against members of congress and acts of vandalism have been committed. Given the intensity of the rhetoric and some specific calls for things like vandalism, it seems reasonable to place some of the blame on the pundits and politicians.

It might be objected that people have free will and that politicians and pundits cannot make them do such things. While it is true that even Glenn Beck cannot control minds, it is well (and legally) established that people can be held responsible for influencing others. While some people would act on their own without such inspiration or encouragement, such rhetoric does help motivate people to act when they would not otherwise have taken action. At the very least, such rhetoric can change how people perceive a situation and can thus influence how they might act. As such, politicians and pundits are morally culpable for their influence in such matters. This holds for both the left and the right.

Health & Health Care

Posted in Medicine/Health, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on March 10, 2010
May_30_Health_Care_Rally_NP (547)
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One obvious way to lower medical expenses is for people to exercise more, eat better, and give up harmful vices such as smoking and excessive drinking. While some medical expenses do arise from accidents, disease and other factors that cannot be easily avoided by a healthy lifestyle, a significant portion of costs arises from what can be best described as poor life choices.

From a rational standpoint, exercising, eating better and giving up harmful vices makes perfect sense both individually and collectively. For the individual, there is an overall increase in the quality of life as well as reduced costs in terms of health care and the price of vice (for example, vices like smoking tend to be rather costly). Collectively, this puts less burden on health care (public and private), increases work & school attendance, boost productivity and so on. On the downside, the more people who take this approach, the lower the income from “sin” taxes and the lower the income will be for people who work in health care and providing for the relevant vices.  However, the gains would seem to far outweigh the losses.

Unfortunately, most people are either not rational or lack the will to act upon their rationality (that is, they prefer laziness and vice to the better alternatives). While folks do turn to self help books (which do nothing), diet pills (which generally do not have a lasting effect), and other “quick fixes”, few folks do what it really takes to be healthy. This is because, as Aristotle would say, the temperate and hardy life does not appeal to most people. Aristotle’s solution was to use the compulsive power of the state to make people virtuous. This is not, of course, a viable option here in the United States. As such, appeals to reason and compulsion are out.

Perhaps the most realistic option is to make use of factors that do tend to sway people, such as emotional appeals, celebrity endorsements and so forth. If, for example, we could tap into the motivational power of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin and use that to get people to exercise and eat better, then that would be a good start. While Beck looks like he could benefit from a fitness program, Palin is already and runner and in good shape. If she started adding a pitch for running as one of her talking points, I think that might get a person or two off the couch and onto the trails. I think that healthy living is something that could enjoy bipartisan support.

Of course, even if Palin was able to get some folks off the couch, the hard part is keeping them upright and away from the Cheese Puffs. I’ve been in running for decades and have lost count of the people I have seen start fitness programs only to end up unable to escape the couch.  I know what keeps me motivated, but I also know that most folks lack this quality (or fanaticism). To be honest, I do not know what would keep most people on the right track (aside from compulsion).

While this healthy lifestyle seems good, one possible concern is that healthy folks live longer. As such, rather than dropping dead, they will keep going on for quite some time. The problem is, of course, that at their advanced ages they will start eating up health care resources to keep them going.

While this is a reasonable worry, the fact seems to be that people who live longer because of good health tend to not be a burden even in old age. For example, I know many people from running who are, to blunt, damn old. Yet, they are very healthy and tend to have very modest medical needs (far less than folks who are younger, yet unhealthy).  Even if old healthy folks do consume more health resources than unhealthy dead folks (who would consume none), the overall savings would seem to be  a net gain. That is, the lower expenses in the younger years would offset any extra costs accrued because of the longer life.

Naturally, folks will probably point out that older people can be expensive to keep alive. However, these costs generally are for people who did not lead healthy lifestyles.  Keeping someone going who did not take very good care of himself can be rather costly, but someone who has been very active in her own health will probably be far cheaper to maintain.

So, I say to my fellow Americans: put down the Cheese Puffs, put out those cigarettes, and get out there and run like your life depends on it. Because it does.

To quote a great philosopher: “Dying like a fatty is no way to die, people.”

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Aristotle & America

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 8, 2010
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Like Glenn Beck, I worry about America. Unlike Mr. Beck, I deal with this worry without theatrics. As the pundits and experts have argued, America is facing serious economic and political challenges. For example, a hot talking point these days is that the government is broken.

As I see it, it is not the political machinery that is broken. While I am not slavishly devoted to the works of the founders, they did construct an impressive political machine. Of course, having a good machine is not enough-the operators also matter a great deal.

In the case of America, our state machine is operated directly by the politicians and indirectly by the rest of us. To stay at the wheels of the machine, the politicians have to pander to us and generally give us what we want. Unfortunately, what we generally want is not the best for us. Part of the problem is that our vices tend to overwhelm our virtues.

To steal a bit from Aristotle, it is easy to spend money, it is easy to get angry, and it is easy to get fat. It is hard to spend money wisely, it is hard to know when to be angry and at what, and it is hard to stay fit. Unfortunately, we all too often take the easy way.

While people often cry out for wise spending, the folks in congress know that they cannot touch our entitlements without risking putting their political heads on the chopping block. Interestingly, even the folks who are against the government say absurd and foolish things such as demanding  that the government keep its hands off their medicare. This nicely illustrates a common irrationality: people want the government to cut spending but to do so without reducing any of their entitlements. However, if we are going to deal with our deficit and massive spending, we will need to do what is hard: curb our entitlements. If we have the collective will, the public virtue to give up some of our private good for the general good, then we can do this. If not, well history tells us what happens to empires that open up the treasury for bread and circuses.

Following Aristotle, there are things that deserve our anger. However, we are often quick to anger at little provocation and not prone to ask if the anger is directed at the right people, at the right time, to the right degree and for the right reasons. A pundit drives us into a rage and we assume that because we are angry we must have a perfectly good reason for that anger. In some cases, people take this anger to extremes and, for example, crash a plane into a building. To be ruled by this irrational anger is to fall victim to a terrible vice. While we should not deaden our ability to feel righteous outrage, we need to work on controlling our anger or it will surely control us.

While being obese might seem to have nothing to do with politics, there is a connection. While some folks have physiological problems that make weight control difficult, this is not true of the vast majority of people. It is a simple matter of physics and biology: if energy intake exceeds energy expenditure in a human, that human will start building fat. As has been trumpeted out across the nation, Americans are a fat people. The average weight of Americans has increased dramatically over the years even though we reached a state of abundance quite some time ago. As such, the difference is most likely behavioral: people are consuming more and expending less energy. This is, of course, intuitively supported by the fact that we are now an internet culture whose leisure activities are physically passive. There are, of course, many other contributing factors but the fact is that we are fat.

While I would never claim that fat people are being morally bad, fatness does seem to be a mark of vice: either the vice of over consumption or the vice of sloth (or both). Our vices (and virtues) tend to be a general part of our character rather than existing in compartments. As such, one who is prone to sloth and overindulgence in one area will tend to have that behavior as a general trait (there are, of course, exceptions). An examination of our spending habits and the behavior that got us into the financial mess seem to involve these vices. Though we are consistent, this consistency is not a desirable one.

I will not claim that physical fitness will help cure our economic and political woes. However, I do contend that we need to work on developing the virtues that oppose the vices of over consumption and sloth. While doing this will not suffice by itself to save the economy, it would help a great deal.

The beauty of democracy is that it gives us the government we deserve and reflects who we are. If our government is wasteful, bloated and undisciplined this is because we are as well. If we want the government to change, we need to change ourselves. Good government, to steal a bit from Aquinas and Aristotle, requires good people. We can be those people, if we have the will to try.

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