A Philosopher's Blog

Bailout Blues

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 30, 2008

In a somewhat surprising move, the House voted against the bailout bill. This has had severe consequences. First, it caused an additional fall on the stock market. Second, it harmed John McCain’s campaign. McCain had tried to use the economic situation as a boost, but this attempt backfired on him when his fellow Republicans lead the way to defeat the bill.

Now that the bill has stalled, the politicians and pundits are working to place the blame. Naturally, the Democrats and Republicans are accusing each other of playing politics and chastising each other for not being truly bipartisan. Of course, for one party to accuse the other of playing politics is like the pitcher accusing the batter of playing baseball. The accusation is true, but hardly an effective criticism.

Both parties are right to chastise each other for playing politics and not working together to solve the problem. Of course, that is the nature of politics. In fact, the righteous criticisms about the failure to be bipartisan are themselves calculated political moves designed to score political points. After all, they are delivered to the press and played to the public. That is simply politics as usual.

I suspect the bailout will eventually come through, but both parties are not done trying to milk it for political advantages.

Is that New Palin Glow Fading?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 29, 2008

Governor Palin fired up the crowds at the RNC and stirred up the base of the Republican party. While the left launched attacks against her (gingerly in some cases; as a woman she enjoys a certain protected status in the eyes of some), the right seemed thrilled.

But, that New Palin Glow seems to be fading. Recently Kathleen Parker wrote an essay contending that Palin is out of her league and asserting that she should step aside for the good of the party.

Parker’s positive assessment of Palin seems accurate. Palin does seem earnest and committed to her values. Unfortunately for Palin, Parker seems to be equally accurate in regards to her negative assessment. Palin is not handling interviews very well and there is further evidence that she is not up to the task of being one heartbeat away from the Presidency.

That said, there is the question of whether how she handles interviews indicates her competence (or lack thereof) in executive matters. Based on years of experience involving teaching and debate, I know that some competent people do not fare well when handling questioning on the fly. Perhaps Palin is this way-she has the executive skills, but lacks the media skills needed to present that polished image. Then again, perhaps her alleged failings in the media settings reveals a deeper lack of what it takes. My experience has also taught me that people who lack  the relevant knowledge and skills also handle such questioning poorly.

Normally, I would turn to her record to sort things out and determine whether she is a competent executive with weak media skills or just out of her league in general. However, there is not much of a record to examine. As such, I share Parker’s concern that Palin is not up for the job.

That said, Palin would hardly be the worst Vice President America has ever had. That is, of course, not much praise.

As far as whether she should step aside or not, I think that would be rather bad for the the Republicans. It would call into serious question the judgment of McCain and the Republican leadership. After all, they picked her and expressed faith in her. If she bows out now, citing “personal reasons”, the real reason would now be quite evident. Of course, as the Palin Glow fades, she might do more damage by remaining. Then again, she might come through in the debates.

My thought is that people should wait to see her in action at the debate. If she tanks that badly, then it would help prove Parker right. If she does a competent job, it would show that Parker is mistaken.

Dark Putty

Posted in Humor, Science by Michael LaBossiere on September 28, 2008

I was watching a History Channel program on Dark Matter and Dark energy today while doing some home repairs. This got me thinking.

Dark Matter and Dark Energy are postulated to patch up problems in theories about the universe (crudely put, they take care of problems with attraction and repulsion). Wanting to get in on the game, I’ve decided to postulate the existence of Dark Putty. It is like the wood putty used for repairs, but works on a cosmic scale. Whenever there is a gap or hole in a theory, just slap in some Dark Putty to set things right.

Who to Vote For

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 27, 2008

With the election coming up soon, Americans are trying to decide which Presidential ticket to vote for. While many people vote based on how they feel about the candidates, a few people do at least attempt to provide a rational assessment before they cast their ballot. This leads to the question of who to vote for.

One way to answer that question is to take the approach espoused by a conservative friend of mine. When asked about voting, he typically says something like “why should I vote for someone who isn’t going to do what is in my best interest?” While we disagree on many things, we do agree on this point. It would, from a rational standpoint, seem to make little sense to vote against your own self interest. No one, as Socrates argued, wants to be harmed and voting this way could lead to harm. So, the rational thing to do would seem to vote for the candidate you believe will act in accord with your self-interest.

While this seems simple enough, there is the obvious problem of determining what is, in fact, in your self-interest.

The most obvious answer is that it is what you think you want and need. Of course, what a person wants and thinks he needs could actually be contrary to his self-interest.  After all, self-interest is intuitive supposed to be what is good for the person. For example, many people though they wanted George Bush to be President. Over the last eight years, he has shown most of them that this was probably not in their self-interest.

Another obvious answer is that what is in your self-interest is what benefits you. That seems reasonable enough but does have some problems.

One problem is that people can mistaken about what is beneficial to them. For example, a feminist might vote for Palin because she thinks that would be good for women. However, if Palin managed to get her conservative views made into law, then the feminist might learn that she was quite mistaken. To avoid this, a person needs to be careful in determining what would really be beneficial and which candidate is most likely to bring about such benefits.

On a more philosophical level, a person could be fundamentally mistaken about what is truly beneficial. Socrates discusses the matter at great length and it is a central focus of Plato’s ethical theory. People often regard their selfish wants as being what is truly beneficial and good for them. Hence, this would seem to indicate that people should vote in a selfish manner. For example, since the very rich would be financial better off under McCain, they should vote for him. However, acting in a selfish manner can be an error.

First, there is the moral worry that the selfish voting might lead to a morally wrong situation. For example, voting for a candidate who promises tax breaks for the rich would give the rich reason to vote for him. However, if this would do serious harm to everyone else, then it might be the wrong thing to do. If Socrates is right, acting in this selfish manner would not be in the person’s true self interest. That would be to do what is right.

Second, there is the practical worry that the selfish voting might turn out to be harmful to the person who thought she was voting in her own best interest. For example, many of the people who voted for Bush because they believed he would take a “hands off” approach to the American economy have probably come to realize that they have contributed to the dire financial disaster that plagues the United States and the world. As another example, someone might vote for Obama because of his promises about health care and the belief that they would be better off if he were elected. However, his plan might turn out to be a disaster that makes matters worse.

So, when voting it is wise to consider what is really in your best interest.

Being Single

Posted in Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on September 26, 2008

I’ve noticed that a surprising number of people now decide to remain single. Not just unmarried, but not even in a relationship or dating. I started thinking about this when some of my female friends told me that they simply do not date. Naturally, I did consider that they were cleverly preventing any attempts I might make to ask them out (I actually had no intention of doing so). However, time has made it clear that it was a life choice and not a ploy. Unless, of course, it is an amazingly long term ploy.

This got me thinking about why people make such a choice. After all, social tradition and expectations push people towards relationships. Further, people go on about how great it is to be in love. And, of course, there is that matter of sex.

One obvious reason some people stay single is that they cannot find another person. This might be because (sadly) no one wants them. Or it might be because (sadly) they have set their requirements so high that no mere mortal can meet them. Or perhaps they just happen to be someplace that is awful in terms of dating opportunities.

Another reason, and one that my friends have given, is that some people are too busy pursuing other goals such as career and education. Relationships take time and some people do not have the time for them. Interestingly, while women often give this as a reason, none of my male friends have ever said that they don’t date women because it would take too much time. It might be because women put in more effort than men and hence time is of more concern to them. Or maybe my sample is biased. Naturally, some people probably use this as an excuse to cover up their real reasons.

A third reason I have heard is that some people simply find life satisfying without a relationship and find little or nothing appealing in being in one. In some cases, people actually see relationships as detrimental and prefer to give up the positive aspects of a relationship to avoid the negative.  This view is often based on past experiences. A bad divorce or breakup can cause a person to think : “hey, being single isn’t so bad…at least I won’t lose half my stuff and no one is causing me emotional damage on a daily basis…other than those weasels at the office…” That can make a great deal of sense to a person who has been through the wringer.

Robbing the People and Giving to the Rich

Posted in Business, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 25, 2008

In general, the main function of rulers and leaders has been to siphon of the work and wealth of the many to themselves and their associates. This applies to both business and politics.

The latest bailout plan is more of the same. The top financial people want to escape the burning wrecks of their once great companies on their golden parachutes (or row boats, to continue the ship metaphor). Naturally, they want to hit the ground with millions of untouched assets.

While the executives drift away, the taxpayers are supposed to bear the burden of repairing the wrecks and getting the economic fleet back afloat. To the Bush administration, this seems to be the right thing to do. Naturally, the top executives think this is just great-they stay rich and everyone else gets to clean up the wreckage they left behind in their climb towards all that wealth.

While supporting such parasites is business as usual, there is always the risk that the parasites will take too much and do too much damage. This can cause the host body to weaken badly or even die. While this has not been the sole factor in the fall of nations and empires, this sort of behavior has been a major contributing factor. It is tolerated and even encouraged because the top parasites are either in charge or are in cahoots with those who are supposed to be keeping an eye on them. While this happens in all administrations, the Bush administration has been breaking new ground (or perhaps just returning to old grounds).

Ideally, the people behind the damage would pay for what they have done. After all, they have done massive damage to the economy and hence to millions of people. The Presidential candidates are talking about this, but I suspect that little will change-politics is, after all, about siphoning off wealth and power from the many to the few. The names and faces change, but the game remains the same.


Posted in Business, Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 24, 2008

As the economy spirals downward, people are looking for the cause. Not surprisingly, the Democrats and Republicans are blaming each other and they are both blaming the usual suspects: Washington, greed, the financial fat cats and so on. They both seem to be quite right.

While I am not an economist, the basic situation of the economy is on par with the general situation of society. I am qualified to comment on that, thanks to my background in political philosophy and political science.

Thinkers such as Aristotle, Hobbes and Plato have carefully considered what is needed to have a good society (and hence a good economy). For Aristotle and Plato, the key was to make people good. Aristotle was quite clear about what to do with people who did not become good-they would be compelled to act that way or forced into exile. Hobbes took what many regard as a more practical and realistic approach. He regarded humans as egoists looking out solely for their own good. Hence, people have to be compelled by force in order to behave in a way fit for society. Presumably the same applies to economic behavior as well. After all, if people are selfish and badly behaved in general, it would be odd if they were not so inclined when it came to economic matters.

The Republicans (to use the stereotype) seem to get Hobbes view when it comes to personal matters. They generally believe that individuals need to be compelled by the state when it comes to same sex marriage, abortion and drugs. They also seem to get his view when it comes to social order: they support harsh laws against certain crimes, capital punishment and the use of force against other nations. However, their reason seems to fail when it comes to the economy. While they see it as critical for the state to protect us from the devastating impact of same-sex marriage, the general view is that business should be left alone and this will work out great. This strikes me as odd. After all, if people need to be compelled by the state to behave well, then this should apply to business behavior as well.

Some people might point to the power of the invisible hand, an invention of Adam Smith. However, this wonderful invisible hand is invisible for the same reason that a unicorn is invisible-neither exist. The historical evidence is quite clear and hardly surprising: when people are not restricted by proper rules, they tend to try to get away with as much as they can. This also applies to business. Actually, it applies especially to business because the goal is to acquire wealth and this tends to lead to not-so-nice behavior even in the best of times.

I do wonder whether conservatives delude themselves about the magical invisible hand of business or whether they use it as a convenient excuse so they can try to get away with what they want to do. However, the logic is clear: if people need to be regulated by the state because otherwise they would act badly, then this applies to business behavior as well. Unless, of course, it can be shown that business is a special exception and that people act well and wisely without regulation. I think that the past problems and current disaster shows the truth about this matter.


Posted in Business, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 23, 2008

A plan to bail out the ailing financial system to the tune of $700 billion is being considered. Critics of the current proposal point out the obvious flaws: the plan seems to involve dumping money on the problem without a clear set of guidelines and considered objectives. Also, there is concern that the people responsible for the mess will drift away on their golden parachutes, taking millions with them. This situation raises serious concerns about what should be done.

On one hand, the economy is staggering and bleeding badly, so it needs help. If the state does not step in to patch up the wounds, this giant might fall. Obviously, that would be a disaster for America and the world. Dealing with such a major disaster seems to be withing the responsibilities of the state.

On the other hand, the economy is staggering and bleeding badly because people made poor decisions. This includes the people in finance as well as the government officials who were supposed to be minding the store. When such bad decisions are made, leaping to the rescue can encourage people to keep making such poor choices. The finance people have been accused of engaging in poor risk assessment. However, if the state bails them out, then it could be inferred they made good risk assessments after all. This is because the state is stepping in to pay for their bad choices. To use an analogy, if I believe that my parents will send me money if I blow my paycheck on gambling, then that will affect my assessment of the risk. Likewise, the folks in finance probably thought that the state would dump money on them if their house of cards collapsed. It looks like they were right-assuming they thought this way. Perhaps they just acted from greed and are now just lucky that the state is going to step in.

In general, such bailouts send the wrong message. To use an analogy, suppose that everytime my husky does something wrong, I give her a treat rather than punishing her. Soon, she will be acting badly all the time. If the top financial people walk away from this mess with millions and the taxpayers are stuck with paying for the mess, then this will merely reinforce their bad behavior. This is somewhat on par with the government spending money to clean up the environmental messes left behind by companies and other similar situations. The taxpayers have been footing the bill for corporate America for quite some time-this is just going to be the biggest incident in a while.

Obviously, the companies need to be weaned off this-otherwise they will never learn to be responsible “adults” and will go on being bad “children.”

Natural Light Beer is #1 (as Litter)

Posted in Environment by Michael LaBossiere on September 22, 2008

A few years ago a kayaker told me that she always found discarded cans of Natural Light beer near and floating in various rivers. This tidbit caused me to start looking closer at the beer cans I saw (and disposed of) on my runs. Interestingly, Natural Light is the number one beer that I’ve found as litter. Last week I ran on the FSU campus on a Sunday after a game. The bike trail to the campus was littered with hundreds of Natural Light cans and the red party cups that are so popular with the drunk and trashy. Naturally, I was unable to clean up that mess. Fortunately, the FSU clean up folks do a good job cleaning up that sort of mess.

Not surprisingly, seeing so much trash all the time makes me wonder why people litter. One obvious answer is pure laziness. It takes a minimal effort to dispose of trash, but that seems to be too much to ask of some people. I do wonder if that character flaw infects the rest of their life as well. Speaking of character flaws, another option is that it is a sense of entitlement. Perhaps some litterbugs see themselves as having a right to have others tend to their messes. Maybe their parents cleaned up after them and never made the importance of taking care their own messes stick properly. Or perhaps it is just pure ego. Then again, maybe that attributes too much reflection to such people. It might well be the case that dropping trash is a matter of habit and unreasoning instinct. They use it, no longer need it and just let it drop without a second thought.

Litter, as you might guess, bothers me. It is ugly, pollutes the environment and serves to remind me (in a small way) about the badness of people. I’ve never found it difficult to take care of my own trash and it annoys me that so many other people cannot do the same. It is such a little thing, but it makes such a big difference. Also, I suspect that it is habit forming (or the result of bad habits). I’ve noticed that some people who see the world as their trash can treat their own bodies and residences that way. At least they are consistent in their vices.

In case you are wondering why Natural Light is the top trash beer, I’ve been told that this is because it is so cheap and hence is very common. Of course, my beer snob friends say it is because people who can choke down Natural Light are the sort of people who litter. I’m not sure about that.

Palin, Abortion & Hunting

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on September 20, 2008

Governor Palin has become a rather popular topic here in the United States. In addition to all the political issues surrounding her, she has also generated some interesting philosophical discussions.

Some of my more liberal friends find her views on abortion (against) and hunting (for) to be morally appalling. After all, they contend, a woman should have a right to chose and people should not shoot helpless animals. Naturally enough, I started thinking about possible connections between the ethics of abortion and the ethics of hunting.

While there are obvious differences between an abortion and shooting an animal, there are important similarities between them. Both obviously involve killing. Both involve beings that are often regarded as inferior to developed human beings. Both involve choice. At the moral core of both is a basic question: when is it morally acceptable to kill another being?

One standard argument for abortion is based on the view that there is a right to choose. Naturally enough, hunters can help themselves to this view. Just as a woman decides have someone kill for her when she has an abortion, a hunter decides to kill an animal. Of course, those who oppose hunting or abortion would contend that the two situations are different in morally relevant ways. Those against abortion often argue that humans are superior to animals and hence it is acceptable to kill animals but not abort humans. Those against hunting often focus on the fact that the woman is dealing with a being inside her body and this grants her a right to kill that hunters lack. These differences appear relevant and are well worth considering.

Another standard argument for abortion is that a woman should have the right to an abortion because having one can make her life better. For example, consider the stock scenario: a poor high school girl who has the potential to go to college gets pregnant. She cannot afford to raise the baby, the father is not around, and she cannot got to college if she has a child. In order to have a better life, she elects to have an abortion. This is justified because an act of killing will make her life better and more enjoyable.

Hunters can, of course, help themselves to this argument as well. Many people find hunting very enjoyable. This is hardly surprising since humans evolved as hunters and gatherers. One might say that we are hunters by nature. By killing animals and enjoying it, hunters have a better and more enjoyable life. While it comes at the price of death, if abortion can be justified on these grounds then so too can hunting.

Obviously, those who oppose hunting but support abortion would argue that the woman gains much more by an abortion than a hunter gains by killing an animal. The hunter enjoys the hunt, the kill and telling the tale. But the enjoyment is brief. Using the example given above, the high school girl avoids nine months of pregnancy, avoids the burden of taking care of a child and gains a better life. Hence, because of the greater rewards one kill is justified and the other is not-or so one might argue.

Someone who is pro-hunting and anti-abortion might contend that while the woman gains more, she is killing a potential person while the hunter is killing a mere animal. So, while the woman gains more, she also (it might be argued) destroys more to get it. Naturally enough, the pro-abortion person might reply that a potential human is inferior to an animal and hence she is actually killing a much lesser being to gain much more. This, obviously enough, leads to the matter of the moral worth of the beings involved.

In light of the above discussion, it seems clear that abortion and hunting are morally similar. Whether they have the same moral status or not is something that I have not settled, but it is worth raising the matter for discussion.