A Philosopher's Blog

Racing to the Top, While Leaving No Child Behind

Posted in Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on March 31, 2011
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No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was put in place during George W. Bush’s administration and was “replaced” with Obama’s Race to the Top (RTTT). Despite the difference between the names, the core of each seems to be basically the same. They also seem to share the quality of being bad ideas.

The underlying idea for NCLB was that regular testing in public schools (with public results) would improved education. This was tried in Texas and it was claimed that Texas showed remarkable improvement from this system. This seemed to have been enough to sell the idea to Congress. Unfortunately, there was one minor problem with this: the reality seems to have been that Texas students showed no improvement, even after 20 years of this approach. In fact, Texas students are in the bottom 10% of American students in both math and literacy. Given that Texas was used to justify NCLB, this seems to be a rather serious problem.

Sadly, Texas did serve as an excellent example of the effects of this approach to education. The NCLB agenda seems to have had a similar impact on states across the nation. That is, this approach seems to have yielded little in what could be reasonable called positive results for education. It has, however, been good business for those who sell the tests used in assessment.

Being a somewhat experienced professor, I can attest that standardized testing of this sort is generally not the best means of assessing abilities. However, the most serious problem is that making the testing the focus means that true education is shortchanged in favor of training students to take specific tests. I taught a class on standardized test preparation for several years and can, based on my experience, be reasonable confident that training students for a standardized test is not the same as providing them with the knowledge and skills that are critical to the rest of life.

In addition to what seems to be a clear flaw in the underlying method, there was also the approach taken. To be specific, NCLB required that 100% of all students must be proficient in math and reading by 2014. While this was a laudable goal, it also seems to be one that is impossible to achieve. To make matters worse, the NCLB approach was based on punishment for failing to meet goals rather than rewarding schools for success. This punitive approach seems to have caused significant damage to the public education system. Unrealistic goals backed up by severe punishments, as one would imagine, are not the best way to create success. Unless, of course, success is defined in a somewhat different way. After all, this approach has served to open up a market for private schools and thus might turn out to be profitable for the folks who own such institutions.

When Obama came into office, many people hoped that he would change the approach to education. His administration did make some changes, such as giving the program a new name and adding some incentives (competition for federal money) into the mix. They also changed to an even greater reliance on tests and even made the obviously mistaken claim that teachers are solely responsible for whether test scores improve or worsen. Some people see this as a betrayal of their hopes.

This approach seems to be obviously fundamentally flawed. First, while these tests can be a useful measure of certain aspects of education, they are far from a complete measure. This is one reason that experienced educators do not simply hand out their own versions of standardized tests in classes, but instead make use of a diverse range of means of assessing performance. There is also, as noted above, the problem that teaching students how to take standardized tests and providing them with the knowledge and skills they will need in life are two different things. As I mentioned before, I have fairly extensive experience with standardized tests and I also am very familiar with assessment methods (I have served on an assessment committee since 2004). As such, I am reasonably confident in my claims. I am, however, open to the possibility that I am wrong. In fact, it would be wonderful if I were wrong at that  RTTT has the right approach to education that will save the day for American students. I doubt this is the case, however. Rather, I expect that this approach will mainly serve to damage the American education system and make us less competitive in the global marketplace. It will, however, be a boon for those who sell the tests and those who run private schools.

Second, the claim that teachers are the sole factor determining tests scores is, to stray from my usual tone, pure bullshit. To believe such a claim a person would have to accept that parents, the social conditions, and the children have no causal role in the matter. This is absurd to such a degree that the burden of proof seems to squarely rest on those who claim that teachers are entirely responsible. To use an analogy, this would be on par with hold a school coach completely responsible for team performance and refusing to accept that the players, their parents and other factors could have anything to do with winning or losing.

Having been a professor for quite some time, I do accept that the educator does have a considerable amount of responsibility for the quality of the education provided. However, the majority of the responsibility rests on the student and even the best educator cannot reach and improve everyone.

Some might suspect that making teachers solely accountable and linking their employment and salaries to these test scores is a way to reduce teachers’ salaries and fire teachers. This would seem consistent with the recent attacks on education and educators, especially attempts to destroy teachers’ unions. While these unions do have their flaws, they do serve as a counterbalance to those who would inflict damaging cuts on education and impose damaging systems.

Obama has been talking a good game about education, but it remains to be seen if he will implement substantial changes.

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Middle East Uprisings: Fueled by Biofuel?

Posted in Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on March 30, 2011
In some countries, filling stations sell bio-d...

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While rebellions and uprisings are caused by a variety of factors, one factor that often appears is the high cost (or unavailability) of food items-especially staple items like wheat (and bread), rice and sugar. The latest uprisings in the Middle East are no exception and food (or lack thereof) has clearly been a motivating factor in getting people into the streets. While Napoleon said “an army marches on its stomach”, it can also be said that much of the stability of a society rests on its stomach. A hungry population is often a rebellious population. While the world produces an abundant amount of food, food prices have been steadily increasing.

While some of the increases in food prices has been attributed to food speculators, some of it has come from what might strike some as an unlikely source: biofuel.

While the United States has long subsidized agriculture, this really picked up in regards to biofuel, which is fuel created from organic material (primarily plants). In the United States, corn based biofuel has enjoyed considerable government support and this has contributed to rising food prices in at least two ways. First, converting corn (and other food crops) to biofuel reduces the amount of corn available. This will, naturally enough, increase the cost of the remaining corn. Second, switching cropland over to growing for biofuel rather than food means that there will be less food available and the remaining food will be more expensive. Throw in some food speculation, an increase in oil prices (which impacts growing and transportation costs), and some crop failures and the result is the high cost of food.

The reduced supply and greater cost means that people who are less wealthy will have a harder time getting the food they need. Not surprisingly, the people of the Middle East were hit fairly hard by this due to the relative poor economic conditions (which have certainly not been helped by the selfishness and avarice of various dictators and their cronies).

In a nice bit of irony, the unrest in the Middle East has been used to justify raising the price of oil. This makes biofuel even more attractive and hence could spur on increased production of biofuel at the expense of food production, thus leading to even higher food prices. This, in turn, could lead to even more social unrest and social ills. Of course, this can also mean amazing profits for those with the foresight and resources to cash in on this situation. For others, of course, this can mean a time of hardship, suffering and even death.

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Ignorance, Revisited

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 29, 2011
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As Americans should now, folks who want to become citizens have to go through a process that involves taking a test consisting of 10 questions from a bank of 100 questions in 5 categories related to American history and government. To pass, a person must get 6 out of 10 right.

As is done every so often, folks at Newsweek decided to see how Americans would do on the tests. As always, a significant percentage (38%) of Americans failed the test. This did not surprise me at all. I have heard of other instances in which Americans were tested and I also have seen how lacking even college students are in knowledge of the basic facts of American history and government.

When looking at the breakdown of the results, there are some interesting numbers. 67% of men passed the test while only 58% of women did. This is, no doubt, due to the patriarchal nature of the questions. Joking aside, it is certainly interesting that men did significantly better. This could very well be due to a difference in interests. In general, men still seem to find history and politics more interesting than women do.

A rather unsurprising result is that 75% of those earning $100,000 or more passed while a dismal 40% of those making $20,000 or less passed. This most likely reflected the degree of education possessed by the people in question. After all, people who make $100,000 or more a year most likely finished high school and have at least a B.A./B.S. thus picking up at least some knowledge. There is also the fact that high earners probably have somewhat more interest in the subject material of the test. However, it is rather disappointing that the results were still rather poor.

One interesting set of results involves the success rate of people based on their political views. The Newsweek results found that the closer a person matched their party’s label (conservative or liberal), the better they did. In the case of Republicans, 70% of the conservatives passed followed by 61% of the moderates and 55% of the liberals. In the case of the Democrats, 62% of the liberals and moderates passed, while 36% of the conservative Democrats managed to pass.

These results seem to indicate that Americans who are more closely aligned with the professed ideology of their parties are better informed than those who are not. So, for example, while conservative Republicans seem vastly more informed (in this context) than a conservative Democrat, they are only somewhat better informed than liberal or moderate Democrats. This can be taken as indicating the the political middle is less informed than the left and right edges, with the conservative Democrats being the worst of the lot.  The results are, in any case, disappointing across the board.

In terms of voters, 68% of those who voted regularly passed the test. This indicates that a significant percentage of voters are making decisions that are likely to be poorly grounded in an understanding of American history and how the system works. Of course, this probably matches quite well with the ignorance of elected officials (nicely illustrated by Michele Bachman’s recent flub).

I have two main points to make about these results. The first is that they can be taken as a sign that a significant percentage of Americans are ignorant of our history and political system. Assuming that this knowledge is important to making informed political choices, this bodes ill for the country. The second is that this raises concerns about the fairness of the citizenship tests. After all, if 38% of the Americans tested failed, then it might be that the test is actually unfair when it comes to determining who is suitable to be an American citizen. To use an analogy, if 38% of the graduates of a school failed the admissions test to that school, this would lead one to wonder about the quality of the school or the fairness of the admission tests. Likewise for the citizenship test and the quality of American education (and the quality of Americans).

For those who might be wondering, I scored 100% on the Newsweek test. But, I majored in political science and philosophy, plus I am a history buff, all of which which gives me some unfair advantages.

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Posted in Technology by Michael LaBossiere on March 28, 2011
Cover of "Kindle Wireless Reading Device,...

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While the Kindle has been out for a while, I published my first Kindle book, 42 Fallacies,  in November of 2010. While the content of the book has been freely available for years, people expressed an interest in a Kindle version and I put one together. I was rather surprised by the fact that people have been buying about 40 copies each month. After all, there are free PDF, text, and Word versions all over the web.

This modest success motivated me to produce other Kindle books. The most recent is McDonald’s is for Breakups and I have four other books currently in the works. I have no delusions of making a lot of money. Rather, I am more interested in sharing my ideas and raising a little cash to help buy the supplies I need to teach. Thanks to the budget cuts in my state, my department has no dedicated funds for such things. In fact, the university is currently being “restructured” and the current theme is that we are all “lucky to have jobs.” Yes, I have had the occasional daydream of Oprah pushing one of my books and being able to become independently wealthy on the proceeds.

While I doubt Oprah will be pushing anyone’s minor Kindle books anytime soon, getting into the Kindle publishing business can be fun and perhaps even profitable. While writing books can be a bit challenging, the Kindling process is fairly easy. The following is a very simple guide to simple Kindle publishing.

First, you need to set up your Kindle direct publishing account by going to https://kdp.amazon.com/self-publishing/signin. If you do not already have an Amazon account, you will need to set one up and sign in using that account. Otherwise, you just need to set up the KDP, a process that is rather quick.

Second, you need to write a book. Good luck with that. When writing a book for the Kindle, it is a good idea to consider the nature of that format, which leads to the third step.

Third, you need to format the book. Kindle books are, in effect, written in a HTML code with some support for style sheets. It is this code that controls how the text appears as well as handling the navigation of the text.  For example, the table of contents for a Kindle is essentially a set of hyperlinks to anchors in the text.

Given this, the more you know about HTML and style sheets, the better. Fortunately, if you are doing a basic book, then you can get by without knowing much (or anything) about HTML.

Fortunately, you do not have to write your book in an HTML editor. After all, most word processing and page layout programs support saving files to HTML. Also, as will be discussed below, you can convert certain file types directly to the Kindle format.

Since my books have been rather basic, I have been using Word to create and edit the content. Conveniently, Word’s table of contents generator will generate a usable table in the document. Simply set the style for each item you want in the table and Word will do the work for you.

Once the book is formatted in Word, the file can be saved as HTML, text or even simply as a Word (.doc) file for conversion. You can even save it as a PDF file. HTML does seem to be the preferred format, however.

Since Word is somewhat notorious for creating crappy HTML, you might consider cleaning up the code in an HTML editor if you are not getting the results that you want when you convert the book into the Kindle format (see below). This does, of course, require knowing about HTML and the Kindle format. Fortunately, you can create decent looking books without knowing any of this.

There are, of course, many options other than Word. Given that all you need is,crudely put, a file with the proper HTML code, any program that can create HTML files (or a file that can be converted to HTML) can be used to create a Kindle book. You can even use programs that are designed for page layout, such as Adobe InDesign.

Fourth, you need to convert the book into the format used by Amazon. Amazon offers two free options. The first is the command line (think DOS) Kindlegen that converts files into the correct format. The second is a (beta) plug in for Adobe InDesign (Mac and Windows versions are available). Both are available here.

A second free option is the MobiPocket Creator. This is the option that I recommend, since it is not a command line program and provides various useful options (such as adding a cover graphic). The program can import HTML,  Word (.doc), text, and PDF files. However, it produces the best results from HTML in regards to having the Kindle book resemble the original in regards to layout. I have tried several PDF files, generally with very disappointing results. Not surprisingly, the simpler the layout of a book, the easier it will be for the program to maintain that layout properly.

Given that Amazon is pushing Kindle hard, I have been hoping that they would provide software that could be used to create and directly save Kindle book files. The current method seems a bit jury rigged: you create the book in one program, save it and clean it up with another, then use a third program to convert it to the Kindle format. But perhaps this is intended to put up a barrier or perhaps the folks at Amazon are getting enough books so they need not worry about this.

Fifth, you will upload the book to Amazon via the KDP page. You will need to enter the details regarding your book, set a price, enter a description and (if desired) upload an image of the cover. Amazon will process the book and it will be published in 48 hours (in the United States).

Here is my super simple bullet list method:

  • Create your Amazon KDP account.
  • Write your book in Word, create a table of contents, save it as HTML.
  • Convert the book using MobiPocket Creator.
  • Upload it to Amazon KDP.
  • Wait for Oprah to call you.
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Posted in Technology by Michael LaBossiere on March 27, 2011
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Like all Americans, I live in a cable company’s monopoly zone: I can have any cable provider I want, provided that it is Comcast. True, I do have some alternatives: I can go with a dish option for TV and I can go with DSL or try to get by with 3G wireless. However, I have “chosen” to go with Comcast.

In general, the service is adequate. However, I have run into some problems recently. I’ll present these and tell you how to solve them, in case you are also a Comcast customer.

The first problem I had was that my On-Demand would not work. I would try to pick a show and I would receive a message informing me that an SRM-8 error had occurred and that I needed to call 1-800-COMCAST.

If you get this problem, here are the steps to take. Try them in order, one might work and thus make the other steps necessary.

  • Check to make sure your cable is securely “screwed in” to the box.
  • Unplug the cable box and remove the cable cable. Reconnect and try again.
  • Call 1-800-COMCAST. Use the automated menu to get a refresh signal.
  • If the refresh fails, stay on the line. A service rep will have you unplug the box and then they will force a “reset” of the box. That should do it.
I had to go all the way to the last step (the next step would be having a tech visit) and the problem was resolved by a very courteous service rep.

My second problem was a massive slowdown of my internet connection. Videos stuttered and stopped, Netflix was unusable, web pages loaded at dial up speeds and Warfcraft was unplayable. I used http://www.speedtest.net/ (another option is  http://www.speakeasy.net/speedtest/) to confirm my suspicions: while Comcast claims 15 mbps download speeds, I was getting 4 or less. At one point I was getting .5 mbps.

I called Comcast and tried the automated refresh, which could not be completed. After being on hold for a while, I got to speak with a friendly service representative.  I was asked question after question to confirm my identity (phone number, name on the account, home address, Mac number on the modem, and modem serial number). Presumably people who are not customers must call Comcast often. The service rep tried a refresh and I had tried the usual steps of unplugging the modem from the cable and the power to allow it to reset. None of this worked.

The service rep said that the next available time for a tech to come out was in seven days. I refrained from asking if they could reduce my bill for those seven days. She did say that if it was treated as the service being out, someone could be out the next day. By next day she meant sometime during the day, between morning and 5:00 pm. That was, obviously enough, not an option. Since I am a lazy educator, I do not have to teach on Fridays, so I asked if a technician might wander by on that day. She agreed to that.

The tech called and then showed up around 1:00 on Friday. He determined that the signal was weak and we went to look at where the cable entered the house. The main splitter had been replaced about 10 years ago, but was still in good shape. However, it split the cable signal four ways, so he changed the set up so the cable was split with one going to the modem and the other to the TV lines. This seems to have solved the problem and my speed went up to an average of 20 mbps. The tech was friendly, courteous and competent.

If you get this problem, here are the steps to take. Try them in order, one might work and thus make the other steps necessary.

  • Check your modem’s cables: the cable cable, the ethernet cable, and the power cable. If you have a router, check those cables.
  • Unplug the modem and remove the cables. If you have a router, turn it off and  then turn it on again. Wait a bit, reconnect and try again.
  • Reboot your computer (or try another computer).
  • Call 1-800-COMCAST. Use the automated menu to get a refresh signal sent to your modem.
  • If the refresh fails, stay on the line. A service rep will have you unplug the box and then they will force a “reset” of the box. That should do it.

While I do understand that Comcast wants to save money by employing a minimal number of technicians and that they no doubt are very busy handling problems, given what people have to lay out for cable per month, it does not seem unreasonable to expect slightly faster service and the ability to provide a more precise schedule of arrival for techs. After all, not everyone is a lazy professor who can take off a day to wait for a tech to arrive.

I am looking forward to the day when wireless broadband becomes a reality in the area. Presumably this will be less problematic than cable (or maybe not) and, if Comcast does not own it, the increased competition will step up the service.

I generally find Comcast adequate and they seem to have improved in recent years as more alternatives (dish and DSL) have become available. The service reps I have worked with have all been very pleasant, competent, courteous and helpful, which makes me think well of Comcast in this regard.

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What Should Our Goals be in Libya?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 26, 2011
The leader de facto of Libya, Muammar al-Gaddafi.

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Now that we have entered into an undeclared war in Libya, we should probably determine our goals. After all, without knowing what we should be doing, we won’t know when we should stop doing it.

At this point, we seem to have the goal of enforcing the no-fly zone. This is, on the face of it, a clear goal: we just do what it takes to keep Libyan air assets from operating in the specified areas. So far this has involved attacking Libya’s anti-air capabilities and their command and control abilities. It also involve, obviously enough, engaging aircraft in the zone. We have also engaged and destroyed some of Libya’s armored units.

Of course, there is the question as to the purpose of the no-fly zone. The stated goal is to keep Qaddafi from slaughtering his own people, or at least those people who are rebelling against him. Preventing death is, in general, a laudable goal and hence it can be argued that this is something we should be doing.

If our primary goal is to prevent Qaddafi from killing his own people, then it would seem that we will have to expand our operations in the region. After all, while air power is a critical part of combined arms operations (and no sensible commander would operate without such an approach), Qaddafi can use land forces quite effectively against rebels and civilians. As noted above, we have already struck Libyan armor and would thus seem to already be on the way to a broader sort of operation in the area rather than simply maintaining a no fly zone.

Assuming that our goal is to prevent Qaddafi from killing his people, it would also seem that we are committed to stay for as long as Qaddafi is willing and  able to engage in that activity. On this assumption, once the killing has stopped (and seems to have ceased on a permanent basis), then our goal would be achieved and we should depart. This would seem to be a rather open ended sort of goal in that we could be there a rather long time as the conflict drags on. As it now stands, the rebels do not seem capable of winning on their own anytime soon and as long as the United States (and her allies) remains involved, then it seems unlikely that Qaddafi will decisively defeat the rebels. As such, we are serving to prolong the combat rather than end it. This seems to be a somewhat undesirable side effect of our current approach to the stated goal. As such, perhaps there needs to be a change in goals or methodology.

One option is to aim at removing Qaddafi from power. Given Qaddafi’s long link to terrorist activities and the fact that he is an increasingly erratic dictator, it does make sense to see that he is no longer in power. Of course, this goal does have some problems.

First, this would involve the United States in another Iraq style adventure in regime change. Since we have yet to finish up our current adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, starting a third adventure might not be the wisest idea.

In reply, someone might argue that it will be different this time. Perhaps we could just kill him and depart, leaving the people of Libya to sort things out. No doubt this would result in a pro-America democracy in no time.

Second, there is the fact that we would be involving ourselves fully in a civil war. Qaddafi. While Qaddafi is being opposed by rebels, he still enjoys considerable support from a significant portion of the population and is, on the face of it, the legitimate ruler of the country who is facing what seems to be a rather disorganized collection of rebels. As such, we would not so much be liberating the people of Libya as taking sides in a civil war without really knowing much about the side we are backing.

In reply, some might be inclined to point out that it is hard to imagine a worse situation than having Qaddafi in power. As such, we should back the rebels and take out Qaddafi.

The obvious response to that is that the situation could be worse. For example, Qaddafi could be “replaced” with a situation of complete chaos in which the various rebel groups fall into fighting against each other for control. It seems well worth sorting out who replace Qaddafi. This is something we did not properly consider when we launched our war in Iraq and, at the very least, we should have learned to look before we depose.

No doubt it is because of these sorts of problems that Obama has been reluctant to commit to regime change. In any case, we are in a rather difficult situation. We should not simply sit aside and let Qaddafi kill the rebels. However, removing him from power does not seem to be an appealing option. Unfortunately, that seems to be the only effective solution to the problem.

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Rambling on Taxes

Posted in Business, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 25, 2011
The Gadsden flag

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One of the political themes in the United States has been the matter of taxes. When the Bush tax cuts were set to expire, there was considerable support for keeping the cuts for the less wealthy Americans in place. Then there was an interesting surge to keep the tax cuts in place even for the wealthy and thus the tax cuts remained.

The Tea Party movement also has been involved (or directed to be involved) in pushing for tax cuts-especially for businesses and corporations. The theory is, of course, that tax cuts for corporations will create jobs and tax cuts for the wealthy will create spending (which will create jobs).

There is also a move to cut the size of government, although this seems to be more talk than action and seems to be directed mainly at small ideological targets rather than anything significant. However, there is at least talk of reducing spending. Given that there will be less income for the state, this is clearly a necessity.

Despite the tax cuts and the talk of cuts in spending, there is still clearly a need for taxes. After all, even the most staunch Tea Partier accepts that the state provides goods and services that they simply cannot do without. Since these do not come for free, there would seem to be a necessity for taxes. This raises the question as to what would be a fair tax.

Looked at in a rather simplistic and even naive way, the answer would be based on the business model in which a customer pays for the goods and services they use. For a tax to be fair, it should match the goods and services that a tax payer consumes. This could be called “pay as you go taxation” because it would be similar to pay as you go phone plans.

There are, of course, some obvious major flaws with this view. First, there is the rather practical matter of calculating the goods and services that a person uses. For example, people without children or who send their children to private schools might claim that they should not pay for public schools. However, they would seem to benefit from these schools in various ways-such as the education they provide to people they might hire. As another example, someone who opposes war might claim they should not pay for defense-however, they still receive the benefits of being protected by the state.

Second, there is the fact that some of the people who need these goods and services will be people who cannot afford to pay for them, such as children, the retired, the unemployed, and others. While it could be argued that they are thus not entitled to these services, this would seem to be inconsistent with the idea that the state should provide for the good of the people, even when those who benefit cannot afford to pay for these goods.

Another simplistic option is to tax everyone the same amount, regardless of their income. To use an analogy, this would be like the country going in on a pizza together-everyone has to chip in the same amount.

While this would be fair in one sense, it would seem to place an undue burden on the poor and put relatively little burden on the rich. As such, it would seem to be unfair in that sense. Unless, of course, the weight of the burden has nothing to do with fairness.

Another possibility is to simply have each person pay the same percentage, say 15%, of their income. That would be fair in the sense that each person is thus chipping in the same percentage. This, of course, means that people will be paying more or less in terms of the dollars they are paying in. However, each person will be contributing based on their income and this could be seen as fair. To use an analogy, it would be like people working together to lift a heavy object when some people are stronger than others. As long as each person is giving it their best, then it would seem to be fair.

Of course, this could also be seen as unfair. After all, a person who makes very little might not be left with enough to pay for their basic needs while someone who is very wealthy would still have a significant fortune. To use an analogy, if I have just enough water to survive while Donald has 10,000 times as much water as he needs to survive, giving up 15% would kill me but do nothing to Donald.

This, of course, suggests a variable income tax, in which the % goes up with the income. Sticking with the water analogy, if I have just enough to survive, then I should get to keep that. Donald can give up a lot without any hardship and hence it would not be an unfair burden.

Of course, it can be argued that it is unfair to punish people for their better fortune. If Sally has 100 times the water she needs and Donald has 10,000 times, then why should Donald have to hand over more water simply because he has more?

It might be argued that those who have more are thus under a greater obligation to contribute more both because they do have more and paying more will still leave them quite well off relative to other people.

Anyways, just some rambling on this matter. I’m still thinking about some theories of fair taxes and will put together something more developed soon.

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Obama, Libya & The Constitution

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 24, 2011
Official presidential portrait of Barack Obama...

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Obama’s decision to impose a no-fly zone in Libya has been greeted with criticism from both the left an the right. One point of criticism is that he has acted unconstitutionally. The basis for this claim is, of course,  Article I, Section 8 which makes it clear that Congress shall have the power to declare War.

Considering this alone, it would seem that Obama has overstepped the legitimate limits of his power by sending the military into action against a foreign sovereign state. This is, interestingly enough, consistent with what Senator Obama said in 2007: “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation. As commander in chief, the president does have a duty to protect and defend the United States. In instances of self-defense, the president would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent.”

While it is tempting to fall victim to an ad hominem tu quoque  here, the fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim he makes false (although of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true – but both can be false). As such, while Obama has made at least one false claim it is not automatically the case that he is wrong now. After all, he could have been wrong in 2007.

Obama can, of course, refer to  Article II, Section2  which states that “the President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States…” This could be used to justify his actions. After all, he did not declare war on Libya (nor did they declare war on the United States). He merely sent American forces to impose a no-fly zone. While people have called this an act of war, this is different from making a declaration of war. As such, it could be concluded that Obama has acted within the limits of his legitimate powers.

Interestingly, he also seems to be acting in a way that is perfectly legal, at least in accord with the War Powers Act of 1973. This act was passed, obviously enough, in response to the undeclared war in Vietnam. The gist of the act is that the President can send forces abroad only under two conditions: 1) by the authorization of congress or 2) if the country is under attack or subject to a serious threat. There are, of course, some loopholes that can be exploited. The first is that the president has 48 hours in which to notify congress of such actions and the forces can remain up to 6o days (with 30 more days for withdrawal) before a declaration of war or authorization must be provided by congress.  Given that this act is law, Obama seems to have acted in a way that is perfectly legal.

Not surprisingly, this act has been subject to challenges from presidents and there are doubts about is constitutionality. After all, it seems to restrict the president’s role as commander in chief while simultaneously allowing the president to, in effect, wage war for three months without approval from congress or a declaration of war. Both of these concerns do certainly seem to have merit.

A somewhat more philosophical approach to the matter would involve considering the matter of what it means to declare war. One way to look at it is to take it as the formal declaration of war. On this view, Obama would seem to be acting in a legitimate way. As noted above, he has not issued a declaration of war. Rather, he has simply launched attacks within the territory of another sovereign nation-which has become something of a tradition among American presidents.

A second way to look at it is that the act of attacking another sovereign state could be seen as a declaration of war via action. In Locke’s discussion of what creates a state of war, such a state can be created by a statement of intent but also by actions (such as attacking). On this view, Obama’s attack would seem to be an act of war and thus could be taken as a declaration of war. If so, he would be acting unconstitutionally.

A third way to look at the matter is to take the view that congress’s power to declare war is not merely a matter of formally declaring a war, but the power to create a state of war that legitimately allows the military actions of war to be taken. While the President is commander in chief, he does not have the right to create the state of war via his actions. This, of course, does not entail that American forces have to simply take being shot at until congress gets around to declaring war. Nor does it entail that the president cannot order military actions that are short of war.  This, of course, raises the rather difficult question of sorting out what counts as a war. That, however, must be the subject of another discussion.

My considered opinion is that Obama has acted legally in that he has acted within the letter of the existing laws. However, on a more philosophical level, I believe (as apparently he did in 2007) that the congress must declare war before the president can legitimately wage a war. As such, Obama has acted in what appears to be a violation of the constitution. However, I am willing to admit that my position is not strongly supported and can no doubt be easily countered by an actual constitutional scholar.

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Voting & Taxes

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 23, 2011
1967 U.S. postage stamp honoring Henry David T...

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In an earlier post I addressed the matter of whether taxes are theft or not. In the course of the discussion, I considered that if the citizens consented to the taxes, then they would not be theft. After all, part of what makes theft wrong is that it involves a lack of free consent on the part of the victims. As such, if those taxed voted for the taxes (or voted for representatives who voted for the taxes) then they would have given their consent and such taxes would not, on the face of it, be theft.

This, of course, could be seen as trying to settle one issue by making use of one that is at least as subject to debate. After all, to say that taxes are not theft when they have been properly voted into effect requires assuming that voting provides this consent in a meaningful way.

Obviously enough, if the voting is directly for a tax and everyone votes in favor, then this would be a clear case of consent. Likewise if everyone votes for someone who is clear that they will support a tax, then that would also seem to provide indisputable consent. As everyone knows, such unanimous voting is all but unheard of. This raises the matter of whether those who voted against the tax (or the tax supporter) have given their consent or not.

Intuitively, it would seem that by participating in the voting process, they have thus agreed to abide by the outcome-whether they win or lose. As such, those who vote against a tax (or tax supporter) would have given their consent to the outcome. Those who chose not to vote would also seem to consent as well-by electing not to vote, they have simply set aside their role in the process and not their consent to the process.

This does assume that there are not factors in play that would make the voting questionable, such as the use of fraud and force. It is easy enough to imagine circumstances in which a vote would clearly not count as a matter of consent. However, the discussion is focused on legitimate voting scenarios.

At this point, it might be objected that if voting is based on consent, whenever people vote against something they are showing their lack of consent. Hence, those who voted for a tax or anything (directly or indirectly) have given their consent while those who voted against it have not. As such, if I vote against a tax, when I am forced to pay I am being robbed. If I had voted for it, then I would not be a victim of theft. To use an analogy, suppose I am in a group and people start to decide what they want for dinner. After a vote, most people decide they want to go to Chez Expensive and have the Costly Quiche. I, however, decided I would rather just go home and make some spaghetti and salad. If these other folks decide to take my money to fund their Quiche, then it would certainly seem that they would be endeavoring to rob me.

Since this is an obvious problem, it is hardly surprising that past thinkers addressed this matter. Locke’s approach is to contend that the consent given when forming a community extends to voting. He argues for this by noting that the political body must move one way (we either have a tax or we do not) and it must move  “the way the greater force carries it, which is the consent of the majority.” If it did not, then the body would be split and the original agreement would be broken.

Naturally, some might contend that the body should split when people disagree. Going back to the quiche example, if some folks want the quiche and I do not, we can simply go our separate ways.

The obvious reply is that while this is sensible in matters involving such minor things as dinner, it would be destructive to society to have the political body break apart over matters of law and policy. This, Locke claims, would be irrational. So, as Locke sees it, the original consent extends to voting and there is also the practical matter of going along with the majority so as to avoid shattering society.

This does lead to a rather serious concern that was perhaps most ably discussed by Mill, namely the tyranny of the majority. The majority (or those who try to pass as the majority) might decide to oppress some of their fellows or do other wicked things. As such, there is clearly a need to place limits on the power of the majority. Mill, being a utilitarian, advocates a utilitarian approach to this matter. As he sees it, the greater good is served by limiting the extent to which the majority can impose on the minority. While Mill does not focus on taxes, he does accept that citizens can be held obligated for “bearing a fair share of common defense or work necessary to the interest of society.”

In regards to the specific matter of taxes, it would seem that if the tax is within the limits of a “fair share”, then it would not be theft to tax someone even if they voted against the tax. However, a tax that went beyond this or had some sort of moral defect could be regarded as theft.

The above discussion does, obviously enough, assume that voting is legitimate. However, this is an assumption that is easy enough to question.  Thoreau, for example, claimed that (in his essay on civil disobedience) “voting for the right does nothing for it-it is a feeble expression of the desire that it should prevail.  The wise will not leave right to chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority.”

Thoreau also addresses the matter of taxes and argues that people should be allowed to decide to not pay their taxes if they decide to withdraw from the political system. He does, however, make a point of saying that people should pay for what they use, such as paying the highway tax if one uses the highway.

This does seem to be consistent approach in the context of the consent theory. After all, if someone completely removes themselves from the political system, they remove their consent. To claim that they consent to the results of the votes made by others would thus seem to be an error. To use an analogy, if I do not join a club, they have no right to expect me to pay their membership fees-no matter how they vote on the matter. Likewise, if I am not part of a state, then the state would have no right to assume my consent merely because other people voted on something they want to impose on me.

This is not to say that the state would have no legitimate power over me. After all, if I tried to commit murder or theft within its borders, then the police would seem to be quite right to stop me.

Thoreau’s approach would require actually leaving the political body and not merely bailing after a particular vote. To use an analogy, if I agree to go out to dinner and pay my share, I have no right to bail out when they check arrives. However, if I have left a group or never joined, they would have no right to expect me to pay if they decide to go out to dinner.

As such, if a person did withdraw from society and agreed not to avail themselves of any of its goods or services without paying for them, then imposed taxes beyond this would be theft on the part of the state. After all, the state would be taking without consent and would be taking what it was, in fact, not truly owed.

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A Cure for Tyrants

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 22, 2011
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

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The revolutions in the Middle East have served to draw attention to the fact that many people live under the power of dictators and tyrants. This is, of course, not true merely of the Middle East. Many of the people in Africa live in abject poverty while their “leaders” enjoy lives of excess. In most cases, these tyrants are backed by outside states and receive support in return for access to natural resources or for how well they serve strategic interests. In many cases, the United States has a hand in keeping these people in power. Given that we are supposed to be a democratic state committed to justice for all, this sort of behavior seems especially wicked. After all, given our professed values and revolutionary history, we should be crushing tyrants or, at the very least, not lending them support and comfort.

It might, of course, be argued that we are acting in a realistic manner. In the global game of politics and power, we cannot afford be to impeded by such things as ethics or principles. We need to play to win and this means being willing to support tyrants who rob their people and control them with the tanks, tear gas and torture implements we fund or provide. This does have a certain appeal and has been argued for by folks such as Glaucon and Hobbes. Of course, taking this approach does rob us of any claim to moral goodness and empties our talk of justice and rights.

It might also be argued that people get the government they deserve. If, for example, the dictator of Equatorial Guinea and his family loot the government, it is only because the people (many of whom live on $2 a day) allow him to do so. They could, one might argue, rise up and provide a cure for their tyrant. That they elect not to do so shows that they have consented to this rule, however tyrannical it might seem.

Of course, there is the fact that this dictator, like so many others, is backed by outside powers (like us). As such, the people are at a terrible disadvantage-they are up against someone who has far more resources as well as outside backing. Hence, their alleged consent is the “consent” that an unarmed person gives to the robber who has a gun pressed to their head-hardly consent at all.

There is also the argument that while tyrants are bad, they are (in a Hobbesian style argument)better than the alternatives. Better to have a single tyrant that maintains some degree of order than chaos or an even worse tyrant. Also, history seems to show that tyrants are often replaced by other tyrants-so why try to cure the problem of tyranny if the cure will not take? As such, the people should simply endure the tyranny to avoid something worse. Even if they try to rebel, the result will be death and destruction followed by a new tyrant.

At this point, some might point to Iraq: the United States removed a tyrant and poured billions into constructing something that is sort of nation like. Perhaps the United States or other countries could use that sort of cure: roll in, kill the tyrants and rebuild the nations.

While this has  certain imperial appeal, the practical fact is that we cannot afford to do this to every dictator. There is also the concern that even if we do roll out one dictator, we cannot be even reasonably confident that the results will be better for the people.

One rather extreme option would be to simply assassinate tyrants. This would be far more cost effective than a war and would, on Lockean grounds, be morally justified. Of course, there are the concerns that doing this would result in hostility towards the United States and that killing one tyrant would merely pave the way for another (or chaos). However, there is a certain appeal in ridding the world of the wicked and it is easy enough to kill anyone. After all, tyrants are just humans and a single well placed shot or knife will kill them easily enough.  If potential tyrants realized that the reward of their tyranny would be death, then they might be less inclined to become tyrants.

There would also seem to be a certain rough justice in making tyrants live in the sort of fear that they inflict on their own people. To steal a bit from Hobbes, if the people need to be kept in line by fear of the sovereign, it would seem to make equal sense that the sovereigns should be kept in check by fear as well. Just as a citizen can expect to be harmed when they cross the line, so too should a sovereign expect the same justice. As such, perhaps the proper cure for tyrants is death.

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