A Philosopher's Blog

Sterilizing the Poor

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 30, 2011
Specially sterilized for you..

Image by ebertek via Flickr

On Wednesday a student in my ethics class asked me whether or not sterilizing the poor would end poverty. Interestingly, I was not asked whether this would be morally acceptable.  I gave a fairly concise answer in class, but thought I would expand on it a bit here.

On the face of it, it does make some sense that preventing the poor from reproducing would reduce poverty. After all, poverty is often an inherited condition and having no (or far fewer) children born to poor people would reduce the number of people inheriting poverty. It could also provide people with yet another incentive to avoid being poor (although it might be wondered whether people need more incentives beyond the existing ones). Also, children are expensive and if the sterilization rules took this into account, people who would become poor because of the cost of raising kids would be prevented from doing so, thus they would not become poor. None of this, obviously, directly addresses the ethics of the matter.

In the course of the discussion, the subject of whether or not poverty has a genetic link was brought up. On the one hand, it was argued that the traits that could incline people to poverty could be linked to various genes and sterilizing the poor would presumably reduced the number of people carrying these genes.  To use an analogy, not allowing blonde haired people to reproduce would certainly reduce the number of blonde haired people in the world. On the other hand, it was also argued that there seems to be little basis for assuming a genetic cause to poverty. If so, sterilization of the poor would not have the effect of a genetic culling of the population that would reduce poverty.

One point that is well worth considering is that poverty is not created by the specific people that happen to be poor (except insofar as they serve in the role of being the poor). Rather, poverty is created by factors (mainly people) in the social system and these factors would be in effect regardless of whether the current poor were sterilized or not. On this view, sterilizing the current poor would merely have the effect of changing, to a degree, the makeup of the next generation of the poor. To use an analogy, sterilizing politicians would not eliminate this social role.  Rather, it would just mean that the people who became politicians would be the children of non-politicians. Given the way the current system works, the children the poor would have had would be replaced in the ranks of the poor by other people-either those citizens who would become poor by the way the economic system works or those who enter the country to do the poverty level work that helps sustain this system.

My considered view is that sterilizing the poor would not eliminate poverty because it fails to address the main causes of poverty, namely the aspects of the economic system that creates and relies on poverty. I do, of course, admit that sterilizing the poor would reduce the number of poor people but this reduction would be at the cost of what certainly appears to be a morally wrong method. It would seem morally preferable to address the other causes of poverty rather than engaging in this sort of economic eugenics (“ecogenics”, perhaps?).

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Republican Battle Circle

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 29, 2011
Ron Paul, member of the United States House of...

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The Republican presidential candidates face the standard double challenge of the out party. On the one hand, each of the candidates faces the challenge of overcoming his/her rivals and becoming the actual presidential candidate. On the other hand, the contenders need to (or should) be concerned about the nature of the in-party fighting. After all, each attack launched on a fellow candidate can provide the rival party with one more piece of ammunition to use in the actual election.  It can also cause strains within the party, making it harder to pull together for the election. Of course, if a candidate goes too easy or does not return fire when attacked by a fellow candidate, then they can be perceived as a weak candidate.

This challenge is somewhat like what a team faces while sorting out who will be varsity and who will be junior varsity. If they compete too hard among themselves, then they can end up injured and do poorly when it comes to actual competition with other teams. However, if they do not compete enough, then sorting out the division will be rather difficult.

While such infighting has occurred in the past, this year seems especially harsh. First, this is no doubt partially due to the fact that politics seems even more negative and contentious than in recent years and this has become a way of operating even within the party.

Second, there is also the fact that the pool of candidates is rather large, which might lead the candidates to compete even more fiercely to stand out and to stake out their own territory.

Third, there is faction factor. The Republican party contains the Tea Party and various other very active groups (such as the various social conservatives) and the candidates need to pander to these groups and their ideology in order to succeed. These groups seem to be often defined by what they do not like (taxes, gays, immigration, health care, and so on). Hence appealing to them typically involves taking a strong (or even extreme) position against what the groups in question do not like. However, specific candidates often need to hold positions contrary to one (or more) of these groups in order to do well (for example) in their current office. For example, Perry has taken shots regarding the matter of illegal aliens. Bashing another candidate on this matter is thus very appealing in that it appeals to the group in question, it can weaken the opponent, and it can enable the attacker to stand out. One obvious problem with this approach has been that the in-party bashing and pandering to the various factions has led the various factions to disagree with each other in regards to the candidates. This creates something of a problem for the Republican candidates since there is no candidate who has yet been able to gain the approval of the majority of the factions. This will, no doubt, be settled by the party insiders at the appropriate time. However, it would be interesting to see a candidate or two decide to strike out on their own after being rejected by the Republican party.

A final point of concern is that the more that a candidate tries to win over the more extreme factions, the worse the candidate will probably do in the general election. After all, the Republicans cannot win just be getting the Republican votes. They need the independents and perhaps even some Democrats.

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Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on September 28, 2011
upward mobility

I recently heard a news blurb in which is was reported that university admissions officers admitted that they were looking for students who could pay full tuition. This is hardly a shock. After all, education budgets are being cut as is financial aid and some way has to be found to support the ever increasing number of well paid university administrators. Naturally, the other expenses (such as faculty salaries) have to be paid as well.

While this is a sensible approach to a financial problem, it does raise some serious concerns. First, admission is supposed to be based primarily on merit rather than the ability to hand over cash. Second, preference given to people who can pay full price will mean that better qualified but less affluent students can  be excluded in their favor.  This has the potential to damage one of the primary means of upward mobility in America: the ability of people from the lower classes to rise up via education. In addition to being bad for the students in question, it would also seem to be bad for the country in general. After all, much of our social stability and success as a country has come from the fact that upward mobility based on merit is possible. Diminishing this could have rather unfortunate consequences as is shown quite clearly by the history of countries who either lacked such mobility or saw it reduced.

Naturally, it could be argued that true merit rests in the market forces. Universities that pick students based on ability rather than their available wealth are not following the proper business model. After all, products are not given out or discounted based on merit or need in the world of business. Rather, it is a matter of who can pay. Switching universities to a profit based model in which students are assessed based on their ability to pay and are treated primarily as paying customers rather than in the traditional ways surely is the best way for education to go. What has ever gone wrong with excluding talented lower class people from the system? What could possibly go wrong with an education system that is focused on profits? After all, it is worked so great in business that it surely cannot fail in the context of education.  Also, once universities operate just like other corporations, they can expect support from the Republicans.

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Diminishing Pay

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on September 27, 2011
University of the Pacific Arthur A. Dugoni Sch...

When I first started teaching, the expectation was that my salary would gradually increase at a rate that at least matched the cost of living increase. After all, if everything costs more, then my services would seem to fall under that. Also, if my salary were not increased to match this, then my salary would be less, although the number would remain the same.

I did get a few increases here and there, mainly from promotions. However, cost of living increases have been non-existent. There have been some bonuses, but these are taxed at 35%, so they amount to very little and have been one shot deals. Not surprisingly, my insurance costs have increased, thus lowering my take home pay. Recently, the “Tea Party” “war” on state employees and education resulted in a 3% cut in my take home pay and a loss of my summer class. As such, I actually will make significantly less this year than last year. In fact, I can expect that my effective salary will be reduced with every passing year.

At the same time, enrollment has increased at my university. Since new hiring is out of the question, the remaining faculty are expected to handle this. For example, my Introduction to Philosophy class used to cap at 35. Last year it capped at 60 and this year I have over 70 students at last count. My other classes have 36, 36 and 46 students. I have no minions-so all teaching and grading falls on me. Despite having so many students, my classes only count as 80% of my workload-so I also have additional duties including being the unit facilitator, chairing a search committee, advising, publishing, serving on a major university committee, and so on. Naturally, last Spring I was forced to defend the productivity of myself and my unit (whose classes are always overloaded) to avoid being cut in order to save money. We are, as you might guess, supposed to be grateful to be employed. After all, faculty and staff have been fired and it seems likely that more people will be on the chopping block in the next rounds of cuts. Education is a favorite target.

However, it is not the pay that keeps me working in education. As foolish as it might sound, I am a believer in the value of education and believe that members of a good society should make sacrifices for the general good. I could, obviously, make far more money in private industry. However, I get a more important return on my efforts than mere money, namely being able to help people improve. Obviously, I should have my values and my head examined.

As you might imagine, when I hear people argue that we need to cut the budget so we can lower the taxes on the job creators, because people will not be motivated if they are over taxed, I think about people in situations similar to mine. After all, if the job creators will be broken in spirit by a minor tax increase, one can only imagine what the salary situation is doing to educators. Of course, we are presumed to be valueless parasites on the system who only serve to educate the very people who will be creating and occupying jobs. Obviously, the research that we do is also without significant value, and the prestige of the American university system that draws students from around the world has no value whatsoever. Needless to say, bright and talented people should be encouraged to not go into teaching-rather they should focus on what clearly truly matters-racking up more money than one could possibly spend in a meaningful way. What could possibly go wrong with 1) creating intense dissatisfaction among current educators and 2)  discouraging people from becoming educators in the future? After all, what matters is ensuring that the job creators hold on to every possible cent.

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Shall it Never End?

Posted in Epistemology, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 26, 2011
LAS VEGAS - OCTOBER 19:  Maricopa County, Ariz...

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Somehow I ended up on the Amato for Liberty list (I infer that one of my friends did this as a joke). The most recent email featured an article about Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio (a fellow famous for making inmates wear pink underwear). While I thought the birth certificate matter was over, apparently it is not. Unless, of course, I am getting hoax emails purporting to be from Amato. Here is the text:

“I got over three hundred complaints about Obama’s birth certificate from the people of Maricopa County. When I get allegations brought to me by the citizens I don’t just dump it into the wastebasket. I look into the allegations just like I am doing here,” he told me.

“So that’s why I’ve assigned five members of what I call my cold-case posse to look into it.  I don’t know what they’re going to find. But what’s the big deal here? I don’t get it?  It isn’t costing the tax payers anything. It’s all volunteer work and what does it hurt to look into it?”

Naturally, people have a right to do this sort of thing on their own time, just as they have the right to look into UFOs, Big Foot and the secret Bush plot behind 9/11. However, it is a bit worrisome that people are apparently filing complaints about Obama to an Arizona sheriff. I do suspect that most of these folks are aware that Obama is legitimate, but that they are doing this as a sort of expression of extremely dislike. What is more worrisome is that the sheriff is apparently taking the matter seriously, despite the fact that Obama’s legitimacy has been established beyond all reasonable doubt. I wonder if he would assign investigators if enough people made allegations of witchcraft or demonic possession.

Fortunately, he is not wasting much in the way of state resources to conduct this investigation. However, it would seem more sensible for him to simply inform such complainers that the matter is settled and that there is, in fact, nothing to investigate.

In terms of what it hurts, it serves to lend unnecessary credence to a claim that has been shown to be false beyond all reasonable doubt. Encouraging this sort of thing encourages irrational belief formation and undermines critical thinking. People should not, from both a moral and critical thinking standpoint, be encouraged to believe things that are obviously not true and certainly should be known by those doing the encouragement to be false.

Also, from a practical standpoint, it risks making Arizona look bad-something the state certainly does not need.

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Working in the Rain

Posted in Miscellaneous by Michael LaBossiere on September 25, 2011
Rain, Rainy weather

Image via Wikipedia

While Florida is the sunshine state, it rains here fairly often. It seems to rain most often when I have outside chores I need to do. For example, I needed to do a bit more painting because of my new siding and awoke to the sound of rain. Fortunately, some of what I had to paint is completely protected by the overhang in the back. So, I got on my painting clothes and got it done. I had some non-painting tasks to do (repairing a gutter drain, replacing some mulch, weeding and so on), so I went and did those as well.

I do this sort of thing fairly often, as long as the temperature is such that I won’t get hypothermia and as long as the lightning is not dropping in for a visit. Naturally, I do get some odd looks and some commentary from folks driving by. After all, sensible people stay inside when it rains.

Some folks will ask me how I can be comfortable in wet clothes. This is a fair question and I, like most people, do not enjoy sitting around in wet clothes. However, years of running have conditioned me to simply ignore wet clothing as long as I am active-it does not bother me at all. In fact, being soaking wet is actually nice in the Florida heat-I’m cooler and I’m not losing as much water due to perspiration. I even find the rain pleasant, especially the sound. There is even a certain beauty to a rainy day-one that seems lost on many people. I do, of course, have to carefully clean, dry and oil any metal tools I use in the rain. But, this is only a minor inconvenience.

One person did ask me, some time ago, if I did it as sort of a “man over nature” thing. I suppose that might be a factor. After all, I do like to overcome difficulties-even something as minor as dealing with rain.  Then again, I also like it because being in the rain makes me feel more a part of the natural world. In fact, I don’t quite get why some people are so rain averse. We are, after all, a fairly waterproof species (other than any wicked witches among us, of course).

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Parking Madness

Posted in Miscellaneous by Michael LaBossiere on September 24, 2011
Bad parking

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Although I pay for faculty parking, I almost always end up parking at the football stadium in the general parking. This is mainly because I would rather walk to my office than drive around and around trying to find an open spot. I could pay a lot more for gated parking, but I’d rather just walk. If I was an administrator, I could get my own assigned parking spot, right near my office. However, I am a mere faculty member and hence unworthy of such perks.

When I first started parking in the stadium, I went to do a right turn into a space and almost got rammed as a student tried to shoot past me by driving through the parking spaces to my right (which are right against the sidewalk). Fortunately, I saw the oncoming car and was able to stop in time. The next time I went to park, I slowed down and put on my turn signal, hoping that would indicate I was, in fact, trying to park. I almost got hit again as another driver tried to go past me-once again on my right side and once again by driving through the parking spaces. In both cases, there was plenty of room on my left and no oncoming cars. As such, I was not sure why the drivers decided to do what they did-unless they wanted me to hit them or they wanted to hit me. Or maybe  they had…parking madness.

In the face of this madness, I adopted a strategy of just coming to a stop  after  turning on my signal when there is a vehicle shooting up behind me (people always seem to be in a huge hurry in the lot and pissed that anyone ahead of them might be slowing down to park). Half the time, they whip around to my left. Half the time they whip around to my right and go through the parking spaces. I do wonder if they would just ram a car if anything was parked there.  So far I have managed to avoid getting slammed into, but I suspect it is just a matter of time before someone rear ends my truck while under the influence of parking madness.

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Class Warfare

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 23, 2011
The Republican Party encourages every form of ...

Image by Cornell University Library via Flickr

Everyone agrees that the deficit is a serious problem. The basic solution is obvious enough: as a country, we need to spend less than we take in. This can be done by decreasing spending, increasing revenue or both. Naturally enough, the Republicans are largely devoted to decreasing spending and the Democrats are willing to increase revenue.

One current proposal is for the wealthiest of Americans to pay marginally more in taxes. Naturally, the Republicans and the fine folks at Fox are extremely critical of this proposal. The main Republican solution has been to leave taxes as they are (or reduce them) and address the deficit by cutting what can general be classified as social spending: education, Medicare, infrastructure, and various social programs. Attempts to address the deficit by increasing revenue by having the wealthy pay more are greeted with the nifty rhetorical phrase “class warfare.”

On the face of it, such a charge is absurd and pure hyperbole. While the proposal is for the wealthiest class to pay marginally more in taxes, this hardly seems to count as class warfare. After all, warfare would seem to indicate a serious and significant attack, presumably with an element of violence. If the Navy started sinking the super yachts of the mega wealthy and the Army started seizing mansions, then  Fox would be warranted in using that term. Until then, they are just engaged in their usual empty hyperbole.

The Republicans seem to be the ones that are engaging in what could be considered class warfare. After all, their main plan seems to be to cut deeply into social services and this will do real harm to people who depend on such services, such as students, the elderly, the disabled and other folks. In contrast, the wealthy would merely be paying marginally more in taxes, thus still leaving them quite wealthy.

One defense of the wealthy being offered by the Republicans is the “job creator defense.” The idea is that the wealthy cannot be expected to pay more because this would prevent them from creating jobs. This argument, as has been argued before, has almost no merit. Lower taxes Taxes are lower now than in the Clinton era, yet unemployment is considerably higher. If lower taxes created jobs, then unemployment should be lower now.

One defense that has some merit is that it would seem unfair to tax the wealthy more so as to be able to keep various social services that provide “free stuff” to people who have not earned it.

My first reply is that the taxes on the wealthy do not simply go to provide “free stuff.” After all, the wealthy generally benefit a great deal from the state. The state provides protection for their property, wages war on their behalf, intervenes in foreign countries to their benefit, provides the infrastructure they utilize in their business, and so on. The wealthy get a great deal from the state and, as such, it is something of a smoke screen to raise the specter of the freeloaders.

My second reply is that the folks who get “free stuff” have, in some cases, actually paid for that “free” stuff by their own taxes and efforts. For example, do we want to call people who are retired or veterans who were disabled fighting in our wars free loaders who are sponging off the rich? I would not be inclined to do so.

My third reply is that some of the folks who get “free stuff” will later repay it. The obvious example here are the students of today who will become the workers (and sometimes the wealthy) of tomorrow. This can be seen as investing in the future rather than supporting free loaders.

My fourth reply is that some of the folks who get “free stuff” are people who cannot fend for themselves. The most obvious example is children. Should we abandon them so that millionaires and billionaires can avoid paying just a bit more? That would seem to be an act of callous wickedness, especially from a party that screeches about the sanctity of life (except in war and capital punishment, of course).

My fifth reply is that some of the folks who get “free stuff” need that stuff because of the grotesque inequality in wealth in this country. While I will admit that there are some people who are parasites, there are plenty of people who are  working poor. They often work very hard, sometimes holding multiple jobs. However, the economic system is such that they simply cannot earn enough to live without the support of the state. If the tiny fraction of people who hold the vast majority of the wealth are asked to let a few crumbs fall from their banquet, that hardly seems like too much to ask.

My sixth reply is that providing such “free stuff” is actually a good idea for the wealthy. After all, when a society becomes extremely unbalanced, social upheaval tends to follow. Even a cursory review of history will show the consequences of having highly concentrated wealth and a large lower class. The “free stuff” provided to people can often be what keeps them from taking to the streets in revolution and engaging in  real class warfare (not the bulls@t that Fox talks about) in which the wealthy are put against the wall. Paying a little extra to maintain the social order that supports, protects and enables their incredible wealth seems like a rather miniscule price to pay. Even some of the wealthy realize this and support this sort of proposal. Those who serve the wealthy as their loyal minions should also realize this and act in the best interest of their masters by supporting this proposal. Yes, I am talking to you, Republican “Tea Party” politicians and Fox “News”.


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The End of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 22, 2011

The rather odd policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has finally come to an end. Since I have been consistently opposed to this policy, I am glad that homosexuals have been given the chance to openly serve their country.

One interesting impact of this change is that there will be empirical confirmation or dis-comfirmation of all the dire consequences and harms predicted by the opponents of this change. If their predictions turn out to be in error, I wonder if they will acknowledge this mistake or if they will simply remain silent and move on to another issue (such as getting the policy put back in place). In my own case, I state now that if the evidence shows I am in error, then I will admit that  was mistaken about this matter. Naturally, if people intentionally try to “cause trouble” in response to this change, this does not repudiate my view. After all, the source of the trouble would not be the change in the policy but people intentionally electing to cause said problems.

Another interesting point is that if it turns out that the policy change does not have a negative impact on the American military, will opponents of same-sex marriage take this as evidence against their claims about the threat of homosexuality? After all, if having gays serve openly does not damage the military, then it would seem to indicate that allowing same sex marriage would not damage marriage (which is, I think, already terribly beaten down). Naturally, there are differences between the two situations and these dissimilarities could be enough to break an analogy drawn between them. However, if the end of Don’t Ask turns out to be a military destroying disaster, then it would seem that such a disaster would serve as evidence for the claim that same-sex marriage should not be allowed.

Is Social Security a Ponzi Scheme?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 21, 2011
Charles Ponzi (March 3, 1882–January 18, 1949)...

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While Social Security has stood up to many challenges, it has often been compared to a Ponzi Scheme. In some ways the comparison is apt and in some ways it is not.

Crudely put, a Ponzi scheme works in the following way. First, a con artist gets people to “invest” in his scheme by promising a (usually very good) return on their investments. Second, to pay off his initial investors, the con artist recruits more investors and uses their money to pay the previous investors. Third, the con artist then repeats the recruitment process to get the money needed to pay off each level of investor. As long as the con artist can continue to recruit enough new investors, he can keep paying the previous investors. However, to keep this system going an ever increasing number of investors will be needed since they are the primary (or only) source of money for the investors (who are typically ignorant of this fact).  In theory, such a scheme could expand to include a vast population, but they typically end before then-usually due to the con artist fleeing with his money or getting caught by the authorities. In any case, a Ponzi scheme has the seeds of its own destruction built into it: eventually it would reach the point when it would not be possible to gain enough new investors to sustain the scheme.

On the face of it Social Security does seem to be Ponzi like. After all, the people who are paying into the system now are providing the money used by the people who are getting the payout now. Also, the system is sustained by new “investors” entering the system. Of course, on these grounds a bank would be Ponzi like: in order to have money to loan out banks need to take in money. As such, they need a constant influx of new money to stay in operation. Of course, banks also get revenue from fees and interest-as such they have a way to avoid the Ponzi fate. In theory, Social Security could operate in a bank like way, perhaps by generating interest on the money and investing it. If so, Social Security could avoid the Ponzi fate.

One major difference between Social Security and a Ponzi scheme is that Social Security does not seem to be operated like a scam: its mechanics are not hidden, it does not seem to be aimed at making a con-artist money, and it is aimed at what is typically regarded as a social good. These seem to be factors worth considering.

Another difference is that Social Security does not offer the sort of returns that schemes typically promise. Rather, people pay into the system and then get back from the system based on their contributions. There is no promise of great returns. Rather, the promise is that people who pay in will get some modest amount back over the years in return for paying into the system. While the money that is paid out now comes from the people paying in now, they will have their turn when they retire. Provided that there continue to be new generations of Americans, the system can be sustained in a way that Ponzi schemes cannot.

Yet another critical difference (which was noted above)  is that while a Ponzi scheme is aimed at bilking everyone involved (aside from the con man), Social Security is intended to provide people with a form of retirement security. That is, its purpose is to provide a social good. As such, it is no more a Ponzi scheme than any other government expenditure, such as defense. Naturally, people can be opposed to this sort of spending (be it Social Security or defense), but calling it a Ponzi scheme is inaccurate in many key ways.


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