One of the rather useful aspects of philosophy is that it trains a person to examine underlying principles rather than merely going with what appears on the surface. Such examinations often show that superficially consistent views turn out to actually be inconsistent once the underlying principle is considered. One example of this is the matter of taxes and profits.
One of the stock talking points in regards to taxes is that taxes are a form of theft. The rhetoric usually goes something like this: taxes on the successful/rich/job creators is taking the money they have earned and giving it to people who have not earned it so they can get things for free, like food stamps, student financial aid and unemployment benefits.
Under the rhetoric seems to be the principle that taking the money a person has earned and giving it to those who have not earned it is theft and thus wrong. This principle does have considerable appeal.
This principle, obviously enough, rests on the notion that earning money entitles the person to that money and that not earning the money means that a person is not entitled to it. Simple enough.
A second stock talking point in regards to wages for workers, especially the minimum wage, is that the employers are morally entitled to (attempt to) make a profit and this justifies them in paying workers less than the value of their work.
Not surprisingly, those accept the first talking point also accept the second. On the face of it, they do seem consistent: the first says that taxes are theft and the second says that employers have a right to make a profit. However, these two views are actually inconsistent.
To see this, consider the principle that justifies the claim that taxing people to give stuff to others is theft: taking the money a person has earned and giving it to those who have not earned it is theft and thus wrong.
In the case of the employer, to pay the worker less than the value of his work is to take money the worker has earned and to give it to those who have not earned it. As such, it would also be theft and thus wrong.
At this point, it might be objected that I am claiming that an employer making a living is theft, but this is not the case. The employer is, like the worker, entitled to the value of the value she contributes. If she, for example, provides equipment, leadership, organization, advertising, and so on, then she is entitled to the value of these contributions.
Profit, then, is essentially the same thing as taxing a person to take their money and give it to those who have not earned it. As such, it should be no surprise that I favor justice in regards to both taxes and wages.
Ted Cruz undertook an almost marathon talking session against Obamacare. Not surprisingly, he does not have any need of Obamacare. As a senator, he already has access to government funded healthcare. However, he also does not need this coverage as, apparently, he falls under his wife’s Goldman Sachs’ coverage. Interestingly, while one of the anti-Obamacare talking points is that the cost of providing insurance will destroy business, the top executives at Goldman Sachs have their $40,500+ family premiums paid for by the company. As a point of comparison, the median household income in the United States is $50,000.
Naturally, to attack Cruz’s claims by pointing out his health care situation would be a mere ad homimem. However, his situation does serve to illustrate the incredible health care gap between the wealthy pundits and politicians attacking Obamacare and average Americans. It is certainly a thing of beauty to see a man with incredible coverage provided for by his wife’s employer rail against a law that would require almost many employers to provide lesser coverage to their employees.
It also illustrates an interesting inconsistency, namely that he seems to hold to the position that his wife should receive health care benefits from her employer but that the same is not true for other Americans. Of course, it is consistent with the view that the wealthy should be treated differently from everyone else.
It might, however, be objected that Cruz is right. After all, Goldman Sachs is incredibly profitable and can easily afford such premiums as part of the very generous (some might say excessive) compensation packages they offer to their “top talent.” Lesser businesses, those run by and employing the little people, cannot afford to provide even the minimum health care benefits required by Obamacare and, apparently, the employees do not deserve such coverage. As such, health care benefits from employers are for the wealthy but not for the little people.
While this approach has some merit when it comes to small businesses, the obvious counter is that the smaller businesses are exempt from this requirement. However, the potential economic impact of Obamacare is worth considering. As is the potential economic damage of the threatened government shut down.
It has been claimed that the cost of implementing Obamacare will cause businesses to fire people and to cut employee hours so that they are not full time employees. Presumably this will not impact the wealthy—Cruz did not seem worried that Goldman Sachs would fire his wife or cut her hours so they would not need to provide healthcare benefits.
While cost is a point of concern, there is the obvious question of whether businesses actually need to fire people and reduce hours or not as a rational response to Obamacare. That is, would the increased cost be so onerous that the firing and cutting would be a matter of survival? Or would it merely be a matter of slightly less profits? After all, some businesses obviously believe they can afford to provide extremely generous health care benefits to some people, so perhaps those affected can afford to provide lesser benefits to their workers.
This does, of course, raise some interesting questions about what benefits employees should receive and what constitutes economic necessity. However, these matters go beyond the scope of this essay. However, I will note that I do agree that health care should not be linked to employment and that I do agree that it should not be the responsibility of businesses to provide health care coverage. Unfortunately, the structure of health care benefits in the United States is such that having businesses as the provider is the main viable option. The other is, of course, having it provided by the state. Unless, of course, health care could be reformed to the point where average individuals could afford quality health care on their average incomes.
Oddly enough, Cruz and others have spoken of all the terrible damage that Obamacare has done and is doing. While this might be merely a slip of tenses, Obamacare cannot be doing any damage yet—it has not gone into effect. As such, it is an error to speak of the damage it has done—at least until it starts doing damage.
Cruz also made use of hyperbole and a rhetorical analogy by trotting out the absurd comparison of Obamacare to the Nazis. In the past, I have advocated a bi-partisan ban on this (Democrats use it, too) and I still support this proposal. As a general rule, only things that are comparable in badness to the Nazis should be compared to the Nazis. Even if Obamacare does all the awful things that certain Republicans claim it will do, it will obviously fall far short of starting a world war and engaging in genocide. Making the Nazi comparsion seems to show that a person has nothing substantial to say or that he has an impaired grasp of reality.
While Obamacare will certainly have problems, Cruz and his fellows have not offered any alternative plan of any substance. For the most part they make vague claims about market reforms and some even advance the absurd idea that people can just rely on the emergency room. While it is fair to be critical of a law when one does not have an alternative, the Republicans need to offer something other than threats to shut down the government. This makes these Republicans seem rather crazy.
While education has always been a matter for politics, the United States has seen an ever increasing politicization of education. One reason for this was the financial meltdown—with less revenue the states and federal government had to make cuts. As usual, education was a target of opportunity for such cuts. Another reason is that the education system is now regarded as an exploitable resource with excellent opportunities for money-making. Making the system ripe for harvest involved a concerted effort to demonize educators and the education system. It also involved a concerted push for assessment and standardization. The assessment that is being advanced is the sort that is provided by well-paid contractors, such as standardized tests. The standardization, in addition to the tests, includes having a standard curriculum to make it easy for the private sector to monetize education. This was all done under the guise of reform.
Florida’s former governor Jeb Bush helped bring about the Common Core State Standards for the public education system, so it is somewhat ironic that current Florida governor Rick Scott wants to remove Florida from this system.
The governor has made it clear that he wants Florida to ditch the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). He is not, of course, abandoning assessment—that is a lucrative business for private contractors. As such, his plan is to have “competitive bidding” to determine the new assessment method. Naturally, the schools will not be allowed to create their own assessment—money is too precious to waste on public schools when it could go instead to private sector contractors.
Speaking of money, Florida had been selected to be the “fiscal agent” for PARCC, but Scott informed the Education Secretary of the United States that Florida would no longer have ties to PARCC. It might be wondered why the governor would pass up the opportunity to be a fiscal agent. Fortunately, the answer is rather straightforward: a large part of Scott’s base is made up of Tea Party members. Apparently, the Tea Party membership believes that the Common Core and PARCC are federal impositions. The Tea Party (thanks to anti-government rhetoric put forth by certain conservative pundits and, ironically, some conservative politicians) tends to be against the federal government (although generally not against government programs like Medicare). As such, they are against both Common Core and PARCC.
One rather obvious problem with the claim that Florida should bail because of the federal involvement is the fact that the Common Core was developed by the National Governors Association, not the federal government. That is, the states developed the core and this, oddly enough, should match up with the Tea Party values. I am not sure if the Tea Party (and perhaps Rick Scott) are confused in this matter or not. In any case, Scott needs the Tea Party support to get re-elected and hence he is ditching PARCC and the Common Core in hopes of keeping their votes. This has led to something of a conflict in the Republican Party. Some Republicans, like Jeb Bush, have been strongly backing the Common Core and certainly want the states to adopt it. However, if the Tea Party ire at Common Core and PARCC spreads, there might be a change in this support.
Oddly enough, I am also suspicious of the Common Core and PARRC. However, this is not due to a fear of the federal government (other than the NSA and drones). Rather, it is because of concerns with the academic impact of Common Core and PARRC. Ironically, I might well find myself allied with the Tea Party on some aspects of this matter.
Mass murders, defined as four or more people killed, occur with unfortunate regularity in the United States. These murders typically involve guns—most likely for the obvious reason that guns make killing much easier. The latest incident to grab the public’s attention was a shooting in a Washington Navy yard in which twelve people were murdered. As with each such horrible event, the gun cycle has been restarted.
As always, some people demand that “something be done” while others rush to head off any attempts to actually do something that might involve guns. As with each previous cycle, this one will slowly spin down and lose the eye of the public. Until the next shooting.
I have written so many times about guns and violence that I suspect that I do not have anything new to say about the matter. From what I have heard, seen and read, it seems like the same is true of other people.
In defense of guns, people trot out the usual line about it being people that kill rather than guns. This is, obviously enough, a true claim: guns are tools that people sometimes use to kill other people. Guns do not engage in murder by themselves. Another way to look at it is that it is true that guns do not commit gun crimes—people do. Of course, the same is true about drug crimes: drugs do not commit drug crimes—people do.
While muttering about guns not killing sounds callous when bullet ridden corpses so recently lay on the ground, this approach does have some merit. After all, when people do kill people with guns, there is some reason (a causal chain) behind it and this reason is not simply that the person had a gun. Rather, they have the gun and use it for reasons (in the sense of there being causes).
In the case of the latest alleged shooter, there seems to be evidence of mental health issues, such as his allegedly telling the police about voices and attempts to beam messages to him with microwaves. He also had a police record that included “minor” gun incidents, such as shooting a coworker’s tire and discharging a firearm through his ceiling into the apartment above. Despite all this, he was still able to legally purchase a gun and even keep his security access to military bases.
Looking back at other shootings, some of them are similar in that the shooter had mental issues that were known but did not reach a level at which legal action could be taken. This, of course, suggests that changing the laws would be a potential solution. However, the obvious concern is that the majority of people who fall below the level at which legal action can be taken to deny them guns never engage in violence. I have written extensively about this before and hold to the same position, namely that denying people their rights requires more than just the mere possibility that they might do something.
It is interesting and disturbing to note that it is worth considering that our entire society is mentally deranged. This point was made quite some time ago by Emma Goldman in her essay on anarchism. She noted that we are like animals in captivity and our behavior is deranged by the conditions that are imposed on us by those who hold power. We face a society with grotesque inequalities, ethical problems, drug abuse (which is both a cause and effect), little social support and great stress. Most people who are ground down by this situation break down in non-violent ways, but it is hardly a shock that some people respond with violence. If this is the case, then the violence is a symptom of a greater disease and gun laws would fail to address the disease itself—although they could make gun violence less likely.
While various predictions about when we will run out of fossil fuels have proven to be erroneous, it is obvious that the reserves are finite. As such, if human civilization continues to use these fuels long enough, we will exhaust them. Assuming that we will continue to need an energy source that is comparable to fossil fuels, then we will need to find a suitable replacement as a matter of practicality.
Some people are also concerned with the moral aspects of fossil fuels, specifically regarding the various harms associated with them. These typically include environmental harms which range from the pollution generated by lawn mowers to the impact of huge oil spills.
One proposed solution to both the practical problem (getting more fuel) and the moral problem is biofuel. Put rather simplistically, biofuels are created from biological sources (hence the name). These sources are typically plants (such as the corn used for ethanol) but other sources (such as animal waste) can be used.
Like many people, I sort of vaguely favor biofuel development—after all, we will probably need a renewable fuel source and “biofuel” sounds vaguely environmentally friendly. However, it is well worth considering the matter critically.
While I am not an expert on biofuel, one does not need to be an expert to grasp one of the basic requirements for a successful biofuel, namely a viable energy cost. In general, the creation of a usable biofuel is analogous to converting oil to gasoline in that the process involves changing the starting material into a usable form. To use a specific example, we obviously cannot burn corn (even creamed corn) in our vehicles. To be used as fuel, it has to be processed and distilled into ethanol. This process takes energy and so does growing the corn crop in the first place. Intuitively, to be a viable source of energy the creation of the biofuel needs to cost us less energy than the biofuel provides. In the case of corn, we get some of the energy for “free” from the sun. However, corn is now typically processed into ethanol using fossil fuels and this process is not very efficient. Adding to the matter is the fact that ethanol (and other biofuels) provide less energy than fossil fuels. This efficiency problem is a significant hurdle for the development of biofuels.
As might be suspected, people have proposed using other renewable sources of energy to provide the energy needed to create biofuels. For example, solar power could be used to provide the heat needed to distill a biofuel.
Provided that the renewable sources are adequately efficient in terms of their own energy costs, this could be a viable option. However, one rather obvious concern is that it might make more sense to just use the alternative energy source directly rather than adding in the extra step of creating biofuel. For example, instead of using solar power to turn corn into ethanol to fuel cars, use the solar power to charge the batteries of electric cars. That said, for applications that require actual fuel (such as running the millions of existing internal combustion engines), then the alternative energy would not be a viable option.
Another basic requirement is simply the matter of cost in terms of dollars (or whatever). After all, even if the energy cost of a biofuel makes it viable (that is, the process is efficient enough) it could be the case that the overall cost is too high. Calculating this cost is not a simple matter of considering the direct cost of the fuel, but also the indirect costs. For example, some biofuels are based on food crops, such as corn. Using food crops in this manner will tend to drive up the cost of the foods based on the crop, thus adding to the cost of the fuel. This specific cost can be offset or even eliminated by using non-food crops grown in areas that are not used to grow food crops or by using the “waste” from food crops. However, these options would also have costs as well.
As another example, replacing older vehicles with those that can burn certain biofuels could be costly. This could be offset by gradually replacement as older vehicles are phased out normally due to age and damage.
In regards to cost, it is worth noting that energy sources have traditionally had high start-up costs. In many cases, such as with fossil fuels, this cost was shifted to the taxpayers in the form of subsidies for the energy companies (a practice that still continues). While this fact does not diminish the cost of developing biofuels, it does show that the high startup cost is not unusual. Of course, there is the concern that the subsidies of biofuels will continue past the startup time, just as the needless subsidies for the fossil fuel industry continues to this day.
As a final point, biofuel will need buy in from those with political influence, especially fossil fuel corporations. While it might be tempting to think that the fossil fuel corporations would want to prevent the development of biofuels, they can have excellent reasons to want to get into the business themselves. After all, there is an existing network for fossil fuels that could be partially converted to biofuels and the fossil fuel companies know that their main product will eventually run out, so they will need something else to sell (and get subsidies for). In fact, I suspect that biofuels will only become really viable when the fossil fuel companies start selling them.
While alternative energy has been hyped for quite some time, one of the more recently hyped alternatives is biofuel. The idea is appealing enough: instead of drilling for hydrocarbon fuels, we will make our own from biological sources. One of the best known biofuels is, of course, corn-based ethanol. While on my way home from work, I bought gasoline that was 10% ethanol—not because I wanted to, but because that was the only option. Most likely you have also bought gasoline blended with ethanol.
The fact that ethanol is now blended with normal gasoline might suggest that corn-based ethanol has been a success. However, this is not the case. Rather, corn-based ethanol has been a failure.
The first matter of concern is in regards to how efficiently an alternative fuel can be created in regards to the cost. This cost, obviously enough, includes the cost of the energy used to create the fuel. In the case of corn-based ethanol, the process of growing corn and then converting it to a usable fuel is rather costly. In 2010 the ethanol industry received $5.68 billion in subsidies and it is only this that allowed ethanol to have the illusion of being commercially viable. While energy industries do typically require subsidies (fossil fuels were and are heavily subsidized), ethanol seems to be a rather poor choice in terms of what is received for the cost.
Ironically, the distillation part of the process of making ethanol typically involves using fossil fuels and this process results in a fuel that has only about two thirds of the energy of conventional gasoline. In fact, ethanol production is so inefficient that experts have estimated it would take farmland equal to three times the size of the continental United States to grow enough corn to replace the fuels used in transportation in the United States. This is, obvious, not an option.
The second matter of concern is the fact that a food crop, corn, is being converted into a fairly inefficient fuel. This has the effect of increasing the prices of foods that make use of corn (ranging from corn on the cob to corn fed beef). As such, the public is getting hit twice by the cost of ethanol: first in subsidizing it and second in paying more for food. The obvious reply to this is that corn is still relatively cheap—thanks, in part, to subsidies. In any case, it would seem to make more sense to use a non-food crop based alternative fuel, preferably one that could be grown where food crops would grow poorly.
The third matter is that when added to gasoline, ethanol reduces the gas mileage of vehicles (it provides less energy than gasoline) and also damages many small motors (such as outboard motors for boats).
As might be imagined, the folks benefiting from the billions in subsidies probably see ethanol as a success. However, it is a clear failure for the rest of us.
In an interesting bit of accidental politics, the Russians and Syrians leaped on Secretary of State John Kerry’s off the cuff remarks about what would keep the United States from attacking Syria. To be specific, Kerry called for all Syria’s chemical weapons to be turned over and destroyed. Much to his surprise, the Russians grabbed the idea and ran with it, scoring what some pundits regard as a political touchdown against the United States. In any case, this matter is rather interesting.
On the face of it, if the Russians and Syrians are able to do what has been promised, the United States would lose its stated justification for attacking Syria. After all, while we have condemned the slaughter of civilians, we did not threaten action until the “red line” of chemical weapon use was allegedly crossed by the Syrian state. If Syria hands over its chemical weapons, then there will not be any chemical weapons for it to use and also none that the United States should target. As such, attacking Syria to prevent future use of these weapons would be out.
The United States could, of course, still claim that Syria should be attacked because of the alleged previous use of chemical weapons. After all, if a person commits a mass murder and then promises to hand over some of his guns, this hardly gives him a free pass on the past murders. In this case, the justification for the attack would be to punish the regime for that specific infraction. However, such an attack would seem to involve Kerry going back on what he seems to have hastily promised and it would certainly interfere with the proposed deal.
On the one hand, this deal does seem to be a morally superior option to an attack by the United States. After all, it would achieve a key stated goal of the attack (to deter future use of chemical weapons) without anyone being killed or injured in a military operation.
On the other hand, this deal would seem to be a deal with the devil. After all, if the United States goes along with the deal, we would be making it clear that the Syrian regime is free to keep killing provided that it does not kill people with chemical weapons. Going back to the previous analogy, this would be like a mass murderer agreeing to hand over the poison he used to kill some people in return for being allowed to get back to killing, but limited to murdering with his shotgun and machete.
As a final point, it is worth noting the deal could be a morally correct option on the grounds that it would remove the chemical weapons from Syria. In the event that Syria falls into chaos or is taken over by more extreme extremists, they would at least be denied access to chemical weapons. There would, no doubt, be rather bad consequences if such weapons fell into “wronger” hands and were made available to terrorists.
One common way to argue against not raising (or even just eliminating) the minimum wage is to build a case based on claims about those who work such jobs. For example, one approach is to argue that the people on minimum wage are mainly high school and college kids who are just earning spending money. As another example, it is often claimed that minimum wage jobs are temporary jobs for most workers—they will spend a little while at minimum wage and move up to better pay. While these claims are true in some cases, the reality is rather different in general. For example, the average age of fast food workers is almost thirty—they are not just school kids. Also, a significant number of people get stuck in minimum wage jobs because there is nothing else available.
As an aside, even if it were true that all those working such jobs were just earning spending money or were going to move on up, it would not follow that the minimum wage should be lower or eliminated. After all, the fairness of a wage is distinct from the motive of the person working for the job or what they might be doing next. For example, if I am selling my books to get money to buy running shoes rather than on survival necessities, it would seem odd to claim that I am thus obligated to lower my prices. Likewise, even if a kid is earning money to spend on video games rather than for putting food on the table, it would seem odd to say that she is thus entitled to less pay for the work she does.
Getting back to the main focus of this essay, the reality is that many of the folks who work minimum wage jobs are working the jobs primarily to pay for necessities and that many of them are stuck in such jobs (in large part to the current economic situation). The reality also is that a minimum wage job will typically not provide adequate income to pay for the necessities. Interestingly, some corporations recognize this. McDonald’s, for example, generated a brief bit of controversy with its helpful guide for employees: the corporation advised employees in minimum wage jobs to have another job.
Given the gap between the actual cost of living and the pay of a minimum wage job, it is not surprising that quite a few of the folks who work for minimum wage avail themselves of state support programs, such as food stamps (which now goes by other names) and Medicaid. After all, they cannot earn enough to pay for necessities and certainly prefer not to starve or end up on the streets (although some are malnourished and struggling with housing). While one narrative about such people is that they are living easy on federal support, the reality is rather different—most especially for the working poor who have families, for those who are endeavoring to attend college or who hope to start a business.
Obviously enough, one large source for the funds for these programs is the taxpayer. That is, those who pay taxes are helping to subsidize those who received state support while working minimum wage jobs. However, there seems to be another equally plausible way of looking at the matter: the taxpayers are subsidizing those who pay minimum wage to their employees. That is, these employers can pay their employees less than what they need to survive because other people pick up the tab for this, thus allowing the employers to increase profits. If this is correct, those of us who pay taxes are involved in corporate socialism.
It could be countered that the taxpayers are not subsidizing the employers, such as McDonald’s. After all, the money for Medicaid and such are not going to the corporation, but to the workers. The obvious counter is that while this is technically true, the taxpayers are still contributing to sustaining the work forces for these employers, thus subsidizing them and allowing them to page sub-survival wages.
It could also be contended that the employer has no obligation to pay workers enough to survive on without the addition of state support. After all, there are plenty of poor people and if some cannot survive on minimum wage, then economic selection will weed them out so that those who can survive on less will take their place in the economic ecosystem. This, of course, seems rather harsh and morally dubious, at best.
Another counter is that the poor are to blame for their wages. If they had better skills, more talent, better connections and so on, then they would not be receiving that minimum wage but a better salary. As such, while it might be unfortunate that the poor are so badly paid, it is their own fault and hence their employers owe them nothing more. If the state wishes to help them out, that is hardly subsidizing the companies—they would, or so they might say, pay more for a better class of worker.
This has, obviously enough, all the moral appeal of a robber saying that it is the fault of her victims that they were not able to resist her crimes.
Overall, it does appear to be clear that the taxpayers are helping to subsidize those on minimum wage. While we could decide to let the poor slip deeper into poverty that would seem to be a wicked thing to do. It does seem to be reasonable to shift more of the cost to the employers who benefit from the work of the employees. After all, many corporations that are based on minimum wage workers have been making excellent profits—at the expense of the workers and the tax-payers.