A Philosopher's Blog

Panhandling & Free Expression

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 24, 2017

Many local officials tend to believe that panhandlers are detrimental to local businesses and tourism and, as such, it is no surprise that there have been many efforts to ban begging. While local governments keep trying to craft laws to pass constitutional muster, their efforts have generally proven futile in the face of the First Amendment. While the legal questions are addressed by courts, there remains the moral question of whether the banning of panhandling can be morally justified.

The obvious starting point for a moral argument for banning panhandling is a utilitarian approach. As noted above, local officials generally want to have such bans because they believe panhandlers can be bad for local businesses and tourism in general. For example, if potential customers are accosted by scruffy and unwashed panhandlers on the streets around businesses, then they are less likely to patronize those businesses. As another example, if a city gets a reputation for being awash in beggars who annoy tourists with their pleas for cash, then tourism is likely to decline. From the perspective of the business owners and the local officials, these effects would have negative value that would outweigh the benefits to the panhandlers of being able to ask for money. There is presumably also utility in encouraging panhandlers to move away to other locations, thus removing the financial and social cost of having panhandlers. If this utilitarian calculation is accurate, then banning panhandling would be morally acceptable. Of course, if the calculation is not correct and such a ban would do more harm than good, then the ban would be morally wrong.

A second utilitarian argument is the safety argument. While panhandlers generally do not engage in violence (they, after all, are asking for money and not trying to rob people), it has been claimed that they do present a safety risk. The standard concern is that by panhandling in or near traffic, they put themselves and others in danger. If this is true, then banning panhandling would be the right thing to do.  If, however, the alleged harm does not justify the ban, then it would be morally unacceptable.

There is also the obvious reply that any safety concerns could be addressed by having laws that forbid people from obstructing the flow of traffic and being a danger to themselves and others. Presumably many such laws exist in various localities. There is also the concern that the safety argument would need to be applied consistently to all such allegedly risky behavior around traffic, such as people engaging in political campaigns or street side advertising.

It is also easy enough to advance a utilitarian argument in favor of panhandling that is based on the harm that could be done by restricting the panhandlers’ freedom of expression and activity. Following Mill’s classic argument, as long as panhandlers are not harming people with their panhandling, then it would be wrong to limit their freedom to engage in this behavior. This is on the condition that the panhandling is, at worst, merely annoying and does not involve threatening behavior or harassment.

It could be objected that panhandling does cause harm—as noted above, the presence of panhandlers could harm local businesses. People can also regard panhandling as an infringement on their freedom to not be bothered in public. While this does have some appeal, this justification of a panhandling ban would also justify banning any public behavior people found annoying or that had some perceived impact on local businesses. This could include public displays of expression, political campaigning, preaching in public and many other behaviors that should not be banned. In short, the problem is that there is not something distinct enough to panhandling that would allow it to be banned without also justifying the ban of other activities. To simply ban it because it is panhandling would seem to solve this problem, but would not. After all, if an activity can be justly banned because it is that activity, then this would apply to any activity. After all, every activity is the activity it is.

Those who prefer an alternative to utilitarian calculations can easily defend panhandling against proposed bans by appealing to a right of free expression and behavior that is not based on utility. If people do have the moral right to free expression, then reasons would need to be advanced that would be strong enough to warrant violating this right. As noted above, an appeal could be made to the rights of businesses and the rights of other people to avoid being annoyed. However, the right to not be annoyed does not seem to trump the right of expression until the annoyance becomes significant. As such, a panhandler does have the right to annoy a person by asking for money, but if it crosses over into actual harassment, then this would be handled by the fact that people do not have a right to harassment.

In the case of businesses, while they do have a right to engage in free commerce, they do not have a right to expect people to behave in ways that are conducive to their business. If, for example, people found it offensive to have runners running downtown and decided to take their business elsewhere, this would not warrant a runner ban. But, if runners were blocking access to the businesses by running around the entrances, then the owners’ rights would be being violated. Likewise, if panhandlers are disliked by people and they decide to take their business elsewhere, this does not violate the rights of the businesses. But, if panhandlers started harassing people and blocking access to the businesses, then this would violate the rights of the owners.

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The Ethics of Stockpiling Vulnerabilities

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 17, 2017

In May of 2017 the Wannacry Ransomware swept across the world, impacting thousands of computers. The attack affected hospitals, businesses, and universities and the damage has yet to be fully calculated. While any such large-scale attack is a matter of concern, the Wannacry incident is especially interesting. This is because the foundation of the attack was stolen from the National Security Agency of the United States. This raises an important moral issue, namely whether states should stockpile knowledge of software vulnerabilities and the software to exploit them.

A stock argument for states maintaining such stockpiles is the same as the argument used to justify stockpiling weapons such as tanks and aircraft. The general idea is that such stockpiles are needed for national security: to protect and advance the interests of the state. In the case of exploiting vulnerabilities for spying, the security argument can be tweaked a bit by drawing an analogy to other methods of spying. As should be evident, to the degree that states have the right to stockpile physical weapons and engage in spying for their security, they also would seem to have the right to stockpile software weapons and knowledge of vulnerabilities.

The obvious moral counter argument can be built on utilitarian grounds: the harm done when such software and information is stolen and distributed exceeds the benefits accrued by states having such software and information. The Wannacry incident serves as an excellent example of this. While the NSA might have had a brief period of advantage when it had exclusive ownership of the software and information, the damage done by the ransomware to the world certainly exceeds this small, temporary advantage. Given the large-scale damage that can be done, it seems likely that the harm caused by stolen software and information will generally exceed the benefits to states. As such, stockpiling such software and knowledge of vulnerabilities is morally wrong.

This can be countered by arguing that states just need to secure their weaponized software and information. Just as a state is morally obligated to ensure that no one steals its missiles to use in criminal or terrorist endeavors, a state is obligated to ensure that its software and vulnerability information is not stolen. If a state can do this, then it would be just as morally acceptable for a state to have these cyberweapons as it would be for it to have conventional weapons.

The easy and obvious reply to this counter is to point out that there are relevant differences between conventional weapons and cyberweapons that make it very difficult to properly secure them from unauthorized use. One difference is that stealing software and information is generally much easier and safer than stealing traditional weapons. For example, a hacker can get into the NSA from anywhere in the world, but a person who wanted to steal a missile would typically need to break into and out of a military base. As such, securing cyberweapons can be more difficult that securing other weapons. Another difference is that almost everyone in the world has access to the deployment system for software weapons—a device connected to the internet. In contrast, someone who stole, for example, a missile would also need a launching platform. A third difference is that software weapons are generally easier to use than traditional weapons. Because of these factors, cyberweapons are far harder to secure and this makes their stockpiling very risky. As such, the potential for serious harm combined with the difficulty of securing such weapons would seem to make them morally unacceptable.

But, suppose that such weapons and vulnerability information could be securely stored—this would seem to answer the counter. However, it only addresses the stockpiling of weaponized software and does not justify stockpiling vulnerabilities. While adequate storage would prevent the theft of the software and the acquisition of vulnerability information from the secure storage, the vulnerability would remain to be exploited by others. While a state that has such vulnerability information would not be directly responsible for others finding the vulnerabilities, the state would still be responsible for knowingly allowing the vulnerability to remain, thus potentially putting the rest of the world at risk. In the case of serious vulnerabilities, the potential harm of allowing such vulnerabilities to remain unfixed would seem to exceed the advantages a state would gain in keeping the information to itself. As such, states should not stockpile knowledge of such critical vulnerabilities, but should inform the relevant companies.

The interconnected web of computers that forms the nervous system of the modern world is far too important to everyone to put it risk for the relatively minor and short-term gains that could be had by states creating malware and stockpiling vulnerabilities. I would use an obvious analogy to the environment; but people are all too willing to inflict massive environmental damage for relatively small short term gains. This, of course, suggests that the people running states might prove as wicked and unwise regarding the virtual environment as they are regarding the physical environment.

 

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Automation & Administration: An Immodest Proposal

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 5, 2017

It has almost been a law that technological advances create more jobs than they eliminate. This, however, appears to be changing. It is predicted that nearly 15 million jobs will be created by advances and deployment of automation and artificial intelligence by 2027. On the downside, it is also estimated that technological change will eliminate about 25 million jobs. Since the future is not yet now, the reality might be different—but it is generally wise to plan for the likely shape of things to come. As such, it is a good idea to consider how to address the likely loss of jobs.

One short term approach is moving people into jobs that are just ahead of replacement. This is rather like running ahead of an inextinguishable fire in a burning building—it merely postpones the inevitable. A longer-term approach is to add to the building so that you can keep on running as long as you can build faster than the fire can advance. This has been the usual approach to staying ahead of the fire of technology. An even better and rather obvious solution is to get out of the building and into one that will not catch on fire. Moving away from the metaphor, this would involve creating jobs that are technology proof.

If technology cannot fully replicate (or exceed) human capabilities, then there could be some jobs that are technology proof. To get a bit metaphysical, Descartes argued that merely physical systems would not be able to do all that an immaterial mind can do. For example, Descartes claimed that the ability to use true language required an immaterial mind—although he acknowledged that very impressive machines could be constructed that would have the appearance of thought. If he is right, then there could be a sort of metaphysical job security. Moving away from metaphysics, there could be limits on our technological abilities that preclude being able to build our true replacements. But, if technology can build entities that can do all that we can do, then no job would be safe—something could be made to take that job from a human. To gamble on either our special nature or the limits of technology is rather risky, so it would make more sense to take a more dependable approach.

One approach is creating job preserves (like game preserves, only for humans)—that is, deciding to protect certain jobs from technological change. This approach is nothing new. According to some accounts, one reason that Hero of Alexandria’s steam engine was not utilized in the ancient world was because it would have displaced the slaves who provided the bulk of the labor. While this option does have the advantage of preserving jobs, there are some clear and obvious problems with creating such an economic preserve. As two examples, there are the practical matters of sustaining such jobs and competing against other countries who are not engaged in such job protection.

Another approach is to intentionally create jobs that are not really needed and thus can be maintained even in the face of technological advancement. After all, if there is really no reason to have the job at all, there is no reason to replace it with a technological solution. While this might seem to be a stupid idea (and it is), it is not a new idea. There are numerous jobs that are not really needed that are still maintained. Some even pay extremely well. One general category of such jobs are administrative jobs. I will illustrate with my own area of experience, academics.

When I began my career in academics, the academy was already thick with administrators. However, many of them did things that were necessary, such as handling finances and organizing departments. As the years went on, I noticed that the academy was becoming infested with administrators. While this could be dismissed as mere anecdotal evidence on my part, it is supported by the data—the number of non-academic administrative and professional employees in the academics has doubled in the past quarter century. This is, it must be noted, in the face of technological advance and automation which should have reduced the number of such jobs.

These jobs take many forms. As one example, in place of the traditional single dean, a college will have multiple deans of various ranks and the corresponding supporting staff. As another example, assessment has transformed from an academic fad to a permanent parasite (or symbiote, in cases where the assessment is worthwhile) that has grown fat upon the academic body. There has also been a blight of various vice presidents of this and that; many of which are often linked to what some call “political correctness.” Despite being, at best, useless, these jobs continue to exist and are even added to. While a sane person might see this as a problem to be addressed, a person with a somewhat different perspective would be inspired to make an immodest proposal: why not apply this model across the whole economy? To be specific, a partial solution to the problem of technology eliminating jobs is to create new administrative positions for those who lose their jobs. For example, if construction jobs were lost to constructicons, then they could be replaced with such jobs as “vice president of constructicon assessment”, ‘constructicon resource officer”, “constructicon gender identity consultant” and supporting staff.

It might be objected that it would be wrong, foolish and wasteful to create such jobs merely to keep people employed as jobs are consumed by technology. The easy and obvious reply is that if useless jobs are going to flourish anyway, they might as well serve a better purpose.

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Making Government Like a Business: Skills & Methods

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 29, 2017

President Trump assigned his son-in-law Jared Kushner to head up the effort to make the federal government more like a business. Trump has already been a leader in this effort by engaging in the same sort of nepotism that occurs in business. While it is certainly tempting to dismiss this appointment as more nepotism, it is worth considering whether government should be more like a business.

The idea that government should be more like a business is certainly appealing to those who education, experience and values relate to business. It is natural for people to see the world through the lens of their experiences and education. It is also natural to want to apply the methods that one is most familiar with to as many areas as possible. For example, my education is in philosophy and I have extensive experience in critical thinking, logic and ethical reasoning. As such, I tend to see the world through the philosophical lens and I want to apply critical thinking, logic and ethical reasoning whenever I can. Likewise, those who are educated and experienced in business see the world through the business lens and wish to broadly apply their business skills and methods.

A reasonable case can be made as to why this business focused approach has some merit. One way to argue for this is to point out that many skills that are developed in the context of business can be applied to government. For example, negotiating and deal making skills can be applied to politics—although there are certainly differences between the specifics of each area. As another example, business leadership and management skills can also be applied in government, although there are clearly relevant differences between the two areas. It would thus be a mistake to claim that government is nothing like a business. That said, those enamored of business often make mistakes in their zeal to “businessform” government (that is, transform it into business).

One basic mistake is to think that just because there are positive qualities of business that are also positive qualities of government, making government more like a business will bring about those positive qualities. Obviously enough, making one thing more like another only results in positive qualities if they are made alike in those positive ways. Merely making them alike in other ways does not do this. To use an analogy, dressing like a runner makes one like a runner, but this does not confer the health benefits of running.

There is also the fact that although things that have similar positive qualities are thus similar, it does not follow that they are thus otherwise alike in relevant ways. For example, efficiency is a positive quality of business and government, but merely making government like business need not make it more efficient. There are, after all, business that are very inefficient.

Also, the fact that efficiency can be a positive quality of both business and government does not entail they are thus alike in other ways or that the way business is made more efficient is the way to make government more efficient. To illustrate, a business might be very efficient at exploiting customers and workers while enriching the stockholders, but that is presumably not the sort of efficiency one would aim for in government.

Avoiding this mistake involves resisting the mythology and fetishizing of “businessifictaion” and giving due consideration to which skills, methods and approaches transfer well from business to government and which do not.

A second basic mistake is similar to that made by Ion in Plato’s dialogue Ion. The rhapsode Ion believes, at the start of the dialogue, that poets have knowledge and mastery about almost everything. His reasoning is that because poets write about, for example military matters, they have an expertise in military matters. As such, poets should be able to teach people about these matters and serve as leaders in all these areas.

Socrates, as would be expected, shows that the poets (as poets) do not have such knowledge. The gist of his argument is that each area is mastered by mastering the subject of that area and all these areas “belong” to others and not to the poets. For example, knowledge of waging war belongs to soldiers. The poets touch but lightly on these other areas and understand only the appearances and not the depth. Socrates does note that a person can have multiple domains of mastery, so a medical doctor could, for example, also be skilled at mathematics or art history.

The error in the case of business is to think that because there are many types of business and almost everything has some connection to business, then an alleged mastery of business confers mastery over all these things. However, business skills are rather distinct from the skills that are specific to the various types of businesses. To illustrate, while a manager might believe that their managing skills are universal, managing a software company does not confer software skills nor does managing a hospital confer medical skills. One might pick up skills and knowledge, but this would not be as a businessperson. After all, while a business person might be a runner, that does not make running a business. The fact that there are businesses associated with running, such as Nike, does not entail that skill in business thus confers skill in running. As such, for someone to think that business skills thus confer mastery over government would be a mistake. They might believe that they have such mastery because government interacts with business and some businesses do things like what government does, but they would be as mistaken as someone who thinks that because they manage a Nike outlet they are thus an athlete.

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Charter Schools IV: Profit

Posted in Business, Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 13, 2017

While being a charter school is distinct from being a for-profit school, one argument in favor of charter schools is because they, unlike public schools, can operate as for-profit businesses. While some might be tempted to assume a for-profit charter school must automatically be bad, it is worth considering this argument.

As one would suspect, the arguments in favor of for-profit charter schools are essentially the same as arguments in favor of providing public money to any for-profit business. While I cannot consider all of them in this short essay, I will present and assess some of them.

One stock argument is the efficiency argument. The idea is that for-profit charter schools have a greater incentive than non-profit schools to be efficient. This is because every increase in efficiency can yield an increase in profits. For example, if a for-profit charter school can offer school lunches at a lower cost than a public school, then the school can turn that difference into a profit. In contrast. A public school has less incentive to be efficient, since there is no profit to be made.

While this argument is reasonable, it can be countered. One obvious concern is that profits can also be increased by cutting costs in ways that are detrimental to the students and employees of the school. For example, the “efficiency” of lower cost school lunches could result from providing the students with less or lower quality food. As another example, a school could not offer essential, but expensive services for students with special needs. As a final example, employee positions and pay could be reduced to detrimental levels.

Another counter is that while public schools lack the profit motive, they still need to accomplish the required tasks with limited funds. As such, they also need to be efficient. In fact, they often must be very creative with extremely limited resources (and teachers routinely spend their own money purchasing supplies for the students). For-profit charter schools must do what public schools do, but must also make a profit—as such, for-profit schools would cost the public more for the same services and thus be less cost effective.

It could be objected that for-profit schools are inherently more efficient than public schools and hence they can make a profit and do all that a public school would do, for the same money or even less. To support this, proponents of for-profit education point to various incidents of badly run public schools.

The easy and obvious reply is that such problems do not arise because the schools are public, they arise because of bad management and other problems. There are many public schools that are well run and there are many for-profit operations that are badly run. As such, merely being for-profit will not make a charter school better than a public school.

A second stock argument in favor of for-profit charter schools is based on the idea competition improves quality. While students go to public school by default, for-profit charter schools must compete for students with public schools, private schools and other charter schools. Since parents generally look for the best school for their children, the highest quality for-profit charter schools will win the competition. As such, the for-profits have an incentive that public schools lack and thus will be better schools.

One obvious concern is that for-profits can get students without being of better quality. They could do so by extensive advertising, by exploiting political connections and various other ways that have nothing to do with quality.

Another concern about making the education of children a competitive business venture is that this competition has causalities: businesses go out of business. While the local hardware store going out of business is unfortunate, having an entire school go out of business would be worse. If a for-profit school goes out of business, there would be considerable disruption to the children and to the schools that would have to accept them. There is also the usual concern that the initial competition will result in a few (or one) for-profit emerging victorious and then settling into the usual pattern of lower quality and higher costs. Think, for example, of cable/internet companies. As such, the competition argument is not as strong as some might believe.

Those who disagree with me might contend that my arguments are mere speculation and that for-profit charter schools should be given a chance. They might turn out to be everything their proponents claim they will be.

While this is a reasonable point, it can be countered by considering the examples presented by other ventures in which for-profit versions of public institutions receive public money. Since there is a school to prison pipeline, it seems relevant to consider the example of for profit prisons.

The arguments in favor of for-profit prisons were like those considered above: for-profit prisons would be more efficient and have higher quality than prisons run by the state. Not surprisingly, to make more profits, many prisons cut staff, pay very low salaries, cut important services and so on. By making incarceration even more of a business, the imprisonment of citizens was incentivized with the expected results of more people being imprisoned for longer sentences. As such, for-profit prisons turned out to be disastrous for the prisoners and the public. While schools are different from prisons, it is easy enough to see the same sort of thing play out with for-profit charter schools.

The best and most obvious analogy is, of course, to the for-profit colleges. As with prisons and charter schools, the usual arguments about efficiency and quality were advanced to allow public money to go to for-profit institutes. The results were not surprising: for profit colleges proved to be disastrous for the students and the public. Far from being more efficient that public and non-profit colleges, the for-profits generally turned out to be significantly more expensive. They also tend to have significantly worse graduation and job placement rates than public and non-profit private schools. Students also accrue far more debt and make significant less money relative to public and private school students. These schools also sometimes go out of business, leaving students abandoned and often with useless credits that cannot transfer. They do, however, often excel at advertising—which explains how they lure in so many students when there are vastly better alternatives.

The public also literally paid the price—the for-profits receive a disproportionate amount of public money and students take out more student loans to pay for these schools and default on them more often. Far from being models of efficiency and quality, the for-profit colleges have often turned out to be little more than machines for turning public money into profits for a few. This is not to say that for-profit charter schools must become exploitation engines as well, but the disaster of for-profit colleges must be taken as a cautionary tale. While there are some who see our children as another resource to be exploited for profits, we should not allow this to happen.

 

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Charter Schools II: Choice & Quality

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 9, 2017

In the previous essay on charter schools I considered the monopoly argument in their favor. On this view, charter schools break the state’s harmful monopoly on education and this is a good thing. It is worth noting, again, that the state does not have a monopoly on education (there are private, non-charter schools). Instead, the state schools often have a monopoly on public money and charter schools break this monopoly by receiving public money. This, it is argued by charter school proponents, allows for more choice. They are quite right. But not all choices are good choices.

Without charter schools, people face rather limited alternatives to the public-school system. One is home schooling. While this does appeal to some people, it does limit the educational experience and requires a great deal of the parent(s). Another is attending a private school. While these schools can provide excellent education, they can very expensive. As such, they are an option only for those who can afford them. Because charter schools receive public money, they can provide an alternative to public schools for those who cannot afford a private school. However, there is the question of why there should be such choice and why people would take it.

One reason often given in favor of charter schools over public schools is that charter schools are supposed to superior in terms of the education they provide (or in some other relevant way). Proponents of charter schools point to failing public schools as evidence for this claim. While this is certainly a rational argument, there are some concerns with it.

One concern is that while there are bad public schools and excellent charter schools, there are also excellent public schools and awful charter schools. As such, there is nothing intrinsic to the public system that necessitates its badness nor anything intrinsic to the charter system that necessitates its superiority. This raises the question about what causes school quality.

The easy and obvious answer is that the main cause is funding. It is no accident that the best schools tend to be in affluent neighborhoods and the worst schools tend to be in poor areas. After all, a significant portion of the funding for public schools is local and is often based on property taxes. As such, high value property generates more funding for schools. Low value property generates far less. Naturally, this is not the whole story for school funding, but it is an important part. It is also worth noting that not just community wealth is a factor—community health is also important for the quality of education. After all, stable communities that have families actively involved in the school can create a very good educational experience for the children. However, wealth and health often travel hand in hand.

As might be suspected, most parents would prefer their children attend the best schools—this is why parents who have the income buy houses in the best school districts. This provides another limit to choice: while anyone can attend the best public schools, they must be able to afford to live in the district. This makes the best public schools analogous to private schools; one must pay to be able to attend. The promise of charter schools is that children can escape the poor schools and go to a superior charter school, using public money.

While this does have some appeal, there are some obvious problems. One is that the poor schools will become poorer as they lose students and will presumably decline even more until only those who cannot escape remain. This would seem to be like pouring money into lifeboats for an ailing ship rather than using the money to fix it.

Of course, this analogy could be countered by saying that the public school ship is doomed and the only viable option is escape. This is a reasonable counter—if a school is so badly wrecked that it cannot be saved, then escaping to another school would be as sensible as fleeing a sinking ship. The challenge is, however, showing that this should be a charter school and not a new public school.

Another is that it would seem to make more sense to use the public money to improve the public school so that parents would want their children to attend. After all, if parents want to choose good schools, the best use of public money would seem to be to make public schools better. Since there are excellent public schools, this is clearly something that can be done with proper funding and a strong community. As noted above, there is no special magic to charters that makes them inherently better than public schools. To use another analogy, the charter school argument is like pointing to the poorly maintained roads of a community and saying that the solution is not to fix the roads, but to use the public money to put in another set of roads adjacent to the existing roads. It would seem to make much more sense to fix the existing public roads rather than putting in “charter roads.”

In light of the above discussion, the choice argument for charter schools based on quality does not appear compelling. Unless it can be shown that charter schools are inherently better than public schools in virtue of being charters, then it would be more sensible to improve the quality of existing public schools rather than siphoning away public money. There are, however, other matters of choice beyond quality. In the next essay I will look at the appeal of ideological choice—charter schools that offer an ideological or theological alternative to public schools.

 

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The State & Business

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 19, 2016

The American anarchist Henry David Thoreau presents what has become a popular conservative view of the effect of government upon business: “Yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way…Trade and commerce, if they were not made of India-rubber, would never manage to bounce over obstacles which legislators are continually putting in their way…”

While this sort of laissez faire view of the role of the state in business is often taken as gospel, there is the question of whether Thoreau is right. While I do find his anarchism appealing, there are some problems with his view.

Thoreau is quite right that the government can be employed to thwart and impede enterprises—this is often done by granting special advantages and subsidies to certain companies or industries, thus impeding their competitors. However, he is mistaken in his claim that the government has never “furthered any enterprise.” I will begin with the easy and obvious reply to this claim.

Modern business could not exist without the physical and social infrastructure provided by the state. In terms of the physical infrastructure, businesses need the transportation infrastructure provided by the state. The most obvious aspect of this infrastructure is the system of roads that is paid for by the citizens and maintained by the government (that is, the citizens acting collectively). Without such roads, most businesses could not operate—products could not be moved effectively and customers would be hard pressed to reach the businesses.

Perhaps even more critical than the physical infrastructure is the social infrastructure that is created by the government (that is, the people acting collectively and through officials). The social infrastructure includes the legal system, laws, police services, military services, diplomatic services and so on for the structures that compose the governmental aspects of society.

For example, companies in the intellectual property business (which ranges from those dealing in the arts to pharmaceutical companies) require the existence of the legal system and law enforcement. After all, if the state did not enforce the drug patents, the business model of the major pharmaceutical companies would be destroyed.

As another example, companies that do business internationally require the government’s military and diplomatic services to enable their business activities. In some cases, this involves the explicit use of the military in the service of business. In other cases, it is the gentler hand of diplomacy that advances American business around the world.

All businesses rely on the currency system made possible by the state and they are all protected by the police. While there are non-state currencies (such as bitcoin) and companies can hire mercenaries; these options are generally not viable for most businesses.  All of this seems to clearly show that the state plays a critical role in allowing business to exist. This can, however, be countered.

It could be argued that while the state is necessary for business (after all, there is little in the way of business in the state of nature), it does nothing else beyond that and should just get out of the way to avoid impeding business. To use an analogy, someone must build the stadium for the football game, but they need to get out of the way when it is time for the players to play. The obvious reply to this is to show how the state has played a very positive role in the development of business.

The United States has made a practice of subsidizing and supporting what have been regarded as key businesses. In the 1800s, the railroads were developed with the assistance of the state. The development of the oil industry depended on the state, as did the development of modern agriculture. It could, of course, be objected that this subsidizing and support are bad things—but they are certainly not bad for the businesses that benefit.

Another area where the state has helped advance business is in funding and engaging in research. This is often research that would be too expensive for private industry and research that requires a long time to yield benefits. One example of this is the development of space technology that made everything involving satellites possible. Another example is the development of the internet—which is the nervous system of the modern economy. The BBC’s “50 Things that Made the Modern Economy” does an excellent analysis of the role of governments in developing the technology that made the iPhone possible (and all smart phones).

One reason the United States has been so successful in the modern economy has been the past commitment of public money to basic research. While not all research leads to successful commercial applications (such as computers), the ability of the collective (us acting as the state) to support long term and expensive research has been critical to the advancement of technology and civilization.

This is not to take away from private sector research, but much of it is built upon public sector foundations. As would be expected, private sector research now tends to focus on short term profits rather than long term research. Unfortunately, this view has infected the public sector as well—as public money for research is reduced, public institutions seek private money and this money often comes with strings and the risk of corruption. For example, “research” might be funded to “prove” that a product is safe or effective. While this does yield short term gains, it will lead to a long-term disaster.

The state also helps further enterprise through laws regulating business. While this might seem like a paradox, it is easily shown by using an analogy to the role of the state in regulating the behavior of citizens.

Allowing business to operate with no regulation would be like allowing individuals to operate without regulations. While this might seem appealing, for an individual to further their life, they need protections from others who might threaten their life, liberty and property. To this end, laws are created and enforced to protect people. The same applies to protecting businesses from other businesses (and businesses from people and people from businesses). This is, of course, the stock argument for having government rather than the unregulated state of nature. As Hobbes noted, a lack of government can become a war of all against all and this ends badly for everyone. The freer the market gets, the closer it gets to this state of nature—a point well worth remembering.

It might be assumed that I foolishly think that all government involvement in business is good and that all regulation is desirable. This is not the case. Governments can wreck their own economies through corruption, bad regulations and other failures. Regulations are like any law—they can be good or bad, depending on what they achieve. Some regulations, such as those that encourage fair competition in business, are good. Others, such as those that grant certain companies unfair legal and financial advantages (you might be thinking of Monsanto here), are not.

While rhetorical bumper stickers about government, business and regulation are appealing in a simplistic way, the reality of the situation requires more thought and due consideration of the positive role the state can play—with due vigilance against the harms that it can do.

 

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Wells Fargo & Financial Crimes

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 30, 2016

The venerable Wells Fargo bank made the news in 2016 for financial misdeeds on a massive scale. Employees of the company, in an effort to meet the quotas set by management, had created numerous accounts without the permission of the clients. In response over 5,300 lower level employees were fired. Initially, CEO John Stumpf and former head of retail banking Carrie Tolstedt were to keep their rather sizable compensation for leading the company to a great financial “success” based on this fraud. However, backlash from the public and the shareholders has resulted in Stumpf and Carrie losing some of their financial compensation.

As would be expected, there are currently no plans for criminal charges of the sort that could result in jail time. This is consistent with how financial misdeeds by the elites are typically handled: some fines and, at worst, some forfeiture of ill-gotten gains. While I do not generally agree with Trump, he is not wrong when he points out that the system is rigged in favor of the elites and against the common people. The fact that Trump is one of the elite and has used the system quite effectively does not prove him wrong (that would be fallacious reasoning); rather he himself serves as more evidence for the rigging. Those who loath Hillary Clinton can also add their own favorite examples.

It is instructive to compare the punishment for other misdeeds to those imposed on Wells Fargo. Shoplifting is usually seem as a fairly minor crime,  but a person who shoplifts property with a combined value of less than $300 can pay a fine up to $1000 or be sentenced to up to a year in jail. Shoplifting property with a combined value over $300 is a felony and can result in a sentence between one and ten years in jail. While Wells Fargo did not seem to directly steal money (that is, it did not simply empty accounts into its own coffers), it did rob people through the use of fees and other charges that arose from the creation of these unauthorized accounts.

While there are clearly differences between the direct theft of shoplifting and the indirect robbery of imposing charges on unauthorized accounts, there seems to be little moral distinction: after all, both are means of robbing someone of their rightful property.  Because of this, there would appear to be a need to revise the penalties so that they are properly proportional.

One option is to bring the punishment for major financial misdeeds in line with the punishment for shoplifting. This would involve changing the fine for financial misdeeds from being a fraction of the profits (or damages) of the misdeeds to a multiple of the profits (perhaps three or more times greater). It could be argued that such a harsh penalty could financial ruin an elite who lacked adequate assets to pay for their misdeed; however, the exact same argument can be advanced for poor shoplifters.

Another option is to bring the punishments for shoplifting in line with the punishments for the financial elites. This would change the fine for shoplifting from likely being in excess of the value of what was stolen to a fraction of what was stolen (if that). The obvious objection to this proposal is that if shoplifters knew that their punishment would be to pay a fraction of the value they had stolen, then this punishment would have no deterrent value. Shoplifting would be, in effect, shopping at a significant discount. It is thus hardly shocking that the financial elite are generally not deterred by the present system of punishment—they come out way ahead if they do not get caught and can still do very well even if they are caught.

It could be objected that the financial elite would be deterred on the grounds that they would still be better off using legal means to profit. That way they would keep 100% of their gain rather than a fraction. The easy and obvious reply is that this deterrent value is contingent on the elite believing that the legal approach would be more profitable than the illegal approach (with due consideration to the chance of getting caught and fined). Since the punishment is often a fraction of the gain and the potential gain from misdeeds can be huge, this approach to punishment has far less deterrent value than a punishment in which the punished comes out at a loss rather than a gain.

It is also interesting to compare the punishment for identity theft and fraud with the punishment of Wells Fargo. Conviction of identity theft can result in a sentence of one to seven years. Fraud charges also have sentences that range from one to ten years and beyond. While some do emphasize that Wells Fargo was not engaged in traditional identity theft was morally similar. As an example of traditional identity theft, a thief steals a person’s identity and gets a credit card under that name to use for their own gain. What Wells Fargo did was open accounts in people’s names without their permission so that the company could profit from this misuse of their identity. As such, the company was stealing from these people and doing them the same sorts of harms inflicted by individuals engaging in identity theft.

From a moral standpoint, those involved in these actions should face the same criminal charges and potential punishments that individuals acting on their own would face. This is morally required for consistency. Obviously enough, the laws are not consistent—the misdeeds of the elite and corporations are so often punished lightly or not at all. This is nothing new—the history of law is also the history of its unfair application. The injustice of justice, one might say.  However, this approach is problematic.

Looked at from a certain moral perspective, the degree to which I am obligated to accept punishment for my misdeeds is proportional to the consistency and fairness of the system of justice. If others are able to walk away from the consequences of their misdeeds or enjoy light punishments for misdeeds that would result in harsh penalties for me, then I have little moral reason to willingly accept any punishments that might be inflicted on me. Naturally, the state has the power to inflict its punishments whether I accept them or not, but it seems important to a system of justice that the citizens accept the moral legitimacy of the punishment.

To use an analogy, imagine a professor who ran their class like the justice system is run. If an elite student cheated and got an initial grade of 100, they might be punished by having the grade docked to an 80 if caught. In contrast, the common students would be failed and sent before the academic misconduct board for such a misdeed. The common students who cheated would be right to rebel against this system and refuse to accept such punishments—though they did wrong, justice without consistency is but a mockery of real justice.

In light of this discussion, Wells Fargo is yet another shining example of the inherent injustice and inequality in the legal system. If we wish to have a just system of justice, these disparities must be addressed. These disparities also warrant moral disobedience in the face of punishment. Why should, morally, a shoplifter accept a fine that vastly exceeds what they stole when a financial elite can pay but a fraction of their theft and profit well from their misdeeds?

 

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Automated Trucking

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Science, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on September 23, 2016

Having grown up in the golden age of the CB radio, I have many fond memories of movies about truck driving heroes played by the likes of Kurt Russell and Clint Eastwood. While such movies seem to have been a passing phase, real truck drivers are heroes of the American economy. In addition to moving stuff across this great nation, they also earn solid wages and thus also contribute as taxpayers and consumers.

While most of the media attention is on self-driving cars, there are also plans underway to develop self-driving trucks. The steps towards automation will initially be a boon to truck drivers as these technological advances manifest as safety features. This progress will most likely lead to a truck with a human riding in the can as a backup (more for the psychological need of the public than any actual safety increase) and eventually to a fully automated truck.

Looked at in terms of the consequences of full automation, there will be many positive impacts. While the automated trucks will probably be more expensive than manned vehicles initially, not need to pay drivers will result in considerable savings for the companies. Some of this might even be passed on to consumers, resulting in a tiny decrease in some prices. There is also the fact that automated trucks, unlike human drivers, would not get tired, bored or distracted. While there will still be accidents involving these trucks, it would be reasonable to expect a very significant decrease. Such trucks would also be able to operate around the clock, stopping only to load/unload cargo, to refuel and for maintenance. This could increase the speed of deliveries. One can even imagine an automated truck with its own drones that fly away from the truck as it cruises the highway, making deliveries for companies like Amazon. While these will be good things, there will also be negative consequences.

The most obvious negative consequence of full automation is the elimination of trucker jobs. Currently, there are about 3.5 million drivers in the United States. There are also about 8.7 million other people employed in the trucking industry who do not drive. One must also remember all the people indirectly associated with trucking, ranging from people cooking meals for truckers to folks manufacturing or selling products for truckers. Finally, there are also the other economic impacts from the loss of these jobs, ranging from the loss of tax revenues to lost business. After all, truckers do not just buy truck related goods and services.

While the loss of jobs will be a negative impact, it should be noted that the transition from manned trucks to robot rigs will not occur overnight. There will be a slow transition as the technology is adopted and it is certain that there will be several years in which human truckers and robotruckers share the roads. This can allow for a planned transition that will mitigate the economic shock. That said, there will presumably come a day when drivers are given their pink slips in large numbers and lose their jobs to the rolling robots. Since economic transitions resulting from technological changes are nothing new, it could be hoped that this transition would be managed in a way that mitigated the harm to those impacted.

It is also worth considering that the switch to automated trucking will, as technological changes almost always do, create new jobs and modify old ones. The trucks will still need to be manufactured, managed and maintained. As such, new economic opportunities will be created. That said, it is easy to imagine these jobs also becoming automated as well: fleets of robotic trucks cruising America, loaded, unloaded, managed and maintained by robots. To close, I will engage in a bit of sci-fi style speculation.

Oversimplifying things, the automation of jobs could lead to a utopian future in which humans are finally freed from the jobs that are fraught with danger and drudgery. The massive automated productivity could mean plenty for all; thus bringing about the bright future of optimistic fiction. That said, this path could also lead into a dystopia: a world in which everything is done for humans and they settle into a vacuous idleness they attempt to fill with empty calories and frivolous amusements.

There are, of course, many dystopian paths leading away from automation. Laying aside the usual machine takeover in which Google kills us all, it is easy to imagine a new “robo-planation” style economy in which a few elite owners control their robot slaves, while the masses have little or no employment. A rather more radical thought is to imagine a world in which humans are almost completely replaced—the automated economy hums along, generating numbers that are duly noted by the money machines and the few remaining money masters. The ultimate end might be a single computer that contains a virtual economy; clicking away to itself in electronic joy over its amassing of digital dollars while around it the ruins of  human civilization decay and the world awaits the evolution of the next intelligent species to start the game anew.

 

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Don’t Say the C Words

Posted in Business, Environment, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 21, 2016

While weather disasters have always plagued humanity, there has been a clear recent uptick in such events. Naturally, the greater scope of these disasters is due partially to the human population being larger than ever and occupying more land—especially in areas prone to such events. That said, events such as the floods in Louisiana and the steady inundation of the sea in many places (such as Miami) are indications of a real change.

Nearly every climate scientist accepts that climate change is occurring and that human activity has had an influence. Given the historic record, it would be irrational to deny that the climate changes and few claim that it does not. The battle, then, is over the cause of climate change. Unfortunately for addressing the impact of climate change, it was brilliantly changed from a scientific issue into a political one. Making it into a partisan issue had the usual impact on group psychology: it became a matter of political identity, with people developing a profound emotional commitment to climate change denial. When denying climate change became a matter of group identity, it became almost impossible for reason to change minds—in the face of overwhelming evidence, people merely double down, deny the evidence, and craft narratives about how scientists are biased and environmentalists hate corporations and jobs.

To be fair, some of those who accept climate change do so out of political identity as well—they are not moved by the science, but by their group identity. They just happen to be right, albeit for the wrong reasons.

Not being an expert on climate change, I follow the rational approach to any issue that requires expertise to settle: I go with the majority view of the qualified experts. As such, I accept that climate change is real and humans play a role. If the majority shifted, I would accept that view—after all, the history of science includes numerous shifts.

If this matter were a purely abstract debate, then there would be no real worry. However, the impact of the changing climate is already doing considerable harm and the evidence suggests that it will continue to get worse unless steps are taken to address it. Unfortunately, as noted above, climate is now a political issue with deeply entrenched interest groups and strong emotional commitments. In some places, such as Florida, there is considerable political pressure to not even use the words “climate change.” The problem is, of course, that not using the words does not make the problems go away. Miami will slowly vanish into the ocean, even if people refuse to say “climate change.”

As a philosopher, I do believe in reason. However, I am also a practical person and know that reason is the weakest form of persuasion. Because of the entrenchment over climate change, trying to use reason and evidence to change minds would be a fool’s errand. As such, I suggest a purely pragmatic solution: stop using the C words (“climate change”) when trying to influence public policy, at least in cases in which there is strong ideological resistance. Using those words will simply evoke an emotional response and create strong resistance to whatever might be proposed, however reasonable.

As an alternative, the approach should be to focus on the specific threats and these should be cast in terms of risks to the economy and, perhaps, the lives and well-being of voters and consumers. There should be no mention of man-made climate change and no proposals to change behavior to counter man-made climate change. In short, the proposals must focus solely on mitigating the damage of weather events, with due care taken to present the notion that these events “just happen” and are “natural” with no connection to human activity.

It might be objected that this would be analogous to trying to combat the Zika virus by dealing only with the effects while refusing to say “virus” and not proposing any efforts to address the cause. This is certainly a reasonable point. However, if there was a powerful political movement that refused to accept the existence of viruses and citizens emotionally devoted to virus denial, then trying to persuade them to deal with the virus would be a nigh-impossible task. If they did accept the existence of the effects, then they could be enlisted to assist in addressing them. While this approach would hardly be optimal, it would be better to have their cooperation in mitigating the consequences rather than facing their opposition.

It might also be objected that I am deluded by my own ideological views and have been misled by the conspiracy of scientists and liberals who are in the pocket of Big Environment. Since I rather enjoy a good conspiracy theory, I certainly admit that it could be the case that the noble fossil fuel companies and those they pay are right about climate change and the scientists are either villains or dupes. If so, then not talking about climate change would be the correct approach—just as not talking about climate demons is the correct approach (because there are no such things). Since the weather events are really occurring, then addressing them would still be reasonable. So, regardless of whether climate change is real or not, my approach seems to be a sound one: avoid the resistance of climate change deniers by not using the C words; but enlist them into addressing those perfectly natural severe weather events that will be occurring with increasing regularity.

 

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