In the United States, comedy seems to be dominated by the left as exemplified by shows such as The Daily Show and Full Frontal. While there are conservative comedians, they tend to avoid political comedy and instead seem more likely to comment on red necks rather than red state politics. As might be imagined, there has been considerable speculation about this political division in the art of comedy, one that mirrors the political divide in the arts in general. While I do not pretend to offer a definitive answer, it is certainly interesting to engage in some speculation.
Smug liberals might be inclined to avail themselves of the hypothesis that comedy requires intelligence and that conservatives are generally less intelligent than liberals. Conservatives might counter that liberal stupidity is what causes them to be amused by stupid liberal jokes. While comedy can be an indicator of wit; there does not seem to be a meaningful intelligence gap dividing the political spectrum; although people always think that their side is superior.
A rather more plausible explanation is that the difference does rest in psychology; that the same traits that draw a person to liberalism would also make a person more proficient at comedy. In contrast, the traits that draw a person to conservatism would make them less capable in regards to comedy.
Sticking with the classic definitions, conservatives want to preserve the existing social order and tend to have a favorable view of the established social institutions. Liberals tend to want to change the social order and regard the established social institutions with some suspicion. Since political comedy involves making fun of the existing social order and mocking established institutions, this would help explain why conservatives would be less likely to be engaged in political comedy than liberals.
It is worth considering that while conservative comedians would not be very inclined to attack conservative targets, there is still a target rich environment. There are obviously many liberal groups and organizations that would be ideally suited for conservative comedy—in fact, liberal comedians have already put down the foundations for mocking many of these groups. There are also numerous liberal individuals that would be suitable targets; they have already been softened up a bit by liberal comics.
Conservatives, such as Rush Limbaugh, do engage in mockery of institutions and social orders they regard as tainted with the left. However, this mockery tends to be more of an attack than an exercise in comedy: while some regard Limbaugh as a clown, he is not seen as a comedian. Or particularly funny. Given the abundance of targets and the willingness of conservatives to go after them, it is something of a mystery why this ecological niche of comedic liberal mocking has not been filled.
One possible explanation is a variation of the victim narrative that conservatives typically reject or condemn when it is used by the left to explain, for example, why women or minorities are underrepresented in an area. The narrative is that comedy is controlled and dominated by the liberals and they are using their power and influence to suppress and oppress conservatives who want to be comedians. If only conservative comics were given a chance to get their comedy out to the people, they would succeed.
Some might be tempted to reject this argument for the reasons typically advanced by conservatives when the narrative involves racism and sexism, such as claims that the failure of the allegedly oppressed is due to their own defects, to simply deny the disparity or to advance the bootstrap argument. While this approach might be satisfying, it is certainly worth considering that conservative comedians are the victims of oppression, that their voices are being silenced by the powerful, and that they are victims. The dearth of conservative comedians, like the dearth of minorities in the highest positions in society, does suggest that an injustice is being done. If conservative comedians are being oppressed, then steps should be taken to address this oppression, perhaps beginning with an affirmative comedic action program to help them get established in the face of a system that has long been stacked against them.
While this is certainly the sort of thing leftists love to do for the oppressed, it is also worth considering whether conservatives want to be comedians. As with other cases of alleged oppression, it might be the case that the reason that there are few, if any, conservative comedians is because few, if any, conservatives want to be comedians. If this is the case, then there is no oppression to address—things are as they should be. Another possible explanation lies in the nature of comedy, at least as it is defined by Aristotle.
As Aristotle saw it, comedy “is a subdivision of the ugly” and “consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive.” Political comedy typical involves mockery across the lines of power, because politics is all about power relationships. Liberal comedy typically involves mocking upwards in regards to power. For example, female comedians making fun of the patriarchy is mockery originating down the power curve that is aimed upwards at the established institutions and norms. Since the mockery is going up the power divide, the comedy generally will not be painful or destructive—after all, the power advantage rests with the target and not the comic.
Since conservatives tend to support the existing power structures and established social values, the target of conservative comedy would tend to be people and organizations outside of those structures or those with different values. As such, conservative comedy would tend to be going down the power curve: the stronger going after the weaker. For example, a white comedian mocking Black Lives Matter would be shooting downward from an advantageous social position. While comedy can go down the power curve and still be comedy, this becomes rather challenging because it is very easy for such attempts to become painful or destructive, thus ceasing to be comedy. Trump provides an excellent example of this. While he often claims to just be joking, his enormous power advantage means that he is almost always punching downwards and thus appears bullying and cruel rather than comedic. This, I think, is a plausible explanation for the dearth of conservative comedians: mocking those who occupy positions of social disadvantage seems more cruel than comedic.
After Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died, the Republicans claimed Obama did not have the right to appoint a replacement and that this should be left to the next President. The basis for this claim was that since Scalia died in early February, 2016 Obama had slightly less than one year left in office. Since the Republicans held the senate, they were able to refuse to even hold hearings and thus left the vacancy open for President Trump to fill.
While some expected Trump to make an unconventional nomination, he selected Judge Gorsuch as his first pick (at least after going through some absurd reality TV show style set up). While I obviously have philosophical and ideological differences with Judge Gorsuch, I do accept that my fellow Episcopalian is eminently qualified for the position and has impeccable academic and professional credentials. I would, of course, prefer a judge more in line with my own philosophical views, but accepting differing views is part of being a citizen in a diverse democracy.
While not all Democrats oppose Gorsuch, they still remember what the Republicans did to Obama and there has been considerable discussion about how the Democrats will oppose this nomination. Since the Democrats do not have enough votes to refuse to hold hearings, about the worst they can do is delay the process. As should be expected, some Republicans are outraged that the Democrats would dare do such a thing—after all, Trump is the president and has the Constitutional right to make the appointment.
Interestingly, some critics of the Democrats are quoting what they said about Obama’s attempt to nominate a justice back at them. The obvious problem with this tactic is that arguing that the Democrats should follow their own argument is that if the Democrats were right then, then this is effectively a stolen nomination and they can thus justly oppose it in a principled way.
Obviously enough, if Hillary Clinton had won, the same Republicans who blocked Obama’s nomination and who are criticizing the Democrats for their plans would be busy placing roadblocks in front of her nominee. When it looked like Clinton would probably win, John McCain made it clear that they would block all her nominees. McCain might regret saying this in public now that Trump has won, but politicians seem to be often untroubled by consistency and principles. I will, however, give McCain his due on his consistent opposition to torture and other principled stands that he has taken over the years.
Because of such remarks, Democrats can make the argument that they are doing exactly what the Republicans said they would do if Clinton had won. As such, the Republicans would seem to have no moral ground on which to criticize the Democrats for trying to block Trump’s nominee. They are no worse (and no better) than the Republicans.
From a logical perspective, it would be fallacious for the Democrats to argue that their blocking Trump’s nominee is right because the Republicans would have done the same to Hillary. After all, if blocking a nominee without legitimate justification is wrong, then it is wrong regardless of who does it. As such, the Republicans could say that it is wrong of the Democrats to block a nominee without legitimate justification. They would just be hypocrites for doing so.
Of course, the above discussion is largely irrelevant—most of the politicians are not operating on the basis of a consistent principle regarding nominations. Rather, they are endeavoring to do what they think is best for their party. But what would a consistent application of the Constriction look like? The first step is looking at the relevant text:
He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.
The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.
While I am not a constitutional scholar, I can read English well enough to see what the Constitution specifies about this matter. The president unambiguously has the power to nominate Judges of the Supreme Court. When Obama was the President, he had the constitutional right to make the nomination. Now that Trump is President, he has this power. But the opening is only there because the Republicans refused to even hold hearings on Obama’s nominee and this would indicate that they accept that the senate has the power to do just that. This view is based on what the text says about the role of the senatae.
The text is clear that the appointment of the Judges of the Supreme Court requires the “advice and consent” of the Senate. Since the constitution does not actually specify the process, the Senate has created its own confirmation rules. In general, the approval process has been relatively rapid in the past–so there was no real argument that there was not enough time to give an Obama nominee appropriate consideration. There have been other appointments made in the last year of a President’s term—so an appointment by Obama would have been consistent with past precedent.
That said, since the Senate makes its rules, they have every right to do what they wish within the limits of the Constitution. This would certainly open the door to running out the clock on hearings or even refusing to hold them. However, the Republican refusal to hold a hearing was problematic. The text certainly indicates the Senate is to provide its advice and give or withhold its consent. The text does not specify and option for refusing to consider a nominee or blocking them endlessly. This, as some would argue, would seem to be simply refusing to do their job.
However, it could be claimed that the refusal to hold hearings for Obama’s nominee was withholding consent, and thus was within their power. Following the precedent set by the Republicans, the Democrats would be just as justified in delaying proceedings. After all, if the Senate has the right to block or delay nominations, then it has that right regardless of whether it is the Democrats or the Republicans engaged in obstruction.
My own view is that since the President has the right to nominate and the Senate has the role of advice and consent (or refusal of consent), the Senate is obligated to consider the nomination made by the president. Refusing to do so or running out the clock would be a failure of their specified duty. As such, the Democrats of the senate are obligated to do their job, as per the Constitution.
The obvious objection to my view is to point out that the Republicans did not do their job when Obama put forth his nominee, hence the Democrats have the right to do what they can to interfere with Trump’s nomination.
On the one hand, I do agree with this argument: if the Republicans had done their job, then there would not be an opening. As such, the Democrats would seem to have moral grounds for striking back against the Republicans for their misdeed. That said, the Republicans could contend that they did do their job: they refused consent by not even holding a hearing. That, of course, is not very satisfying.
On the other hand, I believe that principles should be maintained even (or perhaps especially) when others act in unprincipled ways. Two wrongs, as they say, do not make a right. As such, I accept that the Democrats of the senate should do their job—just as the Republicans should have done their job. That would be the principled thing to do. However, I am rather tempted by the view that the Democrats should fight the Republicans on this nomination on the grounds that it was clearly stolen from Obama and thus could be justified on the those grounds.
Trump recently signed an executive order described, perhaps incorrectly, as a “travel ban.” The gist of the order is that all refugees are banned from entering the United States for 120 days and immigrants from seven nations are banned for three months. These nations, which are predominantly Muslim, are Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia.
As should be expected from Trump’s administration, the order seemed to not have been checked by the Justice Department and was sprung on Homeland Security with little in the way of guidance. The predictable result was confusion in the real world and bragging in the Trump world. As should also be expected in almost anything involving Trump, a flurry of lawsuits has swept the land. Here in Tallahassee, foreign students from the impacted countries have been encouraged to not leave the country—for they might not be able to return. While some see the order as a disaster, there are those that argue in its favor. These arguments are certainly worth considering.
One argument in favor of the order is the democracy argument. If voting for a candidate indicates general support of that person’s positions and proposals, the fact that Trump ran on the Muslim ban and won would indicate that the people support this order. As such, Trump is right to have signed the order: he is making good on what he promised and acting in accord with majority rule.
One response to this, laying aside Trump’s lie to the contrary, is that he lost the popular vote by a large margin. Assuming that voting indicates general support, then the majority did not want the Muslim ban that Trump proposed and hence his executive order does not reflect the will of the people.
It can be countered that while Trump does not have majority support, he obviously won the election and thus has the legal right to issue the executive order while lacking a popular mandate or even majority support. This is obviously true; although the legality of the order has been questioned. What is rather more interesting is whether the ban can be rationally and morally justified.
In defending the executive order, Trump used the examples of 9/11, the San Bernardino attack and the Orlando murders. While an argument by example is a standard inductive argument, a strong one requires that the examples fit what they are supposed to support. The fundamental problem with these examples is that those engaged in the attacks came from countries not covered by the ban. As such, Trump is defending his ban on specific countries by using examples of attacks by people from countries that are not being banned, which is not only bad logic but rather odd. While this argument by example approach fails, defenders can avail themselves of a utilitarian argument.
The gist of this argument is that the restrictions on entry into the United States will create more good than bad. In a utilitarian argument, the usual approach is to weigh the harms and benefits to those impacted. If the harms outweigh the benefits, then the order would be morally wrong. If the opposite holds, then it would be morally acceptable.
One matter of concern is in regards to refugees. Despite fictional narratives to the contrary, refugees are already subject to “extreme vetting” and the probability of a terrorist entering the country thus way is extremely low because of the review process and the time involved. For terrorists, sneaking in as a refugee is thus a very poor option. This is not to say the system is flawless, but expecting a perfect system would be unreasonable and there is always a non-zero chance that someone will slip through.
Balanced against this is the potential harm to refugees who will be forced to remain in danger or to dwell outside of the state system. The very real and likely risk to refugees would seem to outweigh the incredibly slight possibility of harm to Americans. As such, the ban would be morally wrong.
Another area of concern is non-refugee terrorists slipping into the United States. As noted above, no terrorist from the banned countries has been involved on an attack on American soil. Instead, the terrorists have come from countries, like Saudi Arabia, that are not subject to the ban. The ban has been creating significant harms to people from these countries who had the legal right to be here and who have been subject to evaluation, such as green card holders. As noted above, there are students here in Tallahassee who cannot leave the United States without being unable to return, despite presenting no real risk. As such, the ban harms people while offering almost zero increase in safety, which makes it morally unacceptable.
An alternative approach is to engage in moral nationalism and only consider the harms and benefits to Americans. This, for the lack of a better name, could be called America First Utilitarianism. On the positive side, the ban provides Americans with an increase in security that is marginally more than zero. On the minus side, the opportunities and benefits to Americans will be lost by banning such people. There is also the moral harm to Americans in refusing aid to those in need (this should be especially harmful to Christians. There are also the propaganda gains for terrorist groups. This executive order plays into the terrorist narrative that it is the West against Islam rather than civilization against terrorism. This can grant these terrorists the gift of vindication and boost their recruiting efforts, to the detriment of Americans. This narrative can also damage the relationship between the United States and Muslim allies, which will make America less safe. It is thus no shock that people who understand national security have consistently condemned this order as making America less safe. While Trump seems to believe that his brain is the only adviser he needs, I will defer to the experts in the field of national security on this matter.
A rather odd fact about this narrative is that many who push it are inconsistent in their fiction: they do not seem to regard, for example, the predominantly Muslim nations of Saudi Arabia and Turkey as terrorist threats. But perhaps this is because of the oil of Saudi Arabia and the strategic value of Turkey.
As a final argument, it can be contended that the narrative and executive order benefit Trump and some other politicians. As such, if they matter more than everyone else, then the order is a good thing. However, if the rest of us matter, then the executive order is morally wrong because it creates far more harm than good.
During a discussion of Trump’s untruths, a friend of mine expressed the view that all politicians are the same in that they all lie. While it is true that politicians do lie (as does everyone else), there are degrees of dishonesty. To fail to distinguish between these degrees is rather like saying that all criminals commit crimes and that they (and their crimes) are all the same. While there have been other speakers of untruth like Trump, he seems to be unique among the presidents.
While the Bush administration engaged in a campaign of falsehoods to sell the Iraq war, Trump started his presidency by making false claims about the attendance at his inauguration. In what would be regarded as a pathological level of dysfunctionality in a normal person, Trump also made untrue claims about the weather—something that everyone present could observe and something that is an objective feature of reality. Politicians lying to advance an agenda is normal, albeit immoral, political behavior. Lying about crowd size and weather in the face of objective evidence is something new and terrifying.
It could be countered that Trump is not actually lying. After all, lying is different from making an untrue claim. For a claim to be a lie, person must believe the claim they are making is untrue and make that claim with the intention that people will believe it. While there are some benign lies, lies also tend to have a malicious intent behind them. As such, there are various ways Trump could be saying these untrue things without lying. One possibility, which is scarier than his being a liar, is that he believes these untrue things and is thus divorced from basic reality. In other people, this would be regarded as a mental illness. In many other jobs, the inability to recognize what is real and what is not would make a person unfit (readers should feel free to think snarky thoughts about philosophers at this point). Another possibility is that Trump is still operating as an entertainer: he is saying untrue things with a benign purpose, to amuse and entertain the crowd. If so, he is playing the role of the nation’s buffoon, telling outrageous tales in the hopes of a laugh. While there are other alternatives, the main explanations seem to be these three: he is a liar, he is mentally ill, or he is a buffoon. I am, of course, not claiming that any of these are true—these are mere hypothesis presented as a matter of academic speculation. I will leave the analyses to experts in each area.
Whatever the explanation, it is evident that Trump is relentless in his untruths. He and his minions have also engaged in a sustained attack on truth, even going so far as to create the concept of “alternative facts.” While it is tempting to dismiss the lot of them as con artists or victims trapped in the shadows of madness, the fact is that Trump is the president and his people have great influence now. As such, it is impossible to ignore them. However, this does not entail that people need to believe them.
In my critical thinking class, I do a section on assessing claims and credibility. The basic idea is that a claim is assessed in terms of the claim’s content as well as the source of the claim. Assessing a claim’s content involves running it against one’s own observations and checking it against one’s background information. While these checks are fallible, they do generate an assessment of initial plausibility for the claim. Obviously, the more a person knows and the better they are at being critical of their own observations, the better will be their assessments. To use an example, people who were present at the inauguration can check Trump’s untruth against their own observations (as well as recordings of the event) and determine that Trump’s untruth was just that.
Assessing the source of a claim is also an important part of the process, which leads to the question of whether Trump should be considered a credible source or not. One factor in assessing credibility is whether the source is biased or not in regards to the claims being made. While being biased does not prove that a claim is false (this inference would be fallacious), a biased source is more likely to lie because of their bias. In regards to bias, Trump is nothing new: all politicians are biased sources when making claims about their policies and plans. As such, Trump’s claims about matters in which he is biased should be regarded with skepticism. Just like claims from any biased source.
When Trump makes claims about areas that fall under fields of expertise, assessing his credibility is obviously a matter of considering his expertise in the area. This would involve considering the usual factors such as his education, his experience, his accomplishments, his reputation among experts, and his positions.
Trump has a degree from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, so he is as qualified as others who hold a comparable degree. However, this does not give him much in the way of expertise in other areas, but this could be offset by his experience in his business and being a reality TV show star. However, as he likes to brag, he has no real experience in political office. He also has no experience in other relevant areas, but perhaps he can learn on the job.
He has accomplished various things and certainly made the Trump name into a valuable commodity. However, these do not seem relevant to making claims about such things as immigration, abortion, combating terrorism and so on. But, perhaps he will be able to accomplish things here and thus increase his expertise. In terms of his reputation, he is widely regarded as a non-expert by actual experts in the relevant fields. In terms of positions, this is his first political office—as such, he is rather lacking here.
While previous presidents, like Obama, also started out with deficits in expertise, Trump is the first president to have no experience at all in holding any political office or serving in the military. As such, it is reasonable to regard him as a non-expert when it comes to his current job. While he can make use of the same business expertise that brought the world Trump University and Trump Steaks, government is not the same thing as business, despite this being a beloved talking point. As such, any claims Trump makes about matters outside his expertise (that is, most of his current job) should be regarded as lacking in credibility. At least until he can prove his competence and expertise.
What is most telling against Trump’s credibility is, of course, his relentless spewing of untrue claims. While it would be a fallacious ad hominem to infer that any specific claim he makes is untrue because Trump lies so regularly, his routine embrace of the untrue casts the shadow of doubt over everything he says. As such, any claim Trump makes should be regarded with skepticism and not accepted until adequate evidence is available. After all, a person who lies about something as easy to check as the weather is likely to lie about everything. This lack of credibility fundamentally undermines his moral authority as president: if a leader cannot be trusted to be honest about minor and basic facts, then they certainly cannot be trusted in regards to far more serious matters. And a person that cannot be trusted is not a person fit to be a leader.
A standard argument against teachers’ unions is built on the claim that they spend millions of dollars lobbying politicians to protect and advance their interests. This is bad, or so the reasoning goes, because the interests of the teachers’ unions are often (or even always) contrary to what is best for the students.
When pressed for examples of such interests, opponents of the unions allege that “collective bargaining agreements are written like celebrity contracts” and they point to egregious examples such as how Buffalo pays the bills when teachers have elective plastic surgery.
One approach to addressing this criticism is to accept that unions do sometimes negotiate contracts containing problematic provisions while contending that this is not a defect inherent to unions. That is, the problems lie with the problematic provisions rather than with the existence of teachers’ unions. To use the obvious analogy, corporations spend millions lobbying politicians to protect and advance their interests. This lobbying often results in legislation that is contrary to the interests of many other citizens; but this does not justify eliminating or weakening corporations. It also does not automatically justify eliminating lobbying. The problem, after all, is not inherent to corporations or lobbying, but is the result of harmful legislation. Likewise, when unions lobby for and get laws or agreements that prove harmful to others, the problem lies within the laws or agreements and not with unions or lobbying.
It could, of course, be argued that collective entities like unions and corporations are inherently damaging to the rest of society and that they should be eliminated or weakened. However, the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who hold this position. Also, this solution to the problem of teachers’ unions would need to be applied consistently, thus eliminating all collective entities that interact with the public. This would include all corporations and nonprofit organizations.
It could also be contended that the problem lies with lobbying—if lobbying was eliminated or severely restricted, then it would be a better world. Given that big-money lobbying often has a corrupting and corrosive effect, this does have considerable appeal. However, this is not a problem unique to teachers’ unions. As such, if the solution to the some of the woes attributed to teachers’ unions can be solved by eliminating or restricting their ability to lobby, then consistency would require extending the same policies to other collective bodies, such as corporations.
Another approach to the matter is to consider whether teachers’ unions are as harmful as their opponents claim. To provide a clear focus, I will consider the claim that teachers’ unions inflict collective bargaining agreements that are like “celebrity contracts.”
One popular example of such a “celebrity contract” provision is the above-mentioned coverage of plastic surgery provided to teachers by Buffalo. While the anti-union narrative is that the union negotiated so teachers could get breast implants and nose jobs, the real story is rather different. When the benefit was first offered, plastic surgery was used primarily for reconstruction after a disfiguring injury (such as that inflicted by being thrown through a car’s windshield). However, plastic surgery has changed since then—it is now an elective surgery for “improving” appearance. As such, it was not a case of the union negotiating a celebrity contract, but a case of a change in plastic surgery that has been exploited. Sorting out this matter did prove problematic, not because of unions but because of issues with the way contracts are handled. There is also the fact that one anecdote about plastic surgery benefits does not show that teachers’ unions in general are bad.
While plastic surgery might be part of a “celebrity contract”, a clear hallmark of such an agreement is the payment of large (even exorbitant) sums of money. As such, if unions are benefiting teachers at the expense of students, then large (even exorbitant) teacher salaries should be expected as well as sweet bonuses and perks. However, the typical salaries for teachers ranges from $43,491-48,880. While this is not a bad income relative to the national average, it compares unfavorably to the salaries of college educated workers in other professions. There are various myths about teacher pay that people use to argue that teachers are well (or even excessively) paid. However, these are just that, namely myths. As such, the idea that teachers’ unions are acting to the detriment of students by negotiating “celebrity contracts” for teachers is absurd in the face of the facts. That this is the case should be obvious to anyone who knows teachers—they do not live celebrity lifestyles and typically spend those “summer vacations” working a second job. My parents taught at public schools and I can assure readers that we did not live a celebrity lifestyle and they had to work second jobs over the summers to pay the bills. Speaking with people who are teachers today makes it clear that things have not changed since those days.
It could be argued that although teachers are not living the high life at the expense of students, unions still spend millions lobbying politicians and this money would be better spent on the students. On the face of it, this is a reasonable point: it would be better if that money could be spent on educating the children rather than fattening politicians. I am sure that other organizations, such as businesses, would prefer to use their lobbying money for more beneficial purposes, such as raises for employees. However, if they did not lobby, then they would be worse off. That is why they lobby. The same holds true for the teachers’ unions: if they did not lobby on behalf of teachers, then things would be worse off for the teachers and the students. While it would be wonderful if politicians would do the right thing for education (and business) because it is right and beneficial, that is not how politics works in the current system. As such, the fact that the teachers’ unions spend so much money lobbying is a problem with the politicians and not a problem with unions.
Considering the above discussion, while it is obvious and evident that while unions can do wrong, they are rather important for protecting teachers and education. As such, the efforts to eliminate or weaken unions are, at best, misguided.
One stock conservative talking point is teachers’ unions are a primary cause of educational woes. If only unions could be eliminated or significantly changed, then education would improve significantly. Those defending unions argue that education would be worse without unions and some contend the effort to eliminate teachers’ unions is part of a plan to transform public education into a for profit-system to benefit a few well-connected elites.
Since the debate is so politically charged, it is difficult to objectively address the issue of whether teachers’ unions harm education or not. However, I will endeavor to address the matter as objectively as possible and acknowledge that as an educator and union member I am biased. As such, my arguments should be reviewed with due caution. Now, to the matter at hand.
One standard criticism of teachers’ unions is that they harm students by protecting bad teachers from being fired. If unions could be changed or eliminated, then bad teachers could be replaced with good teachers and the students would benefit. One variation of this criticism is focused on the practice of last-in first-out: those hired last are the first fired, should firings occurs. The concern is that teachers are retained based on seniority rather than ability, which can result in bad teachers remaining employed and good teachers being fired. Retaining bad teachers and getting rid of good teachers would clearly be bad for the students.
On the face of it, this criticism does match a plausible narrative about unions: since they exist to protect dues paying members, the leadership is not overly concerned about the quality of these members. As such, they do their best to see to it that no one is fired and thus bad teachers remain in the system. These bad teachers, obviously enough, do a bad job at teaching students and this harm can impact them throughout their entire life. Being able to fire these bad teachers would open positions for good teachers. The good teachers would do a good job, thus benefiting the students. From this it follows that eliminating unions would be good for students.
In the case of the policy of firing the last hired, the claim is that eliminating unions would result in merit based hiring and firing, so that when there was a need to fire teachers, the bad teachers would be eliminated regardless of seniority. As such, being rid of unions would improve things for students.
One easy and obvious reply to these criticisms is that they are not criticisms of unions as such. Rather, they are criticisms of specific practices: retaining bad teachers and retaining based on seniority rather than quality. There is nothing essential to a teacher’s union that requires that it mandate the retention of bad teachers nor that it mandate a seniority based retention system. To use an obvious analogy, there are countless examples of bad policies followed by corporations that do not arise simply because a corporation is a corporation. Roughly put, the bad policies are bad not because they are policies of corporations but because they are bad policies. As such, they do not provide grounds for the elimination of corporations. Rather, the badness of a corporation’s policy provides grounds for changing that policy. The same applies to teachers’ unions: the badness of a union policy serves as grounds for changing that policy, not elimination unions.
It could, of course, be argued that by their very nature unions must protect bad teachers and that it is impossible for them to do otherwise. Likewise, it could be argued that corporations by their very nature must have various terrible policies that harm the public. If so, then solving these problems would require eliminating unions and corporations. However, this view seems implausible; although people’s ideologies do often compel them to see things this way.
A second reply to these criticisms involves considering the facts of the matter. If unions protect bad teachers, then highly unionized districts should retain more bad teachers than districts that are less unionized. But, if unions do not protect bad teachers, then districts should have comparable percentages of bad teachers (adjusting for other factors, of course).
As should not be surprising, the debate over this factual matter tends to involves anecdotes about bad teachers and intuitions about unions. While anecdotes can provide some illustrative examples, they do not provide a foundation for general conclusions. There is, after all, the classic fallacy of anecdotal evidence which involves doing just that. Intuitions can provide some guidance, but by their very nature they are feelings and thoughts one has prior to considering the evidence. As such, anecdotes and intuitions do not suffice to show whether unions are good or bad in regards to the retention of bad teachers.
Fortunately, Professor Eunice Han has conducted a study of the claim that unions overprotect bad teachers. While it runs contrary to the anecdotes about bad teachers that cannot be fired and intuitions about overprotective unions, the evidence shows that “highly unionized districts actually fire more bad teachers.” Somewhat ironically, districts with weak or no unions retain more lower quality teachers than highly unionized districts.
As Han notes, stronger unions reduced the attrition rate of teachers and increase teacher wages. Because of the higher salaries, there is greater incentive to remove bad teachers and good teachers have a greater incentive to remain. This nicely fits the conservative mantra that top talent can only be kept by paying top salaries, although this mantra is usually just applied to people like CEOs and not workers.
In contrast, weak unions (and the absence of unions) increase the attrition rate of teachers and decrease teacher wages. As such, good teachers will tend to leave for areas with strong unions while bad teachers will often end up in areas with weaker unions or those that lack unions. The statistics show that unions have a positive impact on teacher quality and that the myths of the overprotective union and the irremovable bad teacher are just that, myths unsupported by facts. This also nicely matches the conservative mantra about compensation: lesser talent will settle for lower salaries.
It must be noted that since this issue is so ideologically charged, those who oppose unions will tend to regard the study as biased and might offer “alternative facts” of their own on the grounds that what they believe must be true. Likewise, those who favor unions can be accused of accepting “facts” that match their views. This is, of course, a much larger problem than the debate over unions: if there is not a shared set of facts and methods, then no rational discussion is possible. Only the howling of ideological stances driven by desire for profit and power.
Representative John Lewis, a man who was nearly killed fighting for civil rights, has claimed that Trump is not a legitimate president. While some dismiss this as mere sour grapes, it is certainly an interesting claim and one worth given some consideration.
The easy and obvious legal answer is that Trump’s presidency is legitimate: despite taking a trouncing in the popular vote, Trump won the electoral college. As such, he is the legitimate president by the rules of the system. It does not matter that Trump him denounced the electoral college as “a disaster for democracy”, what matters is the rules of the game. Since the voters have given tacit acceptance of the system by participating and not changing it, the system is legitimate and thus Trump is the legitimate president from this legal standpoint. From a purely practical standpoint, this can be regarded as the only standpoint that matters. However, there are other notions of legitimacy that are distinct from the legal acquisition of power.
In a democratic system of government, one standard of legitimacy is that the majority of the citizens vote for the leader. This can, of course, be amended to a majority vote by the citizens who bother to vote—assuming that voters are not unjustly disenfranchised and that there is not significant voter fraud or election tampering. On this ground, Hillary Clinton is the legitimate president since she received the majority of the votes. This can be countered by arguing that the majority of the citizens, as noted above, accepted the existing electoral system and hence are committed to the results. This does create an interesting debate about whether having the consent of the majority justifies the acceptance of an electoral system that can elect a president who does not win a majority of the votes. As would be suspected, people tend to think this system is just fine when their candidate wins and complain when their candidate loses. But, this is not a principled view of the matter.
Another standard of legitimacy is that the election process is free of fraud and tampering. To the degree the integrity of the electoral system is in question, the legitimacy of the elected president is in doubt. Since the 1990s the Republican party has consistently claimed that voter fraud occurs and is such a threat that it must be countered by such measures as imposing voter ID requirements. With each election, the narrative grows. What is most striking is that although Trump won the electoral college, he and his team have argued that the integrity of the election was significantly compromised. Famously, Trump tweeted that millions had voted illegally. While the mainstream media could find no evidence of this, Trump’s team has claimed that they have evidence to support Trump’s accusation.
While it seems sensible to dismiss Trump’s claims as the deranged rantings of a delicate man whose fragile ego was wounded by Hillary crushing him in the popular vote, the fact that he is now president would seem to require that his claims be taken seriously. Otherwise, it must be inferred that he is a pathological liar with no credibility who has slandered those running the election and American voters and is thus unworthy of the respect of the American people. Alternatively, his claim must be taken seriously: millions of people voted illegally in the presidential election. This entails that the election’s integrity was grossly violated and hence illegitimate. Thus, by Trump’s own claims about the election, he is not the legitimate president and the election would need to be redone with proper safeguards to keep those millions from voting illegally. So, Trump would seem to be in a dilemma: either he is lying about the election and thus unfit or he is telling the truth and is not a legitimately elected president. Either way undermines him.
It could be countered that while the Republicans allege voter fraud and that Trump claimed millions voted illegally, the election was legitimate because the fraud and illegal voting was all for Hillary and she lost. That is, the electoral system’s integrity has been violated but it did not matter because Trump won. On the one hand, this does have some appeal. To use an analogy, think of a Tour de France in which the officials allow bikers to get away with doping, but the winner is drug free. In that case, the race would be a mess, but the winner would still be legitimate—all the cheating was done by others and they won despite the cheating. On the other hand, there is the obvious concern that if such widespread fraud and illegal voting occurred, then it might well have resulted in Trump’s electoral college victory. Going back to the Tour de France analogy, if the winner claimed that the competition was doping but they were clean and still won, despite the testing system being broken, then there would be some serious doubts about their claim. After all, if the system is broken and they were competing against cheaters, then it is worth considering that their victory was the result of cheating. But, perhaps Trump has proof that all (or most) of the fraud and illegal voting was for Hillary. In this case, he should certainly have evidence showing how all this occurred and evidence sufficient to convict individual voters. As such, arrests and significant alterations to the election system should occur soon. Unless, of course, Trump and the Republicans are simply lying about voter fraud and millions of illegals voting. In which case, they need to stop using the specter of voter fraud to justify their attempts to restrict access to voting. They cannot have it both ways: either voter fraud is real and Trump is illegitimate because the system lacks integrity or the claim of significant voting fraud is a lie.
Discussions of the woes of public education inevitably turn to the subject of teachers’ unions. Some claim they are detrimental to public education, while others claim they are neutral or even beneficial. This is certainly a controversy worth addressing.
Before proceeding with the discussion, I am obligated to disclose that I am a union member. As such, my arguments should be read with proper scrutiny for the influence of unconscious biases on my part. While it might be suspected that I am blindly pro-union, I will endeavor to give an objective assessment of the arguments for and against teachers’ unions. In return, I ask the same of readers.
Objectively assessing teachers’ unions is certainly a daunting task. One reason for this is that the matter has become politically charged. For many conservatives, it is an article of faith that the main villains of education are the teachers’ unions. Since American politics is so bipolar, it is hardly surprising that liberals tend to favor (or at least tolerate) teachers’ unions. As with many political matters, a person’s stance on teachers’ unions often becomes part of their identity and this has many negative consequences in regards to objectively assessing unions. Ideological commitment is the enemy of rational assessment because it triggers a wide range of cognitive biases and motivates people to accept fallacious reasoning. As such, arguments and data tend to be accepted or rejected based on their correspondence to the ideology rather than their merits. While it is difficult to do so, these tendencies can be overcome—if one is willing to take the effort.
Another reason objective assessment is difficult is that there are entrenched and unfounded opinions about unions even in those who do not make their view of unions part of their political identity. People tend to believe what they hear repeated in the media and otherwise uncritically form opinions. Such unfounded and entrenched opinions can be hard to overcome with reason and evidence, but doing so is easier than getting a person to change an aspect of their political identity.
A third reason, one that helps explain the existence of unfounded opinions on the matter, is that there has been little in the way of rigorous studies of the impact of unions. As such, people tend to be stuck with mere anecdotal evidence and intuitive appeals. While these might turn out to be correct, they do not provide much of a foundation for making good decisions about unions.
In this essay (and the following ones) I will endeavor to objectively assess teachers’ unions in a way that overcomes my own political views and entrenched unfounded opinions. Naturally, I will try to do this with solid argumentation and good data rather than mere anecdotes and intuitions. While my main concern is with the impact of unions on education, I will briefly address two attacks on unions that do not directly relate to education.
One stock attack on unions is the argument based on the idea that it is wrong for workers to be required to join a union or pay dues to a union. In politics, this view is called “right to work.” Not surprisingly, it is generally opposed by unions and supported by businesses. Those who support it contend that it is good for business and employees. Those who oppose it point to data showing the negative impact of right to work laws. Since this is a contentious political issue, the various sides reject the data offered by the others because they are regarded as biased.
Being a philosopher, my main concern is with the ethics of compelling people to join a union or pay dues rather than with the legal issues. On the face of it, membership in a union should be voluntary as should paying fees to unions. Just as a person should be free to accept or reject a job or any service, the same should apply to unions. However, freedom (as some like to say) is not free: those who make the decision to not join the union or elect to not contribute to the costs of collective bargaining should be excluded from those benefits. As with any goods or services, a person who refuses to pay for them has no right to expect these goods or services. To use an analogy, if a group of homeowners are involved in a lawsuit and want to hire a lawyer, individual homeowners have every right to refuse to pay the lawyer’s fee. However, if they do not pay, they have no right to be free riders. To use another analogy, if a business does not want to join a chamber of commerce, it should be free to not join. However, the business has no right to claim the benefits offered by the chamber of commerce.
In case anyone wonders, I voluntarily joined the union on the moral grounds that I did not want to be a free rider. I knew I would benefit from the union, hence I am obligated to contribute to the costs of getting those services.
If unions are compelled to represent non-members, then the non-members would be obligated to contribute to the cost of this representation and it would be right to compel them to do so. Going back to the lawyer analogy, if the lawyer is compelled to represent all the homeowners, then they are all obligated to pay their share. Otherwise they are engaged in theft, plain and simple. The same holds for the chamber of commerce analogy: if a chamber of commerce is compelled to provide services to all business in the area, then those businesses are obligated to pay if they avail themselves of these benefits.
A second stock argument against teachers’ unions is based on the fact that they do not represent the views of all their members on various social and political issues. While this is a matter of concern, it is not unique to teachers’ unions or unions in general. All groups, ranging from clubs to political parties to nations face this problem. To use a specific example, the state legislature of any American state does not represent the views of all the members of the state. Since people have different and often conflicting views, it is nearly impossible for the representatives of a large group to represent the views of all the members. For example, some union members might favor allowing computer programing to count as a math class while others oppose it. Obviously, the class cannot be a math class and not a math class, so a union stance on the matter will fail to represent all views. As such, being unable to represent every view is not a special problem for teachers’ unions, it is a feature of groups made of people who do not agree about everything.
If the teachers’ union has a democratic process for taking positions on issues, be it direct democracy or electing representatives, then the union would represent the views of the members in the same way any democratic or representative system does. That is, imperfectly and with compromises. As such, the fact that unions do not represent the views of all members is not a special problem for teachers’ unions.
In the following essays I will focus on the claim that teachers unions are bad for education in general and students in particular.
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.
In my prior essay on charter schools, I considered the quality argument. The idea is that charter schools provide a higher quality alternative to public schools and should receive public money so that poorer families can afford to choose them. The primary problem with this argument is that it seems to make more sense to use public money to improve public schools—as opposed to siphoning money from them. I now turn to another aspect of choice, that of ideology (broadly construed).
While parents want to be able to choose a quality school for their children, some parents are also interested in having ideological alternatives to public schools. This desire forms the basis for the ideological choice argument for charter schools. While public schools are supposed to be as ideologically neutral as possible, some see public schools as ideologically problematic in two broad ways.
One way is that the public schools provide content and experiences that conflict with the ideology of some parents, most commonly with religious values. For example, public schools often teach evolution in science classes and this runs contrary to some theological views about the age of the earth and how species arise. As another example, some public schools allow students to use bathrooms and locker rooms based on their gender identity, which runs contrary to the values of some parents. As a third example, some schools teach history (such as that of slavery) in ways that run afoul of the ideology of parents. As a final example, some schools include climate change in their science courses, which might be rejected by some parents on political grounds.
A second way is that public schools fail to provide ideological content and experiences that parents want them to provide, often based on their religious views. For example, a public school might not provide Christian prayers in the classroom. As another example, a public school might not offer religious content in the science classes (such as creationism). As a final example, a public school might not offer abstinence only sex education, which can conflict with the values of some parents.
Charter schools, the argument goes, can offer parents an ideological alternative to public schools, thus giving them more choices in regards to the education of their children. Ideological charter schools can avoid offering content and experiences that parents do not want for their children while offering the content and experiences they want. For example, a private charter school could teach creationism and have facilities that conform to traditional gender identities.
It might be argued that parents already have such a choice: they can send their children to existing private schools. But, as noted in my first essay, many parents cannot afford to pay for such private schools. Since charter schools receive public money, parents who cannot afford to send their children to private ideological schools can send them to ideological charter schools, thus allowing them to exercise their right to choose. As an alternative to charter schools, some places have school voucher systems which allow students to attend private (often religious) schools using public money. The appeal of this approach is that it allows those who are less well-off to enjoy the same freedom of choice as the well off. After all, it seems unfair that the poor should be denied this freedom simply because they are poor. That said, there are some problems with ideological charter schools.
One concern about ideological charter schools is that that they would involve the funding of specific ideologies with public money. For example, public money going to a religious charter school would be a case of public funding of that religion, which is problematic in many ways in the United States. Those who favor ideological charter schools tend to do so because they are thinking of their own ideology. However, it is important to consider that allowing such charter schools opens the door to ideologies other than one’s own. For example, conservative Christian proponents of religious charter schools are no doubt thinking of public money going to Christian schools and are not considering that public money might also flow to Islamic charter schools or charter transgender training academies. Or perhaps they have already thought about how to ensure the money flows in accord with their ideology.
Another concern is that funding ideological charter schools with public money would be denying others their choice—there are many taxpayers who do not want their money going to fund ideologies they do not accept. For example, people who do not belong to a religious sect would most likely not want to involuntarily support that sect.
What might seem to be an obvious counter is that there are people who do not want their money going to public schools because of their ideological views. So, if it is accepted that public money can go to public schools, it should also be allowed to flow into ideological charter schools.
The reply to this is that public schools are controlled by the public, typically through elected officials. As such, people do have a choice in regards to the content and experiences offered by public schools. While people will not always get what they want, they do have a role in the democratic process. Public money is thus being spent in accord with what the public wants—as determined by this process. In contrast, the public does not have comparable choice when it comes to ideological charter schools—they are, by their very nature, outside of the public education system. This is not to say that there should not be such ideological schools, just that they should be in the realm of private choice rather than public funding.
To use a road analogy, imagine that Billy believes that it is offensive in the eyes of God for men and women to drive on the same roads and he does not want his children to see such blasphemy. Billy has every right to stay off the public roads and every right to start his own private road system on his property. However, he does not have the right to expect public road money to be diverted to his private road system so that he can exercise his choice.
Billy could, however, argue that as a citizen he is entitled to his share of the public road money. Since he is not using the public roads, the state should send him that share so that he might fund his private roads. He could get others to join him and pool these funds, thus creating his ideological charter roads. If confronted by the objection that the public should not fund his ideology, Billy could counter by arguing that road choice should not be a luxury that must be purchased. Rather, it is an entitlement that the state is obligated to provide.
This points to a key part of the matter about public funding for things like public roads and public education: are citizens entitled to access to the public systems or are they entitled to the monetary value of that access, which they should be free to use elsewhere? My intuition is that citizens are entitled to access to the public system rather than to a cash payout from the state. Citizens can elect to forgo such access, but this does not entitle them to a check from the state. As a citizen, I have the right to use the public roads and send any children I might have to the public schools. However, I am not entitled to public money to fund roads or schools that match my ideology just because I do not like the public system. As a citizen, I have the right to try to change the public systems—that is how democratic public systems are supposed to work. As such, while the ideological choice argument is appealing, it does not seem compelling.