A Philosopher's Blog

College & Critical Thinking

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on May 29, 2013
Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With the ever increasing cost of college education there is ever more reason to consider whether or not college is worth it. While much of this assessment can be in terms of income, there is also the academic question  of whether or not students actually benefit intellectually from college.

The 2011 study Academically Adrift showed that a significant percentage of students received little or no benefit from college, which is obviously a matter of considerable concern. Not surprisingly, there have been additional studies aimed at assessing this matter. Of special concern to me is the claim that a new study shows that students do improve in critical thinking skills. While this study can be questioned, I will attest to the fact that the weight of evidence shows that American college students are generally weak at critical thinking. This is hardly shocking given that most people are weak at critical thinking.

My university, like so many others, has engaged in a concerted effort to enhance the critical thinking skills of students. However, there are reasonable concerns regarding the methodology used in such attempts. There is also the concern as to whether or not it is even possible, in practical terms, to significantly enhance the critical thinking skills of college students over the span of the two or four (or more) degree.  While I am something of an expert at critical thinking (I mean actual critical thinking, not the stuff that sprung up so people could profit from being “critical thinking” experts), my optimism in this matter is somewhat weak. This is because I have given due consideration to the practical problem of this matter and have been teaching this subject for over two decades.

As with any form of education, it is wise to begin by considering the general qualities of human beings. For example, if humans are naturally good, then teaching virtue would be easier. In the case at hand, the question would be whether or not humans (in general) are naturally good at critical thinking.

While Aristotle famously regarded humans as rational animals, he also noted that most people are not swayed by arguments or fine ideals. Rather, they are dominated by their emotions and must be ruled by pain. While I will not comment on ruling with pain, I will note that Aristotle’s view about human rationality has been borne out by experience. To fast forward to now, experts speak of the various cognitive biases and emotional factors that impede human rationality. This matches my own experience and I am confident that it matches that of others. To misquote Lincoln, some people are irrational all the time and all the people are irrational some of the time. As such, trying to transform people into competent  critical thinkers will generally be very difficult, perhaps as hard as making people virtuous.

In addition to the biological foundation, there is also the matter of preparation. For most students, their first exposure to a substantial course or even coverage of critical thinking occurs in college. It seems unlikely that students who have gone almost two decades without proper training in critical thinking will be significantly altered by college. One obvious solution, taken from Aristotle, is to begin proper training in critical thinking at an early age.

Another matter of serious concern is the fact that students are exposed to influences that discourage critical thinking and actually provide irrational influences. One example of this is the domain of politics. Political discourse tends to be, at best rhetoric, and typically involves the use of a wide range of fallacies such as the straw man, scare tactics and ad hominems of all varieties. For those who are ill-prepared in critical thinking, exposure to these influences can have a very detrimental effect and they can be led far away from reason. I would call for politicians to cease this behavior, but they seem devoted to the tools of irrationality. There is a certain irony in politicians who exploit and encourage poor reasoning being among those lamenting the weak critical thinking skills of students and endeavoring to blame colleges for the problems they themselves have helped create.

Another example of this is the domain of entertainment. As Plato argued in the Republic,  exposure to corrupting influences can corrupt. While the usual arguments about corruption from entertainment  focus on violence and sexuality, it is also important to consider the impact of certain amusements upon the reasoning skills of students.  Television, which has long been said to “rot the brain”, certainly seems to shovel forth fare that is hardly contributing to good reasoning. While I would not suggest censorship, I would encourage students to discriminate and steer clear of shows that seem likely to have a corrosive impact on reasoning. While it might be an overstatement to claim that entertainment can corrode reason, it does seem sensible to note that much of it contributes nothing positive to a person’s mind.

A third example of this is advertising. As with politics, advertising is the domain of persuasion. While good reasoning can persuade, it is (for most people) the weakest tool of persuasion. As such, advertisers flood us with ads employing what they regard as effective tools of persuasion. These typically involve various rhetorical devices and also the use of fallacies. Sadly, the bad logic of fallacies is generally far more persuasive than good reasoning. Students are generally exposed to significant amounts of advertising (they no doubt spend more time exposed to ads than critical thinking) and it makes sense that this exposure would impact them in detrimental ways, at least if they are not already equipped to properly assess such ads with critical thinking skills.

A final example is, of course, everyday life. Students will typically be exposed to significant amounts of poor reasoning and this will have a significant influence on them. Students will also learn what the politicians and advertisers know: the tools of irrational persuasion will serve them better in our society than the tools of reason.

Given these anti-critical thinking influences, it is something of a wonder that students develop any critical thinking skills.

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Grumbling About Advertising

Posted in Business, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on July 18, 2011
NYC: The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Image by wallyg via Flickr

As I’ve aged (like a fine wine, of course), I have found that I have started picking up some of the stereotypical behavior of old folks, such as running slower and napping more. I have also found that I find more things annoying. I used to infer that was because there are, in fact, more annoying things. However, I am willing to consider that I am suffering from the same syndrome that causes folks to yell “get off my lawn, you damn kids.”

One thing that has triggered my inner grump is advertising. Almost no one likes it, but I have found certain things especially annoying. One is something almost everyone finds aggravating: when commercials jack up the volume. I’ve noticed this most when watching stuff online, such as the Daily Show or the Colbert Report. I’ll barely be able to hear Jon Stewart’s witty liberalisms when suddenly I will be deafened by the roar of someone pitching Rogaine or some new smart phone. Another is that such inserted ads often seem to screw up the show’s playback. For example, an ad for a car might take over and run another Flash app, then miserably fail to hand control back to the episode I am trying to watch. This, as one might imagine, hardly inspires me to buy the product that has just annoyed me.

One type of ad is one that I find more odd than annoying. It is the ad within the ad. For example, I noticed that some previews (which are just ads) for games will require me to watch the preview for another game before I can watch that preview. In some cases, Game A’s preview will have an ad for game B, while B’s preview will have an ad for game B. Maybe the ad business is so bad that even advertisers have to sell ad space in their ads. I suspect this might lead to some sort of infinite regress of advertising in which for each ad n you must watch another ad, n+1, before you can see n.

My overall view is that I recognize that advertising is how I am able to get all kinds of stuff, like TV shows, for “free”: in return for being exposed to the ads, I get something I want. The advertisers sell stuff and the folks who sell advertising time/space get money. So, everyone sort of wins. Of course, the whole point of advertising is to make the consumer want to buy products. However, these sorts of advertising approaches/problems make me less likely to buy since they make me feel annoyance. So, advertisers, be less annoying.

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Blogonomics

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on August 11, 2010
Screenshot
Image via Wikipedia

The word on the street is that the traditional newspaper and news magazine are on the way out. Their successor is, of course, supposed to be internet news in general and blogs in particular. Since the business of news is the business of making money, there is the question of whether or not the rising blog system will be able to make money. I am tempted to manufacture a term like neblog (for “News Blog”) or IN (Internet News), but will resist that temptation and just misuse the term “blog” to cover all that sort of stuff.

Individual blogs are generally not moneymakers in any significant sense. Most folks make nothing (or even lose money on what they pay for hosting and internet access). A few folks do make it big with a somewhat ironic book deal and many more pull in a bit from various ads. However, the individual blogger is something of a  side note here. What matters, it can be argued, are the big players. To use an obvious analogy, while individual authors of books do matter, it is the book publishers that are the big players.

Blog sites that are part of traditional media companies can subsist on the profits garnered via the traditional media aspect of the business. As such, there is less need to worry about the blogs themselves generating income for the company. In fact, there is the concern that the blogs might actually be the cause of lost revenue. As one might argue, there seems to be little sense in subscribing to Newsweek when the content is available for free on the web.

When it comes to blog sites that lack a revenue stream from a supporting company, there seem to be two main options for making money. One is to charge for content. This runs into numerous problems. First, people are conditioned to expect free content. Getting over that conditioning is not impossible, but it remains a formidable hurdle. Second, the web is awash with high quality free content. Since sensible people will not be inclined to buy milk when they can get equally good milk for free, this is also a serious problem.

Companies might be able to deal with these problems by transitioning from the free model to the paid model, provided that enough companies make this transition. This, of course, is a classic scenario. The media companies all gain if all of them switch to this model. This is because people will have to pay for the top content and there will be little in the way of free alternatives of comparable quality. This means more revenue for these companies, which is the goal of business. However, companies that switch early run an obvious risk-if they charge for their content while other companies provide free content of equal quality, most people will go for the free content.

It might be wondered what good this will do the companies that stay with the free model. After all, getting more “customers” who pay nothing is hardly a win. However, it can be an advantage in two (or more) ways.

One is that the company with free content can make some money through advertising revenue. While selling internet advertising is not currently nearly as profitable as traditional media advertising, it is a source of revenue. More visitors means more income. As Google shows, making a few pennies here and there can add up when there are many heres and plenty of theres.  Of course, if there are not enough heres and theres, then such ad revenue will be rather meager. The challenge is to generate enough traffic so that those pennies are dropping in by the millions.

A second way a company can do well with free content is to use at as a way to beat the competition in the long term. Companies that start to charge will lose much of their audience to companies that do not and eventually many of these sites might simply fail. The companies that have the resources to endure the income drought of the free content phase can then switch to charging after their competition has been eliminated or severely weakened. So staying free for now and soaking up losses can be a way to win in the end, provided that the competition has less endurance.

Another way a company might be able to make money with free content is to find ways to mine their audience for data to sell. This can be done the obvious way by making use of tracking. It can also be done by examining the content of audience comments for useful information. While this is rather questionable, I suspect it can be a rather nice source of income.

As such, while a collective switch to the paid model would be good for all, being able to use the free model to bleed the competition might prove even better for some. Of course, this might end up in disaster-companies that keep the free model going in the hopes of making a profit in the end might find that they cannot survive this process.

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Apple’s App Store: Fake Reviews & Tyranny

Posted in Business, Ethics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on December 9, 2009
A cheesy iphone Ad made by Me.
Image by twenty5pics via Flickr

In a non-shocking development, it turns out that some of the 5 star reviews of apps for Apple’s iPhone are fakes. What is somewhat more interesting is the fact that Apple removed over 1,000 apps from the Chinese developer Molinker on the basis of evidence of such review tampering.

While buying advertising to push products in dubious ways is considered generally acceptable, such fake reviews are clearly morally wrong. First, they are deceptions that are intended to mislead people and thus inherit the morally wrongness of such deceit. Second, they are deceptions aimed at tricking people out of their money and hence can be seen as playing a role in a sort of theft of stars. Put roughly, the customer thinks s/he is buying a 5 star product when, in fact, s/he is buying something less. This is somewhat analogous to buying a product that promises certain features but, in fact, lacks them. Or, to use a better analogy, it is like an inferior hotel trying to pass itself off as a 5 star hotel.

It might be argued that such practices are all part of free enterprise. After all, one way to make a profits is via the manipulation of information and the inflation of value. Such tactics helped bring us the housing bubble and are still being used-no doubt to set up the next bubble of wealth. Since “profit is the measure of right”, this sort of thing is fine. The only mistake is, of course, getting caught.

Of course, the reply to this is easy enough: while such deceits can profit those engaged in them, they create far more general harm. As such, such deception is not acceptable.

This incident does show one positive aspect of the App Store. To be specific, since Apple currently controls the distribution of iPhone apps, they can deal with such misdeeds. Apple can also put the apps through some degree of quality testing and can (presumably) check for malicious code in the programs. Best of all, at least from Apple’s perspective, is the fact that Apple gets a slice of every penny spent on the App Store.

Apple is thus like Hobbe’s Sovereign: they rule over the land of Apps with an iron fist so as to keep order (and profits).

Of course, there are clear downsides to such a tyranny. First, developers have to deal with Apple’s somewhat mysterious and often onerous system of app approval. While this can keep some crap out, this also means that developers have to deal with yet one more obstacle in getting their software out to the public. Second, it restricts the user’s choices and options. A user can have any app s/he wants, provided that it available on the app store. But, if a user wants to install an app that is not approved or even if s/he would rather not have to use the App Store, then s/he has two options: jailbreak the iPod/Phone or do without. There are apparently some rather good and useful apps out there that Apple deemed unworthy of its store (although they do allow things like a soft porn virtual girlfriend program).

While I do see the benefits of an Apple tyranny over the iPhone apps (especially for Apple), I think that the iPhone (and iPod Touch) should be able to load any app the user wishes to install. After all, we have that freedom with our computers and there seems to be no reason (other than Apple’s profits) as to why the same liberty should not be brought to the iPhone. Naturally, users would be wise to be cautious about what they put on their iPhone but the freedom to do stupid things (that do not harm others) is an essential freedom.

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Tiger Woods & Role Models

Posted in Ethics, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on December 3, 2009
A view of Tiger Woods as he walks off the 8th ...

Image via Wikipedia

When it comes to professional athletes, there is considerable debate about whether they are role models or not. Some athletes explicitly deny this while others embrace being role models. In general, of course, they are happy to profit from their fame and to use their influence as role models to sell various products.

The Tiger Woods “episode” has once again raised questions about this issue. As everyone knows, he was involved in a crash and there are rumors flying that he has been having an affair. There is also speculation that his crash might have been the result of a conflict between he and his wife. Obviously, there are people devoted to raking up muck and even if the speculations are false, Woods is taking a rather severe PR hit over this incident.

Obviously, this PR hit is not desirable. But, should Woods be regarded as potentially failing as a role model by acting in this way?

On one hand a case can be made that he can be regarded as failing in his duties as a role model. After all, he has carefully crafted a public image with the aid of his corporate sponsors. This image is used to sell products and services and it rests on him maintaining this image of excellence in sports and as a person. Since he is well paid for this image, he has let down those who pay him, thus failing in his duty to them. Of course, if he was just involved in a random crash and had handled it better, then the damage would have been minor (or non-existent). However, the way the situation is being handled is allowing the suspicions to continue and even grow. Of course, this might be something beyond his control and hence it might be best to not hold him accountable for the rumor firestorm.

His fans also look up to him and admire him. While this is mostly for his skill, it is also for his carefully crafted image as a decent, like able person. As such, this incident can be seen as harming his fans and as a failure in his duty to them. After all, he benefited greatly from his positive public image and if he was willing to reap the rewards, then he must also be willing to reap the negative effects as well.

On the other hand, he can be regarded as not failing in his duties. One way to argue this is that he does not actually have any duty (beyond the basic moral duty we all have) to act in an exemplary way. After all, his job is to hit golf balls and sell products. While damage to his personal reputation might impact his image, he can still play golf (once he recovers from his injuries). As long as he continues to play well, he can still count on corporate support and commercial opportunities. Pf course, he might need to be re-branded.

Another way to argue this is that his personal life should be kept distinct from his professional life. After all, as long as his actions to not violate the rules of the sport or his commercial contracts, then what he does would not be a professional failing. As such, the fans can expect him to play golf by the rules but cannot expect him to be a role model.

A final point is that while it is tempting to hold professional athletes to high standards, the fact is that they are just people who play sports. As such, they should not be held to any higher expectations than anyone else and what they do should be kept in proper perspective.

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Health Care Rhetoric II

Posted in Medicine/Health, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 22, 2009

As CNN pointed out in a recent online article, Bill Clinton tried his hand at health care reform and failed in this attempt. Now that Obama is pushing his own health care reform, certain folks are hoping to make sure that he suffers the same fate as Bill Clinton.

One tactic that is being employed is the use of advertisements calculated to make people fear government based health care. One such ad claims that the health care plan will put a government bureaucrat between the patient and the doctor. The ad includes the nice visual touch of a bureaucratic geek menacing the doctor and patient in a dire nerdly manner. This nicely taps into the fear of some folks of geeks and, of course, bow ties.

It is, of course, reasonable to be concerned that the government will act in ways that would interfere with health care. As Thoreau argued, governments have a tendency to get in the way of things and sometimes it is best to have a government that governs less.

The approach of the ad does, however, have some serious flaws. The first is that it is unsupported rhetoric (hyperbole), scare tactics and most likely a straw man attack. After all, no plan has been formalized and hence the ad is attacking a plan that does not even exist yet.

One concern about the ad is that it presumably is intended to imply that the current system does not put a bureaucrat between the patient and the doctor. This is hardly the case. Insurance companies are bureaucratic entities and they obviously decide what will and will not be covered. This clearly impacts the sort of care that a patient is able to receive. For example, when I had my quadriceps tendon repair, I was informed that my insurance (Blue Cross/Blue Shield) stopped covering adjustable leg braces shortly before I had my surgery. So, I had two choices: I could do without something essential to my treatment and recovery or I could pay for it out of my own pocket. While no geek came to menace my doctor, a bureaucrat did try to come between me and my treatment. I was clearly told that the brace was essential to my recovery-it was not an optional thing. Yet, my insurance company had effectively told my doctor that it was optional and not worthy of coverage.

This is, of course, just one example. Unfortunately, a little research will easily turn up many cases of insurance companies decisions affecting treatment (or lack thereof).  Insurance companies decide what they will cover and how they will cover it. As such, to imply that the government presents a special menace in this area is hardly accurate. True, the government might stick in a government bureaucrat to screw things up, but this would merely be replacing an insurance company bureaucrat. Whether the government bureaucrats would do a worse job or not is something that is worth considering, of course.

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Craigslist Red Light District Going Dark (Maybe)

Posted in Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 13, 2009

Craigslist has yielded to pressure from a multistate attorney general task force and is supposed to be cleaning up its “red light district.” This part of Craigslist was previously titled “erotic services” and was well known as a place where sexual services could be purchased. Naturally, those posting services had to be somewhat circumspect and generally used abbreviations (“bj” for “blow job”, for example) and some other “commodity” in place of money (“skittles” instead of dollars, for example). So, a prostitute might list that she will provide a bj for 50 skittles. Of course, this did not really fool anyone-it merely allowed people to willingly turn a blind eye towards what was really going on. The same sort of thing is done when people advertise many “escort” and “massage” services.

So, how is Craigslist going to clean up what might be called the best little whorehouse on the internet? Step one of the plan is to replace “erotic services” with the “adult services.” Of course, “adult” seems almost worse than “erotic.” After all, the euphemism for a pornographic movie is “adult film“-which can be bought in an adult bookstore. Obviously, changing the name does not really change the reality. So, on to the more robust steps.

Advertisements posted in the “adult services” section must be from legal adult service providers. Naturally, these never have any connection to selling sexual services, so everything will be fine. Of course, this does help cover Craiglists’ butt legally.  Most importantly, each ad is also supposed to undergo a manual review, presumably making sure that no one is trading “bjs” for “skittles.” Each ad will also cost $10, thus detering whores and gigolos who can’t scrape together ten skittles.

While it could be argued that the folks at craigslist are not responsible for what the people who post ads really offer (like sex for money), they certainly seem to have an obligation to keep their listings clear of services that are clearly illegal. After all, knowingly helping to enable criminal activity certainly seems something that would also be illegal. Since many of the ads in Craigslist were rather blatant, they cannot use the defense of plausible ignorance of what was being offered.

There is also the moral issue, which is distinct from the legal issue. On one hand, prostitution is often regarded as immoral. Some argue this point on religious grounds or because they have a general opposition to sex. Other people argue that it is immoral because it is oppressive, harmful and degrading. Assuming that prostitution is immoral, then it would be wrong of the folks at Craigslist to knowingly assist people in such immoral activities. While they might not know the content of specific ads, they certainly do know the sort of stuff that was posted. As such, they would be tainted a bit with the immorality of these activities.

On the other hand, a free market ethics would endorse people selling whatever it is they wish to sell to customers who wish to purchase it. So, if we let the market decide, then prostitution would be acceptable.  Of course, such unlimited free market approaches would be a path towards madness and evil, so we would probably want to limit it a bit. For example, perhaps prostitution would be acceptable if the prostitutes are not coerced and are renting out their bodies of their own free will. In any case, the free market seems to have a significant demand for sexual services.

One last question is a practical one: will the changes work? Assuming that the folks at Craigslist do what they say they will do, then the answer would be “yes, mostly.” The manual screenings will catch any obvious attempts to sell sex illegally and probably many that are not so obvious. Of course, it would be unreasonable to expect Craigslist’s system to work perfectly. It is also unreasonable to think that this will have a significant, lasting impact on prostitution. While Craigslist did make it easier, I am confident that prostitutes and customers will find other ways to hook up. In fact, I would not be surprised if some clever person came up with a new listing service (“skittleslist” perhaps?) to provide a new place to hang that red light.

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Are Newspapers Doomed?

Posted in Business, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 7, 2009
A picture from the top of the Geoman Press at ...
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When I was a kid, my family got the Bangor Daily News every morning. I’d start with the comics and read most of the paper-especially the stories relating to politics and science. When I go back home to Maine to visit, I still read the Bangor Daily and the Portland Press Herald. Although I now live in Tallahassee, I’ve only read the Tallahasse Democrat a few times and do not subscribe. Given that many newspapers are in dire straits and experts are talking about the death of print, I am clearly not alone.

So, why are some newspapers doing so poorly?

In some cases, the answers have nothing to do with newspapers but with poor business choices and management. For example, a newspaper might have failed to keep up with the times or not done a very good job selling advertising. While these are obviously problems, they are not specific to newspapers.

One of the sweeping reasons put forth is the internet. This relatively new media impacts the newspaper in many ways and is perhaps the most serious threat to newspapers (although TV has long been nibbling away at them-especially 24 hour cable TV).

First, running a print newspaper is fairly expensive: the paper has to be printed, reporters need to be paid, the papers have to be distributed and so on. In contrast, delivering information via the web can be much cheaper and people are willing to provide content for free (although much is of dubious quality).

Second, there is the speed of distribution. When I was a kid, you got your local newspaper in the morning. If you wanted a national newspaper, you would have to wait because it moved at the speed of delivery. Today, the web provides instant access. As such, this advantage of the local newspaper is long gone.

Third, the existence of internet based advertising and classified ads (such as craigslist) has cut into newspaper revenue, making it harder for them to survive.

Fourth, there is the fact that the web provides a much richer and more interactive experience. You can see videos, conduct searches, follow links and so on. A static newspaper cannot compete very well with that.

Fifth, people’s habits have changed. When I was a kid, many people would linger over the newspaper while eating breakfast or read it while commuting. Today, people live a more rapid lifestyle and the newspaper is perhaps just a bit too slow for that. Also, many folks carry around smart phones or laptops, so they have no need to also carry a newspaper.

A fairly small reason is that as people become more inclined to look green, they might be less inclined to buy newspapers. They are, after all, made from dead trees.

These factors and others have caused some people to predict the end of newspapers and this does have some plausibility. After all, if people can get all their news and such instantly via their smart phones and computers, there would seem to be little reason to buy a newspaper.

Of course, there are some reasons why newspapers will endure for a while. One is habit and tradition. People around my age and older grew up with newspapers and may well still like them. Of course, as we die off, the digital generation will lack that habit and tradition.

A second reason is that a newspaper is cheap and disposable-you can just pick one up, read it and then toss it (hopefully into a recycling bin). So, you can take a newspaper places were you would not want to break out a laptop of smartphone. Of course, we will probably see super cheap descendants of the Kindle that will eliminate this advantage.

A third reason is that newspapers are actually pretty good technology: they do not need batteries, they have high resolution, they do not crash, and they are easy to hold and read. As a comparison, try reading a newspaper on the toilet and then try the same with a laptop. Of course, devices like Amazon‘s Kindle are trying to break that advantage. Also, newspapers have uses after you are finished reading them: wrapping things, stuffing into wet shoes, and serving as packing filler. Of course, that last bit is really reaching.

So, will newspapers die eventually? My guess is yes-once there is a reader machine that is cheap, tough and easy to read on the toilet. That will mark the end of the printed newspaper-unless, of course, some other factor keeps it going.

However, the newspaper will not really die-rather, it will change mediums. Instead of having a paper newspaper, we’ll have the same sort of content only in digital format. There will still be a need for professional writing, professional journalism, and so on in the future.

There will almost certainly be a very rough transition as old newspapers fail to shift mediums and fall behind the times. Also, people will probably be quite enamored of the free content of blogs and amateur reporting for a while. However, people will probably realize that the old saying is true: you get what you pay for.

So, the newsfolks who are able to create and adapt to the new model of newspapers will do quite well eventually. The Kindle might be an excellent model of how this will work: people will buy content to download wirelessly.  Or it might flop. That is the thing about the future-you never know what it will bring until it drops it on your head.

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Promoting Marriage with Tax Dollars

Posted in Politics, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on February 21, 2009

Since 2005 the government has been funding programs to encourage people to marry. The original budget of the program was $750 million dollars. One aspect of this program is an advertising campaign intended to promote the idea of marriage. This operation has a budget of $1.25 million a year and is currently funded for four years. In light of the economic woes, it strikes some people as wasting money. Obviously, the folks who are getting the tax dollars dumped into their bank accounts to promote marriage do not consider it a waste, but they would be a rather biased group.

The two main motivations (aside from financial) for this promotion are that marriage rates are down and that it is alleged that the state has an interest in people getting married.

It is true that marriage rates have declined. In 1986 the marriage rate was 10 marriages per 1,000 people. Currently, the number is put at 7.1 per 1,000 people. This is a slight decline, but is still a decline. Whether this is something the state should do something about is, of course, another matter.

As noted above, spending even a mere $5 million on an advertising campaign for marriage seems wasteful in these tough economic times. While it might seem like a drop in the sea of federal spending, that money would go a long way if properly spent. As such, it can be seen as a bad idea.

There is also the question of whether the state has any business promoting marriage. On one hand, marriage is supposed to have various benefits for people and it can be argued that the state should encourage people to do what is good for them. After all, the state does try to motivate people to be healthy. Of course, that merely raises the question of whether the state should be doing that sort of thing as well. On the other hand, marriage would seem to be a personal choice and one that the state should not be pushing.

Two related concerns are whether there is any need to advertise the benefits of marriage and whether such advertising will work or not. People are, presumably, aware that marriage is an option and most people are probably vaguely aware of the alleged benefits of marriage. As such, it is not clear that the advertising is needed. Further, it is not clear that such advertising will deliver an adequate return. Will people who would otherwise remain single chose to marry because of the advertising? This seems unlikely in most cases. After all, it seems unlikely that people are against marriage because they are simply unaware of the alleged benefits and that they would be more inclined to do so on the basis of a government ad. It would also be instructive to consider other governmental advertising campaigns and their level of success.

It can, however, be countered that advertising does work to sell products and that marriage should be no exception. Also, perhaps there are some people who will chose to marry either after a rational calculation of the benefits they learn about or because they are swayed by the advertising.  However, I suspect that the factors that are (allegedly) pushing down the marriage rate are considerably stronger than the power of government advertising. Ironically, there seems to be a huge demand for marriage among same sex couples. If the state is so concerned about boosting the marriage rate, then there seems to be an obvious solution.

The government can, of course, promote marriage by offering even more benefits to married couples such as tax incentives and perhaps some free stuff. Of course, that would seem to be unfair to people who chose to remain single.

As to why the state has an interest in marriage, the obvious answer is that it does not. This is because the state is a mere fiction. Specific people have an interest in marriage for various reasons and that is what the state’s alleged interest boils down to. Some people push marriage on religious and other normative grounds. Other people push it based on the alleged social and individual goods. Of course, if marriage is so good and valuable, then there would really be little need for tax payer money to be used to promote it.

My own view is that the state should make me an offer. I’ll start the process by asking for a better tax break, a tax refund, a mortgage credit, and a year of World of Warcraft. Naturally, my wife-to-be will have her own expectations.

Affairs, Ads and Ethics

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on January 16, 2009

While the quintessential Superbowl ad is about beer, the folks in charge of approving the advertising have started taking what might appear to be a moral stand. To be specific, they are refusing to accept advertising from  from Ashley Madison.

Ashley Madison is an online dating service for married people. As such, it is a service intended to facilitate adultery. On the face of it, this seems to be an immoral service. After all, it seems reasonable to regard adultery as an immoral activity and to knowingly aid another commit an immoral act is, intuitively, also an immoral action. Thus, it would seem that it is right for this service to be denied advertising time during the Superbowl. After all, selling advertising time to this service would be aiding in an immoral activity. Of course, the immorality of selling advertising to a company that helps people engage in immoral behavior would no doubt be a somewhat “small” immorality.

While it might be tempting to praise the advertising people for refusing such advertising, it seems unlikely they are primarily motivated by moral purity. If they were, the advertising they did accept would have a considerably different character.

One possible reason is that they are trying to avoid offending the growing number of female football fans. While women obviously do have affairs or are involved in affairs, women seem to be more inclined to condemn such activity. Hence, it makes sense to refuse to accept the Ashley Madison advertising so as to avoid offending an important and growing demographic.