A Philosopher's Blog

The University as a Money Funnel

Posted in Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on March 30, 2015

One serious problem with American higher education is that the cost of a four-year degree is higher than ever—even when adjusting for inflation. The causes of this increase are well known and well understood—there is no mystery about this. One contributing factor is that universities tend to spend considerable money on facilities that are not connected to education. Critics like to, for example, point out that some universities spend millions on luxurious fitness facilities. These sort of expenditures are ironic (and stupid) given that education funding has been consistently reduced across the United States. To use the obvious analogy, this would be like a family putting in a pool, spa, and exercise room when they do not have enough money to pay for their actual necessities.

What seems to be the major factor contributing to costs is the ever-expanding administrative class at universities. This expansion occurs in terms of both individual salaries and overall numbers. From 2000 to 2010 the median salary for the top public university administrators increased by 39%. The top administrators, the university presidents, enjoyed a 75% increase. In stark contrast, the salaries for full-time professors increased by almost 19%.

The money for these salary increases has to come from somewhere and an obvious source is students. My alma mater Ohio State University is leading the way in milking students to pay administrators. Between 2010 and 2012 Gordon Gee, the president of OSU, was paid almost $6 million. At the same time, OSU raised tuition and fees to a degree that resulted in student debt increasing 23% more than the national average.

While some might be tempted to attribute this salary bloating as the result of the usual alleged wastefulness and growth of the public sector, private colleges and universities topped their public counterparts. From 2000 to 2010 private schools saw salary increases of about 97% for their top administrators and their presidents enjoyed a 171% increase. Full time professors also partook of the increases—their salaries increased by 50%.

What is even more striking than the salary increases are the increase in the number of positions and their nature. From 1978 to 2014 administrative positions skyrocketed 369%. This time period also marked a major shift in the nature of faculty. The number of part-time faculty (the analogues of temp workers in the corporate world) increased by 286%. The use of adjuncts is justified on the grounds that doing so saves money. While adjunct salaries vary, the typical adjunct makes $20,000-25,000.

However, the money saved does not translate to a lower cost of education—rather, it “saves” money from going to faculty so that it can go to administrators. Since the average salary of a university president is $478,896 and the number of presidents making $1 million or more a year is increasing, it should be obvious what is helping to drive up the cost of college. Hint: it is not adjunct pay.

There was also a push to reduce (and eliminate) tenured positions which resulted in an increase in full time, non-tenure earning positions by 259%. Full time tenure and tenure-track positions increased by only 23%. Ohio State University provides an excellent (or awful) example of this A&A Strategy: the majority of those hired by OSU were Adjuncts and Administrators. To be specific, OSU hired 498 adjunct instructors and 670 administrators. 45 full-time, permanent faculty were hired.

Interestingly enough, the Republicans who run many state legislatures rail against wasteful spending, impose micromanagement and inflict draconian measures on state universities yet never seem to address the real causes of tuition increase and the problems in the education system. Someone more cynical than I might note that the university seems to no longer have education as its primary function. Rather, it is crafted to funnel money from the “customer” and the tax payer (in the form of federal student aid) to the top while minimizing pay for those who do the actual work.

Tenure has been a target in recent years because tenure provides faculty with protection against being fired without cause (tenured faculty can be fired—it is not a magic shield). This is regarded by some as a problem for a variety of reasons. One is that tenured faculty cannot be let go simply to replace them with vastly lower paid adjuncts. This, obviously enough, means less money flowing from students and the state to administrators. Another is that the protection provided by tenure allows a faculty member to be critical of what is happening to the university system of the United States without running a high risk of simply being let go as a trouble maker. As you might guess, I am a tenured full-professor. So, I can use my freedom of speech with rather less fear of being fired. I also enjoy the dubious protection afforded by the fact that people rarely take philosophers seriously.


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Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 19, 2014
Peter Singer's Animal Liberation, published in...

Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, published in 1975, became pivotal. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the challenges presented by the ever-growing human population is producing enough food to feed everyone. There is also the distribution challenge: being able to get the food to the people and ensuring that they can afford a good diet.

The population growth is also accompanied by an increase in prosperity—at least in some parts of the world. As people gain income, they tend to change their diet. One change that people commonly undertake is consuming more status foods, such as beef. As such, it seems almost certain that there will be an ever-growing population that wants to consume more beef. This creates something of a problem.

Beef is, of course, delicious. While I am well aware of the moral issues surrounding the consumption of meat, at the end of each semester I reward myself with a Publix roast beef sub—with everything. Like most Americans, I am rather fond of beef and my absolute favorite meal is veal parmesan. However, I have not had veal since my freshman year of college: thanks to Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation I learned the horrific price of veal and could not, in good conscience, eat it anymore. The argument is the stock utilitarian one: the enjoyment I would get from veal is vastly exceeded by the suffering of the animal. This makes the consumption of veal wrong.  Naturally, I have given similar consideration to beef.

In the case of American cattle, the moral argument I accept in regards to veal fails: in general, American beef growers treat their cattle reasonably well right up until the moment of slaughter. Obviously, there are still cases of cattle being mistreated and that does provide some ammunition for the suffering argument. If I knew that my roast beef sandwich included the remains of a cow that suffered, then I would have to accept that I should give up roast beef as well. I am completely open to that sort of argument.

But, suppose that it is assumed that beef will be created humanely and that the cattle will have a life as good (or better) than they would have in the wild. At least up until the end. This still leaves open some moral concerns about beef.

Sticking with the utilitarian focus, there are two main concerns here. The first is the cost in resources of producing beef relative to other foods. The second is the environmental cost of beef.

Creating 1,000 calories of beef requires 1,557 square feet of land (this includes the pasture and cropland required). In contrast, the same number of calories in chicken requires 44 square feet. For pork it is 57 square feet. Interestingly, dairy production of that number of calories requires only 94 square feet. As such, even if it is assumed that eating meat is morally fine, there is the concern that the land requirements for beef make it an impractical food. There is also the moral concern that land should be used more effectively, at least as long as there is not enough food for everyone.

One counter is that the reason chicken and pork requires less land is that these animals are infamously confined to very small areas. As such, they gain their efficiency by paying a moral price: the animals are treated worse. Obviously those who do not weigh the moral concerns about animals heavily (or at all) will not find this matter to be a problem and they could argue that if cattle were “factory farmed” more efficiently, then beef would cost vastly less.

In addition to the cost in land usage, cattle also need food and water. It takes 36,200 calories of feed and 434 gallons of water to produce 1,000 calories of beef. Not surprisingly, other animals are more efficient. The same calories in chicken requires 8,800 calories of feed and 38 gallons on water. From an efficiency standpoint, it would make more sense for humans to consume the feed crops (typically corn) directly rather than use them to produce animals. Adding in concerns about water, decreasing meat production would seem to be a good idea—at least if the goal is to efficiently feed people.

It can be countered that we will find more efficient ways to feed people—another food revolution to prevent the dire predictions of folks like Malthus from coming to pass. This is, of course, a possibility. However, the earth obviously does have limits—the question is whether these limits will be enough for our population.

It can also be countered that the increasing prosperity will reduce populations. So, while there will be more people eating meat, there will be less people. This is certainly possible: if the usual pattern of increased prosperity leading to smaller families comes to pass, then there might be a reduction in the human population. Provided that the “slack” is taken up elsewhere.

A final point of concern is the environmental impact of beef. There are the usual environmental issues associated with such agriculture, such as contamination of water. There is also the concern about methane and carbon dioxide production. A thousand calories of beef generates 9.6 kilograms of carbon dioxide, while a comparable amount of chicken generates 1.9 kilograms. Since methane and carbon dioxide are greenhouse gases, those who believe that these gases can influence the climate will find this to be of concern. Those who believe that these gases do not influence the climate will not be concerned about this, in the same manner that people who believe that smoking does not increase their risk of cancer will not be worried about smoking. Speaking of health risks, it is also claimed that beef presents various dangers, such as an increased chance of getting certain cancers.

Overall, if we cannot produce enough food for everyone while producing beef, we should reduce our beef production. While I am reluctant to give up my roast beef, I would do so if it meant that others could eat. But, of course, if it can be shown that beef production and consumption is morally fine and that it has no meaningful impact on people not having enough quality food, then beef would be just fine. Deliciously fine.


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Lessons from Ebola

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Science by Michael LaBossiere on October 24, 2014
English: Biosafety level 4 hazmat suit: resear...

English: Biosafety level 4 hazmat suit: researcher is working with the Ebola virus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While Ebola outbreaks are not new, the latest outbreak has provided some important lessons. These lessons are actually nothing new, but the outbreak does provide a focus for discussing them.

The first lesson is that most people are very bad at risk assessment. In the Ebola hot spots it is reasonable to be worried about catching Ebola. It is also reasonable to be concerned about the situation in general. However, many politicians, pundits and citizens in the United States are greatly overestimating the threat presented by Ebola in the United States. There are only a few cases of Ebola in the United States and the disease is, the experts claim, difficult to catch. As such, the chance that an American will catch Ebola in the United States is extremely low. It is also a fact Ebola outbreaks have been contained before in countries with far less medical resources than the United States. So, while it is prudent to prepare, the reaction to Ebola has greatly exceeded its actual threat in the United States. If the concern is with protecting Americans from disease and death, there are far more serious health threats that should be the primary focus of our concern and resources.

The threat of Ebola is overestimated for a variety of reasons. One is that people are rather susceptible to the fallacy of misleading vividness. This a fallacy in which a very small number of particularly dramatic events are taken to outweigh a significant amount of statistical evidence. This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because the mere fact that an event is particularly vivid or dramatic does not make the event more likely to occur, especially in the face of significant statistical evidence. Ebola is indeed scary, but the chance of infection in the United States is extremely low.

Another reason is that people are also susceptible to a variation on the spotlight fallacy. This variant involves inferring the probability that something will happen based on how often you hear about it, rather than based on how often it actually occurs. Ebola has infected the 24 hour news cycle and hearing about it so often creates the psychological impression that infection is likely.

As I have consistently argued, threats should be assessed realistically and the response should be proportional to the actual threat.

The second lesson is that the politicians, media and pundits will exploit scary things for their own advantages. The media folks know that scary stories and fear mongering get viewers, so they are exploiting Ebola to the detriment of the public. Ebola has been made into a political issue, so the politicians and pundits are trying to exploit it for political points. The Republicans are using it as part of their narrative that Obama is an incompetent president and thus are emphasizing the matter. Obama and the Democrats have to strike back in order to keep the Republicans from scoring points. As with the media, the politicians and pundits are exploiting Ebola for their own advantage at the expense of the public.

This willful misleading and exaggeration is clearly morally wrong on the grounds that it misleads the public and makes a rational and proportional response to the problem more difficult.

The third lesson is that people will propose extreme solutions without considering the consequences of those solutions. One example is the push to shutdown air travel between the United States and countries experiencing the Ebola outbreak. While this seems intuitively appealing, one main consequence would be that people would still come to the United States from those countries, only they would do so in more roundabout ways. This would make it much harder to track such people and would, ironically, put the United States at greater risk.

As always, solutions should be carefully considered in terms of their consequences, costs and other relevant factors.

The final lesson I will consider is that the situation shows that health is a public good and not just a private good. While most people get that defense and police are public goods, there is the view that health is a private good and something that should be left to the individual to handle. That is, the state should protect the citizen from terrorists and criminals, but she is on her own when it comes to disease and injury. However, as I have argued elsewhere at length, if the state is obligated to protect its citizens from death and harm, this should also apply to disease and injury. After all, disease will kill a person just as effectively as a terrorist’s bomb or a criminal’s bullet.

Interestingly, even many Republicans are pushing for a state response to Ebola. I suspect that one reason Ebola is especially frightening is that it is a disease that comes from outside the United States and was brought by a foreigner. This taps into fears that have been carefully and lovingly crafted during the war on terror and this helps explain why even anti-government people are pushing for government action.

But, if the state has a vital role to play in addressing Ebola, then it would seem to have a similar role to play in regards to other medical threats. While Ebola is scary and foreign, it is a medical threat and thus is like other medical threats. However, consistency is not a strong trait in most people, so some who cry for government action against the Ebola that scares them also cry out against the state playing a role in protecting Americans from things that kill vastly more Americans.

The public health concern also extends beyond borders—diseases do not recognize political boundaries. While there are excellent moral reasons for being concerned about the health of people in other countries, there are also purely pragmatic reasons. One is that in a well-connected world diseases can travel quickly all over the globe. So, an outbreak in Africa can spread to other countries. Another is that the global economy is impacted by outbreaks. So, an outbreak in one country can impact the economy of other countries. As such, there are purely selfish reasons to regard health as public good.

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Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 28, 2011
Flag of the People's Republic of China

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Since 2001 the United States has been almost pathologically obsessed with terrorism. Our security and intelligence (such as it is) has been focused on terrorism and we have launched two (or more, depending on how you count) wars in the name of fighting terrorism. Meanwhile, China has been growing in strength and influence.

While China does not seem particularly interested in having a cold-war style confrontation with the United States, they are in a position to become our most serious competitor in the world. While we have been happily buying their exports and accepting their money, we do not seem to have an effective and focused China strategy (unless it is secret). This, I submit, has been an error.

While I do not think that we should create a cold-war with the Chinese, we certainly need to change our focus. Instead of obsessing over a handful of poorly armed and poorly funded terrorists, we should focus on China. After all, China has over a billion people, a real military, nuclear weapons, billions of dollars and global influence. Focusing on terrorists seems a bit like worrying about a rat when there is a dragon nearby.

The Chinese strategy does not seem to be primarily military based (although they have been building their forces and capabilities) but instead primarily economic. Our strategy seems to be that we buy their stuff and accept their money. This hardly seems like a winning game plan. Our companies do, of course, try to sell the Chinese stuff. One thing that we have going for us is that Western goods are still looked at as being prestigious. However, China is changing.

One key change is that the Chinese “middle class” is emerging an expanding. This has the potential to change things in very significant ways for the United States. On the negative side, if China becomes more “middle class”, then it will be harder for American companies to find cheap labor to make products. This will mean that the companies will need to find a new source of cheap labor to exploit. Fortunately (or unfortunately), the world is not lacking in poverty and we might see Africa becoming a new source of cheap labor. Or, if the American economy continues to flounder, the United States might provide a viable cheap workforce. On the positive side, a  more “middle class” China (a middle class Middle Kingdom) can mean an even more lucrative market for American products (perhaps made in Africa). It could also lead to political changes in China that could improve relations with the United States. Then again, Chinese nationalism might result in a worsening of relationships. What might occur is a competition between the United States and China that recreates the competition between the European powers just prior to World War I (complete with a new round of imperialism in Africa, perhaps).

It is also well worth considering that people have been overestimating China and that political turmoil or some economic disaster will result in her downfall. We should, of course, be ready for that as well.

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A Cure for Tyrants

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 22, 2011
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

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The revolutions in the Middle East have served to draw attention to the fact that many people live under the power of dictators and tyrants. This is, of course, not true merely of the Middle East. Many of the people in Africa live in abject poverty while their “leaders” enjoy lives of excess. In most cases, these tyrants are backed by outside states and receive support in return for access to natural resources or for how well they serve strategic interests. In many cases, the United States has a hand in keeping these people in power. Given that we are supposed to be a democratic state committed to justice for all, this sort of behavior seems especially wicked. After all, given our professed values and revolutionary history, we should be crushing tyrants or, at the very least, not lending them support and comfort.

It might, of course, be argued that we are acting in a realistic manner. In the global game of politics and power, we cannot afford be to impeded by such things as ethics or principles. We need to play to win and this means being willing to support tyrants who rob their people and control them with the tanks, tear gas and torture implements we fund or provide. This does have a certain appeal and has been argued for by folks such as Glaucon and Hobbes. Of course, taking this approach does rob us of any claim to moral goodness and empties our talk of justice and rights.

It might also be argued that people get the government they deserve. If, for example, the dictator of Equatorial Guinea and his family loot the government, it is only because the people (many of whom live on $2 a day) allow him to do so. They could, one might argue, rise up and provide a cure for their tyrant. That they elect not to do so shows that they have consented to this rule, however tyrannical it might seem.

Of course, there is the fact that this dictator, like so many others, is backed by outside powers (like us). As such, the people are at a terrible disadvantage-they are up against someone who has far more resources as well as outside backing. Hence, their alleged consent is the “consent” that an unarmed person gives to the robber who has a gun pressed to their head-hardly consent at all.

There is also the argument that while tyrants are bad, they are (in a Hobbesian style argument)better than the alternatives. Better to have a single tyrant that maintains some degree of order than chaos or an even worse tyrant. Also, history seems to show that tyrants are often replaced by other tyrants-so why try to cure the problem of tyranny if the cure will not take? As such, the people should simply endure the tyranny to avoid something worse. Even if they try to rebel, the result will be death and destruction followed by a new tyrant.

At this point, some might point to Iraq: the United States removed a tyrant and poured billions into constructing something that is sort of nation like. Perhaps the United States or other countries could use that sort of cure: roll in, kill the tyrants and rebuild the nations.

While this has  certain imperial appeal, the practical fact is that we cannot afford to do this to every dictator. There is also the concern that even if we do roll out one dictator, we cannot be even reasonably confident that the results will be better for the people.

One rather extreme option would be to simply assassinate tyrants. This would be far more cost effective than a war and would, on Lockean grounds, be morally justified. Of course, there are the concerns that doing this would result in hostility towards the United States and that killing one tyrant would merely pave the way for another (or chaos). However, there is a certain appeal in ridding the world of the wicked and it is easy enough to kill anyone. After all, tyrants are just humans and a single well placed shot or knife will kill them easily enough.  If potential tyrants realized that the reward of their tyranny would be death, then they might be less inclined to become tyrants.

There would also seem to be a certain rough justice in making tyrants live in the sort of fear that they inflict on their own people. To steal a bit from Hobbes, if the people need to be kept in line by fear of the sovereign, it would seem to make equal sense that the sovereigns should be kept in check by fear as well. Just as a citizen can expect to be harmed when they cross the line, so too should a sovereign expect the same justice. As such, perhaps the proper cure for tyrants is death.

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Repeating the Cold War Mistake

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 9, 2010
Cold War Allegiances in Africa, 1980
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No, this is not about the Russian spies. Not even the hot one.

During the Cold War the United States was willing to support almost any government that was willing to claim it was on our side or at least was willing to claim it would oppose our enemies. We were not very picking during this time period and backed some rather corrupt and repressive governments. We were also quite willing to support non-governmental actors, such as the folks in Afghanistan.

While this sort of support did help us succeed in the  Cold War, we are now paying for these mistakes. To use two obvious examples, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can be rather directly tied back to what we did during the Cold War. In the case of Afghanistan, we backed the groups who were attacking the Soviets but we failed to do anything positive in the region. Now were are in the role of the Russians and trying to bring order to the land.

Now we are in yet another war, this one against terror. As in the Cold War, we are willing to support governments who say they will help us. While this is not a bad thing, we are quite willing to purchase the support of the rulers by tolerating corruption, repression and undemocratic behavior. The best current  examples of this are in Africa.

While it makes some sense to buy allies, the Cold War (and in particular Vietnam) should have taught us that supporting such “allies” can be a costly mistake. Also, there is the ethical concern: we speak of democracy, freedom and human rights, yet seem to be willing to look away when we think that “practical politics” demands that we do so. However, principles that are easily set aside for what seems convenient cannot be worth very much.

Since ethics gets little traction in politics, it makes sense to point out that supporting such governments does not support or expand democracy. Rather, it merely supports tyranny and corruption. Such support also seems to have a historical tendency to create more enemies for America rather than creating solid allies.

Of course, it can be argued that we need to deal with the corrupt and even evil rulers because our foes will be eager to do so. That is, it is better that the devil is on our payroll rather than on our enemies’. China, for example, is eager to do business with the rulers of Africa and they have no qualms about human rights, democracy or other such concerns. As such, if we are unwilling to look away while handing over guns and cash, China will be happy to do so. This is, of course, a great situation for the corrupt rulers and they do not have to worry much about the people-at least until the next coup attempt rolls around.

Ethically, this is rather questionable. After all, the fact that someone else will happily support evil is no justification for us doing so. However, the practical aspect of this is rather strong and perhaps it can be argued that while this approach is bad, it is better than the available alternatives.

This situation cannot, of course, be entirely laid at the door of America and China. The people of Africa allow their rulers to act the way they do and hence they bear some of the responsibility. If Africa had stable, democratic and non-corrupt states, then I believe the United States would be very happy to support them, as we support Germany, Japan, France and our other democratic allies.

While it might be tempting to try to engage in democracy building once again, we have seen how that tends to turn out. Democracy and effective government seems to be something that must be built from within rather than imposed from without. That said, we can do more to support honest, democratic and ethical leaders-providing we can find any there…or here.

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Helen Thomas

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 7, 2010
Helen Thomas meeting students from Maxwell Sch...
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While it took Helen Thomas decades to build her reputation and status, it took her mere seconds to mortally wound her career.  While I will not side with or against her in this matter, it is worthwhile to examine her remarks and the criticisms presented against them.

Thomas was asked  if she had any comments on Israel. Her response was “tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.” When asked for a better comment, she said, “remember, these people are occupied and it’s their land. It’s not German’s. It’s not Poland’s.” When asked about where she thought the Jews should go, she made it clear that “they should go home”  and that she regarded their home as  “Poland, Germany … and America and everywhere else.”

These remarks led her to be accused of being an “anti-semitic bigot” as well as being ignorant of history.

In terms of the first charge, the main basis for this is an argument by analogy.  For example, Ari Fleischer claimed that  “If this isn’t bigotry, what is? What she said is as bad as someone saying all blacks should leave America and go back to Africa.”

This analogy does have some merit. After all, saying that people should go home simply because they are a specific ethnicity or faith would seem to be a prejudiced remark. However, the analogy does have some weak points.

One weak point is that the history behind the two compared situations is a bit different. The ancestors of many black Americans were forcibly brought to America.  In any case, the blacks who came to America generally did not willing chose to take an active role in the displacement of the native population. Nor did the blacks who came to America use military force to occupy land for the  (alleged) protection of a black nation in America. As such, there does seem to be some relevant differences between the two situations. After all, someone could argue that the Israelis who are not descended from the original inhabitants and who are occupying territory that belongs to descendents of other original inhabitants should go back to the lands of their ancestors. If so, a better comparison would, perhaps, be to someone who said that white people should leave America and go home to Europe and the land should be restored to the natives.

Of course, these differences might not be enough to actually break the analogy. After all, it could be argued that what matters is that a group of people were told they should “go home” based on a specific identity and perhaps that is enough to establish a claim of bigotry.

In terms of the second charge, it might be wondered if her remarks show that she is ignorant of history. On one hand, she is correct that many of the people who went to found the modern state of Israel came from other parts of the world including Poland, Germany, and America. As such, that aspect of the claim is accurate. On the other hand, her claim can be challenged. First, it could be easily argued that the Israelis are home. Using her own claim about America being a home, it would seem to follow that Israel is also a home. After all, America is composed of people from around the world and clearly acquired much territory via conquest. As such, if Americans are home in America, Israelis are at home in Israel.  Second, it can be argued that modern Israel has a link to the past that makes Israel the historical and legitimate home of the modern Israelis.

Of course, both these replies can be countered. After all, it can be argued that conquest does not make a land into a home and, of course, the notion that modern Israel has such a justifying link to the past can be debated. This does raise the rather large ethical question of what justifies a claim that a land is the home of a group. Is it history? Conquest? Purchase? Long occupation? Being the first there? Or something else (or nothing at all?). Unfortunately, while I have time to raise these questions, hashing them out would go way beyond the scope of this blog.

However, it would seem that the Israelis are legitimately at home-at least as legitimately as the people of many other countries. Which might not be very legitimate at all.

My own view is that Thomas’ remarks were (to say the least) rather unfortunate. However, I am not sure that they prove conclusively that she is a bigot or ignorant.  After all, I have learned not to judge a person’s character by a few words but to look at the overall patterns of behavior and expressed belief.  Thomas does not seem to have a record of bigotry or ignorance, so perhaps it is unfair to judge her harshly on this one incident. Or perhaps not-perhaps it is fair and just to judge a person on the basis of a single incident such as this.

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