A Philosopher's Blog

Automation & Administration: An Immodest Proposal

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 5, 2017
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It has almost been a law that technological advances create more jobs than they eliminate. This, however, appears to be changing. It is predicted that nearly 15 million jobs will be created by advances and deployment of automation and artificial intelligence by 2027. On the downside, it is also estimated that technological change will eliminate about 25 million jobs. Since the future is not yet now, the reality might be different—but it is generally wise to plan for the likely shape of things to come. As such, it is a good idea to consider how to address the likely loss of jobs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Corruption of Academic Science

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Science, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on November 5, 2014
Synthetic insulin crystals synthesized using r...

Synthetic insulin crystals synthesized using recombinant DNA technology (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields are supposed to be the new darlings of the academy, so I was slightly surprised when I heard an NPR piece on how researchers are struggling for funding. After all, even the politicians devoted to cutting education funding have spoken glowingly of STEM. My own university recently split the venerable College of Arts & Sciences, presumably to allow more money to flow to STEM without risking that professors in the soft sciences and the humanities might inadvertently get some of the cash. As such I was somewhat curious about this problem, but mostly attributed it to a side-effect of the general trend of defunding public education. Then I read “Bad Science” by Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones. This article was originally published in issue 14, 2014 of Jacobin Magazine. I will focus on the ethical aspects of the matters Hinkes-Jones discussed in this article, which is centered on the Bayh-Dole Act.

The Bayh-Dole Act was passed in 1980 and was presented as having very laudable goals. Before the act was passed, universities were limited in regards to what they could do with the fruits of their scientific research. After the act was passes, schools could sell their patents or engage in exclusive licensing deals with private companies (that is, monopolies on the patents). Supporters asserted this act would be beneficial in three main ways. The first is that it would secure more private funding for universities because corporations would provide money in return for the patents or exclusive licenses. The second is that it would bring the power of the profit motive to public research: since researchers and schools could profit, they would be more motivated to engage in research. The third is that the private sector would be motivated to implement the research in the form of profitable products.

On the face of it, the act was a great success. Researchers at Columbia University patented the process of DNA cotransfrormation and added millions to the coffers of the school. A patent on recombinant DNA earned Stanford over $200 million. Companies, in turn, profited greatly. For example, researchers at the University of Utah created Myriad Genetics and took ownership of their patent on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 tests for breast cancer. The current cost of the test is $4,000 (in comparison a full sequencing of human DNA costs $1,000) and the company has a monopoly on the test.

Given these apparent benefits, it is easy enough to advance a utilitarian argument in favor of the act and its consequences. After all, if allows universities to fund their research and corporations to make profits, then its benefits would seem to be considerable, thus making it morally good. However, a proper calculation requires considering the harmful consequences of the act.

The first harm is that the current situation imposes a triple cost on the public. One cost is that the taxpayers fund the schools that conduct the research. The next is that thanks to the monopolies on patents the taxpayers have to pay whatever prices the companies wish to charge, such as the $4,000 for a test that should cost far less. In an actual free market there would be competition and lower prices—but what we have is a state controlled and regulated market. Ironically, those who are often crying the loudest against government regulation and for the value of competition are quite silent on this point.  The final cost of the three is that the corporations can typically write off their contributions on their taxes, thus leaving other taxpayers to pick up their slack. These costs seem to be clear harms and do much to offset the benefits—at least when looked at from the perspective of the whole society and not just focusing on those reaping the benefits.

The second harm is that, ironically, this system makes research more expensive. Since processes, strains of bacteria and many other things needed for research are protected by monopolistic patents the researchers who do not hold these patents have to pay to use them. The costs are usually quite high, so while the patent holders benefit, research in general suffers. In order to pay for these things, researchers need more funding, thus either imposing more cost on taxpayers or forcing them to turn to private funding (which will typically result in more monopolistic patents).

The third harm is the corruption of researchers. Researchers are literally paid to put their names on positive journal articles that advance the interests of corporations. They are also paid to promote drugs and other products while presenting themselves as researchers rather than paid promoters. If the researchers are not simply bought, the money is clearly a biasing factor. Since we are depending on these researchers to inform the public and policy makers about these products, this is clearly a problem and presents a clear danger to the public good.

A fourth harm is that even the honest researchers who have not been bought are under great pressure to produce “sexy science” that will attract grants and funding. While it has always been “publish or perish” in modern academics, the competition is even fiercer in the sciences now. As such, researchers are under great pressure to crank out publications. The effect has been rather negative as evidenced by the fact that the percentage of scientific articles retracted for fraud is ten times what it was in 1975. Once lauded studies and theories, such as those driving the pushing of antioxidants and omega-3, have been shown to be riddled with inaccuracies.  Far from driving advances in science, the act has served as an engine of corruption, fraud and bad science. This would be bad enough, but there is also the impact on a misled and misinformed public. I must admit that I fell for the antioxidant and omega-3 “research”—I modified my diet to include more antioxidants and omega-3. While this bad science does get debunked, the debunking takes a long time and most people never hear about it. For example, how many people know that the antioxidant and omega-3 “research” is flawed and how many still pop omega-3 “fish oil pills” and drink “antioxidant teas”?

A fifth harm is that universities have rushed to cash in on the research, driven by the success of the research schools that have managed to score with profitable patents. However, setting up research labs aimed at creating million dollar patents is incredibly expensive. In most cases the investment will not yield the hoped for returns, thus leaving many schools with considerable expenses and little revenue.

To help lower costs, schools have turned to employing adjuncts to do the teaching and research, thus creating a situation in which highly educated but very low-paid professionals are toiling away to secure millions for the star researchers, the administrators and their corporate benefactors. It is, in effect, sweat-shop science.

This also shows another dark side to the push for STEM: as the number of STEM graduates increase, the value of the degrees will decrease and wages for the workers will continue to fall. This is great for the elite, but terrible for those hoping that a STEM degree will mean a good job and a bright future.

These harms would seem to outweigh the alleged benefits of the act, thus indicating it is morally wrong. Naturally, it can be countered that the costs are worth it. After all, one might argue, the incredible advances in science since 1980 have been driven by the profit motive and this has been beneficial overall. Without the profit motive, the research might have been conducted, but most of the discoveries would have been left on the shelves. The easy and obvious response is to point to all the advances that occurred due to public university research prior to 1980 as well as the research that began before then and came to fruition.

While solving this problem is a complex matter, there seem to be some easy and obvious steps. The first would be to restore public funding of state schools. In the past, the publicly funded universities drove America’s worldwide dominance in research and helped fuel massive economic growth while also contributing to the public good. The second would be replacing the Bayh-Dole Act with an act that would allow universities to benefit from the research, but prevent the licensing monopolies that have proven so damaging. Naturally, this would not eliminate patents but would restore competition to what is supposed to be a competitive free market by eliminating the creation of monopolies from public university research. The folks who complain about the state regulating business and who praise the competitive free market will surely get behind this proposal.

It might also be objected that the inability to profit massively from research will be a disincentive. The easy and obvious reply is that people conduct research and teach with great passion for very little financial compensation. The folks that run universities and corporations know this—after all, they pay such people very little yet still often get exceptional work. True, there are some people who are solely motivated by profit—but those are typically the folks who are making the massive profit rather than doing the actual research and work that makes it all possible.


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Minimum Wage V: Taxes & Wages

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 9, 2013
Money cash

Money cash (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

In the United States, there is considerable intersection between the class of people who oppose minimum wage and the class that opposes taxes. In some cases, both of these views can be grounded on a consistently applied principle. For example, those who favor a minimal (or non-existent) state will note that both views are well grounded on the idea that the state should not impose on the citizens. In other cases, though, the reasons presented for these views seem to be at odds. In this short essay I will consider this matter. For simplicity’s sake, I will just stick to discussing earned wages and stay away from such things as inheritances, lottery winnings, and such.

I have conservative friends on Facebook and, when the issues of taxes heats up, I get to see various postings that claim taxes as a form of theft. When the issue is more specifically about taxes being used (or increased) to pay for government services such as welfare, the stock line is that such taxes are wrongfully taking money from the rightful owner and giving it to people who do not deserve the money because they have not earned it. Interestingly, many of the quoted sources are wealthy people who are dismayed at being compelled to pay taxes. This view seems to rest on two important assumptions. The first is that the people who are being taxed have earned (in the moral sense) their money and thus are entitled to keep it. The second is that the people who are imposing the taxes and the people who get the money have not earned it and thus are not entitled to it.

The basic principle at work here does, on the face of it, seems reasonable enough: people are justly entitled to what they have earned and not entitled to what they have not earned. This, in turn, seems to rest on what appears to be a principle that people are entitled to the value they create. After all, there has to be some foundation for the claim that an income is earned and thus justly belongs to a person. The mere fact that a person gets the money is, obviously, not automatic justification that it is earned in the moral sense and that they are thus morally entitled to the income.

In the case of taxes, the folks in question obviously get that principle: they believe it is their right to keep their money and it is not right for other people to get, via taxes, what they have earned. This is, as noted above, apparently based on a principle that people are entitled to the value they create. This is certainly appealing—if I have created the value, then that value is justly owed to me. However, it would also seem to follow that I owe payment for value received. Such, when I receive the goods and services of the state, then I am obligated to pay for their value—otherwise I am stealing from others and violating my own principle. But if my taxes are simply being taken from me and given to others, then it would seem that I am being robbed—the value I have earned is being taken from me, not to pay for the goods and services I use, but to simply give handouts to those who have not earned it. This seems to be clearly wrong.

At this point, it might be wondered what this has to do with wages. Fortunately, the answer is straightforward. If the principle is accepted that a person is entitled to the value s/he has created (and thus earned) and that for someone to take from that person is theft, it would follow that an employee is entitled to the value s/he has created. For the employer to take that value for himself/herself would be the same as if the employer was receiving money taxed from a worker and just given, unearned, to him or her.

It might be countered that the employer earns what s/he receives by the value the employer contributes. The obvious reply is that this claim is true—but this would entail that the employer is not entitled to profits acquired by underpaying employees or overcharging customers. Either approach is like the employer being taxed so that the money can be given to people who have not earned it.

It could be countered that the employer-employee relation is different because of things like market forces, abundance of laborers and so on. As such, an employer can justly pay an employee less than the value the employee creates by his/her labor because of these factors. The obvious counter is that an analogous argument could be made regarding taxation—that the various complex economic factors warrant taking money by taxes to give the money to those who have not earned it.

Thus, those that argue against taxes by contending that they have a right to what they have earned must extend the same principle to the wages of workers. They, too, would be just as entitled to what they have earned. So, if taxation is theft, so is underpaying workers. As such, the minimum wage should be the value of what the worker creates. Anything less that allows the employer to steal from the worker would be theft.

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Minimum Wage II: Freedom & Coercion

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 16, 2013

As I noted in my previous essay on minimum wage, one stock argument against minimum wage is based on liberty and rights.


Money (Photo credit: 401(K) 2013)

The basic idea behind this line of reasoning is that an employer should have the right to set wages and that the state is wrong to use its coercive power to compel a minimum wage. A rather key assumption here is that such coercion is wrong. This assumption should be kept in mind for what follows.

Those who oppose increasing (or even having) a minimum wage often like to appeal to the notion of the free market of employment. The basic idea is that businesses should be free to offer pay as they see fit. Workers can then consider the pay being offered by each employer and refuse to work for a low-paying employer and instead elect to work for one who pays more. For example, if Big Burger is paying $7.25 an hour and this is not to Sally’s liking, she can keep walking past Big Burger and find a job with better pay—perhaps the CEO position at Big Burger for $7.25 million a year.

Naturally, Sally will face some reasonable limits here—there will be jobs that she is not qualified for. For example, if Sally is fresh out of college with a degree in chemical engineering, she will not be able to get work as a lawyer or doctor. But, it is often claimed, she is free to find any job she is qualified for via the workings of the free market.

Alternatively, Sally can create her own business (Sally’s Sandwiches perhaps) and endeavor to get the income she desires. Naturally, Sally will also face limits here based on her abilities. She will also face the obstacles put in place by the government, or so the narrative goes. However, Sally is supposed to have a shot at being the next billionaire—or so the stories go.

On this view, the situation is rather rosy: Sally and her fellows are free to seek their desired employment and potential employees are free to offer what they wish, with no coercion being used against anyone. Alas, the government tinkers with this beautiful scenario of freedom by compelling employers to (generally) pay a minimum wage. Such coercion, as noted above, is assumed to be wrong: the powerful state is pushing around the weaker businesses and leaving them no choice in regards to the lowest wage they can legally pay.

While this tale is appealing to certain folks, it is not just the state that has coercive power. In the case of jobs, the employers often enjoy considerable coercive power. Going back to the example of Sally, it is true that she is free to walk on past Big Burger and other places that are paying the lowest wages. However, it would seem that she only has a meaningful freedom if there are other jobs available that pay better. Otherwise her freedom is a matter of wo

rking for the lowest wage or not working at all.

It could be replied that she is still free—after all, there would seem to be no coercion or compulsion at play here: she can take the job or not. If Sally is financially independent or is supported by someone else (such as her parents), then she would not be coerced—she would not need the job and is thus free to accept or reject employment as she desires. However, if Sally actually needs a job to pay for food, shelter and other necessities, then she would seem to be in a situation that involves coercion.

The obvious counter is that she is not being coerced by Big Burger or their fellows. After all, they did not create a world in which people need to purchase the basic necessities in order to survive. And, one might add, Sally could avail herself of welfare—at least until her benefits run out. Even then, there is always private charity. Sally could even attempt to create her own business, although this would be difficult and she would likely be competing against well established and well-connected corporations.  As such, Sally is still free and Big Burger is merely offering her one choice among many. So, since Sally can chose to be unemployed, it would seem to follow that she is not being coerced by Big Burger or their fellows.

If Sally elects to take the job, then she has chosen to accept the low pay and is thus not coerced in this scenario either. After all, it is her choice.

Interestingly, Sally’s scenario is analogous to that of the employer that is required to pay minimum wage. An employer is free to decide to not pay minimum wage. This could be done by deciding not to hire anyone, by deciding to not have a business or by deciding to simply pay below that wage. A business could also decide to leave and go somewhere that has no minimum wage—just as Sally could move away from an area in search of a job. So, employers are as free as Sally—they have choices, although there may be no good ones.

It might be countered that the employer is not free—there would clearly seem to be compulsion at play here. However, those who enforce the law could say that they did not create a world in which people have to pay a minimum wage any more than Big Burger created a world in which people have to pay for necessities.

So, since a business owner can chose to not pay minimum wage, it would be the case that she is not coerced. As with Sally, if a business owner elects to pay minimum wage, then she has chosen this and thus is not coerced. After all, it is her choice. Just as it was Sally’s choice to accept or not accept a low paying job despite it being the only sort of job available.

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Minimum Wage I: Arguments Against

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 14, 2013
Minimum Wage In Paraguay, one simple figure

Minimum Wage In Paraguay, one simple figure (Photo credit: WageIndicator – Paulien Osse)

The United States government, like many other government, sets a minimum wage. This is the lowest (with some exceptions) that an employee can be paid per hour. There is considerable debate regarding the minimum wage ranging from disputes over the exact amount of the wage to arguments over whether there should be a minimum wage at all.

Some arguments over the minimum wage are grounded in concerns about economic facts. For example, there is some dispute about the economic impact of the minimum wage. Some contend that increasing it would increase inflation (which would presumably be bad) while some claim that increasing it would boost the economy by increasing spending. In terms of what should be done, these disputes fall nicely within the realm of consequentialism. That is, settling them involves sorting out the facts about the consequences. There would also be some moral aspects to the matter as well, such as sorting out the positive values and negative values based on who they impact and how.

Other arguments about the minimum wage are more ideological in nature and have minimum (or no) connection to matters of economic facts. These arguments tend to be philosophically interesting because of the strong connection to matters of morality.

One argument against the minimum wage is based on the notion that it causes a culture of dependency that interferes with the mobility of labor. The idea, at least as presented in various talking points in the more conservative media, is that a higher (or any) minimum wage would encourage people to simply stick with the minimum wage job rather than moving upwards in the economic hierarchy.

On the one hand, this has a certain appeal. If a person believes that she is earning enough and making a comfortable living, then she might very well be content to remain at that job.

On the other hand, there seem to be some rather obvious problems with this argument. First, unless the minimum wage were increased dramatically, it seems unlikely that anyone would be able to make a comfortable living on such a wage. It also seems unlikely that most people would be content to simply stop at the minimum wage job and refuse opportunities for better employment. People generally stick with minimum wage jobs because they cannot find a better job not because they think they are making quite enough. I would not claim that it is impossible for a person to live what he thinks is a comfortable life on minimum wage nor that a person might be content to just stick with such a job. However, such a person would be an unusual exception rather than one among a vast crowd.

Second, this sort of reasoning seems to be based on the problematic principle that it is necessary to pay people poorly in order to motivate them to move up the economic hierarchy. One problem with this principle is that it would warrant paying people poorly all the way up the economic ladder so as to allegedly motivate them. After all, if people are content to coast at minimum wage, then they would surely be willing to coast if the pay was better. This would thus seem to entail that only the topmost position in a hierarchy should not pay poorly since there would be nothing above that position and hence no need to motivate a person to move beyond it. Interestingly, this does seem to match the nature of CEO salaries—it is common for the CEO to make many times what lesser employees make. Since the number of topmost positions is rather limited, this would seem to be rather unfair. In fact, if this principle is pushed, it would seem to point towards having one position in total that has good pay—thus motivating everyone to attempt to get that one position.

Another problem with this principle is that it seems to be untrue. As a matter of fact, people do attempt to get higher paying jobs when they are available, even if their pay is not poor. People mostly seem to stick with a minimum wage job or a lower paying job because they cannot find one that pays better (there are, of course, other reasons).

As a final point, the idea that paying people to do work creates a culture of dependency seems to indicate the view that the workers are mooching or sponging off the employer. This is, obviously enough, absurd: the worker is getting paid for work done which is the exact opposite of mooching.

A second ideological argument is based on the notion of liberty and rights. The idea is that employers are having their liberty (or rights) violated by being forced by the state to pay a minimum wage.

This line of reasoning does have a certain appeal. After all, people (and corporations are the best sort of people) have rights to liberty and property. If the state tells employers that they must pay a certain wage, the employers are being denied their right to liberty via the coercive power of the state.

There are at least two obvious responses to this line of reasoning. The first is that workers are also people and hence would also have rights, including property rights to their labor. These rights can be used to argue for a minimum wage (or more)—after all, theft of labor would seem to still be theft.  The second is that being part of a society involves, as Locke and Hobbes argued, giving up some rights. While some employers would like the liberty to pay whatever they wanted (which might be nothing—slavery was and is rather popular), it makes sense that such complete freedom would not be consistent with society. Having a civil society, as Hobbes argued, does require the coercive power of the state. As such, the fact that the state is imposing on the liberty of the employer does not automatically entail that this coercion is wrong. The stale also imposes on the liberties of those who would like to steal and kill and these impositions are hardly wrong.

The obvious reply is to contend that while the state has a legitimate right to limit some liberties, this right does not extend to coercing job creators into paying at least a minimum wage. This cannot, of course, be simply assumed—what is needed is an argument that employers should have the liberty to pay as they please. Even if such a liberty is assumed, surely it would have at least some limit. At the very least, it would seem that an employer has to pay more than nothing. Then again, some might like to see slavery put back on the table. There is much more to be said about minimum wage and more essays will follow.

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Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 17, 2013
Exchange Money Conversion to Foreign Currency

(Photo credit: epSos.de)

Roughly put, profit (or loss) is the difference between what it costs to sell a product/service and what is received for that product/service. For example, if it costs me $1 to make and transport a widget to the purchaser and the widget sells for $5, then I would make a profit of $4 on each widget sold. Naturally, the overall profit of my widget business would be a more complex matter involving total costs, total income and so on. But the basic idea is profit is what one gets when the cost is lower than what is received for the product/service.

As a general rule, just as Trix is for kids, profit is for employers and not employees. In fact, the stock criticisms of profit tend to focus on the fact that making a profit often involves paying workers less than the value they produce.  So, on the face of it, it seems like the idea of a worker making a profit is a non-starter. After all, the worker gets paid (hopefully) and the mechanism of a profit does not seem to figure in here. However, it seems interesting (though perhaps totally misguided) to consider the matter of a worker making a profit (as a worker, not in another role).

As noted above, profit occurs (crudely put) when the seller makes more for a sale than the sale costs her. One way to look at this is that the value paid by the purchaser exceeds the value of what is sold. In the case of a worker, it would seem that a profit-like situation would arise when a worker is paid more than the value of her work. That is, I would make something profit-like if I were paid more than I was worth. The gap between the value of my work and what I receive for it would be my “profit.”

In either case, it would seem that making a profit generally entails that someone is getting exploited. After all, if all those involved in producing the product got their just share of the value of the product, there would be no surplus left to provide the profit, unless the customer pays more than the value of the product. Likewise, if the worker is paid more than the value of her work, it would seem that she is exploiting the employer.

It can be countered that profit can arise without exploitation. One way for this to occur involves what could be called relative/subjective (or perceived) value. For example, if it costs me $1 to make a widget and I sell it for $5, yet the customer values it at $5 (or more), then it could be claimed the customer  is not being exploited. After all, as she sees it she is getting her money’s worth. However, it would also need to be the case that the workers involved in producing, transporting and selling my widget also regard themselves as properly compensated.  Likewise, if a worker values her work less than the employer values it, then it could be claimed that the employer is not being exploited. For example, if I valued my time at $30 an hour, but I was paid $50 an hour and my employer valued my time at at least $50 an hour, then I would not be exploiting my employer. Or, perhaps more accurately, she would not regard me as exploiting her.

The response to this is to contend that a person can be wrong about being exploited. In the case of a worker, he might regard his pay per widget as fair, but might be mistaken. One obvious cause could be ignorance: the worker is unaware of the value her labor adds to the product and if she were aware of this, she would change her mind about the fairness of her pay. Likewise for an employer: she might believe she is getting her money’s worth (or better) but be wrong about this because I am so very clever about appearing to be worth more than I am actually worth.  Naturally, it could be insisted that in matters of money all value is relative/subjective (or perceived) and that the idea of some sort of objective foundation for claims about exploitation is fundamentally mistaken. If so, this would also entail that the idea of some sort of objective foundation for claims about fair or just profits would also be fundamentally mistaken. Presumably it would come down to whoever had the most power defining what is called “just” and what is called “unjust.” In this case, it would seem most sensible for each party to endeavor to get as much as he can and to get it labeled as “fair” and “just.” That is, the employer should endeavor to get as much for as little pay as possible from employees and employees should endeavor to get as much as possible for as little work as possible from the employer. That is, in a profit focused system everyone should try to exploit everyone else while contending that they are being fair.

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The Income You Deserve

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 25, 2013
I Get Money

I Get Money (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the previous essay, I wrote about the notion of a person having the body he deserves. In response to the original blog post, commentator T.J. Babson inquired about replacing “body” with “income.” As such, the question raised is whether or not a person has the income he deserves.

In the case of whether or not a person has the body he deserves, I argued that this is generally the case. After all, laying aside unfortunate accidents and illnesses, a person has (or is) the body that he has earned by his choices and actions. I also noted that the luck (good or bad) of birth can also be factored out in terms of what a person has earned-after all, a person would still get what he has earned given his circumstances.

Naturally, it can be contended that the same would hold true when it comes to income. After all, if unfortunate accidents are laid aside and the luck of birth is factored out, then a person surely gets the income that he deserves. After all, a person gets the income he has via his choices and actions, just as is the case with getting the body he has (or is). Thus, we all make what we deserve.

Or so it could be argued. However, there is the obvious question of whether the two situations are analogous. That is, whether the matter of deserved income is adequately similar to that of having the body one deserves.

One obvious difference is the nature of the how earning works in regards to the body and income. In the case of the body, getting the body one earns is a purely mechanical, objective and automatic matter. For example, if I choose to take in more calories than I burn, then I will start storing fat, thus altering my body in a way that I have clearly earned. As another example, if I do more speed work on the track, this will alter my body in ways that result in greater speed when running. As a third example, if I do more pushups and pull-ups, the strength of my body will increase. I get these results based entirely on what I do and they correspond perfectly to my actions and choices. As such, these results seem to be exactly what I deserve. After all, what I get stems from what I do.

In the case of income, getting what one earns is a matter of human decisions, is subjective and is not automatic. For example, my income is based largely on what other people who control the funds elect to pay me based on what they think I should be pay. This is presumably based on a subjective assessment of what I should be paid—most likely based on such factors as what they think is the lowest amount that will keep me from accepting another job and what they think it would cost to replace me with someone that could do what I do. My income is also not an automatic matter—I would not get an income just for teaching and so on. There has to be the conscious decision to provide me with the income. In the case of income, what I get might have little or even no connection to what I actually do. Thus a person might not get the income that he deserves.

A second obvious difference is that what a person gets in regards to his body is always perfectly proportional to his choices and actions. If I run X miles per week at an average pace of P, then my endurance will be E. If I spent H hours strength training at intensity I per week, then my strength will be S.  Or, if I pack in E extra calories, then I get F fatter. As such, what I get from my choices and efforts is exactly proportional to the nature of my efforts and choices: what I do and what I receive are in perfect harmony.

In stark contrast, what a person earns in terms of income can (and often is) significantly out of proportion to the nature of her efforts and choices. For example, a professor might devote considerable effort to teaching her students and be very effective at this, thus creating educated citizens who go on to add considerably to society. This teacher might receive a rather low income. As another example, a professor might be clever at making connections and hit an academic fad at the right time and become a star. This star might spend his career pontificating at conferences and on talk shows, yet contribute little of lasting value to society all the while enjoying a rather nice income. As a third example, a person might develop a cunning way to create a financial instrument to hide toxic assets and engage in clever deceits when ranking said instruments, thus making a fortune for herself while contributing to a massive recession. In such cases, these people would not seem to be getting the income they deserve.

It could be countered that a person does get the income he deserves by definition. That is, one earns what one gets, thus it is earned. Being what is earned, it is what a person deserves. This is, obviously enough, what philosophers are often accused of: mere semantic trickery.

Also, to use the obvious analogy, this would be rather like claiming that a prisoner deserves her sentence on the grounds that it is the sentence she was given and it is thus just. Obviously, the mere fact that a person has been sentenced to a certain punishment or has received a certain income is not proof that either is earned.

It could also be argued that employers decide what a person deserves and that a person can decide if he agrees. If he agrees and accepts the income, then he gets what he deserves. While this has a certain appeal, it assumes that the person is not tricked by fraud or compelled to accept the income. To use an analogy, if I agree to give a person something based on a lie or because he points a gun at me, I do not thus get what I deserve when I lose my property.

In some cases, people do get to select their income without any fraud or compulsion and they have many opportunities available to them. In most other cases, people are at a considerable disadvantage relative to those who offer income. For example, a person who works for the state is often subject to the whims of those above them in power. If a newly appointed director decides that he would prefer to relocate his department in a city near his second or third house then the employees have to choose between uprooting their lives (and often families) and losing their jobs. If they lose their jobs, then they need to find another employer and hope that their new job will last.

It might be replied that people get what they deserve even in these cases. After all, if they were smart enough to see through the fraud or capable enough to avoid being compelled, then they would have a better income.

While this has a certain appeal when it comes to economic matters and matches the ideal of the rugged individual making her fortune, this would require accepting that a person who is deceived by another is responsible for his failure to detect the deceit and that anyone who is compelled deserves the results of that compulsion. To use an unpleasant analogy, this would be rather like blaming the victim of a date rape for being raped. After all, if she had been smart enough to see through his deceit to his true intentions or strong enough to protect herself, then she would not have been raped. As such, if she is raped, then she would have gotten exactly what she deserved. Likewise, if someone was smart enough to avoid deceit or strong enough to avoid being compelled economically, then she would not have a low income.  After all, she should have been able to command a better income or start her own company. As such, if she does have a low income, she must be getting exactly what she deserves.

As such, while each person generally has the body he deserves, the same does not hold for income.

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Contingent Faculty

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 16, 2013
Tenure (film)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I began my career as a professor, I worked as an adjunct. There are many downsides to being an adjunct, not the least of which is that employment is entirely contingent. That is, an adjunct can be let go simply by not offering a contract for the next semester. It is also not uncommon for adjuncts to begin work with only the promise of a contract-a promise that sometimes turns out to be empty.

After being an adjunct, I became a visiting professor. This is rather better than being an adjunct, since it comes with better pay, benefits and the contract length is longer (a year or sometimes longer). However, visiting professorships are (by their very nature) limited in duration. Visiting professors also do not, as visiting faculty, earn tenure.

After being a visiting professor, I was able to get into a tenure track line and eventually earned tenure. There are various misconceptions about tenure, such as the notion that tenured faculty cannot be fired. This is not true-tenured faculty can be fired. Unlike contingent faculty, a tenured faculty member can not be simply let go. Rather, a tenured faculty member can only (in general) be fired for cause.

While tenure is presented as its detractors as a means by which inept faculty can avoid being fired as they coast towards an easy retirement, this is not its intended or actual purpose. One purpose of tenure is to serve as an incentive for success. That is, if a faculty member works hard for the better part of a decade and achieves professional success, then she can get the security of tenure. Naturally, this is not as lucrative as the rewards ladled out to comparable levels of success in the financial or business sectors-but people who go into academics tend to have somewhat different values. To steal a line from the folks who argue relentless against depriving the wealthy of even a fraction of their wealth, to remove tenure would punish success and destroy incentive. After all, if the job creators would be broken and demoralized by tax increases, then presumably the faculty would also be broken and demoralized by the loss of tenure. But perhaps significant incentives are only fit for the job creators and no one else.

A second reason for tenure is to protect academic freedom. Once a faculty member has tenure, then she has a degree of protection that can allow her to express intellectual ideas without (much) fear of being simply disposed of in retaliation. To be honest, once a person has spent years grinding away towards tenure, she has obviously learned to work within the system. One rarely sees a faculty member suddenly emerging from the caterpillar state of being tenure earning to become a radical butterfly once getting tenure. However, tenure still serves a valuable purpose by protecting intellectual freedom more than a lack of tenure would.

As might be imagined, some are opposed to tenure. These people tend to favor the business model of academics in which one key goal is to reduce labor costs. By removing tenure, faculty can be let go and replaced with cheaper faculty as needed. Also, faculty perceived as “troublesome” (such as union organizers) could be fired, thus reducing the threat of a powerful faculty union.

Some people also oppose tenure on more philosophical grounds. One common view is that employers should have the right to fire employees at any time, even without cause or reason. Going along with this view, obviously enough, is the idea that employees do not have any right to be employed. Interestingly enough, many of the same folks who hold this view also contend that the risk-takers in business should have the chance for massive rewards because of the risks they take. Interestingly, they seem to fail to see that people working without job security are rather big risk takers. After all, everyday is a day they risk being fired because their employer wants to cut expenses to boost profits.

Folks who support this view often tend to point to live outside of academics where most workers lack job security. A standard refrain is “why should tenured faculty have the job security that other workers lack?” But, a better question might be “why should other workers lack the opportunity to earn the job security that faculty enjoy?”

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Adjuncts & the Affordable Care Act

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 7, 2013
English: President Barack Obama's signature on...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Affordable Care Act imposes fines on large employers (defined as those employing 51+ people full time) that fail to offer affordable insurance coverage to their full-time employees. As might be imagined, this has created some concerns for such employers and their employees.

While I do believe that the act has some positive aspects, I tend to agree with those who think that health insurance should be split from employment. That is, it should be something people can select from a competitive market regardless of who they are working for. Properly done, this would be a considerable benefit to businesses and individuals.  However, my main concern here is with the likely impact of the Act on adjuncts and others in a similar plight.

Adjuncts are, in many ways, the temp workers of academics. They are typically hired from semester to semester to teach a few classes at relatively low pay ($1,500-3,000 per class being typical) and generally have no benefits or job security.  Adjuncts are usually classified as part-time employees, primarily because they often teach less than what is considered a full class load and typically do not have the other duties (such as committee work or advising) of full-time faculty. They are also typically classified as part-time so as to avoid the need to provide them with the benefits of full-time employees.

The Affordable Care Act defines a full-time employee as one who is employed an average of thirty hours a week.  Currently, there is not a clear definition of how the part-time status of adjuncts should be determined, since adjuncts typically work in terms of credit hours taught rather than in terms of hours on the clock.

As might be suspected, colleges, universities and businesses have varied definitions of what counts as being part-time and not all of these match the Affordable Care Act definition. In response, some colleges and universities are already taking steps to address this matter. A common responses has been to cut the hours of adjuncts and other part-time workers to 29 hours or less to avoid having to provide affordable insurance or paying the fine.  In the case of adjuncts, some schools have cut the number of courses and adjunct can teach, despite the fact that the matter of what counts as full time faculty under the act has not been sorted out.

As might be guessed, the reduction in hours is an unintended consequence of the act. However, it is obviously not good for the adjuncts and other part-time employees who are typically struggling to get as much work as they can. As it stands, adjuncts often have to teach classes at multiple colleges in order to get by and other part-time workers often have to hold multiple jobs. If employers start reducing the hours of part-time workers, they will need to find additional jobs to make up for the lost income, which will be at least inconvenient.

On the one hand, it is easy to blame the Affordable Care Act (or, to avoid the fallacy of reification, the people who passed the act). After all, the “big” employers are being forced into a trilemma: provide affordable health care or pay fines or cut employee hours down to 29 hours a week or less. Since the first two options cost money, the obvious choice is the third one. No doubt employers would prefer to keep things as they are, but the act forces them to make the employees pay the price for the act.

On the other hand, it could be argued that the employers deserve some of the blame, especially in the case of colleges and universities. After all, adjuncts are exploited by universities and do not even get the insurance coverage that is offered to students (I had better benefits as a grad student than as an adjunct). Adjuncts could be provided with affordable health care (as students are) it is just the case that employers are choosing not to do so in order to save some money. That is, it is just another case of the working people being screwed over by those with vastly larger salaries and plenty of benefits. It is not surprising that many of the same folks who weep over the rich being forced to pay marginally more taxes are also outraged that businesses would have to provide affordable health insurance to employees. There is also a certain meanness in the attitude that is essentially this: “What, we have to provide full-time employees with affordable health insurance or pay fines!? In that case, we’ll just fire people or cut their hours!”

My own view is that this illustrates the important of separating health insurance from employment. This would allow employers to hire people without worrying about the costs of providing insurance (or paying fines) and would allow individuals to get insurance apart from being employed. Of course, this would require serious revisions to the health insurance industry to make health care actually affordable for individuals, especially those working low-paying part time jobs. Naturally, employers could continue to offer health insurance, but this would not be mandatory. However, no matter what is done, someone obviously has to pay the bills.



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Equal Pay & Freedom

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 12, 2012
Pictures from Equal Pay Day actions in Leuven.

Pictures from Equal Pay Day actions in Leuven. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While there have been considerable improvements in the gender gap, women still lag behind men in regards to pay even in Western countries such as the United States. In the United States, the median income for women workers is 80% of that of the median for men. This is an improvement from the 75% figure of 1989, but is still a matter of concern. At the CEO level the disparity, oddly enough, increases: women CEOs make about 72% of what their male colleagues earn.

While there have been repeated failed efforts to get an equal rights amendment, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 has provided women with legal grounds in regards to addressing the matter of unequal pay.

On the face of it, it would seem that women are morally entitled to the same pay as men, provided that the relevant factors are the same. This is, of course, based on the principle of relevant difference: a difference in treatment is only morally justified when it is grounded by a relevant difference. For example, if Mike is paid more than Sally because Mike is a full professor and Sally is an assistant professor, then that difference would be relevant and the pay disparity could be thus justified. However, if Mike and Sally were both full professors and Sally was paid less solely because she was a woman, then that would certainly not be a relevant difference and hence would be unfair.

This view can, of course, be countered. One option is to argue that a person’s biological sex is a relevant difference such that even if all other factors were identical, a woman could be justly paid less solely because she is a woman. This seems rather difficult to justify. To use an analogy, it would be somewhat like saying that if a man and a woman raced and they ran identical times (that is, crossed the finish line at the same moment), then the woman would lose because she was a woman, even though everything else was the same. This seems rather absurd as does the idea that a woman would justly deserve less just because she is a woman.

Another option is to argue that women have properties as women that actually are relevant to being paid less. Roughly put, the idea is that women will generally perform at a level that is inferior to men because of the qualities they have because they are women. To go with another sports analogy, on average men are considerably faster than women in running. For example, the world record for men in the marathon is 2:03 and for women 2:15 (my best is 2:45). This is not due to any injustice but to the physical differences between the sexes.

This line of reasoning does have considerable appeal. After all, if the work performance of women is inferior to that of men, then they would justly be paid less and this disparity would show up in the overall statistics. If it is countered that some women are superior to some men, the obvious reply is that this is still consistent with the general disparity. After all, Paula Radcliffe’s best marathon time crushes mine by 30 minutes, but she is still about 12 minutes behind Patrick Makau Musyoki and the average women’s time in the marathon is slower than that of the men.  Likewise, while Sally might be superior to Sam, male workers might be superior to female workers, thus justifying the disparity.

This line of reasoning can, of course, be countered by showing that the actual performance of women is at least comparable to that of men and thus the pay disparity is unjust. Also, if it can be shown that individual men and women have comparable performances, then individual salary disparities that are gender based would be unjust. That is, if Sally and Sam have the same work performance and so on, then they should have roughly the same pay.

As might be imagined, I think that men and women do have comparable job performances and that a person’s biological sex does not warrant pay disparities. That is, being a woman does not entail that the person is an inferior worker. This is, of course, an empirical matter and subject to proper investigation. Naturally, if an objective and adequate assessment shows that one sex is inferior to another in relevant ways, then the disparity would be warranted.

Another approach, argued for by Representative Todd Akin (the same person who claimed that the female reproductive system has defense mechanisms against being impregnated by legitimate rape) is that employers should have the right to pay women less than men. Akin said, “I believe in free enterprise. I don’t think the government should be telling people what you pay and what you don’t pay. I think it’s about freedom.  If somebody wants to hire somebody and they agree on a salary, that’s fine, however it wants to work. So, the government sticking its nose into all kinds of things has gotten us into huge trouble.”

On the one hand, this does have some appeal. After all, for the state to impose salary rules on employers would certainly seem to interfere with their freedom to create employment contracts specifying pay. People do, of course, argue that in a free market people can always decide to not accept a salary and go elsewhere to earn a more desirable salary. As such, if an employer wants to pay women less than men, then women can go work for an employer that pays women better. A woman could even start her own business and pay women as well as (or better than) men. Naturally, the same freedom would seem to apply broadly so that an employer should not be forced to pay a minimum wage or provide any benefits that could be considered part of the compensation.

On the other hand, there are some serious points of concern. First, the typical employee operates from a position of weakness relative to the employer, thus the market is not free but operating in favor of the employer. This fact can be used to argue that employees can justly turn to unions or the state to help ensure that the wage market is actually free and that one side does not have an unjust advantage. Part of ensuring the free market could thus involve minimum wage and equal pay for equal work laws. History show quite clearly what happens when employers are able to set their pay with complete freedom. Second, the idea that women workers can always go elsewhere and receive better pay or start their own business is rather unrealistic. After all, if most employers pay women less than men, this would leave women with few options. Also, the odds of a new business succeeding tend to be rather low so this option is hardly one that most women can use. Third, there is also the matter of ethics. While some might hold that employers should have the freedom (or right) to pay workers as they please without the interference of the state, this same logic would seem to grant individuals the freedom to steal from employers (or anyone). After all, if an employer should have the freedom to pay workers less than the value of their work, then they are stealing for the workers. If this theft is morally acceptable, then so too would be theft from the employers. After all, if the employer has the freedom to engage in unjust acts, then it would seem to follow that the same freedom could be claimed by everyone, thus allowing people the freedom to rob employers.

It might be countered that the workers agree to the pay and hence they are not being robbed. This would be true if the workers freely entered into the agreement and there were no elements of coercion. However, if the workers are coerced into these agreements (as can occur when there is a disparity in power) then this is theft. After all, if a person “agrees” to hand me some of his property because he knows I have a gun, then I am still stealing. Likewise, if people have to work to survive and face a coercive economic system, then they can be robbed even when they “agree” to accept what they are offered.

Interestingly, an analogy can also be drawn to rape. If a woman “agrees” to have sex with a man because he has the power to push her into that “agreement”, then it might not be “forcible rape” but it would certainly seem to be rape. To argue that the man should have the freedom to use his superior power in this manner would certainly be morally horrific.

In light of the above discussion it seems reasonable to conclude that employers should not have the “freedom” to pay women less for equal work.

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