A Philosopher's Blog

No Fly, No Buy

Posted in Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 6, 2016

Departing BFI as BOE008 Heavy

In the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando, there has been a push for the idea of “no fly, no buy.” This is the sound bite slogan for banning people on the No Fly List from buying guns. There are two main versions of this proposal. One, backed by Democrats, is that the No Fly List data would become part of the background check to purchase a firearm and would prevent a person on the list from buying a gun legally. The other, backed by Republicans, gives the government a limited time frame to establish probable cause for banning a person on the list from buying a gun. For the sake of this discussion, I am oversimplifying the fine distinctions between the various lists. Fortunately, the general discussion does not require such fine distinctions.

Both parties agree with the fundamental justification for the proposal: guns should be kept out of the hands of terrorists. This is often described in the media as a “no brainer.” While I agree that it is best if terrorists do not have guns, this justification is something of a deceit: being on the No Fly List is not the same as being a terrorist. Rather, being on the list means that a person (might be) suspected of having some connection to terrorism. To use the obvious analogy, it is a “no brainer” to want to keep guns out of the hands of criminals—but it is another matter to want to keep guns out of the hands of people who are suspected of maybe having some connection to crime. As such, the “keeping guns out of the hands of terrorists” is a rhetorical point that has a very limited connection to the actual facts. This leads to my concerns about using the No Fly List as a no-buy list.

The first point of concern, one shared by the ACLU, is that the No Fly List seems to be poorly managed. The reason this is a problem is that a person can end up on the list who actually has no connection to terrorism at all. Since the program is secret, the mechanics of ending up on the list are known only to a few—but it has been clearly established that the list is “riddled with errors.” Using such a flawed list is clearly problematic. This could, of course, be addressed by improving list management.

The second point of concern, also shared by the ACLU, is that the No Fly List seems to be a clear violation of the right to due process. As such, the list itself seems to be unconstitutional. It was, of course, accepted as part of the grand sacrifice of rights to the delusion and illusion of security following 9/11. Unfortunately, the fires of fear are relentlessly stoked, making addressing these violations unlikely. Obviously enough, using an unconstitutional process as the basis for forbidding people from buying guns is problematic. This could be addressed by revising the process to follow due process or amending the constitution to change due process.

The third point of concern is that the current interpretation of the Second Amendment is as an individual right to keep and bear arms. A look back at the history of the Second Amendment shows that this has not always been the case; but what matters legally is the current interpretation. Given that the No Fly List is flawed and seems to be unconstitutional, to deny a person his Second Amendment rights on such a basis would be unacceptable. To use an analogy, imagine that in addition to “no fly, no buy” there was a proposal for “no seating, no tweeting.” On this proposal, people on the No Fly List would be banned from exercising their First Amendment right to free speech. This would be absurd. By parity of reasoning, using the list to violate the Second Amendment right would be just as absurd.

It could be objected that the danger presented by guns is far greater than the danger presented by words. While this does have some appeal, the saying “the pen is mightier than the sword” exists for a reason. While it is true that guns can kill, words have great power—after all, when people discuss terrorism they often focus on the process of radicalization—and expression (propaganda in various forms) is a large part of this. There is also the fact that, once again, being on the No Fly List is not the same as being an actual terrorist—so a person’s rights would be denied on the basis of an unreliable violation of due process.

It could be objected that there should not be an individual right to keep and bear arms. That is, the Second Amendment should be repealed or reinterpreted. While this could be done, it does not address the actual issue at hand. After all, the issue is not about what the Second Amendment should be, but about whether or not the “no fly, no buy” proposal is a good one or not. If no one could buy, then the “no buy” would make “no fly, no buy” pointless.

Another objection is the “low impact” counter. This is a general tactic in which it is argued that a proposal is acceptable because it would not really have much of an impact. In the case of “no fly, no buy”, people point to the fact that of the 192,956,397 background checks between February 2004 and May, 2016 there have been 2,477 matches with a watch list and only 212 denied transactions. As such, the argument goes, there should be no real objection to “no fly, no buy” because it will almost certainly have a miniscule impact on citizens.

There are two easy and obvious replies to the “low impact” counter. The first is that just because a policy is likely to have low impact, it does not follow that it is thus acceptable. As argued above, the “no fly, no buy” proposal is highly problematic and the fact that it will not deny too many people their rights is hardly good grounds for accepting it.

The second is that the “low impact” shows that the proposal will not be very effective at achieving the results that are supposed to motivate its acceptance. To be specific, the proposal would seem to have little or no impact on gun violence in the United States. As it stands, it seems that there have been no mass shootings that would have been prevented by “no fly, no buy.” While the Orlando shooter was on a list, he was removed—so the proposal would not have prevented that shooting. Unless, of course, there was also a proposal passed into law that would prevent people from being removed from the list or imposing a permanent gun buying ban on anyone who is ever on the list. These would certainly be problematic.

Overall, “no fly, no buy” seems to be a case of political theater—the illusion of trying to address a very real problem in a way that actually fails to address that problem while also violating rights. As such, I am against “no fly, no buy.”

 

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Performance Based Funding & Social Mobility

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on October 19, 2015

Once upon a time, the animals gathered together to decide which of them was the very best. After some deliberation and braying, barking and squawking of opinions, the wisest of the animals realized that they would need a set of standards to decide the best.

All the animals readily agreed, even the grumpy wolverine. A horse raised the question of what standards to use and each animal rushed to answer. The wisest animal quickly restored order and said that each animal should speak in order as selected by drawing lots. The animals recognized this as fair, though the lion did make some noises about the prerogatives of royalty.

Cheetah went first and stated that the only sensible standard was speed in a sprint. The bat went next, insisting that the ability to fly in the dark and hang upside down were the only sensible measures. And so each animal proposed standards that suited them best. Each was enraged when its standard was not accepted and this is why, to this day, that animals no longer speak to each other.

 

Rankings are very important to academic institutes—and not just in regards to their sports teams. Colleges and universities battle in the academic rankings for the prestige, to impress parents into sending their kids to schools befitting their rank, and to justify those sweet administrative salaries. Some schools are also forced to engage in the blood sport that is performance based funding. My university, Florida A&M University, is one of these schools.

As I have noted in previous essays on performance based funding, Florida A&M University (FAMU) has fared poorly under the standards imposed by the state legislature. To be specific, FAMU has been ranked last since 2013. The punishment is, of course, a reduction in funding. In contrast, the University of Florida has been winning this contest by a significant margin, thus enjoying the fruits (and cash) of victory. The University of South Florida placed second and the University of Central Florida placed third.

The standards used for performance based funding are, I have argued previously, unfair. I will not argue this point here, but will note that the standards used are obviously not the only ones that can be used to rank a university.

One interesting way to rank colleges and universities is to consider one of their historical purposes: to enable social mobility through education. As many others have argued, education has long served as a key means of social mobility. The idea that people can rise from humble (that is economically disadvantaged) beginnings through a college degree has long been a part of the mythology of the American Dream.  It is certainly a part of my family story. The rhetoric of politicians is also heavily laden with words praising and calling for upward mobility and success. Given the importance of social mobility in traditional American values, mythology and rhetoric, it seems reasonable to consider that an important measure of a university’s success.

Conveniently enough, CollegeNET has created a Social Mobility Index that ranks schools in terms of weighted assessment of tuition, the economic background of students, the graduation rate, early career salary and the endowment of the institution. Roughly put, the better a school does in regards to social mobility (enabling people to move upwards via education) the better its SMI.

While FAMU is ranked last by the state’s performance based funding standards, it ranks 19th in the United States in terms of its SMI. FAMU ranks well because 52.8% of the students are low income, the tuition is relatively affordable ($5,785), and the median early career salary is a respectable $45,900.  68% of the freshmen have Pell Grants and 77.8% of them are lower income students. On the minus side, FAMU has a graduation rate of 40.9% and an endowment of only $80 million.

As I argued in previous essays, the low graduation rate can be accounted for by social factors, especially economic ones. Somewhat ironically, FAMU is regarded as a poor performer by the state for the same reason it does exceptionally well at social mobility: it has a majority of low income students and does a good job assisting them upwards—and this is in despite of the tremendous obstacles presented by economic factors and the impact of past and current racism. Since the state standards do not account for the challenges faced by low income and minority students, pursuing a mission that aids social mobility condemns FAMU to the bottom of the state ranking. To use an analogy, if you are trying to help people up from a deep cave with a rope that is being steadily weakened, then it would hardly be a shock if not everyone made it into the golden light of the sun. Yes, I just used a metaphor I stole from Plato.

Interesting enough, the undisputed winner of the state’s performance based funding, the University of Florida (UF), is ranked #260 in terms of its SMI. This is not because it is a bad school—quite the contrary, it is a very good school (unlike my Florida State brethren I have little football animosity against the Gators and can give them their due praise).

UF has an exceptionally good 86.5% graduation rate, reasonable tuition ($6,263), a good median early career salary ($49,500) and an impressive endowment (over a billion dollars). These facts might lead one to wonder why UF is ranked so far behind FAMU. The main reason is that only 11.2% of UF students are low income. Only 29% of UF students are Pell Grant recipients, but 60.8% of them are not lower income students. As such, UF excels at assisting upper income students to become upper income graduates. It does however, very little in regards to social mobility.

The success of UF is hardly surprising—just as economic disadvantage decreases a student’s chance of graduating and likely income, an economic advantage increases a student’s chance of graduating and the likelihood of a good income. To use an analogy, UF is pulling people along a level ground with an ever stronger rope—this is ever so much easier than pulling people out of a deep cave.

There is, obviously enough, nothing wrong with UF helping the relatively well-off remain relatively well-off. In fact, this is laudable. There is, however, something wrong with basing funding on performance standards that ensure schools with low percentages of low income students will excel and thus garner the rewards while schools that contribute to social mobility (and thus face lower graduation rates) will have what little they receive reduced.

As might be suspected, the second place school in the state ranking (the University of South Florida) is ranked #72 by SMI. It has 33% low income students and a 63.2% graduation rate. The state’s third ranked school (University of Central Florida) is ranked 53 by SMI. It has 27% low income students and a graduation rate of 67.2%.

A look at the data for the schools shows a not surprising correlation between the percentage of lower income students and the graduation rate. As such, the relatively low graduation rate of FAMU and the relatively high graduation rate at UF are not aberrations. They are exactly what should be expected due to the impact of economic class on student success.

As discussed in a previous essay, it has been suggested by some that FAMU can improve its ranking by changing its approach to admission. If FAMU lowered the percentage of low income students, it could increase its graduation rate. This would also impact other standards—people who are already from the higher economic classes are more likely to get jobs and more likely to get better paying jobs. This would, however, negatively impact FAMU’s rank in terms of social mobility—instead of assisting people out of the lower economic classes, FAMU would simply be engaged in keeping students in the higher economic classes, thus condemning lower income students to remain in the lower income class.

Someone more cynical than I might claim that the state ranking system is intentionally designed to punish schools that assist in upward mobility and reward schools for maintaining the economic status quo. This, some might say, is part of a broader economic ideology that favors abandoning the less-well off and maintaining a rigid class system and whose words about opportunity are but empty sounds. The less cynical might say that the state system is merely pragmatic—in the face of intentional cuts by the state to the education budget, the remaining funds must be spent wisely on those likely to succeed. These just happen to be those who are already well off, rather than those who are in the lower income classes. Helping the successful stay successful makes good sense and helping those who need help is too much of a risk. After all, if we are pulling people along level ground, then they will almost all make it. If we are pulling people out of a cave, they might not all reach the light of day. Better to just leave them in the darkness, right?

 

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Performance Based Funding & Disadvantaged Students

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 7, 2015

As I have discussed in previous essays, Florida state universities now operate under a performance based model of funding and Florida A&M University (FAMU), my university, has performed poorly in regards to the state standards. One area of poor performance is the six-year graduation rate. Another is student loan debts, both in terms of the debt accrued and the default rate. Currently, it has been claimed that FAMU students default on their loans at three times the state average. It has been claimed that one explanation for this poor performance is that FAMU accepts students who are ill-prepared for a four year university. It has also been suggested that such students would be better served by community colleges.

I will not dispute the claim that FAMU admits some students who are ill-prepared for a four year university. This is because the claim is true. One reason it is true is because FAMU has had an historical mission of providing an opportunity for the disadvantaged. One part of this mission is shown by the fact FAMU is an HBCU (Historically Black College and University). Before desegregation, HBCUs provided almost the only higher education opportunities for African-Americans. After the end of legal segregation, HBCUs still served a vital role in providing such opportunities. As predominantly white colleges (PWCs, also known as Predominantly White Institutions or PWIs) became more integrated, people began to argue that this old mission of HBCUs was no longer relevant. After all, if black students can attend any school they wish and racism is no longer a factor, then one might say “mission accomplished.” Unfortunately, as I discussed in my essay on performance based funding and race, race is still a significant factor in regards to economic and academic success. As such, while the dismantling of some barriers to education is to be lauded, many more still remain. Among these are numerous economic barriers.

While it could be argued that FAMU no longer has a mission to offset racism in America by offering educational opportunities to African Americans, FAMU has also had a longstanding mission of serving the economically disadvantaged. Students who come from a background of economic and academic disadvantage (these are almost always tightly linked) face many challenges to graduating and, not surprisingly, are more likely to have student debt. It is well worth considering why disadvantaged students generally perform worse than other students.

One rather obvious factor is that students from poor schools (which tend to be located in economically disadvantaged areas) will face the challenge imposed by being poorly prepared for college. While individuals can overcome this through natural talent and special effort, this poor preparation is analogous to a weight chained to a runner’s leg—she will have to run so much harder to go as fast as others who are not dragging such a burden.

Another especially disturbing factor is that poverty has been found to negatively impact brain development as well as academic performance. Poverty is quite literally damaging American children and thus doing harm to the future of America. Unfortunately, for many politicians the concern regarding children seems to end at birth, so this problem is unlikely to be seriously addressed in the existing political climate.

A third factor is that disadvantaged students, being disadvantaged, generally need to borrow more money than students from wealthier backgrounds. This entails more student debt on the part of the disadvantaged. It also creates a rather vicious scenario: a student who needs to take out loans is more likely to end up with financial challenges in school. A student who is challenged financially is more likely to drop out than a student who is not. Students who drop out are more likely to default on student loans. This provides a rather clear explanation of why disadvantaged students have low completion rates, high debts and high default rates.

As might be expected, seventy percent of African American students say that student debt is their main reason for dropping out. In contrast, less than fifty percent of white students make this claim. This is quite consistent with my own study of student performance: over the course of my study, the primary reason for missing class was work and the main reason students gave for not graduating was financial.

In terms of why students are taking out more and larger loans than any time in United States history, there are some easy and obvious answers. One is the fact that incomes for all but the wealthiest have, at best, stagnated for nearly thirty years—as such people have less money to spend on college and thus need to take out loans. Students also need to work more in college, which can make attending class and completing work challenging.

A second is the fact that state funding for education has dropped substantially as a result of both ideology and the great recession. Even after the broader economy rebounded, education funding was not restored and some states continued to cut funding. With less state funding, universities raised tuition and this, naturally enough, has led to an increased need for students to work more (which impacts graduation rates) and take out loans—which leads to debt. It is a cruel irony that the very people who have cut education funding judge schools by how well they handle the problems such cuts have created or acerbated. To use an analogy, this is like taking a runner’s shoes, striking her legs with a baton and then threatening to do more damage unless she runs even faster than before. This is madness.

Given the factors discussed above, it should hardly be surprising that a school, such as FAMU, that intentionally enrolls disadvantaged students will perform worse than schools who do not have such a mission. Since FAMU’s funding is linked to its performance, it is rather important to consider solutions to this situation.

The state legislature could address this problem in various ways. One approach would be to address the economic and academic inequality that creates disadvantaged students. This, however, seems extremely unlikely in the present political climate.

A second approach would be to restore the education funding that was cut (or even increase it beyond that). However, the current ideological commitment is to cutting education funding while, at the same time, expressing shocked dismay at greater student debt and punishing schools for not solving this problem by taking away even more money. As such, it seems reasonable, though rather unfortunate, to dismiss the state legislature as a source of solutions and instead regard them as a major part of the problem.

For schools such as FAMU, one option is to change the mission of the school to one that matches the views of those providing oversight of the schools. This revised mission would not include providing opportunities to the disadvantaged. Rather, it would involve improving the graduation and debt numbers by ceasing to admit disadvantaged students. On the plus side, this would enable FAMU to improve its performance relative to the goals imposed by the legislature that helped create the student debt crisis and helped lower graduation rates. However, the performance based funding system imposed by the state must have losers, so even if FAMU improved, it might not improve enough to push some other schools to the bottom.  Even if it does improve, it would merely shift the punishment of the state to some other school—which is certainly morally problematic (rather like the old joke about not needing to outrun the bear, just one other person).

On the minus side, abandoning this historic mission of providing opportunity to the disadvantaged would mean abandoning people to the mire of poverty and the desert that is a lack of opportunity. As a professor who teaches ethics, this strikes me as morally reprehensible—especially in a country whose politicians cry endlessly about opportunity, economic mobility and the American Dream.

As has been well-established by history, a college degree is a way to achieve greater economic success and it has been a ladder out of poverty for many previous generations of Americans. To kick away this ladder would be to say that the American Dream is only for those lucky enough to already be well off and the rest can simply stay at the bottom. This could be done, but if it is done, then we must no longer speak of this being a land of opportunity for everyone.

It might be countered that, as was suggested, the disadvantaged students could attend a two-year college. While this idea has become something of a talking point, the evidence shows that it is actually not a low cost, low debt option for students. Because of higher education costs and reduced state support, disadvantaged students will still need to take out loans to attend such schools and will face the same general challenges they would face at a four-year institute.

It could also be countered that enrolling disadvantaged students does not actually help them. After all, if they do not graduate and end up accumulating considerable debt, then it could be argued they would have been better off never making the attempt. They could, instead, go straight to work right out of high school (or complete some technical training). The money that would have been spent on them could be spent on students more likely to succeed (because they already enjoy advantages).

While I am committed to the value of education, this is a point well worth considering. If an objective and fair assessment of the data shows that disadvantage students are worse off when they attempt a four-year degree, then it would make no sense to admit such students. However, if the data shows that providing such students with this opportunity does provide positive benefits, then it would seem a good idea to continue to offer people a chance to escape to a better future from a disadvantaged past. This is, of course, a matter of value—how much is it worth to society to provide such opportunities and at what point should we, as a people, say that the cost is too high to give our fellow Americans an opportunity? Or, put another way, how much are we willing to spend to be able to speak about the American Dream without speaking lies?

 

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Race & Performance Based Funding

Posted in Race, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on August 24, 2015

Florida, like some other states, has imposed performance based funding on its state universities. The basic idea is that each state school is evaluated by ten standards and then the schools are ranked. The top schools are rewarded and the bottom schools are punished.

As a runner and a professor, I certainly get the idea of linking rewards to performance. As a runner, I believe that better performance merits the better awards (be it a gold medal, a fat stack of cash, or a ribbon). As a professor, I believe that performance merits the better grades and that poor performance merits the corresponding lower grades. However, I also recognize the importance of fairness.

In the case of running, a fair race requires that everyone must compete on the same course and under the same conditions. The age and gender of the runners is also taken into account when assessing performance and there are even age-graded performance formulas to take into account the ravages of time.

In the case of grading, a fair class requires that everyone is required to do the same work, receives the same support from the professor, and that the assessment standards are the same. Fairness also requires that special challenges faced by some students are taken into account. Otherwise, the assessment is unjust.

The same applies to performance based funding of education. If the goal is to encourage better performance on the part of all the schools, the competition needs to be fair. Going with a classroom analogy, if a student knows that the class is rigged against her, she is not likely to be motivated to do her best. There also seems to be an obvious moral requirement that the assessment be fair and this would require considering the specific challenges that each school faces. Laying aside the normative aspects, there is also the matter of accuracy: knowing how well a school is performing requires considering what challenges it had to overcome.

While all the schools operate within the state of Florida and face similar challenges, each school also faces some special challenges. Because of this, a proper and just assessment of a schools performance (how well it does in educating students, etc.) should reflect these challenges. To simply impose standards that fail to consider these challenges would be unfair and would also yield an inaccurate account of the success or failure of the school.

Consider the following analogy: imagine, if you will, that the Pentagon adopted a performance based funding model for military units using various standards such as cost of operations, causalities, how well the units got along with the locals and so on. Now imagine that the special challenges of the units were not properly considered so that, for example, a unit operating in the deserts of Iraq fighting ISIS was assessed the same way as a unit stationed in Kentucky. As might be imagined, the unit in Iraq would certainly be assessed as performing worse than the unit stationed in Kentucky. The unit in Kentucky would presumably cost less per person, have far fewer causalities, and get along much better with the locals. As such, the unit fighting ISIS would find itself in funding trouble since its performance would seem rather worse than the unit in Kentucky. Of course, this approach would be irrational and unfair—the unit fighting ISIS might be performing extremely well relative to the challenges it faces. The same, it would seem, should hold for schools. Turning back to performance based funding, I will consider the relevant standards and how they are unfair to my school, Florida A&M University.

Florida A&M University is an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and is still predominantly African-American. The school also prides itself on providing educational opportunities to students who have been denied such opportunities as well as those who are first generation college students. Put roughly, we have many African-American students and a large number of students who are burdened with economic and educational baggage.

As I have mentioned in a previous essay, FAMU fared poorly under the state’s standards. To be fair, we honestly did do poorly in regards to the state’s standards. However, there are the important questions as to whether the standards are fair and whether or not the assessment of our performance is accurate.

On the one hand, the answer to both questions can be taken as “yes.” The standards apply to all the schools and the assessment was accurate in terms of the results. On the other hand, the answer is also “no”, since FAMU faces special challenges and the assessment fails to take these into account. To use a running analogy, the situation is like comparing the true 5K times of various runners. This is fair and accurate in that all runners are using their 5K times and the times are accurate. However, if some runners had to run hilly trails and others did their 5Ks on tracks, then the competition would not be fair. After all, a slower 5K on a hilly trail could be a much better performance than a 5K on a track.

To get directly to the point, my claim is that FAMU faces the special challenge of racism and the legacy of racism. This, I contend, means that FAMU is being assessed unfairly in terms of its performance: FAMU is running hills on a trail while other schools are enjoying a smoother run around the track. In support of this claim, I offer the following evidence.

One standard is the Percent of Bachelor’s Graduates Employed and/or Continuing their Education Further. A second is the Average Wages of Employed Baccalaureate.  The third is the Six Year Graduation Rate and the fourth is the Academic Progress Rate (2nd Year Retention with GPA Above 2.0). These four break down into two general areas. The first is economic success (employment and wages) and the second is academic success (staying in school and graduating). I will consider each general area.

On the face of it, retention and graduation rates should have no connection to race. After all, one might argue, these are a matter of staying in school and completing school which is a matter of personal effort rather than race.

While I do agree that personal effort does matter, African-American students face at least two critical obstacles in regards to retention and graduation. The first is that African-American students are still often victims of segregation in regards to K-12 education and receive generally inferior education relative to white students. It should be no surprise that this educational disadvantage manifests itself in terms of retention and graduation rates. To use a running analogy, no one would be surprised if the runners who were poorly trained and coached did worse than better trained and coached runners.

The second is economic, which ties directly into the standards relating to economic success. As will be shown, African-Americans are far less well off than other Americans. Since college is expensive, it is hardly surprising that people who are less well-off would have a harder time remaining in and completing college. As I have discussed in other essays, the main (self-reported) reason for students being absent from my classes is for work and there is a clear correlation between attendance and class performance. I now turn to the unfairness of the state’s economic success standards.

While I do not believe that the primary function of the state university is to train students to be job fillers for the job creators, I do agree that it is reasonable to consider the economic success of students when evaluating schools. However, assessing how much the school contributes to economic success requires considering the starting point of the students and the challenges they will face in achieving success.

To be blunt, race is a major factor in regards to economic success in the United States. This is due to a variety of historical factors (slavery and the legacy of slavery) and contemporary factors (persistent racism). These factors manifest themselves quite clearly and, as such, the relatively poor performance of African-American graduates from FAMU is actually what should be expected.

In regards to employment, the University of Chicago conducted a study aimed at determining if there is racial bias in hiring. To test this, the researchers responded to 1,300 job advertisements with 5,000 applications. They found that comparable resumes with white sounding names were 50% more likely to get called for an initial interview relative to those with more African-American sounding names. The researchers found that white sounding applications got call backs at a rate of 1 in 10 while for black sounding names it was 1 in 15. This is clearly significant.

Interestingly, a disparity was also found in regards to the impact of experience and better credentials. A white job applicant with a higher quality application was 30% more likely to get a call than a white applicant with a lower quality application. For African-Americans, the higher quality application was only 9% more likely to get a call than a lower quality black application.

This disparity in the hiring process seems to help explain the disparity in employment. For whites, the unemployment rate is 5.3% and it is 11.4% for blacks. As such, it is hardly surprising that African-American students from FAMU are doing worse than students from schools that are mostly white.

Assuming that this information is accurate, this means that FAMU could be producing graduates as good as the other schools while still falling considerably behind them in regards to the employment of graduates. That is, FAMU could be doing a great job that is getting degraded by racism. As such, the employment assessment would need to be adjusted to include this factor. Going with the running analogy, FAMU’s African-American graduates have to run uphill to get a job, while white graduates get to run on much flatter course.

In addition to employment, a graduate’s wages is also one of the standards used by the state. FAMU fared poorly relative to the other schools here as well. However, this is also exactly what should be expected in the United States. The poverty rate for whites is 9.7% while that for blacks it is 27.2%. The median household wealth for whites is $91,405 and for blacks $6,446. Blacks own homes at a rate of 43.5% while whites do so at 72.9%. Median household income is $35,416 for blacks and $59,754 for whites. As such, it would actually be surprising if African American graduates of FAMU competed well against the statistics for predominantly white schools.

It might be contended that these statistics are not relevant because what is of concern is the performance of African-American college graduates and not the general economic woes of African-Americans. Unfortunately, college education does not close the racial wealth gap.

While the great recession had a negative impact on the wealth of most Americans, African-Americans with college degrees were hits surprisingly hard: their net worth dropped 60% from 2007 to 2013. In contrast, whites suffered a decline of 16% and, interestingly, Asians saw a slight increase. An analysis of the data (and data going back to 1992) showed that black and Hispanics had more assets in housing and more debts and these were major factors in the loss of wealth (the burst of the housing bubble crashed house values). In terms of income, researchers take the main causes of the disparity to include discrimination and career choices. In addition to the impact on salary, this wealth disparity also impacts retention and graduation rates. As such, the state is right to focus heavily on economics—but the standards need to consider the broader economic reality as well.

It is reasonable to infer that the main reason that FAMU fares worse in these areas is due to factors beyond the control of the school. Most of our students are black and in the United States, discrimination and enduring historical factors blacks do far worse than whites. As such, these poor numbers are more a reflection of the poor performance of America than on the performance of Florida A&M University. Because of this, the standards should be adjusted to take into account the reality of race in America.

 

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Performance Based Funding: Taking the Fight to the Enemy

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on August 14, 2015

Since the whole “war on x” thing is overdone, I will not say that there is a war on public education. Rather, I will say that certain politicians have attacked one of the cornerstones of America’s democratic system and its economic strength, namely public education.

Scott Walker has aimed at eroding tenure at public universities in Wisconsin and Rick Scott has imposed an irrational and harmful performance based funding system in Florida. Similar attacks on public education are occurring in many states. Most states have also cut financial support for public education. While occurring under the guise of cost reduction and accountability, these attacks seem calculated at impeding independent research that might expose troublesome truths and also to open up new avenues of private profit at the expense of the public good.

In 2014 I wrote an essay critical of Florida’s harmful and ineffective (in terms of achieving educational goals) performance based funding system. Writing in 2015, my views of this system remain mostly the same; although the seemingly arbitrary changes in the rules have made me like it even less.

My school, Florida A&M University, took a beating under the existing system. This system, as I noted in the earlier essay, fails to consider the challenges faced by specific schools and the assessment system seems calculated to favor certain schools. Not surprisingly, the 2015 faculty planning sessions focused heavily on performance based funding. It was, in fact, the main subject of the keynote speaker.

This speaker took a rational and pragmatic approach to the problem. He noted that complaining about it and refusing to accept its reality would be a rather bad idea. Roughly put, failure to respond in accord with the punitive standards imposed by the state would simply doom FAMU to ever lower budgets. By meeting the standards, FAMU could escape the punitive level and thus push another school down into the pit of financial pain (the performance based funding system is such that there must always be three losers).

Being pragmatic and realistic myself, I agreed with the speaker. As a state employee, I am obligated to operate within the laws imposed upon me by the state. If I find them too onerous, I can elect to leave my job and head for greener pastures. To use the obvious analogy, if I choose to play a game under a certain set of rules, I am stuck playing within those rules. Muttering complaints about them or refusing to accept their reality will do me no good (other than the dubious benefits of bitching and self-delusion). As such, as a professor I am working conscientiously to meet the imposed standards so as to protect my school and students from the punishment of the state.

To use another analogy, it is like being forced to play a rough game by a movie villain—if we do not play by his rules, he will hurt people we care about. As with most movie villain games, it is set up so that winning means making someone else lose (regardless of how well everyone does, the three lowest schools always lose out on funding). Unlike with the movie villain, I am free to leave the game—I just have to abandon my colleagues, students, job, rank and tenure. The state, I must confess, makes finding a new game more and more appealing every year.

It is important to note that my conscientious adherence to the funding game rules is in my capacity as a state employee. However, I am not just a state employee—I am also a citizen of the state. While the state has the right to command me as an employee, the authority of the state rests on my consent as a citizen. And, as a citizen, I have every right to be opposed to performance based funding and every right to take action against it. I can write essays critical of it, thanks to freedom of speech. I can also campaign against politicians who support it and cast my vote accordingly. I can fund those who would oppose this attack on education.

The laws of the state are, obviously enough, not laws of nature or laws handed down on stone tablets by God. They are but the opinions of people made into rules by the rituals of voting. Thoreau eloquently made this point in his work on civil disobedience:

 

…why expose yourself to this overwhelming brute force? You do not resist cold and hunger, the winds and the waves, thus obstinately; you quietly submit to a thousand similar necessities. You do not put your head into the fire. But just in proportion as I regard this as not wholly a brute force, but partly a human force, and consider that I have relations to those millions as to so many millions of men, and not of mere brute or inanimate things, I see that appeal is possible…

 

As Thoreau indicates, performance based funding, and any rule of the state, can be challenged—it was created by people and people can change it. As a citizen, I believe that performance based funding is harmful to the public good and, as such, I not only have a right as a citizen to oppose it I also have a moral obligation to do so. Meanwhile, as a state employee, I will be conscientiously working to ensure that FAMU meets the standards imposed by the state.

To close with an analogy, think of the public universities of Florida as ships that are under attack. Metaphorically, bombs, missiles and shells are raining down upon them, fired at the behest of an ideology opposed to this cornerstone of American democracy and economic advancement. Working within performance based funding is analogous to only repairing damage and extinguishing fire (and also to maneuver to force another ship to take the brunt of the attack). As any tactician knows, battles are not won by damage control or by letting an ally take the beating for you. Rather, they are won by taking the fight to the enemy. As such, I urge the citizens of Florida, especially students, faculty and staff, to exercise their rights as citizens to oppose the attacks on the public good of public education with their words, deeds and votes.

 

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Should there be a waiting period for abortion?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 8, 2015

The Florida state legislature is considering bills that will require a woman seeking an abortion to wait 24 hours and make two face-to-face visits to her doctor before she can have the abortion. Opponents of this bill claim that is yet another attack on the rights of women. Proponents of the bill claim that the state mandated waiting period is reasonable and will permit women to be informed about the risks of abortion and the condition of the fetus. Twenty-six other states have waiting periods, some as long as 72 hours. While the legal aspects of these bills are of considerable interest, I will focus primarily on the moral aspects of the waiting period and the two-visit requirement.

One proponent of the bill, Julie Costas, said that she had an abortion thirty years ago and that she now regrets the decision. Her main argument for the bill is that, counterfactually, she might have changed her mind if she had received more information (thus supporting the two-visit requirement) and if she had to wait 24 hours (thus supporting the 24 hour requirement). This sort of argument can be made into a moral argument in favor of the bill. By the state imposing the two-visit requirement and the 24 hour waiting, there is a chance that some women might change their minds about having an abortion which they might later regret having. In terms of the moral aspect, the appeal is that the requirements might prevent a later harm (that inflicted by the regret) to a woman. Naturally, it can also be contended that increasing the chance that a woman might not get an abortion would be morally good since it would avoid the death of the fetus (which, for the sake of this argument, be considered wrong).

I certainly agree that a woman (or girl) should take time to consider whether or not to have an abortion. After all, an abortion is a morally significant action and is one that is clearly important enough to warrant due consideration. I suspect, but do not know, that most woman do put considerable thought into this decision. Obviously, there can be exceptions—there are, after all, people who consistently act without thinking through their actions. While I do think there is a moral obligation to think through morally significant actions, I am not sure that 24 hours is the right waiting time. After all, there would need to be evidence that an extra 24 hours of consideration is likely to result in a better decision.

In terms of the number of visits, that should depend on what the woman actually needs. After all, it is not clear that a second visit would consistently result in more information for the woman that one visit could not provide. There are also the rather practical concerns of cost and time. Would, for example, the state pick up the tab on the second visit that would be mandated? I suspect not.

I have, of course, not said anything yet about the most important consideration. While I think people should take time to properly consider significant decisions and perhaps two visits could be a good idea, there is the critical issue of whether or not this is a matter suitable for the coercive power of the state. After all, there is a multitude of things people should do that should not be compelled by the state. For example, I think that people should exercise, should be polite, should be kind and should eat healthy. However, I do not think that the state should compel these things. But, of course, there are many things that people should do and the state justly compels people to do them. These include such things as paying a fair share of the taxes and serving on juries.

While some people take the view that the state should compel based on what they like and dislike, I prefer to operate based on a consistent principle when it comes to the compulsive power of the state. The principle, which I obviously stole from Mill, is that the use of the compulsive force of the state is justified when it is employed to prevent one person from wrongly harming another. A case can also be made for compelling people in order to serve the general civil good—such as compelling people to serve on juries and pay a fair share of the taxes. However, compelling people to serve the good is generally rather more problematic than compelling people to not inflict wrongful harm.

The principle of harm could, obviously enough, be used to argue against allowing abortion on the grounds that it harms (kills) the fetus. Of course, this is not decisive, since the harms of not having an abortion must also be given due consideration. This principle would not, however, seem to justify the two-visit and 24-hour waiting period requirements. Then again, perhaps it could be argued that they would provide some slight possible protection for the fetus: the woman might change her mind. This sort of really weak protection does not seem to be a very convincing moral reason to have a law.

It could be argued that a different version of the principle of harm should be used. To be specific, that a law can be morally justified on the grounds that it would compel a person not to harm herself. This principle can, obviously enough, be justified on utilitarian grounds. Various laws, such as the infamous NYC ban on big sodas, have been passed that aim at protecting a person from self-inflicted harms.

In the case of this bill, the moral reasoning would be that because there is a chance that a woman might change her mind about an abortion she might later regret, it follows that the state has the right to compel her to have two visits and to wait twenty-four hours. A rather obvious problem with this justification is that it would set a very low bar for the state using its compulsive power: there must only be a chance that a person might change her mind about engaging in a legal procedure that she might later regret. This principle would obviously warrant the state engaging into a massive intrusion into the lives of citizens. Sticking with a medical example, people do sometimes regret having elective surgery. So, this principle would warrant the state imposing a waiting period and a two visit rule. But there would seem to be no reason to stick within the field of medicine. People can come to regret many significant decisions, such as buying a car, choosing a college major, accepting a job offer, or moving. Yet it would seem unreasonable to impose a waiting period for such decisions. Looked at in utilitarian terms, the harms inflicted by such laws (such as the cost of enforcement, the annoyance, and so on) would seem to outweigh their alleged benefits. Especially since a waiting period would not seem to increase the chances of a better decision being made.

What makes considerably more sense is having laws that protect people from decisions made while they are incapable of properly making decisions, such as when intoxicated. So, for example, it would be reasonable to have a law that prevents a person from getting married when she is intoxicated. It is also reasonable to have waiting periods that are based on actual need. For example, a waiting period that is needed to complete paperwork or verify a person’s legal identity would be justifiable on practical grounds (assuming the time requirements are legitimate).

In light of the above arguments, the proposed bill is not morally justified and would, if made into law, be an unwarranted intrusion of the state into the lives of citizens. Those who oppose big government and government intrusion should oppose this bill. Those who favor the “nanny state” should, obviously enough, support it.

 

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Spinoza, Self Help and Agency

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 27, 2015

The bookshelves of the world abound with tomes on self-help. Many of these profess to help people with various emotional woes, such as sadness, and make vague promises about happiness.  Interestingly enough, philosophers have long been in the business of offering advice on how to be happy. Or at least not too sad.

Each spring semester I teach Modern Philosophy and cover our good dead friend Spinoza. In addition to an exciting career as a lens grinder, he also manage to avoid being killed by an assassin. However, breathing in all that glass dust seems to have ultimately contributed to his untimely death. But enough about his life and death, it is time to get to the point of this essay.

As Spinoza saw it, people are slaves to their emotion and chained to what they love, such as fame, fortune and other people. This inevitably leads to sadness: the people we love betray us or die. That fancy Tesla can be smashed in a wreck. The beach house can be swept away by the rising tide. A job can be lost as a company seeks to boost its stock prices by downsizing the job fillers. And so on, through all the ways things can go badly.

While Spinoza was a pantheist and believed that everything is God and God is everything, his view of human beings is similar to that of the philosophical mechanist: humans are not magically exempt from the laws of nature. He was also a strict determinist: each event occurs from necessity and cannot be otherwise—there is no chance or choice. So, for example, the Seahawks could not have won the 2015 Super Bowl. As another example, I could not have written this essay in any other manner, so I had to make that remark about the Seahawks losing rather than mentioning their 2014 victory.

Buying into determinism, Spinoza took the view that human behavior and motivations can be examined as one might examine “lines, planes or bodies.” More precisely, he took the view that emotions follow the same necessity as all other things, thus making the effects of the emotions predictable—provided that one has enough knowledge.  Spinoza then used this idea as the basis for his “self-help” advice.

According to Spinoza all emotions are responses to the past, present or future. For example, a person might feel regret because she believes she could have made her last relationship work if she had only put more effort into it. As another example, a person might worry because he thinks that he might lose his job in the next round of downsizing at his company. These negative feelings rest, as Spinoza sees it, on the false belief that the past could have been otherwise and that the future is undetermined. Once a person realizes nothing could have been any different and the future cannot be anything other than what it will be, then that person will suffer less from the emotions. Thus, for Spinoza, freedom from the enslaving chains is the recognition and acceptance that what was could not have been otherwise and what will be cannot be otherwise.

This view does have a certain appeal and it does make sense that it can have some value. In regards to the past, people do often beat themselves up emotionally over what they regard as past mistakes. This can lead a person to be chained by regrets and thus be partially trapped in the past as she spends countless hours wondering “what if?” This is not to say that feeling regret or guilt is wrong—far from it. But, it is to say that lamenting about the past to the detriment of now is a problem.  It is also a problem to believe that things could have been different when they, in fact, could not have been different.

This is also not to say that a person should not reflect on the past—after all, a person who does not learn from her mistakes is doomed to repeat them. People can, of course, also be trapped by the past because of what they see as good things about the past—they are chained to what they (think) they once had or once were (such as being the big woman on campus back in college).

In regards to the future, it is very easy to be trapped by anxiety, fear and even hope. It can be reassuring to embrace the view that what will be will be and to not worry and be happy. This is not to say that one should be foolish about the future, of course.

There is, unfortunately, one crushing and obvious problem with Spinoza’s advice. If everything is necessary and determined, his advice makes no sense: what is, must be and cannot be otherwise. To use an analogy, it would be like shouting advice at someone watching a cut scene in a video game. This is pointless, since the person cannot do anything to change what is occurring. What occurs must occur and cannot be otherwise. For Spinoza, while we might think life is a like a game, it is like that cut scene: we are spectators of the show and not players controlling the game.

The obvious counter is to say “but I feel free! I feel like I am making choices!” Spinoza was well aware of this objection. In response, he claims that if a stone were conscious and hurled through the air, it would think it was free to choose to move and land where it does. People think they are free because they are “conscious of their own actions, and ignorant of the causes by which those actions are determined.” In other words, we think we are free because we do not know better. Going back to the video game analogy, we think we are in control as we push the buttons, but this is because we do not know how the game actually works—that is, we are just along for the ride and not in control.

Since everything is determined, whether or not a person heeds Spinoza’s advice is also determined—if you do, then you do and you could not do otherwise. If you do not, you could not do otherwise. As such, his advice would seem to be beyond useless. This is a stock paradox faced by determinists who give advice: their theory says that people cannot chose to follow this advice—they will just do what they are determined to do. That said, it is possible to salvage some useful advice from Spinoza.

The first step is for me to reject his view that I lack free will.  I have a stock argument for this that goes as follows. Obviously, I have free will or I do not. It is equally obvious that there is no way to tell whether I do or not. From an empirical standpoint, a universe with free will looks and feels just like a universe without free will: you just observe people doing stuff and apparently making decisions while thinking and feeling that you are doing the same.

Suppose someone rejects free will and they are wrong. In this case they are not only mistaken but also consciously rejecting real freedom.

Suppose someone rejects free will and they are correct. In that case, they are right—but not in the sense that they made the correct choice. They would have been determined to have that view and it would just so happen that it matches reality.

Suppose someone accepts free will and they are right. In this case, they have the correct view. They have also made the right choice—since choice would be real, making right and wrong choices is possible. More importantly, if they act consistently with this view, then they will be doing things right—not in the moral sense, but in the sense that they are acting in accord with how the universe works.

 

Suppose someone accepts free will and they are wrong. In this case they are in error, but have not made an incorrect choice (for obvious reasons).  They believe they are freely making choices, but obviously are not.

If I can choose, then I should obviously choose free will. If I cannot choose, then I will think I chose whatever it is I am determined to believe. If I can choose and choose to think I cannot, I am in error. Since I cannot know which option is correct, it seems best to accept free will. If I am actually free, I am right. If I am not free, then I am mistaken but had no choice.

Given the above argument, I accept that I have agency. This makes it possible for me to meaningfully give and accept (or reject) advice. Turning back to Spinoza, I obviously cannot accept his advice that I am enslaved by determinism. However, I can accept some of his claims, namely that I am acted upon by my attachments and emotions. As he sees it, the emotions are things that act upon us—on my view, they would thus be things that impinge upon our agency. As I love to do, I will use an analogy to running.

As I ran this morning, I was thinking about this essay and focused on the fact that feelings of pain (I have various old and new injuries) and tiredness were impinging on me in a manner similar to the way the cold or rain might impinge on me. In the case of pain and tiredness, the attack is from inside. In the case of the cold or rain, the attack is from the outside. Whether the attack is from inside or out, the attack is trying to make the choice for me—to rob me of my agency as a runner. If the pain, cold or rain makes me stop, then I am not acting. I am being acted upon. If I chose to stop, then I am acting. If I chose to go on, I am also acting. And acting rightly.  As a runner I know the difference between choosing to stop and being forced to stop.

Being aware of this is very useful for running—thanks to decades of experience I understand, in a way Spinoza might approve, the workings of pain, fatigue and so on. To use a specific example, I know that I am being acted upon by the pain and I understand quite well how it works. As such, the pain is not in control—I am. If I wish, I can run myself to ruin (and I have done just this). Or I can be wiser and avoid damaging myself.

Turning back to emotions, feelings impinge upon me in ways analogous to pain and fatigue. I do not have full control over how I feel—the emotions simply occur, perhaps in response to events or perhaps simply as the result of an electrochemical imbalance. To use a specific example, like most folks I will feel depressed and know that I have no reason to feel that way. It is like the cold or fatigue—it is just impinging on me. As Spinoza argued, my knowledge of how this works is critical to dealing with it. While I cannot fully control the feeling, I understand why I feel that way. It is like the cold I felt running in the Maine winters—it is a natural phenomenon that is, from my perspective, trying to destroy me. In the case of the cold, I can wear warmer clothing and stay moving—knowing how it works enables me to choose how to combat it. Likewise, knowing how the negative feelings work enables me to choose how to combat them. If I am depressed for no reason, I know it is just my brain trying to kill me. It is not pleasant, but it does not get to make the decisions for me. Fortunately, our good dead friend Aristotle has some excellent advice for training oneself to handle the emotions.

That said, the analogy to cold is particularly apt. The ice of the winter can kill even those who understand it and know how to resist it—sometimes the cold is just too much for the body. Likewise, the emotions can be like the howling icy wind—they can be too much for the mind. We are, after all, only human and have our limits. Knowing these is a part of wisdom. Sometimes you just need to come in from the cold or it will kill you. Have some hot chocolate. With marshmallows.

 

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Should Two Year Colleges be Free?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 23, 2015
Tallahassee County Community College Seal

Tallahassee County Community College Seal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While Germany has embraced free four year college education for its citizens, President Obama has made a more modest proposal to make community college free for Americans. He is modeling his plan on that of Republican Governor Bill Haslam. Haslam has made community college free for citizen of Tennessee, regardless of need or merit. Not surprisingly, Obama’s proposal has been attacked by both Democrats and Republicans. Having some experience in education, I will endeavor to assess this proposal in a rational way.

First, there is no such thing as a free college education (in this context). Rather, free education for a student means that the cost is shifted from the student to others. After all, the staff, faculty and administrators will not work for free. The facilities of the schools will not be maintained, improved and constructed for free. And so on, for all the costs of education.

One proposed way to make education free for students is to shift the cost onto “the rich”, a group which is easy to target but somewhat harder to define. As might be suspected, I think this is a good idea. One reason is that I believe that education is the best investment a person can make in herself and in society. This is why I am fine with paying property taxes that go to education, although I have no children of my own. In addition to my moral commitment to education, I also look at it pragmatically: money spent on education (which helps people advance) means having to spend less on prisons and social safety nets. Of course, there is still the question of why the cost should be shifted to the rich.

One obvious answer is that they, unlike the poor and what is left of the middle class, have the money. As economists have noted, an ongoing trend in the economy is that wages are staying stagnant while capital is doing well. This is manifested in the fact that while the stock market has rebounded from the crash, workers are, in general, doing worse than before the crash.

There is also the need to address the problem of income inequality. While one might reject arguments grounded in compassion or fairness, there are some purely practical reasons to shift the cost. One is that the rich need the rest of us to keep the wealth, goods and services flowing to them (they actually need us way more than we need them). Another is the matter of social stability. Maintaining a stable state requires that the citizens believe that they are better off with the way things are then they would be if they engaged in a revolution. While deceit and force can keep citizens in line for quite some time, there does come a point at which these fail. To be blunt, it is in the interest of the rich to help restore the faith of the middle class. One of the nastier alternatives is being put against the wall after the revolution.

Second, the reality of education has changed over the years. In the not so distant past, a high-school education was sufficient to get a decent job. I am from a small town and Maine and remember well that people could get decent jobs with just that high school degree (or even without one). While there are still some decent jobs like that, they are increasingly rare.

While it might be a slight exaggeration, the two-year college degree is now the equivalent of the old high school degree. That is, it is roughly the minimum education needed to have a shot at a decent job. As such, the reasons that justify free (for students) public K-12 education would now justify free (for students) K-14 public education. And, of course, arguments against free (for the student) K-12 education would also apply.

While some might claim that the reason the two-year degree is the new high school degree because education has been in a decline, there is also the obvious reason that the world has changed. While I grew up during the decline of the manufacturing economy, we are now in the information economy (even manufacturing is high tech now) and more education is needed to operate in this new economy.

It could, of course, be argued that a better solution would be to improve K-12 education so that a high school degree would be sufficient for a decent job in the information economy. This would, obviously enough, remove the need to have free two-year college. This is certainly an option worth considering, though it does seem unlikely that it would prove viable.

Third, the cost of college has grown absurdly since I was a student. Rest assured, though, that this has not been because of increased pay for professors. This has been addressed by a complicated and sometimes bewildering system of financial aid and loads. However, free two year college would certainly address this problem in a simple way.

That said, a rather obvious concern is that this would not actually reduce the cost of college—as noted above, it would merely shift the cost. A case can certainly be made that this will actually increase the cost of college (for those who are paying). After all, schools would have less incentive to keep their costs down if the state was paying the bill.

It can be argued that it would be better to focus on reducing the cost of public education in a rational way that focuses on the core mission of colleges, namely education. One major reason for the increase in college tuition is the massive administrative overhead that vastly exceeds what is actually needed to effectively run a school. Unfortunately, since the administrators are the ones who make the financial choices it seems unlikely that they will thin their own numbers. While state legislatures have often applied magnifying glasses to the academic aspects of schools, the administrative aspects seem to somehow get less attention—perhaps because of some interesting connections between the state legislatures and school administrations.

Fourth, while conservative politicians have been critical of the general idea of the state giving away free stuff to regular people rather than corporations and politicians, liberals have also been critical of the proposal. While liberals tend to favor the idea of the state giving people free stuff, some have taken issue with free stuff being given to everyone. After all, the proposal is not to make two-year college free for those who cannot afford it, but to make it free for everyone.

It is certainly tempting to be critical of this aspect of the proposal. While it would make sense to assist those in need, it seems unreasonable to expend resources on people who can pay for college on their own. That money, it could be argued, could be used to help people in need pay for four-year colleges. It can also be objected that the well-off would exploit the system.

One easy and obvious reply is that the same could be said of free (for the student) K-12 education. As such, the reasons that exist for free public K-12 education (even for the well-off) would apply to the two-year college plan.

In regards to the well-off, they can already elect to go to lower cost state schools. However, the wealthy tend to pick the more expensive schools and usually opt for four-year colleges. As such, I suspect that there would not be an influx of rich students into two-year programs trying to “game the system.” Rather, they will tend to continue to go to the most prestigious four year schools their money can buy.

Finally, while the proposal is for the rich to bear the cost of “free” college, it should be looked at as an investment. The rich “job creators” will benefit from having educated “job fillers.” Also, the college educated will tend to get better jobs which will grow the economy (most of which will go to the rich) and increase tax-revenues (which can help offset the taxes on the rich). As such, the rich might find that their involuntary investment will provide an excellent return.

Overall, the proposal for “free” two-year college seems to be a good idea, although one that will require proper implementation (which will be very easy to screw up).

 

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Cyber Warfare: Proportionality

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 26, 2014

SAN DIEGO, Calif. (March 10, 2009) Information...

As predicted by science fiction writers, cyber warfare has become a rather real thing. The United States and Israel, some say, launched a cyber-attack on the Iranian nuclear program. North Korea, some say, launched a cyber-attack on Sony.

On the face of it, cyber-attacks seem to be a special sort of thing. While conventional attacks can be secret and hard to trace, the typical cyber-attack does not cause the sort of damage and causalities that a traditional attack causes. For example, a conventional attack aimed at the Iranian nuclear program would have most likely killed people and caused considerable damage. In contrast, the cyber-attack was narrowly focused and did not kill anyone. People often seem to “feel” that cyber-attacks are just “different” since they do not involve the sorts of things that most people think of as weapons and do not do the sort of damage that people tend to associate with military attacks. Despite this conceptual problem, it seems quite reasonable to accept that cyber-attacks can have qualities that make it reasonable to regard them as military attacks. To use the obvious analogy, criminals and soldiers both use guns, but the difference between a bank robber and a military attack lies in the agents carrying out the attack, those ordering the attack, and the goals of the attack. In the case of cyber-attacks, cyber-criminals and cyber-soldiers both use similar weapons. The distinction lies in the agents, those behind the action and the goals.

As mentioned above, some people lay the blame of the attack on Sony on North Korea. If this is true, then this would seem to have the potential of being a military action. After all, it was carried out by a state and had political goals as motivating factors. That said, it could also be argued that the attack was state-sponsored crime. After all, the target was Sony rather than a state target and the operation was more vandalism and extortion than a military strike. This can, of course, be countered by the claim that economic warfare is still warfare—North Korea was attacking an economic entity in another sovereign state (assuming North Korea was behind the attack).

President Obama took the attack seriously and seems to have accepted that North Korea was responsibility. He did fall short of calling it a military action and described it in terms of vandalism. He did, however, say that the United States would have a proportional response.

A proportional response is, as matter of general principle, the right thing to do. After all, the retaliation should be proportional to the provocation. Excessive response would be morally problematic. To use the obvious analogy, if someone shoves me in a dispute and I shoot them in the head with a twelve-gauge shotgun, then I would have acted wrongly. Naturally, there can be considerable debate about the matter of proportionality as well as the value of using a “robust” response as a deterrence (such as pulling a gun when the other person has a stick).

One problem with cyber-attacks is that they are relatively new. Because of this, states have not worked out the norms governing these interactions and there are, as of yet, no clear and specific international treaties and rules laying out the rules of cyber-warfare in a way comparable to the norms and rules of traditional war. We are now in the stages of making up the norms and rules. It should be expected that there will be some problems with this and, no doubt, some defining incidents. The attack on Sony might be one of these.

Obama’s decision to use a proportional response does seem sound and will, perhaps, serve as a starting point for the norms and rules of cyber warfare. This approach is certainly analogous to how conventional attacks are handled. This nicely fits the existing model, namely that incidents in the “physical world” between countries usually stay proportional. For example, with North Korea does something provocative with its military, the United States does not over-react, such as by firing cruise missiles into the country.

One obvious problem with cyber-attacks is working out the proportionality, especially if non-cyber responses are being considered. In such cases, the challenge would be working out what sort of conventional military response would be a proportional response to a cyber-attack. It is not uncommon for people to see cyber-attacks as somehow less “serious” and damaging than “real” world attacks. If North Korea had, for example, sent a strike team to the United States to physically grab computers and erase drives on the spot, then people would feel that something more serious had happened—though the results would have been the same. In such a case, the proportional response would almost certainly be more robust than a proportional response to a cyber-attack. Perhaps this would be justified on the grounds that a physical intrusion is a greater violation of territorial integrity than a virtual intrusion. But, this might simply be a matter of “feeling” and a result of “old-fashioned” thinking—that is, people thinking about attacks in the old way.

I think a reasonable case can be made to treat cyber-attacks as being comparable to traditional attacks and using the results as the measure of proportionality. That is, the United States’ response to the (alleged) North Korean intrusion should be treated the same way that the United States should react to a team of North Koreans physically breaking into Sony at the behest of the state. To treat cyber-attacks as somehow less serious because they are “virtual” seems, as I have been suggesting, a mistake based on outdated concepts of warfare.

 

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Gun Violence & Mental Illness, Again

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on November 24, 2014
Rethink Mental Illness

Rethink Mental Illness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On November 20, 2014 Myron May allegedly shot three people on the FSU campus in Tallahassee, Florida. He was shot to death after allegedly firing at the police. I did not know May, but I do know people who did—that is the sort of place Tallahassee is: if you don’t know someone, you know someone who does.

While the wounding of the three people was terrible, May can be seen as the fourth victim. I did know that May had been a cross-country runner, that he had graduated from FSU and then had gone on to law school. During most of his life, May seemed to be the last person who would hurt anyone else—he was well regarded and interested in doing good for the community. But, at some point, his mind apparently spiraled down into the darkness—he showed signs of mental illness that culminated in his death on the campus he loved.

Due to the terrible regularity of gun violence in the United States, I have nothing new to say about the usual issues relating to guns. However, I will address some important issues relating to mental illness in the United States.

As I learned many shootings ago, a person can only be involuntarily detained for mental health issues when he presents an imminent danger. One practical impact of this high threshold is that authorities often cannot act until someone has actually acted and then it can be too late.

It can be argued that the threshold should be lower so that a person can be helped before he engages in violence. The practical challenge is determining the extent to which a person presents a danger to himself or others. The moral challenge is justifying lowering the threshold.

A plausible way to justify this is by use of a utilitarian argument: helping someone with mental issues before he commits violence will help prevent such acts of violence. That said, there is a moral concern with allowing authorities to use its compulsive power on someone because he might do something despite a lack of adequate evidence that he intends to take a harmful actions.

It could be countered that certain mental issues are adequate evidence that a person is reasonably likely to engage in harmful behavior, even though she has done nothing to reach the imminent danger threshold.

This is certainly appealing. To use an analogy to physical health, if certain factors indicate a high risk of an illness arising, then it is sensible to treat that condition before it manifests. Likewise, if certain factors indicate a high risk of a person with mental issues engaging in violence against others, then it makes sense to treat for that condition before it manifests.

An obvious objection is that people can refuse medical treatment for physical conditions and hence they should be able to do the same for dangerous mental issues. A reply is that if a person refuses treatment for a physical ailment, he is usually only endangering himself. But if someone refuses treatment for a condition that can result in her engaging in violence against others, then she is putting others in danger without their consent and she does not have the liberty or right to do this. To use another analogy, some forms of mental illness can be seen as analogous to highly infectious diseases. The analogy would not be to claim that mental illness can be caught, but that an infected person presents a serious risk to others and, likewise, a person with a certain sort of mental illness can also present a serious risk to others. Provided that there is adequate evidence of the danger, then the state can be warranted in acting against the individual’s will. The practical challenge is determining what conditions warrant acting.

One practical concern is that mental health science is behind the physical health sciences and the physical health sciences are still rather limited. Because of this, predictions made using mental health science will tend to be of dubious accuracy. To use the coercive power of the state on such a tenuous foundation would be morally problematic. After all, a person can only be justly denied liberty on adequate grounds and such a prediction does not seem strong enough to warrant such action.

A counter to this is to argue that preventing another mass shooting is worth the price of denying people their freedom. An obvious worry is that without clear guidelines and limitations, this sort of principle could be extended to anyone who might commit a crime—thus justifying locking up people for being potential criminals. This would certainly be wrong.

It might be countered that there is no danger of the principle being extended and that such worries are worries based on a slippery slope. After all, one might say, the principle only applies to those deemed to have a certain sort of mental issue. Normal people, one might say in a calm voice, have nothing to worry about.

However, it seems that normal people would have reason to worry. After all, it is normal for people to have the occasional mental issue (such as depression). There is also the concern that the application of the fuzzy science of mental health might result in people being subject to coercion without real justification.

In light of these considerations, I do recommend that we reconsider the threshold for applying the coercive power of the state to people with mental issues. However, this reconsideration needs to involve carefully considered guidelines and should be focused on helping people rather than merely locking them away in the hopes of protecting others.

The situation at FSU also illustrated another point of moral concern: while May was apparently justly shot by the police after allegedly firing on them, the officers only viable response was lethal in nature. While police do have some less-than-lethal options like Tasers and nightsticks, these options are usually not viable against a person actively shooting at an officer from a distance. There have been some efforts to produce less-than-lethal options that are as or nearly effective as guns, but these options have not proven successful and police have generally not adopted them.

From a moral perspective, it would clearly be preferable if officers had better less-than-lethal options. In the case of May’s situation, if he had been rendered unable to act rather than shot to death, he might have been able to benefit from medical help and return to a normal life. In the case of criminals who are not suffering from mental illness, it would still seem morally preferable to be able to effective subdue them without shooting them. As such, there is a good moral reason to develop an effective less-than-lethal weapon.

It is also important to note that such a weapon would need to be effective enough to morally justify its use in place of a gun. After all, the police should not be expected to use a weapon that is not adequately effective—this would put them and the public in unjustified danger. Such a weapon could be less effective than a gun and still be acceptable, but there is clearly an important question in regards to how effective the weapon would need to be. In practical terms, of course, there is the question of whether or not such a weapon is even possible. After all, while something like the stun setting on a Star Trek phaser would be ideal, it is likely to always just be science fiction.

 

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