A Philosopher's Blog

Poor Fraud

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 17, 2014
Fox News Channel

Fox News Channel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

One stock narrative is the tale of the fraud committed by the poor in regards to government programs. Donald Trump, for example, has claimed that a lot of fraud occurs. Fox News also pushes the idea that government programs aimed to help the poor are fraught with fraud. Interestingly enough, the “evidence” presented in support of such claims seems to be that the people making the claim think or feel that there must be a lot of fraud. However, there seems little inclination to actually look for supporting evidence—presumably if someone feels strongly enough that a claim is true, that is good enough.

 

The claim that the system is dominated by fraud is commonly used to argue that the system should be cut back or even eliminated.  The basic idea is that the poor are “takers” who are fraudulently living off the “makers.” While fraud is clearly wrong, it is rather important to consider some key questions.

 

The first question is this: what is the actual percentage of fraud that occurs in such programs? While, as noted above, certain people speak of lots of fraud, the actually statistical data tells another story.  In the case of unemployment insurance, the rate of fraud is estimated to be less than 2%. This is lower than the rate of fraud in the private sector. In the case of welfare, fraud is sometimes reported at being 20%-40% at the state level. However, the “fraud” seems to be primarily the result of errors on the part of bureaucrats rather than fraud committed by the recipients. Naturally, an error rate that high is unacceptable—but is rather a different narrative than that of the wicked poor.

 

Food stamp fraud does occur—but most of it is committed by businesses rather than the recipients of the stamps.  While there is some fraud on the part of recipients, the best data indicates that fraud accounts for about 1% of the payments. Given the rate of fraud in the private sector, that is exceptionally good.

 

Given this data, the overwhelming majority of those who receive assistance are not engaged in fraud. This is not to say that fraud should not be a concern—in fact, it is the concern with fraud on the part of the recipients that has resulted in such low incidents of fraud. Interestingly, about one third of fraud involving government money involves not the poor, but defense contractors who account for about $100 billion in fraud per year. Medicare and Medicaid combined have about $100 billion in fraudulent expenditures per year. While there is also a narrative of the wicked poor in regards to Medicare and Medicaid, the fraud is usually perpetrated by the providers of health care rather than the recipients. As such, it would seem that the focus on fraud should shift from the poor recipients of aid to defense contractors and to address Medicare/Medicaid issues. That is, it is not the wicked poor who are siphoning away money with fraud, it is the wicked wealthy who are sucking on the teat of the state. As such the narrative of the poor defrauding the state is a flawed narrative. Certainly it does happen: the percentage of fraud is greater than zero. However, the overall level of fraud on the part of the poor recipients seems to be less than 2%. The majority of fraud, contrary to the narrative, is committed by those who are not poor. While the existence of fraud does show a need to address that fraud, the narrative has cast the wrong people as the villains.

 

While the idea of mass welfare cheating is thus unfounded, there is still a legitimate concern as to whether or not the poor should be receiving such support from the state. After all,  even if the overwhelming majority of recipients are honestly following the rules and not engaged in fraud, there is still the question of whether or not the state should be providing welfare, food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid and similar such benefits. Of course, the narrative does lose some of its rhetorical power if the poor are not cast as frauds.

 

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Trigger Point

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 22, 2013
M1911A1 by Springfield Armory, Inc. (contempor...

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One rather important matter is determining the appropriate trigger point for regulation and law. The basic challenge is determining the level at which a problem is such that it warrants the creation and enforcement of regulations and laws.

While it would be unreasonable to expect that an exact line can be drawn in all or even any cases (to require such an exact line would be to fall into the line-drawing fallacy, a variation on the false dilemma fallacy), a general level can presumably be set in regards to tolerance of harm.

Naturally, the level of reasonable tolerance would involve many variables, such as the number of cases of harm, the severity of the harm, the cost of regulation/laws, and so on. For example, paying a cost to regulate or outlaw something that causes no harms would seem to be unreasonable and wasteful.  As such, the various “morality” laws that regulate consensual sex between adults would be unreasonable and wasteful. As another example, paying a modest cost to regulate or outlaw something that causes considerable harm in both numbers and severity would seem reasonable. Thus, the regulation of alcohol and tobacco seems reasonable.

While the specifics will vary from case to case, there should be a consistent approach to these determinations based on general principles regarding costs, number of incidents, severity of the harm and so on. In general, a utilitarian approach would be sensible—weighing out the likely benefits and harms for the various approaches to determine the most reasonable approach.

Not surprisingly, people tend to approach the trigger point of law and regulation very inconsistently. As with most matters of law and regulation, people tend to assess matters based on what they like and dislike rather than rationally assessing the relevant factors.

As a matter of comparison, consider the gun related deaths of children and voter fraud. While there is some dispute about the exact number of children who die from accidental gunshot wounds children obviously do die in this manner.  Not surprisingly, some people have endeavored to strengthen the regulation of guns and pass laws that are aimed at preventing the accidental death of children from gunshots. It is also not surprising that the National Rifle Association (and other similar organizations) have lobbied against such efforts and have argued about the statistics regarding the gun related deaths of children. While the N.R.A. is obviously not in favor of the death of children, the approach taken has also included the standard method of contending that the problem is not at the trigger point at which new regulation or laws should be created and enforced. The general idea is that the harm being done is not significant enough to warrant new regulation or laws regarding guns, such as rules for the safe storage of weapons. In support of this, the N.R.A argues that the death rate from accidental shootings is less than falls, poison or “environmental factors.” That is, not enough children are dying to warrant new laws or regulation (I will assume that the death of a child is regarded as being a serious harm).

There is also considerable dispute about voter fraud, although even those who regard voter fraud as a serious problem admit that the number of incidents is tiny. However, after the recent Supreme Court ruling regarding the Voting Right Act several states enacted laws alleged to be aimed at addressing voter fraud. These laws include those requiring voters to have the proper ID (which former Speaker of the House Jim Wright was not able to get) and those aimed at reducing or eliminating such things as early voting. In general, these laws seem to be ineffective in regards to actual fraud and the existing laws seem to be adequate for catching fraud. For example, eliminating early voting would not seem to have any capacity to deter fraud. While the voter ID laws might seem to have the potential to be effective, actual voter fraud typically does not involve a person voting in person as someone else. Even if it did have some value in preventing voter fraud, it would do so at a great cost, namely disenfranchising many voters. Overall, the main impact of these laws is to not reduce voter fraud (which is miniscule already) but to disenfranchise people. In some cases politicians and pundits admit that these laws are intended to do just that and in some cases they get in trouble for this.

Given the low number of incidents of voter fraud and the considerable harm that is done by the laws allegedly created to counter it, it would seem that such laws would be rather unjustified when using a rational approach to setting a trigger point for new laws or regulations. It could, of course, be argued that the harm done by allowing a miniscule amount of voter fraud is so serious that it warrants disenfranchising people—that is, trying to prevent a few fraudulent votes is worth preventing many legitimate votes from being cast.

Interestingly enough, some of the folks who are pushing hard for new laws to “prevent” voter fraud are the same folks who push hard to prevent new laws to reduce the deaths of children. This presents an interesting look at how people actually make decisions about trigger points.

 

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The Phantom Menace in Florida

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 5, 2013
English: The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald ...

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My state of Florida has become well known as something of an electoral embarrassment. While most of this shame dates from the chad strewn 2000 election, there was also the more recent concern about voter suppression in Florida. As noted in earlier posts, the folks who were pushing for changes in the voting procedures in Florida claimed that they were engaged in a noble battle against voter fraud rather than a shameful attempt at disenfranchisement. One of the stock responses to the concern over voter fraud is that the solutions proposed were addressing a problem that could be, at best, be barely said to even exist. Critics of the proposals, including myself, pointed out that the methods proposed to combat fraud (such as limiting early voting and requiring voters to show identification) noted that these would not address the sort of fraud that raised the alleged concerns.

Interestingly, there is a somewhat new election fraud story, one involving phantom requests for absentee ballots. In this case, a phantom request is one made by someone other than a person who can legitimately make the request for the voter in question.  During the August 14 primaries in Florida, 2,552 fraudulent absentee ballot requests were made, flagged and denied.

Interestingly, this attempt at election fraud seemed to be bipartisan in nature: according to the Miami Herald the requests were aimed at Democratic voters in one district and and Republican voters in two other districts.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (sound...

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Some might be tempted to trumpet this as a vindication of the dire warnings about voter fraud and proposals to protect election integrity from certain Republicans. However, while this matter raises legitimate concerns, there is little in the way of vindication for these folks. First, there is a meaningful distinction between voter fraud and election fraud. However, I will let this slide so as to avoid bickering about semantics and definitions. Second, there is the fact that the attempts were caught and prevented by existing means. Interesting, the main proposals made by certain Republicans such as voter ID laws, restricting early voting and so on would not have prevented these requests (which were thwarted by the existing system). Thus, I stand by my view that the specter of voter fraud has generally been used to “justify” attempts to suppress voting rather than motivating legitimate reform of actual problems.

While the actual incidents of voter fraud do seem to be minuscule in number, there are legitimate concerns about absentee ballots that are worth considering. After all, while the attempts in the case at hand seem to been thwarted, there is certainly the possibility that other attempts have succeeded. There is also the general concern about absentee voting in general-after all, it would certainly seem to one of the easier avenues for attempts at fraud. Addressing these concerns would seem to involve enhancing existing methods of security (which caught the fraud attempts in this incident) and perhaps developing some new methods to ensure the integrity of the election. Naturally, these methods would need to be designed to avoid disenfranchising or discouraging legitimate voters.

Given the closeness of some recent elections, it is not unreasonable to be concerned that some sort of fraud played a role in the results. It is, of course, the possibility that even a small amount of fraud could decide an election that gives merit to concerns about even the minuscule amount of voter fraud that does occur. Perhaps of even greater concern is the use of gerrymandering by incumbents of both parties to redraw the political landscape with the sole intent of staying in office. That seems to be a rather serious threat to proper elections, but that is a matter for another time.

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Fraud, France & Scientology

Posted in Religion by Michael LaBossiere on October 27, 2009
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A French court recently convicted the Church of Scientology of fraud. The church is still allowed to operate in France, but has been warned to stay on “the correct side of the law.”

The basis for this case is the fact that Scientologists use a electropsychometer or E-Meter, to “locate areas of spiritual duress or travail so they can be addressed and handled” and then (the plaintiffs claimed) try to sell vitamins and books to those “tested.” Obviously enough, there is no scientific evidence that this device does what it is alleged to do and hence it seems quite reasonable to regard this sort of behavior as fraudulent.

Not surprisingly, the Church is characterizing this ruling as being an Inquisition. This is, of course, hyperbole. Now, if Scientologists were being tortured and killed for their beliefs, then it would be like the Inquisition. Also, the church is not being persecuted because of its religious views. Rather, it was prosecuted for trying to sell people things using what certainly seems to be a  bogus machine.

While religions are generally granted a great deal of leeway in many countries, fraud and other misdeeds by churches are still crimes. The Church of Scientology certainly seems to be committing fraud and hence should be treated like anyone else.

Of course, the Scientologists might see themselves as being unfairly singled out. After all, churches routinely ask people for money and often imply that such giving will win favor from God. Since none of these churches can prove this claim or even that God exists, all that would seem to be fraud as well.

Of course, many of these folks are no doubt sincere in their beliefs. Hence, they are also deceiving themselves. From a moral standpoint, this does seem to be an important difference. After all, if I sell you a holy relic that I think is real and will really heal your H1N1, then I am not engaging in intentional deceit. I am just mistaken and making money from the fact that you are also mistaken. This is like selling medicine that is believed to work, yet actually does not.

But, if I am selling “holy relics” that I make myself and sell them to people believing that it is all bull, then I am engaging in fraud. This is because I know that what I am selling is not really what I claim it is and I am counting on people believing this deceit in order to make money.

So, if the Scientologists truly believe in their E-Meter and are sincerely trying to help people with their ills, then they would not be acting in an immoral way. However, if they know that the E-Meter is a hoax and are using it to push vitamins and such, then they are acting immorally.

Naturally, I am open to the possibility that the E-Meter works and that Scientology is true. I just need proof. As with divine healing, I’d be happy to help set up a properly controlled experiment to test the E-Meter. But, Tom Cruise would not be allowed to jump around on my couch during any testing. That would freak out my pets.

 

 

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