A Philosopher's Blog

Should The State Forbid Buying Fish with Food Stamps?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 17, 2015

Some states have passed or are considering laws that would restrict what government aid can be used to purchase. One apparently pro-active approach, taken by my adopted state of Florida, has been to weed out drug users by requiring recipients of aid to pass a drug test. In Missouri, there has been an effort to prevent food stamp recipients from using their aid to buy steak or seafood. In Kansas a proposed law forbids people receiving government assistance from using those funds to visit swimming pools, buy movie tickets, gamble or get tattoos.

While these proposals and policies are fueled primarily by unwarranted stereotypes of the poor, it is possible to argue in their favor and two such arguments will be considered. Both arguments share a common principle, namely that the state needs to protect certain citizens from harm (which is a reasonable principle). The first argument centers on the need for the state to protect the poor from their poor decision making. The second focuses on the need to protect the taxpayers from being exploited by the poor.

The first argument is essentially an appeal to paternalism: the poor are incapable of making their own good decisions and thus the wisdom of the lawmakers must guide them. If left unguided, the poor will waste their limited government support on things like drugs, gambling, tattoos, steak and lobsters. This approach certainly has a philosophical pedigree. Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, argued that the compulsive power of the state should be used to compel the citizens to be virtuous. Other thinkers, usually those who favor totalitarianism, also find the idea of such paternalism very appealing.

Despite the pedigree of this approach, it is always reasonable to inquire as to whether a law is actually needed or not. In the case of a law that forbids, the obvious line of inquiry is to investigate the extent to which people engage in the behavior that is supposed to be forbidden by the law.

Despite the anecdotal evidence of Fox News’ infamous welfare surfer, there seems to be little evidence that people who receive state aid are blowing their state aid on strip clubs, drugs, steak or lobster. Rather, the poor (like almost everyone else) spend most of their money on things like housing and non-luxury food. In regards to drugs, people on support are no more likely than anyone else to be using them. As such, unless it can be clearly shown that a significant percentage of aid recipients are engaged in such “poor choices”, these laws would seem to be solutions in search of a problem.

It is also reasonable to consider whether or not a law is morally consistent in regards to how all citizens are treated. If the principle at work is that recipients of state money must be guided by the state because they cannot be trusted to make their own decisions, then this must be extended to all recipients of such money. This would include farmers getting subsidies, companies getting government contracts, government employees, recipients of tax breaks (such as the mortgage tax breaks), and so on. This is all government aid.

This is a matter of moral consistency—if some citizens must be subject to strict restrictions on how the state money can be spent and perhaps pass a drug test before getting it, then the same must apply to all citizens. Unless, of course, a relevant difference can be shown.

It could be argued that the poor, despite the lack of evidence, are simply more wasteful and worse at spending decisions than the rest of the population. While this does match the stereotypical narrative that some like to push, it does not seem to match reality. After all, billions of dollars simply vanished in Iraq. One does not need to spend much time on Google to find multitudes of examples of how non-poor recipients of state money wasted it or blew it on luxuries.

It could then be argued that extending this principle to everyone would be a good idea. After all, people who are not poor make bad decisions with state money and this shows that they are in need of the guiding wisdom of the state and strict control. Of course, this would result in a paternalistic (or “nanny” as some prefer) state that so many self-proclaimed small government freedom lovers professes to dislike.

Obviously, it is also important to consider whether or not a law will be more harmful or more beneficial. While it could be argued that the poor would be better off if compelled by the state to spend their aid money on what the state deems they should spend it on, there is still the fact that these policies and proposals are solutions in search of a problem. That is, these laws would not benefit people because they are typically not engaged in wasteful spending to begin with.

There is also the moral concern about the harm done to the autonomy and dignity of the recipients of the aid. It is, after all, an assault on a person’s dignity to assume that she is wasteful and bad at making decisions. It is an attack on a person’s autonomy to try to control him, even for his own good.

It might be countered that if the poor accept the state’s money, then they must accept the restrictions imposed by the state. While this does have some appeal, consistency would (as noted above) require this to be applied to everyone getting state money. Which includes the rich. And the people passing such laws. Presumably they would not like to be treated this way and consistency would seem to require that they treat others as they would wish to be treated.

The second main argument for such restrictions is based on the claim that they are needed to protect the taxpayers from being exploited by the poor. While some do contend that any amount of state aid is too much and is theft from the taxpayers (the takers stealing from the makers), such restrictions at least accept that the poor should receive some aid. But, this aid must be for essentials and not wasted—otherwise the taxpayers’ money is being (obviously enough) wasted.

As was discussed above, an obvious point of concern is whether or not such waste is occurring at a level that justifies the compulsive power of the state being employed. As noted above, these proposals and policies seem to be solutions in search of a problem. As a general rule, laws and restrictions should not be imposed without adequate justification and this seems lacking in this case.

This is not to say that people should not be concerned that taxpayer money is being wasted or spent unwisely. It, in fact, is. However, this is not a case of the clever poor milking the middleclass and the rich. Rather, it is a case of the haves milking the have-less. One prime example of this is wealthfare, much of which involves taxpayer money going to subsidize and aid those who are already quite well off, such as corporations. So, I do agree that the taxpayer needs to be protected from exploitation. But, the exploiters are not the poor. This should be rather obvious—if they were draining significant resources from the rest of the citizens, they would no longer be poor.

But, some might still insist, the poor really are spending their rather small aid money on steak, lobsters, strip clubs and gambling. One not unreasonable reply is that “man does not live by bread alone” and it does not seem wrong that the poor would also have a chance to enjoy the tiny luxuries or fun that their small amount of aid can buy.  Assuming, of course, that they are not spending everything on food and shelter. I would certainly not begrudge a person an occasional steak or beer. Or a swim in a pool. I do, of course, think that people should spend wisely, but that is another matter.


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Performance Based Funding

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on May 19, 2014

Florida A&M University from State Capitol, Tal...

As a professor at Florida A&M University, I am rather familiar with performance based funding in higher education. While performance based funding is being considered or applied in numerous states, I will focus on my adopted state of Florida (it is also present in my home state of Maine).

On the face of it, performance based funding can sound like a good idea: state universities are funded based on performance, so that good performance is rewarded and poor performance is not (or punished). As a competitive athlete (though less so with each passing year), I am accustomed to a similar model in running: those who run better at races get rewarded and those who run poorly typically go home with nothing (other than the usual race t-shirt and perhaps some bagel chunks). This model seems fair—at least in sports. Whether or not it is right or sensible to apply it to education funding is another matter.

One obvious point of concern is whether or not the standards used to judge performance are fair and reasonable. In Florida, the main standards include the percentage of graduates who have jobs, the average wages of those graduates, the cost of getting the degree, the graduation rate within six years, the number of students getting STEM degrees (STEM is hot now), and some other factors.

On the face of it, some of these standards are reasonable. After all, a university would seem to be performing well to the degree that the students are graduating after paying a reasonable cost and getting well-paying jobs. This, of course, assumes that a primary function of a university is to create job-fillers for the job creators (and some job creators). In the past, the main factors for determining funding included such things as the size of the student population and what resources would be needed to provide quality education. Universities were also valued because they educated people and prepared people to be citizens of a democratic state. But, now that America appears to be an oligarchy, these values might be obsolete.

Another point of concern is that the competitive system in Florida, like most competitive systems, means that there must be losers. To be specific, Florida has nine state universities competing in regards to performance based funding. The bottom three schools will lose roughly 1% of their funding while the top six will receive more money. This means that no matter how well the nine schools are doing, three of them will always be losers.

This might be seen as reasonable or even good: after all, competition (as noted above) means that there will be winners and losers. This can be seen as a good thing because, it might be argued, the schools will be competing with each other to improve and thus all will get better—even the losers. This, obviously enough, seems to bring a competitive market approach (or Darwinian selection) to education.

The obvious question is whether or not this is a proper approach to higher education. The idea of public universities fighting over limited funding certainly seems harsh—rather like parents making their nine children fight over which six gets extra food and which three will be hungry. Presumably just as responsible parents would not want some of their children to go hungry because they could not beat their siblings, the state should also not want to deprive universities of funding because they could not beat their fellows.

It might be contended that just as children could be expected to battle for food in times of scarcity, universities should do the same. After all, desperate times call for desperate measures and not everyone can thrive. Besides, the competition will make everyone stronger.

It is true that higher education faces a scarcity of funding—in Florida, the past four years under Rick Scott and a Republican legislature have seen a 41% cut in funding. Other states have fared even worse. While some scarcity was due to the economic meltdown inflicted by the financial sector, the scarcity is also due to conscious choice in regards to taxing and spending. So, going with the analogy, the parents have cut the food supply and now want the children to battle to see who gets a larger slice of what is left. Will this battle make the schools stronger?

Given the above, a rather important point of concern is whether or not such performance based funding actually works. That is, does it actually achieve the professed goal of increasing performance?

Since I serve on various relevant committees, I can say that my university is very concerned about this funding and great effort is being made to try to keep the school out of the bottom three. This is the same sort of motivation that the threat of having one’s food cut provides—the motivation of fear. While this sort of scenario might appeal to those who idealize the competitive model of natural selection, one obvious consequence is that the schools that fall into the bottom three will lose money and hence become even less able to compete. To use the food analogy, the children that lose the competition in the first round will have less food and thus be weaker for the next battle and so on. So, while “going hungry” might be said to motivate, being hungry also weakens. So, if the true goal is to weaken the bottom three schools (and perhaps ultimately destroy them), this would work quite well. If the goal is to improve education, things might be rather different.

It might be countered that the performance based funding is justified because, despite my argument, it will work. While academics are often accused of not being “practical” or in “the real world”, we do tend to do a reasonably good at figuring out whether or not something will work. After all, studying things and analyzing them is sort of what we do. In contrast, politicians seem to be more inclined to operate in “realities” of their own ideologies.

David Tandberg of Florida State University and Nicholas W. Hillman of University of Wisconsin-Madison recently published a study assessing the effectiveness of performance based funding. They concluded that performance based funding “more often than not” failed to effect the completion of degrees. Of considerable concern is that when it did have an effect it tended to lower graduation rates. Assuming this study is accurate, performance based funding (at least as implemented) is ineffective at best and likely to actually negatively impact the professed goals.

It should be noted that Florida State University is very safely in the top six schools, so Tandberg is presumably not motivated by worries that FSU will fall to the bottom. The study, can, of course, be challenged on the usual grounds for critically assessing a study—but mere accusations that professors must be biased or that academics are incompetent hold no water.

Since I am a professor at Florida A&M University, I might also be accused of bias here.  FAMU is an HBCU (one of the historically black colleges and universities) and has long had a mission of providing educational opportunities to students who have faced severe disadvantages. While overt racism is largely a thing of the past, FAMU students rather often face serious economic and preparatory challenges (thanks largely to poverty and segregation) that students from other backgrounds do not face. Some of my best students face the serious challenge of balancing part or even full-time work with their academic lives and this can be very challenging indeed. Because of this, students often take longer to graduate than students at other state universities—especially those whose students tend to come from more affluent families. These economic disparities also impact the chances of students getting jobs when they graduate as well as affecting the salary paid in such jobs. Roughly put, the effects of long-standing racism in America still remain and impact my university. While FAMU is working hard to meet the performance standards, we are struggling against factors that do not impact other schools—which means that our performance in regards to these chosen standards might be seen as lacking.

As might be imagined, some will claim that the impact of past racism is a thing of the past and that FAMU should be able to compete just fine against the other schools. This would be ignoring the reality of the situation in America.

Performance based funding of the sort that currently exists fails to achieve its professed goals and is proving harmful to higher education and students. As such, it is a bad idea. Sadly, it is the reality.


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The Cost of Litter

Posted in Environment, Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on April 18, 2014
English: Littering in Stockholm

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After running the Palace Saloon 5K, I participated in a cleanup of a nearby park. This event, organized by my running friend Nancy, involved spending about an hour and a half picking up trash in the Florida sun.  We runners created a pile of overstuffed trash bags full of a wide range of discarded debris.

On my regular runs, I routinely pick up litter. This ranges from the expected (discarded cans) to the unusual (a blender dropped off in the woods). These adventures in litter caused me to think about the various issues related to litter and most especially the cost of litter.

One obvious cost of litter is the aesthetic damage it inflicts. Litter is ugly and makes an area look, well, trashy. While this cost might be partially paid by those who litter, it is also inflicted on those who visit the area and do not litter. One of the many reasons I pick up litter is that I prefer not to run through trashy places.

Another obvious cost of litter is the environmental damage it inflicts. Some of this is quite evident, such as oil or paint leaking from discarded cans. Other damage is less evident, such as the erosion and flooding that can be caused by litter that clogs up storm drains.  There is also the harm done to animals directly, such as sea life killed when their stomachs fill with plastic debris. As with the aesthetic damage, the cost of the litter is largely paid by those who did not litter—such as the turtles and sea-birds harmed by discarded items.

A somewhat less obvious cost is that paid by people who pick up the litter discarded by others. For example, I take a few minutes out of almost every run to pick up and dispose of trash discarded by others. There are also walkers in my neighborhood area who pick up trash during their entire walk—I will see them carrying full bags of cans, bottles and other debris that have been thrown onto the streets, sidewalks and lawns.  And no, they are not gathering up the debris to cash it in for recycling money.

What I and others are doing is paying the cost of the littering of others with our time and effort. This is doubly annoying because the effort we need to expend to pick up the debris and dispose of it properly is generally more than the effort the discarder would have needed to expend to simply dispose of it herself. This is because such debris is often scattered about, in pieces or tossed into the woods—thus making it a chore to pick up and carry. Also, carrying trash while running is certainly more inconvenient than simply transporting it in a vehicle—and much of the trash beside the road is hurled from vehicles.

Some states, such as my home state of Maine, do shift some of the cost of litter to the litterer. To be specific, these states have a deposit on bottles and cans. When someone litters a can or bottle, he is throwing away the deposit—thus incurring a small cost for his littering. When someone picks up the bottle or can, she can redeem it for the deposit—thus offsetting the cost of her effort. While this approach does not cover all forms of litter, it does have a significant impact on the litter problem by providing people with an incentive to not litter or to pick up the litter thrown away by others.

This model of imposing a cost on littering and providing a reward for cleaning up litter seems to be an ethical system. In terms of fairness, it seems right that the person littering should pay a price for the damage that she does and the cost that she inflicts on others. It also seems right that people who make the effort to clean up the messes caused by others should receive compensation for their efforts. The obvious challenge is making the model work on a broader scale beyond just bottles and cans. Unfortunately, there are many more people who are lazy, uncaring or imbued with a feeling of entitlement than there are who have a sense of responsibility and duty. As such, I know I will be cleaning up after others for the rest of my life.



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Sending the Homeless Home

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 9, 2013
English: Homeless man in New York 2008, Credit...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the United States, the individual states vary considerably in terms of the welfare systems they offer. As might be imagined, word gets around regarding the states with the “best” programs and these states tend to attract larger numbers of homeless people seeking to avail themselves of the welfare. One of my friends, who worked as a police officer in Maine, asked a homeless person why he came all the way to Maine. His answer was “all the free stuff.”

From the standpoint of the homeless, this migration is a smart move. To use the obvious analogy, just as our ancestors left areas of lean hunting and gathering for better areas, the modern nomads are leaving areas of leaner welfare for areas that provide more free stuff.

As might be imagined, many people in the states that attract large numbers of homeless people are concerned about the drain on the resources of their states as well as the various problems that arise with an increased homeless population.

Some people, who are more liberal minded, have put forth the idea that the states should establish a common level of welfare and social programs, thus distributing the cost of welfare by removing the motivation to migrate to richer gathering grounds. As might be guessed, the states that have the lower level of welfare are not particularly inclined to increase their welfare spending—either because of financial difficulties or political ideology (or both).

Some states have hit on the idea of encouraging the migration of the homeless back to their home states. Hawaii recently created a $100,000 fund for its “return-to-home” program that is intended to reduce the population using its welfare system. The idea is that homeless people would be transported (at the state’s expense) by ship or plane back to where they came from (or, at least, some state other than Hawaii).

The main argument for this is financial: while transporting the homeless will have an initial cost, the claim is that this will be recouped by the savings arising by not having the person utilizing the state’s welfare system.

A financial objection to this is that the cost of running the program will exceed the savings. After all, it is not just a matter of buying a homeless person a ticket—there would need to be the usual bureaucracy to make all this happen. There is also the obvious concern that people would come to Hawaii knowing that they would be guaranteed a trip home at the taxpayers’ expense—this is a rather obvious potential unintended consequence.

A non-financial concern is that compelling American citizens to leave a state without their consent would seem to be legally problematic. That is, the state cannot simply round up the homeless and load them onto a ship bound for California. There are, of course, ways that this could be worked around and laws could be passed to allow just that to occur. However, as it stands, the state would have to rely on people voluntarily choosing to leave. The problem is that if people are there for the welfare, the promise of a free trip out of the state would probably not be appealing. This is not to say that some people would not take this option, but it seems unlikely that it would result in a significant purge of the homeless.

There is also to moral concern regarding the ethics of addressing the homeless problem by shipping homeless people elsewhere. In addition to the initial moral concern about shipping people out of the state, there is also the concern regarding where the people will be sent. After all, it hardly seems right for Hawaii to try to “solve” its problem by shipping homeless people to some other state or states. To use an analogy, this seems like a parent who “solves” the problem of the expense of taking care of his children by shipping them off to another relative. This hardly seems right for the children or the relatives.

Naturally, a general argument can be made against welfare.  By arguing that the relation between the state and the homeless is such that there is no obligation to provide them with welfare, it could be contended that the solution to the homeless problem is to simply stop providing welfare to them (or to severely reduce it). This would “solve” the problem in that even if the homeless elected to remain in a state, they would receive nothing. While this option has been proposed, it certainly seems to be a wicked thing to do—at least in regards to those who are homeless through no fault of their own.  Also, this “solution” would simply move the problem—the homeless would presumably leave the state with no or little welfare for a state with a “better” system, thus burdening this state. If all the states elected to cease to provide welfare, the migration would presumably stop, but the moral price of an entire nation turning its back on the homeless would be high.


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Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Running by Michael LaBossiere on August 5, 2013
English: A white-tailed deer

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I return to visit my home town in Maine, I run my favorite route. This year was no exception and the early morning found me running through the forests and fields of the University of Maine. Emerging from a section of the cool and shaded pine forest, I spotted a large buck standing, with a clear sense of the aesthetic, in an open area. He saw me almost immediately and our eyes met across the distance.

The deer and I are both the product of untold generations of natural selection (or, perhaps, the result of design) and we are both well equipped to do what it is that we do. Or, in more teleological terms, we possess attributes that enable us to fulfill our functions with a degree of excellence.

Both the deer and I are equipped with a decent array of senses, although the deer has something of an edge here. We are, interestingly enough, both well optimized for running. However, we are somewhat different sorts of runners. The deer is much faster than I, but I have an advantage in endurance. While I am not a tireless runner, I can (and have) run for hours. The deer can outrun me, but I can outlast the deer. So, a contest between us could come down to his speed against my endurance. I also have a special advantage—my species excels at handling heat. On this warm day, this gives me an edge over the deer.

While the deer is equipped with hooves and horns for offense, I would seem to be poorly equipped. As a human, I lack a proper set of killing teeth and my nails are stubs—shameful nubs when compared to the magnificent claws of a proper mammalian predator like a lion or beer.

However, I have hands and a pretty good brain. As such, I can make and use weapons. For example, the tree limbs I ran past could be easily converted into a club. I also have the ability to throw quite well, thanks to my eyes and arms—unlike any other animal I can hurl an object with force and accuracy over a fairly long distance. Even without weapons, my training allows me to use my hands, feet and grip lethally. In this regard, I am more than a match for the deer in unarmed combat. However, the deer is not helpless. Far from it—nature has blessed him with the tools he needs to survive against hunters like me and my four-legged brethren.

As I look at the deer, the remembered flavor of venison fills my mouth. Venison is my second favorite meat. My favorite is veal, which I gave up almost thirty years ago thanks to Singer’s book Animal Liberation. I also feel the runner’s desire to see if I can outrun someone else. I also have the mental traits that make me a suitable hunter: the aggression, courage and toughness needed to engage another living creature and inflict (and sustain) the damage needed to secure a meal. The deer also has his traits: caution, cunning and courage—I know that while he would endeavor to run, he would also fight for his survival.

The deer shifts slightly and seems to gaze more intently at me—as if he somehow knows that I am hearing the ancient call of the hunter. I can certainly feel the desire to pursue the deer, to face the challenge of the chase. I can see that the deer is getting ready to run. As I have been shaped by my hunter ancestors, he has been shaped by his ancestors—the hunted. We are, as I have said, both very good at what it is we do. We are, after all, what we are.

While I am well equipped for the hunt, I am also endowed with something else—the ability to engage in moral reasoning. While I am hungry (I am seven miles into a 14 mile run), I know that I have breakfast waiting for me. I have no need to kill the deer for food. I will not waste a life simply to gain a trophy, so I would certainly not rob the deer of his life merely in order to rob him of his antlers. While I would love to chase him for sport, I am sure he would not enjoy the game—he would not know it was a game and it would terrify him and waste his energy. As Kant said, cruelty for the sake of mere sport is not something that I, as a rational being, should be involved with. I will not play a game unless everyone involved knows it is just a game. At least, when I am at my moral best, that is what I will do—I do admit to the desire to yield to the call of the chase.

I turn away from the deer, running through the tall grass. The deer turns away as well, heading back into the woods. It is a beautiful day and we both have many miles to run.


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Working to the Rule

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on May 27, 2013
State Seal of Maine.

State Seal of Maine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The May 2013 issue of the NEA Higher Education Advocate featured “Working to the Rule in Maine” by Ronald J. Mosley, Jr. In his article, Mosley notes that the last time the faculty in Maine’s public higher education received a raise was four years ago. He also adds that the faculty have been working two years without a contract and that mediation and negotiation with the administration have failed. Oddly enough, this situation is not the result of a financial crisis: there have been three consecutive years of the highest annual surpluses in Maine history.  Mosley’s claims match those of my father, who just retired from the system this month.

As Mosley points out in his article, faculty have traditionally voluntarily engaged in service activities and often do so beyond what is actually expected (or contracted). While it might be tempting to some to dismiss this service as valueless,  faculty often contribute a great deal to their school and the community. In terms of schools, faculty often engage in service that is essential to the operation of the university and to the students, yet is not compensated. To use a concrete example, I am currently contracted at 20% to teach one summer class. That is all my Assignment of Responsibility (AOR) specifies. As such, I have no contractual obligation to do anything beyond that class. However, students still need advising in the summer and I have administrative tasks that need to be completed, such as serving on a critical accreditation committee and handling the various matters required to run the philosophy & religion program. In terms of the community, faculty also provide services to the professional and general community. To use one concrete example, I serve as an (unpaid) referee for professional journals and engage in other (unpaid) community service activities. These extra services, then are often rather important.

In normal conditions (although what is normal now seems to be rather abnormal) faculty willingly engage in such extra efforts “for the good of the_____” (insert “students”, “school”, “community” and so on as needed). There is also the fact that in better times, faculty are treated with some degree of respect and are reasonably well compensated and thus morale (and generosity) can be good.

However, as Mosley points out, conditions are not normal (or there is a “new normal”): while the cost of living increases yearly, there are few (or no) raises to even match this increase-thus faculty are effectively paid less each year.  There is also the fact that faculty are expected to do more each year. While Mosley does not mention this, the new obsession with assessment has added to faculty workloads and there seems to be a general trend in shifting more administrative burdens to faculty (while, bizarrely, the number of administrators and their salaries increase).  For example, I served on nine committees and ran a program review last year-all on top of my usual duties. As a final point, there is also the feeling that faculty are less (or not) respected. Such things rob faculty of motivation and income and this is certainly not good for the faculty, the schools or the students.

In response to the situation in Maine, Mosley has proposed that the faculty work to the rule. By this he means that the faculty should conscientiously complete the requirements of their contracts, but do not go beyond them. He does note that each faculty member should decide whether s/he will go beyond what is contracted. After all, students depend directly and indirectly on much of the “free” work done by faculty and many faculty members will want to work beyond the rule to avoid hurting the students. I suspect that some administrators count on this and perhaps cynically hold students “hostage” to get faculty to do uncompensated work. After all, most faculty will not refuse to advise students in the summer even if the summer contract includes no assigned advising duties.

Not surprisingly, I agree with Mosley (and not just because we are both Mainers). As a general rule, a contract is a contract and thus defines the obligations of the parties involved. While it might be nice of one or both parties to go beyond the contract, this is obviously not obligatory for either party. That is, just as the university is not obligated to drop some extra cash in my account just because it would be “for the good of Mike”, I am not obligated to put in extra hours “for the good of ___” when it is not in my AOR.

The usual counter to this view is that there are things that need to be done (such as advising or meeting the requirements for accreditation) that go beyond what is spelled out in the AOR. The rational counter to this is that things that need to be done should be added to the AOR and properly compensated. After all, if something is important enough to be done it would seem to be important enough to actually pay someone to do. If it is not important enough to pay someone to do it, then it would seem to be not worth doing.

As another point, it is worth reversing the situation. If a faculty member shirked his duties, it would be fair and just of the school to reduce his compensation, fire him or otherwise respond to such a failure to act in accord with the contract. But this would entail that the reverse is true: if the school decides to push the faculty member beyond the contract, then due compensation should be expected.

One way universities “get around” this is by having vaguely defined obligations for salaried faculty. Various other techniques are also used. For example, at my university the typical faculty member teaches four classes each semester. Each class counts as 20% of her work, thus leaving 20% for other duties. This 20% seems to be infinitely divisible-that is, no matter how many things are added to the 20%, it is always 20%. In the 2012-2013 academic year, my 20% included being the facilitator for the philosophy & religion unit, running the department web pages, advising, publishing, professional service, running the seven year program review and being a member of 9 committees.  Another faculty member might have her 20% consist of much less than my 20%, while another faculty member might (God forbid) have even more jammed in there.

Until recently, schools have been able to rely on the willingness of faculty to engage in extra work. While some of this was done in order to earn tenure, much of it was done out of a sense of obligation to the students and school and, perhaps, from a sense of being a valued member of a worthy community. However, this willingness seems to be eroding in the face of administrative decisions and attitudes. Interestingly, we might see the academy become rather like a business with each party sticking tenaciously to its contracted obligations and refusing to do more for the general good, since this notion has no place in the business model being exalted these days. Well, except as a tool used to milk free work from unwary faculty and staff.

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Sandy & Society

Posted in Environment, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 5, 2012

Living in the south has made me as accustomed to hurricanes as growing up in Maine accustomed me to blizzards. However, Sandy was a new sort of thing: a massive storm that slammed into essentially the entire east coast of the United States and flooded vast areas of land.

A strong extra-tropical area of low pressure o...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is, of course, tempting to dismiss Sandy as an aberration and to ignore the doomsayers who speak of global climate change. After all, doubts can always be raised about what might happen and scientific theories about the world are always subject to philosophical doubt (the problem of   induction). Also, the mind deadening and emotion enhancing powers of political ideology make it easy to dismiss any claims, even when backed up with solid (or soaking wet) evidence.

However, it seems far more rational to consider that while the massive Sandy might be unusual, lesser storms of this sort could occur with greater frequency. That is, the east coast might start experiencing the sort of routine poundings that the folks down south have been suffering through for quite some time.  It is also well worth considering that flooding might become a recurring problem. At the very least, since Sandy happened once, we can be reasonable confident that it can happen again. After all, we know for sure that such storms are possible.

Sandy’s onslaught showed us once again how vulnerable and poorly prepared we are to face natural disasters. New Jersey was devastated by flood, wind and fire. Much of New York City looked like the set of some science fiction disaster movie with its flooded subways and streets. This incident shows how easy it is for the most powerful and advanced country in known history to be devastated by a storm. For all our iPads and military might, we still cannot keep water out of the subways or combat flooding. In short, we are woefully unprepared for the likely future.

Naturally, we can simply continue to live in denial-to insist that climate change is a conspiracy being put forth by mad scientists and liberals who hate capitalism, success and God. However, the flooding and devastation of Sandy seems to suggest that denial will not be an effective response.

Now, I would not suggest that the skeptics actually accept the idea that the climate is changing and that humans have had a role in this. Rather, I am just suggesting that we need to expend the resources and efforts needed to help mitigate the damage that is sure to come. Naturally, preparing for natural disasters is expensive and there is the natural tendency to simply forget about the danger once the current disaster has passed. Nature does have a way of reminding us, however, and perhaps the disasters will strike frequently enough that our minds will not be able to slide into soothing forgetfulness.

I would, of course, not suggest that we change our lifestyles in terms of the behavior that is alleged to cause climate change. That would meet mainly with derision and rage from those who have the most power to enact change and their loyal minions. However, I will suggest that we need to defend our cities, homes and lives against an enemy that is growing ever more violent: our own environment. As such, the east coast will need to build defenses against flooding such as sea walls. We will also need to develop defenses for our transportation systems-ways to flood proof the subways of the cities and to ensure that the airports remain above water. We will also probably need to relocate communities away from coastal areas that can be flooded. Obviously, we will also need to pour billions into disaster response capabilities, insurance funds and rebuilding supplies.

This massive undertaking will be on par with operating the military and the analogy is apt: we are, in effect, at war. We always have been-the war is just heating up. Naturally, just as the military requires the federal government, this disaster management cannot be fully handled by the states and the private sector. As such, responding to the weather threat will be a federal task.

Obviously, doing all this is far more sensible than even thinking about addressing the causes of climate change.

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Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 16, 2012
English: A chronically homeless individual inh...

English: A chronically homeless individual inhabiting a bus shelter in Porter Square (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the United States, the number of homeless shelters increased in the 1980s due to a variety of factors. One factor was the recession of that time which resulted in more people being unable to afford housing. A second factor was a shift away from single room housing. Though rather limited in size, this sort of housing was cheaper than the alternatives. Back in the early 1990s, some of my fellow graduate students lived in singles, but these seemed to be (like most graduate student housing) relics from another time. A third factor was the infamous closing of mental institutions and reduction in care for the mentally ill. While proponents of the approach lauded the cost savings, some critics saw it is as simply dumping the ill onto the streets.

In the face of this surge in homelessness religious groups, charitable organizations and governments increased the number of homeless shelters. The intent was to provide people with a place to stay until they could sort out their problems and thus be able to have a permanent home. This approach does make a certain sense and did work in some cases. After all, it seems reasonable to infer that people become homeless because of problems (financial, mental and so on) and that once these problems are fixed, then a person will be ready to have a home. Unfortunately, this approach did not prove very successful and there are about 640,000 homeless Americans with about 110,000 of them being chronically homeless.

Fortunately, an alternative approach seems to be having a more positive impact. This approach reverses the old approach: rather than “fixing” people so that they are ready for permanent homes, this approach involves getting the homeless into more home-like shelters or permanent housing. Those who need treatment are given treatment and the results seem to have been very positive: 85% of those involved in this approach remain in their homes rather than ending up back on the streets.

While this approach seems to have merit, there is the stock concern that the state funded programs are wasting the taxpayers’ money by supporting free-riders. Somewhat ironically, the troubled economic times that increase homelessness also decrease the funding available for such programs and also gives some support to claims that scarce financial resources should be better used, perhaps by allowing more tax breaks for the job creators. As such, there seem to be two main arguments against funding such programs with state money.

The first is a utilitarian argument. Because of the recession, there is less state money available than what was normal before. As such, it is even more important that the money be spent effectively. Putting money into shelters, programs and permanent housing for the homeless would yield less positive results than using the money elsewhere (such as deficit reduction, tax breaks for the job creators or maintaining infrastructure). As such, the money should be spent in these other areas rather than in addressing the problem of homelessness.

This argument can, of course, be countered by showing that the money spent on addressing homelessness would be less than the cost of not addressing the problem. If this is the case, than the cost argument favors spending the money rather than incurring the costs that can be avoided or mitigated by spending.

While homelessness is clearly bad for the people who are homeless, it also is rather costly to society as a whole.

One area of cost is the medical costs of homelessness. On average, homeless people average hospital stays four days longer than comparable non homeless people. This costs about $2,414 per hospitalization. Also, since homeless people tend to not have insurance, the cost is born either by the state (that is, us) or by those with insurance (in the form of increased premiums).

Not surprisingly, people do become homeless because of medical problems and medical problems are also caused by being homeless. Those who are homeless are more likely to become ill than those who have homes and are more likely to suffer from problems of greater severity. As such, homelessness adds a burden to the health care system, especially the emergency rooms. Addressing the problem of homelessness would help reduce these costs.

Another area is crime and prisons. People who are homeless tend to spend more time in prison than the non-homeless. In some cases, they are arrested for “general” criminal activity, but they are often arrested for breaking laws that are aimed specifically at the homeless, such as laws against loitering and begging.

While prisons can be quite profitable for the private companies that run them, it costs an average of $20,000 a year to keep a person in prison. The specific costs vary due vary. For example, a prison stay in California costs $47,000 a year. While those who profit from prisons will not see it this way, reducing homelessness would be a good thing because it would mean fewer people in prison and thus lower the cost to the taxpayers.

A third factor is the cost of emergency shelters—the traditional homeless shelter. These shelters are considerably more expensive than the cost of a permanent residence. As such, permanent housing would provide a savings over temporary shelters.

Naturally, it is reasonable to wonder what impact the permanent home programs might have on the cost to society of homelessness.

One program resulted in a savings of $2,449 per person each month compared to the cost of temporary shelters. A study in my home state of Maine  showed that the permanent housing approach yielded a 57 decrease in the cost of mental health services, mainly due to a 79% reduction in the cost of hospitalization. In Los Angeles, a study showed that putting four people into permanent housing saved over $80,000 per year.

Of course, this savings assumes that the temporary shelters would be funded. For those willing to allow homeless people to live on the streets, this sort of program would not yield the highest savings. After all, the cost of housing the homeless on the street would be nothing. Of course, this would not reduce the other costs associated with homelessness and would almost certainly increase them. After all, people living on the street are more likely to get ill or injured and also more likely to be arrested.

Of course, the medical costs could be addressed by changing the law so that people can be refused even emergency medical care if they cannot pay and ending all state-funded treatment programs for addiction and mental illness. That is, we could entirely abandon the homeless, other than providing them with prison when they are arrested. Of course, there would still remain the question as to whether or not this would result in a cost saving. After all, the abandonment approach might result in a large enough increase in number of homeless people being imprisoned to offset the savings from abandonment. Naturally, this does not take into account the moral cost of abandonment, just the financial cost.

Overall, the evidence does seem to be that providing permanent housing for the homeless would be a cost saver, though perhaps not as big a cost saver as comprehensive abandonment. The second argument is a moral argument or, rather, various moral arguments. One stock argument is based on the idea that we have no moral obligations to others and hence it is not the case that we should provide such support to the homeless. On this view, we could provide such support, but we are not obligated to do so.

A second stock argument is that providing such support is immoral because it creates a culture of dependency. That is, by providing the homeless with permanent homes and treatment for any health problems they might possess they are learning to depend on others and will be unable to carry their own weight. While not supporting them might seem harsh, the argument is that this sort of “tough love” will enable then to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

While this line of reasoning has some appeal, one obvious reply is that this approach seems analogous to addressing a broken leg by refusing to treat it because putting a cast on a broken leg will just make the person dependent on the cast.  As with a broken leg a person whose life is broken needs support until she can stand on her own again.

One reply to this is that while this might hold for those who will be able to stand on their own, it does not address the problem of those who will remain dependent on support forever. These people, it can be argued, are just parasites and should not be supported.

I do, of course, agree that someone who is just free-riding the system should not be supported. However, the number of people who will become homeless and unemployed just so they can free-ride seems to be rather low (but more than nothing). After all, most people want to be self-supporting rather than dependent on others. To deny people who need the support to rebuild just because some small percentage of people would free-ride seems as unreasonable as getting rid of handicapped parking because some people will get decals for those spaces that they are not really entitled to.  It can also be countered that supporting a free-rider in such a program would be cheaper and less damaging than having them free-riding on the alternative system.

Another stock moral argument against providing support for other people is that those being supported are stealing from the taxpayers by having their housing and treatments being paid for by others. As such, the homeless are morally in the wrong and we should not enable their theft by allowing such programs. Alternatively, the homeless people could be cast as being pawns used by the politicians who are stealing money from taxpayers and giving it to the homeless. Or, for extra immorality, the homeless and those who enable such support can be seen as being in wicked (or at least misguided) cahoots.

One obvious reply is that by this sort of reasoning we all spend years as thieves. After all, as children we live off our parents (or whoever is keeping is alive), we steal education from the state (or whoever is paying for it), and until we pay enough in taxes to pay for all the public goods and services we use we are stealing every time we walk down a public sidewalk, drive on a public street or go to free a public park. We also steal from all those who have come before us and who enabled us to live in a modern society with technology, medicine and such. That is, we are all beneficiaries of the labor, money and ideas of others. As such, it would be somewhat hypocritical to regard the homeless as thieves because they are assisted by others.

The obvious reply is that the non-homeless who do pay taxes (and presumably pay off their financial debt to their families) eventually pay back what they stole (or borrowed) from society when they were young thieves. Of course, the same could be said of the homeless—if they are able to return to society and work, they can repay what they owe to others.

This does not, however, address the problem presented by those who will either never be able to return to contributing to society or who will not be able to repay what they cost society, perhaps because of mental illness. The obvious reply to this is that it would seem unreasonable to see such people as thieves. It could, of course, be argued that we should be rid of those who cannot support themselves—but this would be a different moral argument than the one based on thievery.

What, then, about people who could return to society but elect to be free-riders? That is, their situation is entirely a matter of choice and tomorrow they could be at a job earning enough to pay their own way. In this sort of case it would be reasonable to regard these people as thieves. After all, they are taking what they could earn by honest labor and there would be (by the scenario presented) no justification for them receiving support. However, these cases seem to be rather limited in number (but more than none, I am sure). As argued above, the fact that a very few people might exploit something intended to help people in need does not give an adequate reason to treat everyone in such a program as being an exploiter.

In light of the above arguments, providing permanent housing for the homeless seems to be both a cost saver and morally acceptable.

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Super Sunday Pancakes

Posted in DIY/Recipes, Miscellaneous by Michael LaBossiere on May 27, 2012
Stack of blueberry pancakes

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like all rational beings, I like pancakes. While I used to be content to just use an instant mix, I decided to create a better sort of pancake-one with the illusion of being more healthy yet also easy and tasty. I came up with this:

You’ll need

  • 2 cups of Bisquick mix.
  • 2 eggs (beaten)
  • 2 cups of milk (soy or cow)
  • 1/4 cup ground golden flax seed
  • 1 tbsp ground cinnamon (or to taste)
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • Blueberries, strawberries, butterscotch bits, or other such things (optional).
Using a wire whisk, combine all the ingredients. Do not over beat the mixture or your pancakes will not be as good. Use about 1/4 cup of batter per pancake. I cook mine on an electric griddle that works great, thanks to the even temperature and the non-stick surface. Being from Maine, I like to add blueberries to mine, but tastes vary.
Getting a good pancake is a matter of timing: cook the pancakes until the edges are “dry”, the center is bubbling and the bottom is golden brown. Flip once (if you flip twice or more, you’ll have inferior cakes) and cook until the bottom is browned. This will happen fairly quickly. Being a traditionalist, I like mine with butter and Maine syrup. Blueberry sauce is also good. Crushed walnuts are also good when sprinkled on the top.
If you want to make non-plain pancakes by adding blueberries or whatever, you can mix those into the batter. I usually make blueberry pancakes and butterscotch pancakes. So, I add the extras right after I put the batter on the griddle.
The recipe is designed to make “fluffy” pancakes. If you want cakes that are thicker, cut the milk to 1 cup.
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Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on August 15, 2011
David Hume's statements on ethics foreshadowed...

Image via Wikipedia

While on a run in Maine, I happened to be thinking about the Is/Ought problem as well as fallacies. I was also thinking about bears and how many might be about in the woods, but that is another matter.

This problem was most famously put forth by David Hume. Roughly put, the problem is how one might derive an “ought” from an “is.” Inspired by Hume, some folks even go so far as to claim that it is a fallacy to draw a moral ought” from a non-moral “is.” This is, unlike the more common fallacies, rather controversial. After all, it being a fallacy or not hinges on substantial matters in ethics rather than on something far less contentious, like a matter of  simple relevance. While I will not address the core of the matter, I will present some thoughts on the periphery.

As I ran and thought about the problem, I noted that people are often inclined to make moral inferences based on what they think or what they do. To be a bit more specific, people are often inclined to reason in the following two ways. Naturally, this could be expanded but for the sake of brevity I will just consider thought and action.

The first is belief. Not surprisingly, people often “reason” as follows: I/most people/all people believe that X is right (or wrong). Therefore people ought to do X (or ought to not do X). For example, a person might assert that because (they think that) most people believe that same-sex marriage is wrong, it follows that it ought not be done. This is, obviously enough, the fallacy of appeal to belief.

The second  is action. People are also inclined to infer that X is something that ought to be done (or at least allowed) on the basis that it is done by them or most/all people. For example, a person might assert that people ought to be able to steal office supplies because it is something everyone does. This is the classic fallacy of appeal to common practice.

While there are both established fallacies,  it seems somewhat interesting to consider whether or not  they are potentially Is/Ought fallacies when they involve deriving an “ought” from the “is” of belief or action.

On the one hand, it is rather tempting to hold that they are not also Is/Ought errors. After all, it could be argued that the error is exhausted in the context of the specific fallacies and there is no need to consider a supplemental error involving deriving an “ought” from an “is.”

On the other hand, these two fallacies seem to provide a solid foundation for the Is/Ought error that is reasonably well based on established logic. This suggests (but hardly proves) that there might be some merit in considering the Is/Ought fallacy in a slightly different light-that it can actually be regarded as a special “manifestation” of various other fallacies. Or perhaps not.


What people believe is X, so X is good: Appeal to belief.

What people do is X, so X is good: Appeal to common practice.

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