A Philosopher's Blog

Cannot Dump the Trump

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on March 9, 2016

As of March, 2016 Donald Trump has continued as the leading Republican presidential candidate. Before his string of victories, Trump was regarded by most pundits as a joke candidate, one that would burn out like a hair fire. After his victories, the Republican establishment and its allies launched a massive (and massively expensive) attack on Trump. So far, this attack has failed and the Republican elite have been unable to dump Trump.

It would be foolish to claim that Trump’s nomination is inevitable. But, it would be equally foolish to cling to the belief that Trump will be taken down by the establishment or that he will gaffe himself to political death. While I have examined how Trump magnificently filled a niche crafted by the Republican party, in this essay I will examine why Trump can probably not be dumped.

As I have argued before, the Republican party is largely responsible for creating the opening for Trump. They have also made it very difficult for attacks on Trump to succeed. This is because the party has systematically undermined (at least for many Republicans) the institutions that could effectively criticize Trump. These include the media, the political establishment, the academy, and the church (broadly construed).

Since about the time of Nixon, the Republican party has engaged in a systematic campaign to cast the mainstream media as liberal and biased. This has been a rather effective campaign (thanks, in part, to the media itself) and there is considerable distrust and distaste regarding the media among Republicans. Trump has worked hard to reinforce this view—lashing out at the media that has enabled him to grow so very fat politically.

While this sustained demolition of the media has paid handsome dividends for the Republicans, the Republicans who oppose Trump now find themselves a victim of their own successful tactic: Trump is effectively immune to criticism coming from the media. When attacked, even by conservative media, he can simply avail himself of the well-worn Republican talking points. This result is exactly as should be expected: degrading an important public institution cannot be good for the health of a democratic state.

While modern Republicans have preached small government, the party firmly embraced the anti-establishment position in recent years. In the past, this approach has been rather ironic: well-entrenched Republicans would wax poetically about their outsider status in order to get re-elected to term after term. While the establishment no doubt hoped it could keep milking the inconsistent cow of outside insiders, Trump has taken advantage of this rhetoric against the established insiders. This time, the insiders are the Republicans.

This provides Trump with a readymade set of tools to counter criticisms and attacks from the Republican establishment—tools that this establishment forged. As such, Trump has little to fear from the attacks of the establishment Republicans. In fact, he should welcome their attacks: each criticism can be melted down and remade as support for Trump being an anti-establishment outsider.

While there were some significant conservative intellectuals and scholars, the Republican party has made a practice of bashing the academy (colleges, universities and intellectuals in general) as being a foul pit of liberalism. There has also been a sustained campaign against reason and expertise—with Republicans actually making ludicrous claims that ignorance is better than knowledge and that expertise is a mark of incompetence.

This approach served the Republicans fairly well when it came to certain political matters, such as climate change. However, this discrediting of the academy in the eyes of many Republican voters has served to protect Trump. Any criticism of Trump from academics or intellectuals can be dismissed with the same rhetorical weapons deployed so often in the past by the same Republicans who now weep at the prospect of a Trump victory. While the sleep of reason breeds monsters, the attack on reason has allowed Trump to flourish. This should be taken as a warning sign of what can follow Trump: when the rational defenses of society are weakened, monsters are free to take the stage.

While the Republican party often embraces religion, this embrace is often limited to anti-abortion, anti-contraception and anti-gay matters. When religious leaders, such as Pope Francis, stray beyond this zone and start taking God’s command to love each other as He loves us seriously, the Republican party generally reacts with hostility. Witness, for example, the incredibly ironic calls of the Republicans for the Pope to keep religion out of politics.

In general, the Republican party has been fine with religion that matches a conservative social agenda and does not stray into positive ethics of social responsibility and moral criticism of an ethics of selfishness (what philosophers call ethical egoism). Straying beyond this, as noted above, results in hostile attacks. To this end, the party has taken steps to undermine these aspects of religion.

One impact of this has been that Trump is able to use these same tools against religious and moral criticisms. He has even been able to go head-to-head with the Pope, thus showing that even religion cannot oppose Trump. Interestingly, many evangelical leaders have condemned Trump—although their flocks seem to rather like him. Since the conservatives like to cast the left as being the foe of religion and ethics, there is considerable irony here.

In addition to taking advantage of the systematic degrading of critical institutions, Trump can also count on the fact that the methods used against him will most likely be ineffective. Some pundits and some establishment members have endeavored to use rational argumentation against Trump. Mitt Romney, for example, has presented a well-reasoned critique of Trump that is right on the mark. Trump responded by asserting that Romney would have been happy to blow him in 2012.

The argumentation approach is not working and will almost certainly not work. As Aristotle argued, the vast majority of people are not convinced by “arguments and fine ideals” but are ruled by their emotions. In fact, all the people are ruled by emotions some of the time and some of the people are ruled by emotions all the time. As such, it is no surprise that philosophers have established that reason is largely ineffective as a tool of persuasion—it is trumped by rhetoric and fallacies (that is, no logic and bad logic). Bringing logic to an emotion fight is a losing proposition.

There is also the fact that the Republican party has, as noted above, consistently bashed intellectualism and expertise—thus making it even less likely that reasoning will be effective against Trump in regards to turning his supporters against him.

Political commitment, like being a sports fan, is also more a matter of irrational feeling than of considered logic. Just as one is unlikely to get a dedicated Cubs fan to abandon her team via syllogisms, one is not going to turn a Trump supporter by logic. Ditto for Sanders and Hillary supporters. This is not to say their supporters are stupid, just that politics is a not a game of logic.

Since Trump is effectively immune to argumentation, his opponents might try to use rhetoric and emotion against him. His Republican opponents face a serious challenge here: they are simply not as good at it as Trump. Trump has also managed to get the battle for the nomination down to the level of basic cable stand-up comedy or a junior high locker room: dick jokes, blow job innuendo, and other presidential subjects. Trump is a master, albeit short-fingered, vulgarian.  Only fellow masters and fools go up against a master vulgarian in vulgarity. While Rubio has tried some stand-up against Trump, he cannot match the man. Cruz and Kasich also lack what it takes to get into the pit with Trump and if they do, it will simply be a case of grabbing a fecal-baby (like the metaphorical tar baby, but worse).

One avenue is to avoid the pit and employ high road rhetoric and emotion against Trump. Unfortunately, the Republican contenders seem utterly inept at doing this and Trump is quite skilled at throwing rhetorical feces on anything that catches his eye. As such, it seems that Trump will not be dumped. What remains to be seen is whether or not these factors will be as effective in the general election against Hillary or Sanders. Assuming, of course, that Trump gets the nomination.


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Why Republicans Should Support Legalizing Marijuana

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 28, 2015
English: NORML members protest in Lafayette Pa...

English: NORML members protest in Lafayette Park during the annual July 4th “Smoke-In.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While I believe that people should not use marijuana, I believe that the sale and consumption of the drug should be legal. Given the espoused principles of the Republicans, they should agree with me. To make the case for this, I will consider some of the core espoused principles of the Republicans.

First, Republicans employ the usual rhetoric of freedom (in early 2015 they had a Freedom Summit in Iowa) and allowing people the freedom to grow, sell and use marijuana would be consistent with the notion of freedom. But, of course, the vague rhetoric of freedom is just that—vague rhetoric. So I will turn to more specific principles.

Second, there is the standard Republican claim that they prefer to have matters handled locally rather than by the power of the federal government. Some states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana at the local level. To be consistent, the Republicans should accept the local decisions and allow the citizens to exercise the freedom they voted for. To impose on the local governments and the citizens would be contrary to this espoused principle.

Third, Republicans often speak of “getting government off our back” and in favor of small government. The laws regarding marijuana and their enforcement certainly put the government on the back of citizens. As the Republicans like to say, why should the state be telling people what they can and cannot do? These laws have also led to an increase in the size of government, which is contrary to the small government ideal.

Fourth, Republicans are typically eager to oppose regulations and want to set the market free. Legalizing marijuana by removing the existing laws would reduce regulations, thus being in accord with this ideological point. The free market has clearly spoken in regards to marijuana: people want to buy and sell it. To impose harsh laws and regulations on these transactions is to impede the free market and to have the government pick winners and losers. The Republicans should be in favor of this freeing of the market from burdensome regulation.

Fifth, Republicans speak lovingly of job creators and job creation. The marijuana industry is run by job creators who create many jobs in growing and distributing the crops. They also create jobs in the snack and fast food industries as well as in the paraphernalia business. Legalizing marijuana would help grow the economy and create jobs, so the Republicans should support this.

Finally, the Republicans express a devotion to lowering government spending. Enforcing the marijuana laws is rather costly and legalizing marijuana would help reduced government spending. This would allow more tax cuts. Given these key Republican principles, they should eagerly embrace the legalization of marijuana.

It might be noted that Republicans, despite these espoused principles, should be opposed to legalizing marijuana. One reason that has been stated is that marijuana is harmful, and specifically harmful for the children.

I, of course, agree that marijuana is harmful and certainly agree that children should not use it. However, there is the matter of consistency. Obviously enough, harmful things such as alcohol, automobiles, tobacco, junk food and guns are legal in the United States and Republicans are staunch supporters of these things—despite the harm they do. As such, Republican support of marijuana would be consistent with their support of such things as guns, fossil fuels and tobacco. As far as the matter of children, marijuana can be handled in the same way as cars, guns, tobacco and alcohol. That is, marijuana can be illegal for children.

There is also the fact that while marijuana is harmful, it does not seem to be significantly more harmful than tobacco and alcohol. Its use also kills far fewer people than do cars and guns. Naturally, I do agree that it should be illegal to drive, etc. while high—just as it is illegal to drive when drunk. As such, the harmful nature of marijuana

It might be objected that marijuana is simply immoral and thus must be kept illegal. The obvious challenge is showing why it is simply immoral and then showing why immoral things should be made illegal. This can be done—but the adoption of the principle that the immoral must be illegal would probably not appeal to Republicans if it were consistently applied.


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Unpatriotic Corporations & The Language Argument

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on September 1, 2014
English: Burger King headquarters in unincorpo...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In previous essays I have written about corporate personhood as well as corporate inversion.  Corporate inversion, briefly put, is when a corporation buys a foreign corporation and then “inverts” ownership. For example, an American corporation like Burger King might buy a Canadian corporation and then move its corporate headquarters to Canada to take advantage of the lower tax rate. As might be imagined, some people have been rather critical of this practice. President Obama has even asserted that such corporations are unpatriotic.

While listening to NPR a while back, I heard an interesting argument advanced by one of the guests. He began by noting how Mitt Romney had taken some flak for asserting that corporations are people. He then mentioned how Obama called the corporations that engage in corporate inversion unpatriotic. He then raised the point that criticizing corporations for being unpatriotic is to accept them as people. This does raise a somewhat interesting question about whether this is right or not.

In the United States, corporations are legally persons—and the Supreme Court seems to be committed to granting them all the advantageous and convenient rights of actual persons (while not saying anything about the fact that it is illegal to own persons in the United States). I have argued at length that corporations are not people and should not have that legal status—so I will not repeat those arguments here. However, I will obviously address the issue of whether a corporation can be called unpatriotic without the accuser being committed to the personhood of corporations.

On the side of corporate personhood, it could be argued that being unpatriotic (or patriotic) requires the sort of intentional and emotional mental states that only a person could possess. As such, if a corporation is unpatriotic, then it is a person.

Interestingly enough, this sort of language argument has been used by various philosophers such as Socrates and John Locke. In arguing for universals, Socrates (or Plato) would proceed from how one talks to an ontological commitment. In discussing personal identity, Locke took the fact that people use expressions such as a person not being themselves as evidence that someone in a normal state of mind can be a different person from someone in an abnormal state: “human laws not punishing the mad man for the sober man’s actions, nor the sober man for what the mad man did, thereby making them two persons: which is somewhat explained by our way of speaking in English, when we say such an one is not himself, or is beside himself; in which phrases it is insinuated, as if those who now, or at least first used them, thought that self was changed, the selfsame person was no longer in that man….”

The easy and obvious counter is that when someone refers to a corporation as being unpatriotic (or patriotic), she need not commit to the corporation itself being a person. Rather, the person is just using a shorthand expression in place of asserting that the people who decide to implement the inversion and make it happen are acting in (what is seen as) an unpatriotic way. To use an obvious analogy, if someone claims that a sports team is enthusiastic, the she is not committed to the team being a person—an entity over and above the players, coaches, etc. Rather, she is just using conversational shorthand to refer to the members of the team.  If such conversational shorthand expressed a commitment to personhood, then people would be routinely expressing commitments to a vast number of entities—thus dramatically swelling the ontology of persons. This seems both odd and unnecessary. Given the injunction of Occam’s razor, due care should be used when moving from how people speak to an ontological commitment. In the case of corporations and other groups, it would seem to suffice to attribute the mental states to the people that make them up rather than adding another entity to the matter. As such, the appeal to language argument for corporate personhood fails.

Thus, someone can claim that a corporation is unpatriotic (or patriotic) without being committed to corporate personhood. Just like a person can talk about team spirit without being committed to team personhood.


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Republicans & Rhetorical Explanations

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on October 25, 2013

Mitt-Romney (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After a defeat, it is natural for people to try to explain why they were defeated. In some cases, the explanation provided is aimed at doing what an explanation is supposed to do: to provide an illuminating account of how or why something occurred. In other cases, the explanation is aimed primarily at influencing peoples’ attitudes and behavior. Not surprisingly, an explanation that is aimed at achieving these goals is a rhetorical device known as a rhetorical explanation.

This is not to say that a rhetorical explanation need be in error—it could provide an accurate account of how or why something occurred. Being a rhetorical explanation is more a matter of intent—that is, those offering it do so at least in part to cause people to have a positive or negative feeling about a matter.

Back in 2012, the Republicans lost the presidential election and various people endeavored to explain how this happened. Some folks pointed to the demographics of America and how minorities played a critical role in the election. Others claimed that the media’s love for Obama handed him the victory. One of the more interesting explanations was that the Republicans lost because they were not conservative enough.

More recently, the Republicans lost on their bid to get the Democrats to agree to delay or defund Obamacare. After this defeat, various explanations have been offered and among them is the claim that it was the result of the Republicans not conservative enough. In this context, this seems to mean not being will to let the shutdown of the government slide into defaulting on the national debt.

On the face of it, presenting the claim that the Republicans lost because they were not conservative enough seems to be a rhetorical explanation. After all, it seems to be aimed (in part) at chastising the Republicans who are being accused of not being adequately conservative. As such, people are supposed to feel negatively about these Republicans.  It also seems to be aimed (in part) at creating positive feelings towards the conservative Republicans—it is supposed to be believed that they had the winning approach (but were betrayed by the Republicans in Name Only). This explanation might prove to have some bite—many Republicans are taking pains to cast themselves as being very conservative and repudiating the charge that they might be moderates.

While rhetorical explanations such as this are often used to make other people feel a certain way (positively or negatively), people can also use them on themselves. Whether the explanation is inflicted on others or self-inflicted, the problem is that such appealing explanations can make it very easy for a person to buy into an explanation that is not correct, thus leading to obvious problems. As such, it is worth considering whether the explanation about these defeats is correct or not.

If the explanation for the 2012 election was correct, then the prediction that would follow would be that the Republicans would have won if they had been more conservative. In this case, winning is clear—Mitt Romney (or a more conservative Republican like Michelle Bachmann) would have been elected rather than Obama.

For this to happen, more people would have had to vote for the Republican than Obama. Since this did not happen, for the explanation at hand to be correct, there seem to be three main options (and perhaps others).

One is that some conservatives voted for Obama because Romney was not conservative enough.  They would have, however, voted for someone who was conservative enough. It seems reasonable enough to dismiss this option out of hand on the grounds that such people would not vote for Obama. Thus, it seems rather implausible to think that a more conservative Republican would have pulled votes away from Obama.

A second one is that some conservatives voted for someone other than the two main candidates or wrote in someone else rather than voting for Romney, thus allowing Obama to win. This is more plausible than the first option, but is still fairly unlikely. That is, it does not seem likely that enough people to change the election voted in this manner because Romney was not conservative enough.

A third option is that some conservatives decided to not vote at all because they thought Romney was not conservative enough, thus allowing Obama to win. Of the three, this is the most plausible. Elections in the United States have a low turnout and it certainly is possible that some of those who did not vote would have voted if there had been a candidate that was conservative enough. These voters would thus seem to have preferred allowing Obama to win over voting for Romney, but this would assume that the voters were rationally considering the consequences of their failure to vote. It could be a simple matter of motivation—they were not inspired enough by Romney (or their dislike of Obama) to vote.

It is also worth considering that the explanation is in error because a more conservative Republican would have merely increased the votes for Obama. As noted above, a more conservative Republican would not have pulled votes from Obama. What seems more likely is that a more conservative Republican would have lost the more moderate voters who voted for Romney. As such, if the Republican candidate in 2012 had been “conservative enough” Obama would have either still won or would have still won with a larger number of votes. After all, most Americans are not extremely conservative and being “conservative enough” would seem to involve holding views that most Americans do not hold. Thus, the explanation seems to fail.

Jumping ahead to the most recent defeat, the matter is somewhat more complicated in that the victory conditions are not so clearly defined. At the start of the battle, the Republicans wanted to defund or delay Obamacare—that would have been a win. However, as the shutdown continued, the Republicans seemed to become less clear about what they wanted—especially when Obama made it clear that he was not going to negotiate Obamacare.

Interestingly enough, the shutdown was explained by some as being the fault of the Democrats and after the Republican defeat, the more conservative Republicans are using the narrative that they would have won if the Republicans had been conservative enough—thus creating dueling rhetorical explanations.

But, to get back to the main point, the victory conditions were not clear. However, it could be speculated that a win would involve the Republicans getting more of whatever they ended up wanted than the Democrats got of what they wanted. So, I will go with that.

There is also the question of what it meant to be conservative enough. Given the rhetoric, it seems that what this means is being willing to take the United States into default if one does not get what one wants. If so, the Republicans being conservative enough would not seem to have yielded a win—unless what they wanted was a default on the debt and the ensuing economic and political disaster. If this is what counts as a win, then being conservative enough would have led to that “win”—a win that almost everyone else would regard as a disaster.

Most Americans disapproved of what Congress was doing and most blamed the Republicans. Presumably if the Republicans had been more conservative, this would have merely made people more annoyed with them—after all, the view of most people was that what was going on was bad, not that it did not go far enough into this badness. As such, it would seem that the problem was not that the Republicans were not conservative enough. They lost because they had a poor strategy and most Americans did not like what they were doing. The solution is, obviously enough, not being more of that—the result will just be worse for the Republicans.

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Portman & Same-Sex Marriage

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 18, 2013
English: Portrait of United States Senator Rob...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Republican senator Rob Portman recently caught the attention of the media with his coming out in support of same-sex marriage. Given his conservative credentials, this has stirred up discussion of the matter.

While I am generally not in favor of marriage, my view has been that consenting adults should be able to engage in that legal contract. If arguments are wanting, see my For Better or Worse Reasoning. As such, I agree with Portman’s new view.

While Portman is well known as a conservative, his social conservatism seems to have been almost a matter of rote. That is, he consistently voted for or against laws in a way consistent with the stock social conservative positions but he was not particularly active in regards to expressing views. His main focus has been on fiscal conservatism rather than social conservatism.

As I have noted in earlier posts, the Republican party faces the challenge of having (crudely put) two main divisions: the social conservatives (which is exemplified by the religious right) and the fiscal/political conservatives. While politician in the party generally have had to appeal to both views, these views are clearly distinct. After all, it is one thing to hold to be opposed to same-sex marriage and quite another to be opposed to big government. In fact, there can be clear conflicts between the views of the political conservatives (most notably the libertarians) and the social conservatives. After all, someone who does not want big government acting as a nanny state should be against having the state intrude into marriage with a ban on same-sex marriage.

In regards to why Portman changed his views and came out in favor of same-sex marriage, his answer is that it is because one of his son’s is gay. Portman claims that he wants his son to have the same right as him in regards to marriage. Some who are more cynical  than I might point out that Portman learned his son was gay a few years ago and note that this change coincides with the need for the Republican party to gain a broader appeal. However, I will accept his claim, namely that he had to work through his view of the matter.

One of the most interesting aspects of the matter is that Portman seems to have been influenced by the family effect, an effect that struck Dick Cheney. The idea is that people sometimes change their views on same-sex marriage when they learn that someone they love (in Cheney’s case, his daughter) is gay. It is one thing to hold a stance on a matter when those it impacts are strangers. It is quite another when it impacts one’s own family. It is also one thing to hold a view about a group when the group is composed of people one does not know. So, for example, it is easier to attribute all sorts of moral defects to gay folks when one does not really know a gay person well. However, when a loving parent finds out that his son or daughter is gay, this makes it much harder to gay people as being morally defective simply because they happen to be gay. This is not to say that being gay makes a person good. Rather, being gay is just like being straight: it does not make a person morally good or bad.

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Very Taxing

Posted in Business, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 15, 2013

Taxes (Photo credit: Tax Credits)

In 2012 I made about $6500 selling my 99 cent books through Amazon and Barnes & Noble (I get about 35 cents a book). On the plus side, the extra income offset the effective salary cut provided by Governor Scott of Florida. On the minus side, this royalty income is taxed using the self-employment rate. In 2012, the self employment tax rate was 13.3%. In 2013 it will be 15.3%.  In contrast, Mitt Romney pays taxes at under 15%. If I only got royalties from non-work sources (like copyrights), I’d be paying much less.

Without this income, my tax software reported that I’d get back about $2400. With this income, I’ll be getting back $36. So Uncle Sam gets a nice chunk of my book income.

On the plus side, my modest stock returns were taxed at an incredibly low rate. This is not surprising since capital gains taxes cap out at 15%. Yes, I do endeavor to plow as much money as I can into increasing my capital gains. And into my IRA.

I’m not mentioning this to brag about my modest success as a writer nor to weep about my taxes. Rather, I am bringing this up to explain why I fully accept that the idea that the tax system in the United States needs to be overhauled. I have, of course, had a general commitment to the idea that the tax system is a needlessly complicated mess packed with unfairness. However, really seeing the disparities in the tax system shows there is a problem. After all, I am taxed rather differently for my normal wages, for my self-employed income, for my capital gains, and for my interest income. It seems rather odd to have so many different tax rates based not on the amount of income but where it comes from. After all, income should (in general) be treated as equal-after all, it is all income. It should not matter that a specific dollar came from my writing, my stock, my savings interest or my job.

Not surprisingly, income from work has high tax rates relative to the others (especially capital gains). Of course, this makes sense: congress members and their supporters make most of their money in the areas that enjoy the lower taxes while people who work for a living pay higher rates. However, this disparity in rates is unfair and should be changed.

I do also see the appeal of having lower taxes. When asked how I’ll handle the tax increase for this year, I had to say the obvious: I’ll have to spend less. Of course, I also recognize that there are legitimate expenditures for the state and, as a citizen, I am obligated (and proud) to contribute to the general good. I am not, of course, keen on having my money wasted. I only wish the politicians thought the same way.

While it will cost me more in taxes, I still encourage everyone to buy my books: My Amazon Author Page

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The Cliff

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 31, 2012

As I am writing this, the Democrats and Republicans are still driving towards the fiscal cliff. Interestingly, the cliff is a death trap of their own creation, forged to spur them into acting because the consequences of not doing so would be so terrible. We are now in the last hours before the country goes off the cliff, so there is still time for a deal. Or a delay-essentially changing roads to the scenic route towards the cliff.

Crudely put, the main sticking point has been the tax cuts for a tiny percentage of rich Americans. The Republicans, it could be said, would rather take us over the cliff than willingly allow the Bush era tax cuts to expire for the exceptionally rich. The Democrats, it could be said, would rather take us over the cliff than willingly extend the Bush tax cuts for the tiny percentage of Americans that are very wealthy. A few folks actually think that going over the cliff would be a good idea-something that is certainly worth considering.

Since politics is often about placing blame, it is worth assessing whether the Democrats or Republicans are worse in regards to this matter. It is, of course, tempting to simply curse them both for being unwilling to drive away from the cliff months ago. However, the Republicans seem somewhat worse in that they are apparently devoted to protecting a tiny percentage of Americans who are already exceptionally well off. After all, even if the wealthy lost those tax cuts, they would still be taking home vastly more money than the vast majority of Americans. That is, they would still be incredibly well off. I must admit, that I am seeing the matter from the perspective of a person whose yearly salary is about equal to what Mitt Romney makes per day from his passive income. I have, as might be imagined, a hard time worrying that folks like Mitt will be hurt if those tax cuts are allowed to expire. However, I can worry about the folks who make a lot less-after all, many folks are literally just getting by with what they have and hence an increase in taxes will hurt them in meaningful ways. I do not, however, regard the Democrats as virtuous in this matter-just less bad.

One of my main complaints about the matter is the fact that they have left things to the last minute. As a professor, I am accustomed to students doing this. In some cases, students do put things off in one class because they are doing work for another class. However, congress lacks this excuse-they only have this country to run (off the cliff). In other cases, students wait to the last minute because the professor sets the deadline rather than the student. However, congress set its own deadline-they know exactly when it is and what will happen if they do not act (or add an extension). In most cases, students put things off because they would rather not do the work. As long as it is not due right away, a person can always say “I’ll do it latter.” However, there comes a time when there is no latter. We are at this point now.

When a student puts off work to the last minute, the results are generally quite predictable: usually such work is of far lower quality than could have been produced if the work had been started at a reasonable time. If congress hacks out a last second deal, I suspect it will have roughly the same quality as a paper typed out in the last minutes. Unless, of course, they already have most of the work done and are just delaying in regards to a small part.

One rather important difference between a student putting things off and congress putting things off is that the student is putting only herself (her grade) at risk. If a student does not meet the deadline, she does not bring the whole class down with her. In contrast, congress putting things off has already had an effect on the economy-primarily by creating intense and unnecessary uncertainty. If a deal cannot be made, the consequences will obviously be far worse than a student not getting her paper done by the deadline.  Also, we get to pay the cost for congress’ procrastination and apparent inability to do its job.

It could, of course, be argued that we do get some of the blame. After all, we elected the members of congress and they act in ways they believe will get them re-elected. That is, they act in ways they think will please their constituents (which can be distinct from acting in ways that will benefit their constituents). One of the moral pluses of democracy is that we get the government we deserve. So, if our elected officials are driving us towards a cliff, it is because we handed them the keys.

The extreme partisanship is also something that has been fed and watered by others. The politically leaning news media on the left and right has contributed to this situation. The people have also played along, thus helping to get us on the edge of the cliff.

It is also worth noting that many of the Republicans signed Grover Norquist’s pledge. While it is reasonable to point out that elected officials should not make themselves beholding to one man, a person should honor his commitments. As such, the Republicans who are sticking to the pledge and refusing to compromise could be seen as acting in a moral way-assuming they are doing so on the principle that a person keeps his obligations. Those that are sticking to it from fear would not, of course, be acting in a commendable way.


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The Republicans’ Epistemic Problem

Posted in Epistemology, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 14, 2012
English: Karl Rove Assistant to the President,...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that focuses on knowledge: determining the nature of knowledge, sorting out what we can (and cannot) know and similar concerns. While people often think of epistemology in terms of strange skeptical problems such as the brain–in-the-vat and the Cartesian demon, it actually has rather practical aspects. After all, sorting out what is known from what is merely believed is important for the practical aspects of life. Also a significant portion of critical thinking can be seen in terms of epistemology: determining what justifies believing that a claim as true.

In very rough and ready terms, to know a claim is to believe the claim, for the claim to actually be true and for the belief to be properly justified. As any professional philosopher will tell you, this rough and ready view has been roughly beaten over the years by various clever thinkers. However, for practical purposes this account works fairly well—provided that one takes the proper precautions.

My main purpose is not, however, to do battle over the fine points of an account of knowledge. Rather, my objective is to discuss the Republicans’ epistemic problem to illustrate how politics and epistemology can intersect.

As noted above, a rough account of knowledge involves having a true belief that is properly justified. As might be imagined, the matters of justification and truth can be debated until the cows (if they exist) come home (if it exists). However, a crude view of truth should suffice for my purposes: a claim about the actual world is true when it matches the actual world. As far as justification goes, I will stick with an intuitive notion—that is, that the belief is properly formed and supported. To help give some flesh to this poor definition I will use specific examples where beliefs are not justified.

As I discussed in my essay on politics and alternative reality, political narratives are typically aimed at crafting what amounts to an alternative reality story. This generally involves two types of tales. The first is laying out a negative narrative describing one’s opponents. The second is spinning a positive tale about one’s virtues. While all politicians and pundits play this game, the Republicans seemed to have made the rather serious epistemic error of believing that their fictional narratives expressed justified, true beliefs.

While epistemologists disagree about justification, it seems reasonable to hold that believing a claim because one wants it to be true is not adequate justification. It also seems reasonable to hold that a belief formed by systematically ignoring and misinterpreting available evidence is not justified. That is, it seems reasonable to hold that fallacies do not serve as justification for a claim. Hence, it seems reasonable to hold that beliefs based on such poor reasoning do not meet the standard of knowledge—even if we lack a proper definition of knowledge.

One clear indicator of this was the shock and dismay on the part of conservative pundits such as Laura Ingraham. A bit before the election she said “if you can’t beat Barack Obama with this record, then shut down the party.” Other pundits and spinions expressed incredulity at Obama’s ability to stay ahead of Romney in the polls and they were terribly shocked when Obama won the actual election. This is understandable. On their narrative, Obama is the worst president in history. He has divided the country, brought socialism to America, destroyed jobs, played the race card against all opponents, gone on a worldwide apology tour, weakened America and might be a secret Muslim who was born outside of the United States. Obviously enough, such a terrible person should have been extremely easy to defeat and Americans should have been clamoring if not for Romney, then at least to be rid of Obama. As such, it makes sense why the people who accept the alternative reality in which Obama is all these things (or at least most of them) were so shocked by what actually happened, namely his being re-elected. The Republican epistemic and critical thinking problems in this regard are well presented in Fox’s Megyn Kelly’s question to strategist Karl Rove: “Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better or is it real?”

After Obama’s victory, the conservative politicians, pundits and spinions rushed to provide an explanation for this dire turn of events. Some blame was placed on the Republican party, thus continuing an approach that began long before the election.

Given their epistemic failings, it makes sense that they would believe that the Republican Party is to blame for the failure to beat such an easy opponent. To use an analogy, imagine that fans of a team believe that an opposing team is pathetic but as the game is played, the “pathetic” team gets ahead and stays there. Rather than re-assess the other team, the fans are likely to start blaming their team, the coaches and so on for doing so poorly against such a “pathetic” opponent. However, if the opposing team is not as they imagined, then they have the explanation wrong: they are losing because the other team is better.  Put another way, their team is not playing against the team they think they are playing against—the pathetic team is a product of their minds and not an objective assessment of the actual team.

In the case of Obama, the conservatives and Republicans would be rightfully dismayed if they lost to someone as bad as their idea of Obama. However, they did not run against that alternative Obama. They ran against the actual Obama and he is not as bad as they claim. Hence, it makes sense that they did not do as well as they thought they should.  To be fair, the Democrats also had an Obama narrative that is not an unbiased account of the president.

It also makes sense that they would explain the loss by blaming the voters. As Bill O’Reilly explained things, Obama won because there are not enough white male voters and too many non-white and female voters who want “stuff” from the government. This explanation is hardly surprising. After all Fox News, the main epistemic engine of the Republicans, had been presenting a narrative in which America is divided between the virtuous hard working people and those who just want free stuff. There was also a narrative involving race (as exemplified by the obsessive focus on one Black Panther standing near a Philadelphia polling place) and one involving gender. Rush Limbaugh also contributed significantly to these narratives, especially the gender narrative, with his calling Sandra Fluke a slut. On these narratives, the colored people and women are (or have joined forces with) the people who want free stuff and it is their moral failing that robbed Romney of his rightful victory. However, this narrative fails to be true. While there are some people who want “free stuff”, the reality is rather different from the narrative—as analyzed in some detail by the Baltimore Sun. In response to such actual evidence, the usual reply is to make use of anecdotal evidence in the form of YouTube videos or vague references to someone who just wants free stuff. That is, evidence that is justified is “countered” by unwarranted beliefs based on fallacious reasoning. Ironically, the common reply to the claim that their epistemology is flawed is to simply shovel out more examples of the defective epistemology.

As might be imagined, while the Republicans had a good reason to try to get people to accept their alternative reality as the actual world some of them seem to have truly believed that the alternative is the actual. This had a rather practical impact in that to the degree they believed in this alternative world that isn’t, their strategies and tactics were distorted. After all, when one goes into battle accurate intelligence is vital and distorted information is a major liability. It does seem that some folks became victims of their own distortions and this impacted the election.

People generally tend to want to cling to a beloved narrative, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. However, there is a very practical reason for the Republicans to work on their epistemology—if they do not, they keep increasing their odds of losing elections.

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Politics & Reality

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 2, 2012
English: Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie

English: Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In an earlier post I discussed how politicians and pundits often present alternative realities of the science fiction sort. I also wrote a post about how some commentators were shocked that Romney was doing so poorly against the actual Obama when they believed they should have been easily trouncing the Obama-who-isn’t (that is, their straw man/alternative universe version of Obama).

During the Republican National Convention, New Jersey governor Chris Christie gave a rousing speech against President Obama and accused him of lacking leadership. In a rather clever analogy, he compared Obama to a man blundering in the dark, trying to find a light switch. Christie continued to ably serve in the attack role for his man Mitt Romney after the RNC. Naturally, this sort of political rhetoric is all part of the game and sensible folks know that such speeches are not about presenting the truth but about influencing emotions via presenting a narrative of a world that is not and of a world that probably never will be.

Then Sandy smashed into the east coast of the United States and hammered New Jersey especially hard. People died. Millions of people were left without power. Property was destroyed and damaged on a massive scale.

President Obama did what a president should do-he stepped into the crisis and got things done to help the people of the United States. Governor Christie did exactly what a governor should do-he stepped into the crisis and got things done to help the people of his state.

Reality had savagely slammed into the carefully crafted political narrative of an alternative reality in which government is almost always a problem and Obama is blundering in the dark. To Christie’s credit, he knew when the time to play at political narrative ended and the time to “get real” began. This was, of course, when Sandy hit his state.  Christie also exhibited those rare but laudable traits: sincerity, a sense of moral duty and honesty. He praised Obama for his praiseworthy actions and made it clear that his concern was completely focused on the good of the people of New Jersey.  This is how it should be and both men have done the right thing.

It is, of course, tempting to some to accuse Obama and Christie of playing a subtle political game. That is, their game is to create the illusion they are not playing the political game by doing what they should do rather than obviously playing for political points.  The challenge is, of course, to prove this. After all, the behavior of a clever person playing a political game while skillfully avoiding the appearance of playing the game would look identical to that of a person who was, in fact, not playing a political game but doing what should be done. Naturally, if evidence is available to support the hypothesis that there is political game play going on (and not just the fact that both men are politicians and an election is coming up), then such evidence should be given due consideration. Naturally, even if both men are playing a clever game, at least they are playing it the right way. That is, at least they are acting like leaders.

While I have been pushed ever closer to cynicism, I am taking the words and actions of Obama and Christie as being sincere and not part of a brilliant game within a game. I could be wrong and I am sure there is a well developed narrative for the clever ploys allegedly being played.

While it took a disaster to make it happen, it is good to see leaders working across party lines to get things done. It is also refreshing to hear sincere praise rather than the usual venomous lies and distortions that make up most of contemporary politics.

It would be a good thing if we could maintain this spirit and work together with the real world, rather than retreating ever deeper into the distorted alternative realities that make up much of contemporary politics. It should, of course, always be remembered that these political narratives cannot stand up when reality intrudes, at least when that reality includes a massive storm.

While it is disappointing, it is not surprising that governor Christie is being attacked for his willingness to work with the president. Rush Limbaugh, for example, launched into an attack against Christie-even going so far as to imply that Christie has changed his sexual orientation. To attack leaders because they are willing to set aside petty political bickering to work together for the common good in the face of a major disaster shows moral bankruptcy and meanness of spirit. What we need is more honest cooperation and less ideological blindness.

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Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 30, 2012

Sandy has struck the United States, killing several people and doing billions in property damage. As is to be expected, we are now hard at work repairing the damage and getting things back to normal.

I am sorry for the losses and feel for the people directly impacted. I wish everyone the best and hope for a rapid return to normalcy.

The brave people who responded to the disaster to rescue and aid others deserve our thanks for their actions and the good that they have done. The people who are now hard at work setting things right also deserve our appreciation. While this storm will be costly, we have pulled together as a nation and have shown, once again, that we are a strong people when we work together for the general good. For at least a little while, we will think of ourselves as Americans and forget (at least for a moment) the political divisions and bickering. Perhaps this sort of thing should be remembered more often and not just during disasters (natural or man-made).

Be safe and well.





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