A Philosopher's Blog

Protests & Riots

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 16, 2016

While Trump’s election has been greeted by some with joy, others have responded by protesting. In Portland, Oregon a protest took a destructive turn and was classified as a riot by the police. This resulted in property damage, the use of less-than-lethal force by the police and arrests. Protests and riots are certainly philosophically interesting and I will begin by considering some basic definitions.

Put simply, a protest is an expression of disapproval. A political protest, of the sort that have been occurring, are obviously aimed at expression an objection to some political matter, in this case the election of Donald Trump. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees the right of the people to peaceful assembly, although this is not an absolute right. Almost by definition, peaceful assembly seems morally acceptable. As with other rights, there are certainly cases in which peaceful assembly can be justly restricted, but this would need to be warranted because the assembly would result in meaningful and unwarranted harms. For example, if people wanted to assemble on the runways of the Atlanta airport to protest the low wages for fast food workers, then it would be reasonable to prevent that. The protest does not require the use of a runway to make its point and it would create both danger and considerable inconvenience to travelers and cargo shipments. As might be imagined, whether a particular peaceful protest should be allowed can be a matter of great debate, but that is an issue for another time.

While a riot can be a protest, not all protests are riots and not all riots are protests. For example, the 1992 riot that did $10 million in damage arose from a game between the Chicago Bulls and the Portland Trail Blazers does not seem to qualify as a protest.  A riot is characterized by violent civil disorder involving a group. While the violence is most commonly directed against property, it can involve violence against people. Since attacks on people or property are both generally illegal, riots are generally regarded as criminal by their very nature.

For a protest to be a riot (and vice versa), there must be a group of people engaging in a violent civil disorder with the intent of expressing their disapproval. Since riots are generally illegal, a protest riot would probably also be illegal. However, there is an important distinction between law and morality, so a riot that is illegal could be morally justified.

In general terms, a riot could be morally justified in various ways. One obvious justification would be that the riot was in response to a terrible wrong that warrants such violence. For example, Americans often like to point to certain riots that took place in the run up to our revolutionary war as morally warranted because of British tyranny. The violence of such riots would presumably be directed at those who deserve such violence. As such, wrongs that do not warrant a violent response and violence against those not responsible would be unwarranted.

To use an analogy, if Sally did a terrible wrong to Jane and Jane could get no redress any other way, then she could be morally justified in using violence against Sally or her property. But, if Jane went after Bob, who has no connection to Sally, then this would be unjustified. Assuming those engaged in the “riot” in Portland were protesting (and not just opportunists) against Trump, their attacks on property in Portland would obviously be wrong. For example, wrecking cars in a Portland dealership does not strike a blow against Trump—even if Trump did something warranting a riot against him.

It could be argued that since so many voted for Trump, there is a chance that a Trump supporter will be impacted by a riot, thus “paying them back” for their misdeed. The easy and obvious reply is that this sort of riot roulette is morally unacceptable because it is more likely to harm someone who did not support Trump than someone who did. There is also the fact that it is morally unacceptable to regard voting for Trump as grounds for being the target of violence.

Another approach is to justify a riot on utilitarian grounds—if the riot results in more good than harm (and more good than not rioting), then it would be morally acceptable. Once again, Americans often regard their revolutionary riots as falling into this category.

While some people, assuming they are actually protesting Trump, might feel better venting their rage in a riot, it seems unlikely that this “good” will outweigh the harm done to those whose property they destroy or damage. Even if it assumed that Trump is evil and will be doing more evil as president, breaking other peoples’ stuff is not going to counter that evil. It could, of course, be countered that the destruction will show Trump that people are very serious and this will influence him. This, however, seems rather unlikely. One feature of utilitarian justifications is that the action must have actual results; ineffectual expressions of protest do not count in the calculation.

It might be countered that the destruction is morally acceptable because the (alleged) protestors are striking out against an unjust social order that enabled Trump to become president. The obvious reply is that while this might have some abstract appeal, the real damage is being done to the innocent rather than the guilty. Thus, such violence and destruction seem to be immoral.

The protests against Trump might decline as people work out their disappointment and anger; but they might surge again when Trump takes office and starts doing presidential things. One analogy worth considering is the Tea Party that was spawned in response to Obama. Trump might inspire a similar response by dedicated opponents on the left. If so, protests against President Trump could be routine and there will be something of a role reversal among the people, pundits, politicians and news media. For example, while Fox News was typically favorably inclined towards the Tea Party and almost all attacks on Obama, one would expect them to take a rather different approach to analogous behavior by Trump’s opponents.

 

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Responsibility for Shootings

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 22, 2014

In December 2014 two NYC police officers, Rafeal Ramos and Wenjian Liu, were shot to death by Ismaaiyl Brinsley. Brinsley had earlier shot and wounded his ex-girlfriend. Brinsley claimed to have been acting in response to the police killings of Brown and Garner.  There have been some claims of a connection between Brinsley’s actions and the protests against those two killings. This situation does raise an issue of moral responsibility in regards to such acts of violence.

Not surprisingly, this is not the first time I have written about gun violence and responsibility. After Jared Lee Lougher shot congresswoman Giffords and others in 2011, there was some blame placed on Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. Palin, it might be recalled, made use of cross hairs and violent metaphors when discussing matters of politics. The Tea Party was also accused of creating a context of violence.

Back in 2011 I argued that Palin and the Tea Party were not morally responsible for Lougher. I still agree with my position of that time. First, while Palin used violent metaphors, she clearly was not calling on people to engage in actual violence. Such metaphors are used regularly in sports and politics with the understanding that they are just that, metaphors.

Second, while there are people in the Tea Party who are very much committed to gun rights, the vast majority of them do not support the shooting of their fellow Americans—even if they disagree with their politics. While there are some notable exceptions, those who advocate and use violence are rare. Most Tea Partiers, like most other Americans, prefer their politics without bloodshed. Naturally, specific individuals who called for violence and encouraged others can be held accountable to the degree that they influence others—but these folks are not common.

Third, while Lougher was apparently interested in politics, he seemed to have a drug problem and serious psychological issues.  His motivation to go after Giffords seems to be an incident from when he was a student. He went to one of Giffords’ meetings and submitted a rather unusual question about what government would be if words had no meaning. Giffords apparently did not answer the question in a way that satisfied him. This, it is alleged, is the main cause of his dislike of Gifford

As such, the most likely factors seem to be a combination of drug use and psychological problems that were focused onto Giffords by that incident. Because of these reasons, I concluded that Sarah Palin and the Tea Party had no connection the incident and should not have been held morally accountable. This is because neither Palin nor the Tea Party encouraged Lougher and because he seemed to act primarily from his own mental illness.

As far as who is to blame, the obvious answer is this: the person who shot those people. Of course, as the media psychologists point out, it can be claimed that others are to blame as well. The parents. The community college. Society.

On the one hand, this blame sharing seems to miss the point that people are responsible for their actions. The person who pulled that trigger is the one that is responsible. He did not have to go there that day. Going there, he did not have to pull the trigger.

On the other hand, no one grows up and acts in a perfect vacuum. Each of us is shaped by factors around us and, of course, we have responsibilities to each other. There was considerable evidence that Lougher was unstable and likely to engage in violence. As such, it could be argued that those who were aware of these facts and failed to respond bear some of the blame for allowing him to be free to kill and wound.

Back in 2011 I did state that there were some legitimate concerns about Palin’s use of violent rhetoric and the infamous cross-hair map. I ended by saying that Palin should step up to address this matter. Not because she was responsible, but because these were matters worth considering on their own. I now return to the 2014 shooting by Brinsley.

Since consistency is rather important, I will apply the same basic principles of responsibility to the Brinsley case. First, as far as I am aware, no major figure involved in the protests has called upon people to kill police officers. No one with a status comparable with Palin’s (in 2011) has presented violent metaphors aimed at the police—as far as I know.  Naturally, if there are major figures who engaged in such behavior, then this would be relevant in assigning blame. So, as with Sarah Palin in 2011, the major figures of the protest movement seem to be morally blameless for Brinsley. They did not call on anyone to kill, even metaphorically.

Second, the protest movements seem to be concerned with keeping people from being killed rather than advocating violence. Protesters say “hands up, don’t shoot!” rather than “shoot the police!” People involved in the protests seem to have, in general, condemned the shooting of the officers and have certainly not advocated or engaged in such attacks. So, as with the Tea Party in 2011, the protest movement (which is not actually a political party or well-defined movement) is not accountable for Brinsley’s actions. While he seems to have been motivated by the deaths of Brown and Garner, the general protest movement did not call on him to kill.

Third, Brinsley seems to be another terrible case of a mentally ill person engaging in senseless violence against innocent people. Brinsley seems to have had a history of serious problems (he shot and wounded his girlfriend before travelling to NYC). Like Lougher, Brinsley is the person who pulled the trigger. He is responsible. Not the protestors, not the police, and not the slogans.

As with Lougher, there is also the question of our general responsibility as a society for those who are mentally troubled enough to commit murder. I have written many essays on gun violence in the United States and one recurring theme is that of a mentally troubled person with a gun. This is a different matter than the protests and also different from the matter of police use of force. As such, it is important to distinguish these different issues. While Brinsley claims to have been motivated by the deaths of Brown and Garner, the protesters are not accountable for his actions, no more than the NYC officers were accountable for the deaths of Brown and Garner.

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Catcalling

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on November 17, 2014

For those not familiar with the term, to catcall is to whistle, shout or make a comment of a sexual nature to a person passing by. In general, the term is used when the person being harassed is a women, but men can also be subject to such harassment.

Thanks to a video documenting a woman’s 10 hours of being catcalled as she walked New York City, catcalling has garnered considerable attention. While it is well known that men catcall, it is less obvious why men engage in this behavior.

Some men seem to hold to the view that they have a right to catcall. As one man put it, “if you have a beautiful body, why can’t I say something?” This view seems to have two main parts. The first (“you have a beautiful body”) seems to indicate that the woman is responsible for the response of men because she has a beautiful body. It is, I think, reasonable to accept the idea that beauty, be it in a person or painting, can evoke a response from a viewer. The problem is, however, that a catcall is not a proper response to beauty and certainly not a proper response to a person. Also, while a woman’s appearance might cause a reaction, the verbal response chosen by the man (or boy) is his responsibility. To use an analogy, seeing a cake at a wedding might make me respond with hunger, but if I chose to paw at the cake and drool on it, then the response (which is very inappropriate) is my choice. To forestall any criticism, I am not saying that women are objects—I just needed an analogy and I am hungry as I write this. Hence the cake analogy.

The second part (“why can’t I say something?”) seems to indicate that the man has a presumptive right to catcall. Put another way, this seems to assume that the burden of proving that men should not catcall rests on women and that it should be assumed that a man has such a right. While the moral right to free speech does entail than men have a right to express their views, there is also the matter of whether it is right to engage in such catcalling. I would say not, on the grounds that the harm done to women by men catcalling them outweighs the harm that would be done to men if they did not engage in such behavior. While I am vary of any laws that infringe on free expression, I do hold that men should not (in the moral sense) behave this way.

This question also seems to show a sense of entitlement—that the man seeing the woman as beautiful entitles him to harass her. This seems similar to believing that seeing someone as unattractive warrants saying derogatory things about the person. Again, while people do have a freedom of expression, there are things that are unethical to express.

Some men also claim that the way a woman dresses warrants their behavior. As one young man said, “If a girl comes out in tight leggings, and you can see something back there… I’m saying something.” This is, obviously enough, just an expression of the horrible view that a woman invites or deserves the actions of men by her choice of clothing. This “justification” is best known as a “defense” for rape—the idea that the woman was “asking for it” because she was dressed in provocative clothing. However, a woman’s mode of dress does not warrant her being catcalled or attacked. After all, if a man was wearing an expensive Rolex watch and he was robbed, it would not be said that he was provocative or was “asking for it” by displaying such an expensive timepiece. Naturally, it might be a bad idea to dress a certain way or wear an expensive watch when going certain places, but this does not justify the catcalling or robbery.

There has been some speculation that catcalling, like everything else, is the result of natural selection. Looked at one way, if the theory of evolution is correct and one also accepts the notion that human behavior is determined (rather than free), then this would be true. This is because all human behavior would be the result of such selection and determining factors. In this case, one cannot really say that the behavior would be wrong, at least if something being immoral requires that the person engaging in the behavior could do otherwise. If a person cannot do otherwise, placing blame or praise on the person would be pointless—like praising or blaming water for boiling at a certain temperature and pressure. Looked at another way, it might be useful to consider the evolutionary forces that might lead to the behavior.

One possible “just so” story is that males would call out to passing females as a form of mating display (like how birds display for each other). Some of the females would respond positively and thus the catcalling genes would be passed on to future generations of men who would in turn catcall women to attract a mate.

One reason to accept this view is that some forms of what could be regarded as catcalling do seem to work. Having been on college campuses for decades, I have seen a vast amount of catcalling in various forms (including the “hollaback” thing). Some women respond by ignoring it, some respond with hostility, and some respond positively. While the positive response rate seems low, it is a low effort “fishing trip” and hence the cost to the male is rather small. After all, he just has to sit there and say things as “bait” in the hopes he will get a bite. Like fishing, a person might cast hundreds of times to catch a single fish.

One reason to reject this view is that many of the guys who use it will obviously never get a positive response. However, they might think they will—they are casting away like mad, not realizing that their “bait” will never work. After all, they might have seen it work for other guys and think they have a chance.

Moving away from evolution, one stock explanation for catcalling is that men do it as an expression of power—they are doing it to show (to themselves, other men and women) that they have power over women. A man might be an unfit, ugly, overweight, graceless, unemployed slob but he can make a fit, beautiful and successful woman feel afraid and awful by screeching about her buttocks or breasts. Of course, catcalling is not limited to such men, though the power motive would still seem to hold. This is clearly morally reprehensible because of the harm it does to women. Even if the woman is not afraid of the man, having to hear such things can diminish her enjoyment. While I am a man, I do understand what it is like to have stupid and hateful remarks yelled at me. When I was young and running was not as accepted as it is now, it was rare for me to go for a run without someone saying something stupid or hateful. Or throwing things. Being a reasonably large male, I did not feel afraid (most of those yelling did so from the safety of passing automobiles). However, such remarks did bother me—much in the way that being bitten by mosquitoes bothers me. That is, it just made the run less pleasant. As such, I have some idea of what it is like for women to be catcalled, but it is presumably much worse for them.

I have even been catcalled by women—but I am sure that it is not the same sort of experience that women face when catcalled by men. After all, the women who have catcalled me are probably just kidding (perhaps even being ironic) and, even if they are not, they almost certainly harbor no hostile intentions and present no real threat. To have a young college woman yell “nice ass” from her car as I run through the FSU campus is a weird sort of compliment rather than a threat. Though it is still weird.  In contrast, when men engage in such behavior it seems overtly predatory and threatening. So, stop catcalling, guys.

 

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Eating What Bugs Us

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Science, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on November 12, 2014

Like most people, I have eaten bugs. Also, like most Americans, this consumption has been unintentional and often in ignorance. In some cases, I’ve sucked in a whole bug while running. In most cases, the bugs are bug parts in foods—the FDA allows a certain percentage of “debris” in our food and some of that is composes of bugs.

While Americans typically do not willingly and knowingly eat insects, about 2 billion people do and there are about 2,000 species that are known to be edible. As might be guessed, many of the people who eat insect live in developing countries. As the countries develop, people tend to switch away from eating insects. This is hardly surprising—eating meat is generally seen as a sign of status while eating insects typically is not. However, there are excellent reasons to utilize insects on a large scale as a food source for humans and animals. Some of these reasons are practical while others are ethical.

One practical reason to utilize insects as a food source is the efficiency of insects. 10 pounds of feed will yield 4.8 pounds of cricket protein, 4.5 pounds of salmon, 2.2 pounds of chicken, 1.1 pounds of pork, and .4 pounds of beef. With an ever-growing human population, increased efficiency will be critical to providing people with enough food.

A second practical reason to utilize insects as a food source is that they require less land to produce protein. For example, it takes 269 square feet to produce a pound of pork protein while it requires only 88 square feet to generate one pound of mealworm protein. Given an ever-expanding population and every-less available land, this is a strong selling point for insect farming as a food source. It is also morally relevant, at least for those who are concerned about the environmental impact of food production.

A third reason, which might be rejected by those who deny climate change, is that producing insect protein generates less greenhouse gas. The above-mentioned pound of pork generates 38 pounds of CO2 while a pound of mealworms produces only 14. For those who believe that CO2 production is a problem, this is clearly both a moral and practical reason in favor of using insects for food. For those who think that CO2 has no impact or does not matter, this would be no advantage.

A fourth practical reason is that while many food animals are fed using food that humans could also eat (like grain and corn based feed), many insects readily consume organic waste that is unfit for human consumption. As such, insects can transform low-value feed material (such as garbage) into higher value feed or food. This would also provide a moral reason, at least for those who favor reducing the waste that ends up in landfills. This could provide some interesting business opportunities and combinations—imagine a waste processing business that “processes” organic waste with insects and then converts the insects to feed, food or for use in other products (such as medicine, lipstick and alcoholic beverages).

Perhaps the main moral argument in favor of choosing insect protein over protein from animals such as chicken, pigs and cows is based on the assumption than insects have a lower moral status than such animals or at least would suffer less.

In terms of the lower status version, the argument would be a variation on one commonly used to support vegetarianism over eating meat: plants have a lower moral status than animals; therefore it is preferable to eat plants rather than animals. Assuming that insects have a lower moral status than chickens, pigs, cows, etc., then using insects for food would be morally preferable. This, of course, also rests on the assumption that it is preferable to do wrong (in this case kill and eat) to beings with a lesser moral status than to those with a higher status.

In terms of the suffering argument, this would be a stock utilitarian style argument. The usual calculation involves weighing the harms (in this case, the suffering) against the benefits. Insects are, on the face of it, less able to suffer (and less able understand their own suffering) than animals like pigs and cows. Also, insects would seem to suffer less under the conditions in which they would be raised. While chickens might be factory farmed with their beaks clipped and confined to tiny cages, mealworms would be pretty much doing what they would do in the “wild” when being raised as food. While the insect would still be killed, it would seem that the overall suffering generated by using insects as food would be far less than that created by using animals like pigs and cows as food. This would seem to be a morally compelling argument.

The most obvious problem with using insects as food is what people call the “yuck factor.” Bugs are generally seen as dirty and gross—things that you do not want to find in food, let alone being the food. Some of the “yuck” is visual—seeing the insect as one eats it. One obvious solution is to process insects into forms that look like “normal” foods, such as powders, pastes, and the classic “mystery meat patty.” People can also learn to overcome the distaste, much as some people have to overcome their initial rejection of foods like lobster and crab.

Another concern is that insect might bear the stigma of being a food suitable for “primitive” cultures and not suitable for “civilized” people. Insect based food products might also be regarded as lacking in status, especially in contrast with traditional meats. These are, of course, all matters of social perception. Just as they are created, they can be altered. As such, these problems could be overcome.

Since I grew up eating lobsters and crabs (I’m from Maine), I am already fine with eating “bug-like” creatures. So, I would not have any problem with eating actual bugs, provided that they are safe to eat. I will admit that I probably will not be serving up plates of fried beetles to my friends, but I would have no problem serving up food containing properly processed insects. And not just because it would be, at least initially, funny.

 

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Campbell Brown, Protests & Transparency

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 6, 2014
Colbert Super PAC

Colbert Super PAC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Campbell Brown appeared on the July 31, 2014 episode of the Colbert Report to promote the fact that her Partnership for Educational Justice had filed a legal complaint in Albany aimed at eliminating New York’s teacher tenure laws.  In my previous essay, I discussed the main topic, namely that of the points made in the legal complaint. In this essay, I will discuss some interesting points from Brown’s appearance on the Colbert Report.

When Brown went to the show, she encountered some protestors outside the building. Interestingly, she described them as trying to silence her and was rather critical of their presence. Colbert responded by noting that the protestors were exercising their First Amendment rights.

On the face of it, Brown was using a common tactic—accusing critics of wanting to silence those expressing opposing viewpoints and using this as grounds for rejecting, dismissing or ignoring the actual criticisms. To be fair, in some cases critics do explicitly state that their opponent should be silenced—perhaps silencing themselves or being silenced by others. Because I accept the right to freedom of expression, I am against the silencing of critics (I have written on this in other essays). As such, I would oppose those who would wish to silence Brown and prevent her from making her claims.

However, it is important to distinguish between protests/criticism and attempts to silence a person. To protest against someone or something is to express a negative view and this is rather different from endeavoring to silence someone. For example, someone might protest against Brown’s lawsuit by making a sign and standing by the entrance to the building where the Colbert Report is shot. This is expressing a stance against Brown, but unless the person tells Brown to stop expressing her views or tries to shout her down, the person is not trying to silence Brown. Even if the person would be happy if Brown shut up.

To criticize something is to assess and evaluate it, which is clearly different from trying to silence a person. My essay about Brown’s lawsuit was critical—I assessed her claims. However, at no point did I endeavor to silence her.  She has every right to keep making her claims and expressing her views, just as I have the same right to express my own—even when my claims are critical of her claims. To assess is to not to silence. Even to claim someone is wrong is not to silence them. Saying “you are mistaken” is not the same as saying “shut up.”

That said, the tactic of accusing protestors/critics of trying to silence one does have some rhetorical value. First, it allows a person to dismiss or reject protestors/critics with a lazy ad homimen: “they are just trying to silence me, so their claims have no merit.” Second, it has an emotional appeal in that it casts the protestors/critics as being opposed to freedom of speech. The irony, of course, is that this is an attempt to silence the critics.

Another interesting aspect of the discussion was when Colbert asked Brown about who was funding her group and lawsuit. As Colbert, the owner of his own super PAC noted, it is perfectly legal to keep the names of those funding such an organization secret—even when such a group is actively involved in politics. When pressed a bit, Brown used another common tactic—she claimed that anonymity protects the donors from being harassed. This, of course, ties into the previously discussed tactic in which protestors and critics are cast as villains who are trying to silence a person. In this case, the opponents of her views are presumably being presented as the sort of people who would cruelly harass those they disagree with. This would, of course, cast Brown as a brave hero—she is facing the harassment so that the anonymous donors do not have to.

As Colbert noted, not revealing her donors is her legal right. However, the claim that she is keeping them anonymous to protect them from harassment seems rather dubious. While Brown has been subject to criticism and has been protested against, she does not seem to have been subjected to onerous abuse. The anonymous donors would presumably also not be cruelly abused—though they might be criticized.

Those more cynical than I might claim that the donors are being concealed for nefarious reasons and there has been considerable speculation about who is the money behind the mouth. Those on the left, naturally enough, tend to suspect a right wing cabal aimed at destroying unions and privatizing education for the profit of themselves and their cronies. Those of more moderate views might suspect a bi-partisan group that is aimed at privatizing education for the profit of themselves and their cronies. Some might even take Brown at face value: they are people who are concerned with education reform. But, for some reason, they do not want anyone else to know.

Given her current commitment to secrecy, it is somewhat ironic that in 2013 Brown created the Parents’ Transparency Project which was claimed to be aimed at bringing transparency to the negotiation process involving teachers’ unions.

This situation does raise the larger issue of such secret funding. On the one hand, it could be argued that people have a right to privacy when it comes to engaging in legal and political machinations. On the other hand, secret money has at least two negative impacts. The first is that it seems to have a corrosive effect on the openness that is supposed to the hallmark of democratic systems. The second is that it keeps the public in ignorance—knowing who is backing which candidates, causes and law suits seems to be a rather important part of making informed decisions. Of course, it can be countered that the public does not need to know this, that it should not matter who is really funding something, hiding behind patriotic or positive sounding fronts.

I am, not surprisingly, for transparency in such funding. First, I agree that such secret money is contrary to the openness that is so critical to a real democratic system. Secret money deals are appropriate for oligarchies and corrupt states, but hardly suitable for what is supposed to be an open democracy. Second, I believe that people should take responsibility for their beliefs and actions—being able to influence without accountability is morally unacceptable. Third, there is the matter of courage—only a coward hides behind anonymity when there is no real danger beyond people knowing what a person is backing.

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Campbell Brown & Teacher’s Unions

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on August 4, 2014
English: The central courtyard of Albany High ...

Albany High School in Albany, New York, United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In July, 2014 Campbell Brown announced that her Partnership for Educational Justice had filed a legal complaint in Albany. This complaint is aimed at eliminating New York’s teacher tenure laws. The basis for the lawsuit is that the tenure laws interfere with the right of children to a sound education.

This is not Brown’s first foray into this matter. In 2013 Brown asserted that her Parents’ Transparency Project was claimed to be aimed at bringing transparency to the negotiation process involving teachers’ unions. In the course of this campaign Brown asserted that the union is “…a system that protects teachers who engage in sexual misconduct.” Brown did run into some conflict of interest issues in regards to this group and there were concerns about the anonymous funding behind it: as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, PTP can legally keep its donors secret and engage in political spending. As should be no surprise, critics of Brown saw PTP as an attempt at union busting backed by parties with political and economic agendas. The unions weathered the efforts of PTP and now they are facing off against Brown’s PEJ. To promote this new lawsuit, Brown appeared on the July 31, 2014 episode of the Colbert Report—having faced protestors outside the show.

I do agree with some of Brown’s claims. First, I do agree with her assertion that children are entitled to a sound basic education. Her critics contend that her actual interest is in busting the unions at the behest of those bankrolling PEJ. While Brown’s actual motives are a point of interest, they are logically irrelevant to the merit of her claims and arguments. However, Colbert did raise a relevant criticism: if Brown is, in fact, concerned that children receive a sound education and for educational equality, then she should be focusing on a key aspect of educational inequality, namely the extreme disparity in education funding. To be fair to Brown, it is quite reasonable for a group to focus on one issue at a time and to also leave other issues to other groups.

Second, I do agree with her position on seniority. As it now stands, schools follow a “first in, last out” policy. The problem with this is that merely being at a school a long time does not entail that a person is a good teacher. Since I believe that employment should be based on merit and mere seniority is not a mark of merit, I oppose this policy. That said, I know that experience can improve a teacher’s abilities (I am a much better professor now than I was when I was fresh out of graduate school). However, these improved abilities should be discernible in job performance and not just by looking at the calendar. Naturally, a rational case can be made for seniority—but I believe that all such cases must rest on the connection between experience and ability.

Third, I regard her claim that three years is not enough time to earn tenure as having some appeal. After all, tenure at the university level requires six years (and, at my university, involves a yearlong review process starting in the department and ending with the university President). The easy and obvious counter is that teaching at a university requires an advanced degree (which requires 5+ years beyond the Bachelor’s degree required to teach K-12), so having a shorter tenure period at K-12 schools is reasonable. So, my view is that this matter can be legitimately debated—although I would be fine with the three year tenure period (provided that the process is merit based, fair and rigorous).

Fourth, I do agree with her view that tenure laws should not make it nearly impossible to fire ineffective or dangerous teachers. Tenure, as I see it, is supposed to ensure that teachers/professors can only be fired for cause and through due process. It is not so that teachers/professors can never be fired. At the college level, this is obviously connected to defending academic freedom. At the K-12 level, academic freedom might not be seen as being as great a concern, however there is the concern about protecting teachers from the vagaries of ideology, politics and such. To use a concrete example, tenure is useful for protecting biology teachers from being fired because parents disbelieve in evolution or believe that vaccines cause autism.

Brown’s view gets some psychological support from the common misconception that tenure means that a teacher cannot be fired. However, as the above discussion indicates, tenure does not entail that a teacher cannot be fired, just that due process must be used. It would presumably be hard to defend the view that a teacher could be legitimately fired for just any reason without any due process (though there are people who do hold that view). After all, such firing would be (by definition) unjustified—something that would be hard to justify. It is, however, easy to defend the view that even a tenured teacher should be fired for being ineffective (and certainly for being dangerous).

The problem, then, does not seem to be with the general principle of tenure. If there is a problem, it would seem to lie in the process that is used and perhaps the specific rules used to keep the ineffective or dangerous in their jobs. The fix to this would not seem to be the elimination of tenure, but a change in the process so that teachers are protected from unjustified dismissal and students are protected from ineffective or dangerous teachers. The system will never be perfect—but that is an unreasonable standard.

 

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The Sharing Economy III; Resources (Human & Other)

Posted in Business, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on July 28, 2014
Olathe Human Resources

Olathe Human Resources (Photo credit: City of Olathe, KS)

In my previous two essays I wrote about the new sharing economy, focusing on regulations and taxes. In this essay I will cover resources (human and other). As noted in the previous two essays, the new sharing economy is exemplified by companies such as Uber and Airbnb that serve to organize transactions between individuals. In the case of Uber, people can serve as drivers for Uber selling rides in their own cars—without (as of this writing) all the usual costs and regulations of operating a cab. In the case of Airbnb, people can rent out property and (as of this writing) generally avoid the usual regulation and taxes associated with running a hotel.

For the people providing the goods and services, the new sharing economy makes it easier for people to make money. In general, the new sharing economy involves three parties. The first is the person who provides the actual good (apartment, for example) or service (a ride to the airport, for example). The second is the person who uses the service and the third is the company that provides the organizing service (often via an app) While this is an old model (people have long offered services and goods via things like newspaper ads), technological advances have changed the scale of this once informal economy. It has also served to blur the traditional roles somewhat. To be specific, those who provide the goods and services are not actually employees of the organizing services and those using the goods and services are not exactly customers of the organizing services. There are some advantages and some disadvantages in regards to these roles.

In the case of those providing the services and goods, one of the obvious advantages is that they can make money. While they could do this without the organizing service, the service obviously makes this easier and provides other advantages.

One of the advantages of not actually being an employee of the organizing services is that the provider has a high degree of autonomy that is usually absent in the traditional employee-employer relationship. The provider can (within the constraints of economic need) work as little as desired and is free to stop at will. This level of autonomy certainly has considerable appeal to some people—especially people who are looking for a more traditional job while making money to pay the bills. In some ways, the situation is somewhat like being a temp.

Of course, there are some disadvantages to being a provider. One is that doing this is rather like being self-employed in that there are typically no benefits and no job security. Also, the risks and costs tend to fall heavily on the provider. For example, if someone crashes into the company truck Sally is driving, then the company handles the matter. But, if Sally is freedriving for Uber and her car is hit, this is most likely going to work exactly as it would if Sally was just driving to Starbucks for a latte—that is, it is on her.

Another point of concern is that the organizer might be in the position to set rates or impose other limits—much like a traditional boss can. For example, Uber can set what drivers are paid on its own

But, this is nothing new—people who do freelance work or are self-employed in the usual sense face all these problems. After all, being the worker is generally not an optimal situation and being what amounts to a temp or freelancer can be even less optimal in terms of security and pay.

There are numerous advantages to the organizing companies. One is that they have people doing the actual work for them (for example, driving people) who are not employees. They also typically have people providing the resources (cars, gas, houses and so on) that are used. While the companies do incur costs in terms of running the organizing functions, they are able to avoid (or significantly reduce) the usual costs of running a business. For example, a hotel needs to have hotel employees (maids, etc.) and an actual hotel. Airbnd does not—the providers provide the services and buildings. As another example, a service that organizes drivers does not need to buy cars, maintain them or insure them—thus resulting in considerable savings.

In essence, the new sharing economy splits management from what would traditionally be the resources (human or otherwise) of a company. The organizer takes on the role of management while avoiding the need to have traditional human resources (beyond the administrative aspects of the business) and the need to have the material resources (beyond those needed for the administrative aspects).

Some companies do operate in something of a hybrid mode—having workers as well as material resources owned by the company while also having a sharing aspect to the business. This is, clearly enough, a variation on the old model of a company hiring temp workers, freelancers and contractors.

This model can, apparently, be very profitable—in large part due to matters of scale. After all, getting a slice of thousands of sales can result in a nice profit. Also, many of these companies benefit from internet inflation—the almost magical overvaluation of companies with business models based on the internet.

Given the apparent success of companies like Uber and Airbnd, it is reasonable to expect other companies to spring into existence to create what might be a new internet bubble—the sharing bubble. Of course, there are some clear limits on what sort of companies can exist—for example, airlines and heavy manufacturing are not really fit for the sharing economy. However, additional advances in economy might see some new realms for the sharing economy. For example, if 3D printers become truly viable, light and specialized manufacturing might become part of the sharing economy.

 

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The Sharing Economy I: Regulation

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on July 23, 2014
Airbnb logo

Airbnb logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The rising success of companies such as Airbnd and Uber have created considerable interest in what has been called the sharing economy. The core idea behind the sharing economy is an old one: people provide goods and services as individuals rather than acting as employees or businesses. One classic example of this is paying a neighborhood kid who mows lawns or babysits. Another classic example is paying a friend’s gas money for a ride to the airport. The new version of the sharing economy does make some changes to the traditional model. The fundamental difference is that the old sharing economy was typically an informal word-of-mouth system while the new sharing economy is organized by companies. As an example of the old sharing economy, your neighbor might have told you about the teenager she hired to babysit her kids or to mow her lawn (back in the day when this was an accepted practice). As an example of the new sharing economy, you might use the Uber app to get a chipper soccer mom to give you a ride to the airport in her mini-van. Unlike the old sharing economy in which your neighbor (probably) did not take a cut for connecting you to a sitter or mower, the companies that connect people get a cut of the proceeds—which can be justified by the services they provide.

The new sharing economy has received considerable praise, mainly due to the fact that it makes it easier for people to make money in what are still challenging economic times. For example, a person who would be hard pressed to get a job as a professional cabbie can easily drive for Uber. However, it has also drawn considerable criticism.

As might be suspected, some of the most vocal critics of the sharing economy are the people whose livelihoods and profits are threatened by this economy. For example, Uber’s conflicts with taxi services routinely make the news. Some people dismiss these criticisms as the usual lamentations of obsolete industries while others regard the criticisms as having legitimacy. In any case, there is certainly considerable controversy regarding this new sharing economy.

One point of concern is regulation. As it now stands, the sharing economy is exploiting the loopholes that exist in the informal economy (which is regulated far less than the formal economy). For example, professional cab drivers are subject to a fairly extensive set of regulations (and expenses, such as insurance costs) while an Uber driver is not. As another example, the hotel industry is regulated while services like Airbnb currently lack such regulations regarding things such as safety and handicap access.

Some proponents of the free market might praise the limited (or nonexistent) regulation and this praise might have some merit—after all, it has long been contended that regulation impedes profits. However, there are at least two legitimate concerns here.

One is, obviously enough, the matter of fairness. If taxi drivers and hotels are subject to strict regulations that also involve additional costs, then it hardly seems fair that companies like Uber and Aibnd can offer the same services while evading these regulations. One obvious option is to impose them on the sharing economy. Another obvious option is to reduce regulations on the traditional economy. In any case, fairness would seem to require comparable regulation.

The second is the matter of safety and other concerns of the public good. While some regulations might be seen as burdensome, others clearly exist to protect the public from legitimate harms. For example, hotels are held to certain standards of cleanliness and safety. As another example, taxi companies are subject to regulations aimed at protecting the public. If the new sharing economy puts people at risk in similar ways, then it seems reasonable to impose comparable regulations on the sharing economy. After all, whether you are getting a hotel room or going through Airbnb, you should have a reasonable expectation that you will not perish in a fire due to safety issues.

It might be countered that the new sharing economy should still fall under the standards of the old sharing economy. For example, if I ask a friend to take me to the airport and she has an awful car and is a terrible driver, it is hardly the business of the state to regulate my choice (although the state would have the right to address any actual traffic violations). As another example, if I crash on someone’s couch for the night, it is hardly the business of the state to make sure that the couch is properly cleaned and that the house is suitable (although it would need to be up to code).

While this does have some appeal, there are two main arguments against this approach. The first is that the informal economy is largely unregulated because it is just that—informal. Once a company like Uber or Airbnd gets into the picture, the economy has become formalized—there is now a central company that is organizing things. This allows a practical means of regulating what is now commercial activity. The second is the matter of scale. When the informal economy is relatively small, the cost and difficulty of regulating for the public good can be prohibitive. For example, policing neighborhood babysitters or people who give the occasional ride to friends and get gas money for doing so would impose a high cost for a little return in public good. However, when an aspect of the informal economy gets organized by a company and greatly expands in size, then there is more at stake and hence paying the cost of regulating for the public good becomes viable. For example, regulating people occasionally giving friends or associates rides is one thing (a silly thing), but regulating large numbers of people driving vehicles for Uber is quite another matter.

One area that is going to be a matter of considerable controversy is that of discrimination. If Bob does not want to share a ride with a white colleague or give a handicapped associate a lift, then that is Bob’s right.  After all, a citizen has every right to be biased. But, it gets rather more complicated if Bob is driving for Uber—after all, discrimination does harm to the public and the public might have a stake in preventing Uber Bob from discriminating. Similary, if Bob does not want his Latino friend crashing on his couch because he thinks Latinos are thieves, that is Bob’s right (the right of being a jerk to one’s friends). But, if Bob is renting out a room through Airbnd, then this could be a matter of legitimate public concern.

It might be countered that people “freedriving” or “freerenting” for the sharing companies still retain the right to discriminate since they are acting as individuals, albeit under the auspices of a company. That does have considerable appeal, especially since the people driving or renting are not actually employees of these companies. The company is just assisting people to exchange services and, it could be claimed, is no more accountable than a newspaper that has a “for sale” or “help wanted” section. Obviously enough, companies are generally going to want to avoid being associated with discrimination and hence they will probably engage in some degree of self-policing to avoid PR nightmares (or will do so if they are sensible or ethical). However, there is clearly an important issue here regarding whether or not laws against discrimination should be applicable to individuals who are involved with the sharing economy companies. The somewhat fuzzy status of those providing services does create a legitimate problem. As noted above, on one hand they are still just individuals using the service to connect to others. On the other hand, this service does seem to bring them into more of a formal business situation which is subject to such laws.

 

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Democrats at Work

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 6, 2013
The "Kicking Donkey" party logo is s...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This post has been created to allow comments about Democrats at Work to be made in a relevant context. Drop those comments like Weiner drops his pants. Drop them hard like…um…best not to go there.

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Bloomberg’s Ban Goes Boom

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 11, 2013
English: New York Mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg.

English: New York Mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

NYC Mayor Bloomberg created a bit of a stir with his planned ban on large sodas. When I first heard about this proposed law, I wrote a blog post against it. As such, I was pleased when  Justice Milton A. Tingling Jr. of the State Supreme Court in Manhattan said that the ban was “arbitrary and capricious.” Because of this, he banned the ban.

Interestingly enough, the judge’s reasoning is similar to my own-I infer this is because we both got it right.

While my specialty is in ethics rather than law, similar principles apply. One principle is that of consistent application-that is, the law must apply in the same way in relevantly similar circumstances. In the case of Bloomberg’s Big Ban, high calorie beverages that are predominantly milk based would be exempt and the law only applied to some business that sell beverages. The problem is, of course, that if the law is aimed at high calorie drinks, it should apply based on the calorie content and not where it is being sold or what provides the calories. Naturally, if a relevant difference could be shown in terms of beverage content or sales venues, then this problem could be addressed.

Another principle is that a law should be efficacious. If a law is such that it cannot fulfill its legitimate purpose, then there is no reason to have such a law. As I argued previously, the law is aimed at combating obesity, yet it can be simply bypassed by going back for refills.

A third key principle in regards to law is that, as per John Locke, the magistrate should act within the legitimate limits of authority. Going beyond such limits is, as Locke argued, tyranny. While the Board of Health does have a legitimate domain (such as ensuring that rat feces is not in the famous NYC pizza), it does not have a mandate to do whatever might fall under the domain of improving the health of the public. As the judge correctly noted,  accepting the legitimacy of the mandate claimed by Bloomberg “would leave its authority to define, create, mandate and enforce limited only by its own imagination,” and “create an administrative Leviathan.”

I do, of course, think people should engage in healthy behavior and I do think the state has a legitimate role in protecting the health of the citizens. However, the ban on large drinks will not do much to help the public and, even if it did, it would be an unwarranted imposition. After all, as Mill argued, the state has the right to impose on an individual to prevent him from harming others. However, the state has no moral right to use its power just because it is believed that compelling people to do or forgo would be better for them.

For those who might wonder, I rarely drink soda (aside from in root beer floats)-but this is a matter of choice. I am, however, going to chug a giant root beer to celebrate the defeat of Bloomberg’s ban.

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