A Philosopher's Blog

The Democrats and the Ku Klux Klan

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on February 13, 2017

One interesting tactic employed by the Republicans is to assert, in response to charges of racism against one of their number, that the Democrats are “the party of the Ku Klux Klan.” This tactic was most recently used by Senator Ted Cruz in defense of Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for attorney general.

Cruz went beyond merely claiming the Democrats formed the Klan; he also asserted that the Democrats were responsible for segregation and the infamous Jim Crow laws. As Cruz sees it, the Democrats’ tactic is to “…just accuse anyone they disagree with of being racist.”

Ted Cruz is right about the history of the Democratic party. After the Civil War, the southern Democratic Party explicitly identified itself as the “white man’s party” and accused the Republican party of being “negro dominated.” Some Southern Democrats did indeed support Jim Crow and joined the KKK.

What Ted fails to mention is that as the Democrats became the party associated with civil rights, the Republicans engaged in what has become known as the “southern strategy.” In short, the Republicans appealed to racism against blacks in order to gain political power in the south. Though ironic given the history of the two parties, this strategy proved to be very effective and many southern Democrats became southern Republicans. In some ways, the result was analogous to exchanging the wine in two bottles: the labels remain the same, but the contents have been swapped. As such, while Ted has the history correct, he is criticizing the label rather than the wine.

Another metaphor is the science fiction brain transplant. If Bill and Sam swapped brains, it would appear that Sam was guilty of whatever Bill did, because he now has Bill’s body. However, when it comes to such responsibility what matters is the brain. Likewise for the swapping of political parties in the south: the Southern Democrats condemned by Cruz became the southern Republicans that he now praises. Using the analogy, Ted is condemning the body for what the old brain did while praising that old brain because it is in a new body.

As a final metaphor, consider two cars and two drivers. Driving a blue car, Bill runs over a person. Sam, driving a red car, stops to help the victim. Bill then hops in the red car and drives away while Sam drives the victim to the hospital in the blue car. When asked about the crime, Ted insists that the Sam is guilty because he is in the blue car now and praises Bill because he is in the red car now.  Obviously enough, the swapping of parties no more swaps responsibility than the swapping of cars.

There is also the fact that Cruz is engaged in the genetic fallacy—he is rejecting what the Democrats are saying now because of a defect in the Democratic party of the past. The fact that the Democrats of then did back Jim Crow and segregation is irrelevant to the merit of claims made by current Democrats about Jeff Sessions (or anything else). When the logic is laid bare, the fallacy is quite evident:


Premise 1: Some Southern Democrats once joined the KKK.

Premise 2: Some Southern Democrats once backed segregation and Jim Crow Laws.

Conclusion: The current Democrats claims about Jeff Sessions are untrue.


As should be evident, the premises have no logical connection to the conclusion, hence Cruz’s reasoning is fallacious. Since Cruz is a smart guy, he obviously knows this—just as he is aware that fallacies are far better persuasive tools than good arguments.

The other part of Cruz’s KKK gambit is to say that the Democrats rely on accusations of racism as their tactic. Cruz is right that a mere accusation of racism does not prove that a person is racist. If it is an unsupported attack, then it proves nothing. Cruz’s tactic does gain some credibility from the fact that accusations of racism are all-to-often made without adequate support. Both ethics and critical thought require that one properly review the evidence for such accusations and not simply accept them. As such, if the Democrats were merely launching empty ad hominem attacks on Sessions (or anyone), then these attacks should be dismissed.

In making his attack on the Southern Democrats of the past, Cruz embraces the view that racism is a bad thing. After all, his condemnation of the current Democrats requires that he condemn the past Democrats for their support of racism, segregation and Jim Crow laws. As such, he purports to agree with the current Democrats’ professed view that racism is bad. But, he condemns them for making what he claims are untrue charges of racism. This, then, is the relevant concern: which claims, if any, made by the Democrats about session being a racist are true? The Democrats claimed that they were offering evidence of Session’s racism while Cruz’s approach was to accuse the Democrats of being racists of old and engaging in empty accusations today. He did not, however, address the claims made by the Democrats or their evidence. As such, Cruz’s response has no merit from the perspective of logic. As a rhetorical move, however, it has proven reasonably successful.


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Cooperating with Trump

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on February 8, 2017

It has been claimed that Republicans intended, from day one, to obstruct President Obama in all things. This is supported by John Boehner’s remark about Obama’s agenda: “We’re going to do everything — and I mean everything we can do — to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.” However, the defining quote for the obstructionist agenda belongs to Mitch McConnell: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” The Republican narrative, as might be imagined, tells a different tale. In the Republican version, Obama is the villain who refuses to compromise with the Republicans.

While the truth of the matter is important, the practical fact of the matter is that Obama and the Republicans often ended up in deadlocks. Obama’s go-to strategy was the use of executive orders—some of which ended up being challenged by the courts. Now that Trump is president, the question is whether the Democrats should adopt the Boehner-McConnell approach and try to kill or at least slow down everything Trump tries to achieve in the hopes of making him a one-term president.

On the one hand, it can be argued that the Democrats should take this approach. One reason for this is purely pragmatic politics, devoid of any concern about moral values, that has as its goal the acquisition and retention of power. While the Republicans are generally more adept at this than the Democrats, the Democrats can avail themselves of the well-stocked Republican playbook and simply do to Trump what the Republicans did to Obama.

The obvious problem with the approach is that it is devoid of any concern about moral values and is thus very likely to be bad for America as a whole. If one accepts the Lockean view that the leaders of the state should act for the good of the people, then the power justification is out. But for those who regard power as the supreme good of politics, the obstructionist approach makes considerable sense—after all, the Republican strategy landed them the White House and Congress.

Another reason for this is revenge and payback:  Republicans obstructed Obama and Democrats should treat Trump the same way. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, an obstruction for an obstruction. While this is certainly appealing in an Old Testament sort of way, this justification also runs afoul of the idea that the leaders are morally obligated to act for the good of the people and not engage in seeking revenge. For John Locke, using a political position to seek revenge would be an act of tyranny that should be resisted. As such, the revenge justification is certainly problematic.

On the other hand, it can be argued that the Democrats should set aside their lust for power and their desire for revenge and cooperate with Trump. This does not mean that the Democrats must cooperate in all things; just that the Democrats should cooperate and resist in a principle way. As the above considerations should indicate, the cooperation and resistance should be based on what is regarded as good for the people. This is, of course, a rather vague notion but can be worked out in utilitarian terms in regards to specific issues (with due attention to concerns about the tyranny of the majority). This is not to say that the Democrats will always be right and Trump always wrong; but it is s statement of principle for how opposition and cooperation should operate.

This suggests an obvious counter-argument: Trump’s agenda is harmful to the general good and thus it must be obstructed and every effort must be made to make him a one-term president. While my general dislike of Trump inclines me to feel that this is true, I am obligated to be consistent with what I tell my students: truth is not felt, but must be established through reason. Unfortunately, reason seems to indicate that much of Trump’s agenda will not be good for Americans in general. But, this does not entail that everything in his agenda will be bad for America and his specific proposals should be given due and fair consideration.

To use a specific and oft-spoken-of example, Trump claimed that he wants to rebuild the aging and failing public infrastructure. While it is tempting to point out that Obama wanted to do the same thing and that Trump might be thinking of how he and his allies can personally profit from the massive flood of public money into private coffers, addressing the infrastructure woes would be generally good for America. As such, the Democrats should not follow the lead of the Republicans and simply obstruct his proposals. This is not to say that the Democrats should rubber stamp everything, but it is to say that they should not simply reject the proposals simply because they are coming from Trump.

As far as making Trump a one term president; I think Trump will see to that himself.

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Voter Apathy

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 7, 2014

The recent midterm election was marked by numerous Republican victories, so apparently the voters believed that the solution to Republican obstructionism in congress was to elect more Republicans. That should work well.  Interestingly, the Republican leadership has asserted how they want to get work done and expressed their willingness to work with Obama. Of course, they also warned him about “poisoning the well” by striking off on his own in regards to immigration reform. I am not sure which well Boehner is referring to; perhaps it is that poison well that has been filling up since 2008.

I am, of course, a Democrat. But, my political views are based on ethical arguments rather than ideology and I took the crushing defeat of the Democratic party in stride. Which is fortunate, because someone had to be in good enough shape to console my friends who are devoted Democrats.

While I would have preferred a Democratic victory, I was reasonably sure what the outcome would be. While some might point to the vast sums spent by Republican backers, one must also point to the vast sums spent by Democratic backers. While some might point to voter suppression, one must also point to voter self-suppression. That is, voters simply deciding not to vote despite it being easy and convenient (in most states you can get a mail-in ballot with almost no effort).

While I do not discuss my own politics in class nor encourage students to support any particular candidate, I do discuss voting in general. While some students have been enthusiastic about voting, most express the same enthusiasm for voting as they do for class (that is, very little). Not surprisingly, students express many of the same reasons as other voters for their apathy. One reason is the belief that elections are settled in the shadows by those with the money and political influence–that is, that elections are essentially shams. The second reason is that people often find the candidates for both parties unappealing and regard them both as politicians who will just serve the interest of whoever paid for their campaign. For example, many folks saw the election in Florida as a matter of picking between the lesser evils. The majority of those who voted, voted for Rick Scott. A third reason is sort of a vague and general apathy about politics that seems fueled by the negative ads and the toxicity of American politics. That is, politics is seen as nasty and awful and people would rather think about something else.

This apathy seems to be widespread. Voter turnout on 11/4/2014 was about 44% (exact numbers vary). The worst turnout was apparently 36% for a state and the best was about 60% (which was my home state of Maine). Many elections were close (Scott beat Crist 48% to 47%) so many winners were elected by a minority of voters (but a majority of those who actually voted).

The stock view presented by the pundits is that the Democrats are hurt the most by low turnout, primarily because the solid supporters of the Republicans (old  white folks) vote reliably. In contrast, many of those who would probably vote Democrat if they voted, are unreliable and generally do not turn out for midterm elections. Sadly, many of these people still complain very loudly about the results of the election they did not participate in. While they obviously do have the legal right to complain and perhaps even a moral right, they should probably either vote or shut up.

Those who like conspiracy theories do like to claim that the Republicans have long been engaged in manufacturing voter apathy among the key demographics of the Democrats (the young, minorities, and women). People who like the facts do like to point out that gerrymandering has all but locked in most incumbents and that the Republicans have been masters of this.

The cynical view is, of course, that even if this is all true, the Republicans have proven better at politics than the Democrats, at least for now. If the Democrats want to win, they will need to figure out what the Republicans have been doing right and what they have been doing wrong and work out a strategy.

Oddly enough, I am inclined to favor the idea that a Democrat will win the presidential election in 2016. The trend in politics seems to be that people accumulate a negative view of the party in power (no doubt due partially to negativity bias-that the negative is given more weight than the positive) and then vote angry. Or apathetic. But, the Republicans might be able to ride the fall of Obama to victory in 2016.

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Republicans at Work Part I

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 5, 2014
English: A female African Bush Elephant in Mik...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In honor of the Republican party taking over the Senate, Republicans at Work has joined Democrats at Work.

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Voter Fraud Prevention or Voter Suppression

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 15, 2014
English: map of voter ID laws in US

English: map of voter ID laws in US (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One essential aspect of a democracy is the right of each citizen to vote. This also includes the right to have her vote count. One aspect of protecting this right is to ensure that voter fraud does not occur. After all, voter fraud can rob legitimate voters of their right to properly decide the election. Another aspect of protecting this right is to ensure that voter suppression does not occur. This is because voter suppression can unjustly rob people of their votes.

Many Republicans have expressed concerns about voter fraud and have worked to enact laws aimed, they claim, at reducing such fraud. In response, many Democrats have countered that these laws are, they claim, aimed at voter suppression. Naturally, each side accuses the other of having wicked political motives. Many Democrats see the Republicans as trying to disenfranchise voters who tend to vote for Democrats (the young and minorities). The Republicans counter that the Democrats are supporting voter fraud because the fraud is in their favor. In many cases, these beliefs are no doubt quite sincere. However, the sincerity of a belief has no relevance to its truth. What matters are the reasons and evidence that support the belief. As such, I will look at the available evidence and endeavor to sort out the matter.

One point of contention is the extent of voter fraud. One Republican talking point is that voter fraud is widespread. For example, on April 7, 2014 Dick Morris claimed that over 1 million people voted twice in 2012. If this was true, then it would obviously be a serious matter: widespread voter fraud could change the results of elections and rob the legitimate voters of their right to decide. Democrats claim that voting fraud does occur, but occurs at such a miniscule level that it has no effect on election outcomes and thus does not warrant the measures favored by the Republicans.

Settling this matter requires looking at the available facts. In regards to Dick Morris’ claim (which made the rounds as a conservative talking point), the facts show that it is false. But the fact that Morris was astoundingly wrong does not prove that voter fraud is not widespread. However, the facts do. For example, in ten years Texas had 616 cases of allegations of voter fraud and only one conviction for double voting. In Kansas, 84 million voter records were analyzed for fraud. Of these, 14 cases were referred to prosecution with, as of this writing, zero convictions.

Republicans have argued for voter ID laws by contending that they will prevent fraud. However, investigation of voter fraud has shown only 31 credible cases out of one billion ballots. As such, this sort of fraud does occur—but only at an incredibly low rate.

In general, significant (let alone widespread) voter fraud does not occur although the myth is widespread. As such, the Republican claims about voter fraud are based on a myth and this would seem to remove the foundation for their claims and proposals regarding the matter.

It could be countered that while voter fraud is insignificant, it must still be countered by laws and policy changes, such as requiring voter IDs and eliminating early voting. This does have some appeal. To use an analogy, even if only a fraction of 1% of students cheated, then professors should still take steps to counter that cheating for the sake of academic integrity. Unless, of course, the measures used to counter that cheating did more damage than the cheating. The same would seem to apply to measures to counter voter fraud.

One rather important matter is the moral issue of whether it is more important to prevent fraud or to prevent disenfranchisement. This is analogous to the moral concern about guilt in the legal system. In the United States, there is a presumption of innocence on the moral grounds that it is better that a guilty person goes free than an innocent person is unjustly punished. In the case of voting, should it be accepted that it is better that a legitimate voter be denied her vote rather than an illegitimate voter be allowed to get away with fraud? Or is it better that an illegitimate voter gets away with fraud then for a legitimate voter to be denied her right to vote?

My own moral conviction is that it is more important to prevent disenfranchisement. Obviously I am against fraud and favor safeguards against fraud. However, given the minuscule rates of fraud if attempts to reduce it result in disenfranchisement, then I would oppose such attempts on moral grounds. Naturally, another person might take a different view and contend that it is worth disenfranchising voters in an attempt to reduce the minuscule rates of fraud to even more miniscule levels.

Returning to the matter of facts, one rather important concern is whether or not the laws and policies in question actually result in voter suppression. If they do not, even if they do nothing to counter voter fraud, then they would be tolerable (assuming they do not come with other costs).

Unfortunately, the evidence is that the laws that are allegedly aimed at preventing voter fraud actually serve as voter suppression measures, mostly aimed at minority voters. Keith Bentele and Erin E. O’Brien published a study entitled “Jim Crow 2.0? Why States Consider and Adopt Restrictive Voter Access Policies.” Based on their analysis of the data, they concluded “the Republican Party has engaged in strategic demobilization efforts in response to changing demographics, shifting electoral fortunes, and an internal rightward ideological drift among the party faithful.” The full study, from the journal Perspectives on Politics, is available here. Since this is a factual matter, those who disagree with these findings can counter this by providing an analysis of equal or greater credibility based on supported facts.

Interestingly, it is a common talking point among Republicans that professors are tools of the Democrats and that academic experts should not be trusted. While this is a marvelous ad homimen, what is needed is actual evidence and arguments countering the claims. If professors are tools of the Democrats and academic experts are not to be trusted, then it should be rather easy to provide credible, objective evidence and analysis showing that they are in error. In terms of specifics regarding voter suppression, I offer the following evidence based discussion.

One of the best-known methods proposed to counter voter fraud is the voter ID law. While, as shown above, the sort of fraud that would be prevented by these laws seems to occur 31 times per 1 billion ballots, it serves to disenfranchise voters. In Texas 600,000-800,000 registered voters lack such IDs with Hispanics being 40-120% more likely to lack an ID than whites. In North Carolina 318,000 registered voters lack the required ID and one third of them are African-American (African-Americans make up about 13% of the US population).

Another approach is to make it harder for citizens to register. One example is restrictions on voter registration drives—Hispanics and African-Americans register to vote at twice the rate of whites via drives. It is not clear how these methods would reduce fraud. The restrictions mostly do not seem to be aimed at making it harder for people to register fraudulently—just to make it more inconvenient to register.

A third tactic is to reduce the available early voting times and eliminate weekend and evening voting. This would seem to have no effect whatsoever on fraud, but seems aimed at minority voting patterns. In 2008 70% of African-American voters in North Carolina cast their ballots early. Minority voters are more likely than white voters to vote on weekends and in the evening. For example, 56% of the 2008 weekend voters in Cuyahoga County in Ohio were black.

A fourth tactic is to make it harder for people with past convictions to regain their voting rights. This impacts African Americans the most: 7.7% of African-Americans and 1.8% of the rest of the population have lost their right to vote in this manner. This tactic does not prevent fraud—it merely denies people the right to vote.

It would seem that the laws and policies allegedly aimed at voter fraud would not reduced the existing fraud (which is already miniscule) and would have the effect of suppressing voters. As such, these laws and proposals fail to protect the rights of voters and instead are a violation of that basic right. In short, they are either a misguided and failed effort to prevent fraud or a wicked and potentially successful effort to suppress minority voters. Either way, these laws and policies are a violation of a fundamental right of the American democracy.

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For Profit College, Again

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on October 21, 2013
For-Profit Education

For-Profit Education (Photo credit: Truthout.org)

While state support for United States public higher education dropped 25% from 2000 to 2010, for profit colleges have enjoyed an ever larger slice of public funds. Part of this is due to the increase in enrollment for the for-profit schools: in 1990 only 2% of undergraduate college students were enrolled in such schools, but in 2008-2009 it increased to 11.8%.

However, the for-profit schools get a disproportionate amount of state money in the form of federal money. While having 10% of the students in higher education, they received almost 25% of the Pell Grant money and 25% of the federal student loans.

The for-profit schools are also beneficiaries of the GI Bill: in 2010-2011 $1 billion of the $4.4 billion disbursed by the Department of Veterans Affairs went to just eight such schools. Overall, 37% of the GI Bill money went to for-profit schools.

As such, the for-profit schools are receiving state funds that are disproportionate to their actual enrollments at a time when public schools are having their state support cut. To use the rhetoric of the Tea Party and Republicans, this would seem to be socialism: the state just dumping taxpayer money to benefit a few takers. Moving away from the rhetoric, it does seem to be a point of concern that state money is being moved away from public institutions so as to enable for-profit institutions to profit. Shockingly enough, the Republicans (and most Democrats) are not outraged by this “socialism.”

This state money is the main revenue stream for the for-profits, so they are truly state-supported businesses. They are also successful at making money in this manner: they enjoy an average profit margin of 19%. This enables them to engage in advertising and thus gain more students who enable them to tap ever more into that sweet taxpayer largesse.

The obvious reply is to contend that the for-profit colleges earn these profits while state schools flounder in financial woes. This, it might be claimed, is proof that the for-profit approach is superior to the inherently inferior public approach. However, there are two replies to this.

The first, and most blindingly obvious, is that the for-profit colleges get most of their revenue from the state, thus their success depends on siphoning off taxpayer money into their coffers.

The second is that the for-profit schools often turn out to be disasters for their students, especially when compared to public schools.

While student debt is a serious problem, it is far worse for those who attend for-profit schools. 54% of the students who graduate with a BA from a for-profit school end up with over $30,000 in debt. In contrast, only 12% of public college graduates end up in that dire situation.

The for-profit schools also do poorly in actually placing students in jobs—the public schools do much better. As such, it is hardly a surprise that although students who attended for-profit colleges make up a fraction of the total college student population, they made up 48% of those who defaulted on student loans in 2010.

Given their rhetoric regarding government spending, socialism and people “taking” from the government, one would think that the Republicans would be leading a charge against the for-profit schools. After all, these schools are receiving large sums of public money and doing a poor job. As a faculty member at a public university I can attest to the Republican obsession with making public institutions prove that they are providing a return on the state money they get. I serve on various committees that exist primarily to collect and process assessment data to prove to the state legislature and governor that we are getting results for every penny we receive and our funding is tied to this data. Also not surprisingly, there is also a push to have private sector companies provide expensive tests at the taxpayers’ expense to, somewhat ironically, make sure the taxpayers’ money is being well spent.

However, this does not seem to be the case. Instead, the push by Republicans (and many Democrats) is for even more for-profit education that is funded by the taxpayer. This indicates that the opposition is to “socialism” of the sort where public money goes to  public colleges. The “socialism” that involves redistributing wealth from the taxpayers to the problematic for-profit colleges is apparently just fine.


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The Phantom Menace in Florida

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

Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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Will Same-Sex Marriage Lead to Fathers Marrying Their Sons?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on April 5, 2013
Jeremy Irons

Cover of Jeremy Irons

Actor Jeremy Irons was recently asked about the legalization of same-sex marriage. In response, he raised the question of whether or not a father could marry a son.

When I first heard that Irons spoke about a father marrying a son, I had inferred that he was just presenting the tired stock anti-same sex slippery slope fallacy in which it is claimed that if we allow same-sex marriage, then this will inevitably lead to allowing incest (and bestiality). The stock replies to this line of “reasoning” are to 1) point out that it is the slippery slope fallacy and 2) explain that allowing same-sex marriage no more allows incest (or bestiality) than does allowing different-sex marriage. After all, if different-sex couples can marry without a slide into different-sex incest and bestiality, then it would certainly seem to be the case that same-sex couples could marry without a slide into incest and bestiality.

However, Irons raised a more interesting point: if we allow same-sex marriage and this leads to allowing a father to marry his son, this could be used to work around the inheritance laws. After all, while a son would have to pay the inheritance tax on property he inherited from his father, he would not have to do so on property inherited from a deceased spouse. So, a father and son could get married not for the purpose of incest but for avoiding the inheritance tax. This idea might cause some confusion for certain Republicans—after all, this provides a way to avoid taxes but at the cost of allowing same-sex incestuous marriage.

While Irons did not explore all the ramifications, if anyone could marry anyone, then people could marry each other to get various spousal benefits (such as insurance coverage or green cards). While Irons’ point is interesting, it is easy enough to address these worries.

First, the claim that allowing same-sex marriage automatically entails that incestuous marriage be allowed is still the slippery slope fallacy. If accepting different-sex marriage does not warrant different sex-incest, then neither does same-sex marriage. And, of course, neither would warrant accepting bestiality. As such, there seems to be no reason to worry that legalizing same-sex marriage would lead to fathers marrying their sons to avoid taxes.

Second, while the idea of a father marrying a son to avoid taxes seems shocking, the general problem would be the exploitation of marriage. This is not a problem unique to same-sex marriage. After all, people already exploit different-sex marriage. As a specific example, a man could marry a woman (who is not too closely related) so she can avoid paying the inheritance task.  Nothing about the current marriage laws forbids this.  To make the more general point, any advantageous exploitation of marriage that would become available to a same-sex couple with the legalization of same-sex marriage is already available to different-sex couples.

If such advantageous exploitations are the problem, then the solution would be fixing these problems rather than focusing unfairly on the idea that same-sex couples would avail themselves of existing marital exploits. For example, if there is a terrible worry that people would engage in same-sex marriage to avoid the inheritance tax, then the solution would be to require spouses to pay this tax (or eliminate it altogether). As another example, if there is grave concern that two guys will get married just so one guy can get health insurance, then the solution is to change the insurance laws. After all, if the concern is that marriage will be exploited, then the clear solution is to take away the exploitable advantages—that way we can be sure people are not marrying just to avoid a tax, get insurance or for some other similar reason.

Some people do imply that same-sex couples would be more likely to engage in such advantageous exploits than different-sex couples or even that people would pretend to be gay to gain such advantages.

One obvious response is that there seems to be no reason to think that same-sex couples would be any more (or less) likely to marry for advantages. As far as people pretending to be gay, that seems to be rather odd—after all, a person who is not gay and wants to marry for an advantageous exploit could simply find a person of the opposite sex. The idea of pretending to be gay might make for a plot device for a comedy, but is hardly something that would be commonly (or even uncommonly) done.

If the problem is that same-sex couples would have the same advantages as different-sex couples, then this would seem to be a mere expression of prejudice.

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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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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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