A Philosopher's Blog

Republicans & Rhetorical Explanations

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

Mitt-Romney (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Republicans, Race, Gender & Free Stuff

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Race, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on November 16, 2012
Bill O'Reilly at the World Affairs Council of ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Much to the dismay of the fine folks at Fox (and to the delight at the marvelous mortals at MSNBC) Obama was re-elected president. In the face of this defeat for the Republican Party, there was a rush to explain Obama’s victory.

Bill O’Reilly, visibly shaken by the results, put forth a three part explanation falling under the general heading of demographic change. The first part is that 50% of the voters want free stuff and they voted for Obama because he would give it to them: “It’s a changing country, the demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America anymore, and there are fifty percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama.”

The second part is that there are more non-white people in America and they voted for Obama, presumably because he is only half-white and Romney was 100% white. The third part is that women (who may simply fall under people who want free stuff) voted for Obama: “The white establishment is now the minority. And the voters, many of them, feel that the economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff. You are going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama. Overwhelming black vote for President Obama. And women will probably break President Obama’s way. People feel that they are entitled to things and which candidate, between the two, is going to give them things?”

This explanation, which is a beautiful example of a rhetorical (or persuasive) explanation, certainly matches what could be seen as some of the uglier parts of the Republican narrative regarding people of color, women and the 47%. However, what is most striking about it is that O’Reilly said many true things.

First, he actually underestimated the percentage of voters who like free stuff. I would say that the figure is closer to 100% than 50%, given the extent to which Americans of all classes receive “stuff” from the state and seem to like that “stuff.” I know I liked getting my Pell grant. Now I like driving on public roads, running on public sidewalks, enjoying the protection of the state in the form of police and the military and so on. While I do not receive Social Security yet, I certainly would like to get that when I retire—after all, I have been paying into it for years.

Being somewhat more serious, O’Reilly’s main point seems to be that those who supported Obama did so out of a moral failing—they simply want to get free stuff from the state. However, the evidence that 50% of American voters are morally defective in this manner seems to be assumed by O’Reilly based on the fact that they voted for Obama rather than on the basis of significant and objective evidence. O’Reilly seems to have mainly just bought into Romney’s infamous 47% remark which was not grounded in reality but merely based in stereotypes and prejudices.

Second, he was right that most voters who are not white voted for Obama. Of course, plenty of white voters voted for Obama as well. While O’Reilly and others seem to be casting this as a moral flaw on the part of said voters of insufficient whiteness, he did point to an important reason Obama won: most black and Hispanic voters believed that they would be better off with Obama in office than Romney. While O’Reilly clearly buys into the old racial stereotypes that blacks and Hispanics are lazy spongers and presents this as a reason for Obama’s win, the real reason lies elsewhere. To be specific, the Republican party has made little serious effort to win over black and Hispanic voters at best and at worst some elements of the party seem to embrace views that are at least tinged with racism. This is not just a matter of immigration but of broader issues as well. As such, it is not just that Obama won these voters it is also the case that the Republicans lost them. While it is no doubt emotionally satisfying to put the blame on the black and Hispanic voters, this does them an injustice and also, ironically, serves to make the situation worse for the Republican Party in terms of gaining voters.

Third, he was right that Obama did very well with single women. As with blacks and Hispanics, the explanation seems to be that the women who supported Obama did so from their moral failings—that is, they want free stuff (presumably abortions and birth control). While this might be an emotionally satisfying narrative, it is at odds with reality. While it is true that Obama won over many women voters by doing things that benefit them (such as supporting equal pay for women), this hardly shows that these women merely want free stuff or that they are thus morally defective. If it does, it would seem to show that almost all voters are morally defective—after all, people tend to vote for the person they think will do what is best for them. In this case, women voters would be morally defective, but this would not be a special flaw on their part.

O’Reilly also seems to fail to consider that while Obama did win over many women voters, the Republicans also lost them. Rush Limbaugh denouncing Sandra Fluke as a slut surely did not help the Republicans. It is also likely that the “legitimate rape” and unequal pay episodes of Akin and Mourdock’s idea that being impregnated by rape is a gift from God did not win over women votes. The attempt to impose mandatory transvaginal ultrasoundon women seeking an abortion probably also pushed a few women voters away from the Republican Party. While I could go on providing examples, it should be clear that women had incentives other than getting free stuff to vote for Obama.

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The Republicans’ Epistemic Problem

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

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Congratulations, Mr. President

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 6, 2012

I am writing this on election day, so I do not know who has won. However, no matter who is elected I will still hold to these words.

Congratulations on your victory, Mr. President. You have a tough time ahead of you. We are still involved in war. While the economy has improved since 2008, people are still suffering. We can also expect trouble from Iran and other parts of the world.

As always, you can count on me to support you when I have a good, logical reason to do so. My commitment has consistently been to the good of the country and not to a particular political party or ideology.

Naturally, you can also count on me to be critical when I have good, logical reasons to do so. I am not mindlessly committed to a party nor in the thrall of a specific ideology. As such, when I have a legitimate disagreement I will make it clear in a rational and fair way.

I want you to succeed in bringing America out of the economic trouble that remains and I want you to lead us safely and boldly through the times of trouble that are sure to come.

I believe in America and I believe that we can work together to do what must and should be done.

Congratulations-enjoy your victory, for soon you must get to work.

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Predictions about Romney

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 23, 2012

Romney (Photo credit: Talk Radio News Service)

Interestingly, pundits generally make predictions that turn out to be wrong yet this seems to have no impact on their status as pundits. In this spirit, I call on you to make predictions about what Romney will do, should he win the election. The more specific the prediction, the better.

For example, Romney claims that he will create 12 million jobs, so one possible prediction is that he will do so. Another is that he will not.

If he gets elected, we can return to this post and see what predictions were accurate and which were not.

If possible, limit the comments to predictions. No mention should be made of Obama. Naturally, anyone who is physically incapable of resisting the commands of Fox and must type out talking points against Obama will be forgiven.

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Binders Full of Women

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on October 19, 2012

Romney (Photo credit: Talk Radio News Service)

During the last debate Romney was asked about rectifying inequalities in the workplace. His awkward response involved the phrase “binders full of women” and this ignited a Facebook frenzy. The Democrat operatives have been busy spinning the story in order to “prove” that Romney doesn’t get women’s issues.

As might be imagined, I do agree that his phrase was rather odd. However, since I speak in front of people for a living, I know full well how easy it is to have a poor phrase or verbal slip during the course of a long event. Talking at length under pressure is not an easy thing. As such, I tend to be more understanding than some folks when it comes to such verbal errors. I also subscribe to a general principle of charity when it comes to interpreting what a person says, especially when it is clearly a verbal error. I held to this in regards to Obama’s “you didn’t build that” and extend the same principle to Romney.

Unfortunately, the idea of being consistently charitable or at least understanding is not one that is accepted in politics. The Republicans willfully misinterpreted Obama’s “you didn’t build that” remark and make it the focus of their convention. The Democrats have grabbed onto Romney’s “binders” remark and are attempting to read all sorts of wickedness into it. This tactic of taking comments and inflating them to monstrous proportions is certainly effective rhetorically. However, such tactics have no logical weight or merit. Of course, throwing out “binders full of women” is far easier than actually examining Romney’s record and policies in a critical manner.

There has, of course, been some analysis of the matter-generally along partisan lines. While such analysis is useful in terms of seeing how the two sides are crafting the narrative, they tend to be rather less useful in making a rational assessment of the facts.

One thing that has come up is that when Romney was elected 30% of the senior positions were held by women but when he left, the percentage was 27%. The next governor increased this to 33%. This has been presented as evidence that Romney did not do well when hiring women.

To be fair to Romney, he did better than the American people. After all, 16% of the members of congress are women and there have been no female presidents. Also, the decline from 30% to 27% should not be assumed to be the result of Romney not trying to hire women. After all, that shift could be due to other factors and it is worth noting that the change was rather small in terms of percentages. While 30% is more than 27%, both still fall rather short of 51% (the percentage of women in the population). So, while Romney can be said to have hired slightly fewer women he was only slightly below an already low number. His successor increased it to 33%, but that number also needs to be assessed. More importantly, 33% still falls short of 51%.

My overall point is that it is unfair to single out Romney for this disparity. After all, the percentage of women in political positions is low (as noted above, congress is only 16% women) and Romney cannot be singled out for special blame in this regard. Naturally, if Romney shows signs of misogyny, then that would be another matter.  However, just pointing out that the number went from 30% to 27% and then 33% hardly seems to prove anything about Romney, other than the percentage of women remained about the same during his tenure. Such variation could also be due to factors other than Romney-after all, to assume that Romney was the cause without due consideration would be an error in causal reasoning.

There are, of course, legitimate grounds for women to be concerned about Romney-however, these concerns need to be grounded in actual evidence and not mere awkward phrases.




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What’s the Plan Mitt?

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 17, 2012

Like most Americans, the economy is in my list of top concerns and I would prefer if things were going better. Both Romney and Obama claim that they have a plan to swing things around and it is likely that their ability to convince voters in this matter will have a meaningful impact on the election.

Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts,...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the case of Obama, I have a good idea of his plans and the likelihood of success. While there are various straw man attacks against Obama and some conspiracy theories regarding the employment data, the overwhelming evidence shows that the economy has been slowly recovering. At the top, as always, things are rather good. Corporate profits are high, taxes are low, and the stock market has been mostly positive. While the president’s impact on the economy  can be reasonably debated, if there is an impact it would seem that Obama’s has been largely positive. After all, even the Republican narrative has changed from a tale of complete failure to the complaint that the recovery under Obama has not been dramatic enough. Naturally, Romney claims that he will be able to turn things around.

One of Romney’s main plans is to cut taxes by 20%, presumably in the hope that this will help the economy. As might imagined, the causal connection between tax cuts and economic recovery is a rather dubious matter. It mostly seems to be a matter of ideology rather than evidence-conservatives tend to swear by it while liberals tend to reject it. In any case, the economic crash took place after the Bush tax cuts went into effect and, of course, large corporations are very adept at not paying taxes-thus raising clear questions about the efficacy of tax cuts in this matter.  As such, it would be unwise to infer that this plan will jump start the economy.

Romney has also claimed that his tax plan will not change the progressive aspect of the current tax system. The narrative against Romney is, of course, that he intends tax cuts for the wealthy while shifting the cost burden downward. Since the vast majority of voters are not wealthy, Romney needs to convince these voters that he will not be shifting the burden to them. By claiming he will keep the progressive aspect of the current system, he can claim that the burden will not be shifted.   On the face of it, cutting taxes and keeping the progressive system in place seem compatible.

Most importantly, Romney has claimed that his plan will not increase the deficit. Given that his proposed tax cut would (if not offset) increase the deficit by $5 trillion, Romney needs a plan to prevent that from happening.

Romney has, of course, claimed that he will make cuts in spending. One specific example was that he would cut PBS’ federal funding. Since this would only cut spending by about $430 million, Romney would need to come up with much more in the way of cuts. While people are often quick to condemn the entitlements they do not receive, most people receive entitlements that they certainly do not want to lose. As such, it is no surprise that Romney has not laid out a detailed plan of cuts.

Romney has also claimed that he will close loopholes and eliminate deductions to offset the tax cut. He has not, of course, specified what loopholes he will cut or what deductions will be eliminated. This is politically wise of him-as with entitlements, many people have beloved loopholes and deductions (such as the mortgage deduction). Committing to eliminating popular loopholes and deductions, such as the mortgage deduction, would cost him votes and hence he is not committing. Rather, he says that the details will be worked out after he is elected-thus he is comMitting rather than committing. As such, voting for Mitt is voting for something of a mystery.

There is also the factual issue of whether or not closing loopholes and eliminating deductions would suffice to offset the tax cuts. While various scenarios can be considered, without knowing Mitt’s actual plan, the issue cannot be properly  settled. Also of concern is the matter whether or not Mitt would be able to hold his ground against the addition of new deductions and loopholes (and the return of the old ones). As such, much that is important is also a mystery.

A final point of concern is to note that Romney seems to be claiming that his plan will result in no meaningful change. That is, the tax income will remain the same and the system will remain progressive. As such, one might wonder what the plan actually does.

So, what is the plan, Mitt?

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Coercing the Vote

Posted in Business, Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 11, 2012
Official photographic portrait of US President...

Vote for this man and get fired? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

David Siegal, the Florida real estate tycoon who claimed he was responsible for Bush’s 2000 victory, recently sent a rather interesting email to his employees. While Siegal is careful to avoid directly threatening his employees, he does say that “if any new taxes are levied on me, or my company, as our current President plans, I will have no choice but to reduce the size of this company.”

On the one hand, this can be taken as merely a statement of fact and not a threat that he will fire people if Obama gets elected. That is, the email could be interpreted as simply Siegal saying that if taxes are raised, then he will have no option but to fire people.

Since Siegal does have the choice to do other things (he could lower salaries, including his own compensation rather than fire people), he seems to be presenting a false dilemma. Of course, perhaps he is simply reporting that he will, in fact, just fire people if taxes go up-even if there is no need to do so and there are other options. On  certain moral views, he would have every right to do so. Of course, those same moral views would also morally allow people to walk by a dying Siegal without lifting a finger to help him.

On the other hand, this seems like a rather clear case of innuendo and scare tactics.  After all, he did claim to be the person who made Bush’s election possible and even hinted that he might have used illegal methods. As such, by his own professed narrative, threatening employees would seem to something he could do.

In any case, Siegal’s email seems to be aimed at threatening his employees with termination if Obama is re-elected. That is, on this interpretation he is trying to intimidate the workers into voting for Romney. If this is true, then his actions are certainly immoral an contrary to the principles of democracy. The apparent implied threat could also be taken as creating a hostile work environment which could be grounds for a lawsuit.

Naturally, it can be countered that he was just expressing  company policy and preparing his employees to be fired in the event that Obama is re-elected and raises taxes. However, one might think that an ethical professional would  present a report indicating the impact of proposed tax increases on the company’s revenue and develop a rational response plan with various options.

It could even be argued that employers have the right to motivate employees to vote a certain way as a condition of employment. After all, some folks contend that people have no right to employment and job creators should have free reign to do as they will.

As might be imagined, I regard such coercion or even the appearance of coercion to be morally unacceptable. While an employer should certainly have business plans in place for various occurrences, sending out a general email that seems to imply that employees should vote for Romney unless they want to be fired is wrong. After all, even if the intent is not to coerce employees that would certainly not be an unreasonable interpretation. After all, if I got an email from my university noting that if Obama is not re-elected, then I would be fired, I would take that as an implied threat.



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Why Big Bird Matters

Posted in Business, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 10, 2012
Public Broadcasting Service

Public Broadcasting Service (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After Romney’s remarks about eliminating federal support for PBS (despite liking Big Bird), the Obama campaign responded with an attack ad cashing in on America’s love of the giant yellow fellow.

Given that the Obama campaign has made this into a political issue, it is tempting to regard this matter as being mere politics without any substance behind it. However, I will endeavor to show why Big Bird matters. Or, to be more specific, why the issues raised by Romney are actually important.

Romney does present a reasonable general principle and one that I agree with: before we spend public money (perhaps by borrowing more from China) we should consider whether the spending is worthwhile or not. I try to follow a personal version of this principle when it comes to my own spending and it has served me well. As such, my dispute with Romney is not over this principle. Rather, my dispute is in regards to his claims about PBS.

Given Romney’s claims, he intends to cut federal support for PBS. His professed reason is that doing so will help reduce the deficit. While he does seem to indicate that he values PBS or at least likes it, he presumably does not think that PBS is worth the expenditure of public money.

When it comes to cutting spending to address a deficit, it is obviously irrational to simply cut without considering the value of what is cut relative to the impact of the cut. As such, the cutting of PBS should be properly assessed.

One rather important fact is that PBS received $420 million in 2011 and this is .00012% of the federal budget. As such, cutting PBS support would have a minuscule positive  effect on the deficit, even assuming that the cut had no negative impact (such as job loss leading to loss of tax revenue). As such, it seems rather odd that Romney would present cutting PBS as his example of how he will reduce the deficit. An obvious reply is that every bit counts (although Lou Dobbs attacked Obama for going after oil subsidies on the grounds that the percentage was very low). As such, eliminating PBS would (if all other things remained the same) reduce federal spending by .00012%. Romney would just need to cut a great deal more in order to have a meaningful impact and this raises the obvious question: what else would Romney cut?

It is also important to consider the value of what is being cut and the impact such a cut would have. To use an analogy, while I could save money by eliminating my food budget, the result would be rather negative (death by starvation). In the case of PBS, what must be considered is the value of the federal support.

Interestingly, while the for-profit schools that Mitt Romney praises get 86% of their income from federal money, about 15% of PBS’ budget comes from federal funding, although the percentage varies from station to station. Rural stations, for example, get 40-60% of their funding from federal sources. This means that most of the funding comes from other sources, such as from  corporations and individual donors. If Romney wants to cut the deficit by going after those who get subsidies from the state, he would need to expand his concern beyond PBS and assert that he will hold the for-profit colleges more accountable, cut subsidies for the oil industry, and even remove the tax exemption for religious institutions. The fact that Romney has gone after PBS would thus seem to indicate his values.

Returning to the matter of value, PBS certainly seems to give an excellent return on the investment. After all, Sesame Street alone has been very successful as a company (it is a job creator) and also provides education services at a very low cost to millions of Americans. Like most Americans, Sesame Street and other PBS kids shows were an important part of my education. As I grew older, shows like Nova also taught me a great deal.  Naturally, I also enjoyed Dr. Who and Monty Python. In terms of its education value alone, PBS certainly seems well worth the $430 million that the federal government provides.

It has been suggested that PBS should change its model and sell advertising in order to replace the $430 million that would be lost. Given the popularity of PBS, the stations in cities would probably be able to make up for the loss of federal funds. However, rural stations would probably have a considerably harder time, thus creating the possibility that these stations would go dark, which would certainly be detrimental to the people living in those areas.

There is, of course, the concern of the impact of going commercial. After all, what makes PBS unique is that it does not operate as a for-profit station and this has a significant impact on its programming and operations. For example, Sesame Street is not interrupted every few minutes with ads selling junk food and toys.  In general, this impact seems to be a positive one and PBS does provide a valuable alternative to the multitude of for-profit stations. As such, I would certainly favor keeping federal support for PBS in place-it is generally money well spent.

Perhaps the most compelling reason in favor of keeping the funding of PBS intact is the fate of The Learning Channel. It began life in 1972 as an actual learning channel supported by NASA and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. It was privatized in 1980. In 2012 it began running Honey Boo Boo. I think that all sane, rational beings can agree that PBS should be protected from BooBooization.

It is, of course, worth noting that the Muppets and Sesame Street have been accused of having an anti-conservative bias. Sesame Street, for example, was attacked for its intentional use of gender neutral language. This suggests that Big Bird might have been singled out for his alleged left leaning show. Jon Stewart, not surprisingly, presented a humorous response to the accusation of left wing bias on Sesame Street.

When watching the Daily Show segment, I was struck by the fact that the lessons that we are supposed to teach children about being good people (such as sharing, not using violence against others,  and caring about people) tend to be vilified by certain conservatives when they are presented as how adults should behave towards one another. There is certainly an interesting disconnect between the values we are supposed to follow on the playground and the values presented by certain conservatives, especially those of the sort Ayn Rand argues for.

It might, of course, be said that there is a time to put away childish things. But is sharing, for example, a childish thing that we should set aside as we get older? As such, the matter of PBS would seem to matter in regards to the values of America. After all, there would presumably be no Sesame Street in the utopia of the ethical egoist.

In any case, I am fine with having my tax dollars go to PBS. Long live Big Bird!

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Does Truth Matter?

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 8, 2012

truth (Photo credit: Erick-Pardus)

Most people believe that Mitt Romney won the October 3 debate and this entails that, in practical terms, he did win it. After all, one wins a political debate by getting the majority to believe that one has won. As such, victory is defined by the what people believe.

Romney and Obama were both accused of “stretching” the truth during the debate. The objective evidence indicates that both candidates intentional said things that are not true. Or, as normal folks would put it, they lied.

Those defending their man noted that this is the practice of politics. While this is clearly a case of the common practice fallacy (that is, attempting to justify a practice by claiming it is a common one) the general acceptance of this raises questions about whether truth matters in politics at all. In fact, one of the students in my ethics class asked me if an honest person could even be elected. While I do think that this is possible, I am not entirely sure that this view is well-founded. It might simply be a case of wishful thinking.

One thing I find fascinating about this lying is that both men obviously knew that their claims would be fact checked and that the results would make the news. Apparently the fact that lies would be noted and exposed had no effect on the honesty of the two men. This suggests that they believe that this exposure will have no effect on their chances. If so, the seem to be right about this.

One reason why they can lie with seeming impunity is that there are only two viable choices (Romney or Obama) and since both are lying, honesty cannot be a point of distinguishing between them.

Another reason is that most voters have already decided how they will vote and are committed to a degree that would be hard to shake. Mere lying about the facts does not appear to be enough to change minds.

Perhaps the main reason is that, as I have written in other posts, people hold to claims that match their ideology even in the face of refutation. In fact, the strength of a person’s belief in a claim that matches his ideology will generally increase when the claim is objectively refuted. As such, it makes bizarre sense that the candidates would lie so often: their follows are more likely to believe a refuted lie than an actual truth.

Despite the lying done by both parties, they are rather quick to accuse the other side of lying. For example, the latest job figures show that unemployment is at 7.8%. In response to this, some Republicans have claimed that this figure is a deceit. While some claim that the number is simply a fabrication by Obama’s people others claim that out of work Democrats have been lying about being employed to bring down the unemployment numbers.

While it is tempting to dismiss the Republicans’ accusation on the grounds that they are also liars, this would be a logical error. In any case, the unemployment percentage is an objective matter and is presumably one that can be checked independently. Of course, merely by making the accusation loudly and repeatedly, the Republicans will get their fellows to believe it and if it is shown that the figure really is 7.8%, they will even more strongly believe that it is not 7.8%. Naturally, convincing the already convinced will not amount to much in the election-a person just gets one vote regardless of how convinced they are. There is, of course, a chance that this will influence the few undecided voters which could be the reason behind the accusation. On the other side, many Democrats will be even more inclined to accept the number now that some Republicans are attacking it.

Another point about truth that has been raised is the matter of how Romney has switched his positions throughout the process, leading to the infamous etch-a-sketch analogy. While securing the nomination, Romney steered hard right but during the debate he tacked left towards the center. His defenders point out that this sort of thing is common practice and that all politicians facing a primary do the same thing. That is, they tack left or right for the primary and then head for the center for the general election. Naturally, the fact that it is a common practice does not make it correct.

In addition to the moral concern regarding deception (and this process is intentional deceit) there is also the concern that this practice makes it rather difficult for the voters to know what the person actually believes or what s/he will actually do.While it might be claimed that the voters should compensate by taking into account the tacking, that seems to amount to saying that the voters should be aware that what the politicians say is not the truth. Or, put another way, that the voters should not take anything they say seriously, yet they should still vote for them.

In the case of Romney, which is the real Mitt: the primary Mitt, the debate Mitt, the Massachusetts Mitt or some other Mitt we have not met yet? In the case of Obama, he has been in office for nearly four years, thus we have a good idea of what he is like.

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