A Philosopher's Blog

Flint’s Water

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 20, 2016

Like all too many American cities and towns, the Michigan city of Flint faces dire financial woes. To address these woes, the state stepped in and bypassed local officials with the goal of cutting the budget of the city. One aspect of the solution was to switch Flint’s water supply to a cheaper source, specifically a polluted river. Another aspect seems to have been to decline to pay the $100 per day cost of treating the water in accord with federal regulations. The result was that the corrosive water started dissolving the pipes. Since many of the pipes in the city are made of lead, this resulted in citizens getting lead poisoning. This includes children, who are especially vulnerable to the damage caused by this toxin.

More troubling, it has been claimed that the state was aware of the problem and officials decided to cover it up. The state also apparently tried to discredit the research conducted by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha before finally admitting to the truth.

There have been various attempts to explain why this occurred, with filmmaker Michael Moore presenting the hypothesis that it was an attempt at “racist genocide.” This claim does have a certain appeal, given that the poor and minorities have been impacted by the corrosive water. Apparently the corrosive water has far less effect on newer infrastructure, which tends to be in areas that are better off economically. It is also appealing in that it is consistent with the fact of institutional racism that still plagues America. However, before rushing to accept the genocide hypothesis, it is worth considering alternative explanations.

One alternative is that the initial problem arose from political ideology. There is the view that the most important objective is reducing the spending of the state (typically to also lower taxes). Going along with this is also an opposition to federal regulations. Switching to the corrosive water and not treating it was initially cheaper and certainly evaded the regulations governing drinking water treatment. That said, the approach taken by the state did go against some professed conservative values, namely favoring local control and being opposed to government overreach. However, these values have been shown to be extremely flexible. For example, many state legislatures have passed laws forbidden local governments from banning fracking. As such, the initial action was consistent with the ideology.

In regards to the fact that the impact has been heaviest on the poor and minorities, this need not be driven by racism. An alternative explanation is that the policy was aimed not on the basis of race, but on the basis of power and influence. It is, of course, the case that the poor lack power and minorities are often poor. Since the poor lack the resources to resist harm and to buy influence, they are the most common target of budget cuts. Because of this, racism might not be the main factor.

In regards to the ensuing cover up, it might have begun with wishful thinking: the state officials did not want to believe that there was a problem. As such, they refused to accept that it existed. People are very good at denial, even when doing so is harmful to themselves. For example, many who do not take good care of themselves engage in wishful thinking in regards to the consequences their unhealthy behavior. It is, obviously, even easier to engage in wishful thinking when the harm is being suffered by others. Once the cover up progressed, the explanation is rather easy: people engage in a cover-up in the hopes of avoiding the consequences of their actions. However, as is so often the case, the cover-up has resulted in far more damage than a quick and honest admission.

This ongoing incident in Flint does show some important things. First, it does indicate that some traditional conservative claims are true: government can be the problem and local authorities can be better at decision making. Of course, government was the problem in this case because the focus was on saving a little money rather than ensuring the safety of the citizens.

Second, it serves as yet another example of poor assessment of consequences resulting from a shortsighted commitment to savings. This attempt at saving has done irreparable harm to many citizens (including children) and will cost millions of dollars to address. As such, this ill-considered attempt to save money has instead resulted in massive costs.

Third, it serves as yet another lesson in the fact that government regulations can be good. If the state had spent the $100 a day to treat the water in accord with federal regulations, then this problem would have not occurred. This is certainly something that people should consider when politicians condemn and call for eliminating regulations. This is not to claim that all regulations are good—but it is to claim that a blanket opposition to regulations is shortsighted and unwise.

I would like to say that the Flint disaster will result in significant changes. I do think it will have some impact—cities and towns are, no doubt, checking their water and assessing their infrastructure. However, the lessons will soon fade until it is time for a new disaster.


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The Failure of Ethanol

Posted in Environment, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 16, 2013
English: A combine harvesting corn. Deutsch: J...

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While alternative energy has been hyped for quite some time, one of the more recently hyped alternatives is biofuel. The idea is appealing enough: instead of drilling for hydrocarbon fuels, we will make our own from biological sources. One of the best known biofuels is, of course, corn-based ethanol. While on my way home from work, I bought gasoline that was 10% ethanol—not because I wanted to, but because that was the only option. Most likely you have also bought gasoline blended with ethanol.

The fact that ethanol is now blended with normal gasoline might suggest that corn-based ethanol has been a success. However, this is not the case. Rather, corn-based ethanol has been a failure.

The first matter of concern is in regards to how efficiently an alternative fuel can be created in regards to the cost. This cost, obviously enough, includes the cost of the energy used to create the fuel. In the case of corn-based ethanol, the process of growing corn and then converting it to a usable fuel is rather costly. In 2010 the ethanol industry received $5.68 billion in subsidies and it is only this that allowed ethanol to have the illusion of being commercially viable. While energy industries do typically require subsidies (fossil fuels were and are heavily subsidized), ethanol seems to be a rather poor choice in terms of what is received for the cost.

Ironically, the distillation part of the process of making ethanol typically involves using fossil fuels and this process results in a fuel that has only about two thirds of the energy of conventional gasoline. In fact, ethanol production is so inefficient that experts have estimated it would take farmland equal to three times the size of the continental United States to grow enough corn to replace the fuels used in transportation in the United States. This is, obvious, not an option.

The second matter of concern is the fact that a food crop, corn, is being converted into a fairly inefficient fuel. This has the effect of increasing the prices of foods that make use of corn (ranging from corn on the cob to corn fed beef). As such, the public is getting hit twice by the cost of ethanol: first in subsidizing it and second in paying more for food. The obvious reply to this is that corn is still relatively cheap—thanks, in part, to subsidies. In any case, it would seem to make more sense to use a non-food crop based alternative fuel, preferably one that could be grown where food crops would grow poorly.

The third matter is that when added to gasoline, ethanol reduces the gas mileage of vehicles (it provides less energy than gasoline) and also damages many small motors (such as outboard motors for boats).

As might be imagined, the folks benefiting from the billions in subsidies probably see ethanol as a success. However, it is a clear failure for the rest of us.


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Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 6, 2011
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While things could have been worse, August was rather disappointing in terms of employment. There was no job growth that month and the unemployment rate was 9.1%. On the positive side, at least the economy did not sink even deeper into the pit.

On obvious point of concern is the cause (or causes) of this problem. Going back a bit in time, the folks who wrecked the economy with their financial misdeeds would seem to bear a considerable amount of blame. Of course, some of the damage that was done was caused by actions that, at the time, were actually expanding the economy in some ways. However, this expansion proved to be mostly “air” and not substance-that is, yet another empty bubble.

The blame for the continued unemployment woes cannot be placed entirely on past actions. After all, it seems sensible to believe that some factor or factors are keeping employment from rebounding as well as the profits for companies has rebounded.

Many folks blame Obama. Blaming the President is an old tradition and, of course, the Republicans have been busy trying to convince Americans that Obama is at fault. On the one hand, this can be seen as an unfair charge: while the President has significant powers, control over employment is not one of them. On the other hand, the President can do (or not do) things that would have some impact on employment.

It has been claimed that unemployment is staying high because corporations are burdened by taxes and regulations. As such, Michelle Bachmann has said that she would cut taxes for corporations and get rid of regulation, including the entire EPA. On this view, Obama is an obstacle because he has been unwilling to cut taxes even more and has not dismantled the EPA.

The obvious flaw in this view is that corporations are doing exceptionally well now. They are, in general, enjoying significant profits and executive  salaries and bonuses are quite fat. They are not, however,doing much hiring, even though they clearly could be doing so. At the very least, executive salaries and bonuses could be trimmed slightly and the money could be used to hire workers. For example, if a CEO received the average “compensation” of $11 million, s/he could give up $1 million and that would pay for 22 workers at $45,000. True, asking someone to give up 10% of their compensation so 22 people could have jobs might be seen as asking too much. To some, it would make far more sense to fire state employees or cut their salaries and cut programs so that the corporations can pay even less in the way of taxes. After all, those who have less should sacrifice for the good of those who have so much more. Also, some of the state workers who are fired might be hired by the corporations. Or not-perhaps the corporations would simply take the tax cuts and enjoy even larger profits by not hiring people.

To some, it would also make sense to eliminate regulation, such as environmental protection. After all, without such regulations corporations could operate with lower costs and hence make more profits. Naturally, the costs that the companies paid in regards to safety, environmental protection and so on would now be passed on to everyone else (such as the folks who breath the air and drink the water tainted by the coal industry). But, for some folks passing on the costs to those who have less so that those with more can have even more is perfectly sensible. After all, this will create jobs. Or maybe not. Corporations might simply look at their savings and decide to keep the money as profit rather than pay it out in wages. After all, they are doing quite well now and yet not hiring and thus there is no reason to think that if they just had a bit more money that they would suddenly start putting up the help wanted signs.

As such, a large part of the blame for the lack of hiring would seem to rest on the corporations. They could hire people, but chose not to. The talk about taxes and regulations is, rather clearly, a clever ploy to get what they want. While some people argue that we need to make sacrifices to lower corporate taxes and decrease regulations, it seems more reasonable to ask corporations to “sacrifice” a bit and hire people to make money for them.

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Business and Overseas Jobs

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 1, 2011
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Among certain folks it is received wisdom that businesses have been going overseas because the United States (and other Western countries) imposes onerous taxes and environmental regulations. Some folks even note that American workers are paid more than workers in certain other countries, such as China.

To remedy this problem a standard proposal (endorsed, for example, by Michelle Bachmann) is to lower taxes and reduce (or eliminate) regulations. Politicians, including Bachmann, generally do not talk about lowering American wages. After all, “if I am elected I will see to it that you make less money” is hardly winning rhetoric. In contrast, claiming that Americans are losing jobs to other countries because “the government” is driving away companies with regulations and taxes is a smart approach from a rhetorical standpoint. After all, Americans tend to think poorly of their government (which is made up, ironically, of people we picked) and Americans often look at taxes and regulations in a negative light, seeing them as impositions on freedom.

This proposal does, obviously enough, have some merit. If corporations could get the same conditions here that they enjoy elsewhere, they would probably be more inclined to stay here. It is, however, important to dig a bit deeper here.

In general, it would seem that corporation are not sending jobs overseas because they would go out of business if these jobs remained here. After all, there are business that do quite well despite operating entirely or largely in the United States. This is hardly shocking since corporations are generally adept at reducing their taxes (see, for example, GE) and circumventing even the rather limited regulations that exist (see, for example, how “constrained” coal mining companies are in West Virginia). While they do have to pay a minimum wage, this wage is fairly, well, minimum.

The main reason that corporations go overseas would not seem to be survival or even because they cannot make a profit in the United States. Rather, they go overseas because they think they can make even more of a profit than they can here. Given that some other countries have lower taxes, laxer regulations and far lower wages, it is easy to see why other countries can be more appealing. However, it is important to note that these corporations re not having their jobs forcible driven from the United States. Rather, the decision makers are electing to send jobs overseas so as to increase profits. While this might seem to be a minor point, it is actually rather significant.

To use an analogy, imagine that Bill is telling a sob story about how he was “driven out” by his wife, Sally,  cruelly limiting his freedom and now he is “forced” to hang out with a girlfriend because she allows him to do what he wants. You ask Bill about her cruelty and he lists her crimes: she made him pay some of the household bills, she would not let him dump the oil from his truck in the flower garden, she made him pay for some of the expenses relating to the children and so on. Inquiring about his new girlfriend, you learn that she lets him dump his truck oil in her yard and while she does expect some gifts, he doesn’t have to do anything for her kids and so on. In this case, one should be inclined to think that Bill was not driven out. Rather, he chose to leave because he wanted to get away with more and do less. Now imagine that Bill’s buddy Sam goes to Sally and says that Bill will come back if she stops “taxing and regulating” him. Otherwise, Sam says, Bill will have no choice but to stay with his current girlfriend (at least until she wises up and “drives him away”). Sally, it would seem, would be foolish to take Bill back under those conditions. After all, he just wants to get away with things at her expense while pretending that it is her fault. The same would seem to apply to corporations.

In essence, corporations and their allies who argue that taxes must be lowered and regulations reduced so that jobs will remain here (or return) are arguing that the rest of us need to bear the cost of ensuring that corporations get the profits that they want. After all, if corporations pay less taxes then the rest of us need to pay more to make up for that shortfall. Alternatively, there would have to be spending cuts-and it is rather obvious who would bear the burden of those cuts. Also, if the regulations are reduced (Bachmann wants to eliminate the EPA, for example), then the rest of us would be harmed by what those regulations were intended to prevent. For example, allowing more pollution means that we would probably suffer more health problems and would thus be paying more in medical expenses. To preempt a possible attack, I am not saying that all taxes are fair or that all regulations are good. Rather, my view is that corporations (like Sally’s husband) should contribute to the society in which they exist (and benefit from) and that at least some regulations do protect us from harms.

In sum, the proposals to lower taxes and reduce regulations so as to keep jobs here seems to be largely an attempt to shift costs to the rest of us so that corporations can make more profits. I have no objections against corporations making money. I do, however, object against being forced to bear the costs of their profits. They need to carry their own weight and act in responsible ways. That is, pay taxes and live within the laws as the rest of us do.

But maybe there is some merit to this approach and I should give it a try: “Buy my latest book or I’ll be forced to go to some other country.”

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Bachmann and the EPA

Posted in Business, Environment, Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 31, 2011
Environmental journalism supports the protecti...

Job killer?

Michelle Bachmann was recently in Florida and she made a few interesting claims.

One claim is that radical environmentalists are preventing the United States from tapping its energy resources, thus forcing us to “beg” for energy. There are a few problems with this claim. First, radical environmentalists hardly seem to be a major power in American politics. Unless, of course, “radical environmentalist” is defined in a very broad way.  Second, even if it is assumed that radical environmentalists are a major power in current politics, this does not explain why we faced the same energy problems during the Bush years. Unless, of course, the radicals were a great power even then and were able to hold sway over congress and the president. Third, some of the main challenges to securing some sources of energy are technical and economical. For example, processing oil shale has not always been very cost effective.

That said, all of these points can be countered. Once we have a neutral and appropriate definition of “radical environmentalist”, it will be possible to start sorting out their role in this matter. Perhaps they do truly hold sway in this country and perhaps whereas no one else (not even Dick Cheney) has been able to stand against them, Michelle Bachmann will be able to render them powerless or at least weaken them.

Bachmann also said that she would eliminate the EPA, in part to defeat the radical environmentalists. This is justified, as she seems to see it, on two grounds. Firs, as noted above, the EPA is supposed to be in the service of radical environmentalists who have, for some reason, locked up America’s energy. Getting rid of the EPA will, presumably, allow that energy to be exploited. Second, this lock down is supposed to cost America jobs.

She is somewhat right about this. Without an EPA to regulate things like air quality, water pollutants, radiation levels, and other such things, energy sources will be far easier to exploit. Imagine, for example, if a coal company did not need to worry at all about the impact of strip mining coal and the nature and volume of toxins that it released into the environment. Imagine, as another example, if oil companies did not need to worry about what oil spills would do to the coasts of America or what the emissions from oil products might do to humans and animals. Free from such restraints, they would be able to produce more energy and make more profits. These might (or might not) lead to more jobs. Of course, there would be a price for this-a price that everyone else would pay. After all, there are good reasons Nixon established the EPA.

This is, of course, a matter of value: would more energy be worth the environmental impact? I am inclined to believe that regulation of such things is generally good for the country. To use an analogy, food companies could tap all sorts of food resources if they did not need to worry about regulations regrading such things as consumer health and safety. Similarly for drug companies. They could peddle snake oil, just like was done in the old days.  A lack of regulation would certainly open things up. However, history shows clearly what happens when people are free to do as they will when it comes to such things. As such, I am inclined to favor keeping the EPA. I do not, of course, think that the EPA is perfect and it should be subject to criticism.

Bachmann also claimed that the corporate income tax needs to be lowered. Her argument is the stock one: this must be done because companies are leaving the US to take advantage of the lower taxes overseas. However, as I have argued in earlier posts, this argument is fairly weak because its key premise is rather questionable. American companies pay little (or no) taxes here and hence the tax savings are most likely not the main cause of their departure.

A more plausible reason is that companies can pay far lower wages in many places overseas. There is also the fact that other countries often let companies get away with things that would not be tolerated here. As such, the most effective ways to lure jobs back here would seem to be to lower wages and lift regulations. That is, transform the United States into a third world country (at least in certain respects). Getting rid of the EPA would be a good first step in this process.  Bachmann, of course, did not want to say that she would lower the minimum wage. However, she was not willing to say that she would not.

AP/The Huffington Post) POINCIANA, Fla. — Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann claims the U.S. has more energy resources than any other country but isn’t exploiting them because of radical environmentalists.

Bachmann says with shale oil, natural gas and coal, the United States shouldn’t be “begging” others for oil and energy supplies.

She said “we are the king daddy dogs when it comes to energy.” But she says environmentalists are preventing resources from being tapped.

As president, Bachmann said she would unlock those resources and eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency.

“The radical environmentalists have demanded that we lock up all our energy resources,” she added. “President Bachmann will take that key out of the door. I will unlock it.”

The crowd at the upscale retirement community cheered wildly.

And Bachmann got a similar reception when she promised to eliminate the “job killing” Environmental Protection Agency, saying that she would close the agency down in a single trip. “We will turn out the lights and we’ll lock the doors,” she said.

Bachmann spoke at a town hall meeting in a central Florida retirement community Saturday.

Speaking in Jacksonville one day earlier, the Minnesota congresswoman told supporters at a packed sandwich shop that the corporate income tax needs to be reduced because companies are moving to other countries to save money. She was later asked by a reporter whether changes to the minimum wage should also be considered to balance the cost of labor here and overseas.

“I’m not married to anything. I’m not saying that’s where I’m going to go,” she said.

She did say she wants to look at all aspects of doing business, from regulations to tax codes, and will consider anything that will help create jobs. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

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Posted in Environment, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 26, 2011
Environmental journalism supports the protecti...

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The environment continues to be a hot battleground for various groups. While the main theater of war has been climate change, there are also side battles involving other matters, such as the threat posed (or not posed) by mercury. Not surprisingly, many of the folks who argue against climate change and contend that health risks of things like mercury are exaggerated tend to be associated with companies that produce substances alleged to cause climate change and/or be a health threat.

While the EPA has often been accused of being a mere lap-dog to corporate interests, it recently issued 946 pages of new rules governing the emission of mercury and other pollutants by power plants. The main argument for these laws is utilitarian. According to the EPA’s Lisa Jackson, while the rules will cost companies $10.9 billion a year, they will save 17,000 lives and provide as much as $140 billion in health benefits. Even if the lives are left out of the equation, this seems like a rather good idea. After all, getting $140 billion in benefits certainly seems to be worth the $10.9 billion.  Naturally, it is worth noting that the cost will be paid by the companies and the benefits will be reaped by the people who will avoid the harm done by the pollutants. However, this seems morally acceptable and it would seem hard to argue that the companies have a right to save $10.9 billion by costing other people their lives or health.

Obviously enough, this argument has merit only if the numbers involved are accurate. Not surprisingly, there are those who are questioning their accuracy.  There are, of course, always grounds for questioning such numbers. The first is, of course, the inherent problem of induction: whenever engaged in inductive reasoning, the conclusion can always turn out to be false even if the premises are true. Of course, this is a fairly weak method of challenging since it applies to all inductive reasoning. What is, of course, needed is something more substantial.

Willie Soon and Paul Driessen recently wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal raising a substantial criticism, To be specific, they  claim “the EPA systematically ignored evidence and clinical studies that contradict its regulatory agenda, which is to punish hydrocarbon use.”

In critical thinking terms, they are accusing the EPA of trying to make the public a victim of the fallacy of incomplete/suppressed evidence and they are also accusing the EPA of bias. If the first charge is correct, then this would be a serious problem. After all, when drawing a conclusion there is a logical (and ethical) requirement to consider all the reasonably available  significant evidence. Also, if the EPA officials are biased, then this impacts their credibility in a negative manner.  Obviously enough, the same standards apply to Soon and Driessen.

One concern about Soon is that while he is at Harvard, he is an astrophysicist. This raises some questions about his expertise in assessing the impact of mercury on the population. While any competent scientist (or critical thinking professor) can engage in legitimate criticism of methodology, assessing the actual causal impact of mercury falls under the domain of other areas of expertise.  There is also some concerns raised by the Soon and Baliunas controversy. A general concern about Driessen and Soon is the same one they leveled against the EPA: the possibility of bias. While the EPA might have an agenda, Soon and Driessen can also be regarded as having an agenda of their own. As such, it is well worth considering their claims in the light of potential bias.

Since I am not an expert on mercury, I will not enter the fray other than to point out the obvious: mercury is well established as a toxin and it seems like a good idea to reduce the amount of the substance being released into the environment. However, I am willing to consider all the available evidence and arguments in terms of what level of pollution would meet an ethically acceptable balance between the costs to reduce the levels and the harms inflicted by this pollutant.

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