A Philosopher's Blog

Taxing the 1% I: Fairness

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 4, 2015

The top 1% in the United States currently pay about 1/3 of their income in taxes. As might be expected, people on the left have proposed increasing this tax rate. Laying aside ideological hyperbole, the serious proposals aim at setting the tax rate for the upper level at 40% and there has been some serious discussion of setting it as high as 45%.

While the current Democratic candidates for the 2016 Presidential race are willing to say they will raise taxes on the rich, the Republicans are consistently opposed to tax increases—most especially on the wealthy. Both parties are engaged in sensible politics in that they are saying what they think their base wants to hear. While the political value of each stance on taxing the rich is a matter worth considering, I will instead focus on an argument against increasing the taxes on the rich.

One reasonable approach to arguing against (or for) any tax increase is an appeal to fairness. This sort of reasoning rests on the assumption that fairness matter morally. If this assumption holds, then if something can be shown to be unfair, then that is moral strike against it. In contrast, showing that something is fair is to win a moral point in its favor.

The wealthy and their devoted defenders could argue that a tax increase to 40% (or higher) would be unfair. For example,  Dr. Ben Carson has proposed what has become known as his “10% Flat Tax Plan”, although he did consider a rate of 10-15% (and possibly higher at the start of his plan). He considers this the fairest approach to taxation, in that he claims there is nothing fairer. While not everyone finds such a plan fair (or even workable), it is clear that it can be argued that any proposed tax increase for the rich would be unfair.

Since arguments are free, even the poor can avail themselves of the appeal to fairness. Back before Occupy Wall Street faded from the attention of the media and most Americans, there were many appeals to fairness aimed at the perceived unfairness of the economic system of the United States. This movement did have some lasting impact in that it introduced the 1% and the 99% into American political discourse.

Interestingly enough, this talk of the 99% and the “#iamthe99” inspired Erik Erickson to try to create a counter meme of “#iamthe53.” This is in reference to his claim that 53% of Americans pay federal income tax. He contended that people should stop complaining, stop blaming Wall Street and pay their taxes. In response to the criticisms of the Occupiers, Erickson made an appeal to the old saying that life is not fair:


Well, these people apparently forgot that life is not fair and are demanding the government intervene to legislate that life suddenly become fair. They are claiming to be the “99%” against the evil 1% of rich people who work on Wall Street. They are posting pictures to a website holding up their sob stories. Some are terribly tragic, but most? Boo-freakin’-hoo. Life is not, never has been, and never will be fair.


This can be seen as something of an evil twin to the appeal to fairness. Under the rhetoric, this sort of argument rests (obviously) on the assumption that life is not fair. When a complaint about unfairness is raised, it is countered by the assertion that this unfairness is acceptable (or impossible to change) on the grounds that life is not fair. This could be referred to as the “principle of unfairness.” This is the principle that unfairness is an unalterable part of life and hence nothing can (or should) be done about it.

While Erickson did not originate the appeal to unfairness, he seems to have helped promote it and it is routinely used as a rebuttal when people are critical of economic inequality. As such, it is typically used by those on the right against those on the left. However, principles and arguments are like sword: they can be wielded by any hand against any target—even their creators.

If the rich and the devoted defenders complain that an increase in taxes is unfair, then the defenders of the tax increase have every right to wield the appeal to unfairness. One could easily imagine a leftist version of Erickson writing in response to such boohooing: “well, these people apparently forgot that life is not fair and are demanding the government not raise their taxes so that life suddenly become fair.”

If the appeal to unfairness is a viable defense of the economic inequality that seems so beloved by its ardent defenders, then it would also seem to be a viable defense for any unfairness. This would thus presumably include the forced redistribution of wealth. That would certainly be unfair, but if unfairness is simply the way life is, then there would be no moral grounds of criticizing it.

If the appeal to unfairness does not work in the case of justifying raising the taxes on the rich (or the unfair forced redistribution of wealth), then there are two main reasons this would be the case. The first possibility is that relevant difference could be claimed between the 1% and the 99% that justifies the unfair treatment of the 99% while requiring that the 1% be treated fairly in this matter. No doubt some able defender of the 1% can present such an argument. The second possibility is that fairness is actually morally relevant for everyone. As such, if the 1% can appeal to fairness, then the 99% can also avail themselves of the same appeal. Put another way, if the rich want to talk about the fairness of their taxes, they are obligated to consider the fairness of the economic inequality that exists. Likewise, fairness also requires that the tax rate imposed on the rich not be unfair.


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Dr. Ben Carson & Stomping on Academic Freedom

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 28, 2015

As a professor and a citizen, I have a stake in higher education. As such, the positions candidates take on education matter a great deal to me. As this is being written, presidential hopeful Dr. Ben Carson has taken the lead among the Republican candidates. While pundits have been predicting that he (and Trump) will flame out and be surpassed by the “serious candidates”, the two men seem to be trading places at the lead. As such, Carson’s views are certainly important to consider.

Carson, who is known for speaking out against the “speech police” has proposed that speech on college campuses should be monitored by the federal government for “extreme political bias.” Carson presented some of the details of his plan on Meet the Press and presented it as aimed at preventing tax-payer money being used to fund propaganda at universities.

While Carson asserts that he has “thought about this” plan, it is still a bit short on details. However, Carson has sketched the basics and says that, “the way that works is you invite students at the universities to send in their complaints, and then you investigate.”

To show that there is a problem that is worth solving through the imposition of the power of the federal government, Carson presents a single example: “for instance, there was a university – I’m sure you’ve heard of the situation – where, you know, the professor told everybody, ‘Take out a piece of paper and write the name ‘Jesus’ on it. Put in on the floor and stomp on it.’ And one student refused to do that and was disciplined severely. You know, he subsequently was able to be reinstated…”

When Chuck Todd raised the point that such a policy would violate the First Amendment, Carson assured him that “it’s not a violation of the First Amendment, because all I’m saying is taxpayer funding should not be used for propaganda. It shouldn’t be.” In response to the concern that what Carson regards as propaganda might be regarded by others as free speech, Carson replied that “Well, that’s why I said we’re going to have the students send in. And we will investigate.”

Such investigation will apparently be limited to liberal “propaganda.” In an interview with conservative radio talk show host Dana Loesch, the concern was raised that the same policy could be used to monitor conservative political speech. Carson assured Loesch that very strict guidelines would be put in place and these would protect conservative political speech.  Carson makes it clear “…that’s why I used the word ‘extreme.’ I didn’t just say ‘political bias,’ I said ‘extreme political biases.’”

While I might be accused of “extreme political bias”, I believe all citizens who value the First Amendment, regardless of their political leaning, should oppose Carson’s policy. I will endeavor to support this claim with arguments and will begin with the infamous “stomp on Jesus” incident.

The story, as told by Carson, is indeed an awful one. No student should be compelled to stomp on the word “Jesus” and a student who refuses to do so certainly should not be punished. If professors were going rogue like that at state schools, then intervention by the authorities would be warranted. The problem with Carson’s story, which he repeats regularly, is that it is not true. The actual facts are that the point of the exercise, which is from a standard textbook and has been used for thirty years without issues, is that the students will be reluctant to stand (not stomp) on the paper and this will start a discussion on the power of words and how this power is grounded by cultural values. It is true that the student was subject to official action, but this was for the way he treated the instructor and not for refusing to step on the paper. Unfortunately, the story became part of the mythology regarding the liberal horrors of the public university and is still haunting the minds of some like a terrible ghost.

While the fact that the evidence Carson advances to justify his policy is untrue does not show his policy is itself flawed, it does serve to undermine the claim that there is even a problem that needs to be solved. As such, the policy would seem to be a solution in search of a problem. Carson could, of course, try to find other examples of extreme political bias at public universities—but in order to be legitimate examples they would need to actually be true. However, even if extreme political bias was being expressed at public universities, there is still the question of whether or not such a policy would be defensible.

One concern, raised by Chuck Todd, is that such a policy would seem to clearly violate the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” While I am not a constitutional lawyer, having the state investigate speech at universities and then impose funding cuts in response to speech found to violate Carson’s policy would seem to be unconstitutional. Since this is a matter of law, I must leave this to those who are constitutional lawyers—and I am confident that if President Carson has such a policy implemented it would soon be before the Supreme Court.

A second concern is the matter of academic freedom. While academic freedom does come with responsibilities it clearly protects the expression of views that might be regarded by some as extreme political speech. This applies to speech that would be regarded as left, right or center. So, for example, the discussion of socialism, anarchism and fascism is protected by academic freedom. It is also important to note that academic freedom does not entitle a professor to mistreat, abuse, threaten or bully students. In many ways, academic freedom is an academic version of the First Amendment and arguments in favor of free speech in general can be used to defend academic freedom. There are also numerous excellent reasons that have been advanced in defense of academic freedom. While the short scope of this essay forbids making a full case for academic freedom, one rather compelling reason is that academic freedom is essential for advancing knowledge and developing intellectual abilities.

While some might be tempted to say that academic freedom is a tool of liberals, there is the excellent point raised by the conservative radio show host Loesch.  Carson’s policy is a weapon that could just as easily turned from targeting liberals to targeting conservatives with a change in political fortunes. While Carson was quick to claim that conservatives would be protected from his policy, it should be obvious that if a policy can be set by a right leaning president to ban “extremely biased” liberal speech on campuses, then a policy could be set by a left leaning president aimed at banning “extremely biased” conservative speech on campuses. As such, while some conservatives might be tempted to support policing liberal speech on campus, they should consider the Golden Rule. If that is not appealing, they should remember that when a legal sword is forged, it is usually happy to cut anyone—even the hand that once wielded it. So, before making that sword, it is well worth thinking about how much it would hurt to be hit in the face with it by the next person in office. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

A third concern is that Carson’s plan casts students as spies (or snitches). This is problematic for a few reasons. One is the moral concern about having students serve as agents of what would seem to be the thought police. While this is not an argument, the thought police and their spies are never heroes in American films. And this is for a good reason: they are not heroes. A second is the practical concern that students would misuse this power. While most students would not use a threat of a report to the Carson thought police to improve their grade, the history of thought policing does show that there are always people who are willing to use it to their advantage. Since the complaints would be a matter of ideology rather than matters of fact this sort of policy seems to be fraught with peril for professors and education.

Given all these problems, Carson’s proposed plan should be opposed by everyone who believes in academic freedom and the First Amendment.


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Why Paul Ryan is Not a Hypocrite

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 26, 2015

Paul Ryan acted quite rationally in imposing conditions on the Republicans of the House in return for running for the position of Speaker. After all, they wanted him to take the job far more than he wanted it, thus putting him into a strong bargaining position.

A devoted family man who returns home from Washington every weekend to spend time with his wife and children, it is no surprise that one of his conditions is that he will not give up his family time. Despite the fact that his condition seems to exemplify traditional family values, he has drawn criticism from the right. The more vocal attacks have, of course, come from the left. The main accusation is that Ryan is a hypocrite because his insistence of maintaining a work-family balance starkly contrast with his voting record. To be specific, Ryan has relentlessly voted against bills that would assist working Americans to have a better work-family balance of the sort he insists on having.

On the face of it, the charge of hypocrisy would seem to stick since Ryan seems to be acting inconsistent with his professed values. Interestingly, the hypocrisy could be seen in at least two ways. One is that Ryan’s action of insisting on a work-family balance is inconsistent with his stated beliefs about bills that would allow improved work-family balance for employees. A second is that Ryan’s actions of voting against such bills is inconsistent with the values implied by his action of insisting that his “employer” grant him the desired work-family balance.

While it is certainly tempting to say Ryan is in error when he opposes improving the work-family balance for others while insisting on it himself, this would be a case of the ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or what a person says is inconsistent with his actions. The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim he makes false (of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true—but both can be false). Also, the fact that a person’s claims are not consistent with his actions might indicate that the person is a hypocrite. But being a hypocrite is different from being in error. For example, a heroin user who says that using heroin is unhealthy does not thus prove that using heroin is actually healthy. As such, showing that Ryan is in error would require more than just pointing to an alleged inconsistency between how he votes and what he insists as a condition of taking the job of speaker. That said, an accusation of inconsistency does have some moral weight.

One legitimate way to criticize Ryan is to argue that he is not consistently applying a principle. A principle is consistently applied when it is applied in the same way to similar beings in similar circumstances. Inconsistent application is a problem because it violates the principle of relevant difference. This is the view that different treatment must be justified by relevant differences.

Criticizing someone on the basis of inconsistent application involves showing that a principle or standard has been applied differently in situations whose differences do not warrant the different application.  In the case at hand, it is generally assumed that Ryan’s principle is that people should have a work-family balance. He applies this principle to himself by insisting that being Speaker of the House will allow him his family time. But, he is inconsistent because he does not apply the same principle to other workers—as shown by his consistently voting against bills that would ensure that employees had more family time.

When a charge of inconsistent application is made, there are various responses. One is for a person to change her actions so they are consistent. So, for example, Ryan could start voting in favor of bills that allow more family time to employees. This seems rather unlikely.

A second way is to dissolve the inconsistency by showing that the alleged inconsistency is merely apparent.  One way to do this is by showing that there is a relevant difference between the situations. In the case of Ryan, if it could be shown that there is a relevant difference between him and other people that entitles him to be granted the work-family balance that he has voted to deny others. And to get that balance from other people who have also voted to deny it to others. It could, for example, be argued that the Speaker of the House position, like other high positions, should come with benefits denied to those of lesser status. To use an analogy, a university might have a principle that employees who perform their jobs well get a bonus. If there is a shortage of funds, the university might grant bonuses only to administrators and justify this by arguing for a relevant difference between administrators and everyone else. It is clearly possible to disagree with such claims of relevant difference and other employees would be likely to do so.

If being Speaker of the House grants a relevant difference that warrants the difference in treatment, then Ryan is no more a hypocrite than a university president would be for handing out bonuses to administrators on the basis of a relevant difference—even if she denied bonuses and raises to the faculty. The challenge is, of course, to justify the alleged relevant difference.

A third approach is to eliminate the apparent inconsistency by arguing the attributed principle is not the person’s actual principle.  For Ryan to be a hypocrite in this case, he must hold the principle that explicitly states or at least entails that employees are entitled to the sort of work-family balance he wants. However, Ryan does not seem to hold to such a principle. Rather, he has espoused what can be regarded as an explicitly selfish value system. As Amanda Marcotte contends,  Ryan seems to be acting in accord with his values which are largely those argued for by the philosopher Ayn Rand. This view was laid out quite clearly in her Virtue of Selfishness  in which she argues in favor of the moral theory of ethical egoism. This is the view each person should act in his or her own self-interest and is contrasted against moral altruism, which is the view that a person should at least consider the interests of others. Altruism is also exemplified by the injunction to love thy neighbor as thyself and the Golden Rule.

It is in Ryan’s self-interest to have the family time he wants, so his principle would simply be that he should receive this family time. Under ethical egoism of the sort explicitly embraced by Ryan, he would be acting in a moral manner—by attempting to maximize what is of value for him.  This principle does not entail that other people should receive a guarantee of an improved work-family balance. So, when he votes against bills to allow employees a better work-family balance, he is not being a hypocrite. He is being perfectly consistent with his value system.

If he is a proper ethical egoist, he would also accept that other people should act in their own self-interest—this is what distinguishes the moral theory of ethical egoism from simple selfishness (which is not a moral system). As such, he should accept that other people should try to get the work-family balance they desire. But he should help them only on the condition that doing so would be in his self-interest, which he clearly thinks it is not. As such, if he is an ethical egoist, he is not a hypocrite—under that moral system he would be acting morally. If, however, he subscribed to a more altruistic moral system (such as the sort advocated by Pope Francis), then he would seem to be a hypocrite. After all, he is not loving his neighbor as he loves himself.


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Alabama & Voter ID

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 12, 2015

In 2011 Alabama passed a voter ID law that would go into effect in 2014. This sort of thing was usually subject to approval from the Justice Department, but the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act. Some regarded this as reasonable, since voting seemed to be going along reasonably well. This is the same sort of reasoning that indicates that a patient with diabetes should stop taking her insulin on the grounds that her disease is now under control.

Critics of voter ID laws, who are most often Democrats, contend that they are aimed at disenfranchising minorities and the poor. These are the people who generally tend to vote for Democrats. Proponents of voter ID laws, who are most often Republicans, contend that voter ID laws are critical for preventing voter fraud. Since I have written extensively on this matter before, I will simply note that the best evidence shows that voter ID laws do have a negative impact on poor and minority voters. I will also note that voter fraud does occur, but at an incredibly low rate.

Now that Alabama’s voter ID law is in effect, the state seems to have upped its game by stating that driver’s license examiners would no longer be working at thirty one offices in the state. As might be guessed, Alabama officials claim that this is the result of budget cuts and is not intended to make things harder for minority and poor voters (who tend to vote for Democrats) in upcoming elections. It is also most likely a coincidence that this is occurring prior to the 2016 presidential election.

In what must surely be another coincidence eight of the ten counties with the highest percentage of non-white voters will have the license offices closed. These eight include the five counties that voted most strongly for Democrats in 2012. John Merrill, Alabama’s Secretary of State, counters that the state is ensuring that voters can get IDs. All the counties still have Board of Registrars offices and they issue voter ID cards. The state also has a mobile ID office that is supposed to visit all the counties.

While these IDs are available, only 29 IDs have been issued by the mobile offices since the start of 2015 and only 1,442 have been issued in total from all sources.  In response to concerns about these low numbers, Merrill insists that the fault lies with the voters, noting that “you can lead a horse to water. But you can’t make him drink.” He points to the existence of an advertising campaign to inform voters and the availability of the above mentioned IDs.

On the one hand, it is certainly tempting to agree with Merrill. As he noted, voters can get an ID other than a driver’s license and can do so in each county. There as, as he claimed, been a public awareness campaign.

If someone wants to vote in Alabama, it can be argued, then that person should take the effort to learn what she needs to do and make sure that she has the requisite ID. To use an analogy, for each class with a paper, I have a detailed paper guide that shows step-by-step how to do the paper and how it will be graded. I also have three videos on the paper and spend about 45 minutes in a class going over the paper. Despite all that, I always get at least 10% of the class who make it clear (usually by asking things like “so, what is this paper you mentioned?”) they have no idea about the paper. As such, Merrill’s replies have some merit.

On the other hand, there is the concern that the efforts to inform voters are not adequate. People who voted before the new voter ID law went into effect and did not happen to see the advertising campaign are likely to have no idea of the existence of this requirement. Those who are aware of the requirement for an ID might believe that a driver’s license is required and might have no idea that there is even such a thing as a special voter ID available. Even those who are aware of the law and the special IDs might face difficulties in getting an ID. Transportation could be an issue as could making the time to go get the ID.

Some people counter these claims by referencing their own experience. They already have a driver’s license, so they find it hard to believe that others would not have them. They have TV and the internet and free time to watch shows in which the advertising appears. They have their own car and time to do things, so they assume the same is true of other people. This is a natural psychological tendency, but the beliefs based on it can easily be in error. For example, when I was in grad school, I found it easy to get by without a car. It was fairly easy to walk two miles to the grocery store and walk back with a week’s worth of groceries. It was easy to just run or bike to campus. It was easy to run or bike to stores, the bank and other places. So, it would be natural for me to think this would be easy for everyone based on my own experience. However, I was well-aware that what is easy for me could be very hard for someone else in different circumstances.

Some refute these claims by arguing that even if it is not easy or convenient to learn about the special IDs and acquire them, people who want to vote should take the effort to check before every election to make sure of what rule changes might have occurred. These people should then be willing to take the steps needed to be able to vote and then take the steps needed to actually vote—no matter how challenging or inconvenient these things might be.

A reasonable reply to this is that since voting the basic foundation of democracy, the process should be made as easy and accessible as possible.  To do otherwise is to disenfranchise people unjustly. As such, people should not need to keep up with rule changes nor should they have to have an ID to vote.

The usual counter to this takes us back to the start: the concern about voter fraud. It is, I certainly agree, right to take steps to prevent voter fraud. However, as has been established beyond all rational doubt, the amount of voter fraud in the United States is miniscule. The fraud that does occur is also of the sort that voter ID would not prevent. I also accept the principle that it is better to allow a voter to vote fraudulently than to disenfranchise a legitimate voter—especially given that even if a method of fraud prevention did work, it would be preventing an incredibly low number of cases of fraud while most likely disenfranchising a vastly larger number of people.

Since I do like to think well of people, I am willing to accept that the officials in Alabama are acting from the most noble of intentions and, despite the evidence to the contrary, are not trying to take steps to increase the chances of Republican victories. That said, the methods they have chosen will have no real impact on fraud—both because it barely exists and because the voter fraud that occurs is generally not the sort that can be prevented by IDs. These methods will, however, have a negative impact on voters and that is certainly wrong—at least if democracy is accepted as a good.


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Political Candidates & Expertise

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 21, 2015

As I write this, the number of Republican presidential contenders is in the double digits. While businessman and reality TV show star Donald Trump is still regarded as leading the pack, neurosurgeon Ben Carson has been gaining ground and some polls put him ahead of Trump.

In an earlier essay I did an analysis of how someone like Trump could sustain his lead despite what would have been politically fatal remarks by most other candidates. In this essay I will examine the question of why Trump and Carson are doing well and will do so in the context of the notion of expertise.

From a rational standpoint, a person should consider an elected office as a job and herself as the employer who is engaged in evaluating the candidate. As such, the expertise of the candidate should be a rather important factor. What should also be considered are the personal qualities needed to do the job well, such as dependability, integrity and so on. A person should also consider the extent to which the candidate will act in her self-interest and also the extent to which the candidate will act in accord with her values. While a person’s self-interest and values can be consistent with each other, there can be a conflict. For example, it might be in the self-interest of a wealthy person for taxes on the rich to be lowered, but his values might such that he favors shifting more of the tax burden to the wealthy.

When considering whether a candidate has the needed expertise or not, the main factors include education, experience, accomplishments, position, and reputation. I will begin by considering education.

While education is usually looked at in terms of formal education, it can also include what is learned outside of the classroom. While there is no degree offered in being-the-president it is certainly worth considering the education of candidates and its relevance towards the office they are seeking. In this case, the office is the presidency.  Carson has an M.D. and is clearly well educated. Trump is also an educated man, albeit not a brain surgeon.

Interestingly, influential elements in the Republican have pushed an anti-intellectual and anti-science line over the years. As such, it is hardly a surprise that some Republicans like to compare Obama to a professor and intend for this comparison to be an insult. The anti-science leaning has, in recent years, been very strong in regards to the science of climate change. However, it is well worth noting that the opposition to science and intellectualism seems to be driven primarily by an ideological opposition to specific positions in science. Those on the left are often cast as being in favor of science and intellectualism—in large part, perhaps, due to the fact that scientists and intellectuals tend to lean more left than right. However, a plausible case can be made that some of the pro-science and pro-intellectual leaning of the left also comes from ideology—that is, leftists like the science and intellectualism that matches their world views. As an example, the left tends to be pro-environment and this fits in nicely with the science of climate change. Interestingly, when science goes against a view held by some left leaning folks, they will attack and reject science with the same sort of “arguments” that are employed by their fellows on the right. One good example of this is the sort of anti-vaccination people who reject the scientific evidence in favor of their ideology.

Given the fact that Carson is a neurosurgeon and Trump has an education, it might be wondered how they are doing so well given the alleged anti-science and anti-intellectual views of some Republicans. In the case of Trump, the answer is easy and obvious: what he says tends to nicely fit into this view. While Trump has authored several books, no one would accuse him of being an intellectual.

Carson’s case is a bit more complicated. On the one hand, he is a well-educated neurosurgeon and is regarded as intelligent and thoughtful. On the other hand, he tends to make remarks that make him appear anti-intellectual and anti-science. Some claim that he is doing this in a calculated way to appeal to the baser nature of some of the Republican base. Others assert that his apparent missteps are due to his lack of experience in the realm of politics.  Coincidentally, this leads to the next subject of consideration.

Since the presidency is not an entry level job, it seems reasonable to expect that a candidate have relevant experience in similar jobs.  It also seems reasonable to expect that the candidate would be accomplished in relevant ways, have held relevant positions, and have a good reputation that is relevant to the presidency.

This is why many past presidents have been governors, military leaders or in congress before they moved to the oval office. While Trump has had experience in business and reality TV, he has not held political office. While some claim that executive business experience is relevant, it is certainly reasonable to consider that it is not an adequate substitute for experience in a political position. I, for example, would not claim that my experience in chairing committees, captaining athletic teams, and running classes would qualify me to be president.

While Carson has some administrative experience, he is primarily a neurosurgeon. While this is certainly impressive, it does not seem relevant to his ability to be president. I, for example, am also a doctor and have written numerous books—but these would not seem to be large points in favor of me being president.

Given the relatively weak qualifications of Trump and Carson in these areas, it might seem odd that they are currently trouncing former governor Jeb Bush, Senator Marco Rubio, Governor Scott Walker, Senator Rand Paul and former governor John Kasich.

One easy explanation for the success of Trump and Carson is that Republican politicians and pundits adopted a tactic of waging rhetorical war against politicians, insiders, the establishment and government itself. In contrast, being a non-politician, a political outsider, a non-establishment person and against government were lauded as virtues. This tactic seems to have been too successful: the firehose that the Republican strategists struggled to keep targeted on Democrats seems to have slipped from their grip and is now hosing the more qualified candidates while Trump and Carson stay dry. The irony here is that those who are probably the best qualified to actually run the country (such as Rubio, Bush and Kasich) are currently regarded as undesirable precisely because of the qualities that make them qualified.

What might also be ironic is that it seems the Republican rhetoric of attacking politicians for being politicians has helped Bernie Sanders in his bid to become the Democratic candidate. While Sanders is a senator, he is a very plausible as an outsider and a non-establishment person. He is even convincing as being a non-politician politician: though he has plenty of political experience, he seems to have an authenticity and integrity that is all too uncommon among the polished, packaged and marketed politicians (most notable Hilary Clinton).

As a final point, many pundits take the view that Trump, Carson and Sanders will inevitably fade in the polls and be replaced by the more traditional candidates.  Pundits who like to hedge their bets a bit will usually also add that even if Trump or Carson becomes the Republican nominee, they cannot win the general election. The pundits also claim that even if Sanders get the nomination, he will lose in the general election. Of course, if the 2016 election is Sanders versus Trump or Carson, one of them has to win.


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Race & Performance Based Funding

Posted in Race, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on August 24, 2015

Florida, like some other states, has imposed performance based funding on its state universities. The basic idea is that each state school is evaluated by ten standards and then the schools are ranked. The top schools are rewarded and the bottom schools are punished.

As a runner and a professor, I certainly get the idea of linking rewards to performance. As a runner, I believe that better performance merits the better awards (be it a gold medal, a fat stack of cash, or a ribbon). As a professor, I believe that performance merits the better grades and that poor performance merits the corresponding lower grades. However, I also recognize the importance of fairness.

In the case of running, a fair race requires that everyone must compete on the same course and under the same conditions. The age and gender of the runners is also taken into account when assessing performance and there are even age-graded performance formulas to take into account the ravages of time.

In the case of grading, a fair class requires that everyone is required to do the same work, receives the same support from the professor, and that the assessment standards are the same. Fairness also requires that special challenges faced by some students are taken into account. Otherwise, the assessment is unjust.

The same applies to performance based funding of education. If the goal is to encourage better performance on the part of all the schools, the competition needs to be fair. Going with a classroom analogy, if a student knows that the class is rigged against her, she is not likely to be motivated to do her best. There also seems to be an obvious moral requirement that the assessment be fair and this would require considering the specific challenges that each school faces. Laying aside the normative aspects, there is also the matter of accuracy: knowing how well a school is performing requires considering what challenges it had to overcome.

While all the schools operate within the state of Florida and face similar challenges, each school also faces some special challenges. Because of this, a proper and just assessment of a schools performance (how well it does in educating students, etc.) should reflect these challenges. To simply impose standards that fail to consider these challenges would be unfair and would also yield an inaccurate account of the success or failure of the school.

Consider the following analogy: imagine, if you will, that the Pentagon adopted a performance based funding model for military units using various standards such as cost of operations, causalities, how well the units got along with the locals and so on. Now imagine that the special challenges of the units were not properly considered so that, for example, a unit operating in the deserts of Iraq fighting ISIS was assessed the same way as a unit stationed in Kentucky. As might be imagined, the unit in Iraq would certainly be assessed as performing worse than the unit stationed in Kentucky. The unit in Kentucky would presumably cost less per person, have far fewer causalities, and get along much better with the locals. As such, the unit fighting ISIS would find itself in funding trouble since its performance would seem rather worse than the unit in Kentucky. Of course, this approach would be irrational and unfair—the unit fighting ISIS might be performing extremely well relative to the challenges it faces. The same, it would seem, should hold for schools. Turning back to performance based funding, I will consider the relevant standards and how they are unfair to my school, Florida A&M University.

Florida A&M University is an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and is still predominantly African-American. The school also prides itself on providing educational opportunities to students who have been denied such opportunities as well as those who are first generation college students. Put roughly, we have many African-American students and a large number of students who are burdened with economic and educational baggage.

As I have mentioned in a previous essay, FAMU fared poorly under the state’s standards. To be fair, we honestly did do poorly in regards to the state’s standards. However, there are the important questions as to whether the standards are fair and whether or not the assessment of our performance is accurate.

On the one hand, the answer to both questions can be taken as “yes.” The standards apply to all the schools and the assessment was accurate in terms of the results. On the other hand, the answer is also “no”, since FAMU faces special challenges and the assessment fails to take these into account. To use a running analogy, the situation is like comparing the true 5K times of various runners. This is fair and accurate in that all runners are using their 5K times and the times are accurate. However, if some runners had to run hilly trails and others did their 5Ks on tracks, then the competition would not be fair. After all, a slower 5K on a hilly trail could be a much better performance than a 5K on a track.

To get directly to the point, my claim is that FAMU faces the special challenge of racism and the legacy of racism. This, I contend, means that FAMU is being assessed unfairly in terms of its performance: FAMU is running hills on a trail while other schools are enjoying a smoother run around the track. In support of this claim, I offer the following evidence.

One standard is the Percent of Bachelor’s Graduates Employed and/or Continuing their Education Further. A second is the Average Wages of Employed Baccalaureate.  The third is the Six Year Graduation Rate and the fourth is the Academic Progress Rate (2nd Year Retention with GPA Above 2.0). These four break down into two general areas. The first is economic success (employment and wages) and the second is academic success (staying in school and graduating). I will consider each general area.

On the face of it, retention and graduation rates should have no connection to race. After all, one might argue, these are a matter of staying in school and completing school which is a matter of personal effort rather than race.

While I do agree that personal effort does matter, African-American students face at least two critical obstacles in regards to retention and graduation. The first is that African-American students are still often victims of segregation in regards to K-12 education and receive generally inferior education relative to white students. It should be no surprise that this educational disadvantage manifests itself in terms of retention and graduation rates. To use a running analogy, no one would be surprised if the runners who were poorly trained and coached did worse than better trained and coached runners.

The second is economic, which ties directly into the standards relating to economic success. As will be shown, African-Americans are far less well off than other Americans. Since college is expensive, it is hardly surprising that people who are less well-off would have a harder time remaining in and completing college. As I have discussed in other essays, the main (self-reported) reason for students being absent from my classes is for work and there is a clear correlation between attendance and class performance. I now turn to the unfairness of the state’s economic success standards.

While I do not believe that the primary function of the state university is to train students to be job fillers for the job creators, I do agree that it is reasonable to consider the economic success of students when evaluating schools. However, assessing how much the school contributes to economic success requires considering the starting point of the students and the challenges they will face in achieving success.

To be blunt, race is a major factor in regards to economic success in the United States. This is due to a variety of historical factors (slavery and the legacy of slavery) and contemporary factors (persistent racism). These factors manifest themselves quite clearly and, as such, the relatively poor performance of African-American graduates from FAMU is actually what should be expected.

In regards to employment, the University of Chicago conducted a study aimed at determining if there is racial bias in hiring. To test this, the researchers responded to 1,300 job advertisements with 5,000 applications. They found that comparable resumes with white sounding names were 50% more likely to get called for an initial interview relative to those with more African-American sounding names. The researchers found that white sounding applications got call backs at a rate of 1 in 10 while for black sounding names it was 1 in 15. This is clearly significant.

Interestingly, a disparity was also found in regards to the impact of experience and better credentials. A white job applicant with a higher quality application was 30% more likely to get a call than a white applicant with a lower quality application. For African-Americans, the higher quality application was only 9% more likely to get a call than a lower quality black application.

This disparity in the hiring process seems to help explain the disparity in employment. For whites, the unemployment rate is 5.3% and it is 11.4% for blacks. As such, it is hardly surprising that African-American students from FAMU are doing worse than students from schools that are mostly white.

Assuming that this information is accurate, this means that FAMU could be producing graduates as good as the other schools while still falling considerably behind them in regards to the employment of graduates. That is, FAMU could be doing a great job that is getting degraded by racism. As such, the employment assessment would need to be adjusted to include this factor. Going with the running analogy, FAMU’s African-American graduates have to run uphill to get a job, while white graduates get to run on much flatter course.

In addition to employment, a graduate’s wages is also one of the standards used by the state. FAMU fared poorly relative to the other schools here as well. However, this is also exactly what should be expected in the United States. The poverty rate for whites is 9.7% while that for blacks it is 27.2%. The median household wealth for whites is $91,405 and for blacks $6,446. Blacks own homes at a rate of 43.5% while whites do so at 72.9%. Median household income is $35,416 for blacks and $59,754 for whites. As such, it would actually be surprising if African American graduates of FAMU competed well against the statistics for predominantly white schools.

It might be contended that these statistics are not relevant because what is of concern is the performance of African-American college graduates and not the general economic woes of African-Americans. Unfortunately, college education does not close the racial wealth gap.

While the great recession had a negative impact on the wealth of most Americans, African-Americans with college degrees were hits surprisingly hard: their net worth dropped 60% from 2007 to 2013. In contrast, whites suffered a decline of 16% and, interestingly, Asians saw a slight increase. An analysis of the data (and data going back to 1992) showed that black and Hispanics had more assets in housing and more debts and these were major factors in the loss of wealth (the burst of the housing bubble crashed house values). In terms of income, researchers take the main causes of the disparity to include discrimination and career choices. In addition to the impact on salary, this wealth disparity also impacts retention and graduation rates. As such, the state is right to focus heavily on economics—but the standards need to consider the broader economic reality as well.

It is reasonable to infer that the main reason that FAMU fares worse in these areas is due to factors beyond the control of the school. Most of our students are black and in the United States, discrimination and enduring historical factors blacks do far worse than whites. As such, these poor numbers are more a reflection of the poor performance of America than on the performance of Florida A&M University. Because of this, the standards should be adjusted to take into account the reality of race in America.


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Is Pro-Life a Cover for Misogyny ? I: Preliminaries

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on August 17, 2015
Anti abortion rally in Washington, D.C. Decemb...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During a recent discussion, I was asked if I believed that a person who holds to the pro-life position must be a misogynist. While there are misogynists who are pro-life, I hold to what should be obvious: there is no necessary connection between being pro-life and being a misogynist. A misogynist hates women, while a person who holds a pro-life position believes that abortion is morally wrong. There is no inconsistency between holding the moral position that abortion is wrong and not being a hater of women. In fact, a pro-life person could have a benevolent view towards all living beings and be morally opposed to harming any of them—thus including zygotes and women.

While misogynists would tend to be anti-choice because of their hatred of women, they need not be pro-life. That is, hating women and wanting to deny them the choice to have an abortion does not entail that a person believes that abortion is morally wrong. For example, a misogynist could be fine with abortion (such as when it is convenient to him) but think that it should be up to the man to decide if or when a pregnancy is terminated. A misogynist might even be pro-choice for various reasons; but almost certainly not because he is a proponent of the rights of women.  As such, there is no necessary connection between the two views.

The discussion then turned to the question of whether or not a pro-choice position is a cover for misogyny. The easy and obvious answer is that sometimes it is and sometimes it is not. Since it has been established that a person can be pro-life without being a misogynist, it follows that being pro-life need not be a cover for misogyny. However, it can obviously provide cover for such a position. It is rather easier to sell the idea of restricting abortion by making a moral case against it than by expressing hatred of women and a desire to restrict their choices and reproductive option. Before progressing with the discussion it is rather important to address two points.

The first point is that even if it is established that a pro-life/anti-abortion person is a misogynist, this does not entail that the person’s position on the issue of abortion is in error. To reject a misogynist’s claims or arguments regarding abortion (or anything) on the grounds that he is a misogynist is to commit a circumstantial ad hominem.

This sort of Circumstantial ad Hominem involves substituting an attack on a person’s circumstances (such as the person’s religion, political affiliation, ethnic background, etc.) for reasons against her claim. This version has the following form:


  1. Person A makes claim X.
  2. Person B makes an attack on A’s circumstances.
  3. Therefore X is false.


A Circumstantial ad Hominem is a fallacy because a person’s circumstances (religion, political affiliation, etc.) do not affect the truth or falsity of the claim. This is made quite clear by the following example: “Bill claims that 1+1 =2. But he is a Republican, so his claim is false.” As such, to assert that the pro-life position is in error because some misogynist holds that view would be an error in reasoning.

A second important point is that a person’s consistency or lack thereof in regards to her principles or actions has no relevance to the truth of her claims or the strength of her arguments. To think otherwise is to fall victim to the ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because 1) it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or 2) what a person says is inconsistent with her actions. This type of “argument” has the following form:


  1. Person A makes claim X.
  2. Person B asserts that A’s actions or past claims are inconsistent with the truth of claim X.
  3. Therefore X is false.


The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim he makes false (although of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true—but both can be false). Also, the fact that a person’s claims are not consistent with his actions might indicate that the person is a hypocrite but this does not prove his claims are false.

A person’s inconsistency also does not show that the person does not believe her avowed principle—she might simply be ignorant of its implications. That said, such inconsistency could be evidence of hypocrisy. While sorting out a person’s actual principles is not relevant to logical assessment of the person’s claims, doing so is clearly relevant to many types of decision making regarding the person. One area where sorting out a person’s principles matters is in voting. In the next essay, this matter will be addressed.


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Go Trump or Go Home

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 27, 2015

As I write this at the end of July, 2015 the U.S. Presidential elections are over a year away. However, the campaigning commenced some months ago and the first Republican presidential debate is coming up very soon. Currently, there are sixteen Republicans vying for their party’s nomination—but there is only room enough on stage for the top ten. Rather than engaging in an awesome Thunderdome style selection process, those in charge of the debate have elected to go with the top ten candidates as ranked in an average of some national polls. At this moment, billionaire and reality show master Donald Trump (and his hair) is enjoying a commanding lead over the competition. The once “inevitable” Jeb Bush is in a distant second place (but at least polling over 10%). Most of the remaining contenders are in the single digits—but a candidate just has to be in the top ten to get on that stage.

While Donald Trump is regarded by comedians as a comedy gold egg laying goose, he is almost universally regarded as something of a clown by the “serious” candidates. In the eyes of many, Trump is a living lampoon of unprecedented proportions. He also has a special talent for trolling the media and an amazing gift for building bi-partisan disgust. His infamous remarks about Mexicans, drugs and rape antagonized liberals, Latinos, and even many conservatives. His denial of the war hero status of John McCain, who was shot down in Viet Nam and endured brutal treatment as a prisoner of war, rankled almost everyone. Because of such remarks, it might be wondered why Trump is leading the pack.

One easy and obvious answer is name recognition. As far as I can tell, everyone on earth has heard of Trump. Since people will, when they lack other relevant information, generally pick a known named over unknown names, it makes sense that Trump would be leading the polls at this point. Going along with this is the fact that Trump manages to get and hold attention. I am not sure if he is a genius and has carefully crafted a persona and script to ensure that the cameras are pointed at him. That is, Trump is a master of media chess and is always several moves ahead of the media and his competition. He might also possess an instinctive cunning, like a wily self-promoting coyote. Some have even suggested he is sort of an amazing idiot-savant. Or it might all be a matter of chance and luck. But, whatever the reason, Trump is in the bright light of the spotlight and that gives him a considerable advantage over his more conventional opponents.

In response to Trump’s antics (or tactics), some of the other Republican candidates have decided to go Trump rather than go home. Rand Paul and Lindsay Graham seem to have decided to go full-on used car salesman in their approaches. Rand Paul posted a video of himself taking a chainsaw to the U.S. tax code and Lindsay Graham posted a video of how to destroy a cell phone. While Rand Paul has been consistently against the tax code, Graham’s violence against phones was inspired by a Trump stunt in which the Donald gave out Graham’s private phone number and bashed the senator.

While a sense of humor and showmanship are good qualities for a presidential candidate to possess, there is the obvious concern about how far a serious candidate should take things. There is, after all, a line between quality humorous showmanship and buffoonery that a serious candidate should not cross. An obvious reason for staying on the right side of the line is practical: no sensible person wants a jester or fool as king so a candidate who goes too far risks losing. There is also the matter of judgment: while most folks do enjoy playing the fool from time to time, such foolery is like having sex: one should have the good sense to not engage in it in public.

Since I am a registered Democrat, I am somewhat inclined to hope that the other Republicans get into their clown car and chase the Donald all the way to crazy town. This would almost certainly hand the 2016 election to the Democrats (be it Hilary, Bernie or Bill the Cat). Since I am an American, I hope that most of the other Republicans decide to decline the jester cap (or troll crown) and not try to out-Trump Trump. First, no-one can out-Trump the Donald. Second, trying to out-Trump the Donald would take a candidate to a place where he should not go. Third, it is bad enough having Trump turning the nomination process into a bizarre reality-show circus. Having other candidates get in on this game would do even more damage to what should be a serious event.

Another part of the explanation is that Trump says out loud (and loudly) what a certain percentage of Americans think. While most Americans are dismayed by his remarks about Mexicans, Chinese, and others, some people are in agreement with this remarks—or at least are sympathetic. There is a not-insignificant percentage of people who are afraid of those who are not white and Trump is certainly appealing to such folks. People with strong feelings about such matters will tend to be more active in political matters and hence their influence will tend to be disproportionate to their actual numbers. This tends to create a bit of a problem for the Republicans: a candidate that can appeal to the most active and more extreme members of the party will find it challenging to appeal to the general electorate—which tends to be moderate.

I also sort of suspect that many people are pulling a prank on the media: while they do not really want to vote for the Donald, they really like the idea of making the media take Trump seriously. People probably also want to see Trump in the news. Whatever else one might say about the Donald, he clearly knows how to entertain. I also think that the comedians are doing all they can to keep Trump’s numbers up: he is the easy button of comedy. One does not even need to lampoon him, merely present him as he is (or appears).

Many serious pundits do, sensibly, point to the fact that the leader in the very early polls tends to not be the nominee. Looking back at previous elections, various Republican candidates swapped places at the top throughout the course of the nomination cycle. Given past history, it seems unlikely that Trump will hold on to his lead—he will most likely slide back into the pack and a more traditional politician will get the nomination. But, one should never count the Donald out.

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The Ethics of Backdoors

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on July 13, 2015

In philosophy, one of the classic moral debates has focused on the conflict between liberty and security. While this topic covers many issues, the main problem is determining the extent to which liberty should be sacrificed in order to gain security. There is also the practical question of whether or not the security gain is actually effective.

One of the recent versions of this debate focuses on tech companies being required to include electronic backdoors in certain software and hardware. Put in simple terms, a backdoor of this sort would allow government agencies (such as the police, FBI and NSA) to gain access even to files and hardware protected by encryption. To use an analogy, this would be like requiring that all dwellings be equipped with a special door that could be secretly opened by the government to allow access to the contents of the house.

The main argument in support of mandating such backdoors is a fairly stock one: governments need such access for criminal investigators, gathering military intelligence and (of course) to “fight terrorism.” The concern is that if there is not a backdoor, criminals and terrorists will be able to secure their data and thus prevent state agencies from undertaking surveillance or acquiring evidence.

As is so often the case with such arguments, various awful or nightmare scenarios are often presented in making the case. For example, it might be claimed that the location and shutdown codes for ticking bombs could be on an encrypted iPhone. If the NSA had a key, they could just get that information and save the day. Without the key, New York will be a radioactive crater. As another example, it might be claimed that a clever child pornographer could encrypt all his pornography, making it impossible to make the case against him, thus ensuring he will be free to pursue his misdeeds with impunity.

While this argument is not without merit, there are numerous stock counter arguments. Many of these are grounded in views of individual liberty and privacy—the basic idea being that an individual has the right to have such security against the state. These arguments are appealing to both liberals (who tend to profess to like privacy rights) and conservatives (who tend to claim to be against the intrusions of big government).

Another moral argument is grounded in the fact that the United States government has shown that it cannot be trusted. To use an analogy, imagine that agents of the state were caught sneaking into the dwellings of all citizens and going through their stuff in clear violation of the law, the constitution and basic moral rights. Then someone developed a lock that could only be opened by the person with the proper key. If the state then demanded that the lock company include a master key function to allow the state to get in whenever it wanted, the obvious response would be that the state has already shown that it cannot be trusted with such access. If the state had behaved responsibly and in accord with the laws, then it could have been trusted. But, like a guest who abused her access to a house, the state cannot and should not be trusted with a key After all, we already know what they will do.

This argument also applies to other states that have done similar things. In the case of states that are even worse in their spying on and oppression of their citizens, the moral concerns are even greater. Such backdoors would allow the North Korean, Chinese and Iranian governments to gain access to devices, while encryption would provide their citizens with some degree of protection.

The strongest moral and practical argument is grounded on the technical vulnerabilities of integrated backdoors. One way that a built-in backdoor creates vulnerability is its very existence. To use a somewhat oversimplified analogy, if thieves know that all vaults have a built in backdoor designed to allow access by the government, they will know that a vulnerability exists that can be exploited.

One counter-argument against this is that the backdoor would not be that sort of vulnerability—that is, it would not be like a weaker secret door into a vault. Rather, it would be analogous to the government having its own combination that would work on all the vaults. The vault itself would be as strong as ever; it is just that the agents of the state would be free to enter the vault when they are allowed to legally do so (or when they feel like doing so).

The obvious moral and practical concern here is that the government’s combination to the vaults (to continue with the analogy) could be stolen and used to allow criminals or enemies easy access to all the vaults. The security of such vaults would be only as good as the security the government used to protect this combination (or combinations—perhaps one for each manufacturer). As such, the security of every user depends on the state’s ability to secure its means of access to hardware and software.

The obvious problem is that governments, such as the United States, have shown that they are not very good at providing such security. From a moral standpoint, it would seem to be wrong to expect people to trust the state with such access, given the fact that the state has shown that it cannot be depended on in such matters. To use an analogy, imagine you have a friend who is very sloppy about securing his credit card numbers, keys, PINs and such—in fact, you know that his information is routinely stolen. Then imagine that this friend insists that he needs your credit card numbers, PINs and such and that he will “keep them safe.” Given his own track record, you have no reason to trust this friend nor any obligation to put yourself at risk, regardless of how much he claims that he needs the information.

One obvious counter to this analogy is that this irresponsible friend is not a good analogue to the state. The state has compulsive power that the friend lacks, so the state can use its power to force you to hand over this information.

The counter to this is that the mere fact that the state does have compulsive force does not mean that it is thus responsible—which is the key concern in regards to both the ethics of the matter and the practical aspect of the matter. That is, the burden of proof would seem to rest on those that claim there is a moral obligation to provide a clearly irresponsible party with such access.

It might then be argued that the state could improve its security and responsibility, and thus merit being trusted with such access. While this does have some appeal, there is the obvious fact that if hackers and governments knew that that the keys to the backdoors existed, they would expend considerable effort to acquire them and would, almost certainly, succeed. I can even picture the sort of headlines that would appear: “U.S. Government Hacked: Backdoor Codes Now on Sale on the Dark Web” or “Hackers Linked to China Hack Backdoor Keys; All Updated Apple and Android Devices Vulnerable!” As such, the state would not seem to have a moral right to insist on having such backdoors, given that the keys will inevitably be stolen.

At this point, the stock opening argument could be brought up again: the state needs backdoor access in order to fight crime and terrorism. There are two easy and obvious replies to this sort of argument.

The first is based in an examination of past spying, such as that done under the auspices of the Patriot Act. The evidence seems to show that this spying was completely ineffective in regards to fighting terrorism. These is no reason to think that backdoor access would change this.

The second is a utilitarian argument (which can be cast as a practical or moral argument) in which the likely harm done by having backdoor access must be weighed against the likely advantages of having such access. The consensus among those who are experts in security is that the vulnerability created by backdoors vastly exceeds the alleged gain to protecting people from criminals and terrorists.

Somewhat ironically, what is alleged to be a critical tool for fighting crime (and terrorism) would simply make cybercrime much easier by building vulnerabilities right into software and devices.

In light of the above discussion, it would seem that baked-in backdoors are morally wrong on many grounds (privacy violations, creation of needless vulnerability, etc.) and lack a practical justification. As such, they should not be required by the state.


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The Value of Public Universities

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on July 6, 2015

One stock narrative in the media is that the cost of attending college has skyrocketed. This is true. There is also a stock narrative that this increase, at least for public universities, has been due to the cutting of public education funds. This certainly is part of the truth. Another important part is the cost of sustaining the every-growing and well paid administrative class that has ensconced (and perhaps enthroned) itself at colleges and universities. I will, however, focus primarily on the cutting of public funds.

The stock media narrative makes it clear why there was a cut to public education spending: the economy was brought down in flames by the too clever machinations of the world’s financial class. This narrative is, for the most part, true. Another narrative is that Republican state legislatures have cut deeply into the funding for public education. One professed reason for this is ideological: government spending must be cut, presumably to reduce the taxes paid by the job creators. A reason that is not openly professed is the monetization of education. Public universities are in competition with the for-profit colleges for (ironically) public funding, mostly in the form of federal financial aid and student loans. Degrading, downsizing and destroying public education allows the for-profit colleges to acquire more customers and more funding and these for-profits have been generous with their lobbying dollars (to Republicans and Democrats). Since I have written other essays on the general catastrophic failure that is the for-profit college, I will not pursue this matter here.

A third openly professed reason is also ideological: the idea that a college education is a private rather than a public good. This seems to be based on the view that the primary purpose of a college education is economic: for the student to be trained to fill a job.  It is also based on what can be regarded as a selfish value system—that value is measured solely in terms of how something serves a narrowly defined self-interest. In philosophy, this view is egoism and, when dignified with a moral theory, called ethical egoism (the idea that each person should act solely in her self-interest as opposed to acting, at least sometimes, from altruism).

Going along with this notion is the narrative that certain (mainly non-STEM) majors are useless. That is, they do not train a person to get a job. These two notions are usually combined into one stock narrative, which is often presented as something like “why should my tax dollars go to someone getting a degree in anthropology or, God forbid, philosophy?”

This professed ideology has had considerable impact on higher education. My adopted state of Florida has seen the usual story unfold: budget cuts to higher education, imposition of performance based funding (performance being defined primarily in terms of training the right sort of job fillers for the job creators), and the imposition of micro-managing assessment (which is universally regarded by anyone who actually teaches as pure bullshit) and so on.  When all this is combined with the ever-expanding administrative class, it becomes evident that public higher education in America is in real trouble.

At this point most readers will expect me to engage in my stock response in regards to the value of education. You know, the usual philosophical stuff about the unexamined life not being worth living, the importance to a democratic state of having an educated population and all the other stuff that is waved away with a dismissive gesture by those who know the true value of public education: private profit. Since I have written about these values elsewhere, I will not do so here. There is also the obvious fact that the people who believe in this sort of value already support education and those who do not will almost certainly not be swayed by any arguments I could make. Instead, I will endeavor to argue for the value of the public university in very practical, “real-world” terms.

First, the public university is important for the defense of the United States. While private, non-profit institutions do rather important research, the public universities have contributed a great deal to our defense technology, they train many of our officers, and they train many of the people who work in our intelligence agencies. Undermining the public university weakens the United States in ways that will damage our national defense. National defense certainly seems to be a public and not just a private good.

Second, large public universities are centers of scientific research that has great practical (that is, economic) value. This research includes medical research, physics, robotics, engineering and all areas that are recognized as having clear practical value. One sure way to ensure that the United States falls behind the rest of the world in these areas is to continue to degrade public universities. Being competitive in these areas does seem to be a public good, although it is obviously specific individuals who benefit the most.

Third, large public universities draw some of the best and brightest people from around the world. Many of these people stay in the United States and contribute a great deal—thus adding to the public good (while obviously benefiting themselves). Even those who return home are influenced by the United States—they learn English (if they do not already know it), they are exposed to American culture, they make friends with Americans and often develop a fondness for their school and the country. While these factors are hard to quantify, they do serve as advantage to the United States in economic, scientific, diplomatic and defense terms.

Fourth, having what was once the best public higher education system in the world gave the country considerable prestige and influence. While prestige is difficult to quantify, it certainly matters—humans are very much influenced by status. This can be regarded as a public good.

Fifth, there are the obvious economic advantages of a strong public higher education system. College educated citizens make more money and thus pay more taxes—thus contributing to the public good. While having a job is certainly a private good, there is also a considerable amount of public good. Businesses need employees and people need doctors, lawyers, engineers, psychiatrists, pilots, petroleum engineers, computer programmers, officers, and so on. As such, it would seem that the public university does not just serve the private good but the public good.

If this argument has merit, it would seem that the degrading of public higher education is damaging the public good and harming the country. As such, this needs to be reversed before the United States falls even more behind the competition.

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