A Philosopher's Blog

The American Oligarchy

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 21, 2014
Money

Money (Photo credit: 401(K) 2013)

One of my lasting lessons from political science is that every major society has a pyramid structure in regards to wealth and power. The United States is no exception to this distribution pattern. However, the United States is also supposed to be a democratic society—which seems rather inconsistent with the pyramid.

While the United States does have the mechanisms of democracy, such as voting, it might be wondered whether the United States is democratic or oligarchic (or plutocratic) in nature. While people might turn to how they feel about this matter, such feelings and related anecdotes do not provide proof. So, for example, a leftist who thinks the rich rule the country and who feels oppressed by the plutocracy does not prove her belief by appealing to her feelings or anecdotes about the rich. Likewise, a conservative who thinks that America is a great democracy and feels good about the rich does not prove her belief by appealing to her feelings or anecdotes about the rich.

What is needed is a proper study to determine how the system works. One rather obvious way to determine the degree of democracy is to compare the expressed preferences of citizens with the political results. If the political results generally correspond to the preferences of the majority, then this is a reasonable (but not infallible) indicator that the system is democratic. If the political results generally favor the minority that is rich and powerful while going against the preferences of the less wealthy majority, then this would be a reasonable (but not infallible) indicator that the system is oligarchic (or plutocratic). After all, to the degree that a system is democratic, the majority should have their preferences enacted into law and policy—even when this goes against the wishes of the rich. To the degree that the system is oligarchic, then the minority of elites should get their way—even when this goes against the preferences of the majority.

Recently, researchers at Princeton and Northwestern conducted just such a study: “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens”  using data gathered from 1981 to 2002.

The researchers examined about 1,800 polices from that time and matched them against the preferences expressed by three classes: the average American (50th income percentile), the affluent American (the 90th percentile of income) and the large special interest groups.

The results are hardly surprising: “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

As noted above, a truly democratic system should result in the preferences of the majority being expressed in policies and laws more often than not. However, “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.” As such, this study would seem to provide strong evidence that the United States is an oligarchy (or plutocracy) rather than a democratic state.

It might be contended that this system is fine since, to use a misquote, what is the preference for GM is the preference for Americans. That is, it could be claimed that the elites and the majority of Americans have the same or similar preferences.  However, the study found that the interests of the wealthy are not substantially correlated with the preferences of average citizens.” As such, the preferences of most Americans do not match the interests of the wealthy—but the wealthy generally get what they want.

One current example of this, which was not part of the study, is the fact that a very strong majority of Americans favor various gun control measures (such as universal background checks) yet bills that would make these measures into laws have failed. This provides a rather clear example of how the system works in general. Naturally, this example is merely an illustration—the statistical support is based in the 1,800 examined policies.

One possible objection is that the preferences of the majority are mistaken—that is, the majority wants things that are not in their best interest and what the elites want is what is actually best. For example, while most Americans might prefer stronger consumer protection laws when it comes to financial institutions, it could be claimed that they are in error. What is in their best interest is less consumer protection, which is what the financial elites want.

The obvious reply is that even if it were true that the majority is in error and the elites know best, this would arguing that the oligarchic system is better than a democratic system not that the system is not and oligarchic one.

Another possible objection is that the system is democratic in that people do vote for elected officials who then enact policies. Since the citizens can vote such officials out of office, they must be expressing the preferences of the citizens—despite the fact that policy and law consistently goes against the expressed preferences of the majority. This is to say that we have democratically created an oligarchy, so it is still a democracy (or at least a republic).

This objection is certainly interesting and raises a question about why people consistently re-elect people who consistently act contrary to their expressed preferences. One possibility is that the choices are very limited—you can vote for anyone you want, but a Democrat or Republican will almost certainly be elected. As such, the voters do get to vote, but they generally do not get real choices.

Another possibility is ignorance—people do not generally realize that what they get does not match what they claim to want. Such ignorance would put the moral blame partially on the citizens—they should be better informed.  Then again, given the abysmal approval rating for congress it seems that people do realize this. This creates a rather odd scenario: people really hate congress, yet generally keep re-electing them over and over.

A third possibility is that there are many strong propaganda machines that are devoted to convincing people that the laws and policies are good. So, while people have a preference for one thing, they are persuaded to believe that what is in the interest of the oligarchy is what they should like. People might also be distracted by other matters—for example, people who oppose same-sex marriage will support politicians who oppose it, even if the politician also supports policies that are contrary to the voter’s economic interests. In this case, the moral failing is on the part of the deceivers—they are tricking citizens with deceit and corrupting democracy.

Another approach to objecting to the study is to raise questions about the methodology. One obvious question would be whether or not the 1,800 policies are properly representative of the political system. After all, if the researchers picked ones that favored the wealthy and ignored others that matched public preferences, then the study would be biased. As such, a key question is whether or not the sample used in the study is large enough and representative enough to adequately support the conclusion.

Another obvious question would be whether or not the study had the preferences of the people correct. After all, in order to properly claim that the laws and policies do not generally match the preferences of the majority, the claimed preferences would need to be the actual preferences of the majority.

Naturally, addressing these concerns would require examining the study carefully and objectively, rather than merely dismissing or accepting it based on how one feels about the matter. Some might also be tempted to dismiss the study based on mere ad homimen attacks on those conducting it. For example, one might fallaciously reject the study by simply claiming that those involved are biased liberal intellectuals who are trying to advance a leftist agenda. If this were true and the study were thus flawed, then the evidence would lie in the defects of the study—not in the feelings of those attacking with ad homimens.

 

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Exotic Pets

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 16, 2014
English: Sleeping lioness at Exotic Animals Pa...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In her April 2014 National Geographic article “Wild Obsession, Lauren Slater considers the subject of exotic pets in America. While the article does mention some of the moral issues regarding such pets, I think it is worthwhile to consider the ethics of owning such pets in more depth.

While there are various ways to define what it is for a pet to be exotic, I will focus on non-domesticated animals that are kept as pets. Naturally, some of these pets do not involve much moral controversy. For example, keeping a tank of small fish seems to be morally fine—provided the fish are properly cared for. I am, for this short essay, mainly concerned with animals such as lions, tigers, bears, wolves, kangaroos, chimpanzees and other such animals. That is, animals that are wild and can present a danger to human beings.

One of the most obvious moral arguments against allowing people to own such exotic pets is that they can present a serious danger to human beings—be it their owners or other people. For example, a bear can easily kill its owner. As another example, an escaped tiger would present a rather serious threat. There is also the harm caused to ecosystems by escaped pets, such as the constrictors infesting parts of my adopted state of Florida. This can be cast as utilitarian argument in terms of the harms outweighing the alleged benefits of having such exotic pets.

The obvious response to this argument is that non-exotic pets, such as dogs and horses, injure (and even kill) people. As such, it would seem that the harm argument would also hold against having any pet that could be legitimately seen as a potential danger to a human being. This response could be taken to entail at least two things. One is that all pet ownership of potentially dangerous animals should not be allowed. This, of course, would not appeal to most people. The other is that people should be allowed to have potentially dangerous pets, be the pet a dog or a bear. While this view has some appeal, the easy and obvious counter is that there are clear relevant differences between pets like dogs and pets like bears.

While a domesticated animal like a dog or horse can seriously injure or even kill a human, they are generally less dangerous and far less likely to attack a human than a wild species like a bear or tiger. After all, domestic animals have been (mostly) selected to not be aggressive towards humans and for other appropriate (from the human perspective) behavior. So, while my husky can bite, she is not as dangerous as a bear and is extremely unlikely to attack a human, even when provoked. This is not to say that it is impossible for a previously well-behaved dog to turn violent. This is just to say that a well-trained dog is extremely different from even a well-trained bear or tiger.

As a side point, there are many reports of people being harmed by dogs—but this is because there are so many dogs kept as pets. As such, even a low percentage of aggressive dogs will result in a relatively high number of incidents. There is also the legitimate concern about dogs that have been bred and trained to be very aggressive (even towards humans).  Such dogs, most notoriously pit bulls, would present a threat to people and arguments can be made about restricting ownership of such dangerous dogs (and some places have such laws).

Another obvious moral argument is based on the harms done to the exotic animals. While domesticated animals can do well in a human environment (for example, my husky is quite happy with living in my house—provided that she gets her regular runs and outdoor adventures), wild animals often do not do very well. Most people who own exotic pets cannot provide the sort of environment that a wild species needs (even some zoos cannot) to be happy and healthy. There are also the concerns about medical care, proper exercise, diet and so on. As such, allowing people to own exotic pets would tend to have negative consequences for the animals. Once again, the moral case can be made on utilitarian grounds.

The obvious reply is that domestic animals also have needs that must be met. As such, it could be contended that if the keeping of domestic animals is acceptable provided that they are properly cared for, then the same must hold for the exotic animals. This reply does have considerable appeal. After all, if an animal is properly cared for and is both healthy and happy, then there would seem to be no moral grounds for forbidding a person from having such a pet.

As noted above, the practical problem is that caring properly for such exotic animals is more challenging and more expensive than providing proper care for a domestic animal. As I mentioned, my husky is fine living in my house and going on runs and expeditions with me. While medical care and food is not cheap, taking care of her is well within my financial ability. Exotic pets tend to present much more serious challenges in terms of cost. For example, a tiger is expensive to feed and one should not take a tiger out for an adventure in the local dog park. However, with proper resources these challenges could be addressed.

As a final moral argument, there is the concern that it is simply wrong to keep an exotic animal as a pet. To steal from Aristotle, it is not the function (or nature) of wild animals to exist as pets for humans. While people and animals might form bonds, the wild animals are such that being made into a pet is a distortion or even violation of what they are, which would be wrong. This, of course, would seem to suggest that we have distorted animals and perhaps wronged them by domesticating them—which might be true.

This line of reasoning can be countered in various ways, ranging from arguing against there being such natures to religious appeals to the claim that humans were given dominion over the animals and thus we can do what we wish with them.

My own view is somewhat mixed. Since I have a husky, it should be no surprise that I am morally fine with having a pet (provided the pet is well cared for). However, I tend to lean towards regarding keeping exotic animals as pets as morally problematic. That said, some people do truly love their exotic pets and take excellent care of them. In the case of endangered species, there is also the added moral argument involving the preservation of such species as pets—which does have some appeal when the alternative is extinction.

However, I would certainly not have a lion, tiger or bear as a pet. A dire husky…well, sure.

 

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Utah, Procreation & Same-Sex Marriage

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 11, 2014
Gay Couple with child

Gay Couple with child (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a general rule, I would contend that if something is morally wrong, then it should be possible to present non-fallacious and reasonable arguments to show that it is wrong.  I would also probably add that there should be actual facts involved. I would obviously not claim that the arguments must be decisive—one generally does not see that in ethics. While people continue to argue against same sex marriage, the arguments continue to be the usual mix of fallacies and poor reasoning. There is also the usual employment of “facts” that are often simply not true.

In the United States, the latest battle over same-sex marriage is taking place in Utah. The state is being sued on the grounds that the amendment that forbids same-sex marriage is a violation of their rights. The lawsuit certainly has merit—a state does not get to violate constitutional rights even if many people vote in favor of doing so. As such, a rather important legal question is whether or not same-sex couples’ rights are violated by this law.

Utah is following the usual model of arguing against same-sex marriage, although they have at least not broken out the argument that allowing same-sex marriage will lead to or is equivalent to a person marrying a goat.

As might be expected, they made used of the usual pair of fallacies: appeal to tradition and appeal to common practice by claiming that defining marriage as being between a man and a woman is correct because it is “age-old and still predominant.”

Utah also tried the stock procreation gambit, with an added bit about the state’s interest: “Same-sex couples, who cannot procreate, do not promote the state’s interests in responsible procreation (regardless of whether they harm it).” Utah has also made use of the boilerplate argument about “responsible procreation” and “optimal mode of child rearing.”

Same-sex marriage is thus criticized on two grounds in regards to “responsible procreation.” The first is that same-sex couples cannot procreate naturally. The second is that same-sex couples will fail to provide an “optimal mode of child rearing.” To deny same-sex couples the right to marry because of these criticisms would require accepting two general principles: 1) marriage is to be denied to those who do cannot or do not procreate and 2) people who are not capable of the “optimal mode of child rearing” are to be denied marriage.

The first principle entails that straight couples who do not want children or cannot have them must also be denied marriage. After all, if an inability (or unwillingness) warrants denying same-sex couples the right to marry, the same would also apply to different-sex couples.

This principle would also seem to imply that couples who use artificial means to reproduce (such as in vitro fertilization or a surrogate) must be denied marriage. After all, same-sex couples can use these methods to procreate. Alternatively, if different-sex couples can use these methods and be allowed to marry, then same-sex couples who procreate would thus also be entitled to marriage.

The principle would also seem to entail that all married couples would be required to have at least one child, presumably within a specific time frame to ensure that the couple is not just faking their desire (or ability) to have children in order to get married. This would certainly seem to be a violation of the rights of the parents and a rather serious intrusion of the state.

The second principle would entail that straight couples who are not optimal parents must be denied marriage.  This would seem to require that the state monitor all marriages to determine that the parents are providing an optimal mode of child rearing and that it be empowered to revoke marriage licenses (much like the state can revoke a driver’s license for driving violations) for non-optimal parents. Different-sex parents can obviously provide non-optimal modes. After all, child abuse and neglect are committed by different-sex couples.

While I do agree that irresponsible people should not have children and that the state has an obligation to protect children from harm, it seems absurd to deny such people the right to marry. After all, not allowing them to marry (or dissolving the marriage when they proved irresponsible) would hardly make such people more responsible or benefit the children. Now to the matter of the state’s interest.

For the sake of the argument, I will grant that the state has an interest in having people reproduce. After all, the state is just a collection of people, so if there are no new people, the state will cease to exist. Of course, this also would seem to give the state an interest in immigration—that would also replace lost people.

This interest in procreation does not, however, entail that the state thus has an interest in preventing same sex-marriage. Allowing same-sex marriage does not reduce the number of different-sex marriages—that is, there is not a limited number of allowed marriages that same-sex couples could “use up.” Also, even if there were a limited number of allowed marriages, same-sex couples would only be a small percentage of the marriages and, obviously enough, marriage is not a necessary condition for procreation nor responsible procreation. That is, people can impregnate or be impregnated without being married. People can also be good parents without being married.

In light of these arguments, the procreation argument against same-sex marriage is still clearly absurd.

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The Better than Average Delusion

Posted in Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on March 28, 2014
Average Joe copy

Average Joe copy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One interesting, but hardly surprising, cognitive bias is the tendency of a person to regard herself as better than average—even when no evidence exists for that view. Surveys in which Americans are asked to compare themselves to their fellows are quite common and nicely illustrate this bias: the overwhelming majority of Americans rank themselves as above average in everything ranging from leadership ability to accuracy in self-assessment.

Obviously enough, the majority of people cannot be better than average—that is just how averages work. As to why people think the way they do, the disparity between what is claimed and what is the case can be explained in at least two ways. One is another well-established cognitive bias, namely the tendency people have to believe that their performance is better than it actually is. Teachers get to see this in action quite often—students generally believe that they did better on the test than they actually did. For example, I have long lost count of people who have gotten Cs or worse on papers who say to me “but it felt like an A!” I have no doubt that it felt like an A to the student—after all, people tend to rather like their own work. Given that people tend to regard their own performance as better than it is, it certainly makes sense that they would regard their abilities as better than average—after all, we tend to think that we are all really good.

Another reason is yet another bias: people tend to give more weight to the negative over the positive. As such, when assessing other people, we will tend to consider negative things about them as having more significance than the positive things. So, for example, when Sally is assessing the honesty of Bill, she will give more weight to incidents in which Bill was dishonest relative to those in which he was honest. As such, Sally will most likely see herself as being more honest than Bill. After enough comparisons, she will most likely see herself as above average.

This self-delusion probably has some positive effects—for example, it no doubt allows people to maintain a sense of value and to enjoy the smug self-satisfaction that they are better than most other folks. This surely helps people get by day-to-day.

There are, of course, downsides to this—after all, a person who does not do a good job assessing himself and others will be operating on the basis of inaccurate information and this rarely leads to good decision making.

Interestingly enough, the better-than-average delusion holds up quite well even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. For example, the British Journal of Social Psychology did a survey of British prisoners asking them to compare themselves to other prisoners and the general population in terms of such traits as honesty, compassion, and trustworthiness. Not surprisingly, the prisoners ranked themselves as above average. They did, however, only rank themselves as average when it came to the trait of law-abidingness. This suggests that reality has some slight impact on people, but not as much as one might hope.

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Concentration of Wealth

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on March 26, 2014
WEALTH IN THE USA

WEALTH IN THE USA (Photo credit: er00mb0b)

In early 2014 Oxfam International released some interesting statistics regarding the distribution of the world’s wealth. Here are some of the highlights:

 

  •          1% of the population owns about 50% of the wealth.
  •          This 1% owns $110 trillion.
  •          $110 trillion is 65 times the wealth owned by the bottom (economically) 50% of people.
  •          The bottom 50% owns the same amount of wealth as the top 85 wealthiest people.
  •          In the United States, the top 1% received 95% of the growth since 2009 while the 90% lost wealth.

That there is an extremely unequal distribution of wealth is hardly surprising. In my very first political science class, I learned that every substantial human society has had a pyramid shaped distribution of wealth. Inevitably, the small population of the top owns a disproportionally large amount of wealth while the large population at the bottom owns a disproportionally small amount of wealth. This pattern holds whether the society is a monarchy, dictatorship, communist state or democracy.

From a moral standpoint, one important question is whether or not such a distribution is just. While some might be tempted to regard any disproportional distribution as unjust, this would be an error. After all, the justness of a distribution is not a simple matter of numbers. To use an easy example, consider the distribution of running trophies. Obviously enough, there is a very unequal distribution of such awards. First, almost all people who have them will be (or will have been) runners. As such, most people will not have even one trophy. Second, even among the population of runners there will be a disproportionate distribution: there will be a fairly small percentage of runners who have a large percentage of the trophies. As such, there is a concentration of running trophies. However, this is not unjust: the competition for such trophies is open, the competition is generally fair, and a trophy is generally earned by running well. Roughly put, the better runners will have the most trophies and they will be a small percentage of the runner population. Because of the nature of the competition, I have no issue with this. There is, of course, also the biasing factor that I have won a lot of trophies.

Those who defend the unequal distribution of wealth often endeavor to claim that the competition for wealth is analogous to the situation I presented for running trophies: the competition is open, the competition is fair, and the reward is justly earned by competing well. While this is a plausible approach to justifying the massive inequality, the obvious problem is that these claims are not true.

Those who start out in a wealthy family might not make their money by inheritance, but they enjoy a significant starting advantage over those born into less affluent families. While it is true that a few people rise from humble origins to great financial success, those stories are so impressive because pf the difficulty of doing so and the small number of people who achieve such great success.

There is also the obvious fact that those who hold wealth use their influence to ensure that the political and social system favors the wealthy. While this might not be aimed at keeping people from becoming wealthy, the general impact is that existing wealth is favored and defended against attempts to “intrude” into the top of the pyramid. Naturally, people will point to those who succeeded fantastically despite this system. But, once again, these stories are so impressive because of the incredible challenges that had to be overcome and because such stories are incredibly rare.

There is also the obvious doubt about whether those who possess the greatest wealth earned the wealth in a way that justifies their incredible wealth. In the case of running, a person must earn her gold medal in the Olympic marathon by being the best runner. In such a case, there is little doubt that the achievement has been properly earned. However, the situation for great wealth is not as clear. Now, if a person arose from humble origins and by hard work, virtue, and talent managed to earn a fortune, then it seems fair to accept the justice of that wealth. However, if someone merely inherits a pile of cash or engages in misdeeds (like corruption or crime) to acquire the wealth, then it seems reasonable to regard that as unjust wealth.

As such, to the degree that the competition for wealth is open and fair and to the degree that the earning of wealth is proportional to merit, then the incredibly unbalanced distribution can be regarded as just. However, it seems evident that this is not the case.  For example, a quick review of the laws, tax codes, and so on will show quite nicely how the system is designed to work.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the distribution of wealth is actually warranted on grounds similar to the distribution of running trophies. That is, suppose that the competition is open, fair and the rewards are merit based. This still provides grounds for criticism of the radical concentration of wealth.

One obvious point is that the distribution of running trophies has no real impact. After all, a person can live just fine without any such trophies. As such, letting them be divided up by competition is fine—even if most trophies go to a few people. However, wealth is another matter. At the basic level, a degree of wealth is a necessity for survival. That is a person needs it (or, rather, what it can buy) to survive. Beyond mere survival, it also determines the material quality of life in terms of general health, clothing, living quarters, education, and entertainment and so on. Roughly put, wealth (loosely taken) is a necessity. To have such a competition when the well-being (and perhaps the survival) of people is at stake seems to be morally repugnant.

One obvious counter is a variation on the survival of the fittest arguments of the past. The basic idea is that, just like all living things, people have to compete to survive. As in nature, some people will not compete as well and hence they will have less and perhaps even not enough to survive. Others will do better and some few will do best of all.

The obvious reply is that this sort of competition makes some degree of sense when resources are so scarce that all cannot survive. To use a fictional example, if people are struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, then the competition for basic survival might be warranted by the reality of the situation. However, when resources are plentiful it seems morally repugnant for the tiny few to hyper-concentrate wealth while the many are left with very little. To use the obvious analogy, seeing a glutton stuffing herself with a vast tableful of delicacies while her guards keep people away so her minions call sell the scraps would strike all but the most callous as horrible. However, replace the glutton with one of the 1% and some folks are quite willing to insist that the situation is fair and just.

As a final point, the 1% also need to worry about the inequality of distribution. The social order which keeps the 99% from slaughtering the 1% requires that enough of the 99% believe that the situation is working for them. This can be done, to a degree, by coercion (police and military force) and delusion (this is where Fox News comes in). However, coercion and delusion have their limits and society, like all things, has a breaking point. While the rich can often escape a collapse in one country by packing up and heading to another (as dictators occasionally do), until space travel is a viable option the 1% are still stuck on earth with everyone else.

 

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A Fair Price for Drugs?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on March 24, 2014
A pill

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are about three million Americans and about 170 million people around the world infected with Hepatitis C. In the recent past, the cost of treatment could be up to $300,000 in extreme cases. A new drug, Sovaldi, would reduce that cost to about $84,000. On the face of it, that seems like a great deal. However, the company manufacturing the drug has generated some outrage. The reason is simple: the company, Gilead, plans to charge $1,000 per pill.

While $1,000 for a pill might seem exorbitant, Gilead has made the reasonable point that they have the right to recover the cost of developing the medicine. This is certainly correct—the expense of developing a product can be legitimately passed on to the customers.

In the case of Sovalidi, Gilead “developed” it by buying the company that developed it for $11 billion. While this is a certainly a large sum of money, if 150,000 people are treated at the asking price of $1,000 per pill, the company will have recovered what it spent to buy the company that developed it. This is a not uncommon practice in areas with high initial development costs. For example, new technology initially comes at a premium price and then the price drops as a company recovers its development costs.

When asked if Gilead would reduce the cost once it recovered its money, the vice president of the company said, “”That’s very unlikely that we would do that. I appreciate the thought.” One way to justify this is by contending that the cost of producing the pill warrants keeping the price high. After all, the cost of production is clearly a legitimate factor in calculating a fair price for a product.

However, the drug is most likely fairly cheap to produce. According to Andrew Hill, who is in the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics at the University of Liverpool, the cost per treatment would be $150-250 per person. If this is correct, the company would be making truly massive profits off a drug that is rather cheap to produce. On the face of it, such a mark-up would seem to be unfair.

It might be contended that the free-market will sort this out. However, there are two major concerns here. The first is that Gilead’s ownership of the drug rather limits the competitive force of the market. Until another company produces a competing drug, Gilead has an effective monopoly. Competing companies would need to spend considerable sums to develop a competing drug and they would have to avoid infringing on the ownership rights of Gilead. Whether this is seen as wrong or not depends on how one looks at the matter. On the one hand, there is the view that a company has the right to its government enforced monopoly and can use this to charge any amount it deems fit until competition forces it to reduce prices. On the other hand, there is the view that it is wrong for a company to use the coercive power of the state (the state ensures that the drug cannot be copied and sold by others) to exploit the very citizens that the state is supposed to protect from exploitation. The second is that the treatment is not a luxury item for the patients but a necessity—without it they risk severe illness and death. As such, the customers are coerced by their condition and this is being exploited by Gilead. If Gilead were selling $84,000 watches or cars, people could elect to buy them or not—so Gilead would need to make the product match the price. In the case of medicine, Gilead can set its price and give people a choice between buying and dying.

Interestingly, Gilead does plan to offer lower prices in countries such as India, Pakistan, Egypt and China. While the price is not set, the estimate is that “It’ll be from the high hundreds to low thousands for these types of markets.” This rather obviously indicates that Gilead could sell the pills for less in the United States. This lower cost could be seen in at least two ways. One is that Gilead is being nice by offering people in these other countries a price break. Another is that Gilead knows that it will simply not be able to sell the pills for $1,000 each in such countries and are settling for taking what they can get. That is, some profit is better than none.

If Gilead is giving patients in these countries a real break—that is, selling the product with a very narrow profit margin, then the company would seem to be acting in a laudable way by providing an important treatment while only making large profits. However, given the estimated cost of providing the treatment ($150-250) the company would be making very large profits by selling the treatments for the high hundreds to low thousands. The company would also be making what might be regarded as obscene profits in countries like the United States where the pills would sell for $1,000 each.

Given that Gilead would recover its costs quickly and the actual cost of providing treatment is relatively low, what remains to be determined is what would warrant charging such a high price for a essential treatment.

Alton presents a standard reason for this:  “Those who are bold and go out and innovate like this and take the risk — there needs to be more of a reward on that. Otherwise, it would be very difficult for people to make that investment.”

Alton’s basic point is reasonable. Developing new medicines is a risky business since most drugs never actually make it to being a sellable product. As such, this increases what companies must spend to actually develop a product they can sell.

One point of concern is the degree of risk that Gilead took when it bought the company that developed the drug. If that company took risks and developed the drug, then that company certainly earned the right to recover the cost of the risks it took. However, it is not clear that Gilead was bold, innovative and risk taking by buying that company.

Another point of concern is determining the cost and value of risk. That is, sorting out how risk taking legitimately contributes to a higher price. Oversimplifying things a bit, it would seem fair to consider the cost of legitimate attempts to develop drugs that failed as part of the legitimate operating expenses of a company and thus these can justly passed on to the consumer. However, as noted above, Gilead will recover the cost of buying the developer of the drug quickly and hence will lose the justification that it must charge a high price in compensation for its risk. Even if it is granted that risk taking warrants charging high prices, this should not warrant the high prices when the cost of the risk has been recovered. At that point a new justification would be needed for the high price. In the case of the medicine, the cost of providing the treatment would not warrant the high price. Also as noted above, the market is effectively not free since the state ensures that Gilead has a monopoly on the medicine it bought and the patients are coerced by their illness. If the patients tried to produce the medicine on their own by copying the pills, the state would send police to arrest them and they would face severe legal action.

It could be replied that $84,000 is a bargain compared to the current cost and this justifies the high price. To use an analogy, if one surgeon charges $300,000 to do a procedure and I will provide the same results for $84,000 then that seems like a good deal. However, if it only costs me $250 to treat the person, that would hardly seem to be a fair price. It would be a better price—but better is not the same as fair.

I freely admit that I have not settled the matter of what is a fair price. However, it does seem clear that $1,000 per pill is not a fair price.

 

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Chance, Success & Failure

Posted in Ethics, Law, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on March 10, 2014

“The amazing, the unforgivable thing was that all his life he had watched the march of ruined men into the oblivion of poverty and disgrace—and blamed them.”

-The Weapon Shops of Isher, A.E. van Vogt

 

Dice for various games, especially for rolepla...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a previous essay, I discussed the role of chance in artistic success using Matthew Salganik’s virtual world experiment as a focus. In his discussion of this experiment, Salganik noted that it was likely to have implications for success (and failure) in a much broader context. Sorting out the role of chance in success and failure seems both interesting and rather important.

One obvious reason why it is important to sort out the role of chance is to provide a rational basis for assigning praise and blame (and the possible accompanying reward and punishment). After all, success or failure by pure chance would not (in general) seem to merit praise or blame. If I win a lottery by pure chance, I have done nothing that would warrant being praised—aside from acquiring a ticket, I had no substantial role in the process. Likewise, if I do not win the lottery, I do not warrant being accused of a failure.

This also, obviously enough, ties into morality: chance can mitigate moral responsibility. If the properly maintained brakes on my truck fail as I approach a stop sign at a reasonable speed and I thus crash into an innocent pedestrian, I am not to blame—this was a matter of chance. Likewise, if my truck were to crash into a person attempting murder in the street, I am also not responsible for this fortuitous outcome.

Somewhat less obvious is the tie this matter has to setting rational public policy and laws. After all, to set public policy on such matters as unemployment benefits and food stamps without properly assessing the role of chance in success and failure would be a grave moral error. Suppose that, as some claim, people end up unemployed or in need of food stamps because of factors that are within their control—that is, they essentially decide their way into unemployment or need. If this is the case, then it would be reasonable to set public policy to reflect this alleged reality. The general idea would seem to be that there should not be such support. To use an analogy, if someone throws her money away foolishly, I have no obligation to give her more money. Her poor decision making does not constitute my obligation.

However, if chance (or other factors beyond the control of the individual) play a significant role in success and failure, then it would seem reasonable to shape policy to match this alleged reality. Suppose, as some claim, people do often end up unemployed or in need of food stamps because of chance. In this case, public policy should reflect this alleged reality and such aid should be available to help offset chance.  To use an analogy, if someone stumbles across some muggers and is robbed of the money she needs to buy food for herself and her children, then her situation does obligate me—if can help her at reasonable cost to myself, I should certainly do so.

Thus, it would seem that sorting out the role of chance in success and failure is a rather important matter. Unfortunately, it is also a very complex matter. However, I think it would be helpful to use an example to show that chance does seem to be a major factor in success in factor. Since I am most familiar with my own life, I will do a short sketch of the role of chance in my success and failure.

As I mentioned in the previous essay on this matter, I have been accused of believing in choice because I want to get credit for my successes. As might be imagined, people who are successful tend to want to believe that their success is due largely to their own decisions and efforts—that they have earned success. Likewise, people who are failures often tend to blame chance (and other factors) as the cause of their failures. Both sets of people tend to also apply their view to the opposite of their situations: the successful also attribute the failure of the failures to the decisions of those who have failed while those who are failures attribute the success of others to chance. People do, quite clearly, embrace the narrative that pleases them most. However, what pleases need not be true. As such, while I like to believe that my success is earned, I am willing to carefully consider the role of chance.

One blindingly obvious factor that is entirely a matter of chance is the matter of birth: it is, if there is chance, a matter of chance that I was born in the United States to a middle-class family and that I was healthy and normal. It is also largely a matter of chance, from my standpoint, that I had a family that took care of me and that I was in a society that provided stability, healthcare and education. If I had been born in some war and poverty ravaged part of the world and had horrible health issues, things would obviously be much different.

The rest of my life was also heavy with chance. For example, I almost ended up a Marine, but budget cuts ended up preventing that and instead I ended up at Ohio State. I ended up meeting a woman there who went to Florida State University and thus I ended up in Tallahassee by chance. This allowed me to get the job I have—which was also largely chance (Florida A&M University needed a philosophy professor right away and I just happened to be there). I could, easily enough, go through all the matters of chance that resulted in success: meeting the right people, being in the right place at the right time, avoiding the wrong people, and so on.

Of course, my desire to take credit for success drives me to add that I surely had a role to play in my success. While chance put me in the United States with a healthy body and mind, it was my decisions and actions that got me through school and into college. While chance had a major role to play in my getting a job as a professor, surely it was my actions and decisions that allowed me to keep the job. While chance has surely played a role in my book sales, surely the quality of my work is what wins people over. Roughly put, chance put me into various situations, but it was still up to me to take advantage of opportunities and to avoid dangers.

While my pride drives me to seize a large share of the credit for my success, honesty compels me to admit that I owe a great deal to pure chance—starting with day zero. Presumably the same is true of everyone else as well. As such, I think it wise to always temper praise and condemnation with the knowledge that chance played a major role in success and failure.

 

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Russian Imperialism

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 5, 2014
Political map of Ukraine, highlighting Crimean...

Political map of Ukraine, highlighting Crimean Oblast (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Back in 2008 I did a post claiming that Russia was still a threat and that our obsession with the war on terror would distract us from our more significant foe, namely the Russians. Now that Russian troops have entered Crimea and are poised to roll through Ukraine, it seems that by chance or understanding got things right. As a followup to that old post, I’ll say a bit about the current situation.

First, there is the fact that the invasion of Ukraine was easily foreseeable. Everyone knows the old tale about the scorpion and the fox: a fox and a scorpion are at the bank of a river and the scorpion asks the fox to carry him across. The fox is reluctant to do this since he is worried the scorpion will sting him midstream. The scorpion assures the fox he will do no such thing-after all, he would drown if the fox dies. Swayed by this reasoning, the fox swims out with the scorpion on his back. The scorpion stings him and they both die-the scorpion’s dying words being that it is his nature to do this. While nations are not ruled by instinct, nations do have definite general characters forged by their history. In the case of the Russians, it has become their nature to want a buffer between themselves and the West (thanks to folks like Napoleon and Hitler). As such, predicting that the Russians will try to control the countries around them is like predicting that the French will drink wine or that Americans will eat junk food. For the Russians, control seems best achieved by the use of military force-hence the invasion of Ukraine was eminently predictable. It is, as the scorpion would say, a matter of nature.

Second, there is the obvious fact that the West will not do anything militarily in the Ukraine. While the United States could probably push the Russians out of Ukraine if it came down to a conventional war, the Russians are still well-armed with nuclear weapons. While we would risk nuclear war to defend key allies like Britain and Germany, we almost certainly will not do so to defend Ukraine. As such, the Russians really only need to worry about two main things. The first is that Ukraine will fight them. While Russia can take Ukraine, Russia would probably not enjoy a protracted struggle in the region-especially with the possibility of an ongoing insurgency. The second is that the rest of the world will take economic action against Russia and do enough damage to her economy to make the invasion turn out to be a bad idea.

Third, Russia obviously wants to get back into the “grand game” of being a major power-perhaps Putin has dreams of restoring the Russian Empire and being a super-power once more. While some folks are claiming that Putin has already lost in Ukraine, it is unwise to make such a prediction. As noted above, a primary Russian goal is to have a stable buffer between Moscow and the West. Russia has never deviated from the strategy and almost certainly will not for the foreseeable future.

Fourth, critics of Obama and the United States have been taking the stock line that it was Obama’s weakness that allowed Putin to roll forces into the Ukraine and that if only Obama had been more bad-ass, Putin would have just stayed put in Russia. While this story has some appeal, the United States has historically avoided doing anything bad-ass towards Russia. Back in the Soviet days, we mostly just fenced via proxies and got bogged down in Vietnam. When the Soviets rolled tanks in to crush internal dissent in the Soviet Union, we did nothing. As such, Obama has been following a business as usual policy. Given that the Russians have nuclear weapons, this is not a bad idea.

Fifth, while Putin knows he can push hard under his nuclear umbrella, he surely knows that he cannot push too far. After all, just as we could push Putin to a nuclear strike, he could push us to the same thing. If Putin meets with success in Ukraine, he will most likely continue to expand. The main question is not whether the West will stop him or not but whether or not the Russians can afford this level of military operations and occupations. After all, we broke them by forcing them to slag their economy in a cold war against us. We then stupidly melted our economy  a bit with two wars and, but we can take the heat better than the Russians. Russia only now feels confident enough to push hard against the West. But, it remains to be seen if they can take the heat and if so, for how long. It is a new world and it is worth noting that the old ways might not work as they did.

Sixth, thanks to our fixation on the war on terror and with the political manipulations that resulted in billions of public dollars being dumped into the coffers of the well connected, we are not well-equipped to face up to the Russians while also dealing with the rest of the world. Our massive domestic and ally spying machine will be rather useless against them (which is not surprising, since it is also mostly useless against terrorists). Fortunately, our defense contractors have seen to it (for their own reasons) that we do still have a strong conventional force. But, we are not as well prepared as we could be. More importantly, we have been piddling away with the war on terror and making sure that billionaires become more wealthy when we should have been doing some real politics of the sort that Putin has been trying to do. Only better. I do, of course, approve of his view of shirts. Like him, I know that we must fight the cruel tyranny of the shirt.

Seventh, we should not forget about China while we are now fixating on the Russians.

Eighth, welcome back old foe. We’ve kind of missed you.

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Academic Freedom vs. Academic Justice

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 26, 2014
English: Protesting academics in 2006 at UKZN

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sandra Y.L. Korn has proposed dispensing with academic freedom in favor of academic justice. Korn begins by presenting the example of Harvard psychology Professor Richard Hernstein’s 1971 article for Atlantic Monthly. In this article, Hernstein endorsed the view that intelligence is primarily hereditary and linked to race. Hernstein was attacked for this view, but defended himself and was defended by others via appeals to academic freedom. Korn seems to agree with Hernstein that the attacks against him infringed on academic freedom. However, Korn proposes that academic justice is more important than academic freedom.

Korn makes use of the American Association of University Professors view of academic freedom: “Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results.” However, Korn regards the “liberal obsession” with this freedom as misplaced.

Korn’s first argument seems to be as follows. Korn notes that there is not “full freedom” in research and publication. As Korn correctly notes, which proposals get funded and which papers get published is largely a matter of academic politics. Korn then notes that no academic question is free from the realities of politics. From this, Korn draws a conditional conclusion: “If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of ‘academic freedom’?”

It might be suspected that there is a false dilemma lurking here: either there is full academic freedom or restricting it on political values is acceptable. There is not full academic freedom. Therefore restricting it on political values is acceptable. The reason why this would be a false dilemma is that there is a considerable range of options between full academic freedom (which seems to be complete freedom) and such restrictions. As such, one could accept the obvious truth that there is not full (complete) freedom while also legitimately rejecting that academic freedom should be restricted on the proposed grounds.

To use the obvious analogy to general freedom of expression, the fact that people do not possess full freedom of expression (after all, there are limits on expression) does not entail that politically based restrictions should thus be accepted. After all, there are many alternatives between full freedom and the specific restrictions being proposed.

To be fair to Korn, no such false dilemma might exist. Instead, Korn might be reasoning that because the reality is such that political values restrict academic expression it follows that adding additional restrictions is not problematic. To re-use the analogy to general free expression, the reasoning would that since there are already limits on free expression, more restrictions are acceptable. This could be seen as a common practice fallacy, but perhaps it could be justified by showing that the additional restrictions are warranted. Sorting this out requires considering what Korn is proposing.

In place of the academic freedom standard, Korn proposes “a more rigorous standard: one of ‘academic justice.’ When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.”

While Korn claims that this is a more rigorous standard, it merely seems to be more restrictive. There is also the rather obvious problem of presenting an account of what it is for research to promote or justify oppression in a way that is rigorous and, more importantly, accurate. After all, “oppression” gets thrown around with some abandon in academic contexts and can be a rather vague notion. In order to decide what is allowed and what is not, Korn proposes that students, faculty and workers should organize in order to “to make our universities look as we want them to do.” While that sounds somewhat democratic, there is still the rather important concern about what standards will be used.

While there are paradigm cases (like the institutionalized racism of pre-civil rights America), people do use the term “oppression” to refer to what merely offends them. In fact, Korn makes reference to the offensiveness of a person’s comment as grounds for removing a professor from a faculty position.

The obvious danger is that the vagueness of this principle could be used to suppress and oppress research that vocal or influential people find offensive. There is also the obvious concern that such a principle would yield a political hammer with which to beat down those who present dissenting or unpopular views. For example, suppose a researcher finds legitimate evidence that sexual orientation is strongly influenced by choice and is accused of engaging research that promotes oppression because her research runs counter to an accepted view among certain people. As another example, imagine a faculty member who holds conservative views that some might find offensive, such as the view that people should work for their government support. This person could be seen as promoting oppression of the poor and thus be justly restricted by this principle.

Interestingly, Korn does present an example of a case in which a Harvard faculty member was asked not to return on the basis of objections against remarks that had been made. This would seem to indicate that Korn’s proposal might not be needed. After all, if academic freedom does not provide protection against being removed or restricted on these grounds, then there would seem to be little or no need to put in place a new principle. To use an analogy, if people can already be silenced for offensive speech, there is no need to restrict freedom of speech with a new principle—it is already restricted. At least at Harvard.

In closing, I am certainly in favor of justice and even more in favor of what is morally good. As such, I do endorse holding people morally accountable for their actions and statements. However, I do oppose restrictions on academic freedom for the same reason I oppose restrictions on the general freedom of expression (which I have written about elsewhere). In the case of academic freedom, what should matter is whether the research is properly conducted and whether or not the claims are well-supported. To explicitly adopt a principle for deciding what is allowed and what is not based on ideological views would, as history shows, have a chilling effect on research and academics. While the academic system is far from perfect, flawed research and false claims do get sorted out—at least fairly often. Adding in a political test would not seem to help with reaching the goal of truth.

As far as when academic freedom should be restricted, I also go with my general view of freedom of expression: when an action creates enough actual harm to warrant limiting the freedom. So, merely offending people is not enough to warrant restrictions—even if people are very offended. Actually threatening people or engaging in falsification of research results would be rather different matters and obviously not protected by academic freedom.

As such, I am opposed to Korn’s modest proposal to impose more political restrictions on academic freedom. As Korn notes, there are already many restrictions in place—and there seem to be no compelling reasons to add more.

 

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Transition Savings Incentives

Posted in Humor, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 7, 2014
Social Security Poster: old man

Time for transition? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Faced with the coming Boomsday, Cassandra Devine suggested a modest solution to the problem of funding Social Security: incentivizing voluntary suicide among the baby boomers. The gist of the proposal is that if a person voluntarily “transitions” at age 65, those inheriting the person’s estate pay no taxes. The incentives for transitioning later are lower, of course. Given that Boomsday is approaching rapidly, it seems the proper time to revive Devine’s proposal. The challenge is, of course, to properly sell it so that it can become a reality. Since American political ideology splits neatly into two camps, the liberals and the conservatives, the sale is made easier.

For the conservatives, the sales pitch is obvious: incentivizing transitions is a way to reduce the number of takers taking from the makers. This idea thus sells itself. There are, however, two potential worries here. The first is that some conservatives have religious objections against voluntary suicide and will vehemently oppose anything that smacks of voluntary euthanasia. Two solutions are proposed. One is that conservatives like the death penalty and killing people they regard as being in need of killing. As such, these takers could be cast as being punished for being a threat to America, freedom, and security and perhaps as criminals of some sort. The other is that conservatives are generally fine with heroic sacrifices, at least when those sacrifices are made by others. As such, the transition can be cast as a great heroic sacrifice.

The second worry is that many conservatives are old people. Hence, incentivizing them would reduce the number of conservatives. The solution is to emphasize that this solution is for the poor and pass a special exemption for the wealthy. By casting the poor as takers from the makers, people will embrace the idea of the poor needing to die to get what the rich get for nothing. Since this is the natural order, it makes perfect sense.

On the face of it, this would seem to be a harder sell to liberals. This is because one primary objective of liberals is to ensure that the takers get as much of the makers’ money as possible for as little effort as possible. However, there are two ways to sell the liberals. The first is that liberals are liberal with other peoples’ money and not their own. After all, Liberal Lucile drives her Prius to Starbucks to Tweet, blog and post on Facebook her rants against corporations using her iPad.  None of that liberal lifestyle comes cheap. If Lucile knows that she’ll get her parents’ wealth without having to pay taxes herself, she’ll write a rant about that and Tweet it.  The second is that liberals really like to kill old people—as shown by the Death Panels of Obamacare to the liberal love of assisted suicide. So, this should be an easy sell.

As with any good idea, it makes perfect sense to extend it to cover everything. Why not extend this saving measure to other areas so as to trim the takers that are taking from the makers? One obvious area to address is the whole social welfare system beyond Social Security. People, regardless of age, could be incentivized into transitioning early—at least those who are takers rather than job creators. For example, spouses and family members could be offered a percentage of the benefits of each person in return for the person agreeing to transition at any age. Job creators could also be offered comparable incentives for transitioned employees—this would lower costs and provide new job openings. However, this program should not be pushed too hard: a reduced work force would increase the value of labor and be damaging to the job creators while assisting the unions. Since unions are almost transitioned, it would be tragic if they were revitalized.

Conservatives would surely embrace this proposal on the grounds that takers were being transitioned and jobs were being created. Liberals would, sadly, be more of a problem: as noted above, they are driven to ensure that the takers maximize their take from the makers and they want the poor to be able to lay around all day, watching TV and eating Cheetos. However, the liberal love of fattening the takers is exceeded by their greatest love: maximizing abortions. If this Radical Incentive Program is presented as a matter of a woman’s choice to have a very, very late term abortion, then the idea would be embraced by the liberals with great enthusiasm. However, great care must be taken when handling the conservatives: while they will gladly support any transitions for kids (to reduce the costs of school lunch programs, for example), they will balk at any suggestion of allowing any actual abortions. Conservatives must, as always, be sold by presenting the youth as takers and not makers. Fortunately, people have shown an inability to engage in rational examination of politics and will, as always, see what they wish. For examples, liberals reading this will be enraged at the accurate description of the villainous conservatives, but enraged by the descriptions of the liberals. Likewise for the conservatives.

Working together, we can transition everyone—thus lowering costs and taxes to zero. Transition now for a better tomorrow.

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