A Philosopher's Blog

The Day After

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 18, 2013
Official photographic portrait of US President...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to the Republicans, the initial motivation for the shutdown came from their desire to prevent the damage they alleged will be inflicted by Obamacare. It is thus rather ironic that their shutdown, as a matter of fact, cost the United States about $24 billion and slowed growth. It also harmed the government employees who were furloughed and the other Americans who were impacted directly by the shutdown. Naturally, it also impacted how we are perceived by the rest of the world. As such, the Republican strategy to protect America seems to have the exact opposite effect. Thus it is no wonder that while the majority of the public disapproves of the way the situation was handled, the Republicans are bearing the brunt of this disapproval.

One counter is to endeavor to lay the blame on the Democrats. Fox, for example, did its best to spin the story so that the Democrats were morally accountable for the shutdown. This does raise an interesting question about responsibility (and perceived responsibility).

In terms of the facts, the Republicans initially insisted that, on the pain of putting the government on the path to shutdown, Obamacare be delayed or defunded. Obama and the Democrats noted that Obamacare is a law and that it had been ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court. As such, they refused to negotiate the matter. Given that Obama had yielded in the past, the Republicans probably expected that he would yield once more. However, he did not and the shutdown went on until the brink of the default.

The facts would seem to show that the Republicans bear the moral blame for the shutdown. After all, the law was passed and upheld in accord with the constitutional process. That is, it was done by the proper rules. The Republicans partially shut down the government and threatened to take the country into default if they did not get what they wanted. Obviously enough, this sort of thing is not in accord with constitutional process. That is, the Republicans were not acting in accord with the proper rules and the Democrats refused to give in to them.

To use an analogy I have used before, this is like having the Red Sox beat the Yankees in a legitimate game and then having the Yankees threaten to burn down the stadium if the Red Sox refuse to negotiate the outcome of the game. If the Yankees then set the stadium on fire, it is not the fault of the Red Sox-they are under no obligation to yield to the unwarranted demands of the Yankees. The Yankees bear full blame for the burning of the stadium. As such, the Republicans bear the blame for the shutdown and the damage it caused. As a general rule, if someone threatens to do harm to others if he does not get what he wants, then the responsibility for the harm he inflicts rests on him and not on those who refuse to give him what he has no right to demand by means of a threat.

It could be countered that Obamacare is so bad, “the worst thing in our country since slavery”, that the Republicans were in the right to inflict such harms in order to try to stop it. It could even be argued that by passing such a wicked and destructive law the Democrats are to blame-the Republicans had to take such extreme measures in order to try to save America.

This, obviously enough, rests on establishing that the law is so wicked and destructive that such extreme measures are warranted. It would also involve showing that the damage done by the Republican strategy is outweighed by the harms that the strategy was supposed to prevent. This would most likely involve a utilitarian assessment of the harms and benefits.

The damage done by the Republican strategy is known: $24 billion in 16 days. Obamacare would certainly have to deal some serious damage in order to match that, but perhaps it can be shown that this will be the case. As it stands, there are only guesses about what the impact of Obamacare will be. There is plenty of rhetoric and hyperbole, but little in the way of disinterested, rational analysis. However, it does seem reasonable to believe that Obamacare will not be the worst thing since slavery (let alone as bad as slavery) and that it will not destroy America. After all, its main impacts will be that people without insurance will need to get some (or pay a small fine) and that large employers will need to provide insurance (or pay a small fine) or evade the law by cutting employee hours. Even if the worst case scenario is considered, it will hardly match the hyperbole. As such, Obamacare does not seem bad enough to warrant the Republican strategy.

To be fair, the Republicans might honestly believe that Obamacare is as bad as they claim. That is, they believe their own hyperbole and rhetoric. If this is true, they could be morally excused to the degree that they followed their informed consciences. However, if they are operating from willful ignorance or do not really believe their own hyperbole, then they would have behaved wrongly—both in their hyperbole and their actions based on this.

In any case, most Americans do blame the Republicans and this is one of the political impacts of the shutdown. Whether this has an effect on the upcoming elections remains to be seen—as many pundits have noted, voters often have a short memory. As with the alleged damage of Obamacare, we will have to wait and see.

As a final point, one ironic effect of the shutdown is that it gave the Democrats an amazing distraction from the real problems with the implementation of Obamacare. One legitimate concern is the fact that employers get a one year delay in implementing Obamacare while individuals have been denied this same option. This, on the face of it, is unfair and the main “defense” of this has been the use of the red herring and smokescreen, as I noted in an earlier essay. While the Republicans did initially want to delay Obamacare for a year, they handled this poorly and instead decided to go with hyperbole and a shutdown. What could have been a potential win for them turned into what seems to be a major loss. A second legitimate concern is the problems plaguing the sign up and implementation of Obamacare. While there were some attempts to raise criticism about these serious problems, the shutdown dominated the center ring of the political circus. Thus, what could have been a reasonable criticism of Obamacare was drowned out by the Republicans themselves. In the Game of Obamacare, you win or you die. The Republicans did not win.

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Political Impact of the Shutdown

Posted in Business, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 16, 2013
English: Boston Red Sox Cap Logo

English: Boston Red Sox Cap Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One point of concern among the pundits and politicians is the political impact of the shutdown on upcoming elections. In a sense, this involves looking at the handling of the shutdown as moves in the larger game of political maneuvering. In the specific scenario of the shutdown, there seem to be four main goals. The first is to achieve specific objectives (for example, defunding or delaying Obamacare). The second is to keep the other side from achieving its specific objectives. The third is to score positive political points for one’s side. The fourth is to make the other side accumulate negative points.

While achieving the first two goals can impact the second two goals, there is actually no need to achieve or prevent the achievement of actual objectives (such as delaying Obamacare). After all, positive and negative points can be gained or inflicted by the means of various rhetorical devices as well as the classic tactic of simply lying about the facts.

The Republicans apparently initially set out to defund or delay Obamacare and have been using the shutdown and threat of default to try to force the Democrats to yield to their demands. Interestingly, the Republicans do not seem to actually know what they want, which makes achieving these unknown goals rather problematic. However, they do seem clear in one goal: they want to shut down the government.  Some Republicans, such as Michelle Bachmann, seem to think that the shutdown was itself a desirable goal. If so, that could be considered a “win” for her and people who think that way.

The Democrats do seem to be clear about what they want-they want the Republicans to accept the legal reality of the situation: Obamacare is a law and it has been ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court. They also want the shutdown to end, but refuse to yield to the Republican threats and coercion.  Naturally, the Republicans have tried to spin the story so that the Democrats are to blame for not negotiating the matter.

On the face of it, the Republicans certainly seem to deserve the blame. To use an analogy to baseball, it is as if the game has been legitimately won by the Red Sox, but the Yankees want to negotiate the matter. When the Red Sox refuse, the Yankees say they will burn down the stadium unless the Red Sox negotiate. True to their word, the Yankees then start burning things, all the while blaming the Red Sox for the fire. In the case of the shutdown, Obamacare won-it was passed, ruled constitutional and set to go into effect. The Republicans then decided they did not like the result and set out to burn things down, all the while blaming the Democrats. That said, politics is mostly about perception and not so much about the reality. So, a rather important matter is how the voters perceive the situation.

Not surprisingly, no one is looking particularly good to the voters. Congress started off with an abysmal approval rating, so it is hardly a shock they still look bad to the voters. However, the shutdown has also spilled over onto the parties and the president.

As of October 14, 2013 74% of Americans disapprove of the manner in which the Republicans in Congress are handling the situation. To be honest, I am somewhat surprised that the number is that low-I would expect a higher disapproval given that congress seems to be handling the matter exceptionally poorly. Last week it was 70% and at the start of the shutdown it was 63%, thus indicating that the longer the shutdown continues, the more disgruntled Americans will become. This does give the Republicans some reason to end the shutdown, assuming they are concerned about public opinion.

While the Democrats are suffering from a 61% disapproval rating, they are still better off than the Republicans. Also, the Democrats seem to be suffering less of an impact: at the start of the shutdown they had a 56% disapproval rating. As such, the Democrats are “winning” in terms of being perceived as somewhat less bad than the Republicans. While this might not seem like much of an advantage, the fact that we have what amounts to a two party lock on politics, the side that is doing less bad is thus the winner.

An obvious counter is that given the clever gerrymandering of congressional districts, the parties do not need to worry as much about disapproval. After all, if a district is rigged to be mostly Democratic or Republican, the dominate party is all but assured of victory. However, the once unified Republicans (who followed Reagan’s eleventh commandment) have become divided into factions, thanks to the Tea Party Republicans.

The Tea Party members have shown considerable willingness to go after their fellow Republicans for not being “conservative” (or, apparently, crazy) enough and this has created a situation in which moderate Republicans face the greatest challenge from their own Tea Party faction and not from the Democrats. This has played a significant role in the shutdown, which seems to have been largely orchestrated by the Tea Party faction. In contrast, the moderate Republicans would seem to prefer to have avoided the shutdown. Of course, how this plays out depends a great deal on what the voters think about the situation.

As it stands, 47% of Republican voters approve of the way their party is handling the matter, while 47% disapprove. In terms of how this will impact upcoming elections, much depends on the approval or disapproval of the voters in those cleverly gerrymandered districts. If the majority of Republican voters in a specific district favor what has happened, then this will bode well for the incumbent. It seems likely that Tea Party voters would tend to approve of this situation, thus it seems unlikely that the Tea Party incumbents will not be re-elected. However, the more moderate Republicans who have more moderate Republican constituents could run into problems-they might end up losing to a Democrat as punishment for riding the Tea Party tiger too far. Alternatively, if a moderate Republican decides to jump off the tiger, they might be punished by the Tea Party members in their district and end up being defeated in the primary. Then again, the voters might forget about all this by the time the elections come around.

The Democrats are doing better internally: about 60% of Democrats approve of how the Democrats are handling the situation. Not surprisingly, the Democrats are hoping to cash in on this division in the Republican party in the next election cycle. If the Tea Party comes off looking bad to the general population of voters and the once moderate Republicans continue to ride the Tea Party tiger, then the Democrats might come out ahead. This might see the beginning of the decline of the influence of the Tea Party and the more moderate Republicans might decide to abandon their more radical fellows. After all, if people get that the Tea Party folks are fine with shutting down the government and taking us to the brink of ruin, people might start rethinking the matter. However, the Tea Party folks might rather like what grows from what they have sown and their influence might grow stronger. Much depends on whether the voters can see the Tea Party for what it is-and whether or not they like what they see.

As a final point, Obama is doing the best of the lot: his disapproval in this matter is at 53%. His disapproval rating increased by three points since the start of the shutdown. As such, Obama seems to be winning in approval in that he is losing the least.

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NBA and Pay

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 28, 2011
Various Federal Reserve Notes, c.1995. Only th...

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While baseball is supposed to be the American sport, we Yankees are also rather fond of basketball. As might be imagined, the ongoing NBA strike has caused dismay to the loyal fans (a group I do not, in fact, belong to).

The strike, like most strikes, is the result of a dispute between the employees (in this case the NBA players) and the owners As the players see it, they are not being fairly compensated for their efforts. The owners disagree. Because of this impasse, basketball fans will not be seeing any NBA games for a while.

On the face of it, this sort of strike might strike most people as rather absurd. After all, the mean average salary in the NBA is $5.15 million and the median average salary is $2.33 million. The low end salary is about $300,000. Given that the average household income in the US is $50,000 it would seem that the players have nothing at all to complain about. After all, the lowest paid player is still vastly better paid than the average American household.

On one hand, it is easy to dismiss the NBA players as being greedy. After all, almost anyone in the world would be very happy to make that sort of money working hard, let alone playing a game. These players are, obviously enough, extremely well paid and it would be rather odd to say that they are suffering an injustice because of their salaries.

On the other hand, the fairness of a salary is not simply a matter of the amount being paid.  To be specific, the fairness of a salary cannot be judged simply by the dollars being paid.  Other factors must be considered as well, such as the value and amount of the work being done. For example, if I said that someone was paid $12,000 a year it might be tempting to say that she is underpaid. However, if you then learn that the person only works one hour each month, then you might change your mind and think that she is actually overpaid. But, if your learn that each hour of work she does generates $5,000 in profit for her employer, then you might change your mind again and think that she is actually being underpaid for what she does.

In the case of the NBA players, it is not simply a matter that they want more money. Rather, they want a larger percentage of the profits (which, of course, means more money). The NBA players are able to command such high salaries because their play generates massive profits and they believe that they deserve a greater share of the profits that they generate. The owners, who generally do not get out on the court to play in the games, believe that they are (as owners) entitled to a significant share of the profits.

While the NBA players are coached and trained, people obviously pay the rather steep ticket prices to go see the players play. They do not go to see the owners count money. As such, the players are the main source of profits and, it could thus be argued, should be paid based on this contribution to the profits. The owners, in turn, should receive compensation based on the value that they contribute (that is, to the degree that their actions generate profit).

Thus, while the NBA players enjoy rather hefty salaries, the dispute is still the classic dispute between the workers and the owners over who is entitled to what percentage of the income.  As noted above, the theoretical solution is easy enough: the workers are entitled to the value they create through their actions and the owners are also entitled to the value they create. Anything else would seem to be theft. As might be imagined, sorting out this division can be rather tricky. In the case of the NBA, people come to see the players. But, of course, the owners also play a role in making the professional games a possibility. After all, if the players just played on a public court and passed the hat for money, they would obviously not make the money they do now.

This same question arises in other cases of employment. For example, FAMU charges $124.01 per credit hour for in state students, and out of state tuition is $552.03 per credit hour. This does not include other fees. I have 193 students taking three credit hours this semester and will have at least 160 in the spring.  As such, my labor does bring in a fair amount of money for the school. This, of course, only includes my teaching and excludes my administrative work (which is 20% of my assigned work-my four classes per semester are only 80% of my assigned work). As you might guess, my salary is way, way less than what the university charges my students to suffer through my classes. Naturally, there are various expenses involved with the students being in my class-the cost of the buildings, administrative costs and so on. As such, perhaps my salary is fair-that is, when all the legitimate costs are subtracted from what I bring in to the school what is left is what I am, in fact, paid.  However, if what I am paid is less than what I generate (minus the other legitimate costs) then my salary would seem to be unfair to the degree I am underpaid for my efforts.

Of course, my university is not aimed at making a profit and hence this almost certainly changes things. When a for-profit business is considered, one rather effective way to make a profit is to pay workers less than the value they actually create through their labors. As many other have argued, a profit tends to require that someone is either being paid less than the value they provide or is paying more than the value they receive (on the customer end). The stock counter is, of course, that the people who get less or pay more value what they get (either the paycheck or the product/service) more than the other party.  To use a made up example, imagine that my workers value the time they put into making one of my widgets at $1, but they actually contribute $2 to the value of the widget. That would enable me to (at least) make $1 profit per widget with no one feeling they have been treated unfairly. Of course, if they knew that their work was worth $2 rather than $1, they would no doubt see me as acting unfairly. Of course, I could also profit from the customer. If it cost me $5 to make and sell a widget and my customers valued it at $6, then I would make $1 profit per widget at the expense of the customer. Of course, if they knew that the widget could be bought for $5, they would probably feel cheated as well. Of course, if I could convince them that I have a right to a profit (that is, money for nothing and perhaps some chicks for free) then they would think that it was fair. The challenge is, of course, justifying that profit-after all, it does seem to be by its very nature money for nothing. If it was money for something, then there would seem to be no profit left over for that money would have to go to something.

But, one might object, my brief discussion is simplistic and naive and fails to properly capture the reality of the financial situation. That is, profit can be generated without anyone being treated unfairly and without concealing any facts.

Going back to the NBA players, it is obvious that they are very well paid. But it is not obvious that they are actually being treated fairly by the owners.

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