Author Archives: Mike LaBossiere

Guarding the Trumps

While it has not always been the case, the current practice is for the American taxpayer to foot the bill for extensive protection of the president and their family. When Bush was president, there were complaints from the left about the costs incurred protecting him when he went to his ranch. When Obama was president, the right criticized him for the cost of his vacations and trips. Not surprisingly, Trump was extremely critical of the expenses incurred by Obama and claimed that if he were president he would rarely leave the White House. Since Trump is now president, it can be seen if he is living in accord with his avowed principles regarding incurring costs and leaving the White House.

While Trump has only been president for roughly a month, he has already made three weekend trips to his Mar-a-Lago club since the inauguration. While the exact figures are not available, the best analysis places the cost at about $10 million for the three trips. In addition to the direct cost to taxpayers, a visit from Trump imposes heavy costs on Palm Beach Country which are estimated to be tens of thousands of dollars each day.

Trump’s visit also has an unfortunate spillover cost to the Lantana Airport which is located six miles from Mar-a-Lago. When Trump visits, the Secret Service shuts down the airport. Since the airport is the location of twenty businesses, the shut down costs these businesses thousands of dollars. For example, a banner-flying business claims to have lost $40,000 in contracts to date. As another example, a helicopter company is moving its location in response to the closures. The closures also impact the employees and the surrounding community.

Since Trump also regularly visits Trump tower and his wife and youngest son live there, the public is forced to pay for security. The high-end estimate of the cost is $500,000 per day, but it is probably less—especially when it is just Melania and her son staying there. It must be noted that it cost Chicago about $2.2 million to protect Obama’s house from election day until inauguration day. However, Obama and his family took up residence in the White House and thus did not require the sort of ongoing protection of multiple locations that Trump now expects.

The rest of Trump’s family also enjoys security at the taxpayers’ expense—when Eric Trump took a business trip to Uruguay it cost the country about $100,000 in hotel room bills. Given that such trips might prove common for Trump’s family members, ongoing expenses can be expected.

The easy an obvious reply to these concerns is that the protection of the president and their family is established policy. Just as Bush and Obama enjoyed expensive and extensive protection, Trump should also enjoy that protection as a matter of consistent policy. As such, there is nothing especially problematic with what Trump is doing. Trump himself also contends that while he attacked Obama for taking vacations, when he goes to Mar-a-Lago and New York, it is for work. For example, he met the prime minister of Japan at Mar-a-Lago for some diplomatic clubbing and not for a weekend vacation in Florida.

A reasonable counter to this reply is to point out the obvious: there is no compelling reason why Trump needs to conduct government business at Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago. Other than the fact that Trump wants to go to these places and publicize them for his own gain, there is nothing special about them that would preclude conducting government business in the usual locations. As such, these excessive expenses are needless and unjustified.

There is also the harm being done to the communities that must bear the cost of Trump and his family and the financial harm being done to the Lantana Airport. Trump, who professes to be a great friend of the working people and business, is doing considerable harm to the businesses at the airport and doing so for no legitimate reason. This make his actions not only financially problematic, but also morally wrong—he is doing real and serious harm to citizens when there is no need to do so.

There is also an additional moral concern about what Trump is doing, namely that his business benefits from what he is doing. Both the Defense Department and Secret Service apparently plan on renting space in Trump Tower, thus enabling Trump to directly profit from being president. If the allegedly financially conservative Republicans were truly concerned about wasting taxpayer money, they would refuse this funding and force Trump to follow the practices of his predecessors. Or, if Trump insists on staying at Trump tower, the government should require that he pay all the costs himself. After all, being at Trump Tower benefits him and not the American people. Trump also gains considerable free publicity and advertising by conducting state business at his own business locations. He can, of course, deny that this is his intent—despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Just as the conservative critics of Obama were right to keep a critical eye on his travel expenses, they should do the same for Trump. While Trump can, as noted above, make the case that he is at least doing some work while he is at Trump tower and Mar-a-Lago, there is the reasonable concern that Trump is incurring needless expenses and doing significant harm to the finances of the local communities and businesses. After all, there is no reason Trump needs to work at his tower or club. As such, Trump should not take these needless and harmful trips and the fiscal conservatives should be leading the call to reign in this waster of public money and enemy of small businesses.

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Sanctuary & Religious Liberty

As the Trump administration steps up the enforcement of immigration law, some illegal immigrants have engaged in the time-honored tradition of seeking sanctuary in churches. The idea of churches serving as sanctuary from the state was developed in Western Europe during the Middle Ages and has become embedded in western culture. As would be expected, the granting of sanctuary has created considerable controversy.

Being familiar with the history of oppressive states and injustice, I generally support the idea of sanctuary in its role of providing the individual with another defense against the potential tyranny of the state. Because of this view, I hold that sanctuary should be limited to those who need protection from injustice on the part of the state rather than endorsing blanket sanctuary for anyone for any reason. Judging who is thus worthy of sanctuary (as with any moral assessment) can be rather complicated, but the basic principle is clear enough. Since I regard current immigration policies and practices to be fundamentally unjust, I believe that illegal immigrants who have committed no other crimes are worthy of sanctuary. Since they typically lack the resources to defend themselves, church sanctuary can provide them with the protection they need to make their case and seek justice. Even if sanctuary proves ineffective for a particular immigrant, the granting of sanctuary can make a powerful moral and political statement that can influence immigration policy—hopefully for the better.

As a practical matter, the effectiveness of sanctuary depends on the reluctance of the state to use compulsion to take people from churches. This reluctance might be grounded in many things, ranging from the power of the institution to the negative public reaction that might result from violating sanctuary.

While the notion of sanctuary does enjoy the support of tradition, the easy and obvious counter is to argue that churches should not enjoy a special exemption from the enforcement of the laws. It should not matter whether illegal immigrants are seeking shelter in a church, a Starbucks, an apple grove, or a private home—law enforcement officials should be able to arrest and remove them because they are, by definition, criminals. This view is grounded on the idea that all institutions, religious or not, fall under the laws of the state and are not to be granted special exemptions from the law. But, if exemptions from laws were granted to religious institutions in other areas, then this could be used to justify an exemption for sanctuary.

In the United States religious institutions do, in fact, enjoy special exemptions from taxes and some laws. For example, the Catholic Church is not subject to certain anti-discrimination lawsuits despite restricting certain jobs to men. As another example, there is also an exemption for religious employers in regards to coverage of contraceptive services. There has also been a push for new religious liberty laws that are aimed mainly at allowing people to discriminate against same-sex couples on religious grounds. Such laws grant exemptions based on religion and the arguments used to defend them could, in many cases, be pressed into service as arguments in favor of granting sanctuary to illegal immigrants. For example, if it is argued that exceptions to anti-discrimination laws should be granted to churches and businesses because of religious beliefs about gender and sex, then it would be challenging to argue that an exception to immigration laws should not be granted to churches because of religious beliefs.

The obvious challenge in using the religious liberty and exemption arguments to justify sanctuary is showing that the situations are adequately analogous. This seems easy enough to do. Christians who oppose same-sex marriage cite Leviticus, but Exodus 22:21 is quite clear about how strangers should be treated: “Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Scholars also point to Matthew 25, especially Matthew 25:40 when justifying granting sanctuary to immigrants: “And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’” As such, granting churches a sanctuary exemption to immigration laws seems at least as well founded as other attempts to grant religious liberty.

One way to counter this line of argumentation is to argue that there should not be religious exemptions to laws. While this would argue against a religious exemption to immigration laws, it would also apply to all other exemptions and is thus not an option for those who support those other exemptions. Since many of those who are anti-immigrant do favor religious exemptions in general, this option is not open to them.

Another way to counter this line of reasoning is to contend that while religious exemptions should be allowed in other cases, it should not be allowed for granting sanctuary to illegal immigrants. One approach would be a utilitarian argument: the harm done by allowing sanctuary would be sufficient to warrant imposing on religious liberty. Since I have used this argument myself against “religious liberty” laws that make discrimination legal, I certainly must give such an argument due consideration here. As such, if it can be shown that granting illegal immigrants sanctuary would create more harm than would violating the religious liberty of the sanctuary churches (and the harms done to the illegal immigrants) then religious liberty should be violated. But, this approach would need to be applied in a consistent manner: those who argue against sanctuary on the grounds of harms must apply the same principle to all religious liberties.

My overall view of the matter is that since Congress and the President have failed to create a just and rational immigration policy, then citizens have the moral right to offer protection to illegal immigrants (who have not committed other crimes). This must be done until our elected officials do their jobs and create a rational, realistic and ethical system. To be fair, due respect must be offered to those who believe in America first and who do not believe that God was serious when He said “This is my commandment, That you love one another, as I have loved you.”

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The Democrats & the Ku Klux Klan

One interesting tactic employed by the Republicans is to assert, in response to charges of racism against one of their number, that the Democrats are “the party of the Ku Klux Klan.” This tactic was most recently used by Senator Ted Cruz in defense of Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for attorney general.

Cruz went beyond merely claiming the Democrats formed the Klan; he also asserted that the Democrats were responsible for segregation and the infamous Jim Crow laws. As Cruz sees it, the Democrats’ tactic is to “…just accuse anyone they disagree with of being racist.”

Ted Cruz is right about the history of the Democratic party. After the Civil War, the southern Democratic Party explicitly identified itself as the “white man’s party” and accused the Republican party of being “negro dominated.” Some Southern Democrats did indeed support Jim Crow and joined the KKK.

What Ted fails to mention is that as the Democrats became the party associated with civil rights, the Republicans engaged in what has become known as the “southern strategy.” In short, the Republicans appealed to racism against blacks in order to gain political power in the south. Though ironic given the history of the two parties, this strategy proved to be very effective and many southern Democrats became southern Republicans. In some ways, the result was analogous to exchanging the wine in two bottles: the labels remain the same, but the contents have been swapped. As such, while Ted has the history correct, he is criticizing the label rather than the wine.

Another metaphor is the science fiction brain transplant. If Bill and Sam swapped brains, it would appear that Sam was guilty of whatever Bill did, because he now has Bill’s body. However, when it comes to such responsibility what matters is the brain. Likewise for the swapping of political parties in the south: the Southern Democrats condemned by Cruz became the southern Republicans that he now praises. Using the analogy, Ted is condemning the body for what the old brain did while praising that old brain because it is in a new body.

As a final metaphor, consider two cars and two drivers. Driving a blue car, Bill runs over a person. Sam, driving a red car, stops to help the victim. Bill then hops in the red car and drives away while Sam drives the victim to the hospital in the blue car. When asked about the crime, Ted insists that the Sam is guilty because he is in the blue car now and praises Bill because he is in the red car now.  Obviously enough, the swapping of parties no more swaps responsibility than the swapping of cars.

There is also the fact that Cruz is engaged in the genetic fallacy—he is rejecting what the Democrats are saying now because of a defect in the Democratic party of the past. The fact that the Democrats of then did back Jim Crow and segregation is irrelevant to the merit of claims made by current Democrats about Jeff Sessions (or anything else). When the logic is laid bare, the fallacy is quite evident:

Premise 1: Some Southern Democrats once joined the KKK.

Premise 2: Some Southern Democrats once backed segregation and Jim Crow Laws.

Conclusion: The current Democrats claims about Jeff Sessions are untrue.

As should be evident, the premises have no logical connection to the conclusion, hence Cruz’s reasoning is fallacious. Since Cruz is a smart guy, he obviously knows this—just as he is aware that fallacies are far better persuasive tools than good arguments.

The other part of Cruz’s KKK gambit is to say that the Democrats rely on accusations of racism as their tactic. Cruz is right that a mere accusation of racism does not prove that a person is racist. If it is an unsupported attack, then it proves nothing. Cruz’s tactic does gain some credibility from the fact that accusations of racism are all-to-often made without adequate support. Both ethics and critical thought require that one properly review the evidence for such accusations and not simply accept them. As such, if the Democrats were merely launching empty ad hominem attacks on Sessions (or anyone), then these attacks should be dismissed.

In making his attack on the Southern Democrats of the past, Cruz embraces the view that racism is a bad thing. After all, his condemnation of the current Democrats requires that he condemn the past Democrats for their support of racism, segregation and Jim Crow laws. As such, he purports to agree with the current Democrats’ professed view that racism is bad. But, he condemns them for making what he claims are untrue charges of racism. This, then, is the relevant concern: which claims, if any, made by the Democrats about session being a racist are true? The Democrats claimed that they were offering evidence of Session’s racism while Cruz’s approach was to accuse the Democrats of being racists of old and engaging in empty accusations today. He did not, however, address the claims made by the Democrats or their evidence. As such, Cruz’s response has no merit from the perspective of logic. As a rhetorical move, however, it has proven reasonably successful.

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Of Bans & BS

As this is being written, Trump’s travel ban remains suspended by  the courts. The poor wording and implementation of the ban indicates that amateurs are now in charge. Or, alternatively, that Trump’s strategists are intentionally trying to exhaust the opposition. As such, either the ban has been a setback for Trump or a small victory.

While the actual experts on national security (from both parties) have generally expressed opposition to the Trump ban, Trump’s surrogates and some Republican politicians have endeavored to defend it. The fountain of falsehoods, Kellyanne Conway, has been extremely active in defense of the ban. Her zeal in its defense has led her to uncover terrorist attacks beyond our own reality, such as the Bowling Green Massacre that occurred in some other timeline. In that alternative timeline, the Trump ban might be effectively addressing a real problem; but not in the actual world.

More reasonable defenders of the ban endeavor to use at least some facts from this world when making their case. For example, Republican representative Mike Johnson recently defended the ban by making reference to a report by Fordham Law School’s Center on National Security. He claimed that “They determined that nearly 20 percent of alleged facilitators in ISIS prosecutions, in our country, do involve refugees and asylees. I mean, those kinds of facts are not as widely publicized, but they should be. I think the American people have a right to know that.” This approach employs four rather effective rhetorical techniques which I will address in reverse order of use.

By saying “the American people have a right to know”, Johnson seems to be employing innuendo to suggest that the rights of Americans are being violated—that is, there is some sort of conspiracy against the American people afoot. This conspiracy is, of course, that the (presumably liberal) media is not publicizing certain facts. This rhetorical tool is rather clever, for it not only suggests the media is up to something nefarious, but that there are secret facts out there that support the ban. At the very least, this can incline people to think that there are other facts backing Trump that are being intentionally kept secret. This can make people more vulnerable to untrue claims purporting to offer such facts.

Johnson’s lead techniques are, coincidentally enough, rhetorical methods I recently covered in my critical thinking class. One technique is what is often called a “weasler” in which a person protects a claim by weakening it. In this case, the weasel word is “nearly.” If Johnson were called on the correct percentage, which is 18%, he can reply that 18% is nearly 20%, which is true. However, “nearly 20%” certainly creates the impression that it is more than 18%, which is misleading. Why not just say “18%”?  Since the exaggeration is relatively small, it does not qualify as hyperbole. Naturally, a reasonable reply would be that this is nitpicking— “nearly 20%” is close enough to “18%” and Johnson might have simply failed to recall the exact number during the interview. This is certainly a fair point.

Another technique involves presenting numerical claims without proper context, thus creating a misleading impression. In this case, Johnson claims, correctly, that “nearly 20 percent of alleged facilitators in ISIS prosecutions, in our country, do involve refugees and asylees.” The main problem is that no context is given for the “nearly 20%.” Without context, one does not know whether this is a significant matter or not. For example, if I claimed that sales of one of my books increased 20% last year, then you would have no idea how significant my book sales were. If I sold 10 of those books in 2015 and 12 in 2016, then my sales did increase 20%, but my sales would be utterly insignificant in the context of book sales.

In the case of the facilitators Johnson mentioned, the Fordham report includes 19 facilitators and 3 of these (18%) were as Johnson described. So, of the thousands of refugees and asylum seekers the United States took in, there have been three people who were involved in this facilitation. This mostly involved encouraging people to go overseas to fight—these three people were (obviously) not involved in terrorist attacks in the United States. Such a microscopic threat level does not justify the travel ban under any rational threat assessment and response analysis.

The United States does, of course, face some danger from terrorist attacks. However, the most likely source of these attacks is from US born citizens. While the threat from foreigners is not zero, an American is 253 times more likely to be a victim of a “normal” homicide rather than killed in a foreigner engaged in a terrorist attack in the United States. And the odds of being the victim of a homicide are very low. As such, trying to justify the ban with accurate information is all but impossible, which presumably explains why the Republicans are resorting to lies and rhetoric.

While there are clear political advantages to stoking the fear of ill-informed Americans, there are plenty of real problems that Trump and the Republicans could be addressing—responsible leaders would be focusing on these problems, rather than weaving fictions and feeding unfounded fears.

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Cooperating with Trump

It has been claimed that Republicans intended, from day one, to obstruct President Obama in all things. This is supported by John Boehner’s remark about Obama’s agenda: “We’re going to do everything — and I mean everything we can do — to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.” However, the defining quote for the obstructionist agenda belongs to Mitch McConnell: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” The Republican narrative, as might be imagined, tells a different tale. In the Republican version, Obama is the villain who refuses to compromise with the Republicans.

While the truth of the matter is important, the practical fact of the matter is that Obama and the Republicans often ended up in deadlocks. Obama’s go-to strategy was the use of executive orders—some of which ended up being challenged by the courts. Now that Trump is president, the question is whether the Democrats should adopt the Boehner-McConnell approach and try to kill or at least slow down everything Trump tries to achieve in the hopes of making him a one-term president.

On the one hand, it can be argued that the Democrats should take this approach. One reason for this is purely pragmatic politics, devoid of any concern about moral values, that has as its goal the acquisition and retention of power. While the Republicans are generally more adept at this than the Democrats, the Democrats can avail themselves of the well-stocked Republican playbook and simply do to Trump what the Republicans did to Obama.

The obvious problem with the approach is that it is devoid of any concern about moral values and is thus very likely to be bad for America as a whole. If one accepts the Lockean view that the leaders of the state should act for the good of the people, then the power justification is out. But for those who regard power as the supreme good of politics, the obstructionist approach makes considerable sense—after all, the Republican strategy landed them the White House and Congress.

Another reason for this is revenge and payback:  Republicans obstructed Obama and Democrats should treat Trump the same way. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, an obstruction for an obstruction. While this is certainly appealing in an Old Testament sort of way, this justification also runs afoul of the idea that the leaders are morally obligated to act for the good of the people and not engage in seeking revenge. For John Locke, using a political position to seek revenge would be an act of tyranny that should be resisted. As such, the revenge justification is certainly problematic.

On the other hand, it can be argued that the Democrats should set aside their lust for power and their desire for revenge and cooperate with Trump. This does not mean that the Democrats must cooperate in all things; just that the Democrats should cooperate and resist in a principle way. As the above considerations should indicate, the cooperation and resistance should be based on what is regarded as good for the people. This is, of course, a rather vague notion but can be worked out in utilitarian terms in regards to specific issues (with due attention to concerns about the tyranny of the majority). This is not to say that the Democrats will always be right and Trump always wrong; but it is s statement of principle for how opposition and cooperation should operate.

This suggests an obvious counter-argument: Trump’s agenda is harmful to the general good and thus it must be obstructed and every effort must be made to make him a one-term president. While my general dislike of Trump inclines me to feel that this is true, I am obligated to be consistent with what I tell my students: truth is not felt, but must be established through reason. Unfortunately, reason seems to indicate that much of Trump’s agenda will not be good for Americans in general. But, this does not entail that everything in his agenda will be bad for America and his specific proposals should be given due and fair consideration.

To use a specific and oft-spoken-of example, Trump claimed that he wants to rebuild the aging and failing public infrastructure. While it is tempting to point out that Obama wanted to do the same thing and that Trump might be thinking of how he and his allies can personally profit from the massive flood of public money into private coffers, addressing the infrastructure woes would be generally good for America. As such, the Democrats should not follow the lead of the Republicans and simply obstruct his proposals. This is not to say that the Democrats should rubber stamp everything, but it is to say that they should not simply reject the proposals simply because they are coming from Trump.

As far as making Trump a one term president; I think Trump will see to that himself.

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Conservative Comedians

In the United States, comedy seems to be dominated by the left as exemplified by shows such as The Daily Show and Full Frontal. While there are conservative comedians, they tend to avoid political comedy and instead seem more likely to comment on red necks rather than red state politics. As might be imagined, there has been considerable speculation about this political division in the art of comedy, one that mirrors the political divide in the arts in general. While I do not pretend to offer a definitive answer, it is certainly interesting to engage in some speculation.

Smug liberals might be inclined to avail themselves of the hypothesis that comedy requires intelligence and that conservatives are generally less intelligent than liberals. Conservatives might counter that liberal stupidity is what causes them to be amused by stupid liberal jokes. While comedy can be an indicator of wit; there does not seem to be a meaningful intelligence gap dividing the political spectrum; although people always think that their side is superior.

A rather more plausible explanation is that the difference does rest in psychology; that the same traits that draw a person to liberalism would also make a person more proficient at comedy. In contrast, the traits that draw a person to conservatism would make them less capable in regards to comedy.

Sticking with the classic definitions, conservatives want to preserve the existing social order and tend to have a favorable view of the established social institutions. Liberals tend to want to change the social order and regard the established social institutions with some suspicion. Since political comedy involves making fun of the existing social order and mocking established institutions, this would help explain why conservatives would be less likely to be engaged in political comedy than liberals.

It is worth considering that while conservative comedians would not be very inclined to attack conservative targets, there is still a target rich environment. There are obviously many liberal groups and organizations that would be ideally suited for conservative comedy—in fact, liberal comedians have already put down the foundations for mocking many of these groups. There are also numerous liberal individuals that would be suitable targets; they have already been softened up a bit by liberal comics.

Conservatives, such as Rush Limbaugh, do engage in mockery of institutions and social orders they regard as tainted with the left. However, this mockery tends to be more of an attack than an exercise in comedy: while some regard Limbaugh as a clown, he is not seen as a comedian. Or particularly funny. Given the abundance of targets and the willingness of conservatives to go after them, it is something of a mystery why this ecological niche of comedic liberal mocking has not been filled.

One possible explanation is a variation of the victim narrative that conservatives typically reject or condemn when it is used by the left to explain, for example, why women or minorities are underrepresented in an area. The narrative is that comedy is controlled and dominated by the liberals and they are using their power and influence to suppress and oppress conservatives who want to be comedians. If only conservative comics were given a chance to get their comedy out to the people, they would succeed.

Some might be tempted to reject this argument for the reasons typically advanced by conservatives when the narrative involves racism and sexism, such as claims that the failure of the allegedly oppressed is due to their own defects, to simply deny the disparity or to advance the bootstrap argument. While this approach might be satisfying, it is certainly worth considering that conservative comedians are the victims of oppression, that their voices are being silenced by the powerful, and that they are victims. The dearth of conservative comedians, like the dearth of minorities in the highest positions in society, does suggest that an injustice is being done. If conservative comedians are being oppressed, then steps should be taken to address this oppression, perhaps beginning with an affirmative comedic action program to help them get established in the face of a system that has long been stacked against them.

While this is certainly the sort of thing leftists love to do for the oppressed, it is also worth considering whether conservatives want to be comedians. As with other cases of alleged oppression, it might be the case that the reason that there are few, if any, conservative comedians is because few, if any, conservatives want to be comedians. If this is the case, then there is no oppression to address—things are as they should be. Another possible explanation lies in the nature of comedy, at least as it is defined by Aristotle.

As Aristotle saw it, comedy “is a subdivision of the ugly” and “consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive.” Political comedy typical involves mockery across the lines of power, because politics is all about power relationships. Liberal comedy typically involves mocking upwards in regards to power. For example, female comedians making fun of the patriarchy is mockery originating down the power curve that is aimed upwards at the established institutions and norms. Since the mockery is going up the power divide, the comedy generally will not be painful or destructive—after all, the power advantage rests with the target and not the comic.

Since conservatives tend to support the existing power structures and established social values, the target of conservative comedy would tend to be people and organizations outside of those structures or those with different values. As such, conservative comedy would tend to be going down the power curve: the stronger going after the weaker. For example, a white comedian mocking Black Lives Matter would be shooting downward from an advantageous social position. While comedy can go down the power curve and still be comedy, this becomes rather challenging because it is very easy for such attempts to become painful or destructive, thus ceasing to be comedy. Trump provides an excellent example of this. While he often claims to just be joking, his enormous power advantage means that he is almost always punching downwards and thus appears bullying and cruel rather than comedic. This, I think, is a plausible explanation for the dearth of conservative comedians: mocking those who occupy positions of social disadvantage seems more cruel than comedic.

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Replacing Scalia

Scalia 2016After Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died, the Republicans claimed Obama did not have the right to appoint a replacement and that this should be left to the next President.  The basis for this claim was that since Scalia died in early February, 2016 Obama had slightly less than one year left in office. Since the Republicans held the senate, they were able to refuse to even hold hearings and thus left the vacancy open for President Trump to fill.

While some expected Trump to make an unconventional nomination, he selected Judge Gorsuch as his first pick (at least after going through some absurd reality TV show style set up). While I obviously have philosophical and ideological differences with Judge Gorsuch, I do accept that my fellow Episcopalian is eminently qualified for the position and has impeccable academic and professional credentials. I would, of course, prefer a judge more in line with my own philosophical views, but accepting differing views is part of being a citizen in a diverse democracy.

While not all Democrats oppose Gorsuch, they still remember what the Republicans did to Obama and there has been considerable discussion about how the Democrats will oppose this nomination. Since the Democrats do not have enough votes to refuse to hold hearings, about the worst they can do is delay the process. As should be expected, some Republicans are outraged that the Democrats would dare do such a thing—after all, Trump is the president and has the Constitutional right to make the appointment.

Interestingly, some critics of the Democrats are quoting what they said about Obama’s attempt to nominate a justice back at them. The obvious problem with this tactic is that arguing that the Democrats should follow their own argument is that if the Democrats were right then, then this is effectively a stolen nomination and they can thus justly oppose it in a principled way.

Obviously enough, if Hillary Clinton had won, the same Republicans who blocked Obama’s nomination and who are criticizing the Democrats for their plans would be busy placing roadblocks in front of her nominee. When it looked like Clinton would probably win, John McCain made it clear that they would block all her nominees. McCain might regret saying this in public now that Trump has won, but politicians seem to be often untroubled by consistency and principles. I will, however, give McCain his due on his consistent opposition to torture and other principled stands that he has taken over the years.

Because of such remarks, Democrats can make the argument that they are doing exactly what the Republicans said they would do if Clinton had won. As such, the Republicans would seem to have no moral ground on which to criticize the Democrats for trying to block Trump’s nominee. They are no worse (and no better) than the Republicans.

From a logical perspective, it would be fallacious for the Democrats to argue that their blocking Trump’s nominee is right because the Republicans would have done the same to Hillary. After all, if blocking a nominee without legitimate justification is wrong, then it is wrong regardless of who does it. As such, the Republicans could say that it is wrong of the Democrats to block a nominee without legitimate justification. They would just be hypocrites for doing so.

Of course, the above discussion is largely irrelevant—most of the politicians are not operating on the basis of a consistent principle regarding nominations. Rather, they are endeavoring to do what they think is best for their party. But what would a consistent application of the Constriction look like? The first step is looking at the relevant text:

He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.

While I am not a constitutional scholar, I can read English well enough to see what the Constitution specifies about this matter. The president unambiguously has the power to nominate Judges of the Supreme Court. When Obama was the President, he had the constitutional right to make the nomination. Now that Trump is President, he has this power. But the opening is only there because the Republicans refused to even hold hearings on Obama’s nominee and this would indicate that they accept that the senate has the power to do just that. This view is based on what the text says about the role of the senatae.

The text is clear that the appointment of the Judges of the Supreme Court requires the “advice and consent” of the Senate. Since the constitution does not actually specify the process, the Senate has created its own confirmation rules. In general, the approval process has been relatively rapid in the past–so there was no real argument that there was not enough time to give an Obama nominee appropriate consideration. There have been other appointments made in the last year of a President’s term—so an appointment by Obama would have been consistent with past precedent.

That said, since the Senate makes its rules, they have every right to do what they wish within the limits of the Constitution. This would certainly open the door to running out the clock on hearings or even refusing to hold them. However, the Republican refusal to hold a hearing was problematic. The text certainly indicates the Senate is to provide its advice and give or withhold its consent. The text does not specify and option for refusing to consider a nominee or blocking them endlessly. This, as some would argue, would seem to be simply refusing to do their job.

However, it could be claimed that the refusal to hold hearings for Obama’s nominee was withholding consent, and thus was within their power. Following the precedent set by the Republicans, the Democrats would be just as justified in delaying proceedings. After all, if the Senate has the right to block or delay nominations, then it has that right regardless of whether it is the Democrats or the Republicans engaged in obstruction.

My own view is that since the President has the right to nominate and the Senate has the role of advice and consent (or refusal of consent), the Senate is obligated to consider the nomination made by the president. Refusing to do so or running out the clock would be a failure of their specified duty. As such, the Democrats of the senate are obligated to do their job, as per the Constitution.

The obvious objection to my view is to point out that the Republicans did not do their job when Obama put forth his nominee, hence the Democrats have the right to do what they can to interfere with Trump’s nomination.

On the one hand, I do agree with this argument: if the Republicans had done their job, then there would not be an opening. As such, the Democrats would seem to have moral grounds for striking back against the Republicans for their misdeed. That said, the Republicans could contend that they did do their job: they refused consent by not even holding a hearing. That, of course, is not very satisfying.

On the other hand, I believe that principles should be maintained even (or perhaps especially) when others act in unprincipled ways. Two wrongs, as they say, do not make a right. As such, I accept that the Democrats of the senate should do their job—just as the Republicans should have done their job. That would be the principled thing to do. However, I am rather tempted by the view that the Democrats should fight the Republicans on this nomination on the grounds that it was clearly stolen from Obama and thus could be justified on the those grounds.

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Trump’s Travel “Ban”

Trump recently signed an executive order described, perhaps incorrectly, as a “travel ban.” The gist of the order is that all refugees are banned from entering the United States for 120 days and immigrants from seven nations are banned for three months. These nations, which are predominantly Muslim, are Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia.

As should be expected from Trump’s administration, the order seemed to not have been checked by the Justice Department and was sprung on Homeland Security with little in the way of guidance. The predictable result was confusion in the real world and bragging in the Trump world. As should also be expected in almost anything involving Trump, a flurry of lawsuits has swept the land. Here in Tallahassee, foreign students from the impacted countries have been encouraged to not leave the country—for they might not be able to return. While some see the order as a disaster, there are those that argue in its favor. These arguments are certainly worth considering.

One argument in favor of the order is the democracy argument. If voting for a candidate indicates general support of that person’s positions and proposals, the fact that Trump ran on the Muslim ban and won would indicate that the people support this order. As such, Trump is right to have signed the order: he is making good on what he promised and acting in accord with majority rule.

One response to this, laying aside Trump’s lie to the contrary, is that he lost the popular vote by a large margin. Assuming that voting indicates general support, then the majority did not want the Muslim ban that Trump proposed and hence his executive order does not reflect the will of the people.

It can be countered that while Trump does not have majority support, he obviously won the election and thus has the legal right to issue the executive order while lacking a popular mandate or even majority support. This is obviously true; although the legality of the order has been questioned. What is rather more interesting is whether the ban can be rationally and morally justified.

In defending the executive order, Trump used the examples of 9/11, the San Bernardino attack and the Orlando murders. While an argument by example is a standard inductive argument, a strong one requires that the examples fit what they are supposed to support. The fundamental problem with these examples is that those engaged in the attacks came from countries not covered by the ban. As such, Trump is defending his ban on specific countries by using examples of attacks by people from countries that are not being banned, which is not only bad logic but rather odd. While this argument by example approach fails, defenders can avail themselves of a utilitarian argument.

The gist of this argument is that the restrictions on entry into the United States will create more good than bad. In a utilitarian argument, the usual approach is to weigh the harms and benefits to those impacted. If the harms outweigh the benefits, then the order would be morally wrong. If the opposite holds, then it would be morally acceptable.

One matter of concern is in regards to refugees. Despite fictional narratives to the contrary, refugees are already subject to “extreme vetting” and the probability of a terrorist entering the country thus way is extremely low because of the review process and the time involved. For terrorists, sneaking in as a refugee is thus a very poor option. This is not to say the system is flawless, but expecting a perfect system would be unreasonable and there is always a non-zero chance that someone will slip through.

Balanced against this is the potential harm to refugees who will be forced to remain in danger or to dwell outside of the state system. The very real and likely risk to refugees would seem to outweigh the incredibly slight possibility of harm to Americans. As such, the ban would be morally wrong.

Another area of concern is non-refugee terrorists slipping into the United States. As noted above, no terrorist from the banned countries has been involved on an attack on American soil. Instead, the terrorists have come from countries, like Saudi Arabia, that are not subject to the ban. The ban has been creating significant harms to people from these countries who had the legal right to be here and who have been subject to evaluation, such as green card holders. As noted above, there are students here in Tallahassee who cannot leave the United States without being unable to return, despite presenting no real risk. As such, the ban harms people while offering almost zero increase in safety, which makes it morally unacceptable.

An alternative approach is to engage in moral nationalism and only consider the harms and benefits to Americans. This, for the lack of a better name, could be called America First Utilitarianism. On the positive side, the ban provides Americans with an increase in security that is marginally more than zero. On the minus side, the opportunities and benefits to Americans will be lost by banning such people. There is also the moral harm to Americans in refusing aid to those in need (this should be especially harmful to Christians. There are also the propaganda gains for terrorist groups. This executive order plays into the terrorist narrative that it is the West against Islam rather than civilization against terrorism. This can grant these terrorists the gift of vindication and boost their recruiting efforts, to the detriment of Americans. This narrative can also damage the relationship between the United States and Muslim allies, which will make America less safe. It is thus no shock that people who understand national security have consistently condemned this order as making America less safe. While Trump seems to believe that his brain is the only adviser he needs, I will defer to the experts in the field of national security on this matter.

A rather odd fact about this narrative is that many who push it are inconsistent in their fiction: they do not seem to regard, for example, the predominantly Muslim nations of Saudi Arabia and Turkey as terrorist threats. But perhaps this is because of the oil of Saudi Arabia and the strategic value of Turkey.

As a final argument, it can be contended that the narrative and executive order benefit Trump and some other politicians. As such, if they matter more than everyone else, then the order is a good thing. However, if the rest of us matter, then the executive order is morally wrong because it creates far more harm than good.

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Trump & Credibility

During a discussion of Trump’s untruths, a friend of mine expressed the view that all politicians are the same in that they all lie. While it is true that politicians do lie (as does everyone else), there are degrees of dishonesty. To fail to distinguish between these degrees is rather like saying that all criminals commit crimes and that they (and their crimes) are all the same. While there have been other speakers of untruth like Trump, he seems to be unique among the presidents.

While the Bush administration engaged in a campaign of falsehoods to sell the Iraq war, Trump started his presidency by making false claims about the attendance at his inauguration. In what would be regarded as a pathological level of dysfunctionality in a normal person, Trump also made untrue claims about the weather—something that everyone present could observe and something that is an objective feature of reality. Politicians lying to advance an agenda is normal, albeit immoral, political behavior. Lying about crowd size and weather in the face of objective evidence is something new and terrifying.

It could be countered that Trump is not actually lying. After all, lying is different from making an untrue claim. For a claim to be a lie,  person must believe the claim they are making is untrue and make that claim with the intention that people will believe it. While there are some benign lies, lies also tend to have a malicious intent behind them. As such, there are various ways Trump could be saying these untrue things without lying. One possibility, which is scarier than his being a liar, is that he believes these untrue things and is thus divorced from basic reality. In other people, this would be regarded as a mental illness. In many other jobs, the inability to recognize what is real and what is not would make a person unfit (readers should feel free to think snarky thoughts about philosophers at this point). Another possibility is that Trump is still operating as an entertainer: he is saying untrue things with a benign purpose, to amuse and entertain the crowd. If so, he is playing the role of the nation’s buffoon, telling outrageous tales in the hopes of a laugh. While there are other alternatives, the main explanations seem to be these three: he is a liar, he is mentally ill, or he is a buffoon. I am, of course, not claiming that any of these are true—these are mere hypothesis presented as a matter of academic speculation. I will leave the analyses to experts in each area.

Whatever the explanation, it is evident that Trump is relentless in his untruths. He and his minions have also engaged in a sustained attack on truth, even going so far as to create the concept of “alternative facts.” While it is tempting to dismiss the lot of them as con artists or victims trapped in the shadows of madness, the fact is that Trump is the president and his people have great influence now. As such, it is impossible to ignore them. However, this does not entail that people need to believe them.

In my critical thinking class, I do a section on assessing claims and credibility. The basic idea is that a claim is assessed in terms of the claim’s content as well as the source of the claim. Assessing a claim’s content involves running it against one’s own observations and checking it against one’s background information. While these checks are fallible, they do generate an assessment of initial plausibility for the claim. Obviously, the more a person knows and the better they are at being critical of their own observations, the better will be their assessments. To use an example, people who were present at the inauguration can check Trump’s untruth against their own observations (as well as recordings of the event) and determine that Trump’s untruth was just that.

Assessing the source of a claim is also an important part of the process, which leads to the question of whether Trump should be considered a credible source or not. One factor in assessing credibility is whether the source is biased or not in regards to the claims being made. While being biased does not prove that a claim is false (this inference would be fallacious), a biased source is more likely to lie because of their bias. In regards to bias, Trump is nothing new: all politicians are biased sources when making claims about their policies and plans. As such, Trump’s claims about matters in which he is biased should be regarded with skepticism. Just like claims from any biased source.

When Trump makes claims about areas that fall under fields of expertise, assessing his credibility is obviously a matter of considering his expertise in the area. This would involve considering the usual factors such as his education, his experience, his accomplishments, his reputation among experts, and his positions.

Trump has a degree from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, so he is as qualified as others who hold a comparable degree. However, this does not give him much in the way of expertise in other areas, but this could be offset by his experience in his business and being a reality TV show star. However, as he likes to brag, he has no real experience in political office. He also has no experience in other relevant areas, but perhaps he can learn on the job.

He has accomplished various things and certainly made the Trump name into a valuable commodity. However, these do not seem relevant to making claims about such things as immigration, abortion, combating terrorism and so on. But, perhaps he will be able to accomplish things here and thus increase his expertise. In terms of his reputation, he is widely regarded as a non-expert by actual experts in the relevant fields. In terms of positions, this is his first political office—as such, he is rather lacking here.

While previous presidents, like Obama, also started out with deficits in expertise, Trump is the first president to have no experience at all in holding any political office or serving in the military. As such, it is reasonable to regard him as a non-expert when it comes to his current job. While he can make use of the same business expertise that brought the world Trump University and Trump Steaks, government is not the same thing as business, despite this being a beloved talking point. As such, any claims Trump makes about matters outside his expertise (that is, most of his current job) should be regarded as lacking in credibility. At least until he can prove his competence and expertise.

What is most telling against Trump’s credibility is, of course, his relentless spewing of untrue claims. While it would be a fallacious ad hominem to infer that any specific claim he makes is untrue because Trump lies so regularly, his routine embrace of the untrue casts the shadow of doubt over everything he says. As such, any claim Trump makes should be regarded with skepticism and not accepted until adequate evidence is available. After all, a person who lies about something as easy to check as the weather is likely to lie about everything. This lack of credibility fundamentally undermines his moral authority as president: if a leader cannot be trusted to be honest about minor and basic facts, then they certainly cannot be trusted in regards to far more serious matters. And a person that cannot be trusted is not a person fit to be a leader.

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Teachers’ Unions III: Lobbying

A standard argument against teachers’ unions is built on the claim that they spend millions of dollars lobbying politicians to protect and advance their interests. This is bad, or so the reasoning goes, because the interests of the teachers’ unions are often (or even always) contrary to what is best for the students.

When pressed for examples of such interests, opponents of the unions allege that “collective bargaining agreements are written like celebrity contracts” and they point to egregious examples such as how Buffalo pays the bills when teachers have elective plastic surgery.

One approach to addressing this criticism is to accept that unions do sometimes negotiate contracts containing problematic provisions while contending that this is not a defect inherent to unions. That is, the problems lie with the problematic provisions rather than with the existence of teachers’ unions. To use the obvious analogy, corporations spend millions lobbying politicians to protect and advance their interests. This lobbying often results in legislation that is contrary to the interests of many other citizens; but this does not justify eliminating or weakening corporations. It also does not automatically justify eliminating lobbying. The problem, after all, is not inherent to corporations or lobbying, but is the result of harmful legislation. Likewise, when unions lobby for and get laws or agreements that prove harmful to others, the problem lies within the laws or agreements and not with unions or lobbying.

It could, of course, be argued that collective entities like unions and corporations are inherently damaging to the rest of society and that they should be eliminated or weakened. However, the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who hold this position. Also, this solution to the problem of teachers’ unions would need to be applied consistently, thus eliminating all collective entities that interact with the public. This would include all corporations and nonprofit organizations.

It could also be contended that the problem lies with lobbying—if lobbying was eliminated or severely restricted, then it would be a better world. Given that big-money lobbying often has a corrupting and corrosive effect, this does have considerable appeal. However, this is not a problem unique to teachers’ unions. As such, if the solution to the some of the woes attributed to teachers’ unions can be solved by eliminating or restricting their ability to lobby, then consistency would require extending the same policies to other collective bodies, such as corporations.

Another approach to the matter is to consider whether teachers’ unions are as harmful as their opponents claim. To provide a clear focus, I will consider the claim that teachers’ unions inflict collective bargaining agreements that are like “celebrity contracts.”

One popular example of such a “celebrity contract” provision is the above-mentioned coverage of plastic surgery provided to teachers by Buffalo. While the anti-union narrative is that the union negotiated so teachers could get breast implants and nose jobs, the real story is rather different. When the benefit was first offered, plastic surgery was used primarily for reconstruction after a disfiguring injury (such as that inflicted by being thrown through a car’s windshield). However, plastic surgery has changed since then—it is now an elective surgery for “improving” appearance. As such, it was not a case of the union negotiating a celebrity contract, but a case of a change in plastic surgery that has been exploited. Sorting out this matter did prove problematic, not because of unions but because of issues with the way contracts are handled. There is also the fact that one anecdote about plastic surgery benefits does not show that teachers’ unions in general are bad.

While plastic surgery might be part of a “celebrity contract”, a clear hallmark of such an agreement is the payment of large (even exorbitant) sums of money. As such, if unions are benefiting teachers at the expense of students, then large (even exorbitant) teacher salaries should be expected as well as sweet bonuses and perks.  However, the typical salaries for teachers ranges from $43,491-48,880. While this is not a bad income relative to the national average, it compares unfavorably to the salaries of college educated workers in other professions. There are various myths about teacher pay that people use to argue that teachers are well (or even excessively) paid. However, these are just that, namely myths. As such, the idea that teachers’ unions are acting to the detriment of students by negotiating “celebrity contracts” for teachers is absurd in the face of the facts. That this is the case should be obvious to anyone who knows teachers—they do not live celebrity lifestyles and typically spend those “summer vacations” working a second job. My parents taught at public schools and I can assure readers that we did not live a celebrity lifestyle and they had to work second jobs over the summers to pay the bills. Speaking with people who are teachers today makes it clear that things have not changed since those days.

It could be argued that although teachers are not living the high life at the expense of students, unions still spend millions lobbying politicians and this money would be better spent on the students. On the face of it, this is a reasonable point: it would be better if that money could be spent on educating the children rather than fattening politicians. I am sure that other organizations, such as businesses, would prefer to use their lobbying money for more beneficial purposes, such as raises for employees. However, if they did not lobby, then they would be worse off. That is why they lobby. The same holds true for the teachers’ unions: if they did not lobby on behalf of teachers, then things would be worse off for the teachers and the students. While it would be wonderful if politicians would do the right thing for education (and business) because it is right and beneficial, that is not how politics works in the current system. As such, the fact that the teachers’ unions spend so much money lobbying is a problem with the politicians and not a problem with unions.

Considering the above discussion, while it is obvious and evident that while unions can do wrong, they are rather important for protecting teachers and education. As such, the efforts to eliminate or weaken unions are, at best, misguided.

 

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