Monthly Archives: September 2012

Full Sail for Profit

Money

Money (Photo credit: 401(K) 2012)

Across the United States, public education has been under consistent assault. K-20 budgets have been cut, teachers’ unions have been attacked, political agendas have been pushed onto education, and educators have been vilified. One reason for this assault is to open up the education “market” to allow opportunities for profit. As such, the rise of for-profit schools is hardly surprising.

It is important to distinguish between the traditional private school, such as Marietta College, and the for-profit schools. While for-profit schools are privately owned, they are operated rather differently than the traditional private schools. The most obvious difference is that their main focus is profit.

There is, of course, the beloved myth that the profit motivated private sector can out-perform the allegedly inefficient and bloated public sector. However, an examination of the facts shows that when it comes to education, the for-profit schools often stack up poorly against public schools (and traditional private schools).

Thanks to Mitt Romney, one for-profit school, Full Sail University, has become somewhat well known. While Romney praised this Florida school (whose chief executive is a major campaign contributor) while in New Hampshire, a look at the facts will show that the school and other for-profits are not a good choice for students. For example, people who graduated from some Full Sail programs are defaulting on their college loans at a rate of up to 60-75%. The government has pushed for for-profit schools to achieve a graduate loan repayment rate of 35%, which is hardly an onerous requirement. As for why Full Sail graduates have a relatively poor repayment percentage, the average debt of a graduate is 300% to 800% of her income. To be fair to Full Sail, students at public schools are also graduating with significant debt, which provides an excellent reason to be critical of the cost of education in general.

The Obama administration has attempted to set regulations for repayment benchmarks and income-to-debt ratios for for-profit schools. Schools that could not meet these would no longer be eligible for federal funds. However, these regulations were struck down in July of 2012. Interestingly enough, public schools are often being subject to intense scrutiny from state legislatures. For example, Florida public universities have gotten considerable attention from Governor Rick Scott and the legislature. The professed reason is, of course, to ensure that education funds are being well spent. It is, of course, a point of concern that public schools are being subject to intense scrutiny while for-profit schools seem to be held to standards that are rather lower.

One obvious reply is that for-profit schools are privately owned and hence should not be subject to such government regulation. After all, one might argue, the market should decide (via the invisible hand) what education should cost and what jobs should pay. As such, if students have debts that far exceed their income, then that is just how the market works.

While this does have some appeal, the easy and obvious response is that these for-profit schools get over $30 billion a year in taxpayer funds. Interestingly, the 15 publicly traded for-profit college companies get 86% of their revenues from public money. This includes federal financial aid, the Post-9/11 GI Bill and the Department of Defense Tuition Assistance money. As such, these private companies are mostly public funded. This would certainly serve to justify the right of the state to regulate these schools. After all, they are effectively public funded institutions. This also certainly helps explain the attack on public education—the for-profits are competing with public universities for the same money and every dollar that goes to a public school is a dollar that a for-profit school does not get. Naturally, the for-profit schools also compete with traditional private schools. However, the traditional private schools are far less vulnerable to the machinations of those serving the interests of those who seek a profit focused education system.

There is also a myth that the private sector can provide better services at a lower cost. In the case of the for-profit schools, their B.A. degrees average 19% more than the cost of a B.A. at a top public university. The for-profit schools also compare unfavorably in the area of 2 year degrees—they charge 400% more than public non-profit schools. Given that the cost of public education has increased significantly (in part because of budget cuts to these schools), the for-profit schools are certainly very expensive.

Because of the greater cost, the public money that goes to for-profits yields less return than the same money spent on a public institution. Ironically, while public education has been accused of being costly, it is a far better deal than a for-profit education. Interestingly, if free-market forces were actually operating as they are alleged to operate, the for-profit schools should go out of business, given that they cost considerably more than public education. Of course, the mythical free-market is not operating here.

It might be replied that for-profit schools charge more but that they are providing more for the money relative to public schools. However, a look at how the money going into for-profit schools will reveal that this does not seem to be the case.

Based on a 2009 study of 30 for-profit companies, 22.4% of their income goes to marketing, advertising, recruiting and admission staffing. 19.4% goes to profit, which is rather impressive. In contrast, 17.7% goes to actual instruction. As such, the schools charge a great deal more than public schools and spend a great deal less on actual education. This would certainly indicate that they are not providing students with a good value for their money.

While top public university administrators are well paid (for example, the former president of Florida A&M University made $330,000 a year plus a guaranteed bonus), the CEOs of the for-profit schools have an average salary of $7.3 million, despite the fact that by objective measures they deliver an inferior product at a higher price than public schools.

The above facts show a fundamental problem in the United States. Our education system is under concerted attack with the clear purpose of redistributing public funds from high quality public and private schools to the objectively inferior for-profit schools. It is indeed ironic that Obama was attacked in September, 2012 for his 1998 remarks about redistribution. After all, the for-profit schools are the recipients of a $30 billion dollar redistribution. It is also ironic that Mitt Romney, the man who accused the 47% of Americans who do not pay taxes of being irresponsible dependents of the state has praised the for-profit schools. After all, they are growing fat on public money.

This reality is concealed under deceitful rhetoric that is used to mislead the public and garner support for what is actually an attack on the bedrock of a democratic state, namely an effective system of affordable and accessible public education.

Ironically, the way to counter the problems presented by the for-profit schools is to apply conservative principles to them. To specific, they need to be removed from public welfare, they need to be held responsible, and they need to be forced to compete in a free market (one in which their allies do not use the state to impede their competition). This situation nicely exposes the lie of some conservatives: they are exactly what they profess to hate, only on a much bigger scale.

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On A Presentable Brown Hat

Just because it amused me, here’s an exchange of letters between Bronislaw Malinowski (anthropologist, proto-accommodationist) & Bertrand Russell (philosopher, advocate of nuking the USSR).

Dear Russell

On the occasion of my visit to your School I left my only presentable brown hat in your anteroom. I wonder whether since then it has had the privilege of enclosing the only brains in England which I ungrudgingly regard better than mine; or whether it has been utilised in some of the juvenile experimentations in physics, technology, dramatic art, or prehistoric symbolism; or whether it naturally lapsed out of the anteroom.

If none of these events, or shall we rather call them hypotheses, holds good or took place, could you be so good as to bring it in a brown paper parcel or by some other concealed mode of transport to London and advise me on a post card where I could reclaim it? I am very sorry that my absentmindedness, which is characteristic of high intelligence, has exposed you to all the inconvenience incidental to the event.

Yours sincerely, B. Malinowski

Russell’s reply:

Dear Malinowski

My secretary has found a presentable brown hat in my lobby which I presume is yours, indeed the mere sight of it reminds me of you. I am going to the School of Economics to give a lecture to the Students’ Union on Monday (17th), and unless my memory is as bad and my intelligence as good as yours, I will leave your hat with the porter at the School of Economics, telling him to give it to you on demand.

Yours sincerely, Bertrand Russell

Source: Russell: Autobiography, (Routledge), p. 414.

Our Father vs Big Brother

The tape of Mitt Romney speaking to his cohorts in what could be described as a proverbial back-room seems to have had a lasting effect – we’ll see if it turns out to make all the difference, but it certainly brought into focus the image of Romney as oblivious aristocrat.

But even more interesting to me than the specifics of this candidate’s attitudes was the evidence of a change in certain social and technological expectations. Many people responded to Romney’s comments by shaking their heads at the fact that he would say those things out loud, that he would speak so candidly. Sure, he was at a fundraiser with other super-rich political puppeteers, but he must have known the information could get out…

Of course, a couple decades ago, it probably would not have. Even if a member of the staff could afford a hidden camera it would have taken a lot of planning and setting up to get the material, and once it was on tape it would have taken a lot of work to get it nationally aired. It may not seem like that’s that much commitment, but it’s definitely active and organized: hide tiny expensive specialty technology beforehand, and then transfer incriminating material to a standard medium, and try to get a national news outlet’s attention without being dismissed as some kind of conspirator (in fact, many journalists back then might have rejected the tape as unethical just because Romney clearly doesn’t realize he’s being taped).

Today, a person does not even have to really care about the consequences – sometimes people will record things just because they can. In a room with a famous person and some number of non-guests with iPhones, it is not at all surprising that someone recorded Romney speaking and then put a portion of it on YouTube—there did not even need to be intent behind it. The ease of catching a person in the act has increased so monumentally that the very idea of a backroom deal is in trouble.* Anyone can tape the conversation and show it to a potential audience of millions, and they don’t even need to dislike you or want to cause harm. It’s just information sharing—the connotations or potential impact of the information is not always considered (this happens on Facebook all the time: a photo posted in fun in one context is evidence of a promise broken in another, for instance).

The idea that we are losing privacy, and even losing the desire for privacy, has been argued about since technology and the internet especially first began allowing for these new methods of disclosure. An angle I want to focus on is the concurrence this has with a rise in atheism. There are plenty of other reasons that the idea of God is not as popular as it once was, and technology and the internet can contribute to the phenomenon in other ways. But there’s a social, pragmatic level at which God is becoming obsolete that could be a factor.

One of the classic reasons to have a concept of God from society’s point of view is the same as a reason to have Santa: “he knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.” From an intellectual standpoint this may not be convincing – Plato, for instance, attempts to show why we can’t use God as a referee when discussing the question of ethics in The Republic. The story of the Ring of Gyges, a ring which allows its wearer to become invisible and thus get away with any sort of immoral behavior she chooses with no repercussions, leads to the argument that even if the wearer is invisible, surely the Gods still know and can still judge. The original argument illustrated by the story of the ring is that people only act ethically when they are being watched, and this comeback says, well, you are always being watched by God so the point is moot. God serves as an external conscience.
But in The Republic, this idea is debunked—God is unreliable, and can be appeased by gifts or pleas for forgiveness. If you do something wrong, you can always get back on His good side. In other words, your conscience may know you were unethical this once, but do something extra-nice next week, and you’ll feel it’s been evened out.

In that way, Big Brother is more effective. If a person wants to steal something in a store, but thinks “No, God will know what I’ve done,” they might stop themselves. But they may also imagine that they can bargain with the big guy and promise to never do something like this ever again. On the other hand, if they believe there is a camera coming at them in every direction it will be harder to make that kind of deal. Our increasingly Panoptic forms of life make it possible to see this particular utility of God being overshadowed, since people with videos are a lot more direct and aggressive.

I am not suggesting that would consciously affect beliefs, but if the fear of moral oversight were to shift realistically toward peers, one of God’s greatest strengths would be made irrelevant. Sure, no video can see into your heart: but if it becomes widely expected that everything that happens in a public or semi-public space could be broadcast, that knowledge could play the part of an external conscience just as well as religion.

It’s true that God was famously described as dead over a century ago by Nietzsche, and he too was concerned with moral issues. However, his focus was on the lack of cohesion or agreement in beliefs, whereas I am addressing the much more mundane but perhaps more convincing issue of the cohesion of facts. That is, Nietzsche thought the concept of God was coextensive with the idea of absolute truth, and as that became untenable, religion would die. It’s arguable to what degree that happened, but the issue here is not what is right, but whether the right thing has to be done. God as an externalized conscience becomes less effective when society is doing the job in a more obvious and graspable way (which doesn’t require that God isn’t real, just that His methods are less convincing).

It could easily be coincidence that secularism is on the rise at the same time as surveillance and general recording become the norm, but I’m suggesting that it is part of larger cultural shift, and that the notion of God just fits less easily into a world where we can already picture a very ordinary kind of “all-seeing, all-knowing” presence. What was once supernatural is now merely artificial.

*I wouldn’t want to imply that therefore people will start being ethical, however. There are always adaptations and ways around – the idea is just that a fear of being seen is becoming much more real.

Free Inquiry – October/November 2012 issue

The October/November 2012 issue of Free Inquiry is now available. As always, the magazine is not published online, except for a limited number of pieces as teasers.

This issue includes much discussion of the political agenda of humanism. It also contains an opinion piece by me, “Up With Secularism!”, in which I defend the ideal of secular government from the criticism that it is, among other nasty things, anti-democratic. I also cast doubt on the idea that a theocratic government – one which attempts to settle and impose truths about which religion is the correct one – would have much time for freedom of speech and expression. If you’ve settled the truth about issues of spiritual salvation, and you’re prepared to use the power of the state to impose this truth, you’re not likely to brook dissent on such an important matter. Theocratic governments certainly don’t have a good record with free speech.

For my more detailed defence of secular government, and its ramifications, you’ll still need to broach my book, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012). However, even if you don’t accept the entire neo-Lockean theory set out in the book, I think I can give you good reasons to reject the argument that secularism is anti-democratic.

New interview with Salman Rushdie

For any who’ve missed it, Der Spiegel has a new interview with Salman Rushdie online. Rushdie talks clearly and straightforwardly about freedom of speech, life under the cloud of the notorious fatwa, and his new book, Joseph Anton (this was the alias that he used during the ten years he spent in hiding).

(H/T Norman Geras.)

A Socratic Challenge

Why can’t men shut up about abortion?

Why won’t men just shut up about political issues to do with women’s reproductive rights, particularly about the legality of abortion? After all, we (us blokes) are not directly affected by a ban on having an abortion, so why should we get a say in whether someone else gets to have an abortion or not? Furthermore, we are not epistemically qualified to have an opinion on the matter – how can I, as a man, imagine what a woman goes through when confronted by the prospect of becoming a mother against her will? How can I understand the responsibility, the anxiety, even the fear with which the woman – perhaps a confused and terrified teenage girl, or perhaps a traumatised rape victim – may be faced?

And if I can’t understand it, really, viscerally understand it, what gives me the right to open my big mouth about it?

So the arguments seem to go. This has become a popular meme: I’m confronted on a daily basis with claims, whether in the social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, or in the mainstream media, such as newspapers, with the claim that men should simply shut up about these issues and leave it to women to make the decisions. I don’t know how this would work, but I suppose we might imagine a world where men make no arguments one way or the other about the goodness, badness, rights and wrongs, or political tolerability of abortion. Perhaps laws would be enacted only by female legislators, with men abstaining from all votes in houses of parliament and the like.

As it happens, though, I don’t plan to shut up. One reason for that is that I am actually pro-abortion, so I don’t see why I should shut up unless all those anti-abortion men reach a deal with me to do likewise, and there’s not much prospect of that. In fact, any man who took the arguments seriously as to why men ought to shut up about abortion would probably be one who is already inclined to favour legal abortion, so the argument, if it persuaded anyone at all, would probably have a perverse effect, shushing exactly the wrong men – as seen from the likely viewpoint of the argument’s proponents.

I suppose the argument does accomplish one thing. It problematises whether or not men have the experience or imagination to understand why it is so important for women to have abortion rights; and that might, I suppose, make some anti-abortion men hesitate. While it is not likely to shut them up entirely, some of them might ask whether they are, in fact, imaginatively restricted, and whether they are, therefore, not properly weighing the interests at stake. Some might even attempt to stretch their imaginations to try to get a better concept of what it might be like to be confronted with the sorts of choices that women frequently encounter.

As it happens, men often do have pretty good imaginations (with rich experiences of anxiety, fear, inner turmoil, crushing responsibility, and so on, to draw upon), and I’m not at all convinced that we’re unable to imagine something of what it must be like, if we genuinely try. Indeed, some men may be better able to imagine it than many women who have never encountered the situation and perhaps are not sympathetic. If we are prompted to stretch our imaginations, I submit that that’s a good thing.

At the same time, the argument may (here is a second thing) serve the cause of feminist solidarity, encouraging resentment at unimaginative and unsympathetic men who pay little attention to the interests of women. While the argument cannot be taken literally, we might think, it plays a useful role in expressing resentments, attracting solidarity and participation, and rallying women to the political cause.

That’s all fine, but the fact remains that the argument can’t be taken literally. Anti-abortion men are likely to be driven by convictions that will keep them talking no matter how much we tell them to shut up. After all, some may believe that they are carrying out the will of God in opposing abortion. Now, if they’ve read some books about secularism (such as mine!) they just might be persuadable that this does not provide a proper basis for the state to act, but whether they’re persuadable will depend on their deeper theological views. Secularist arguments may appeal to many believers (I certainly hope so, and I think there is a fair bit of historical and sociological evidence that they can), but surely not to all. And even if Mr. Believer thinks that certain arguments should not support action by the state to prohibit, say, abortion, he might still think that they support social or moral condemnation of some kind. In that case, he can take a secularist approach to law-making, but it won’t shut him up about his moral convictions.

Furthermore, many opponents of abortion, irrespective of their sex, can imagine the highest level of anxiety, fear, difficulty, inner turmoil, and so on, for someone who is forced to become a mother against her will, but still oppose abortion. These opponents of abortion are likely to think that abortion is equivalent to murder, or at least something very like murder, in which case they will say that none of the interests of the woman can justify it. However bleak my future may be if I fail to murder someone, that does not usually give me the legal right to do so. There are exceptions for self-defence, but analogies between abortion and self-defence are notoriously tricky and contested.

As it happens, I don’t think that abortion is anything remotely like murder. The trouble is that I don’t see why someone who disagrees with me ought to shut up about it. If he or she holds a contrary position in good faith, and is prepared to back it with arguments, then s/he not only has the legal right to do so, but perhaps also has some legitimate claim on the rest of us to listen (at least if we haven’t heard and considered it all before). And if this (let’s say male) person is truly convinced that abortion somehow harms a fetus much as our deaths would harm us, surely it’s unreasonable for me to expect him to hold his tongue about it. It might be relevant to try to get him to imagine what is at stake for women who contemplate abortions, but even if he tries and succeeds it might not shake his conviction (even though he might, I suppose, come to feel a bit more sympathy and speak with more compassion).

In the upshot, the argument that men should go quiet about abortion may have a role to play if it is not taken literally. That is, if it is used as a challenge to men to use our imaginations or recognise our imaginative limits, and/or if it is used as a way to rally supporters and encourage feminist solidarity. If taken literally, however, it does not have much merit. Anti-abortion men can’t reasonably be expected to shut up, given their likely reasons for the positions that they take and the religious, moral, and/or metaphysical beliefs that their reasons draw upon.

I think there are other problems, too. I doubt that any serious thinker about contemporary politics can avoid taking positions that then entail views on the abortion debate. Keeping entirely silent may not be a practical possibility once you start thinking and talking about almost any other set of fraught political issues. In any event, I won’t go quiet about abortion any time soon. I am one man – obviously one among many – who will go on defending women’s reproductive rights, most certainly including robust abortion rights.

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Envy & Class Warfare

I am occupying this space to help sell my book about envy and class warfare. I love the ironies of capitalism.

This concise work is aimed at presenting a philosophical look at economic disparity in the United States. Since this is a truly massive topic, this work is focused on specific aspects of this matter and is divided into sections based on these specifics. As might be imagined, I make no pretense of covering all aspects of economic disparity. Rather, I am focusing on matters that have tended to be at the forefront of the political debate in the United States in recent years. My overall objective is to provide a rational and unbiased (at least as far as that is possible) examination of these matters. My main hope is that this work will be of some use to the reader in sorting out some of these matters and in getting an enhanced understanding of the issues. I also hope to help the reader develop a better defense against some of the rhetoric and fallacies that are used all too often in the place of proper arguments.

Being a rational person (well, at least some of the time) and a philosopher I am open to the possibility that I am wrong in my view and in error in my arguments. As such, I invite people to present critical assessments of my work. My commitment is not to any specific agenda or ideology, but rather to the true and the good.

The work itself is divided into distinct sections. The first section, Economic Disparity, is a very brief look at some areas of economic disparity in the United States. The second section, Taxes, examines taxes from a philosophical perspective. The third section focuses on corporations—which might or might not be people. Fourth, I turn to the matters of class and class warfare. Not to worry, the revolution will be televised. Fifth, the state, democracy and the common good will be discussed. The book ends with envy, avarice and rhetoric.

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009EFSEFK

You can fight the man by buying more of my books. If by “fight the man” you mean “buy more books.”

A, B, C, D – a fallacy

I don’t know whether this fallacy has a name of its own – I’m sure that Mike LaBossiere can tell us if it does – but how often have you seen somebody argue along the following lines?

P1. X believes A, B, and C.
P2. Y and Z (and others) believe A, B, C, and D.
C. (Therefore) X believes D.

What then happens is that X is criticised for believing D, even though D may be a proposition that X has never argued for, expressly relied upon, or even affirmed. In some cases, D may be some horrible proposition that would suggest X is of bad character if X actually believes it. In other cases, it may merely be something absurd, clearly false, or highly controversial.

As it stands, the argument that X believes D is straightforwardly invalid. It is no more valid if it takes the following variant form:

P1. X believes A, B, and C.
P2. Y and Z (and others) believe A, B, and C because they believe D.
C1. (Therefore) X believes A, B, and C because X believes D.
C. (Therefore) X believes D

Reversing the two premises, arguments like this are similar to the classic (and straightforwardly fallacious):

P1. Some Xs are A’s.
P2. X-1 is an X.
C. X-1 is an A.

Perhaps, however, there is something more going on in the minds of people who use arguments such as I’ve identified.

Perhaps, on a particular occasion, they think that A,B,C without D is somehow an incoherent package of beliefs, and so they attribute to X what they see as the more coherent A,B,C,D.

Or perhaps they are reasoning inductively from a sociological observation that most people who believe A,B,C also believe D, so X probably believes D. Or maybe, related to the previous paragraph, they think that you could only, rationally, come to believe A,B,C on the basis of first believing D. Or the idea might be that believing D, which is widespread, causes a widespread bias in favour of people believing A,B,C (though D is highly controversial, or clearly false, or some such thing, once it’s explicitly identified).

Although it’s always open to someone to put these sorts of arguments, they are obviously going to be tricky in any particular case. Reasons have to be given as to why D produces a bias, why D might be widely (perhaps subconsciously?) believed even though it is clearly false, or absurd, or whatever, once identified; why the position A,B,C, without D, is incoherent; why there is no other basis for thinking A,B,C; and/or whatever else might be required to make out the particular argument. You need to be careful before you move too quickly to saddle somebody with the absurd or clearly false or highly controversial or just plain horrible proposition D.

That said, the temptation to move quickly and incautiously down this path seems to be a strong one. Often we have enough background beliefs of our own (“Surely no one could possibly believe A,B,C unless they first believe D!”) that we find it very natural to draw the final inference intuitively and almost unconsciously. I know that I sometimes feel this temptation, and I’m sure I’ve often succumbed to it. I don’t think there’s a lot of point in castigating people for it, or even in apologising when caught doing it.

Hasty reasoning of this kind, leaving out steps, and failing to recognise just how difficult and inconclusive such arguments tend to be, is all too tempting. It’s lazy. It cuts corners. It can lead to you paying insufficient attention to what an opponent is really saying. In the extreme, it might encourage you to demonise an opponent (X surely “must” believe the horrible proposition D!) without a good basis. But it is not the sort of thing done only by irrational or ill-willed people.

My proposal is not so much that we go around castigating this way of thinking, which is almost ubiquitous. I don’t want to give real examples of it (and I could, as mentioned above, almost certainly find cases where I’ve done it, too). However, it’s something that we might be more aware of and careful about, given all that I’ve said, and especially as it provides a route to misunderstanding and even demonising opponents. And in some cases, our opponents are right there, taking part in discussion with us, so we can simply ask them: “Are you relying on proposition D?”

All in all, attributing beliefs to opponents needs to be done with great care if they have not expressly relied on or otherwise asserted those particular beliefs. Speculating about what your opponents really think (but are not saying) may not be the worst of intellectual crimes, and it may be very tempting. Sometimes these speculations might even be relevant and useful (say your opponent claims to be relying on “nice”, attractive, good-for-their-public-image premises E and F, but you have independent reason to think they are really reasoning from discredited proposition D).

As always nuance is important, but if we want to be fair, make progress, and avoid flame wars, let’s at least be careful about the kinds of reasoning I’ve discussed. At their worst, they are obviously fallacious. Even at their best, they are highly uncertain and need a lot of work before they can be employed cogently.

47%

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In September of 2012 Mother Jones brought a video of Mitt Romney to the attention of the public. This video, filmed at a $50,000 a plate fundraiser in May, showed Romney making what many regard as inflammatory remarks about the 47% of Americans who do not pay federal income tax. In Romney’s own words:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it — that that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. … These are people who pay no income tax. … [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

Romney’s basic claim is correct: 46.4% of Americans paid no federal income tax in 2011. However, it is well worth examining the nature of the 47%.

One point well worth noting is that 2/3 of the 47% do pay payroll taxes. In fact, they pay 15.3% of their income as taxes, which is a larger percentage than Romney’s 13.9%. Naturally, most of the 47% also pay other taxes, such as sales taxes. As such, while they do not pay income tax, they do contribute.

In terms of the income breakdown, over half of the 47% are people who make less than $16,812 per year. 33% of them make between $16,812 and $33,532. 12.8% make between $33,542 and $59, 486. Interestingly, while Romney casts the 47% as being dependent on the state, 78,000 of the 47% had incomes from $211,000 to $533,000. There were also 24,000 households in the $533,000 to $2.2 million income range. Interestingly, there were even 3,000 in the $2.2 million and above range. As such, the narrative of the nature of the 47% does not quite match the facts. There is also the interesting possibility that Romney himself paid no taxes some years—after all, he did not release certain tax forms. This would not prove his claims wrong, but would certainly be a nice piece of irony.

While Romney casts the 47% as irresponsible people who do not have care for their lives, it is well worth considering why they do not pay federal income taxes. The simple answer is that they do the same thing Romney does: they pay taxes based on the tax laws and endeavor to not pay more than they legally owe. As such, his harsh words for them seem to show an inconsistency in his professed views of taxes.

In terms of more specific reasons, 44% of the 47% are seniors who are exempted by tax benefits for senior citizens. Interestingly, the majority of seniors claim to favor Romney over Obama (at least in polls taken before the video was released). 30% of the 47% do not pay because of credits for children and the working poor.  Of the 18.1% of Americans who did not pay federal or payroll taxes, 10.3% were senior citizens and 6.9% were households making less than $20,000 a year (such as low-income families and students).

In response to the release of the video, Romney went into damage control mode. One defense was an ad hominen attack on Mother Jones and Jimmy Carter’s grandson (who acquired the video). While these sources could be seen as biased against Romney, the video is what it is and the attacks on the sources have no logical weight. Naturally, if there was a mere allegation of a damaging video from Mother Jones, then the possibility of bias would be relevant in assessing credibility. However, the video stands on its own.

A second defense has been that while Romney holds to what he said, he did admit he said it inelegantly. A third defense used by some of Romney’s supporters is to launch accusations of class warfare and divisiveness against those who take issue with Romney’s remarks. These are, of course, mere ad hominem attacks and can also be seen as red herrings. Interestingly, it is Romney’s remarks about the 47% that sound like class warfare talk and they were certainly divisive. After all, dismissing 47% of Americans as irresponsible wards of the state is hardly uniting.

A fourth defense is that Romney made mention of a 1998 tape of Obama in which he speaks of redistribution. A snippet from the tape has been making the rounds to support the narrative that Obama supports redistribution of wealth, but in context his words are as follows: “And my suggestion, I guess, would be that the trick — and this is one of the few areas where I think there are technical issues that have to be dealt with as opposed to just political issues — I think the trick is figuring out how do we structure government systems that pool resources and hence facilitate some redistribution because I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level, to make sure everybody’s got a shot.”

Interestingly what motivated Obama’s remarks was what he claimed was a propaganda campaign “against the possibility of government action and its efficacy” and his goal was to “try to resuscitate this notion that we’re all in this thing together, leave nobody behind, we do have to be innovative in thinking what are the delivery systems that are effective and meet people where they live.”

While Romney’s narrative is that Obama is aiming at redistributing wealth in general, the best evidence apparently available for this claim is a quote carefully plucked from its surrounding context. This is, of course, a classic rhetorical tactic employed by politicians of all stripes.  In this case, Romney seems to be sticking to the narrative script, which leads to the fourth defense.

Romney’s fifth defense is to present the core narrative of his campaign, namely that Obama aims to create “a society based upon a government-centered nation where government plays a larger and larger role” and “redistributes money.” In contrast, Romney claims that he is for free enterprise and success. In this public narrative, Obama is cast as the villain. In the private narrative at the $50,000 per plate event (coincidentally $50,000 is the median family income in the United States), Obama has a starring role as the villain but has a large supporting cast.

As Romney’s quote indicates, he regards the 47% as loyal Obama’s supporters (although, as noted above, a significant percentage of them are actually Romney supporters). Of course, their loyalty is allegedly based on their belief that the state is responsible for them because they are victims and that they are thus entitled to health care, food, housing and other entitlements. These supporting villains are also cast as being unwilling to take responsibility.

Given the analysis of the 47% given above, this narrative does not seem to be accurate. After all, the majority of the 47% do pay payroll taxes (as noted above, they pay a larger percentage of their income than Romney). There is also a lack of evidence that they regard themselves as victims or entitled to take without contributing. After all, the majority of the seniors in the 47% no doubt worked and earned their retirement. True, there are no doubt some people who regard themselves as victims and see themselves as entitled to state support—however, this seems to be a rather small percentage of Americans. Certainly less than 47%.

Not surprisingly, this clash nicely shows the distinction between two political philosophies. Romney has presented the view endorsed by Ayn Rand’s fictional John Galt, namely that the world is divided between parasites and producers.  Obama, on the other hand, has stuck closer to the traditional liberal view that the state has a significant role to play in securing the common good. While a matter of considerable philosophical interest, this is also a rather personal matter—especially to those in the 47%.

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