Tag Archives: Florida

Getting High for Higher Education

English: A domestic US propaganda poster circa...

English: A domestic US propaganda poster circa 2000. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two major problems faced by the United States are the war on drugs and the problems of higher education. I will make an immodest proposal intended to address both problems.

In the case of higher education, one major problem is that the cost of education is exceeding the resources of an ever-growing number of Americans. One reason for this is that the decisions of America’s political and economic elites damaged the economy and contributed to the unrelenting extermination of the middle class. Another reason is a changing view of higher education: it has been cast as a private (rather than public) good and is seen by many of the elites as a realm to exploited for profit. Because of this, funding to public schools has been reduced and funding has been diverted from public schools to costly and ineffective for-profit schools. Yet another reason is that public universities have an ever-expanding administrative burden. Even the darling of academics, STEM, has seen significant cuts in support and public funding.

The war on drugs has imposed a massive cost on the United States. First, there is the cost of the resources devoted to policing citizens, trying them and incarcerating them for drug crimes. Second, there is the cost of the social and personal damage done to individuals and communities. Despite these huge costs, the war on drugs is being lost—mainly because “we have met the enemy and he is us.”

Fortunately, I have a solution to both problems. After speaking with an engineering student about Florida State’s various programs aimed at creating businesses, I heard a piece on NPR about the financial woes of schools and how faculty and staff were being pushed to be fund-raisers for schools. This got be thinking about ways universities could generate funding and I remembered a running joke from years ago. Back when universities started to get into the “businessification” mode, I joked with a running friend (hence a running joke) that we faculty members should become drug lords to fund our research and classes. While I do not think that I should actually become a drug lord, I propose that public universities in Florida (and elsewhere) get into the drug business.

To be specific, Florida should begin by legalizing marijuana and pass a general law allowing recreational drugs that can be shown to be as safe as tobacco and alcohol (that sets the bar nicely low). The main restriction will be that the drugs can only be produced and sold by public universities. All the profits will go directly to the universities, to be used as decided by boards composed of students and faculty.

To implement this plan, faculty and students will be actively involved. Business faculty and students will develop the models, plans and proposals. Design and marketing students and faculty will handle those aspects. Faculty and students in chemistry, biology and medicine will develop the drugs and endeavor to make them safer. Faculty and students in agriculture will see to the growing of the organic crops, starting with marijuana. Engineering students and faculty will develop hydroponics and other technology.

Once the marijuana and other drugs are available, the universities will sell the products to the public with all profits being used to fund the educational and research aspects of the universities. Since the schools are public universities, the drugs will be tax-free—there is no sense in incurring the extra cost of collecting taxes when the money is going to the schools already. Since schools already have brand marketing, this can be easily tied in. For example, Florida State can sell Seminole Gold and Seminole Garnet marijuana, while my own Florida A&M University can have Rattler Green and Rattler Orange.

One practical objection is that the operation might not be profitable. While this is obviously a reasonable concern, the drug trade seems to be massively profitable. Also, by making such drugs legal, the cost of the war on drugs will drop dramatically, thus freeing up resources for education and reducing the harms done to individuals and the community. So, I am not too worried about this.

One health objection is that drugs are unhealthy. The easy reply is that while this is true, we already tolerate very unhealthy products such as tobacco, alcohol, cars and firearms. If these are tolerable, then the drugs sold by the schools (which must be at least as safe as tobacco and alcohol) would also be tolerable. The war on drugs is also very unhealthy for individuals and society—so ending at least part of the war would be good for public health.

One moral objection is that drugs are immoral. There are three easy replies. The first is that the drugs in question are no more immoral than alcohol and tobacco. If these can be morally tolerated, then so can the university drugs. Second, there is the consequentialist argument: if drugs are going to be used anyway by Americans, it is better that the money go to education rather than ending up in the coffers of criminals, gangs, terrorists and the prison-industrial complex. Third, there is also the consequentialist argument that university produced drugs will be safer and of higher quality than drugs produced by drug lords, gangs, terrorists and criminal dealers. Given the good consequences of legalizing university-manufactured drugs, this plan is clearly morally commendable.

Given the above arguments, having universities as legal drug sellers would clearly help solve two of America’s most serious problems: the high cost of education and the higher cost of the ineffective and destructive war on drugs. As my contribution to the brand, I offer the slogan “get high for higher ed.”

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Open Carry Protests

Colt AR-15 Sporter SP1 Carbine

Colt AR-15 Sporter SP1 Carbine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I have noted in my other essays on guns, I grew up in what most would regard as a gun culture. I learned to shoot as soon as I could handle a firearm and have been shooting ever since. I am comfortable around guns (but not too comfortable—complacency leads to accidents) and around armed people. This is due to years of hunting and also due to the fact that my family participated in the revolutionary war re-enactments that were popular in the 1970s. As such, I grew up spending some of my summers around plenty of armed folks and even participated in several mock battles. As such, I am certainly not an anti-gun person. That said, I do have some concerns about the current trend in open carry protests.

While the exact legal details vary, open carry is when a person is (obviously enough) carrying a firearm openly. This is in contrast with concealed carry—when a person is hiding her weapon from sight, typically under concealing clothing. Most states require that a person get a concealed weapons permit to legally carry a concealed firearm and often prohibit open carry in many circumstances (hunting being an obvious exception). Some states allow those with concealed weapon permits to openly carry a fire arm. Some states do not. Complicating matters even more is that local laws can vary considerably, even within the same state. For example, some cities have bans against carrying loaded weapons within city limits. As another example, Florida resident Doug Varrieur was featured on the Colbert Report for (legally) having an open air shooting range in his residential neighborhood.

In an interesting form of civil disobedience, some gun owners have started engaging in open carry protests. That is, they openly carry their guns to protest a gun law or gun related matter that they regard as unjust. For example, gun owners in San Antonio recently engaged in an open carry protest after a man was tased and arrested for openly carrying a loaded rifle in city limits. Other open carry protestors have taken to openly carrying their guns when patronizing businesses, such as restaurants and coffee shops. Some businesses, such as Chipotle, Sonic, Starbucks and Wendy’s have asked protestors to not openly carry weapons in their businesses, sparking some outrage from some protestors. As another example, some gun owners favor what has been called “constitutional carry” that would allow gun owners to openly carry guns without any license and stage open carry protests in support of this proposal.

What is very interesting is that the NRA has been critical of open carry protests conducted in restaurants and home improvement stores. The organization has even gone so far as to call such protests “weird.” The NRA also noted that “using guns merely to draw attention to yourself in public not only defies common sense, it shows a lack of consideration and manners.” One reason for this approach is practical—the NRA is aware that these open carry protests can frighten people and thus have a negative impact on the NRA’s efforts in regards to achieving its goals. Some of those supporting open carry have condemned the NRA for this chastisement and some have even expressed the view that the NRA is not sufficiently pro-gun. The NRA thus finds itself in a situation parallel to that of the Republican Party, namely being pulled towards extreme positions and being criticized for not being extreme enough. While I disagree with the NRA on many issues, I do agree with them in this matter: using guns in this way seems to be a bit less than sensible and it also seems counterproductive in that it will tend to scare more people than it wins over. That said, I do have some sympathy for the protestors.

As I mentioned above, I grew up in “the gun culture” and I actually totally get the appeal of being able to walk down the street packing iron and swinging heat. Of course, this is purely emotional and, as such, is hardly the basis for a considered position on the issue.

Some of my concerns are practical. One is, as also noted by the NRA, that people openly carrying guns in a Starbucks or Home Depot will tend to scare people and this could lead to unfortunate situations in which a protestor is mistaken as someone who has come to engage in a mass shooting. I freely admit that if I were to see someone coming into a restaurant openly carrying an AR-15, my first thought would be “this guy could be here to try to kill us all…” Until I heard of open carry protests, that would have been my only thought—and I would be calling 911 and working on a plan to kill him as quickly as possible should it come to that. After all, as the NRA notes, walking into a restaurant or store openly carrying a weapon is weird, not sensible and likely to frighten people—or trigger a potential shooter response. And I say this a person who grew up with guns.

Another concern is that armed people wandering about in a crowded store or restaurant can be a recipe for disaster. While most gun owners know how to safely handle weapons and would hopefully not walk into a business openly carrying a loaded weapon, it is easy enough to imagine someone forgetting to properly check her gun (or even intentionally loading it) and having a terrible accident occur. I am actually a bit surprised that this has not happened yet.

On the one hand, I think there are legitimate grounds for such protests. The obvious legal ground is the 1st Amendment and the obvious moral ground is the moral right of citizens to engage in peaceful protests against laws and actions they regard as unjust.

Interestingly enough, if gun owners intentionally violated open carry laws in order to protest them and did not engage in violent resistance when arrested, they would be acting within the tradition of civil disobedience first advocated by Henry David Thoreau. Given the moral pedigree of civil disobedience, this would seem to be moral acceptable and perhaps even praiseworthy (though some might regard the goal as ethically problematic).

On the other hand, the use of guns in the protests is a point of moral concern. On the face of it, it might be tempting to regard such protests as forms of bullying or threat making. After all, a gun is an instrument of violence and carrying it openly can easily be seen as expressing an intention to coerce or threaten. To some, armed people “occupying” a business or gathered in front of a police station would be seen not as an act of protest but as an act of intimidation—the message being “I have a gun…so give me what I want.” Citizens do not have the moral right to use the tools of threats and intimidation against other citizens and, as such, this would seem to indicate that such protests are morally wrong. This, of course, assumes that the protests are actually intended to intimidate or coerce.

However, it is worth considering that a threat might be implicit in many forms of legitimate protests—although the presence of guns would seem to make the threat rather less implicit. It is also worth noting that the protest is about guns—so the presence of guns would seem to be relevant, on par with people advocating legalizing marijuana bringing marijuana to their protests against marijuana laws they regard as unjust. Of course, a gun is rather more coercive than a joint.

My considered view is that open carry protests are, if safely conducted, morally legitimate protests and that they could be a form of civil disobedience (the irony of this is not lost on me). However, I do have the above mentioned concerns: the safety issues, the view that such protests are actually counterproductive to the avowed causes, and the clear potential that such protests could be legitimately regarded as acts of coercion rather than acts of protest.

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Performance Based Funding

Florida A&M University from State Capitol, Tal...

As a professor at Florida A&M University, I am rather familiar with performance based funding in higher education. While performance based funding is being considered or applied in numerous states, I will focus on my adopted state of Florida (it is also present in my home state of Maine).

On the face of it, performance based funding can sound like a good idea: state universities are funded based on performance, so that good performance is rewarded and poor performance is not (or punished). As a competitive athlete (though less so with each passing year), I am accustomed to a similar model in running: those who run better at races get rewarded and those who run poorly typically go home with nothing (other than the usual race t-shirt and perhaps some bagel chunks). This model seems fair—at least in sports. Whether or not it is right or sensible to apply it to education funding is another matter.

One obvious point of concern is whether or not the standards used to judge performance are fair and reasonable. In Florida, the main standards include the percentage of graduates who have jobs, the average wages of those graduates, the cost of getting the degree, the graduation rate within six years, the number of students getting STEM degrees (STEM is hot now), and some other factors.

On the face of it, some of these standards are reasonable. After all, a university would seem to be performing well to the degree that the students are graduating after paying a reasonable cost and getting well-paying jobs. This, of course, assumes that a primary function of a university is to create job-fillers for the job creators (and some job creators). In the past, the main factors for determining funding included such things as the size of the student population and what resources would be needed to provide quality education. Universities were also valued because they educated people and prepared people to be citizens of a democratic state. But, now that America appears to be an oligarchy, these values might be obsolete.

Another point of concern is that the competitive system in Florida, like most competitive systems, means that there must be losers. To be specific, Florida has nine state universities competing in regards to performance based funding. The bottom three schools will lose roughly 1% of their funding while the top six will receive more money. This means that no matter how well the nine schools are doing, three of them will always be losers.

This might be seen as reasonable or even good: after all, competition (as noted above) means that there will be winners and losers. This can be seen as a good thing because, it might be argued, the schools will be competing with each other to improve and thus all will get better—even the losers. This, obviously enough, seems to bring a competitive market approach (or Darwinian selection) to education.

The obvious question is whether or not this is a proper approach to higher education. The idea of public universities fighting over limited funding certainly seems harsh—rather like parents making their nine children fight over which six gets extra food and which three will be hungry. Presumably just as responsible parents would not want some of their children to go hungry because they could not beat their siblings, the state should also not want to deprive universities of funding because they could not beat their fellows.

It might be contended that just as children could be expected to battle for food in times of scarcity, universities should do the same. After all, desperate times call for desperate measures and not everyone can thrive. Besides, the competition will make everyone stronger.

It is true that higher education faces a scarcity of funding—in Florida, the past four years under Rick Scott and a Republican legislature have seen a 41% cut in funding. Other states have fared even worse. While some scarcity was due to the economic meltdown inflicted by the financial sector, the scarcity is also due to conscious choice in regards to taxing and spending. So, going with the analogy, the parents have cut the food supply and now want the children to battle to see who gets a larger slice of what is left. Will this battle make the schools stronger?

Given the above, a rather important point of concern is whether or not such performance based funding actually works. That is, does it actually achieve the professed goal of increasing performance?

Since I serve on various relevant committees, I can say that my university is very concerned about this funding and great effort is being made to try to keep the school out of the bottom three. This is the same sort of motivation that the threat of having one’s food cut provides—the motivation of fear. While this sort of scenario might appeal to those who idealize the competitive model of natural selection, one obvious consequence is that the schools that fall into the bottom three will lose money and hence become even less able to compete. To use the food analogy, the children that lose the competition in the first round will have less food and thus be weaker for the next battle and so on. So, while “going hungry” might be said to motivate, being hungry also weakens. So, if the true goal is to weaken the bottom three schools (and perhaps ultimately destroy them), this would work quite well. If the goal is to improve education, things might be rather different.

It might be countered that the performance based funding is justified because, despite my argument, it will work. While academics are often accused of not being “practical” or in “the real world”, we do tend to do a reasonably good at figuring out whether or not something will work. After all, studying things and analyzing them is sort of what we do. In contrast, politicians seem to be more inclined to operate in “realities” of their own ideologies.

David Tandberg of Florida State University and Nicholas W. Hillman of University of Wisconsin-Madison recently published a study assessing the effectiveness of performance based funding. They concluded that performance based funding “more often than not” failed to effect the completion of degrees. Of considerable concern is that when it did have an effect it tended to lower graduation rates. Assuming this study is accurate, performance based funding (at least as implemented) is ineffective at best and likely to actually negatively impact the professed goals.

It should be noted that Florida State University is very safely in the top six schools, so Tandberg is presumably not motivated by worries that FSU will fall to the bottom. The study, can, of course, be challenged on the usual grounds for critically assessing a study—but mere accusations that professors must be biased or that academics are incompetent hold no water.

Since I am a professor at Florida A&M University, I might also be accused of bias here.  FAMU is an HBCU (one of the historically black colleges and universities) and has long had a mission of providing educational opportunities to students who have faced severe disadvantages. While overt racism is largely a thing of the past, FAMU students rather often face serious economic and preparatory challenges (thanks largely to poverty and segregation) that students from other backgrounds do not face. Some of my best students face the serious challenge of balancing part or even full-time work with their academic lives and this can be very challenging indeed. Because of this, students often take longer to graduate than students at other state universities—especially those whose students tend to come from more affluent families. These economic disparities also impact the chances of students getting jobs when they graduate as well as affecting the salary paid in such jobs. Roughly put, the effects of long-standing racism in America still remain and impact my university. While FAMU is working hard to meet the performance standards, we are struggling against factors that do not impact other schools—which means that our performance in regards to these chosen standards might be seen as lacking.

As might be imagined, some will claim that the impact of past racism is a thing of the past and that FAMU should be able to compete just fine against the other schools. This would be ignoring the reality of the situation in America.

Performance based funding of the sort that currently exists fails to achieve its professed goals and is proving harmful to higher education and students. As such, it is a bad idea. Sadly, it is the reality.

 

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Gainful Employment & Education

For-Profit Education

For-Profit Education (Photo credit: Truthout.org)

Since education is rather expensive, it seems reasonable for a student to expect a return on her investment. Given that the taxpayers often contribute to the education of students, it also makes sense that they also receive a return on their investment.

As it now stands, the return on the student’s investment is supposed to be a job that is proportional to the cost of education. Roughly put, a student should be able to reasonably work out of her school debt with the job that education is supposed to get her. In terms of the return on the taxpayer’s investment, the return is similar: the students funded by the taxpayers are supposed to get jobs and repay the investment through the taxes they pay. The student becomes the taxpayer, thus enabling the next generation of students to also become taxpayers.

Because the cost of education is so high these days, it is natural for some folks to place their hopes in the free market. The ideal is that for-profit schools will provide a high quality product (education that leads to a job) at a lower cost than the (supposedly) bloated state and traditional private schools. As might be suspected, the ideal is rather different from the real.

While state schools obviously receive state funds, the for-profit schools receive massive federal support—about $26 billion per year in grants and loans. Unfortunately, this money seems to be ill-spent: 20% of the for-profit school students default on student loans within three years of entering the repayment period. About half of all student loan defaulters went to such for-profit schools, although these schools make up 13% of the student population. The estimate is that about half of the loans funneled through students to the for-profit schools will be lost to default, which is hardly a good investment.

One of the main reasons a student defaults on loans (though not the only one) is financial hardship. As might be imagined, not earning an adequate paycheck is a clear way to end up in such hardship. While there are over 2,000 programs where the students had load debt but who paychecks were not adequate to keep them above the poverty line, 90% of these programs are at for-profit schools. As such, these schools seem to be a bad investment for both taxpayers and students. While public and traditional private schools do account for the other 10% that need to be addressed, they are quite clearly a better investment for taxpayers and students. This is not to say that such schools do not need improvement—but it is to say that the current for-profit model in not the solution.

There have been some attempts, such as those in 2011, to impose regulations aimed at addressing the predatory exploitation of students (and taxpayers) by institutions. Not surprisingly, these were countered by the well paid lobbyists working at the behest of the for-profits.

Interestingly, some states are pushing hard for performance based funding for public institutions. For example, my adopted state of Florida has seen the Republican dominated state legislature engage in what some might regard as micro-managing of education. In any case, we are been transitioned to a performance based model in which funding is linked to achieving goals set by the state. Naturally, for-profit schools are not impacted by this since they are private institutions. As such, the current trajectory seems to be for state schools to be state regulated in accordance with performance measures while the for-profit schools enjoy unfettered access to the federal largesse.

Some might suspect that the performance based funding approach being taken towards public universities and colleges is cover for reducing funding even more. This seems reasonable since one of the main effects has been to cut funding for some state schools (such as my own). It is also the case that the approach is designed to shift funding to schools that have more political influence—which is supported by looking at where the money goes.

It might also be suspected that the performance based funding is also designed to harm public schools and push students towards the for-profit schools. These schools typically enjoy excellent political connections and certainly would benefit from reduced public education opportunities. Of course, the profits of such schools come largely at the expense of students and taxpayers—they are thus well-subsidized by the state in a new twist on the old corporate welfare system.  Shockingly enough, there is little conservative rage at this wasteful socialism and these welfare queens.

 

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The Cost of Litter

English: Littering in Stockholm

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After running the Palace Saloon 5K, I participated in a cleanup of a nearby park. This event, organized by my running friend Nancy, involved spending about an hour and a half picking up trash in the Florida sun.  We runners created a pile of overstuffed trash bags full of a wide range of discarded debris.

On my regular runs, I routinely pick up litter. This ranges from the expected (discarded cans) to the unusual (a blender dropped off in the woods). These adventures in litter caused me to think about the various issues related to litter and most especially the cost of litter.

One obvious cost of litter is the aesthetic damage it inflicts. Litter is ugly and makes an area look, well, trashy. While this cost might be partially paid by those who litter, it is also inflicted on those who visit the area and do not litter. One of the many reasons I pick up litter is that I prefer not to run through trashy places.

Another obvious cost of litter is the environmental damage it inflicts. Some of this is quite evident, such as oil or paint leaking from discarded cans. Other damage is less evident, such as the erosion and flooding that can be caused by litter that clogs up storm drains.  There is also the harm done to animals directly, such as sea life killed when their stomachs fill with plastic debris. As with the aesthetic damage, the cost of the litter is largely paid by those who did not litter—such as the turtles and sea-birds harmed by discarded items.

A somewhat less obvious cost is that paid by people who pick up the litter discarded by others. For example, I take a few minutes out of almost every run to pick up and dispose of trash discarded by others. There are also walkers in my neighborhood area who pick up trash during their entire walk—I will see them carrying full bags of cans, bottles and other debris that have been thrown onto the streets, sidewalks and lawns.  And no, they are not gathering up the debris to cash it in for recycling money.

What I and others are doing is paying the cost of the littering of others with our time and effort. This is doubly annoying because the effort we need to expend to pick up the debris and dispose of it properly is generally more than the effort the discarder would have needed to expend to simply dispose of it herself. This is because such debris is often scattered about, in pieces or tossed into the woods—thus making it a chore to pick up and carry. Also, carrying trash while running is certainly more inconvenient than simply transporting it in a vehicle—and much of the trash beside the road is hurled from vehicles.

Some states, such as my home state of Maine, do shift some of the cost of litter to the litterer. To be specific, these states have a deposit on bottles and cans. When someone litters a can or bottle, he is throwing away the deposit—thus incurring a small cost for his littering. When someone picks up the bottle or can, she can redeem it for the deposit—thus offsetting the cost of her effort. While this approach does not cover all forms of litter, it does have a significant impact on the litter problem by providing people with an incentive to not litter or to pick up the litter thrown away by others.

This model of imposing a cost on littering and providing a reward for cleaning up litter seems to be an ethical system. In terms of fairness, it seems right that the person littering should pay a price for the damage that she does and the cost that she inflicts on others. It also seems right that people who make the effort to clean up the messes caused by others should receive compensation for their efforts. The obvious challenge is making the model work on a broader scale beyond just bottles and cans. Unfortunately, there are many more people who are lazy, uncaring or imbued with a feeling of entitlement than there are who have a sense of responsibility and duty. As such, I know I will be cleaning up after others for the rest of my life.

 

 

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Exotic Pets

English: Sleeping lioness at Exotic Animals Pa...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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DePARCCing

Official photo of Florida Governor Rick Scott

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While education has always been a matter for politics, the United States has seen an ever increasing politicization of education. One reason for this was the financial meltdown—with less revenue the states and federal government had to make cuts. As usual, education was a target of opportunity for such cuts. Another reason is that the education system is now regarded as an exploitable resource with excellent opportunities for money-making. Making the system ripe for harvest involved a concerted effort to demonize educators and the education system. It also involved a concerted push for assessment and standardization. The assessment that is being advanced is the sort that is provided by well-paid contractors, such as standardized tests. The standardization, in addition to the tests, includes having a standard curriculum to make it easy for the private sector to monetize education.  This was all done under the guise of reform.

Florida’s former governor Jeb Bush helped bring about the Common Core State Standards for the public education system, so it is somewhat ironic that current Florida governor Rick Scott wants to remove Florida from this system.

The governor has made it clear that he wants Florida to ditch the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). He is not, of course, abandoning assessment—that is a lucrative business for private contractors. As such, his plan is to have “competitive bidding” to determine the new assessment method. Naturally, the schools will not be allowed to create their own assessment—money is too precious to waste on public schools when it could go instead to private sector contractors.

Speaking of money, Florida had been selected to be the “fiscal agent” for PARCC, but Scott informed the Education Secretary of the United States that Florida would no longer have ties to PARCC. It might be wondered why the governor would pass up the opportunity to be a fiscal agent. Fortunately, the answer is rather straightforward: a large part of Scott’s base is made up of Tea Party members. Apparently, the Tea Party membership believes that the Common Core and PARCC are federal impositions. The Tea Party (thanks to anti-government rhetoric put forth by certain conservative pundits and, ironically, some conservative politicians) tends to be against the federal government (although generally not against government programs like Medicare). As such, they are against both Common Core and PARCC.

One rather obvious problem with the claim that Florida should bail because of the federal involvement is the fact that the Common Core was developed by the National Governors Association, not the federal government. That is, the states developed the core and this, oddly enough, should match up with the Tea Party values. I am not sure if the Tea Party (and perhaps Rick Scott) are confused in this matter or not. In any case, Scott needs the Tea Party support to get re-elected and hence he is ditching PARCC and the Common Core in hopes of keeping their votes. This has led to something of a conflict in the Republican Party. Some Republicans, like Jeb Bush, have been strongly backing the Common Core and certainly want the states to adopt it. However, if the Tea Party ire at Common Core and PARCC spreads, there might be a change in this support.

Oddly enough, I am also suspicious of the Common Core and PARRC. However, this is not due to a fear of the federal government (other than the NSA and drones). Rather, it is because of concerns with the academic impact of Common Core and PARRC. Ironically, I might well find myself allied with the Tea Party on some aspects of this matter.

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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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Are Facts Dead?

Ideology Icon

Misrepresenting facts and actually lying have long been a part of politics. However, it has been claimed that this is the year facts died. The death blow, at least according to some, was April 18, 2012. On this day Representative Allen West of my state of Florida claimed that about 80 congressional democrats are members of the Communist Party. A little fact checking revealed that this is not the case. Interestingly enough, West decided to stand by his remarks rather than yield to the truth. While this might seem odd, West’s approach was probably the best policy politically.

In some cases, the abuse of facts is more subtle. For example, Obama has been attacked on the grounds that the average economic worth of the middle class in the United States plummeted on his watch. While this is truth-like, it does leave out some key information, namely that the plummet was well underway when Obama took office. To use an analogy, it would be like blaming a new pilot who took the stick halfway through a nose dive for that nose dive. Sure, he is at the stick and the plane was in a nose dive—but he did not put it there. As might be imagined, this approach of making truth-like claims is not limited to the right. For example, Romney is being bashed for the Massachusetts’ seemingly bad job creation numbers while he was governor. However, Romney’s situation was very much like Obama’s: he took the stick after someone else put the plane in a dive. Given that the situations are comparable, both men should be able to avail themselves of the same defense. Also, it is tempting to think that getting the relevant facts would defuse these attacks. That is, one might want to think that people would regard both attacks as flawed and essentially unfounded and this would be the ends of these attacks. But, one does not always get what one wants.

While this might come as something of a shock, people are often not very rational—especially when it comes to politics. While both of these attacks have been addressed in detail subject to rational examination, this did not spell their end. In fact, it has been found that when people get information that corrects a false claim, they will be even more likely to believe the false claim (provided that they claim matches their views).  For example, if Republicans and Democrats read an article that claims that one of Obama’s policies had a significant positive effect and then learn that the initial article was in error, the Democrats would  be more inclined to believe the original article despite the fact that it had been shown to be in error. The Republicans would be more inclined to reject the original article. In short, it seems that corrective information is generally only accepted when it corrects in a way favorable to a person’s ideology.  This has the rather unfortunate effect that correcting an error in an ideological context will only correct the error in the minds of those who already want to believe it is an error and will generally not change the mind of those who want to believe.

In addition to the obvious problem, this tendency also means that people who are wrong (intentionally or unintentionally) generally will not suffer any damage to their credibility among their own faction, provided that their errors match the ideology of said faction. As such, the consequences of saying things that are not true seem to be generally positive—at least from a pragmatic standpoint. After all, if the claim matches the proper ideology and is not called out, then it will be accepted. If it is called out and shown to be in error, the criticism will generally serve to incline those who agree with the claim to still believe it. As such, presenting an ideologically “correct” falsehood (which need not be a lie) seems to be generally a win-win situation.

Since I teach critical thinking, this rather worries me. After all, I devote considerable energy to trying to teach people that they should base their beliefs on evidence and rational argumentation rather than on whatever matches their ideology.  One stock response to my concern is that people are this way “by nature” and hence there is little point in trying to teach people to be critical thinkers. Trying to overcome this tendency and solve the problem of ideological irrationality would be as futile as trying to solve the problem of teen pregnancy by trying to teach abstinence (after all, people are fornicators by nature).

On my bad days, I tend to almost agree. After all, I have repeatedly seen people who are capable of being rational in non-ideological areas show that they lose this capacity when it comes to ideology. However, this is not true of everyone. After all, there are clearly and obviously people who can do a reasonably good job of objective analysis. While some of this might be disposition, much of it is clearly due to training. While everyone might not be trainable, most people could be trained to be critical thinkers. To use an analogy, just as natural tendencies can be overcome by other forms of training (such as military training), this allegedly natural tendency to just go with one’s ideology can also be overcome. I know this because I have seen it happen.

Of course, there is also an artificial barrier. Folks in politics and other areas benefit greatly from being able to (consciously or not) manipulate the poor thinking skills and emotional vulnerabilities of people. As such, they have a vested interest in learning techniques to do this and to ensure that people are left as defenseless as possible. As such, while critical thinking skills are in demand, the education system is actually largely designed to not create such skills. One rather glaring example is that the most basic critical thinking classes are generally taught in college and not earlier. While some educators wonder why students do so badly at critical thinking, this is obviously part of the answer. Imagine what the math skills of students would be like if they took their first actual math class as a college freshman. While it might be countered that critical thinking is too hard for kids, this is clearly not true—the basics could be taught as soon as kids were being taught the basics of math and probably even earlier. In short, I would say that much of what is attributed to human nature is actually the result of education—or the lack thereof.

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Darth VaPaula, Gender and Video Games

Star Wars: The Old Republic

I play Star Wars the  Old Republic. I live in Florida. As such, I was somewhat interested when the Florida Family Association decided to launch an email campaign against Bioware regarding the plans to allow LGBT relationship options in the game.

Lest anyone think that the game is some sort of sex-fest, the relationships between a player character (PC) and a non-player character (NPC) is rather limited. Essentially you get to engage in fairly tame flirting via selecting tame response options and there is some dialog that involves mild sexual themes. For those looking for racy action, you will find much much more on prime time  shows than you will see in SWTOR. While Bioware does an excellent job crafting the personas of the NPCs that the players interact with, I have never been particularly interested in game romance myself. After all, I can do that in real life and I prefer to spend my game time killing bad guys with a light saber, something I cannot do in real life (yet).

However, I know that some players really get into the romance options in Bioware games and it is a rich part of the narrative experience for these folks. As such, I can see why the folks at Florida Family Association are a bit worried. I, too, have been worried when I heard friends speak endlessly of their intimate relationships with NPCs. Of course, my worry is rather different than that of the FFA.

The FFA seems to have two main concerns regarding the possible inclusion of LGBT options in SWTOR:

• Children and teens, who never thought anyway but heterosexual, are now given a choice to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in their game player.

• Children and teens, who choose non-social agenda characters, would be forced to deal with lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender characters chosen by other players.

In regards to the first problem, if these children and teens (although the game is rated T and hence is intended only for teens) have “never thought anyway but heterosexual”, then they would presumably not chose any of the LGBT options in the conversations with NPCs. Unless Bioware radically changes the game by adding an orientation button, a PC’s sexual orientation is shaped by making choices in various conversations (such as picking a flirt option). As such, kids and teens who are purely heterosexual prior to playing SWTOR would presumably not select the LGBT options. After all, if their minds are devoid of any sexual thoughts other than heterosexual, why would they pick anything else? To use the obvious analogy, if I only think about playing a Jedi, the fact that I have the option to play a trooper would not compel me to play a trooper. That is, if I lack trooper tendencies, I won’t play a trooper in the game. Or real life.

It might be countered that the mere option for such in game behavior could lead the heterosexuals away from their heterosexuality. After all, Plato argued at length in the Republic regarding the corrupting potential of art. As such, perhaps SWTOR could turn kids and teens away from the “hetero side” to the “gay side”. This, of course, assumes that any orientation other than heterosexual is morally wrong-which is an issue that is beyond the scope of this essay.

One obvious response to this line of reasoning is that the kids and teens in question will also face the same options in real life. That is, when encountering actual people in the real world they will sometimes have LGBT options for real. As such, this worry about SWTOR seems rather pointless: if the kids and teens are not going to go to the “gay side” in real life, they surely will not do so in SWTOR. Likewise, if they would go to the “gay side” in SWTOR, then perhaps they would do the same in real life anyway. The game merely allows them the chance to select from options that are available in real life already and there seems to be no reason to think that the game would make straight kids gay.

It might be argued that while straight kids and teens can resist the “gay side” in real life, SWTOR would lure them to the “gay side”, perhaps with cookies. As noted above, Plato did argue that art can have corrupting influences that bypass our normal defenses against such things. For example, Plato noted that while a manly man will not give in to sorrow when faced with tragedy in real life, he can easily be seduced to giving into such unseemly feelings via the nefarious influence of the arts. By analogy, kids and teens who are heterosexual in real life could thus be seduced to the “gay side” by the nefarious influence of the video game. This sort of reasoning is, of course, analogous to that used to argue that video games and art corrupt the youth into being more violent or sexual. After all, when not corrupted by art humans have no interest in either sex or violence.

One obvious reply is that if video games have such a powerful impact on the sexual orientation of the youth, then the lack of LGBT options in SWTOR should have converted LGBT players straight. After all, if the availability of LGBT options is a threat to heterosexuality, then the availability of heterosexual options should be an equal threat to LGBT players. The presence of both options could, presumably, cause players to oscillate in their orientation as they are lured from the “straight side” to the “gay side” and then back again. One would thus assume that the person’s sexual orientation would be set by their last interaction in the game. This, of course, seems rather absurd.

It might be claimed that LGBT options are just so appealing that a heterosexual kid exposed to such options will be lured into picking them, contrary to his/her true sexual orientation. The same, it would need to be argued, is not true of heterosexuality.

One obvious reply is that if the LGBT options were that seductive, then most people would be LGBT.  But this is not the case. Another obvious reply is that if LGBT options are so appealing, then perhaps people should chose them. After all, it generally makes sense to pick what is most appealing. To use an analogy, when I pick my dessert I go with the option that appeals to me the most and take that to the be best option. Likewise, if LGBT is such an awesomely appealing choice over heterosexuality, then perhaps people should be picking that rather than struggling to resist it. Of course, if LGBT options lack this special appeal to people who are nominally straight, then these options present no “threat” in the game or in life.

The second problem, as the FFA sees it, is that kids and teens “would be forced to deal with lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender characters chosen by other players.”

My first reply is that the way the game works, players are not forced to deal with the relationships between other PCs and NPCs. That is, the substantial conversation interactions that involve romance take place without other players being involved. As such, if the folks at the FFA are worried that players will be forced to see LGBT sex or even substantial LGBT conversations, then they are worried about nothing. All they will see is the usual killing and looting that form the majority of the game play. As such, they are worried about something that will not really happen.

Of course, it can be countered that players will encounter some LGBT comments or remarks in the course of play and this takes me to my second reply.

Second, kids and teens are already “forced to deal with” LGBT in real life. They might not realize it, but unless they are kept in isolation they are no doubt regularly encountering and interacting with LGBT people. After all, people do not have “straight” or “LGBT” nameplates over their heads in real life. As such, the worry about encountering LGBT characters in the game seems rather absurd.

Third, there is the obvious moral reply. Imagine if someone said that they were worried that their Christian kids and teens would be forced to deal with Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. Or that their white kids would have to deal with Hispanics, Asians, and blacks. Such views would be regarded as nothing more than the expression of hate and prejudice. The same certainly seems true of the FFA’s view here. After all, if the KKK does not have the right to demand a racially pure SWTOR, then the FFA would seem to lack the right to demand a gender pure SWTOR.

The FFA does offer an additional argument against the inclusion of LGBT options in STWOR. The FFA contends that because the Star Wars movies did not have any LGBT characters, they should not be in SWTOR.

On the one hand, this does have some small appeal. After all, a game based on a movie universe should reflect that universe. So, for example, since the Star Wars universe lacked Vulcans and Daleks in the movies, they should not be in the game.

On the other hand, this argument is easy to counter.

While the Star Wars movies did not show LGBT characters (as far as we know), there is nothing to indicate that the Star Wars reality is devoid of LGBT. After all, the movies only follow a limited number of characters and there are only a few relationships (Han and Leia, Anikan and Padme, R2 and C3P0). As such, to infer that because there were no open LGBT relationships in the Star Wars movise, then the Star Wars universe is devoid of LGBT relationships would be an odd inference. This would be  on par with inferring that because the movie did not show any dentists, the Star Wars universe lacks dentists.

Another obvious reply is this: suppose the Star Wars movies did not show any female Smugglers (Han Solo’s class), would it follow that the Smuggler class should be restricted to male characters? It would seem not. After all, there is no universe defining reason why a female cannot be a smuggler. Likewise, it is not inherent to the Star Wars universe that it be LGBT free. After all, the opening does not say “In a totally straight galaxy devoid of LGBT…”. As such, Bioware can add these options and still be within the known canon of Star Wars.

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