Tag Archives: Hillary Clinton

Is Trump’s Presidency Legitimate?

Representative John Lewis, a man who was nearly killed fighting for civil rights, has claimed that Trump is not a legitimate president. While some dismiss this as mere sour grapes, it is certainly an interesting claim and one worth given some consideration.

The easy and obvious legal answer is that Trump’s presidency is legitimate: despite taking a trouncing in the popular vote, Trump won the electoral college. As such, he is the legitimate president by the rules of the system. It does not matter that Trump him denounced the electoral college as “a disaster for democracy”, what matters is the rules of the game. Since the voters have given tacit acceptance of the system by participating and not changing it, the system is legitimate and thus Trump is the legitimate president from this legal standpoint. From a purely practical standpoint, this can be regarded as the only standpoint that matters. However, there are other notions of legitimacy that are distinct from the legal acquisition of power.

In a democratic system of government, one standard of legitimacy is that the majority of the citizens vote for the leader. This can, of course, be amended to a majority vote by the citizens who bother to vote—assuming that voters are not unjustly disenfranchised and that there is not significant voter fraud or election tampering. On this ground, Hillary Clinton is the legitimate president since she received the majority of the votes. This can be countered by arguing that the majority of the citizens, as noted above, accepted the existing electoral system and hence are committed to the results. This does create an interesting debate about whether having the consent of the majority justifies the acceptance of an electoral system that can elect a president who does not win a majority of the votes. As would be suspected, people tend to think this system is just fine when their candidate wins and complain when their candidate loses. But, this is not a principled view of the matter.

Another standard of legitimacy is that the election process is free of fraud and tampering. To the degree the integrity of the electoral system is in question, the legitimacy of the elected president is in doubt. Since the 1990s the Republican party has consistently claimed that voter fraud occurs and is such a threat that it must be countered by such measures as imposing voter ID requirements. With each election, the narrative grows.  What is most striking is that although Trump won the electoral college, he and his team have argued that the integrity of the election was significantly compromised. Famously, Trump tweeted that millions had voted illegally. While the mainstream media could find no evidence of this, Trump’s team has claimed that they have evidence to support Trump’s accusation.

While it seems sensible to dismiss Trump’s claims as the deranged rantings of a delicate man whose fragile ego was wounded by Hillary crushing him in the popular vote, the fact that he is now president would seem to require that his claims be taken seriously. Otherwise, it must be inferred that he is a pathological liar with no credibility who has slandered those running the election and American voters and is thus unworthy of the respect of the American people. Alternatively, his claim must be taken seriously: millions of people voted illegally in the presidential election. This entails that the election’s integrity was grossly violated and hence illegitimate. Thus, by Trump’s own claims about the election, he is not the legitimate president and the election would need to be redone with proper safeguards to keep those millions from voting illegally. So, Trump would seem to be in a dilemma: either he is lying about the election and thus unfit or he is telling the truth and is not a legitimately elected president. Either way undermines him.

It could be countered that while the Republicans allege voter fraud and that Trump claimed millions voted illegally, the election was legitimate because the fraud and illegal voting was all for Hillary and she lost. That is, the electoral system’s integrity has been violated but it did not matter because Trump won. On the one hand, this does have some appeal. To use an analogy, think of a Tour de France in which the officials allow bikers to get away with doping, but the winner is drug free. In that case, the race would be a mess, but the winner would still be legitimate—all the cheating was done by others and they won despite the cheating. On the other hand, there is the obvious concern that if such widespread fraud and illegal voting occurred, then it might well have resulted in Trump’s electoral college victory. Going back to the Tour de France analogy, if the winner claimed that the competition was doping but they were clean and still won, despite the testing system being broken, then there would be some serious doubts about their claim. After all, if the system is broken and they were competing against cheaters, then it is worth considering that their victory was the result of cheating. But, perhaps Trump has proof that all (or most) of the fraud and illegal voting was for Hillary. In this case, he should certainly have evidence showing how all this occurred and evidence sufficient to convict individual voters. As such, arrests and significant alterations to the election system should occur soon. Unless, of course, Trump and the Republicans are simply lying about voter fraud and millions of illegals voting. In which case, they need to stop using the specter of voter fraud to justify their attempts to restrict access to voting. They cannot have it both ways: either voter fraud is real and Trump is illegitimate because the system lacks integrity or the claim of significant voting fraud is a lie.

 

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Fake News III: Pizzagate

While fake news is often bizarre, one of the stranger fake claims is that the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria was part of a child sex ring led by Hillary Clinton. This fake story made the real news when Edgar M. Welch allegedly armed himself and went to the pizzeria to investigate the story. This  investigation led to gunfire, although no one was injured. Mr. Welch surrendered peacefully to the police after finding no evidence of the sex ring.

Given that the story had been debunked by the New York Times, Snopes, and the Washington Post, it might be wondered why someone would believe such a claim. Laying aside the debunking, it might also be wondered why anyone would believe such a seemingly absurd claim: for all her flaws, Hillary Clinton does not seem to be a person who would run a child sex ring.

Some might be tempted to dismiss people who believe fake news as fools or stupid, most likely while congratulating themselves on their own intellectual prowess. While there is no shortage of fools and everyone is stupid at least some of the time, the “people are stupid” explanation does not suffice. After all, intelligent people of all political stripes are fooled by fake news.

One reason why fake news of this sort convinces people is that it makes use of the influence of repetition. While people will tend to be skeptical of odd or implausible claims when they first encounter them, there is a psychological tendency to believe claims that are heard multiple times, especially from multiple sources. While the Nazis did not invent this technique, they did show its effectiveness as a rhetorical tool. The technique of repetition is used more benignly by teachers trying to get people to memorize things. Not surprisingly, politicians and pundits also use this method under the label of “talking points.”

This psychological tendency presumably has some value—when people are honest, things that are repeated and come from multiple sources would generally be true (or at least not deceits). The repetition method also exploits a standard method of reasoning: checking with multiple sources for confirmation. However, such confirmation requires using reliable sources that do not share the same agenda. Getting multiple fake news sites reporting the same fake story creates pseudo-confirmation which can create the illusion of plausibility. The defense against this is, of course, to have diverse sources of news and preferably at least some with very little ideological slant.  It is also useful to ask yourself this question: “although I have heard this many times, is there actual evidence it is true?”

Another reason fake news can be very convincing is that the fake news sites often engage in an active defense of their fake news. This includes using other fake sources to “confirm” their stories, attacks on the credibility of real news sources, and direct attacks on articles by real news sources that expose a fake news story. This defense creates the illusion that the fake news stories are real and that the real news stories are fake.

Some of this works through psychology: one might think that such a defense would only be mounted if there was truth there worthy of the effort. Some appeals to reason: if the real news story exposing fake news is systematically torn down step by step, this creates the illusion of a reasoned argument disproving the claim that the fake story is fake. Attempts to discredit the sources also misuses legitimate critical assessment methods—the fake news sites accuse the real sources of news of being biased, bought and so on. These are legitimate concerns when assessing a source; the problem is not the method but the fact that the claims about the real sources are also typically untrue.

Those who do not want to be duped can counter this fake news defense by the usual method of checking multiple, diverse and reliable sources. This is becoming increasingly difficult as fake news sites proliferate and grow more sophisticated.

A third reason that fake news can seem accurate is that it has supporters who use social media to defend the fake stories and attack the real news. Some of these people are honest—they believe they are saying true things. Others are aware the news is fake. Some even create fake identities to make themselves appear credible. For example, one defender of Pizzagate identified himself as “Representative Steven Smith of the 15th District of Georgia.” Georgia has only 14 districts; but most people would not know this. All these supporters create the illusion of credibility, making it difficult for people to ferret out the truth. After all, most people expect other people to be honest and get basic facts right most of the time—that is a basic social agreement and a foundation of civilization. Fake news, among its other harms, is eroding this foundation.

The defense against this is to research the sources defending a news story. If the defenders are mostly fake themselves, this would indicate that the news story might be fake. However, fake defenders do not prove the story is fake and it is easy to imagine the tactic of using fake defenders to make people feel that the real news is fake. For example, a made up radical liberal source “defending” a story might be used to try to make conservatives feel that a real news story is fake.

A fourth reason that fake news can seem accurate is that the real news has been subject to sustained attacks, mostly from the political right in the United States. Republicans have made the claim that the media is liberally biased a stock talking point, which has no doubt influenced people. Trump took it even further, accusing the news of being terrible people and liars (ironically for reporting that his lies are lies). Given the sustained attack on news, it is no wonder that many people do not regard the real news as reliable. As such, the stories that debunk the fake news are typically rejected because they are the result of liberal bias. This does, of course, make use of a legitimate method of assessing sources: if a source is biased, then it loses credibility. The problem is that rather than being merely skeptical about the mainstream media, many people reject its claims uncritically because of the alleged bias. This is not a proper application of the method—the doubt needs to be proportional to the evidence of bias.

In regards to people believing in seemingly absurd claims, there are both good and bad reasons for this. One good reason is that there are enough cases of the seemingly absurd turning out to be true. In the case of Pizzagate, people hearing about it probably had stories about Jared Fogle and Bill Cosby in mind. They probably heard stories about cases of real sex rings. Give this background, the idea that Hillary Clinton was tied to a sex-ring might seem to have some plausibility. However, the use of such background information should also be tempered by other background information, such as information about how unlikely it is that Hillary Clinton was running sex-ring out of the basement of a pizza place.

The bad reason is that people have a psychological tendency to believe what matches their ideology and existing opinions. So, people who already disliked Hillary Clinton would tend to find such stories appealing—they would feel true. Such psychological bias is hard to fight against; people take strong feelings as proof and often double down in the face of facts to the contrary. Defending against bias is probably the hardest method—it requires training and practice in being aware of how feelings are impacting the assessment of a claim and developing the ability to go into a “neutral” assessment mode.

Given that fake news is spreading like a plague, it is wise to develop defenses against it to avoid being duped, perhaps to the point where one is led to commit crimes because of lies.

 

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White Nationalism II: The BLM Argument

While there are some varieties of white nationalism, it is an ideology committed to the creation and preservation of a nation comprised entirely of whites (or at least white dominance of the nation). While some white nationalists honestly embrace their racism, others prefer to present white nationalism in a more pleasant guise. Some advance arguments to show that it should be accepted as both good and desirable.

While it is not limited to using Black Lives Matter, I will dub one of the justifying arguments “the BLM argument” and use BLM as my main example when discussing it. The argument typically begins by pointing out the existence of “race-based” identity groups such as Black Lives Matters, Hispanic groups, black student unions and so on. The next step is to note that these groups are accepted, even lauded, by many (especially on the left). From this it is concluded that, by analogy, white identity groups should also be accepted, if not lauded.

If analogies are not one’s cup of tea, white identity groups can be defended on the grounds of consistency: if the existence of non-white identity groups is accepted, then consistency requires accepting white identity groups.

From a logical standpoint, both arguments have considerable appeal because they involve effective methods of argumentation. However, consistency and analogical arguments can both be challenged and this challenge can often be made on the same basis, that of the principle of relevant difference.

The principle of relevant difference is the principle that similar things must be treated in similar ways, but that relevantly different things can be justly treated differently. For example, if someone claimed that it was fine to pay a woman less than a man simply because she is a woman, then that would violate the principle of relevant difference. If it was claimed that a male worker deserves more pay because he differs from a female co-worker in that he works more hours, then this would fit the principle. In the case of the analogical argument, a strong enough relevant difference would break the analogy and show that the conclusion is not adequately supported. In the case of the consistency argument, showing a strong enough relevant difference would justify treating two things differently because sufficiently different things can justly be treated differently.

A white nationalist deploying the BLM argument would contend that although there are obviously differences between BLM and a white nationalist group, these differences are not sufficient to allow condemnation of white nationalism while accepting BLM. Put bluntly, it could be said that if black groups are morally okay, then so are white groups. On the face of it, this generally reasoning is solid enough. It would be unprincipled to regard non-white groups as acceptable while condemning white groups merely because they are white groups.

One way to respond to this would be to argue that all such groups are unacceptable; perhaps because they would be fundamentally racist in character. This would be a consistent approach and has some appeal—accepting these sorts of identity groups is to accept race identification as valid; which seems problematic.

Another approach is to make relevant difference arguments that establish strong enough differences between white nationalist groups and groups like BLM and Hispanic student unions. There are many options and I will consider a few.

One option is to argue that such an identity group is justified when the members of that group are identified by others and targeted on this basis for mistreatment or oppression. In this case, the group identity would be imposed and acknowledged as a matter of organizing a defense against the mistreatment or oppression.  BLM members can make the argument that black people are identified as blacks and mistreated on this basis by some police. As such, BLM is justified as a defensive measure against this mistreatment. Roughly put, blacks can justly form black groups because they are targeted as blacks. The same reasoning would apply to other groups aimed at protection from mistreatment aimed at specific identity groups.

Consistency would require extending this same principle to whites. As such, if whites are being targeted for mistreatment or oppression because they are white, then the formation of defensive white identity groups would be warranted. Not surprisingly, this is exactly the argument that white groups often advance: they allege they are victims and are acting to protect themselves.

While white groups have a vast and varied list of the crimes they believe are being committed against them as whites, they are fundamentally mistaken. While crimes are committed against white people and there are white folks who are suffering from things like unemployment and opioid addiction, these are not occurring because they are white. They are occurring for other reasons. While it is true that the special status of whites is being challenged, and has eroded over the years, the loss of such unfair and unwarranted advantages in favor of greater fairness is not a moral crime. The belief in white victimhood is the result of willful delusion and intentional deceit and is not grounded in facts.

This line of argument does, however, remain open to empirical research. If it can be shown with objective evidence that whites are subject to general mistreatment and oppression because they are whites, then defensive white groups would be justified on these grounds. While I am aware that people can find various videos on YouTube purporting to establish the abuse of whites as whites, one must distinguish between anecdotal evidence and adequate statistical support. For example, if fatal DWW (Driving While White) incidents started occurring at a statistically significant level, then it would be worth considering the creation of WLM (White Lives Matter).

A second option is to consider the actions and goals of the group in question. If a group has a morally acceptable goal and acts in ethical ways, then the group would be morally fine. However, a group that had morally problematic goals or acted in immoral ways would be relevantly different from groups with better goals and methods.

While BLM does have its detractors, its avowed goal is “is working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.” This seems to be a morally commendable goal. While BLM is often condemned by the likes of Fox News for their protests, the organization certainly seems to be operating in accord with a non-violent approach to protesting. As such, its general methodology is at least morally acceptable. This is, of course, subject to debate and empirical investigation. If, for example, it was found that BLM were organizing the murder of police officers, then that would make the group morally wrong.

White groups could, of course, have morally acceptable goals and methods. For example, if a white group was created in response to the surge in white people dying from opioids and they focused on supporting treatment of white addicts, then such a group would seem to be morally fine.

However, there are obviously white groups that have evil goals and use immoral methods. White supremacy groups, such as the KKK, are the usual examples of such groups. The white nationals also seem to be an immoral group. The goal of white dominance and the goal of establishing a white nation are both to be condemned, albeit not always for the same reasons. While the newly “mainstreamed” white nationalists are not explicitly engaged in violence, they do make use of a systematic campaign of untruths and encourage hatred. The connections of some to Nazi ideology is also extremely problematic.

In closing, while it is certainly possible to have white identity groups that are morally acceptable, the white nationalists are not among them. It is also worth noting that all identity groups might be morally problematic.

 

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Why did the Democrats Lose?

While asserting “Trump won” or “Hillary lost” might seem to say the same thing, they actual differ in meaningful ways. The view that Trump won is the stance that he achieved victory by overcoming Hillary, presumably by doing the right things. To use a running analogy, this would be like a runner beating another by being able to outkick her at the end.

The view that Hillary lost is the perception that she snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by doing the wrong thing and thus she lost. Using a running analogy, this would be like a runner showing off and tripping because he was not paying attention, thus losing the race that he would have otherwise won.

A pragmatic person might say that there is no real difference between winning by winning and winning by the other person losing—the winner still wins. While this pragmatic approach does have appeal, the difference does matter when it comes to sorting out what went wrong, what went right and what needs to be done next time. It could also be contended that both approaches are right and wrong: Trump did win by winning but also won by Hillary losing.

Regardless of which view is taken, there is the assumption that there are broad reasons for the results that can be determined and used in planning the next race. While this assumption is probably correct, it is worth considering that elections might be analogous to fads, such as the hottest toy for Christmas or the latest fashion. Trying to find the cause and reproduce it is likely to be a fool’s errand; if this could be done then producing the next fad would be a science rather than a matter of luck. It is also well worth considering that there are a vast number of contributing factors that influenced various voters and that efforts to provide a broad causal explanation must fail because there is no broad causal explanation—just an abundance of individual explanations. Having made these points, I will sweep them aside and speculate about some likely broad causes.

Pundits and experts have already put forth various hypotheses as to why Hillary lost and Trump won. One consistent narrative is that many voters were looking for someone from outside Washington to bring about change. This narrative is supported by the claim that some who had voted for Obama last time switched to Trump this time—these could be regarded as change voters. Another consistent narrative is that Hillary could never stake the email server vampire in the heart; it kept rising from the grave to drain the blood from her campaign.

There are also explanations that rest on the assumption that voters are bad fact-checkers, poor at reasoning and do not operate based on consistent application of principles for decision making. For example, Hillary was condemned as crooked and dishonest by people who praised Trump for telling it like it is, despite the objective fact that Trump was relentless in his untruths and is scheduled to go on trial for Trump University. As another example, Hillary was also attacked for being an elite insider by people who praised Trump for being a man who cares about the working class, despite Trump being part of the elite economic class who has routinely been sued for not sticking to contracts. On this view, Trump won because he is a better deceiver than Hillary. So, the lesson for the next time would be to run the best deceiver that can be found.

There are also explanations that Trump won because of racism, bigotry and xenophobia. Even members of his own party condemned many of his remarks as racist and sexist. He has also won the hearts of the Klan, white nationalists and American Nazis. After the 2012 Republican defeat, some of the analysis indicated that the Republicans would need to either expand their appeal to minorities or double down on getting the white vote. Some speculated it would not be possible to win without a broader appeal. Trump, by accident or design, embraced doubling down on the white vote and won. To be fair, he also did surprisingly well beyond the white vote. The question is, of course, how long that strategy will work—the United States is on course to becoming a majority minority nation. I suspect that active voter suppression of minorities and inspired gerrymandering can extend white dominance, but eventually these methods will be overcome by demographic change. That said, white voters will be a critical demographic for a long time and failing to capture the white vote would not bode well for a candidate. There are, of course, alternative explanations to why Trump did so well with white voters (or why Hillary did so poorly).

While some find the racism and xenophobia hypothesis appealing, it can be argued that many white voters were not motivated by race. Pundits like to point out that Obama won many of the same voters that went over to Trump. While it might be naïve of me, I certainly believe most of my fellow Americans are not racist xenophobes, additional explanations are needed.

One reasonable explanation is that the Democrats have made matters of race and gender, such as police treatment of minorities and same-sex marriage, flagship issues. This is not to say that the Democrats have completely ignored issues that are especially important to white voters, just that there is a public perception that the party elites are more interested in bathroom access for transgender people than with the economic woes of white workers or the drug epidemic impacting whites.

It could be objected that people who take the above view are misguided: whatever problems whites have (especially straight white males) pale in comparison to the woes of non-whites (especially non-straight non-whites). Hence, paying special attention to these groups is justified. In accord with this view, whites, males and straight people are often told to “check their privilege” and called to task for daring to complain about their lot.

This reply does have some appeal. In general, white people are better off than non-white people, men are generally better off than women, and straight folks typically face less woes than non-straight folks. However, there two main concerns here. The first is that while it is true that those in the advantage groups (white, straight, male) do generally have things better, they still face very real problems. As citizens, they have every right to expect these real problems to be taken seriously and addressed. There is also the purely practical matter—it would be irrational for voters to vote for candidates who they think will not act to address their problems.

To use an analogy in medicine, a person with a broken arm could stand in for the problems of white people while a person with multiple serious injuries could stand in for the disadvantaged groups. While it is true that the person with the serious injuries would take precedence under triage and merit more attention, it would be wrong to dismiss the person with the broken arm and fail to give the injury due attention.

It could be objected that the analogy is not accurate and that a better one would be to replace the person with the broken arm with a hypochondriac who thinks he is suffering terribly, but is not really suffering at all. Moving away from the analogy, the idea would be that the advantaged groups are complaining about a loss of unjust advantages and wailing over imagined harms; they are complaining about nothing.

The reasonable reply is that this is true is some cases—many of the most vehement complaints are about the “cruel injustices” of not being able to discriminate or retain unfair advantages. However, even those in the advantaged groups face real problems such as unemployment, drug abuse, depression and so on. As such, perhaps a new analogy is in order involving the person with the broken arm standing in for those with real problems and the hypochondriac standing in for those whining about losing their unfair advantages and license to discriminate.

The second overall concern here is that telling people to “check their privilege” and attacking them in other ways can do more harm than good. For example, such attacks can turn off potential allies. While it is certainly legitimate to call out people who fail to recognize their privilege and to criticize people for discriminating, it is wise to consider the context and consequences of such approaches.  I will use an anecdote to illustrate the problem.

When I was in graduate school, I was living on my meager TA stipend and surviving on a diet of ramen noodles and rice puff cereal. I also got good at sewing my clothes to make them last longer. I was on my own financially, which is something I accepted as part of being an adult. I recall a friend and I being lectured about male privilege by two female students from upper-class families. I vaguely recall that one had been vacationing on the family yacht recently.

As a philosopher, I know that rejecting arguments about male privilege because very privileged women were making them to very unprivileged men would be to fall into an ad hominem fallacy (to reject a claim or argument because of irrelevant qualities of the person making the claim or argument). However, I certainly resented being lectured in this way. I did, of course, recognize that women in general face more obstacles and injustices than men generally face. However, this did nothing to address my worries about scraping together enough money to pay rent and buy food—there were many times I went hungry so I could pay my other bills. While I did go on to become a professor with a steady income, I remember those times and I am aware that there are many white males who are currently financially insecure. Lecturing them in male privilege or white privilege will not win them over. I suspect that some feel they are being lectured by the elite of the Democratic party and they resent this. Not because they are racist or sexist, but because such lectures are insulting and insensitive. While the Democrats should stay involved with the causes of their preferred disadvantaged groups, they also need to sincerely address the concerns of those in the advantaged groups—especially since many in these groups are extremely disadvantaged relative to the liberal elites.

 

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How did the polls get it wrong?

The pundits and polls predicted that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency of the United States. They were, obviously enough, wrong. As would be expected, the pundits and pollsters are trying to work out how they got it wrong. While punditry and polling are generally not philosophical, the assessment of polling is part of critical thinking and this is part of philosophy. As such, it is worth considering this matter from a philosophical perspective.

One easy way to reconcile the predictions and the results is to point out the obvious fact that likelihood is not certainty. While there was considerable support for the claim that Hillary would probably win, this entailed that she could still lose. Which she did. To use the obvious analogy, when it is predicted that a sports team will win, it is obviously possible that it can lose. In one sense, the prediction would be wrong: the predicted outcome did not occur. In another sense, a prediction put in terms of probability could still be right—the predictor could get the probability right, yet the actual outcome could be the unlikely one. People who are familiar with games that explicitly involve probabilities, like Dungeons & Dragons, are well aware of this. For example, it could be true that there is a 90% chance of not getting killed by a fireball, but it would shock no experienced player if it killed their character.  There is, of course, the question about whether the estimated probabilities were accurate or not—unlike in a game, we do not get to see the actual mechanics of reality. But, I know turn to the matter of polls.

As noted above, the polls indicated that more people said they would vote for Clinton than for Trump, thus her victory was predicted. A critical look at polling indicates that things could go wrong in many ways. I will start broadly and then move on to more particular matters.

Polling involves what philosophers call an inductive generalization. It is a simple inductive argument that looks like this:

  • Premise: X% of observed Ys are F.
  • Conclusion: X% of all Ys are Fs.

In a specific argument, the Y is whatever population the argument is about; in this case it would be American voters. The observed Ys (known as the sample) would be the voters who responded to the poll. The F is whatever feature the argument is concerned with. In the election, this would be voting for a specific candidate. Naturally, a poll can address many candidates at once.

Being an inductive argument, it is assessed in terms of strength and weakness. A strong inductive argument is one such that if the premises were true, then the conclusion is probably true. A weak one is such that if the premises were true, then the conclusion is probably not true. This is a matter of logical support—whether the premises are true or not is another matter. In terms of this logic, all inductive arguments involve a logical leap from what has been observed to what has not been observed. When teaching this, I make use of an analogy to trying to jump a chasm in the dark—no matter how careful a person is, they might not make it. Likewise, no matter how good an inductive argument is, true premises do not guarantee a true conclusion. Because of this, a poll can always get things wrong—this is the nature of induction and this unavoidable possibility is known as the problem of induction. Now to some more specific matters.

In the case of an inductive generalization, the strength of the argument depends on the quality of the sample—how well it represents the whole population from which it is drawn. Without getting into statistics, there are two main concerns about the sample. The first is whether or not the sample is large enough to warrant confidence in the conclusion. If the sample is not adequate in size, accepting the conclusion is to fall victim to the classic fallacy of a hasty generalization.  To use a simple example, a person who sees two white squirrels at Ohio State and infers all Ohio squirrels are white would fall victim to a hasty generalization. In general, the professionally conducted polls were large enough; so they most likely did not fail in regards to sample size.

The second is whether or not the sample resembles the population. Roughly put, a good sample recreates the breakdown of the population in miniature (in terms of characteristics relevant to the generalization). In the case of the election polls, the samples would need to match the population in terms of qualities that impact voting behavior. These would include age, gender, religion, income and so on. A sample that is taken in a way that makes it unlikely to resemble the population results in what is known as biased generalization, which is a fallacy. As an example, if a person wanted to know what all Americans thought about gun control and they only polled NRA members, they would commit this fallacy. It must be noted that whether or not a sample is biased is relative to its purpose—if someone wanted to know what NRA members thought about gun control, polling NRA members would be what one would do.

Biased samples are avoided in various ways, but the most common approaches are to use a random sample (one in which any member of the population has the same chance of being selected for the sample as any other) and a stratified sample (taking samples from the various relevant groups within the population).

The professional pollsters presumably took steps to ensure the samples resembled the overall population; hopefully using random, stratified samples and other methods. However, things can still go wrong. In regards to a random sample, there are obviously practical factors that preclude a truly random sample. Also, even a random sample can still fail to resemble the population. For example, imagine you have a mix of 50 plain M&M and 50 peanut M&Ms. If you pulled out 25 at random, it would not be shocking to have more plain or more peanut M&Ms in your sample. So, these random samples could have gotten things wrong.

In terms of a stratified sample, there are all the usual problems of pulling out the sample members for each stratum as well as the problem of identifying all the strata that are relevant. It could be the case that the polls did not get the divisions in American voters right and this biased the sample, thus throwing off the results.

Polls involving people also obviously require that people participate, that they honestly answer the questions, and that they stick to that answer. One concern that has been raised is that since the polls are conducted by the media and people who supported Trump tend to hate and distrust the media, it could be that many Trump supporters refused to participate in the polls, thus skewing the results in Hillary’s favor. A second concern is that people sometimes lie on polls—often because they think they should give the answer they believe the pollster wants. A third concern is that people give an honest answer at the time, then change their minds later. All of these could help explain the disparity between the polls and the results.

Conspiracy theorists could also claim that the media was lying about its results in order to help Hillary, presumably reasoning that if voters thought Trump was going to lose they would either vote for Hillary to be on the winning side or simply stay home because of a lack of hope. As with all conspiracy theories, the challenge lies in presenting evidence for this.

And that is how the polls might have gone wrong in predicting Hillary’s victory.

 

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Accepting Victory/Accepting Defeat

I am writing this on November 7, 2016. This is the day before the United States’ presidential election. While other matters are on the ballot, the main contest is between Hillary and Trump. While the evidence seems to show that Hillary will win, Trump has a chance that vastly exceeds his competence for the position. As such, the contest could go either way.

While I do regard Trump as morally and intellectually unfit for the office, I do not have a strong emotional commitment to Hillary. As such, a “victory” for me this election would be that Trump does not win. A defeat would be that Trump becomes president. While some might suspect that my negative view of Trump would cause me to spew “Trump is not my president”, this is not the case. If Trump is elected, he will be as much my president as Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and so on were. That is how democracy works. Since I am a philosopher, I do have a philosophical justification for my approach and certainly urge others to accept a similar view.

While democracy is ancient, more recent thinkers such as John Locke have worked out many of the key details in theory and practice. As Locke saw it, government is based on a social contract resulting from the consent of the governed. Since the political body must move in one direction, Locke argued for majority rule—the numerical minority is obligated to go along with the numerical majority. Or, in terms of the usual low voter turnout in the United States, the numerical minority of the voters must go along with the numerical majority of voters, even though the voters might be a numerical minority of the eligible voters.

His justification for this was fairly practical: if the numerical minority refused to go along, the society would be torn apart. Locke did recognize that there could be matters so serious that they would warrant a split, but he believed that these would be rather unusual. While I do believe that Trump would be the worst president in history, I do not regard this as a matter so serious that it would require sundering the nation. The possibility of disaster does, however, provide a potential justification for a sundering.

John Stuart Mill developed the notion of the tyranny of the majority—that the majority (or those passing as the majority) might wish to use their numerical advantage to oppress the numerical minority. In such cases, Mill rejected the idea of majority rule and argued that the restriction of liberty can only be justified on the grounds of preventing harm to others. Since Mill was a utilitarian, all this would be worked out morally on that basis. As such, if it were true that the presidency of Trump or Clinton would be worse than the sundering caused by the rejection of the election, then it could be justified. That said, while I do expect there to be many angry people on November 8, I do not anticipate large scale social disorder. In terms of the consequences, I believe that no matter how bad Hillary or Trump would be as president, their badness would not exceed the harm of rejecting the election. As president, Trump can only do so much damage—far less than a sundering would cause. Those who think that Hillary would be a disaster as a president should also take this same view: no matter how bad she is, she cannot be as bad as the consequences of a sundering. This all assumes, of course, that the election was a proper one.

In discussing obedience in the Crito, Socrates presents the argument that he is obligated to follow the laws of the state because he agreed to do so. He does allow for two exceptions: force or fraud. If the forced him into the agreement or if the agreement were a deceit, then he would not be obligated to stick to his agreement. This seems reasonable: agreements made under duress and agreements based on deception have no merit.

Despite having no evidence, Trump has been asserting that if he loses, then the election must have been rigged. If he wins, he has graciously promised to accept that result. While Trump’s approach is morally irresponsible, there is a philosophical foundation under his spew. Going back to Socrates, if the election is such that fraud or force is used to change the outcome, then this negates the obligation of citizens to accept the results. The question then is whether or not the election is being “rigged.”

While there are clear concerns about efforts at voter suppression, such suppression targets minorities who are far more likely to vote for Hillary than Trump—as such, this “rigging” is in Trump’s favor. If voter suppression impacts the outcome, then this would provide legitimate grounds for questioning the results.

Trump has embraced the Republican myth of voter fraud, but myths provide no foundation for claims of significant fraud. While Trump has made vague claims about rigging in general, informed and rational people have pointed out the obvious: elections are run by the states and direct operations are handled locally, so rigging the election would require a conspiracy across the states, counties and localities. While this is not impossible, it would be absurd to give this any credence—especially since Trump has provided no evidence at all. However, if it could be shown that fraud impacted the election, then there would be legitimate grounds for questioning the results.

While Trump has not (as of this writing) explicitly told his supporters to engage in voter intimidation, his critics have claimed that he is suggesting this. Given the attention being paid to the election, it is unlikely that voter intimidation will occur on a significant scale, but if it did, then there would be grounds for rejecting the results of the election.

Trump’s supporters have pointed to Al Gore’s legal challenge of the 2000 election to justify Trump’s claim he won’t accept the results (unless he wins). Gore, however, did not claim the election was rigged—his concern was with the accuracy of the count and similar procedural matters. There was also the fact that my adopted state of Florida created an electoral nightmare of hanging chads and similar disasters. As such, there was a real problem to sort out. If an analogous procedural disaster occurs, it would be reasonable to contest the disaster. But this would not be a rejection of the electoral process or the legitimacy of the election—it would be a matter of sorting out a mess. Such a situation could, of course, escalate—but I do hope that the election goes smoothly. Or, failing that, that I hope neither my home state of Maine nor my adopted state of Florida play a role in any electoral disasters.

Assuming the election is not rendered invalid by fraud or force, then the results will properly determine the next legitimate president of the United States, whether this be Hillary or Trump. As citizens, we are obligated to accept the results of a properly conducted election—that is what we have agreed to by being citizens. Trump, in his dangerous, self-serving buffoonery, has assaulted this foundation of our democracy. My hope is that if he is defeated and refuses to accept the results, his supporters will take their duty as citizens seriously. If he wins, I intend to do just that and accept him as the legitimate president. Again, this is how democracy works and I have agreed, by being a citizen, to accept the results of the election. Whether I am on the winning or losing side.

 

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After the Election

The systematic efforts to demoralize American voters and to create a toxic political environment have resulted in perhaps the most vitriolic election cycle in modern memory. While some people do like their candidate, much of the electorate seems to be motivated by their loathing of the opposing candidate. As such, most voters seem to be voting against Trump or Hillary rather than for them.

The demoralizing of the electorate has proven to be an effective but ultimately destructive strategy. On the “positive” side, demotivating voters through suppression tactics (such as voter ID laws and cutting back on early voting) and fostering an attitude that voting is ineffective has proven beneficial to certain candidates—they get elected. On the negative side, the foundation of democracy is being eroded as people lose faith in the democratic process. This disinvestment on the part of citizens contributes to the decay of American society and will no doubt to prove to be a significant factor in the decline and fall of the American empire.

The creation of a toxic political environment through such means as exploiting fears of race, class and religion has also proven to be beneficial to some in the short term. There have also been sustained attacks on key institutions, ranging from the government in general to the election process in particular. The political parties have enjoyed fevered victories through poisoning the political body. Trump provides an excellent example of this—his willingness to go beyond the moral limits of other Republicans (and his free media coverage) helped him grope his way towards the White House. These victories come at a price in the form of divisiveness and the fanning of the fires of hate. Institutions that are essential to the functioning of the nation have also been corroded and eroded, thus weakening the United States.

The battle between Hillary and Trump is the logical result of these approaches and one of them will be president. While there is always talk of reconciliation after elections, the last eight years have revealed that the Republican Party is quite comfortable with obstruction and the Democrats have not proven strong enough to remove the blockage in the pipes of government. While some have pointed to racism as a factor in the case of Obama, the Republicans seem to be even more intent on blocking and thwarting Hillary if she wins. John McCain, once known for being willing to work with Democrats, has already vowed to block anyone Hillary nominates to the Supreme Court. While this would yield short term political advantages to some Republicans, this approach is fundamentally damaging to the country. In addition to damaging peoples’ confidence in the institutions, keeping the court at eight judges will be problematic. This would only get worse as judges die. In theory, the senate could eliminate the court in this manner, which would be disastrous.

If Trump gets elected, the Republicans might do the same to him, depending on who he selects as his nominees. If the Democrats take the senate, they might decide to block Trump’s nominees and point at the Republicans when they are criticized. Naturally, a senate controlled by Democrats would most likely approve Hillary’s nominee. From the standpoint of restoring the court to its full membership, the election of Hillary and the success of the Democrats in the senatorial races are probably the best bets. Of course, conservatives might not be happy with her choice—at least in regards to social issues. However, Hillary is essentially a moderate classic Republican, so she would probably appoint a fairly moderate judge. Who would be perceived as a radical liberal by those on the right. Of course, there is more to the presidency than just appointing judges—there is also doing the business of the executive branch. This could also prove problematic.

Trump is already scheduled for court dates, so those will presumably interfere a bit with his presidency. While Hillary is not yet scheduled for any court appearances, the Republicans are already planning out years of investigations. In addition to wasting time and millions of dollars in public money, these investigations will (as intended) most likely greatly dampen the effectiveness of her presidency. After all, spending countless hours testifying will eat up her time and the investigation will damage her reputation more and weaken America’s standing in the world. After all, foreign leaders will realize that such a divided government will be weaker, less effective and not paying as much attention to the world. But, the Republicans will gain a short term political advantage at the cost of eroding America’s power and standing in the world—which is presumably totally worth it. Of course, Hillary could have elected to forgo running for the good of the country; but she is also very focused on her own advantage. The Democrats probably will not take the House, but if they do, then Hillary will have much smoother sailing. This might be good for the country. Or not.

While Republicans have not planned years of investigations into Trump (should he be elected), some have claimed that they intend to oppose him when he goes against the party ideology. Trump is likely to do just that and Democrats will certainly oppose him, so a Trump presidency will also almost certainly result in the continuation of the standoff between the presidency and Congress. But, perhaps the next president will be able to do some things.

Hillary has, of course, many detailed plans and policies and an established track record. As such, it is easy to predict what she will do and this is business as usual. While not great for the working people of America, business as usual is not the worst option. Continued growth and increased employment seem like good trends. She will also presumably keep the Obama social programs on track, which is not the worst thing that can happen.

Trump has no track record in politics, but he does have an awful record in business—presumably he will use his business skills in office. This would seem to be a bad thing. Trump speaks in vague generalities and untruths and often makes no sense, so it is difficult to say exactly what his policies will be. Presumably he will try for the wall, try to kick out illegals, and use his secret plan on what is left of ISIS. Or whatever—one cannot really say what he will do. However, given his complete lack of experience, his temperament, and the skill set he has displayed in his reality shows, it would be reasonable to predict that he would be a disaster as a president. But, perhaps he will do shockingly well. His supporters claim he will surround himself with good people—perhaps they can run the country for him and do a good job.

Regardless of who gets elected, the next four years could be really bad. So bad, in fact, that future historians might mark this election as a key point in the decline and fall of the American Empire. If so, it is also on us—democracy gives us the government we deserve.

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Rigged Election?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has been asserting that the presidential election will be rigged. He seems to have three main assertions regarding the rigging. The first is that the election is being rigged by “the dishonest media” who support “crooked Hillary.” The second is that the polling places are rigged. The third is that there will be widespread voter fraud.

Despite Trump’s assertions about a rigged election, Trump’s vice presidential pick Mike Pence has tried to assure the public that he and Trump will honor the results. Other Republicans have been critical of Trump’s remarks about the election being rigged and there is concern that such remarks are damaging to the American democratic process. There is, of course, a certain irony in the Republican reaction to Trump. This is because Trump is using hyperbolic versions of established Republican tactics.

The idea that the media has a liberal bias which puts conservatives at a disadvantage in the polls dates back to at least the time of Nixon. However, more traditional Republicans have not gone as far as Trump in their attacks on the media. He is thus not breaking new ground, but going to new distances on that ground. Trump does, however, differ in that he seems to merge the alleged media bias in with the rigging of elections. These are, obviously enough, two distinct matters. While the media presumably influences people, this is different from rigging an election. Such rigging involves improper tampering with the actual voting process and not influencing voters.

It is also somewhat ironic that Trump is pre-blaming the media for his possible defeat, given that he is partially a creation of that same media. While estimates do vary, it is believed that Trump received $2-3 billion in free media coverage. While it could be argued that Trump would have become the Republican nominee without this media support, it certainly seems reasonable to consider this a significant factor in his success. This past largesse from the media does not, of course, prove that the media is not biased against him now.

The question of whether the media is biased against Trump is somewhat problematic. On the one hand, most people in the media (liberal and conservative) seem to dislike Trump considerably. This is certainly worth taking into account when critically assessing media coverage of Trump. On the other hand, the majority of the negative coverage is negative because of what Trump does and says and not because the media is twisting the stories. This matter can be settled with considerable effort by having objective experts review all the news coverage of Trump for factual accuracy and the presence of negative bias against him. However, if the results of such an analysis revealed that the coverage was generally accurate, Trump would presumably dismiss the expert analysis as biased and the experts as stupid losers.

Trump’s claim that the electoral process itself will be rigged is one that is quite unusual—Democrats and Republicans generally do not question the integrity of the general process. While rare and isolated incidents are not unknown, the integrity of the system itself seems solid. As others have claimed, this unwarranted attack is potentially dangerous to the American political process and could have harmful consequences. Trump’s use of this tactic would thus seem to indicate either his ignorance or his lack of ethics. Or possibly both.

While Trump’s broad attack on the presidential election is unfounded, his attack does borrow some credibility from legitimate concerns. One is the revelation that the Democratic Party seemed to be stacking the deck for Hillary Clinton against Bernie Sanders. This does raise concerns about the fairness of the party—but it would be something of a leap to take this as evidence that the general election will be rigged against Trump.

Another concern arises from all the various tricks, such as gerrymandering, that are used to modify local elections in favor of certain candidates. While methods are a problem, these tactics would generally not work on a national level. For example, gerrymandering is out. Also, rigging the election in enough states to cost Trump the election would be rather difficult and all but impossible to hide. This is not to say that there are not people who would like to rig it against Trump (or Hillary), just that there are massive logistic and secrecy challenges that they could almost certainly not overcome. In light of this, it seems certain that the election process itself is not rigged against Trump. This is something Paul Ryan and I agree on.

While Republicans are broadly opposing Trump’s assertion about a rigged election, his assertion about voter fraud is a page from the established Republican playbook. While Pence has not backed Trump on the idea that the election is rigged, Pence does support voter ID laws. These ID laws and other methods (such as reducing early voting opportunities) are defended by arguing that voter fraud presents a threat to the integrity of elections. While it is true that voter fraud is not non-existent, all the evidence shows that it almost never occurs. Given that the fraud is almost entirely mythical and the methods proposed by Republicans to combat it disproportionally impact groups more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans, the logical inference is that these methods are aimed at “rigging” elections in favor of Republicans. As such, Trump is right to be worried that there is something going on aimed at unfairly influencing the election. Ironically, these attempts would seem to be in his favor and not to his disadvantage.

Trump has thus created yet another problem for Republicans. The traditional Republicans generally do not want voters to doubt the legitimacy of elections, but they do want voters to believe that voter fraud exists and must be countered by the means they propose. However, to the degree they succeed in raising fears about voter fraud, they serve to undermine confidence in elections and thus they feed Trump. Trump’s gift to the Republicans has been connecting their notion of voter fraud with his notion that the election will be rigged. This is not a gift they want.

To combat this alleged fraud, Trump has urged his followers to go to polling stations to keep an eye out for it. While voters do have the right to a fair election process, Trump seems to be implying that his followers should engage in voter intimidation—a tactic often used against minority voters in the past. Trump, of course, does not directly say this and his wording, as it so often does, allows him to deny that he is directly urging his followers to do such a thing—even though the message seems to have been received by some.

In addition to being illegal, such intimidation is fundamentally immoral in a democracy. It would also be a form of election rigging, something Trump professes to hate. At least when the rigging is supposed to be against him.

 

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Trump & Misogyny

Watching Trump is rather like an observing a submarine test: you wonder how low it can sink. Like an amazing sub, Trump keeps reaching new depths. An old recording of Trump was recently released which features the Republican candidate saying rather awful things. This has cost him the endorsement of some Republicans, but he still seems to be incredibly resistant to damage: he had managed to spew forth a stream of awful things such that any one of which would have been a career ending injury for almost anyone else.

While there have been some calls for Trump to leave the race, Trump has so far decided that he is staying in. As should be expected, Trump has presented a reply to the situation that includes his usual tactics.  While most would not consider Trump philosophical, he does say things that are certainly interesting to discus in this context.

Trump begins his response by pointing out that the recording is from 2005 and he asserts that he has changed since then. As such, he should not be criticized now for what he did then. This defense potentially has merit: if he has reformed, then while the recording shows that Trump was awful, that was then and this is now. From a moral standpoint, the main concern is whether or not Trump is still the same sort of person he was in 2005. Interestingly, Trump’s initial defense did not include claims that his remarks were out of character; presumably he accepts that this behavior was in accord with his character in 2005.

While there are no known recent remarks about women by Trump that exactly match his 2005 remarks, he does not seem to have reformed in any morally meaningful way. He casually and routinely engages in misogyny and sexism and this gives lie to his defense. As such, the 2005 remarks do reflect both who he was and who he is. If Trump had shown signs of moral growth, then this defense could have merit—there are certainly cases of people who redeem themselves and become better. Unfortunately, there seems to be no evidence of this in Trump’s case.

Trump also endeavored to use a red herring (a rhetorical device in which someone attempts to divert attention from the original issue) to switch attention from his remarks. Rather, he hoped to get people to ignore them and focus instead on his assertions that “We are losing our jobs, we are less safe than we were eight years ago and Washington is totally broken.”

It could be countered that this is not a red herring because the character of a president does not matter in the face of such alleged problems. This approach does have potential merit and will be addressed in the context of Bill Clinton, who seems to have been used in another Trump red herring.

In his response, Trump also asserted that “Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course.” This could also be regarded as a red herring—the matter of whether Bill has said worse things or not is a different issue from the matter of Trump’s remarks. Even if Bill has said worse things, this proves nothing about Trump’s remarks.

As mentioned before, perhaps Trump’s defenders could make the case that Bill Clinton was an excellent president despite the things he allegedly said. Given that many successful leaders have had awful moralities in regards to their views of women, a case could be made here arguing that a leader who will do the job well should not be assessed based on such alleged failings. Put crudely, it does not matter what the leader wants to grab, because “it’s the economy, stupid.” While this does have some appeal, Bill’s behavior did have damaging consequences for him and the country, so there is clearly a downside to this quality in a leader. There is also the moral question of whether or not the tradeoff would be worth it, especially if a good leader could be found who was not a misogynist.

If Bill were running against Trump, then showing that Bill is just as bad would be a relevant response. This is because if Trump and Bill were equally awful in this regard, then Trump’s awfulness would not disadvantage him relative to Bill—at least under a rational assessment. To use an analogy, if a HP laptop and an Asus laptop had equally short battery life, then battery life would not serve as a reason to pick one over the other. But, of course, Trump is not running against Bill. He is running against Hillary. As such, it is no surprise that he also attacked Hillary by saying, “Bill Clinton has actually abused women, and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed, and intimidated his victims.”

While attacking Hillary can also be regarded as a red herring in that it proves nothing about the matter involving Trump, it is certainly relevant in assessing the two candidates against each other. Trump is, in effect, trying to establish that Hillary is just as bad (or worse) than he is in regards to treatment of women. Trump does have some ammunition here—he can point to Hillary’s alleged role in the handling of the “bimbo eruptions” that plagued Bill in the 1990s.

While there certainly seem to be some legitimate concerns about Hillary’s behavior, she can point to an otherwise solid record on women’s issue. Even if the claims about her misdeeds are true, she can certainly make a much stronger case than Trump that she has changed since the 1990s. After all, the recording of Trump is more recent than the 1990s and Trump relentlessly affirms his misogyny, thus showing that he has not changed significantly. As such, while Hillary can, perhaps, be justly criticized for her actions in the 1990s, it would be a false equivalence to say that she is as bad as Trump in this regard.

Some of Trump’s defenders have asserted that Trump did not say anything that other men do not regularly say. That is, what Trump did was not a problem because this sort of thing is a common practice. The easy reply to this defense is that an appeal to common practice is a fallacy: even if something is commonly done, it does not follow from this that it is good, justified or right. All that follows from something being commonly done is that it is, well, commonly done.

It could also be argued that it is hypocritical of men to criticize Trump because men have, no doubt, said or thought things equally as bad. While it is surely true that everyone has said or thought something awful, these tend to be anomalies for most men. Everyone has their awful moments and this should be taken into account when judging a person. If Trump had but this one blight on an otherwise decent character, then it would be reasonable to judge him by his consistent character rather than an inconsistent remark. However, these remarks are not an aberration for Trump—they are utterly consistent with his character.

 

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Wells Fargo & Financial Crimes

The venerable Wells Fargo bank made the news in 2016 for financial misdeeds on a massive scale. Employees of the company, in an effort to meet the quotas set by management, had created numerous accounts without the permission of the clients. In response over 5,300 lower level employees were fired. Initially, CEO John Stumpf and former head of retail banking Carrie Tolstedt were to keep their rather sizable compensation for leading the company to a great financial “success” based on this fraud. However, backlash from the public and the shareholders has resulted in Stumpf and Carrie losing some of their financial compensation.

As would be expected, there are currently no plans for criminal charges of the sort that could result in jail time. This is consistent with how financial misdeeds by the elites are typically handled: some fines and, at worst, some forfeiture of ill-gotten gains. While I do not generally agree with Trump, he is not wrong when he points out that the system is rigged in favor of the elites and against the common people. The fact that Trump is one of the elite and has used the system quite effectively does not prove him wrong (that would be fallacious reasoning); rather he himself serves as more evidence for the rigging. Those who loath Hillary Clinton can also add their own favorite examples.

It is instructive to compare the punishment for other misdeeds to those imposed on Wells Fargo. Shoplifting is usually seem as a fairly minor crime,  but a person who shoplifts property with a combined value of less than $300 can pay a fine up to $1000 or be sentenced to up to a year in jail. Shoplifting property with a combined value over $300 is a felony and can result in a sentence between one and ten years in jail. While Wells Fargo did not seem to directly steal money (that is, it did not simply empty accounts into its own coffers), it did rob people through the use of fees and other charges that arose from the creation of these unauthorized accounts.

While there are clearly differences between the direct theft of shoplifting and the indirect robbery of imposing charges on unauthorized accounts, there seems to be little moral distinction: after all, both are means of robbing someone of their rightful property.  Because of this, there would appear to be a need to revise the penalties so that they are properly proportional.

One option is to bring the punishment for major financial misdeeds in line with the punishment for shoplifting. This would involve changing the fine for financial misdeeds from being a fraction of the profits (or damages) of the misdeeds to a multiple of the profits (perhaps three or more times greater). It could be argued that such a harsh penalty could financial ruin an elite who lacked adequate assets to pay for their misdeed; however, the exact same argument can be advanced for poor shoplifters.

Another option is to bring the punishments for shoplifting in line with the punishments for the financial elites. This would change the fine for shoplifting from likely being in excess of the value of what was stolen to a fraction of what was stolen (if that). The obvious objection to this proposal is that if shoplifters knew that their punishment would be to pay a fraction of the value they had stolen, then this punishment would have no deterrent value. Shoplifting would be, in effect, shopping at a significant discount. It is thus hardly shocking that the financial elite are generally not deterred by the present system of punishment—they come out way ahead if they do not get caught and can still do very well even if they are caught.

It could be objected that the financial elite would be deterred on the grounds that they would still be better off using legal means to profit. That way they would keep 100% of their gain rather than a fraction. The easy and obvious reply is that this deterrent value is contingent on the elite believing that the legal approach would be more profitable than the illegal approach (with due consideration to the chance of getting caught and fined). Since the punishment is often a fraction of the gain and the potential gain from misdeeds can be huge, this approach to punishment has far less deterrent value than a punishment in which the punished comes out at a loss rather than a gain.

It is also interesting to compare the punishment for identity theft and fraud with the punishment of Wells Fargo. Conviction of identity theft can result in a sentence of one to seven years. Fraud charges also have sentences that range from one to ten years and beyond. While some do emphasize that Wells Fargo was not engaged in traditional identity theft was morally similar. As an example of traditional identity theft, a thief steals a person’s identity and gets a credit card under that name to use for their own gain. What Wells Fargo did was open accounts in people’s names without their permission so that the company could profit from this misuse of their identity. As such, the company was stealing from these people and doing them the same sorts of harms inflicted by individuals engaging in identity theft.

From a moral standpoint, those involved in these actions should face the same criminal charges and potential punishments that individuals acting on their own would face. This is morally required for consistency. Obviously enough, the laws are not consistent—the misdeeds of the elite and corporations are so often punished lightly or not at all. This is nothing new—the history of law is also the history of its unfair application. The injustice of justice, one might say.  However, this approach is problematic.

Looked at from a certain moral perspective, the degree to which I am obligated to accept punishment for my misdeeds is proportional to the consistency and fairness of the system of justice. If others are able to walk away from the consequences of their misdeeds or enjoy light punishments for misdeeds that would result in harsh penalties for me, then I have little moral reason to willingly accept any punishments that might be inflicted on me. Naturally, the state has the power to inflict its punishments whether I accept them or not, but it seems important to a system of justice that the citizens accept the moral legitimacy of the punishment.

To use an analogy, imagine a professor who ran their class like the justice system is run. If an elite student cheated and got an initial grade of 100, they might be punished by having the grade docked to an 80 if caught. In contrast, the common students would be failed and sent before the academic misconduct board for such a misdeed. The common students who cheated would be right to rebel against this system and refuse to accept such punishments—though they did wrong, justice without consistency is but a mockery of real justice.

In light of this discussion, Wells Fargo is yet another shining example of the inherent injustice and inequality in the legal system. If we wish to have a just system of justice, these disparities must be addressed. These disparities also warrant moral disobedience in the face of punishment. Why should, morally, a shoplifter accept a fine that vastly exceeds what they stole when a financial elite can pay but a fraction of their theft and profit well from their misdeeds?

 

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