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More On the Weakest Link April 30, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, ethics of care.
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1 comment so far

I posted earlier in the week on how the threatening ”swine flu” pandemic makes evident the limits of self-reliance as a virtue.

Unfortunately, that point continues to be reinforced.

The Centers for Disease Control and other health experts have been advising that if you feel sick you should go to your doctor and stay home from work.

But if you don’t have a doctor because you lack health insurance or if you aren’t entitled to sick days at work, your options for complying with the CDC are limited.

Sure, you can go to the emergency room and wait around for 12 hours infecting everyone else in the vicinity. And you can call in sick, take the hit on your paycheck, and pray your boss won’t fire you. These are options, but they are not good options and it is likely many people won’t choose them.

The consequences for the rest of us are dire.

There are now roughly 45 Million Americans who lack health insurance and the number is growing everyday. A recent Kaiser Poll suggests that 60 percent of Americans say that “they or a member of their household have delayed or skipped health care in the past year” and many are “substituting home remedies or over the counter drugs for doctors visits.”

And about half the workers in the United States lack the benefit of paid sick leave—most of the people who serve you food, for example.

Obviously, the free market is not distributing resources efficiently when events like the swine flu pandemic threaten. As Priscilla Wald, the author of the book Contagious (Duke University Press, 2008) writes:

In the telling of the outbreak story, the media present the pandemic as solely a medical problem. But it is a social problem as well. Poverty and inadequate health care are the most effective vectors for the spread of disease.

The lack of health care and other benefits is not just a problem for the people who lack them. It makes all of us more vulnerable. Hopefully, this time, this disease will weaken on its own.

A little luck is always a good thing.


Descartes Caused the Economic Collapse! April 29, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy.
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The economic meltdown was certainly caused by excessive greed and the absence of government regulation to contain it. But it is important to remember that there is a reason why few of the people trained to anticipate economic problems saw this coming.

John Kay in the Financial Times writes:

Since the 1970s economists have been engaged in a grand project. The project’s objective is that macroeconomics should have microeconomic foundations. In everyday language, that means that what we say about big policy issues – growth and inflation, boom and bust – should be grounded in the study of individual behaviour…

This sounds reasonable—if you want to develop a theory of how economic institutions function, look at how individuals make decisions about buying and selling. Kay continues:

Most economists would claim that the project has been a success. But the criteria are the self-referential criteria of modern academic life. The greatest compliment you can now pay an economic argument is to say it is rigorous. Today’s macroeconomic models are certainly that.

By “rigorous” Kay means that economic relationships can be described by algorithms which are amenable to logical proof. (Descartes was perhaps the first philosopher to argue that only such a system could count as genuine knowledge, and his insight has deeply influenced scientific and social scientific inquiry to this day.)

But here is the rub. If you are going to describe economic relationships using algorithms (i.e. rules) you will have to make generalizations about human behavior.

Economists, like physicists, have been searching for a theory of everything. If there were to be such an economic theory, there is really only one candidate, based on extreme rationality and market efficiency. Any other theory would have to account for the evolution of individual beliefs and the advance of human knowledge, and no one imagines that there could be a single theory of all human behaviour…

In other words, even though human beings are often rational and, in market transactions, we often get exactly what we want for exactly the right price, the myriad ways in which we can fail to be rational or efficient is just too complex to model, especially when you consider the value we place on non-market goods. No set of rules could describe every twist and turn in the history of the market behavior of individuals or account for our quirky, idiosyncratic, emotional, intuitive, and sometimes irrational behavior. Thus, economic models assume that human beings are always perfectly rational and markets perfectly efficient.

As Kay writes:

That people respond rationally to incentives, and that market prices incorporate information about the world, are not terrible assumptions. But they are not universal truths either. Much of what creates profit opportunities and causes instability in the global economy results from the failure of these assumptions. Herd behaviour, asset mispricing and grossly imperfect information have led us to where we are today.

It was irrational behavior, left out of the economic models because it was too messy to capture in a set of rules, that caused the economic crisis.

Descartes has not yet issued his mea culpa.

So why did these very smart people fail to realize that their generalizations were rough approximations rather than precise models of human behavior.

Kay appeals to the mid-20th Century economist John Maynard Keynes for the answer:

Keynes went on to explain that economic understanding required an amalgam of logic and intuition and a wide knowledge of facts, most of which are not precise: “a requirement overwhelmingly difficult for those whose gift mainly consists in the power to imagine and pursue to their furthest points the implications and prior conditions of comparatively simple facts which are known with a high degree of precision”. On this, as on much else, Keynes was right.

The moral of the story (to borrow a title from a famous book) is that you can have knowledge of lots of facts but they will be messy, imprecise, and very context dependent; or you can have knowledge of a few precisely-rendered facts that produce beautiful generalizations. What you cannot have is knowledge of lots of facts that produce beautiful generalizations.

In other words, beautiful generalizations will usually not fit the world well. (I said usually—I’m not making universal generalizations here). And intellectuals tend to strive for intellectual beauty.

What Kay leaves out is that lots of people thought they could get very rich by applying these economic models, and they of course had an incentive to ignore the facts that the models left out.

By the way, I have made a career out of arguing that moral theory is in exactly the same boat—broad generalizations captured by models or rules will leave out the messy details of moral reasoning that make it genuinely responsive to life’s complexity.

I guess the difference is that no one has figured out how to get rich off models of morality.

If you figure that out, let me know (and don’t tell anyone else).

The Weakest Link April 28, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, ethics of care.
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Cross-posted at Reviving the Left.

This latest outbreak of swine flu reminds us of the limits of self-reliance.

One of the main themes of Reviving the Left is that central currents in American thought encourage the idea that unbridled self-reliance is a moral virtue.

But this is a dangerous idea that continually leaves us vulnerable to potentially catastrophic events such as pandemics.

We like to think that our welfare is in our own hands—what happens to us is in the end our own responsibility. This assumption about personal responsibility is so pervasive that it seems written in the DNA of Americans. And it is encouraged by the fact that our dependence on distant others is often hidden from view. Modern marketing and technology is very good at covering up the origins of things—we are seldom forced to think about the anonymous people who grow our food or make our products.

So why should we care about inadequate public health resources in foreign countries like Mexico?

The news coming out of Mexico explains why.

Two weeks after the first known swine flu death, Mexico still hasn’t given medicine to the families of the dead. It hasn’t determined where the outbreak began or how it spread. And while the government urges anyone who feels sick to go to hospitals, feverish people complain ambulance workers are scared to pick them up.

A portrait is emerging of a slow and confused response by Mexico to the gathering swine flu epidemic. And that could mean the world is flying blind into a global health storm.

It isn’t obvious what we can do about inadequate public health in other countries. (We have our own inadequacies to worry about.) But this is another example, along with global warming, resource depletion, nuclear proliferation, etc., of a problem that requires collective solutions. And collective action requires levels of trust that only a greater willingness to be generous toward others will provide.

Whatever the particular solution to public health failures in other countries, that solution will require, from wealthy nations,  persistent, wise regard for the vulnerability of others, in part because their vulnerabilities can become ours.

This is more evidence that an ethic of care provides better moral guidance than more traditional moral theories.

h/t to Talking Points Memo

Progress on Student Loan Reform April 27, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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I argued recently that reforming our bone-headed student loan program may face an uphill battle in congress due to opposition from Republicans and conservative Democrats, who want the banking industry to take a middleman’s cut while providing no essential service.

Reforming the health care system may be difficult for the very same reason. The Republicans will filibuster the reform in order to protect insurance company profits and a few conservative Democrats will likely vote with them.

But there was some promising news last week.

Democrats voted to use the budget reconciliation process if bi-partisan reform bills cannot be passed, which will prevent Republicans from filibustering both bills. There is probably enough Democratic support to pass both bills without conservative support.

Does torture work? Depends what you are trying to do. April 27, 2009

Posted by Ian Duckles in Criminal Justice, Current Events, Ethics, Political Philosophy.

As the kerfuffle surrounding the release of the torture memos moves into the red herring phase of the media debate, the question about whether to prosecute or not has subtly (though intentionally) been shifted to the irrelevant question of whether or not torture works. This question is a red herring because the efficacy of torture is irrelevant to the question of its morality. In addition, all the relevant laws surrounding torture are quite explicit in their statements that torture is always wrong no matter why it is pursued or what effects it has. Article two of Part I of the UN Convention Against Torture is very clear on this point (emphasis added):

  1. No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.
  2. An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.

Despite this, I am going to bite and take up the question of whether or not torture works. To answer this question, we need to have a sense of what the goals of torturing people were. In the popular imagination, torture is a technique we break out for the “ticking time-bomb.” In this scenario, we have a terrorist in custody and only he knows the location of a bomb that will destroy something important in a short period of time. Thus, we torture one individual to save the lives of many. This scenario makes for great TV, but its connection to reality is tenuous at best. More importantly, it has never made much sense to me to think that an individual who comes from a group capable of flying a plane-load of people into a crowded office building would not be able to hold out until the ticking bomb blew up. Regardless of these concerns, it is important to note that there is no evidence whatsoever of any US official torturing an individual under these circumstances (I am inclined to think that even under these limited circumstances torture is still wrong, but that is a separate argument). In fact, the most plausible position is that torture was instigated out of a desire on the part of the Bush Administration to find an Iraq/Al-queda link that could not be uncovered through traditional means.

Much of the evidence for the above claim is nicely detailed in this important piece by NYTimes columnist Frank Rich. He summarizes this point as follows:

In other words, the ticking time bomb was not another potential Qaeda attack on America but the Bush administration’s ticking timetable for selling a war in Iraq; it wanted to pressure Congress to pass a war resolution before the 2002 midterm elections. Bybee’s memo was written the week after the then-secret (and subsequently leaked) “Downing Street memo,” in which the head of British intelligence informed Tony Blair that the Bush White House was so determined to go to war in Iraq that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” A month after Bybee’s memo, on Sept. 8, 2002, Cheney would make his infamous appearance on “Meet the Press,” hyping both Saddam’s W.M.D.s and the “number of contacts over the years” between Al Qaeda and Iraq. If only 9/11 could somehow be pinned on Iraq, the case for war would be a slamdunk.

So, the key motivation of the Bush Administration for engaging in torture was to get individuals to falsely confess to an Iraq/Al-queda link, and these confessions were then used to convince the American people (and people in other countries) to support an invasion of Iraq. There is a degree of irony here insofar as the torture techniques employed by US torturers were reverse-engineered from the SERE training given to US military. This training were developed to expose and prepare US troops for the sorts of torture that they had encountered in the Korean and Vietnam War; torture that had been designed to get US soldiers to make false confessions and denounce the US government.

So, finally we are in a position to answer the question of whether torture works. The answer is quite simple. If your goal is to elicit false confessions, torture is extremely effective (probably the most effective method). However, if your goal is to get at the truth, torture is counter-productive since one has to spend additional time figuring out which of the detainee’s statements are truthful and which are merely attempts to tell the torturer what he or she wants to hear.

UPDATE: Yesterday (Wednesday, April 29), the NPR show Fresh Air conducted an interview with Scott Shane on exactly the matters I discuss in the post. The interview is quite good, but in it Shane makes some compelling arguments that would seem to refute some of the conclusions I draw above. You can listen to the interview here. In particular, Shane suggests that the government was not intending to elicit false confessions when they initiated the torture regime. Given what Shane says, I am inclined to agree with him here, but I still think much of what I said above is still valid in that one of the major reasons for using torture was to find evidence of an Iraq/Al-queda link. Shane also agrees with this timeline of events, he just sees less malicious intent on the part of the Bush administration than I do.

Power and Accountability April 26, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, politics.
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1 comment so far

The Washington pundits are falling over themselves trying to explain why there should be no prosecution of Bush Administration officials who authorized torture.

Roger Cohen opined:

I don’t think this recovery would be served by prosecutions, either of C.I.A. operatives or those who gave them legal advice. Such legal action, if initiated, would split the intelligence services and the military in paralyzing ways at a time when two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, are still being fought. The country would be lacerated.

And the erstwhile David Broder, in coming to a similar conclusion, writes:

The memos on torture represented a deliberate, and internally well-debated, policy decision, made in the proper places — the White House, the intelligence agencies and the Justice Department — by the proper officials.

One administration later, a different group of individuals occupying the same offices has — thankfully — made the opposite decision. Do they now go back and investigate or indict their predecessors?

The rush to deflect responsibility is an endlessly repeated exercise these days. The Wall St. bankers who got us into our economic mess resent efforts to curb their outrageous compensation packages despite their failure to do their job.

Although it seems to have fallen from public consciousness, no one high in the Bush Administration has ever been held responsible for the lies that got us into Iraq, the politicization of the Justice Department, the illegal surveillance of American citizens, or the myriad other abuses of power that have come to light.

The same journalists who are demanding that we not seek accountability for the torture policies were key players in covering up the other crimes of the Bush Administration.

It is telling that the only people held responsible for torture were Lynndie England and her merry band of sadistic, low-level recruits at Abu Ghraib, largely hailing from poor or middle-class families.

In this country, we have this strange belief that the wealthy and powerful are just better people because they are wealthy and powerful. Their wrongdoing or incompetence is a forgettable aberration from an otherwise worthy character. After all, they look like us and are kind to their pets. When they break the law or engage in careless or negligent behavior, we should just look the other way.

By contrast, when someone of more modest means makes a bad decision, standing up for personal responsibility means they must suffer the full consequences of their decision, whether that be jail time, or economic devastation. They are the “other” and we need to show them that there are rules and expectations to be upheld.

Our moral framework is upside down. Until we learn to hold the powerful accountable, our democracy will be at best incomplete and at worst the kind of brute, mutant colossus we became under Bush.

Life on the Table Top April 24, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Literature.
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Sometimes I’m wondering if I’m living on a table top, and just haven’t discovered it yet. The significance of that metaphor will be explained below.


I go to the store to find a favorite product, and it’s gone from the shelves. There’s not even a label where it used to be. Other stores don’t carry it, either. I am met with blank stares: “I don’t think we’ve ever carried that item” or, sometimes, “We haven’t had that item while I’ve been working here.” Occasionally a sales clerk will remember, “They just canceled a bunch of items,” or “It wasn’t selling.” (But it was! I was buying it, and had for years!) Instead there are other items, stuff I’ve never seen before; ads for new products, products we can’t live without, stuff that will make us feel better, look better, live longer, have nicer breath, and so forth. And in another 6 months they will be gone from the shelves, and we will be asked to be excited about other products. Sure, this is life in a Western consumer society, and truthfully, I prefer it to the limited number of available goods from my post-WWII childhood, or neighbors fighting over a loaf of bread in empty bakeries in other cultures. It’s just that I have this sneaking suspicion that there’s a certain scenario at play, involving a huge table top, and that’s because of one of the first science fiction stories I ever read when I was in my late teens. I haven’t read it since, so I apologize if my summary isn’t completely accurate. But it’s the metaphor that counts, not so much the actual story:


The story was called “The Tunnel Under the World,” written by Frederick Pohl. It is about a husband and wife living in a small town, ordinary lives, work, shopping, dinners, sex, and so forth, but every morning they wake up from terrible nightmares, and so does everyone else. Their world is awash with commercials—billboards, commercials on TV and on the radio, in papers and magazines, even advertising trucks driving around the neighborhood with bullhorns. And somehow, it seems like all the items advertised are products nobody has heard of. They usually go to bed fairly early, because they have busy days and get tired—but one night the husband, let’s call him Joe, changes his routine, and works in his garage. Here he discovers that the floor and walls are really fake, and underneath is solid metal. Joe sleeps in the garage overnight, and goes upstairs next morning. He notices that the date on the newspaper is yesterday’s, but his wife thinks that date is correct. Nobody else seems to notice that the date, on TV and the radio, is also the day before, and the news is old. But Joe remembers—and he also remembers the commercials from yesterday: They were different. That night he hides in his garage again, apparently shielded from whatever steals his memory by the metal walls, and sure enough, next day his wife, co-workers and neighbors all have had nightmares, and remember nothing; the fresh newspaper still reads the date from two days ago, with the same news, their clock shows the same date—but the commercials are totally different. When he recognizes a co-worker who tried to contact him the day before, the co-worker realizes that Joe can remember—and takes him underground to show him that nothing is what it seems. Underneath the town there is now a new, shiny metal tunnel. Every night the entire community has been drugged, somehow, and someone is manipulating everybody to think it is always the same date. The co-worker has managed to stay awake, and avoid the collective nightly brain wipe. But why this elaborate scheme? And what’s with the never ending commercials for products nobody has ever heard of before? Joe decides to explore the tunnel—and ends up on a large smooth surface ending abruptly, with a bottomless abyss in front of him, and across the abyss, a huge dark mountain. That moves. And has hands. Joe realizes the terrifying truth: They can never escape, because they are not real people—they are nothing but miniaturized robots, living on a table top, as part of a major experiment. What kind of experiment?  Every day these little test subjects who think they live real lives are being exposed to new forms of advertising and store items, to judge what is most attractive to consumers. Then at night their little brains are wiped, and in the morning it starts all over again: Same newspaper, same TV news, same date, different commercials and different items in the stores. And it will go on forever.

Quite a story to read when you’re 17 and starting to question the social status quo, and there were no Truman Show, Thirteenth Floor or Matrix movies yet. But of course we’ve always had Descartes and Plato. Evil demons and shadows on a wall…So the “table top” is a metaphor that has been on my list of possible scenarios of deceptions/delusions for a long time. And that’s why I’m thinking, when I shop for my favorite items and find nothing but new stuff on the shelves that maybe we’re all on that table top, reduced to guinea pigs…

Friday Food Blogging April 24, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Food and Drink.
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1 comment so far

Well it is not quite the genuine article but it will have to do.

Bravo has just announced a spin-off of “Top Chef ” entitled “Top Chef Masters”, beginning on June 10th at 10 P.M.

“Top Chef Masters” will pit 24 world-renowned chefs against each other and see how well they fare in the tried and true format of “Top Chef.” In each episode, money will be at stake for the chefs, with the winners of eliminations being awarded cash donations for their charities. The first six episodes will consist of four chefs competing against each other to name one winner. The six winners of each episode will then meet up for the final four weeks when one person will get eliminated each episode until the finale where one winner is crowned Top Chef Master.

The judges will include various celebrities and Hollywood types including Morgan Spurlock , of “Super-Size Me” fame, and Neil Patrick Harris of “Harold and Kumar Go to White-Castle.” (Roy Yamaguchi from Roy’s Restaurants is the only chef with a San Diego connection).

I’m not convinced this format will have the charm of the regular “Top Chef”. That show’s features talented, experienced but newly emerging chefs striving for excellence under pressure (and often out of their comfort zone), being judged by very knowledgable critics with high standards. The failures and bad judgments are instructive and as meaningful as the successes.

The new show features chefs whose excellence and celebrity are well established who will be judged by people who seemingly have no particular expertise in judging cuisine. I’m not sure why I should care what they think. And I suspect the cooking will be more of a performance than a battle, with fewer failures from which to learn.

But I surely will be in front of the tube on June 10th. It is the only TV show that I reliably watch.

Torture: Just Walk On By April 23, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, politics.
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The Obama Administration’s pronouncements on holding Bush Administration officials accountable for the torture of prisoners has been shallow and incoherent.

On Tuesday, President Obama seemed to leave the door open to prosecuting Bush Administration officials who wrote the justifications for torture at secret CIA prisons.

This is an improvement over the administration’s comments on Monday at a press briefing. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, in responding to a question asking why Bush Administration officials were not being held accountable for enabling torture, replied, “The President is focused on looking forward, that’s why.”

And on Thursday, Gibbs repeated the canard about looking forward.

Gibbs’s response was similar to columnist (and former Reagan speech writer) Peggy Noonan’s suggestion that we just move on. “Some things in life need to be mysterious,” referring to the torture memos. “Sometimes you need to just keep walking.”

The memos from Bush’s Office of Legal Counsel clearly endorse torture. And torture is a war crime.

When a crime has been committed, wanting to “move on”, “look forward”, or “just keep walking” is not a defense. These are not remotely intelligible comments. Either torture is a serious crime or it is not. If it is not, then just say so and admit that the United States will sometimes torture suspects when it wants to. But if it is a serious crime, it is simply delusional to think that by “just looking forward” the stain of torture will somehow disappear. Especially when the purpose of much of the torture was not to save lives but to protect the Bush Administration’s rationale for invading Iraq.

I’m sure any criminal defendant would prefer judge and jury to “just look forward”, but such an appeal would be laughable in a court of law. Accountability conceptually requires that we not look only to the future.

Obama seems reluctant to spend political capital warding off the storm of abuse that surely will come from Republicans if he prosecutes Bush Administration officials; and he seems, rightfully, concerned about whether we have the proper mechanisms and institutions in place to carry out such a prosecution.

These pragmatic concerns are worth considering. But we should not confuse pragmatism with moral corruption. Without prosecutions, it will be impossible to claim that the United States does not torture, and for morally suspect reasons.

The message these comments send is that if you are one of the “villagers” working inside the Washington Beltway, you should not be held accountable for a serious crime. And Obama, after only three months in the presidency, is perilously close to joining the village.

But it is dangerous to allow political leaders, of all people, to violate the law when the issue involves matters of policy. They, uniquely, have the power to abuse authority and their actions have ramifications that extend far beyond a few isolated incidents.

When government officials know they can do what they want without being held accountable there is no limit to the power they might seek. So we can be a nation of laws in which serious crimes are punished regardless of the position of the perpetrator, or we can hope that no one like George W. Bush is ever elected again.

I would not want to rest the future of democracy entirely on the very thin shoulders of American voters.

Our 2nd Year! April 22, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Administration, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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Aside from being Earth Day, today, April 22, is also the day we on this blog celebrate our birthday, with the recent numbers of hits passing the 26,000 mark! Thanks to Dwight for creating this phenomenon in 2007, and for contributing with consistently thought-provoking stories, and thanks to our colleagues who occasionally post, to our readers who write comments on a regular basis, and to all our readers who pay us a visit–every day or once in a while. So, Happy Birthday to us!