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Behind the Oil Spill Disaster April 29, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
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The British Petroleum oil rig that blew up last week, killing 11 workers, is now spreading oil over a massive area in the Gulf of Mexico… “Drill Baby Drill”,one of the campaign slogans from McCain’s presidential campaign, is not looking quite so catchy. It’s too bad Obama caved into oil interests recently and authorized more off shore drilling.

This comes on the heels of the Massey Coal Mine explosion that killed 29 miners a few weeks ago.

What do these two events have in common? Both British Petroleum and Massey Coal were nonunion work sites.

As economist Teresa Ghilarducci writes:

In 2009, four years after a BP explosion in a Texas refinery that killed 15 workers and injured 170, the Occupational Safety and Health administration imposed the largest fine in its history—$87-million on British Petroleum. BP also paid billions in criminal charges and civil claims for the accident: $50-million in criminal fines for violating the Clean Air Act and over 4,000 claims from a $2.1-billion claims fund.

Why does this company still operate in this country? How many more workers does it have to kill?

In my economics classes, I teach the economics of health and safety. The two-minute version has the same conclusion as the two lecture version: If it is cheaper for the company to kill workers than it is to safeguard the workplace so they are not killed, workers will be killed. Unions and hefty government fines would raise the price of killing workers. Both Massey and BP work sites were nonunion. And the rate of unionization in this nation is at a all time low: 7.2 percent.

No other developed nation has a weaker labor movement than the United States and this country kills more workers per year than most.

Even these numbers are suspect. And the United States, unlike other rich countries, does not count fatalities due to occupational disease as a fatality. Seven countries impose safety obligations upon either directors or senior managers of companies—Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, Japan, Canada, and Australia—while the United Sates imposes none.

The U.S. Department of Labor classifies on-the-job fatalities as misdemeanors, even if the employer was negligent by willfully failing to follow OSHA safety standards. The maximum civil penalty OSHA can levy for a safety violation is $70,000,  and the maximum prison sentence for a willful violation of a safety standard that leads to a worker’s death is six months. Six months.

Check out Fair Warning for direct commentary on corporate health and safety practices.

These workplace fatalities are not accidents of nature; they are caused by the Congress’s and the president’s failure to regulate and protect workers who attempt to unionize

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com


Can Video Games Be Art? April 28, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Art and Music, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
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Roger Ebert argues that video games in principle cannot be art.

But I’m not at all sure what his argument is. He never quite says what something must be in order to be art.

The only shred of an argument I can find in his essay is this:

One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome.

But if one of Calder’s mobiles was displayed with instructions to count the number of rotations per minute and win a prize, would it be any less a work of art?

I’m no gamer so my knowledge  of video games is rather limited. But I don’t see why someone could not devise a video game in which elements of the game were presented in such a way as to induce an aesthetic experience.

It may be that no game currently on the market would qualify as a work of art; I doubt that video game creators are aiming at artistic merit.  But why are video games in principle incapable of being art?

The relevant question with regard to the artistic merit of any object is this: Does the assemblage of elements form an ordered arrangement with aesthetic properties? A video game could be elegant, graceful, or beautiful. It could be a powerful evocation of thelife of a people or a disturbing glimpse of chaos and decline. It can possess unity, clarity, or symmetry. Since video games can possess aesthetic properties what precludes them from being art?

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Your Papers Please April 27, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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Linda Greenhouse, The NY Times Pulitzer Prize-winning Supreme Court correspondent doesn’t like the new Arizona immigration law that permits police to roust anyone who isn’t white.

…I’m not going back to Arizona as long as it remains a police state, which is what the appalling anti-immigrant bill that Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law last week has turned it into.

What would Arizona’s revered libertarian icon, Barry Goldwater, say about a law that requires the police to demand proof of legal residency from any person with whom they have made “any lawful contact” and about whom they have “reasonable suspicion” that “the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States?” Wasn’t the system of internal passports one of the most distasteful features of life in the Soviet Union and apartheid-era South Africa?

It is reasonable to expect that any person of color will be subject to police harassment because of this legislation.

You know it’s funny. I haven’t heard any of the tea partiers, who are constantly complaining about big government, say anything about giving police the power to demand papers just because a person looks suspicious. It is as if tea-partiers only complain about abuse of power when it issues from the fever swamp of conservative paranoid delusions. Remember the “death panels” in the health-care debate. When it comes to real abuse of power, the kind perpetrated daily by authoritarian governments, its OK as long as its brown or black people on the wrong end of the abuse.

Even some conservatives don’t like the smell of this.

Former GOP congressmans Joe Scarborough criticized the immigration law:

“…It does offend me when one out of every three citizens in the state of Arizona are Hispanics, and you have now put a target on the back of one out of three citizens, who, if they’re walking their dog around a neighborhood, if they’re walking their child to school, and they’re an American citizen, or a legal, legal immigrant — to now put a target on their back, and make them think that every time they walk out of their door they may have to prove something. I will tell you, that is un-American. It is unacceptable and it is un-American.”

But as far as I know, given research from ThinkProgress, only one sitting Republican member of Congress, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, has explicitly opposed the Arizona law.

Might this odious law be the catalyst behind a new civil rights movement?

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

What Tax Revolt? April 26, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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Ruy Teixeira suggests the “tax revolt” nonsense that conservatives claim is sweeping the country is not much in evidence:

Consider these results from the latest CBS/New York Times poll. The poll asked the public whether the income taxes they are paying this year are fair or unfair. The public judged their income taxes to be fair by a wide 62-30 margin.

The public was also asked whether “government programs like Social Security and Medicare” are worth the taxpayer costs to keep them going. The public’s response: 76 percent think the benefits of these programs justify their costs to taxpayers, compared to just 19 percent who think otherwise.

Teixeira concludes “…Americans will never love paying taxes. But they do recognize that paying taxes has a great deal to do with fairness and supporting worthwhile programs. That’s a fact, albeit an inconvenient one for conservative mythology.”

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Pity Party April 25, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy of Gender.
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A group of professors have decided the oppression of men has gone on too long and have decided to create a Male Studies program.

“This came out of the contentious business of gender studies,” says Lionel Tiger, professor of anthropology at Rutgers University. “It’s not men’s studies as contrasted with women’s studies. It’s a study of males without all the ideology and self-righteousness of feminists about turning over patriarchy.”

Tiger apparently believes that since women have had access to the pill and legal abortions, civilization is collapsing.

According to Dr. Edward Stephens, Chairman of the Foundation for Male Studies, men suffer from what he  calls “the lace curtain,” which is supposed to be analogous to the glass ceiling.

But since men still make more than women for comparable work and because men disproportionally occupy positions of power in business and politics, it is hard to see how there is a legitimate analogy here. Angry Mouse’s sarcasm is appropriate:

Yes, because our entire educational system has, for too long, ignored the contributions of men to history, art, literature, politics, economics, and science. Isn’t it about time we directed at least a little attention and appreciation to men’s experience throughout history?

Miles Groth, a sponsor of the symposium, wants to  incorporate the valuable lessons of Principles 101: Feminism, Manhood and You into this program. Lessons like this:

Do not tolerate disorderly behavior from women. You will only cause yourself more problems in the long run.


Feminism trains women to feel they unilaterally deserve what men have earned.

And how about this:

Simply put, Manhood is your authority — the proper form necessary to govern the lives of others, especially women.

This doesn’t sound like an attempt to make visible the plight of an oppressed group—it sounds more like a reactionary attempt to hang on to male privilege in the face of women’s success at achieving some measure of equality. As Angry Mouse says:

It’s about throwing a pity party because for the first time in human history, men are having to share the power they have always assumed was their birthright.  

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

If You Want Good Government You Have to Trust Government April 22, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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Regarding how we get out of the fiscal mess created by the Bush Administration, Tyler Cowen makes an important point:

Most relevant, perhaps, is Canada, which cut federal government spending by about 20 percent from 1992 to 1997. The Liberal Party, headed by Jean Chrétien as prime minister and Paul Martin as finance minister, led most of this shift. Prompted by the financial debacle in Mexico, Canadian leaders had the courage and the foresight to make those spending cuts before a fiscal crisis was upon them. In his book “In the Long Run We’re All Dead: The Canadian Turn to Fiscal Restraint,” Timothy Lewis describes Canada’s move from fiscal irresponsibility to a balanced budget — a history that helps explain why the country has managed the current global recession relatively well.

To be sure, the spending cuts meant fewer government services, most of all for health care, and big cuts in agricultural subsidies. But Canada remained a highly humane society, and American liberals continue to cite it as a beacon of progressive values.

Counterintuitively, the relatively strong Canadian trust in government may have paved the way for government spending cuts, a pattern that also appears in Scandinavia. Citizens were told by their government leadership that such cuts were necessary and, to some extent, they trusted the messenger.

It’s less obvious that the United States can head down the same path, partly because many Americans are so cynical about policy makers. In many ways, this cynicism may be justified, but it is not always helpful, as it lowers trust and impedes useful social bargains.

Forces like the Tea Party movement argue for fiscal conservatism, though it isn’t obvious that they are creating the conditions for success.

The one thing I disagree with is his claim that this is counter-intuitive. The way to a sound fiscal policy is not putting angry, anti-government know-nothings in control of the government. Since they are not interested in governing but rather in destroying government, they will not be trusted by the vast majority of Americans who think government has a positive role to play.

The problem in the U.S. is that the opposition party, while claiming to want more efficiently managed government, really wants something different—a government that performs very few governmental functions. For conservatives, cutting costs is not about doing more with less; it is about doing less period. 

Cutting budgets for conservatives is a means to destroying government, not making it more efficient. Effective management is beside the point.

Although that will not encourage trust, it will encourage the robber barons who are poised to exploit the ensuing chaos.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Earth Day is Rousseau Day, Part 2 April 22, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature.
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Last year I chose to mark Earth Day with a blog about Jean-Jacques Rousseau, because he, more than any other philosopher prior to the twentieth  century, pointed attention to the value of wild nature as a remedy for what ails the “modern” human spirit. Not the contemporary, controversial concept of intrinsically valuable nature, because Rousseau thought in fundamental, anthropocentric terms, but still, for the 1700s, a completely new approach to nature as something intellectually and emotionally valuable rather than just a resource. And, as I mentioned a year ago, we can agree or disagree with Rousseau and the entire Earth Day/Environmental movement (and I disagree with plenty of Rousseau’s ideas,) but the fact remains that the focus on the value of nature, for us or in itself, has transformed and expanded the debate about ethics within the past 30 years.

This year I want to pay another visit and tribute to Rousseau, and I may as well do that on Earth Day, for the reasons stated above, and in the original blog piece. But today I want to focus on something other than the environment—although it also has to do with nature: human nature. Since Rousseau introduced the idea that the “State of Nature” ( a pre-social condition which we now recognize as a fictional concept, useful as a Rawlsian thought experiment, but not as a historical theory) was good and beneficial to humans, he was able to conclude that human nature was also fundamentally good; that childhood was a valuable, innocent time that should be cherished and not squandered; and that indigenous peoples living in harmony with nature were morally superior to people living in great civilizations. Nature heals, civilization corrupts…

And most of that has generally been considered a magnificent fantasy by a more cynical, modern time. We know there was never a completely pre-social Rousseau-type state of nature, because we know now that humans have lived in groups, with at least basic rules of behavior, even before we became human. We assume that indigenous peoples are usually not morally better or worse than citified people—we’re all just people. The upgrading of childhood to something intrinsically valuable is truly something Rousseau should get credit for, but without us necessarily adopting his rather peculiar ideas of how to raise children (or his habit of dumping his own at the orphanage…). But what about human nature being essentially good? In most of the twentieth century scholars as well as laypeople leaned toward the assumption that Hobbes was more right than Rousseau—we’re simply pretty rotten: selfish, aggressive, belligerent, and like the schoolboys in Lord of the Flies we will revert to that fundamental selfish aggression if the veneer of civilization wears thin. But now (as you probably will have noticed, from other blog entries here over the past three years) neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists are teaming up with philosophers, and little by little creating a new view of human nature: we appear to be not nearly as selfish as previously assumed. We (or most of us) seem to have a natural capacity for empathy, and a reluctance to harm others. That doesn’t mean we can’t override that empathy and learn to follow orders to harm others (Milgram experiment, Stanford prisoner experiment), or simply look to our own advantage, but according to high-profile researchers such as Antonio Damasio the deeper human nature is one of compassion and empathy rather  than blatant selfishness. And what did Rousseau say, in his 2nd Discourse, On the Origin of Inequality Among Humans (1754)?

 There is another principle which has escaped Hobbes; which, having been bestowed on mankind, to moderate, on certain occasions, the impetuosity of egoism, or, before its birth, the desire of self-preservation, tempers the ardour with which he pursues his own welfare, by an innate repugnance at seeing a fellow-creature suffer. I think I need not fear contradiction in holding man to be possessed of the only natural virtue, which could not be denied him by the most violent detractor of human virtue. I am speaking of compassion, which is a disposition suitable to creatures so weak and subject to so many evils as we certainly are: by so much the more universal and useful to mankind, as it comes before any kind of reflection; and at the same time so natural, that the very brutes themselves sometimes give evident proofs of it….

…It is then certain that compassion is a natural feeling, which, by moderating the violence of love of self in each individual, contributes to the preservation of the whole species. It is this compassion that hurries us without reflection to the relief of those who are in distress: it is this which in a state of nature supplies the place of laws, morals and virtues, with the advantage that none are tempted to disobey its gentle voice: it is this which will always prevent a sturdy savage from robbing a weak child or a feeble old man of the sustenance they may have with pain and difficulty acquired, if he sees a possibility of providing for himself by other means: it is this which, instead of inculcating that sublime maxim of rational justice. Do to others as you would have them do unto you, inspires all men with that other maxim of natural goodness, much less perfect indeed, but perhaps more useful; Do good to yourself with as little evil as possible to others. In a word, it is rather in this natural feeling than in any subtle arguments that we must look for the cause of that repugnance, which every man would experience in doing evil, even independently of the maxims of education. Although it might belong to Socrates and other minds of the like craft to acquire virtue by reason, the human race would long since have ceased to be, had its preservation depended only on the reasonings of the individuals composing it.

We used to snicker at Rousseau and his romanticism. We used to dismiss these sentimental words as either naiive fantasies, or a shrewd preparation for his later social contract theory which had to be grounded in a concept that humans were fundamentally good. But now? The new alliance of neuroscientists, evolutionary psychologists and ethicists are presenting evidence that, indeed, a natural empathy predates rational thinking in the human brain. We may agree or disagree, and we (as I often do) may want to point out that even if empathy is primary, it doesn’t take the place of sound logic and common sense  in determining our moral course of action. But we should recognize that the idea itself is not new: Rousseau introduced it to Continental Europe in 1754. (Was he the first one? No, David Hume—a friend of Rousseau’s for a while—had already published similar ideas about human natural empathy in 1740. But that’s another story!)

Our 3rd Anniversary! April 21, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Administration, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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We’re celebrating our third year in the blogosphere! Having just passed the 50,000-hits mark, and more than 500 posts (mainly due to the much-appreciated high energy and consistently conscientious blogging of Dwight), I think we have cause for celebration! Thanks to everyone who stops by and visits our blog, and to our colleagues who occasionally blog with Dwight and myself. Looking forward to more intriguing questions, deep analyses, amazing revelations, astounding postulates from expected and unexpected corners of the political spectrum, and other wake-up calls in our 4th year!

Self-Deception of the Overlords April 20, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy.
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Matt Yglesias is shocked:

Financial advisor Mike Donahue whines in the WSJ: “I have more than most only because I’ve worked harder than most and because I am a saver.”

I find it literally shocking that people say things like this. And I always go back to the case of the Salvadoran guys who moved all my furniture into my current apartment. I certainly make more money than those guys. But whether or not I work longer hours than they do (which is definitely possible, I work pretty long hours), you’d have to be clinically insane to think that writing my blog entails working harder than they do. In the real world, the reason I earn more than Salvadoran movers is the same as the reason I work less hard—I have more valuable skills, and people with valuable skills can demand both more money and cushier working conditions. But it’s not as if those guys were too lazy to become American political pundits, they were born in El Salvador in the middle of a civil war and never had a chance to obtain the relevant skills.


I don’t find Donahue’s comments shocking but only because I have heard them so often they no longer make me cringe. But I quite agree with Yglesias’s take on this.

There just is not much of a relationship between how hard someone works and how much money they make.

The job market doesn’t reward effort; it rewards having a skill or ability for which the supply falls short of demand. And our social norms reward having wealthy parents.

None of these are factors that individuals have much control over.

But, for some reason, successful people place great stock in convincing themselves that their success is entirely their own doing.

I put in lots of hours thinking, writing, teaching, explaining, grading, etc. The only part of my job dull enough to reasonably be called work is grading and going to meetings. But I certainly don’t work harder than movers, miners, construction workers, K-12 teachers, or farm laborers.  The difference is that society values what I do. I’m grateful for that, but it isn’t my doing.

Highly paid newspaper pundits are always lecturing us about “welfare queens” , self-reliance, the vices of the poor, and how giving people aid makes them lazy. If they actually had to do real work they might not be so quick to criticize.

Here are some key facts about economic mobility in the United States:

  • Children from low-income families have only a 1 percent chance of reaching the top 5 percent of the income distribution, versus children of the rich who have about a 22 percent chance.

  • Children born to the middle quintile of parental family income ($42,000 to $54,300) had about the same chance of ending up in a lower quintile than their parents (39.5 percent) as they did of moving to a higher quintile (36.5 percent). Their chances of attaining the top five percentiles of the income distribution were just 1.8 percent.
  • By international standards, the United States has an unusually low level of intergenerational mobility: our parents’ income is highly predictive of our incomes as adults. Intergenerational mobility in the United States is lower than in France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway and Denmark. Among high-income countries for which comparable estimates are available, only the United Kingdom had a lower rate of mobility than the United States.

So much for the American Dream.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Supreme Court Nomination April 19, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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Much of what one reads in the press about Obama’s decision about a Supreme Court nominee will be irrelevant. As Tom Goldstein notes:

With relatively little to talk about until the nomination is announced, most coverage is just un-informed speculation about posturing by competing ideologues.

That does not mean that the public should just go about its business and ignore the nomination until the President makes his choice.  There is valuable substantive analysis to be done.  But it has to do with the Court’s jurisprudence.

Thankfully Goldstein is prepared to talk about the real issues:

The single largest body of cases in which Justice Stevens’ retirement could hypothetically shift the balance on the Supreme Court involves ideological issues on which the four most liberal Justices (Stevens, plus Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer) joined with Justice Kennedy to create a majority.  But although these cases involve very important issues, most of them are not very relevant to an examination of how the Court might shift because for that to occur Justice Stevens’ successor would have to be more conservative than not just him but also each of the other four members of the majority:  Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, but also (the reasonably conservative) Kennedy.  That is very unlikely. […]

As a consequence, the appointment of Stevens’ successor by a Democratic President with a Democratic Senate is unlikely to shift the Court’s rulings on most important social issues, such as abortion, affirmative action, religion, and gay rights.  On those questions, either the Court already is controlled by a conservative majority, or Stevens’ successor is unlikely to move the Court further to the right.

What issues will likely be affected by a new member on the court?

Thus, the Court has been narrowly divided, with the left prevailing, in cases relating to the rights of military detainees to have access to the federal courts, including particularly on federal habeas corpus.  A nominee who had a substantially more robust view of presidential powers, or even greater confidence in this Administration’s approach to detainee questions, could shift the course of those rulings.  In addition, other important presidential-power questions are headed towards the Supreme Court, including with respect to the NSA wiretapping program.

And there is much more. This is a very informative article. Read the whole post at the SCOTUS blog.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com