Thursday, June 16, 2011

Humanist Article and Political Reasoning

In general, I would consider myself a humanist. I generally think that humans need to uphold to ethics, reason and justice. I also don't believe in supernatural things such as ghosts and other pseudo-sciences. Tonight I was at the library and discovered a magazine dedicated to humanist reasoning. While there was a lot of things that I like about the magazine, there was several articles in the most recent publication that attempted to provide a humanist examination of "social justice." As I figured, the reasoning of the article generally followed what I would call a typical Americanized liberal view of the topic (http://thehumanist.org/may-june-2011/what-do-we-deserve/). There are several things that I think are incorrect about the reasoning used in the article that I would like to talk about here.
In the article, the author compares life to a race. The author says "So while the racetrack may look nice and shiny, the runners don’t begin at the same starting point." The purpose of this sentence to provide reasoning for why a libertarian philosophy would not work. They are saying that because we don't start out equal, a "free market" system will not work. Namit Arora makes her definitive and conclusive by saying "In Rawlsian terms, the problem in the United States is not that a minority has grown super rich, but that for decades now, it has done so to the detriment of the lower social classes." However, I have several problems with this.
First, life is not a race. One person's victory is not another person's loss. Life is not a zero sum game. So, the fact that some people start out with some "advantages," such as a higher intelligence or wealth level, does not mean that this distracts from the abilities of others. For example, does Bill Gate's immense wealth make me any less wealthy? No, in fact the products that his company provide makes my life significantly better of. So, the wealth of Bill Gates was created by making me better of. Again, the fallacy of Namit Arora's argument is the assumption that wealth in life is some type of zero sum game, where the wealthy's success, even if unearned, has somehow come at the expense of the poor, or some other group.
Secondly, lets assume that Namit Arora is correct and wealth is in fact a zero sum game. What options does that provide us? Sure, people that are smarter, or have parents that are wealthy, will start off with some advantages. But this point just begins the discussion. Experiences throughout history has shown that inequalities are a fact of life. No matter what system we have, some will have advantages because of the way they look, or their level of intelligence. At the same time, some will have power over others, in a capitalist system it may be people with more money. In socialist, or communist, systems it is the people with political power and social connections. There will always be people with more power over others, and ultimately systems that attempt to eliminate disparities in power are ultimately self defeating, as it requires some to have a significant amount of power to distribute power in a "fair" way.

Monday, June 6, 2011

For-Profit Universities

For-Profit Post-Secondary Schools

Ever since there was an explosion in for-profit university attendance, there has been a considerable amount of discussion about the usefulness of these types of schools. For many people, for-profit universities are evidence that businesses, or profit seeking business models, should not be used to provide schooling to individuals. The reasons for these are generally as follows: for-profit schools have significantly higher dropout rates than other schools. They also graduate people with “worthless” degrees, as the people who attend are unable to find a job, or find a job that pays enough to cover their loans. More recently, the federal government developed a set of rules that would cut federal aid to for-profit schools that don’t meet a particular set of requirements. I feel that these concerns are to a large part exaggerated and unnecessary and I would like to develop an understanding of why I think I am correct.

1. For-profit universities have higher dropout rates than state or non-profit universities. This complaint is generally one of the largest complaints that are made against for-profit universities. The strength of this argument comes from the fact that there is no denying that for-profit universities do have higher dropout rates than state or non-profit universities. However, making this argument assumes that the people who attend for-profit universities are the exact same as those that attend state or non-profit universities. However, when you look at the data (http://chronicle.com/article/Who-Are-the-Undergraduates-/123916/) this does not appear to be the case. People who attend for-profit universities are significantly older, more likely to be a ethnic race other than Caucasian, and have a lower income. All of these indications are signs that people that attend for-profit schools are different than those that attend state, or non-profit, universities. For example, for-profit universities are probably more likely to admit people that struggled more in school, are non-traditional students, or are looking for an education in fields not typically associated with traditional schools. With these differences, we cannot simply look at graduation rates to determine which school is doing a better job.
2. For-profit universities could simply be expecting the student to determine if they are capable of graduating. For non-profit and state schools there is typically a screening process that is used to admit some students, while denying admittance to others. Typically, this is process is justified by arguing that only people who are likely to succeed are admitted. If the for-profit schools admit everyone that applies, there is surely going to be a higher dropout rate as the for-profit schools will be admitting people with lower academic standards. Personally, I don’t see a problem with putting the responsibility of determining success in to those that are applying. I know others feel that it should be the schools responsibility, but this is a matter of personal preference, not an indication of the success of the for-profit model itself.
3. For-profit schools graduate people with “worthless” degrees. I am not sure how we can measure if a degree is worthless. Personally, I can see a philosophy degree from Harvard being pretty worthless in its application to the modern world, but we don’t see claims that Harvard is graduating people with worthless degrees. I think that people are saying that for-profit colleges are creating worthless degrees, due to a larger proportion of those that graduate from for-profit universities falling into default of their loans, or being unable to find employment. I say a larger proportion, because there are people who graduate from state, and non-profit, colleges that have been unable to find employment, or find employment that pays enough to cover their student loans. The problem with this, again, is that it assumes that the people who attend a for- profit school are the same as those that attend a state, or non-profit, school. However, if they are different then looking at employment or default rates alone will tell us nothing about the value of a degree. In addition, this comparison forgets that the types of degrees are typically different as well.

Finally, I would like to make one final point. Recently, the federal government as set up new rules on the granting of federal student loans as to limit the amount of loans that for-profit schools can receive. These restrictions are based on many of the criteria I discussed above. To some extent, I don’t have a problem with an organization that provides a service to people, such as the federal government and student loans, having a set of requirements for receiving that service. So, in that sense I don’t have a problem with what the federal government is doing with regards to these new student loan requirements. However, where I do have a problem is in the fact that through the student loan process, the federal government is subsidizing university attendance. This is achieved through many ways, with the Stafford interest rate subsidized loans being one example. So, if the federal government provides these loans, but excludes a particular group, in this case for-profit colleges, then it is basically picking winners and losers and distorting the education market. For example, the for-profit business model may be the better education model, but because of the federal subsidies, the non-profit / state model that is currently being used may continue to dominate the market simply because it is that system the federal government has picked as the “better” system.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Mandating Behavior

While reading USAToday a while ago, I ran across an editorial cartoon that was talking about the new healthcare law and in particular it was addressing the relevance of the health insurance mandate. In the cartoon it makes the point that under our current system an individual can go to the emergency room, receive care and many not have to pay for the care they receive. Because hospitals are required to provide care, regardless of ability to pay, the cartoon argued that without the health insurance mandate, others are required to pay for someone’s health care if they go to the emergency room and do not pay. In addition to this cartoon, I have heard this argument several times previously from different sources. While I would agree that our system of providing care to people regardless of ability to pay induces a moral hazard for people to over-consume health care, I think that it is important to address this particular point.
The point is to make what seems to me to be a relatively obvious objection to the previous line of reasoning. To start the reasoning for the justification for mandating people purchase health insurance you have to make the initial statement: “I am, or society is, unwilling to let people go without necessary medical care.” Based on this line of reasoning, we have mandated that hospitals must provide people with health care, regardless of ability to pay. The second line of reasoning goes: “Because I am unwilling to let you go without medical care, you have a strong incentive to over consume healthcare, or not pay for healthcare. “ Finally, the argument goes: “Because you will not bear the full cost of your care, and I will bear some of the cost of your care, I am justified in dictating what you purchase or consume. (Like purchasing health insurance)” However, the problems with this line or reasoning should be obvious. Basically it is saying, because I feel one way that gives me the right to control you in some other way. So it is saying that the person doing the controlling is justified in controlling another person because of how they feel. How can the person being controlled prevent this in any way? They cannot. What limits does this place on the controlling person? None. Along this same line of reasoning, I could say that blonde hair annoys me; therefore I have the right to force every blonde person to dye their hair.
Based on the objection that individuals do not completely pay for their cost of health care, due to the emergency room, the obvious answer to me is to make them pay. Instead of mandating that everyone purchase insurance, we should eliminate the requirement that individuals admitted to the emergency room do not have to pay for their care. For those that cannot pay, they can attend private charity driven hospitals that would emerge once we have eliminated the distortion causing government policies.
In addition to the point I just made, I would like to make a couple more. First, knowing the problem that individuals do not cover the full cost of their health care, the policies we enact should work toward fixing this problem. However, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction. For example, the recent health care legislation mandated health insurance be provided through a process of community rating, where by healthy people subsidize the sick. We also moved to provide health insurance subsidizes, which shift the cost to tax payers. Secondly, there has been a lot of talk recently that the United States is the only industrialized county that does not have universal health care. However, what does the mandate that emergency rooms provide care regardless of ability to pay result in? It results in universal access to health care. Proponents of increased government involvement in health care like to ignore (perhaps they don’t understand?) this point. I personally don’t think a universal health care system is necessarily a good thing. However, for those that do, they don’t seem to realize that we already have it, they just don’t like it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Contradictions Cannot Exist Part 2

In a previous blog post, I brought up the point that contradictions cannot exist, then I brought up a way in which I thought a group of particular people were making two contradictory arguments. I wish to continue this series by bringing up another area where I think that some people are making inconsistent arguments.
Recently, there has been a lot of discussions with regards to public sector unions. Individuals that would generally call themselves liberals have been concerned about the recent talk within many state governments of requiring concessions from many public sector unions in order to balance their budgets. Of course, supporters of unions have been arguing that these are attacks on unions specifically, with the ultimate hopes of eliminating public sector unions. Before proceeding, I think it is important to look at unions more closely.
Historically, the unionization of the workforce has been advocated with the grounds that firms have bargaining power over individuals and may be able to extract economic rents from workers in the form of lower wages. Unions, the supporters argue, equalize worker bargaining power, leading to higher wages for workers. So that begs the question, are public workers being exploited by their employer? Before I answer this question, I will bring up another point.
Generally, supporters of unions tend to be Democrats politically. If you doubt this, keep in mind that public sector unions are some of the Democrats largest political supporters. As a general rule, individuals that lean left tend to support an active government involvement in many of the economic sectors of our lives. They support re-distributive policies. More importantly, for this argument, they tend to support government action in ensuring our food is safe, our schools are run well, the goods we purchase are safe and many other areas. the primary argument for these actions are that government is not motivated by greed, and is concerned with the public welfare, because the government is "us."
However, the contradictions between the two topics I talked about cannot be more obvious to me. In one breath the union supporters argue that public sector workers need unions to ensure that they are not taken advantage of from the government. In the other breath the supporters generally argue that government involvement in our lives are necessary to ensure that we are kept safe. Which is it? Is the government taking advantage of individuals, or is it protecting them? If it is a force of good, why do the public workers need unions? If it is a force that takes advantage of individuals, how can we expect the government to protect us?
I think that supporters of unions would make many arguments for why there are differences. Perhaps governments are good at protecting citizens, but bad at protecting workers. However, I don't see how one is likely to occur, while the other is not. It seems to me that supporters of public sector unions, who also support an activist government policy, are living in a contradiction in their way of thinking.