Why do I support a state welfare system?

(image found just about everywhere in some form, but this one is credit to quora.com)

Sometimes I answer questions on Quora, which is a website dedicated to having people with different viewpoints discuss issues and give perspectives. Some questions are very straightforward, like “What is the best router out there right now?” I don’t answer those, because I don’t find them interesting. Some I answer because they fit me: “As a teacher, have you ever had X happen?” These are good opportunities to share experiences with people new to the profession. However, I also answer some political viewpoint questions. One question that was asked was: “How come so many liberals support the welfare system but don’t collect on it?” I’m posting my answer in full below, with some followup thoughts on the matter. The very short answer is this: I think it’s the most efficient way to help those in need in our country. Here’s the long version:

I can’t speak for others, but I support the welfare system because I believe that a government run safety net is a better way to get people help that they need than private charities. Private charities tend to reward people that the givers either know personally or agree with in some way. Much of the money a church collects, for example, will go to members of that congregation in need or to people deemed worthy of helping by that congregation, which can be based on whatever criteria they see fit.

This means that if you do not fit the criteria (perhaps you aren’t a Christian, for example), you are FAR less likely to get help, even if you need it.

Now, I will grant that the more math based approach govt. takes isn’t perfect either. Simply being below the poverty line does not in itself mean that you deserve help. Perhaps you did something foolish or reckless to be in that situation. In general, I think that the people who deserve the most help are those that are experiencing misfortune through no fault of their own. So, one might think I would prefer the private charity approach, where help is based on merit. However, in my experience, merit gets defined, again, as being similar to the person giving, or to somehow fitting the arbitrary criteria of the private donors.

So, I take a welfare system to be the better approach. It’s far from perfect. But it has established criteria, that are not arbitrary, that can get help to people in need. I once read that in order to replace welfare in the U.S., private donations would need to be ten TIMES higher than they are now. While some believe that lowering taxes would allow private charities to make up this difference, I see no evidence for that. People who give to charity do so regardless of taxation. People who get breaks on their taxes, who were not giving before, do not suddenly give. They spend the money on themselves, in my experience.

As a result, I support the public welfare approach to this problem, even though I do not get welfare, and I am unlikely to ever need it. Together, my wife and I make 6 figures a year; we don’t have children and will not have children. We have no debt, other than our mortgage. I support welfare as a means to helping the needy in our society.

Followup thoughts: I’ve gotten a lot of positive response to this question on Quora, but I left out some things for the sake of brevity. First, I did not always think this way. In my youth, I would have called myself a social liberal and fiscal conservative. I probably even used the label ‘libertarian’ at several points. I now shudder to think back to how easily I adapted that label, without really understanding libertarianism. I basically thought that the government should stay out of economics altogether. People should sink or swim on their own, since we all had opportunity. If you didn’t take advantage of it, that was your fault. If it wasn’t your fault, charities would help you. The government would just mess it all up!

I was very naïve. Perhaps I still am. In any case, what I didn’t realize at the time is fairly simple to articulate now. We don’t all have the same opportunities in this world. Libertarianism assumes an equal playing field that simply does not exist in the real world. As a white, reasonably attractive, reasonably intelligent, well educated, male not only were certain doors open to me that were closed to others, but in many cases, I could take the closed doors and open them with a simple request. If I made a mistake, it was never damning. I would always get another chance after that one. I didn’t realize that I was living life in easy mode until I started to examine the system in more detail in grad school. I became more politically aware, and I understand how the US system pretends at social mobility but only fulfills that promise to select groups.

More simply, I didn’t understand the ways in which factors outside our control could influence our opportunities. I should have seen it; no excuses. I should have. But when you are benefiting from an existing system, you tend not to question it. You buy into the narrative that it’s good for everyone. Sure, I had black coworkers try to explain to me what driving while black meant, and the ways in which they were judged all the time, with people expecting them to make a wrong move. But I didn’t listen. I just never saw this happen. I mean I knew they believed this, but it struck me as unlikely. This wasn’t the 60s. Racism was largely a thing of the past, I thought.

Then, I became a college professor. I started to see how the different upbringings of different groups (racial, economic, etc.) influenced the way students thought, their ability to write, the information available to them when making arguments…it was so obvious. I thought back to how I arrived where I was, and I realized all the advantages that were given to me: a private education for the first 6 years of my schooling, which set me ahead of all my public education peers, a safety net that meant I would never go hungry or wonder where I might sleep each night, a support system for emotional problems…the list goes on and on. But even aside from these things, I could think back to the times where I was doing something wrong (kid stuff), and the police and other authority figures would give me the benefit of doubt. I’d get a warning, or a slap on the hand.

I read the studies showing that just having an African American sounding name made companies less likely to hire you. I listened to women tell me their stories of harassment, the ways they had to endure leering, suggestive language, etc. as the price of trying to make a living. I looked at my peers in academia, and we all looked the same, talked the same, shared worldviews.

Hopefully, my point is clear. There are many people who are disadvantaged in life through no fault of their own. Sometimes these people get sick or lose their job, not because they did anything wrong, but because they were unlucky. They may lack the support structure that you or I take for granted. I’ve had so many students tell me stories like this. They have no one to help them. No one. If something goes wrong, they are doomed without help. If they make a mistake, they are condemned for it. In many cases, even if they do everything right and earn a degree, they may be unable to find a job in today’s world. I’m not talking about people who got degrees in things you think are worthless. I’m talking about geologists, psychologists, business students….doesn’t matter.

Sometimes people need help to get back on their feet. Social safety nets provide that help. Can they be abused? Yes, of course! And we should limit that abuse. But study after study suggests that welfare fraud isn’t that common and doesn’t cost that much. I’m willing to accept this as the cost of such systems, in the same way I accept that the taxes I pay so kids can go to school will often be misused. It’s worth it to have a system in place that can help the people that really need it.

Seriously? Just LISTEN Already and Quit Acting Shocked!

(Content Warning—going to talk about some of the issues of people abusing power, especially by victimizing women and marginalized groups.)

Over the last couple of weeks, all sorts of stories have been breaking about women, minorities, trans persons, and other vulnerable groups being harassed by people in power. I’m going to go ahead and echo a much more popular writer, Harris O’Malley, who goes by “Dr. Nerdlove” and spends most of his online energy helping socially awkward people understand relationships better. Marginalized voices have been screaming that they are being exploited, and they are being ignored. You want to do some good in the world? Start by listening to the people who are being victimized.

No, don’t talk over them. Don’t what-about them. Don’t accuse them of exaggerating. LISTEN.

Hear what they are saying. Do you want more evidence before you condemn someone for something that is likely to destroy that person’s life? I get that. Really, I do. False accusations can do real harm; but they are also pretty rare. You know why? Because being assaulted or harassed or even belittled is not something people brag about in most cases. In fact, they usually don’t want anyone to know. It’s a demeaning experience, and reliving it can be almost as awful as the incident itself.

Add to that the fact that if you make such allegations, you can be blacklisted from a whole community, including the one that involves your career. If you are the sole voice, you will be ignored; only once you are joined by a growing chorus of people, with the same story repeated over and over, will the public finally listen.

Then, once the person admits what he has done (it’s almost always a white guy, at least in the U.S., despite the fact I linked to the Cosby scandal above), many people will focus on the lack of criticism toward the attacker. This is what is happening with the current admission of Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein has been accused for years of harassing younger women who were eager to break into the Hollywood industry. His admission takes the usual form of “It’s not all true” combined with “I need help” that is meant to be more of an apologetic defense than a real statement of guilt. It’s disgusting on its own.

However, that’s when the cries of “What does Hillary Clinton have to say about this??” arise. Yes, that’s from FoxNews, but here’s CNN’s version. You see, what’s important here is not that a media mogul abused his power and harmed who knows how many women. What’s important is how OTHER women and minorities respond to this. Let’s be clear. Clinton, because of her past associations with Weinstein (he was a major campaign contributor) can’t win here. This is just another way to attack someone who is no longer even in the political spotlight. It’s a retroactive ‘told ya so’ from people who don’t really care about Weinstein’s victims at all.

(Edit: Since I published this, Clinton DID speak out and condemn Weinstein. The comments on social media confirmed what I suspected. Those calling on her to speak called her a hypocrite for condemning this when (according to them) she stood by her own husband during a scandal. In other words, she had no way to satisfy critics. Still, I’m glad she spoke out and condemned Weinstein.)

Again, they aren’t listening. They are using the moment to talk about something else.

In the same way, Buzzfeed’s recent reveal that (again, shockingly) Breitbart and its then-lackey, Milo Yiannopoulos, had ties to White Nationalist groups underplayed the ways in which Yiannopoulous and others have attacked women online, generating hate mobs that were meant to chase people out of the video game industry, for example.

Once again, many already knew this, and shouted it over and over and over. Nobody listened.

These misuses of power are all over our society, and the victims have been asking for help. If you didn’t hear them, it’s because you weren’t listening. It’s time that we all (myself included) do a MUCH better job.

Damnit, Wolfenstein, You Have to Earn a Moral Dilemma!

Ok, so I’m still playing Wolfenstein: New Order from time to time. In previous blog, I mentioned enjoying killing Nazis, due to the lack of moral ambiguity. Of course, I simply assumed the lack of ambiguity. A recent post by the makers of the game, which said “Make America Nazi-Free Again” apparently upset people who see a game about killing Nazis as a political statement against the alt-right. That’s funny. But also, sad. In any case, I don’t find it very interesting that literal Nazis are upset for being called Nazis.

Instead, I’m going to write about an issue I have in New Order. Overall, it’s a great game, and I’m really enjoying it. I like the premise, where Nazis won WW2, and I was basically ‘knocked out’ for 20 years while they ruled the world, only to arise and join the resistance. Pretty neat stuff!

However, there is a scene, fairly early in the game, that annoys me as an ethicist…and perhaps just as a decent person (if you are willing to concede that to me!). WARNING: What follows will be a spoiler of the end of the first level of the game. If you want to play the game, and avoid the spoiler, DO NOT READ FURTHER!

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Still here? OK, in the scene in question, you have to choose between two hostages that the enemy has taken. The Big Bad Guy is going to kill one of the two men, who are squad mates on your team. He forces you to choose which one. This is meant to be a classic moral dilemma, a Sophie’s Choice moment, where you must choose between two beloved people (yeah, I just spoiled that book for you, too!).

There are bonuses to you for the rest of the game, depending on which choice you make. One gives you more hitpoints, and the other gives you more armor, basically. They also change gameplay by a small amount, with one giving you the ability to hotwire certain things, and the other the ability to pick locks.

Whatever. The idea of having a choice that unlocks different bonuses is pretty cool, but the choice itself is not. There are at least three problems with it.

First, you really don’t know either of these people. I’m sure they played roles in the mission somehow, but I’ll be honest. I didn’t remember either name or face when I was suddenly confronted with having to choose between them. After realizing the second problem (which I’ll get to in a second), I based my choice on purely utilitarian reasons. You see, I teach the Trolley Problem, and I know the proper solution. Once you rule out the deontological solution, you go with utility. One guy looked older than the other. So I chose to let the older guy die, figuring the other had a longer life ahead. I didn’t know the bonuses, and thus had no way of basing my choice on that. I guess I could have reloaded, but I already had to that once because you see….

The second problem is that you can’t bow out of the choice. My first instinct was to refuse. “No way, Bad Guy! I won’t do it! I’m a good person, and will not be an accessory to murder! Bite me, Nazi Scum!” Only that didn’t work. We all died, and I had to reload. Not choosing was not a legit choice. Oh, in the real world, it would be. But the game wanted to make a point. It wanted me to feel some guilt; it wanted pathos. But that leads to the third, and biggest problem….

The game never earned this moment. Moral dilemmas aren’t a chance to be edgy. They are a tragic part of human life, very rare, and very damaging when we are forced to make them. Moral dilemmas hurt, especially when the cost is human life. This is a game about killing Nazis. I’m playing it to avoid moral dilemmas. I don’t mean that video games must avoid hard moral choices, but this particular game is so over the top with it’s bad guys that it’s not really a game about moral ambiguity at all. It’s killing Nazis. Contrary to what some stupid, young, white, male, Americans seem to think (and yes, they are ALL those things….well, not all are young, but they are mentally immature), there’s nothing cool about Nazis. There are no redeeming qualities. I don’t care that Hitler liked dogs or was a vegetarian. He was a monster. I apologize when I use Nazis as examples in ethics, because it’s too easy.

Wolfenstein: New Order blindsided me with this horrific choice, and I resent it. Yeah, I’m still playing it, but it marred an otherwise uniformly enjoyable game by faking some deep emotions. Games like Fallout earn it, but Wolfenstein didn’t!

Since When Is Kneeling a Sign of Disrespect??

Here we go again. A while back, I wrote an article about Colin Kaepernick’s attempts to raise awareness to various injustices in the U.S. by kneeling during the National Anthem before NFL games. My conclusion was that Kaepernick has every right to protest in whatever way he sees fit, and that he seemed to be trying to respect the country in how he went about his protest. That is still my view.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen comments on Facebook ranging from “Yeah, he has the right, but I don’t like it” to “I support this fully and would do the same” to “This is totally disrespectful to the Flag, and he should be in prison!” I’ve even seen some people claim that Kaepernick himself has changed his story on why he knelt. As far as I can tell, his story has been very consistent. He originally sat during the Anthem because he felt that standing was giving at least tacit consent to the injustices he saw, especially towards veterans and minorities. In fact, here is an article from last year showing him with the Green Beret that advised him to kneel instead, as kneeling before the flag is seen as a sign of respect.

Of course, I understand why critics would see it differently. They will say that standing is the respectful thing to do, and I’ll go ahead and assume that while they are at home watching the game, they get up off their couches and stand while the Anthem is being played, with their hands over their hearts and their hats removed. But surely there are different ways to show respect. Kneeling is a very traditional sign of respect, for example. In the Wiki I just linked there is a photograph of a military officer kneeling with the flag, as a show of respect to someone who lost a loved one (and to the flag, by extension).

But Kaepernick and the NFL players who have joined him are kneeling as a form of protest. That’s certainly true. So, they do disagree with at least certain aspect of American society. Is that what is disrespectful? I’m not sure how. The U.S. has a long tradition of peaceful protest, and many of our most important civil rights came about due to such protests, some of which were very inconvenient for others in society.

One of the things that continues to baffle me throughout this conversation is the question of ‘proper’ protesting. Protesting, by its very nature, is a sign of disagreement. A person can respectfully disagree with another person, or even with an idea or a nation. Disagreement, by itself, is not disrespect. However, it is almost always painful or slighting to the person on the other side of the disagreement. This is human nature. If a person tells you that he or she strongly disagrees with you, it’s hard not to feel hurt, perhaps even attacked. If the person says, “I still respect you, however,” this lessens the blow, but doesn’t completely eliminate it.

I suspect this is how many people feel when they see NFL players kneel. The players say that they are protesting injustices in our society. Some people might think “But I didn’t cause that injustice! Why are you attacking me?” That response, while understandable, is misguided. These players are not attacking specific people. They are trying to raise awareness of a problem that has not yet been solved. Certainly, things are better for minorities in America than they were fifty years ago, but they are far from fine. We need to be reminded of this from time to time.

That’s going to ruffle some feathers (or some flags?), but it’s not disrespectful. There is nothing in the original Constitution about honoring the flag. In fact, the history of fetishizing the U.S. flag as some sort of symbol of the country and purity of ideology is relatively new. The rules about how to treat the flag are less than 100 years old, and many of the things we take for granted about respect for the flag are even more recent.

But what I find more troubling is the selective use of this flag worship. In 2006, Kid Rock wore the flag as a poncho during a Superbowl concert, and I don’t recall people up in arms over it (though a Democrat from Georgia apparently didn’t like it!). I’ve seen flag bathing suits, scarves, and even beach towels (the flag isn’t supposed to touch the ground!). But kneeling before it as a sign of protest is somehow disrespectful? Come on. You tell me why certain people are bothered by this form of protest, but not by the flagrant ways other people treat the flag, contrary to the rules we were taught as children.

I personally don’t care about those rules. The flag isn’t America. It’s an object. If you are religious, you aren’t supposed to worship idols. If you aren’t, well…you probably don’t worship the flag anyway. Nothing in this world inherently deserves our praise. That must be earned, and when your own nation is doing things that you think are not only unworthy of praise, but even problematic, then you should speak up about it. How you go about it matters, of course. You can’t harm other people, for example. But kneeling during the anthem doesn’t hurt anyone. It’s a basic right we have as Americans. It’s the First Amendment. It’s first because it’s very important for protecting our liberties.

The truth is that there is almost no way for NFL players to protest that would make certain critics happy. Anyone who complains that they are millionaires and/or ungrateful isn’t going to care about how they protest. They will criticize them regardless, as long as they are still noticeable. But a protest that isn’t noticed is pointless.

When President Trump decided to wade into this (at a rally in Alabama, no less, which just made me have to hear even more jokes directed at my home state…and I can’t even defend it because damn…those people cheered him!). . . when he decided to take a stand, as President, by calling on American citizens to be fired for exercising their First Amendment rights, he made a big mistake. The NFL is more unified on this issue than ever before. Their cause is growing, not shrinking. They are linking arms; they are unified.

Frankly, I’ve never seen NFL players show each other more respect than they are right now. Owners, coaches, players, even the commissioner, are all on the same side on this. It’s a strange thing to see, and it’s coming from a group of people who are tired of being told that they must remain silent to the injustices that they see in our country.

Do they respect the flag? Sure seems like it. In any case, I respect the hell out of them for making a stand….so to speak.

ACA Repeal and Replace- Part 5 Gajillion

(Cassidy and Graham–Getty Images)

Congress has one last attempt in them to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with something that will cause millions of Americans to lose insurance. It’s called the Cassidy-Graham Plan….just kidding! Lindsey Graham would never let anyone else put his or her name first. It’s called the Graham-Cassidy plan, and here’s how it “works”. As you can see, much of the plan can be summed up by saying that Federal subsidies for healthcare would be transferred to the states, which can then do what they wish with that money. It’s a States’ Rights approach…I guess. But in practice, it will mean that many Americans will lose healthcare. Why?

Reason One: By removing the Medicaid Expansion and leaving this up to the states, those states that are unable to make up the difference will need to decide whether to cut funding to certain people or find a way to come up with it. That could mean increased taxes, but that seems unlikely. Cutting people out of Medicaid is more likely. I’m not saying that out of pure cynicism. I have personally witnessed several people here in Ohio go through the process of trying to receive disability. The first application is automatically denied; you then go through an appeals process, which can take 6 months to a year. You are then VERY likely to be denied again, at which point you get another appeal. After a year and a half to two years (longer in some cases), you will finally get your verdict. States will do everything they can to deny you, but if you are lucky enough to receive the funding, after two years of waiting, you will need to continuously prove that you still deserve it. That’s under the current system. With less funding, things will be even harder.

Reason Two: The distribution of funds will be up to the states, which will allow them to decide who is eligible and who is not. In practice, this means eliminating pre-existing condition protection as well as federal guidelines for mental health, disabilities, etc. Some states do not recognize certain mental illnesses or disabilities as legitimate. People with those disabilities are very unlikely to have the money to move to another state. They will simply be left behind.

Reason Three: In fact, under this plan, states will be allowed to deny mental illness coverage altogether. There are several provisions of the ACA that specifically define mental illnesses, and even include issues like drug addiction. Under the new plan, the states could ignore those definitions, which in practice will mean that many of the people who now have coverage for mental illnesses will lose that coverage.

This leads me to the main issue that I want to raise here. Graham and Cassidy have defended the bill by stating that it does not remove the pre-conditions clause of the ACA. In other words, insurers will not be able to deny people with pre-existing conditions. When NPR suggested that in fact it would harm people with pre-existing conditions, Cassidy tweeted that this was false (FALSE!). People with pre-existing conditions would still have access to healthcare.

Here is the key point. Whenever you see the word ‘access’ you should recognize that you are being intentionally misled. Yes, intentionally. ‘Access’ is a buzzword among people who want to take something away from others, but don’t want to be caught doing so. In this case, Cassidy is right that the bill will not remove access to healthcare. In other words, insurers will not be able to deny people insurance simply because those people have a condition.

What is misleading here is that ‘access’ refers to a negative liberty that protects us from government interference in our choices. In other words, we will all be allowed to purchase insurance, regardless of existing conditions. However, there will be no controls on how much insurers may charge us for that access. This is a bit like saying that I have access to a yacht. No one is preventing me from purchasing a yacht. Of course, I don’t have the money to buy one; so that access is moot.

We all have access to healthcare at all times—if we can afford to pay for it. We don’t even need insurance. We can just purchase any procedures we need. Realistically, of course, that means nothing. Most people cannot afford the exorbitant costs associated with even minor surgeries, assuming we can even find out in advance how much it will be.

Graham and Cassidy know this. They know that removing government subsidies to offset insurance costs will effectively prevent people with pre-existing conditions from being able to afford the premiums of insurance plans that are unregulated.

Here’s one calculation of what that would mean, based on existing data.  Doctors have spoken out against the bill as well. Let me stress one important part of that last article. Some people, including some legislators, seem to think that healthcare is an individual rights issue, because purchasing it is like purchasing a car for yourself. It isn’t. Having a healthy society benefits all of us, as individuals and as a community. It’s not something we can choose to buy or not buy. When you need it, you must have it. There are no alternatives. There’s no public transportation option, like there is for cars. You can’t carpool on healthcare. Most importantly, you will use our healthcare system. If Republicans are so worried about the free rider problem, they would do well to keep that in mind.

Everyone will use healthcare at some point in life; most likely multiple points. This is as much of a social need as having a police force or fire departments or roads. In fact, it’s more important than all of those things. It’s literally life and death, and unlike the fire department, we will all need to use it.

It’s time to stop messing around with this issue and catch up to the rest of the world, which realized decades ago that a public system of healthcare is a basic right in today’s world, a positive right that should be provided in some way by the government.

The DACA- Is Trump Eliminating It or Codifying It?

(getty images)

This week, Americans are learning another acronym that most had ignored until it became media sensation. The letters DACA stand for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. You can read more about it on Wikipedia, which has some of the history, criticism, etc..  But in basic terms, DACA was an executive order that President Obama enacted in 2012 when the DREAM act failed. Both the DREAM act and DACA aim at providing the children of undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. because it has become their home. In other words, the idea is that the children of such immigrants did not do anything wrong, and many (most) of them have become full members of U.S. society, contributing just like other members. Deporting them, according to Obama, would punish them unfairly.

President Trump has announced that he is cancelling the executive action, and this has rightly caused some controversy and confusion. What exactly will happen to the so-called Dreamers (people who were protected by DACA)? Will they be deported after all? Or does Trump really want Congress to pass a law that will ultimately protect them without using the executive order approach that he has often called unconstitutional (in practice, this seems to mean when Obama does it, since he hasn’t really rescinded Bush’s EOs and has made a few himself).

There are certainly some signs that Trump simply wants Congress to provide a permanent solution, which the DACA is not. One reason to be suspicious about this is that Trump has given no concrete path to such legislation. Another is that nothing prevented Congress from creating such a law while DACA was in place. In other words, he didn’t have to remove it in order for such a law to be passed. If anything, removing DACA means that if Congress does not act, then there will be no protection for these young persons.

Why does this matter? Well, there are nearly 800k people who are currently covered by the DACA. The DACA allows them to receive work permits, and almost all of them have jobs. These are not jobs that have been taken from ‘other Americans’ either. Furthermore, in order to keep these permits (and thus their jobs), they must keep a clean record. In other words, they are not criminals. While some might counter that being undocumented is a kind of crime, remember that these are people who were born in America. By law, that should make them Americans. However, since their parents are not documented Americans, they fall into a gray area here.

Still, we should remember that those of us who are Americans by birth have ancestors that weren’t, and that many of our families likely received citizenship basically by being born here. This is not new. What is new is the way that they are being protected in this case. President Trump says that he cares about these Dreamers. But he also campaigned on ending the DACA. This puts him in a tough spot. So tough that many feel that he’s essentially following Democrats here, rather than Republicans.

Whatever his motives, the process is very unclear right now, since there is no direction on how to create legislation. This leaves nearly 800k people facing an uncertain people, and many others are affected by what will happen. If the U.S. suddenly loses 800k employees that will be a huge hole to fill. And it’s not as simple as saying that other Americans can then just have those jobs. The U.S. has a skill labored shortage right now, which is leading to a lot of empty jobs with no one to fill them. So it will not likely provide an equal number of jobs for others. More likely it will simply leave a vacuum in our economy.

One additional piece of information about the process is worth noting. When Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General, made this announcement official, he claimed that it was a correction of the misuse of Presidential authority that Obama had used to create DACA in the first place. He even adds this choice quote:

“Societies where the rule of law is treasured are societies that tend to flourish and succeed. Societies where the rule of law is subject to political whims and personal biases tend to become societies afflicted by corruption, poverty, and human suffering.”

He is correct, of course. However, as the article where I got this quote notes, this is the same person who has fought for a Presidential right to ban Muslims categorically from entering the country. Does this mean that the President has no say on whether people are allowed to remain in the country but has complete power to bar people from entering? That seems like a line that is hard to match with rule of law, which is about following Constitutional authority properly and not making up new rules on the spot. Trump has made up new rules all over the place, and removed existing precedents repeatedly. Personally, I would love to get back to proper separation of powers in the U.S. It’s a critical part of our political system. But having the President force Congress into an action that it doesn’t want to do seems like a pretty big misuse of authority.

On the other hand, if we read this as simply correcting a previous mistake (and forget the ways in which Trump has abused his own authority), then we can try to be generous and see this as an attempt to come up with a better way of dealing with young Americans (yes, Americans) who need more than just a system that allows them to stay but without the full rights of other Americans. If that is the goal of this process, I agree with it. What I don’t agree with is the particular path being taken to reach this goal. It carries too much uncertainty and it certainly smells like an attempt to deport a bunch of people who have done nothing wrong.

Of course, some states are already saying that they will offer sanctuary. In my own state of Ohio, Governor Kasich (a Republican, for those keeping score) has announced that the Dreamers can come here and he will not try to force them to leave the country. However, moving states is not easy, which is why I generally favor a federal solution to a state solution where rights are concerned (perhaps I’ll detail this a bit more in a future article). Many of those affected by DACA live in states like California and Texas, with large populations, both far from Ohio. Relocating your family is difficult, and doing so while under scrutiny of law even more so.

This is complicated by the fact that President Obama collected information from those protected under DACA in order to ensure that they would not be deported. Many worry that this same information might now be used to target people instead, which seems like a reasonable concern. However, if President Trump really does want to protect the Dreamers and is simply pushing Congress to make it an actual law, then they should have nothing to fear. I guess we’ll see soon enough.

Tyranny: Playing as a minion of the Big Bad

So, I’m a sucker for roleplaying games of all sorts; always have been. I played the first Final Fantasy, back when it really seemed like it might be the last one! Now there are 37, I believe….But I also really enjoy the kind of roleplaying games that allow you to make choices in how you pursue the goals of the game, especially when those choices are reflected in some way in the game world. They don’t have to be huge consequences, necessarily, but I want the game to acknowledge things that I have been doing within it. For example, in Fallout: New Vegas, you can help some factions while harming others, and those you help will greet you differently than those you harmed. In Knights of the Old Republic, you play a Jedi in the Star Wars universe, and you can pursue the light side or dark side of the force. The game plays differently, depending on your choices.

Currently, I am playing a game of this sort, which is called Tyranny. Tyranny was developed by Obsidian, which is the same company that made Fallout: New Vegas. They also made Pillars of Eternity, which I discussed in another article. It’s a company that is known for taking story seriously, and I almost always at least give their roleplaying games a shot because of this. In some cases, they take an existing franchise and push it in a new direction. In others, they create their own universe.

Tyranny is the latter sort of game. It takes place in a world where the Ultimate Evil has already won the day. It’s too late to stop him or her (the question of the Big Baddy’s gender is part of the game). In fact, you helped bring this about, as one of the generals serving the main villain of this world! At the start of the game, you get to make certain decisions about the history of the world, and how conflicts were resolved (by you!). These choices come up during the game itself, and people will respond to you differently because of them. If, for example, you decided to burn down a city that challenged your master’s rule, then when you meet up with people from that city they will be angry at you for doing so. Of course, if you meet up with an enemy of that city, that person might thank you. Choices you make during gameplay have similar effects.

While the story itself doesn’t differ dramatically as a result of all of this, it does add some wonderful flavor to the game. Your choices matter. But what makes Tyranny interesting as a gameworld is the fact that you work for the villain. You must decide what that means. Will you embrace being a villain and terrorize the people you encounter? Will you strike them down in cold blood and increase the fear they feel when they hear your name? Or will you be a kind of Schindler, helping people from within the very organization that threatens them? The choice is yours, and it produces some wonderful moral dilemmas.

I don’t mean to suggest that choosing between cold blooded murder and saving the innocent is a moral dilemma. It isn’t. Murder is immoral. A moral dilemma occurs when you are faced with two or more choices and neither one seems very good. This happens throughout Tyranny, even when you are trying to be as good as possible. There is no way to escape the problem of dirty hands in this game. This really separates it from earlier roleplaying games, such as Bladur’s Gate, where one can play a pure good character and basically act heroic the entire time. In Tyranny, you are serving a bad person, and everyone knows it. You can’t back out of this role, either. You can only make the best of it, whatever that means for you.

While I think Obsidian could have taken this a bit further than they do, the world they have created is interesting, and the moral choices you must make often have weight to them. It’s a fairly dark world, which makes it a good choice for Fall playing, if you are looking for an RPG for Halloween (though, if you haven’t played Costume Quest, check that out too! Or Grim Dawn, if you prefer action RPGs…or even Path of Exile!)

The Ethics of Shooting Nazis

The other day, my partner arrived home from work, and asked me a simple question:

“What are you doing?”

“Shooting Nazis,” I answered evenly, as I concentrated on my computer screen.

“What?” she asked, this time a bit more interested.

“Playing Wolfenstein. I felt like shooting some Nazis. Seemed appropriate. Remember my last blog?”

She laughed, but also cocked her head in that way she does when she knows I’m half serious and agrees with whatever I just said. “Oh! Of course!”

The game in question, Wolfenstein: The New Order, is part of a serious of first person shooters that lets you fight Nazis. This one (like some of the others) takes place on an alternative timeline where the Allies did not win the war in 1945. Instead, it is now 1946 and things are not going well. I’m playing an elite commando badass of some sort (I’m always a badass in these games…cause I’m awesome!) single-handedly ruining things for Hitler by taking out all his elite troops.

The game is a bit cyberpunkish, with tech that didn’t exist at the time, like robot dogs that attack you and special weapons that don’t even exist today, much less in the mid 1940s. It’s all in good fun, right? I mean you are fighting Nazis, and who doesn’t know that they are pure evil. In this way, Wolfenstein allows gamers to indulge in violence with less moral ambiguity than many such games. It certainly has a different feel from Resident Evil V, where many people noted that killing African zombies felt more than a little racist at times.

But after the events in Charlottesville, where Neo-Nazis marched openly in the U.S., I’m feeling a strange sense of ambivalence. On one hand, I feel closer to the problem than ever, as though I’m battling a real evil, not just something I heard my grandparents discuss in hushed tones. Nazis still exist, and they still need to be fought! And they are literally killing people. Eat this grenade, Nazis!

On the other hand, a video game simulation of a fight with a fictionalized group of Nazis in an alternate time line feels a bit empty. There are real Nazis to fight.

Then I start to wonder…how do we fight them? What are we supposed to do in order to stop the Nazis in our own society? This is an ongoing debate right now. I see it on the forums I visit. I see it on FB and Twitter. I see people posting pictures of American Nazis getting punched, and I see others arguing against such violence because it will only fuel more.

I don’t know which is the correct approach to take when dealing with Nazis. I know I would forgive someone for punching a Nazi in the face when confronted with their rhetoric. But I don’t know if it does any good. What I do know is that Germans (and others) in the 1930s did not take Hitler and the Nazis very seriously. Some did, of course. But anyone with high school history can tell you that some politicians adopted a policy of appeasement toward the Third Reich, and this proved disastrous.

Turns out that Nazis don’t go away when you ignore them. They don’t just want attention, or for someone to hear their message. They want change. Nazism is an action movement, not a passive one. Nazis don’t wait for the world to move in their direction; they actively believe that the world needs them to make it better. That’s one of their priors—an assumption that only they can see the truth about the world, whether that means Zionist conspiracies or a need for harsh eugenics programs.

In my Biomedical Ethics class, I show the poster below, which was used in Nazi Germany, together with the translation.

Is this the kind of thing that we should ignore? Is it clownish? Is it buffoonery? Is it just trolling, as some alt-right members suggest, meant to get a rise out of people but not really meant to be serious? No. It is none of these things. None of us should be complicit in this. We must speak out, and we must realize that even if this seems like a fringe movement, it must be expunged from our society as the cancer that it is. You don’t ignore cancer. You shoot it with radiation.

Time to return to Wolfenstein and find a radiation gun…..

Literal Nazis Are Marching for White Power in the United States

I shouldn’t be writing this post; I mean it shouldn’t exist. There should be no need for me to talk about a rising movement of literal Nazis in the United States. But here we are. It’s 2017, and as I am writing this blog, there are people battling white supremacists in Virginia, on the University of Virginia Campus. A state of emergency has been declared, after violence erupted in the city of Charlottesville, VA. This includes an incident where a car seemed to intentionally drive into a crowd of people who were protesting the white supremacists, injuring many, and possibly killing at least one person (at the time of this writing, reports are conflicting, but the video is awful….I’ll be amazed if no one is at least seriously injured).

Let me start by noting that we should not equivocate here. These are people who believe in the ideals of the Nazi movement. The picture above is from this gathering, showing the Nazi salute. There are photos of people wearing Nazi symbols, or even T-shirts with Hitler quotes on them. Those are not literal Nazis are basically still Nazis. They believe in white power and in “taking the country back” from minorities. The people fighting against this group are not just as bad. They are not the other side of the same coin, unless you believe that the people who fought the Nazis in WW2 were just the other side of the same coin, too. Fighting against Nazis does not make you a Nazi. It makes you a decent human being, willing to stand up for the rights of yourself and others.

So how did we get to this point? It’s easy to point fingers at Trump, and I won’t completely refrain from doing so myself. Whether Trump is a believer in this cause or not, he definitely plays on the same fears that this movement represents—fear of the other, fear of difference, general xenophobia. I cannot tell whether Trump actually believes most of what he says, but I do know that his words have an effect on our country. They must. He is the President. When he says that Mexico is sending us rapists, he is playing on fears of immigration. When his son makes reference to a handful of Skittles filled with a few bad ones, he is asking us to consider all refugees as potential threats to our country, with no real way to distinguish them (despite the fact that our vetting is incredibly stringent). These statements play on existing fears, but they also play on fallacies of bias that are difficult to avoid.

Consider this analogy. Suppose that the first time you ever saw a dog as a child, it bit you. That was your first experience with a dog. Because dogs are so prevalent, however, you might get over that first impression. Your friends will have dogs, and you will eventually realize that most of them will not bite you. Your first impression was wrong. Now, suppose that one of your friends has a rat as a pet. Already, you might be thinking “That’s not a pet!” Well, for many people rats are great pets! But they are still pretty rare as pets, at least in the U.S. So, this might be the only one you encounter. Suppose it bites you. That will again be your first impression of this pet, but what will counter it? You may never see another pet rat again.

The same thing can happen in people who only live around others that are similar to themselves. If you live in a suburb, you might be in a neighborhood where, demographically at least, everyone is a lot like you. Maybe your suburb is filled with white, affluent people. But when you watch the news, you see persons of color. What are they doing? This will be your impression of them, most likely, because you won’t have much to counter it. For years and years, African Americans were shown in a bad light in the U.S. They were servants in films, and white actors dressed in blackface to portray stereotypes. Many were featured in racist ad campaigns.

Of course, that’s all in the past, right? Not really. The segregation of America is still happening, and what’s worse (for Nazis, not decent people) is that now there are many more groups of people that have gotten rights that they never had before. This outrages white supremacists who associate American exceptionalism with white people of European ancestry. Some of these people even become members of Congress! Others march in protests like the ones happening right now.

There were analysts that warned that Trump’s victory would be used as a signal to racist organizations that they could now come into the light, and openly say what they once only thought in secret. And here we are. This would be a good time to see how our still relatively new President will deal with the situation. Something must be done. So far, I haven’t been impressed. His first speech, which just happened a few minutes ago (as I write this), indicated the violence issues come “from all sides”, which is basically another false equivalence.

Are there examples of violence from the left? Of course, there are. This isn’t one of them, however, and I don’t recall conservatives trotting out the ‘both sides do this’ language when they were complaining about riots in Ferguson. In fact, here’s what Trump said at the time: “They’re going to riot in Ferguson no matter what”. Perhaps he believes the people of Ferguson are just inherently violent. He did not, however, point out that other people are just as violent, and he has not, yet, called the Nazis in Charlottesville ‘thugs’ as he did the people in Ferguson (and Baltimore, and Oakland….).

But maybe this open violence will finally change something; maybe as a nation we can come together to condemn literal Nazis. Is that too much to ask? LITERAL. NAZIS. Surely we can agree that they should be stopped.

Will Distrust of Colleges Increase Our Economic and Political Divide?

(photo courtesy of Nathaniel Givens…I think)

Since the 2016 Election, a lot of effort has been devoted to understanding why different groups voted the way they did and what it says about our society. That analysis is interesting, but incredibly complex, since so many factors play a part in why someone votes a particular way. For example, the key Midwest states that helped swing the election could have been decided based on a desire to bring back coal jobs, a general distrust of Clinton, or resentment that Obama didn’t do enough to address their concerns. Who knows?

What we can see is growing social divide in how people view themselves and the respective parties. This effect, known as polarization, can lead to extreme positions, which aren’t always good for making sound decisions. Polarization is created when a group of like-minded people find themselves isolated from external positions and drive the members of the group into a more extreme version of the mindset that caused them to enter the group in the first place. For example, if you took a room full of new mothers, some of whom believe that breast feeding is the best way to nurture a baby and others of whom believe using formula is fine, and separated them into groups based on their viewpoints, you would find the members of each group will push the group as a whole to more vehement versions of the initial viewpoints.

 

I want to focus on a particular version of this polarization that is manifesting in the U.S. right now, based on political affiliation. According to a recent survey, people who self-identify as Republicans are becoming more and more convinced that colleges and universities are having a negative effect on the country. Here is the chart of this shift:

Note the years. Up until late 2015, Republicans saw colleges as mostly a positive in American life. They were more suspicious (as a group) than Democrats, but seemed to acknowledge that higher education was a good thing, overall. A vocal minority, of course, has accused colleges of liberal indoctrination for at least as long as talk radio has been a thing, but only in the last couple of years has this mistrust surged.

What has changed? I’m not sure, and I’m guessing there are lots of theories. While there is some evidence that conservatives in the U.S. (again, not all, but a certain strain…this is the last time I’ll qualify this, but assume it in other cases) have intentionally undermined the very notion of science for largely political reasons. There is also a tendency to associate higher education with elitism, an idea that was certainly in play during President George W. Bush’s terms. Again, though, the chart above shows a dramatic shift in recent years; so we need to look at something more recent.

Perhaps it’s the Climate Change Denialist movement, which has presented science as a monolithic, agenda-based movement that is somehow involved in a vast conspiracy to kill coal jobs (for reasons unknown….big money from somewhere is the usual claim). Scientists are associated with universities, and so universities are bad? Or maybe it’s the fact that professors lean to the left, despite the fact that there is little evidence that this results in indoctrinating students. Still, even the perception could be the problem here.

Ultimately, the reasons don’t matter, because the view is what is important. The U.S. has a growing inequality problem. Wages have been in stagnation since the 1980s, though this story is a bit complicated. What is less in doubt is that there is an economic divide between rich and poor that is not improving. What we also know is that while college is no longer a guarantee of a well-paying, fulfilling job, it is still most often a necessary step to receiving such a job. Put in logic terms, it is necessary, but not sufficient for getting a job for the average person.

If Republican parents discourage their children from going to college in fear of some sort of liberal indoctrination, this will be a huge detriment to those children. I do not mean to suggest that college is a panacea for society’s ills. I could write a series of articles on problems with Higher Education and the ways in which it needs reform. However, it is still the best way to get ahead in life, especially if you come from a lower class background. That degree opens doors for you.

Many of the states that tend to vote Republican are among the lowest in the country in terms of education levels, quality of education, and percentage of higher education. A sharp rise in skepticism toward education will only exacerbate this issue, creating a deeper divide in the political tribalism that exists in the U.S.

So, how do we avoid this? I’m not sure. The best way, ironically, would be through education! Unfortunately, the current President does not seem to value universal education policies. The appointment of Betsy Devos doesn’t help. Her policies in Michigan were disastrous for the lower classes, and really the state in general. She is a proponent of privatizing colleges and universities, and even K-12 schooling, which tends to favor the wealthy who can afford the fees associated with privatization.

I would usually say that parents should encourage their children to get a college degree. Mine certainly did, and I was raised in a family where a secondary education was pretty much assumed. But if the only parents doing this are liberal parents, we will end up with a country in which conservatives are less educated and perhaps continue to resent those who are more educated. That’s not a good recipe for working together in the future.

Unfortunately, this article is based mostly on pointing out the potential for future problems in this area. If I had better solutions, I would offer them. If you have some, I’d like to hear them!