Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Tar Sands

There have been various protests about the proposed pipeline into the US from the Alberta tar sands. The protests, I suspect, have little to do with concerns about the pipeline and much to do with concerns about the environmental degradation that results from the oil extraction process in the tar sands. That's a legitimate concern. We're morally culpable when our purchases support immoral practices. For example, it's wrong, even illegal, to buy products that have been stolen, especially to the extent that we know the object in question is stolen.

Yet I've read two articles ("Open Up Canada’s Oil Lifeline" and "Top NASA climate scientist arrested at White House") in which the following argument is made: "The Canadians will develop this product and sell it with or without us as trading partners." and "... officials maintained that even if the U.S. refuses the pipeline, Canada will just sell their oil elsewhere". But how can these facts have any bearing on the objection that the oil is produced in an unethical fashion? If a shoe company exploited child labour, clearly it would remain illegitimate to buy shoes from them if we discovered that a market for the shoes existed even if we didn't buy the shoes. If I know that X is doing something unethical when producing Y, and I buy Y or facilitate the production of Y, I'm a participant in the unethical action and morally blameworthy. That seems like an obvious ethical truism, but apparently it bears repeating.

Update: David Frum produces another variant on the "well, it won't do any good" argument: link.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

On Grade Redistribution and FoxNews

This article: "College Students in Favor of Wealth Distribution Are Asked to Pass Their Grade Points to Other Students" seems to be generating far more discussion than it should. The article is about a student, Oliver Darcy, who is proposing that students with high GPAs contribute their GPA to students who are struggling. Of course, most people find the suggestion absurd. I believe that the way the argument is supposed to works is that since it's absurd to consider redistributing the grades that we earned it follows that it's also absurd to share the money we've earned.

But the problem is that he's making a category error. The absurdity of the grade redistribution suggestion doesn't lie in the fact that it's absurd to redress inequities, it resides in the fact that it's conceptually incoherent to "redistribute" a metric to something that the metric doesn't actually measure. A grade is a measure of the quality of work that an agent has done, it's meaningless to ask someone to share part of that metric with someone else who hasn't done that work.  It would be like asking someone who is 6'5" to give some of the 6'5" measurement to people who are 5'6" or like finding out that my car got 50 mpg on the way to work this morning and then asking me to share some of that number with people who drive less fuel efficient cars. In both cases we don't even understand what it would mean to assent to such a "redistribution". I can't share the metric, or the value of the metric in some particular instance, as a metric is not a resource. Of course, I can, in some instances, share the things that the metric measured or that which caused the metric to register a high value. I could devote some time to helping struggling students, I could offer a ride to work to people who own gas-gazzling cars, those are coherent suggestions. If Darcy had gone around campus asking gifted students to offer time to help struggling students so that they might improve their grades, that wouldn't have struck anyone as absurd since it doesn't involve a fundamental category error.  Of course, then he would have missed his chance to be on FoxNews. 

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Tea Party and the Credit Rating downgrade

I watched some of the discussions from the talking heads this morning wrt the decrease of the US credit rating and I've read some crap from the TP trying to blame the downgrade on Obama's "lack of a plan" (see McCain on "meet the press" this morning). Not sure why anyone would buy that for even a second. S&P made it pretty clear that the problems with the political process were the cause. Read the press releases and listen to what David Beers of S&P said when asked what the key thing was that drove them to announce the downgrade:  "Our observations about the political process for much of this year and the extraordinary difficulty that the parties have had to come up with this agreement and come to a consensus...."  (link) Note that it's not debt level, it's the political process that motivated the downgrade.