On Bullshit

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I read Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit” shortly after it was published some eleven years ago. I’ve thought now and then about how I might incorporate it into one of my philosophy courses, but I’ve never found an acceptably seamless way of fitting it in (given everything else I wanted to discuss). Although it does not demonstrate Frankfurt’s meticulous analytic method, this video might be a second-best choice for getting discussion going next time a student wonders aloud whether philosophy itself is bullshit. My answer is: no, it’s not; some philosophers do bullshit, but one of the main purposes of contemporary philosophy is to not let them get away with it for very long.

BULLSHIT! from Think Nice on Vimeo.

Resentment and Statistics

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In last Sunday’s Oshkosh Northwestern, Andrew Austin, an associate professor and chair of the Democracy and Justice Studies department at UW Green Bay, wrote a spot-on commentary concerning Governor Scott Walker’s misleading use of statistics as he continues to demean the state’s university system-

His office shared with the media that UW-Green Bay full professors (the highest teaching rank attainable in higher education and a small proportion of the faculty) averaged $70,700 in salaries in the 2013-14 academic year, a figure he contrasts with the average annual pay for all workers in Brown County, which was, according to Walker, $44,894 in 2014 (roughly a third of the governor’s salary).

Walker is cherry-picking the highest rank of professor — full professor — and comparing it to the average for all workers, professional and non-professional, regardless of rank, an average that includes workers at McDonald’s, Walmart, and Family Dollar (who, I hasten to add, are underpaid).

Comparing apples to apples, that is professionals to professionals, the median salary for full-time tenured and tenured-track faculty at UW-Green Bay in 2015-16 (most of whom hold a doctorate) was $57,259. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 2014 median earnings for workers in Brown County who have a graduate or professional degree is $61,092.

Has Walker complained about the salaries of other professionals? Has he railed against physicians (who make a good deal more than professors)? What is it about teachers that riles the governor?

In addition to noting Walker’s cherry-picking of the data, Austin astutely battles averages with medians, since averages are highly unreliable indicators of general trends. Consider 10 people in a bar, each making $50,000 a year. In walks Donald Trump, whose annual income in a good year has been estimated to be around $362,000,000. Now, if you wanted to know in general how most people in the bar were doing, financially speaking, it would be far less misleading to say that they tend to be earning $50,000, the median, than to say that they tend to be earning a whopping $32,954,545, the average. A few highly paid academic “stars” can similarly skew average salary data. But Walker’s office clearly isn’t concerned with misleading the citizenry.

Bernie Supporters: Beware What You Wish For

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Hillary & Bernie 2

It’s nail-biting time for liberals and progressives as the primary season slogs on and neither Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders have the Democratic Party nomination totally nailed down. Things got ugly this week in Nevada, when Bernie supporters became – justifiably or not – “unruly” after a series of iffy moves on the convention floor by Hillary supporters. Now the prospect looms large of there being boisterous and – if we take “Bernie or Bust” literally – perhaps violent demonstrations at the Philadelphia convention. And beyond that looms the even more horrifying prospect of a divided opposition that would allow Trump (let alone Trumpism) to prevail.

Like many on the left side of the political spectrum, I had a hard time choosing between Bernie and Hillary this year. I can’t write off the difficulty of my choice to a battle between heart and mind; neither of these candidates appeal to my heart. Rather, living in Wisconsin, I’ve seen what can happen when Republicans are ineffectively opposed and as a result come to control all the power centers of government; such one-party rule here hasn’t been pretty (to put it mildly). Bernie impressed me with his clear-headedness and sheer energy at his age (I’m more than 10 years younger and I doubt I could handle his schedule), and I found his positions on the most important issues – getting Big Money out of politics, working seriously to lessen income inequality, and getting rid of “too big to fail” financial institutions – more coherent than Hillary’s. On the other hand, I found Hillary’s position on college affordability and her incrementalism on Obamacare more realistic than Bernie’s more progressive approaches. But I was bothered by her refusal to release her Goldman Sachs speeches; it played right into the Republican conspiracy theories about her and Bill, and would surely weaken her in the general election. Finally, after talking to some more ardent Bernie supporters, I also came to believe that although nearly all Hillary supporters would support Bernie if he became the nominee, a significant number of Bernie supporters would not support Hillary. Whether she could make up the difference with “moderate centrists” was – and remains – an open question, but with Trump (or at that time Cruz) as the most likely alternatives, the openness of that question became decisive for me. So I ended up voting for Bernie, as did most Wisconsinites in the primary (he got 567,936 total votes, more than either Hillary, Cruz or Trump).

Now, as it seems clear that Hillary will become the Democratic nominee, I’m hoping that Bernie hasn’t let his newly developed national popularity go to his head. I’m hoping that he hasn’t deluded himself into thinking that it’s a sign that the country is ready for a “political revolution”; demonstrating that would require that his young supporters actually show up to vote in midterm elections to help elect a new Senate and House. I’m also hoping that his increasingly “dug-in” positions on process and policy are bargaining chips to make Hillary as progressive as he can make her, and not non-negotiable items that will cause a split in the party. Spurred on by Bernie’s remarks about closed primaries, many of his supporters are pressing for all Democratic primaries to be “open”, so that non-Party members can participate. That is a very dangerous idea, since open primaries allow Republicans to cast the decisive votes (see this article, or this one). It would be far better for Bernie to urge all of his independent supporters to become Democrats, and take over the party from within. Now that would be a political revolution!