Talons Philosophy

An Open Online Highschool Philosophy Course

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Economic Epistemology

Image courtesy of Cliff Kule

In recent years I’ve been curious about the fluidity of presumed objectivity at the heart of modern economics. Chiefly, its occasional lack of ability to explain the behaviours of markets:

Central bankers still debate whether it’s possible to recognize asset bubbles when they occur, and whether they can or should be deflated. Regulators and bankers are still at odds over new financial products such as credit derivatives: Do they simply improve the market’s ability to process and reflect information, or do they also present new dangers of their own? This is a failure that left the world unprepared for the most recent financial crisis, and the economics profession has been far too complacent about it. Economists can’t be expected to predict the future. But they should be able to identify threatening trends, and to better understand the conditions that can turn a change in prices into a financial tsunami.

Following events such as the financial crisis of 2008, and rising levels of destabilizing inequality (especially in the United States, at the center of the world economy) in the years since, a growing number of economic minds have begun conceiving of a “Brave New Math:”

While the limitations of GDP have since been echoed by many prominent economists including Nobel laureates Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen (whose landmark 2010 report included dozens of important socio-economic measures drawn from the developing world), there has been little change in the obsessive overreliance on GDP as the primary economic barometer. And if GDP was an unreliable indicator in the pre-globalized world, it is woefully misleading today. Increasingly, understanding the quality of GDP and its composition, especially the weighting of its four constituent parts—consumption, government spending, investment, and net exports—is most important to our long-term national health. Yet few governments have managed to divorce themselves from the simple GDP figure, regardless of how irrelevant it has become.

Editorialists at the New York Times have opined that:

“Infinite growth in a finite world is impossible, growth based on speculative finance is unstable, and since the 1960’s, GDP growth and self-reported well-being have been completely uncorrelated phenomena. In this sense holistic, deep-reaching change of both thought, education and practice is needed. Indeed, we were brought together by an increasing realization that our global economic troubles aren’t just a few bad apples; the problem is indeed the apple tree.”

 Writers at the Guardian have called for an expanded undergraduate economics curriculum

We propose that neoclassical theory be taught alongside and in conjunction with a broad variety of other schools of thought consistently throughout the undergraduate degree. In this way the discipline is opened up to critical discussion and evaluation. How well do different schools explain economic phenomena? Which assumptions should we build our models upon? Should we believe that markets are inherently self-stabilising or does another school of thought explain reality better? When economists are taught to think like this, all of society will benefit and more economists will see the next crisis coming. Critical pluralism opens up possibilities and the imagination.

From a certain perspective it could be stated that we are reaching the end of an economic paradigm, giving us something of a real-time example to examine in the realm of Epistemology, as old truths are investigated, and assumptions are tested against the possibilities of the new.

Or not.

That’s the thing about shifting paradigms: How do we know that the existing paradigm is flawed to its foundation? Might it require merely ‘tweaks’ as opposed to full-scale revolution and regeneration?

How do we ensure that this conversation has a means of happening democratically?

 

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Racial equality?! I’m not so sure

For years now it is a common misconception that racial discrimination has been either abolished or is somewhere near that low a level of racism. But that is most definately not the case. Racial inequality is still at the forfront of any social encounters in the present. And the issues run deeper than just simply trying to treat people better! And exactly what does that even mean?! “Be nicer!” “Treat everyone equally?!” It’s easier said than done.

Issue:
The issues of discrimination against black men, women and children run deeper than the odd racial slur here and there. These racial issues range from racial slurs to police brutality, and also on an economic front as well, not to mention the way many people still think of a black person as any different from you or me. One of the major nagging issues is just that, thinking of someone in a way that depicts them as “different.” The first issue is that many people will still think of a black person as “a black person”, and not just simply as another person. That’s where social equality begins…I’m a person, you’re a person, why should we allow skin colour to determine how we feel about each other. And that’s the point, it doesn’t matter. The thought process is where the root of the issues on a social level lay, and it branches into “harmless” cracks or jokes at one another, and that is not ok. The social issue is really the root of all issues. The sooner we just see each other as another person, and nothing more than that we can move past much of the inappropriate behaviour towards black people.

The next issue is also a social issue. Police brutality has been an issue for a long time and still is to this day. It seems no innocent black man or woman can be in a possibly suspicious situation (and when I say suspicious I mean some kind of police related situation) and get the benefit of the doubt from a cop. It seems as though cops are told to be more suspicious of blacks than they should be of whites. The fact of the matter is that police brutality is no myth,it is a growing concern amongst all of us. The attacks seem to surround young black men in particular, as they are seen as “misfits” to police. It is no coincidence that young black men are being killed by cops on the spot without much hesitation. I mean, what happened to being innocent before proven guilty?! I guess when it comes to young black men you can toss that rule out the window. And every time these killings or assaults happen, the white cop that has done the dirty deed seems to get off easy or without any issue. Take for instance the case involving Eric Garner, a young black man who was choked to death by an NYPD cop. An illegal choke hold was used, and CPR was not performed at the scene. The medical examiner ruled his death to be a homicide yet the cop was never indited for his crime. Another good example would be the case of Micheal Brown in Ferguson. And it all comes back to the benefit of the doubt not being given, which just leads back to the root of the problem, the thinking process that we are somehow “different.”

Not only does the black community endure awful social injustices, but the issues go to the bank too. There is a major wealth gap between white and black. The average black man only earns 70 cents to a white mans dollar in the middle class. Poverty is also a major issue. Black people make up 27.4% of poverty in the US, compared to 9.9% white. The staggering number is also higher than Asian and Hispanic. The problem really starts in schools. Lower school funding in largely black communities has led too poorer education in those areas which really puts them behind from the beginning. It seems as though they always have to play from behind, they are always playing catch up. Black people also hold the highest poverty rate in chronic poverty (poverty lasting up to 36 months) and second highest in episodic poverty (less than 36 months), and median poverty (highest average time spent in poverty). The rate of episodic poverty is 2 times as high as whites. They also have the highest unemployment rate at 16%, and the lowest home ownership rates at 44.5%. Now here’s a real kicker…black people make up make up 12.6% of the U.S. population and make up 38% of the prison population. Whites only make up 34% of the prison population yet they make up 63.7% of the countries population. Black males are imprisoned at 6.5 times higher than white males. All I can say is WOW!!! I hope people can see clearly now that this is no coincidence…but that they see it for what it is…systemic racism.

The biggest issue is how to approach the issue of inequality. Well really, anything is easily said but it is an issue that will take decades to solve. You see, it’s a cycle. The inequality starts in schools with funding which puts black kids behind in their education and then it follows them to adulthood. In their adult years they are forced to play catch up and work twice as hard to earn 70% as much as a white guy does. And then there is no benefit of the doubt in any police situation which seems to put them in prison at a much quicker rate. And this cycle just keeps spinning. For any progress to be made the cycle must be broken, which again, is easier said than done. The first thing that must be abolished is the social thought process that I spoke of before, and then, maybe, just maybe we can go from there. So next time you think that equality Has been achieved in the modern era, think again.

 

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Gender Inequality in the Workplace

hello 1950s

The Issue:

Even in modern day, women face inequality in many forms, including in the workplace.  Whether through lack of opportunity, receiving less pay than their male counterparts, or are victims of discrimination at work, inequality for women is still strongly prevalent. Women were not even considered persons under Canadian law until 1929, and although great strides have been made since then, injustices still occur. My own mother faced discrimination in her workplace. When she was a young woman working in retail, she asked her supervisor why a male employee with the same job as her was making more money. They replied that “he is the breadwinner of his family” and needed to support a wife and children, while she was just supporting herself. They added that soon she would probably get married and pregnant, and go on maternity leave  anyways.

hisandhersAlthough my mother’s experience was quite a few years ago, one of my close friends also experienced inequality in her workplace. During her first summer job earlier this year, she was frustrated that she was receiving barely any shifts. She later found out that one of the other male employees hired the same time as her with the same amount of experience  was working full time. It turned out the supervisor (a man) in charge of giving out shifts was only giving out shifts to male employees. Another girl working with my friend had to give up a shift for a family vacation (which others had done) and the same supervisor let her take the week off, but also took away her shifts for the rest of the summer. It is surprising when some say that equality for women in the workplace has been reached, and three women I know have been discriminated against.

These are only a few cases of countless incidents that occur to women. Women are promoted to CEO’s less than men, because it is assumed they will not be hard enough on others and make tough decisions. Employers see hiring women as a risk, as they could get pregnant and go on maternity leave. Women are paid less than men for the same job and amount of work.

The Approach:

“We must raise both the ceiling and the floor.”

-Sheryl Sandburg, Lean in: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

Although the gap of inequality for men and women has been slowly closing over the years, the workplace is not equal for both we can do itgenders. However, despite what is done to increase equality, I don’t believe equality for both genders is ever attainable as long as women have children. (Which is essential for the continuation of the human race). Even behind Rawl’s veil of ignorance, if we decide to have equal opportunity, equal pay, and no discrimination against women, there will still be inequalities. To start, women are the child-bearing gender, a huge disadvantage for a career woman who also wants a family. This woman will have to take time off work, putting her even farther behind advancing on the career ladder.

To conclude, although equality in the workplace for women is not attainable, I believe the best solution is closing the gap as much as possible. At least controlling the aspects employers can, such as equal pay, would bring about so much change for women.

 

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Harvard Justice: John Rawls & What is a Fair Start?

The first statement of the two principles reads as follows:

First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.

Second: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all…

John Rawls Theory of Justice (1971)

Today we’ll be looking at John Rawls’ Theory of Justice and reflecting upon how this theory informs discussions we’ve been having thus far in the unit, as well as how it adds to (or undercuts) previous theories of justice and morality put forth by John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant.

A few questions to spark our thinking:

  • First of all, what are your impressions of Rawls’ theory next to concepts of Utilitarianism and/or notions of the Categorical Imperative?
  • Second, do you agree that everyone should have the same basic liberties, whether they are a man or a woman, young or old, rich or poor, part of the minority or part of the majority? And if you do, what basic liberties should everyone have?
  • And third, how do you see Rawls’ theory applying to the discussions we have had around systemic oppression in the last week or so? What insights might the theory offer for those looking to combat a misogynistic or racially discriminating culture? Are there other groups or conditions to which Rawls’ insights may oppose?

Those of you who are currently (or have in the past) studied economics may have unique insights into how Rawls’ theory works (or doesn’t) within our modern capitalist economies. What do the prevailing theories of modern economics make of a system guided by Rawls’ principles? Are these systems of thought congruent?

 

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Contemporary Moral Problems: Right Acts, Rawls & Inequality 11.26.13

The second installment of our discussion of Contemporary Moral Problems, beginning with “What makes right acts right?” and continuing into Rawls’ “Theory of Justice.” Enjoy!

 

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Rawls’ Theory of Justice, Economics 12 and Enlightenment

In discussing RawlsTheory of Justice this week, you might find the above lectures and discussions on “What makes a fair start?” inspired by the former Harvard philosophy prof:

Part 1 – WHAT’S A FAIR START?
Rawls argues that even meritocracy—a distributive system that rewards effort—doesn’t go far enough in leveling the playing field because those who are naturally gifted will always get ahead. Furthermore, says Rawls, the naturally gifted can’t claim much credit because their success often depends on factors as arbitrary as birth order. Sandel makes Rawls’s point when he asks the students who were first born in their family to raise their hands.

Part 2 – WHAT DO WE DESERVE?
Sandel discusses the fairness of pay differentials in modern society. He compares the salary of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor ($200,000) with the salary of television’s Judge Judy ($25 million). Sandel asks, is this fair? According to John Rawls, it is not.

Touching on topics such as affirmative action policies, taxation, and just what should be done about inequality, Rawls provides an excellent point of crossing-over between our Economics and Philosophy classes this week.

If you are interested in pursuing the ethical, social and political import of inequality, Mr. Lloyd’s class has been reading and discussing the Globe and Mail‘s recent series, The Wealth Paradoxwhich tells the story of:

Canada […] at a crossroads. A gap has grown between the middle class and the wealthy. Now, that divide is threatening to erode a cherished Canadian value: equality of opportunity for all.

For those of us immersed in Rawls this weekend, what would he say about Canada’s “Wealth Paradox”? What about the Utilitarians? Immanuel Kant?

And for the economists in our midst, what is the epistemological basis for our understanding of inequality:

    • What do we know?
    • How do we know it?

If we look to gain such knowledge as a means to making our world more ethical, and more oriented toward justice, what is there to be known on the matter of inequality?

What questions must be asked?

And do these questions have answers sufficient that we can then act, and create systems of government and society that reflect our individual and collective notions of “justice”?

I look forward to engaging in this topic this week with the Philosophy 12 bunch, as well as our friends in AP Economics, and anyone else who finds themselves here, reading this post.

In the interest of enabling and creating a public sphere that might be equal to the tasks and questions raised by the ongoing Project of Enlightenment, where Kant (along with we here at Philosophy 12) invites you:

“Have the courage to use your own reason – That is the motto of enlightenment.”

 
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