Tuesday, May 2, 2017

“Point/Counterpoint: How well did president Trump perform in his first 100 days in office?” The Gazette (Colorado Springs), April 30, 2017.

Top of Form
He Performed Poorly (Gazette, “Point Counterpoint,” Sunday, April 30, 2017)
The very notion of evaluating a president within the first 100 days is problematic. Can anyone accomplish much in three months? Is the performance a harbinger of the rest of the term? More importantly, what are the criteria for a positive or negative assessment?
Behavioral economists remind us that we assess based on comparisons, as there is no absolute yardstick to guide us. Following them, we should perhaps compare Trump to FDR (the first to call attention to this benchmark) who was able to complete 15 legislative initiatives in his first 100 days.
Though a high benchmark, it might be fitting in Trump’s case, since he endorsed it in Gettysburg before the election: On Nov. 8th, Americans will be voting for this 100-day plan to restore prosperity to our country, secure our communities and honesty to our government. This is my pledge to you.”
Fast forward to April 21, 2017 and to Trump’s tweet: “No matter how much I accomplish during the ridiculous standard of the first 100 days, & it has been a lot (including S.C.), media will kill!”

The pledge was grandiose, the self-expectation remains high, but the benchmark is now dismissed. Why?

An NBC/WSJ poll (April 23, 2017) suggests that 45% of respondents think Trump is “off to a poor start,” 19% “only a fair start.” By comparison, Obama's overall positive rating at this stage of his presidency was 61%, Bush's 56%, and Clinton’s 52%; Trump’s stands at 40%.

Perhaps Trump is correct that it’s a “ridiculous standard,” but would he have said the opposite if his numbers were higher? Since 70% of the US economy depends on consumer spending, public opinion matters; positive mindset loosens our pocketbooks and grows the economy.
Legislatively, Trump’s record is poor, as none of his campaign promises have become law by his Republican-controlled congress: “repeal and replace Obamacare,” overhaul of tax policy, and renegotiated trade agreements. Two executive orders on travel and immigration bans are tied in courts; the great wall isn’t being built (Mexico isn’t paying, either).
As for foreign relations, no coherent worldview is offered. Instead, contradictory tweets and photo-ops are the new normal. The rhetoric about the Chinese menace (currency manipulator and export dumper) has been softened, the irrelevance of NATO is countered with official support, and the admiration of Putin has been replaced with derision.
As for military action, the bombing of a Syrian airfield seemed powerful, but without an overall strategy it’s almost meaningless. The naval show of force off the coast of North-Korea is dangerous if diplomacy is replaced with “playing chicken.” Unlike real-estate deals, the US cannot just walk away from international negotiations.   
Perhaps a charitable way of viewing Trump’s record is thinking of him as a postpartisan president, one who isn’t committed to any ideology (and therefore flexible), offering provisional tactics that aren’t part of an overall strategy.
Being influenced by the latest newsfeed shows adaptability, and being supple in the face of changing circumstances suggests entrepreneurial open-mindedness. But being clueless about the complexity of the office is a poor excuse for someone who uses superlatives in describing himself. This isn’t a reality show; and being “fired” for poor performance is a scary democratic option.

Raphael Sassower, Philosophy, UCCS

Thursday, April 6, 2017

“Morality lessons from the VW diesel emission scandal,” The Colorado Springs Business Journal, April 7-13, 2017, p. 18.

Morality Lessons from the VW Diesel Emission Scandal
When you were a child, your parents told you it’s not nice to tell lies. And if you were caught cheating, you were duly punished.
They followed one of three mainstream moral theories, all of which condemn cheating. The Consequentialist (or Utilitarian) argues that the results of cheating are usually bad, and therefore cheating should be condemned. The Deontological (or Kantian) argues that permitting the cheating of one allows everyone else to cheat, and before long no one can believe anyone. The third theory, Virtue Ethics (Aristotle), suggests that virtuous people don’t cheat; when they do, it’s a character flaw that should be excised.
How is this applied in the business world? Given the consensus among traditional moral frameworks, is cheating condemned and punished? Every School of Business worth its salt has at least one mandatory requirement of a Business Ethics course.
Legally speaking, the impact of these theories is apparent. Fraud is punishable by law. If you aren’t sure how far the arm of the law extends, take note of reports that about $251 billion in fines was paid by fraudulent banks alone since the Great Recession (Forbes 8/29/14). Deliberate or manipulative, those “too big to fail” had a hand in bringing about the financial crisis and they were found guilty in courts of law or settled out of court (without admitting guilt) for billions of dollars.
Cynics may say that this was the banks’ “cost of doing business,” while less sanguine response is that they were found to have cheated their customers, their mortgage clients, and all the regulatory boards that were supposed to police their activities.
As we are witnessing lately the attack on the independent media (mainstream, extreme, print, television, and Internet), questions of “lying” or “fake news” have been front and center in claiming that media outlets have become the “oppositional party.”
Cheating, lying, and the standards by which they should be judged have been political fodder for any pundit invited to a talk show (“left” and “right”). Was there deliberate lying or “mere” choice of selective data? Is it “simply” a question of perspective? Media control is a classic fascist trope.   
Presumably in the business world the stakes are different compared to those associated with “Lying Crooked Hillary” or “Cheating Ted Cruz.” Political mud-slinging is as old as our republic, but is the same true of business? Is capitalism based on cheating?
Unlike our judgment about businesspeople, we are quick to agree that we can never trust a politician, and therefore only outsiders (like Donald Trump) deserve our votes. Professional politicians say whatever they are paid to say, and they will change their minds regardless of promises made to constituents. This sentiment brought to power our 45th President.
So, why aren’t we using the same moral outrage when it gets to the business world? Is it because we (cynically or realistically) know that the only purpose of a firm is to make a profit no matter what (moral or practical) corners it cuts, as VW has done in manipulating its diesel emission controls?
William Boston reports that “Sales of the VW brand . . . rose 2.8% world-wide to 5.9 million vehicles, driven by 14% growth in new car sales in China and nearly 7% growth in Central and Eastern Europe.” He continues, “Volkswagen shares were up 3.8%.” And all of this after the “diesel scandal” (Market Watch, 1/9/17).
Where is the inner moralist in each of us that is willing to punish all cheaters, even put them out of business? Brittney Cooper, in an alarming headline, argues that “The Powerless Get Punished for Cheating, and the Powerful Benefit” (New York Times, 9/29/15) Shocking? Perhaps we subconsciously admire their clever engineers.
VW is obviously “powerful” and its financial reach extends the entire globe. Paying some $19 billion in fines is similar to the banks’ “cost of doing business” in this country, a fee or fine worth paying if caught by snoopy regulators.
Morally speaking, there is an equivalence in all moral violations regardless if they occur in the political or economic domains. Cheating remains cheating no matter who commits the act (and against whom), and bad behavior should be punished no matter how rich or powerful the villain.
Are the same people who punished Hillary Clinton not willing to punish VW? Is it because psychologically it’s easier to vilify a person than a corporation? But if the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United (2010) claimed freedom of speech rights to corporation as persons, why not apply the same logic?
On a good day morality and legality are based on logical arguments, and emotional outburst are best left outside of reasonable judgments.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com

Friday, February 17, 2017

“Immigration aided Colorado Springs’ growth,” The Colorado Springs Business Journal, February 17-23, 2017, p. 19.

We Are All Immigrants

I am an immigrant. What does it mean? And, more importantly in this political climate, to whom, neighbors, colleagues, or the INS? After forty years of being legally in the US (35 as citizen), I’m still struggling to explain to myself what this means.

There are refugees or forced immigrants, and there are voluntary immigrants. Forced immigration can be political or economic, can be domestic or international.

The Census Bureau reports that the average American moves about 12 times in a lifetime, some for jobs, others for marriage or family, and still others for retirement (Colorado Springs has its fair share of retirees).

Witness the array of bars and restaurants in town and you’ll quickly perceive the appeal of Springs Orleans for those who moved from the south and are looking for comfort dishes reminiscent of “home cooking” all the way to Edelweiss with its distinctive old-world German cuisine.

Are Korean or German spouses of military personnel involuntary refugees or voluntary immigrants who chose to marry their loved ones and believed a better future awaits them here? Each case unfolds its own narrative, its own web of circumstances.

My parents were refugees, escaping Germany in the late 1930s to survive the inevitable Nazi onslaught. They chose to leave at a particular moment (and thus escaped the concentration camps), but their “choice” was obviously involuntary.

When I think of my own immigration, a voluntary one from the comfort of my bourgeois home, it looks laughable compared to the ordeals my parents had to endure on their way to the British mandate in Palestine. I could have gone back; they had no such luxury.

My own process of assimilation took some years, experiencing anti-Semitism for the first time in my life. Perhaps what saved me was my (compulsory) service in the IDF (as every young man and woman have to serve in the military), so I was given some respect when encountering quizzical locals in Colorado who respect the military.

I recall the day when I stood with my attorney and two neighbors, one a veterinarian, the other a balding gas-distribution owner and scion to a legendary local family, to discuss our development plans for the Warehouse complex. Three Caucasian males with their attorneys, looking at a century-old decaying building I just bought with my sister and brother-in-law.

The two neighbors insisted that I had no right to develop the building, that it would adversely affect them, and that they would use the arm of the law to block us. I thought it would be a friendly exchange in which we would explain our vision.

At some point, the elderly bald man turned to me and said: we don’t need newcomers like you here! Why don’t you go back to where you came from!

I turned to my attorney and asked whether I should punch him or respond. He kindly deflected the tension and begged me to remain calm. I was young, the two neighbors were old. Really, I asked him, just remain quiet? I did remain quiet.

I had to come up before City Council for approval, since my neighbors appealed every zoning and building permit we manage to acquire, legally, mind you. The mayor was magnanimous and Council members supportive, thankfully.

Now, some twenty years later, an abandoned building is paying a hefty annual real-estate tax bill, business tenants are employing dozens of young people and paying sales taxes, and in general, what used to be drug and prostitution area has been cleaned up. The police thanked me at the time! 

I’m still an immigrant, perhaps a more successful one than when I accepted a tenure-track position at UCCS in 1996. That position, too, was risky at the time, with less than 3,000 students in a commuter campus.

Times have changed. The Warehouse is a downtown institution. My involvement with Smokebrush, Kimball’s movie theater, my dear partner Perry Sanders in the Mining Exchange complex, and a couple of other restaurants in town have all been downtown contributions. The city has grown as well.

UCCS is a local powerhouse with more than 12,000 students and more buildings than I ever imagined. The reputation of the university extends internationally, far beyond the impact it has on the local economy. All the faculty moved into town from elsewhere.

Do we want to stop growth? This was the sentiment of one of the guys who hired me: too much traffic, he complained (with 150,000 population). Don’t you want the energy and diversity that all newcomers bring to our lives, whether they come from Chicago or Syria?

Next time you have a hatred-like itch, don’t scratch. Stop and think: are you Native American? If not, you are an immigrant, too!

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com




Thursday, January 19, 2017

“How do we determine the cost of fake news,” The Colorado Springs Business Journal, January 20-26, 2017, p. 25.

The Costs of Fake News

When local news outlets warn against a snow-storm, we pay attention. Some dash to the grocery store, some take a day off because schools might be closed. We trust the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s reports.

I still remember my terror listening to the news during winters. Will my restaurant staff show up to work? Will vendors deliver supplies? And most importantly, will customers stay home?
In the age of “fake news,” it does matter if what you hear is reliable. There are two parallels in our recent history worth recalling.

The first dates to World War II and the Cold War. The role of propaganda was immensely important both for domestic consumption and for demoralizing the enemy. 

By now, three kinds of propaganda are classified in terms of intent, the reliability of the source, and the reliability of the information. “White” propaganda comes from a reliable and identifiable source and the information is accurate, even when the delivery is supposed to influence those listening to it.

“Black” propaganda is deliberately attributed to unidentified or false sources, and it spreads lies about whatever is at issue, where missiles are located or how many troops are being deployed.

“Gray” propaganda is somewhere in between, so that sometimes the sources are correctly identified but the information is misrepresented, or when enough ambiguity of the content of the message makes it impossible to figure who said what to whom and why.

As in courts of law, when we try to get to the “truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” we always question the intent behind a news report from official sources, especially when sources seem to have an agenda or an axe to grind.

The second parallel dates to the debates over the tobacco industry’s claims that smoking does not cause cancer. In this case, and others such as asbestos, coal, drug abuse, and climate change, scientific testimony in courts of law by the “other side” has been discredited as “junk science.”

Junk science is any scientific study you disagree with. Admittedly, every collection of data is inevitably incomplete and deserves critical assessment. In this sense, every scientific theory can be challenged. But here, too, the question of intent is paramount.

We should check what is at stake when data are presented: can someone, a pharmaceutical spokesperson or political candidate, benefit from spreading this information? Once the answer is clear, we can proceed to examine the data themselves.

It’s obvious that a tobacco company will try and convince smokers that cigarettes don’t kill them. But when this claim is supposedly backed by science, a sinister element becomes apparent: profits trump truth. In most cases, judges and juries have to figure out if and when the evidence is indeed “junk science.”

We have business-related laws against false advertisement and there are penalties for misleading consumers, claiming, for example, that your diesel car is both energy efficient and pollutes less than the competition. In addition to reimbursing American car owners some $15 billion, VW agreed to pay $4.3 billion to settle criminal charges of deliberately violating EPA rules. 

Though our local VW dealer claims that the scandal hasn’t hurt sales, one wonders if it should have. Is it a question of punishment for past transgressions (less sales), or are we immune to all car advertisements (same sales)? Perhaps we don’t care enough to find the truth about what we buy, from cars to food.

But should we? Politicians are notoriously unreliable sources of information about themselves and the policies they will enact when elected. Are businesspeople any better? Should you trust your broker? Can you trust that the food you are served in fact was sourced from a local farm (as advertised)?

Journalistic codes of ethics have traditionally tried to make sure all data are verified so as not to mislead the public, With the expansion of media into the world-wide web, those codes have been stretched and tested more than ever before. Most websites don’t have the layers of editorial policing that established news outlets have, but this alone isn’t the reason to distrust them.

In an environment where so many news outlets vie for attention, when so much is at stake for financial survival and viability, there is no wonder that outrageous and unsubstantiated news are loudly spread. Digital exposure raises new challenges. Can we decipher what is true?

Truth is difficult to fully ascertain, but obvious fakes are easily detectable. If a business deal is too good to be true, it surely is. And if a snow-storm is announced, better be safe than sorry. But looking out the window may be a prudent policy as well.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com