30 November 2016

Sustainability: A Sloppy Notion

Stephen Kershnar
The Sustainability Movement
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 22, 2016

            The sustainability movement on American campuses is incredibly powerful. The problem is that it is unclear what sustainability is or whether it is worth pursuing.

            Universities are focusing on sustainability with religion-like fervor. According to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHA), there roughly 1,300 environmental programs in the U.S., with at least one program in each state. According to the U.S. Colleges and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, roughly 700 colleges and universities signed a pledge to eliminate or offset all greenhouse gas emissions and to integrate sustainability into the curriculum. AASHA reports that there are now more than 400 student-led fossil fuel divestment campaigns in the U.S. Twenty-two U.S. universities have announced plans to eliminate their investments in fossil fuels. Hundreds of U.S. universities submit to an environmental tracking and rating system.

            The conservative faculty group, National Association of Scholars, argues that the sustainability movement has further politicized many campuses by making sustainability an educational commitment rather than an idea to be discussed and debated. It also charges that campuses are spending large amounts of money on sustainability projects and positions and doing so in ways that are not financially transparent. 

            One problem with this movement is that it is not clear what sustainability is. Dictionary.com defines “sustainability” as “the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance.” 

One concern is what time period is relevant to long-term ecological balance. There are roughly 7.5 billion people on the planet. This is historically unprecedented. As recently as 10,000 years ago, there were no more than a few million people. There were not even one billion people until the 1800’s and only two billion in the 1920’s. The population could explode to reach 10 billion by the middle of the century. It is unclear if the long-term ecological balance is that found with 7.5 billion people or an earlier period with far fewer people. A later baseline allows for more pollution than does an earlier baseline. Picking one time period rather than another, though, is arbitrary and good policy should not depend on an arbitrary baseline.

            A second concern here is whether the ecological balance that matters for sustainability changes over time. Eco-systems change with the changing climate and evolution. The last ice age ended 10,000 years ago and it included a different set of mammals. This included mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, massive cousins of the armadillo (Glyptodon), giant ground sloths, heavy ancient wolves (dire wolves), giant short-faced bears, and so on. Over the long run, animal and plant species come and go along with natural climate change and new competitors. It is implausible that people should try to protect some species against potential replacements.  

            If people have no duty to protect current plant and animal species that are threatened by natural changes in the environment, then it is unclear why they have a duty to protect them when they are threatened by manmade changes in the environment. That is, it is hard to see what moral duty allows people to sit idly by when a natural change in the environment wreaks havoc on some types of animals, but requires them to spring into action when manmade changes have the same effect.

            If the concern is instead that harm to the environment will endanger people’s health and lives, then a third concern arises, namely, whether sustainability is designed to protect people or the environment. The two can, and sometimes do, diverge. Eliminating all manmade greenhouse gases in the near future would be unbelievably expensive. It would make billions of people poorer, shorten lives, and worsen health. Still, eliminating these gases might preserve various eco-systems. The question is whether sustainability aims to protect eco-systems, protect people’s well-being, or both. If it aims at both, then there is the issue of how to trade off people’s interests against those of the environment (specifically, the interests of animals who inhabit the environment). Without a deeper theory to explain whether there should be tradeoffs and how to think of them, the goal of sustainability is arbitrary and unjustified.

            Philosophy provides various theories that would explain how to trade off animals’ and people’s interests. The best of them, utilitarianism, tells us that we should adopt those policies that maximize pleasure among all individuals, regardless of whether it is a person or animal. The problem is that if additional people lower utility by displacing too many animals, then such a theory would require that there be far fewer people and their consumption be cut back. This might be done by harshly taxing couples for having more than one child (or, perhaps, incarcerating them) and curtailing immigration from poor countries to rich ones. This might also be done by a host of new and onerous taxes on energy use, such as a value-added tax and higher taxes on gas, roads, cars, flights, and so on.

Worse, utilitarianism might require that people artificially change environments so that they support more utility-enjoying animals. This opens the door to questions such as whether there are too many or too few killer whales or elephants in the same way that it opens the door to whether there are too many or too few Chinese or Indians. Utilitarianism does not necessarily require that we not harm the environment. If utilitarianism justifies sustainability, then sustainability is not a fundamental goal. 

A fourth concern is what constitutes harm to the environment. There is an issue as to whether it consists of a setback to the number of species (diversity), amount of life (biomass), or some combination of these things. If it consists of a combination, then, again, we need a justification of when a loss of one at the expense of the other would constitute harm. In addition, further issues arise such as whether the mere addition of a species to an environment that lessens neither diversity nor biomass harms the environment. 


            In the absence of a principled theory, sustainability should not be given so many resources in academia. Universities should reconsider their sustainability faculty and staff hires, dazzling array of sustainability classes, recycling and other environmental programs, etc. Also, the unquestioning commitment to sustainability should be revisited. No longer should it receive the faith-based acceptance that is more appropriate for a religion than a campus program of study. 

16 November 2016

Drunk Driving Laws and Disproportionate Punishment

Stephen Kershnar
Are Drunk Driving Laws Too Harsh?
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 15, 2016

Drunk driving occurs when someone drives a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. If a driver is over 21, it is illegal for him to drive with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08 (g/dl) or greater.

Drunk driving kills people. In 2014, 31% of the U.S. traffic fatalities for the year (roughly 10,000 deaths) involved a drunk driver (BAC of at least .08). Most of those who died were the drunk drivers (64%).

The bulk of these accidents involved very drunk drivers, not buzzed ones. Roughly seven out of ten of these accidents had a driver with a sky high BAC level of .15 or higher. This is relevant as the .08 limit is easily met. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a light woman is over the limit if she drinks two beers in an hour and a medium sized woman hits it with three. In 2013, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended the limit be reduced still further to .05. A medium sized male would be over the limit if he drank two beers in an hour. 

This low threshold results in a large number of people being arrested for drunk driving. In 2014, over 1.1 million drivers were arrested for driving under the influence. That is roughly one arrest for every two hundred licensed drivers.  

The penalties for drunk driving are harsh. In New York, the penalty for a first-offense DWI, where the driver has a BAC of .08% to .18%, results in an administrative license suspension of at least six months. The suspension is one year for drivers with a BAC of .18% or more or for drivers under 21 years old. The overall cost of such a conviction is probably around $10,000. This includes lost wages, attorney’s fees, court-ordered fines, car insurance increase, traffic school, substance abuse education courses, Department of Motor Vehicles fees, ignition interlock devices, towing and storage, and bail. Other states have more severe punishments.

These punishments are too harsh. In general, a punishment should be proportional to the crime. More specifically, punishment should be proportional to the offender’s blameworthiness or, perhaps, the product of his blameworthiness and the harm to another that he caused or risked causing. 

Per incident, driving drunk is not dangerous. In 2009, using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 1.1 traffic deaths per 100 million miles driven. According to  Christopher Ingraham writing in The Washington Post, when legally drunk (0.08% blood alcohol content), one’s chance of being in an accident involving a traffic death triples, but even then, 3.3 traffic deaths per 100 million miles driven is very small. To put it in perspective, the average licensed driver driving drunk whenever he drives would, roughly, have to drive for more than 2,000 years before being involved in a traffic death. Another way to put it is that a person who drives drunk every time he drives and who drives the average distance per driver per year would have to go more than 27 lifetimes before he was involved in a traffic death.

            Here is another way to see the danger using older numbers. In Confronting Drunk Driving, H. Lawrence Ross points out that the chance of dying in a five-mile car trip is about one in ten million. The typical driver with a blood alcohol level of 0.1% is five times more likely than someone sober to be in an accident. Since the initial risk is so incredibly low, anything that multiplies that risk even tenfold would not create a substantial risk. Note that this likely overstates the risk as the fatalities per mile driving are decreasing. According to an article by Ken Bogen in Risk Analysis, the increased risk of drunk driving relative to sober driving is equivalent to that imposed by a nighttime drive by a seventy-year-old as compared with a daytime drive by a forty-year-old.

Not only is drunk driving not dangerous per incident, it is common. 20% of drivers self-report having driven after drinking and 8% of drivers self-report having driven drunk.

            Consider whether people who drive moderately drunk are blameworthy. Among the large number of drunk drivers, many people don’t consider the risk or judge the risk worthwhile and thus lack blameworthy mental states. Even if we focus on negligence, most people do not think that driving tired or night-driving for three hours or more is unjustifiably dangerous and yet these pose roughly the same risk as driving drunk.

Here is another way to see this. We generally don’t think the state should severely punish people for driving tired or night-driving for three hours or more. In most cases, drunk driving (when the driver is not very drunk) is similar to driving tired or at night for three hours. Hence, in most cases, the state should not severely punish drunk drivers. Similarly, in a 2006 study in Human Factors, David Strayer et al. found that using a cell phone (talking, hitting buttons, or texting) is as dangerous as drunk driving. Yet the penalties for the latter are much lower. This is even true for texting while driving.

An objection is that drunk-driving harm can be efficiently deterred through a very severe punishment that is infrequently applied. If a harm to another can be efficiency deterred through very severe punishment that is infrequently applied, then the state should impose such a punishments. Even if the punishment is efficient, it might still be disproportionate. The state can likely cut down cheating on taxes, hiring illegal aliens, and car theft by instituting mandatory twenty-year sentences for these crimes, but this penalty would be too harsh. Also, the life-saving benefit of severely punishing drunk driving has to be weighed against its cost in the same way that the benefit of a life-saving 55 mph speed limit has to be weighed against its cost.


The drunk driving laws are too harsh and disproportionate to the crime. 

02 November 2016

Corruption: Justice Department, State Department, Clinton Foundation, etc.

Stephen Kershnar
The System is Rotten
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
October 31, 2016

This election makes it clear that the American political system is corrupt. The corrupt and, often, criminal actors are (or were) in high positions in the Justice Department, FBI, State Department, Clinton Foundation, Democratic National Committee and its affiliates, Wall Street firms, and, of course, Hillary Clinton and her campaign committee. The corrupt actors in the IRS and criminal Eric Holder are yet more evidence of how rotten the system is.

            The most obvious instance of corruption is the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s illegal handling of emails. In order to avoid prosecution, FBI director James Comey, rewrote federal law by arguing that it requires intention (it only requires gross negligence) and then declined to prosecute despite overwhelming evidence that she had the requisite intention.  

The Justice Department gave the fellow conspirators (for example, Cheryl Mills) unprecedented access to meetings, cut sweetheart deals with conspirators, agreed to destroy evidence, and refused to follow proper procedure (using a grand jury) in order to tank the case. The low point occurred when Clinton’s team destroyed evidence after receiving a congressional subpoena not to do so and the Justice Department did nothing. This is obstruction of justice and it is a felony. It led to the conviction of Bush administration official Scooter Libby and likely would have led to the prosecution of Richard Nixon had Jerry Ford not given him a pass. All this occurred when other people in government and the military were being prosecuted for doing precisely what Clinton did.

The stench of the investigation got worse when, as The Wall Street Journal pointed out, it came out that a group headed by Clintons’ longtime moneyman, Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, gave half a million dollars to the wife of the FBI official who oversaw the email investigation. Somehow, Comey and this official didn’t think this conflict of interest should cause him to recuse himself. Independent Journal Review reports that James Comey had a disturbing connection to the Clinton Foundation. Prior to his being the FBI director, he was a top official at a corporation that gave money to the foundation (Lockheed Martin), had contracts approved by Hillary Clinton’s state department, and was part of a group that paid Bill Clinton $250,000. Also, Breitbart reports that James Comey’s brother is a top official at a firm that gave nearly $1 million dollars to the Clinton election team and the Clinton Foundation.

In general, high government officials are above the law. Consider the IRS scandal, where the IRS was used as a weapon against conservative groups. Again, major players (such as Lois Lerner) perjured themselves, pleaded the Fifth, destroyed evidence, and so on, but were not prosecuted. The same is true with regard to the Fast and Furious gun-running program. Former head of the Justice Department, Eric Holder, was held in contempt of Congress because he lied about the program and then withheld evidence to Congress. Like Lerner, he skated free.   

The scope of corruption is breathtaking. Wikileaks released statements by people affiliated with the Clinton Foundation admitting that the non-profit Clinton Foundation was used to raise stacks of cash for the Clintons. Donations to the foundation were used to purchase access to Hillary Clinton when she headed the State Department. The Associated Press reports that more than half of the non-government people who met with Hillary Clinton when she was head of the State Department gave money to the Clinton Foundation either directly or through companies or groups. More than half. Worse, in some cases, there is a suspicious pattern of the State’s intervention on behalf of these groups. State Department officials also tried to cover up Hillary Clinton’s email crimes.

The Chicago Tribune reports that the Justice Department blocked the FBI from investigating the Clinton Foundation for selling access to political access and favors. Does this surprise anyone?

A distinct type of corruption can be seen in Wall Street firms (especially Goldman Sachs) who paid for Hillary Clinton’s political influence. No adult thinks that the Wall Street crowd would pay Clinton $250,000 for a 20-minute speech were it not purchasing political favors. It is hard to say much of anything in 20 minutes and leaked excerpts indicate Clinton did not say anything beyond clich├ęs.

Project Veritas showed that Democratic-affiliated groups were involved in violence at Donald Trump’s campaign and other dirty tricks that outdid anything Nixon did. Breitbart reports that a mastermind of the violence (a husband of a Democratic congresswoman from Illinois) made over 300 visits to the White House and had a couple of one-on-one meetings with Obama. Again, no prosecution.   

The Democratic National Committee’s top officials (including Debbie Wasserman Schultz) resigned after it became clear that they were actively involved in sinking Bernie Sanders’ nomination. This is not merely corrupt, it is a crime.

The media collusion is sickening. It is not merely that the media who were colluding with the Clinton administration by coordinating with them, feeding them debate questions, and taking part in suspicious meetings involving the Clinton campaign and media friendlies. Two of the debates were moderated in a way that was obviously hostile to Trump. Moderator Lester Holt’s bias was eye-opening. Holt, for example, inserted himself into the debate by contradicting Trump on several issues (and, getting at least one dead wrong) and using questions that amounted to a verbal assault on Trump without a single similar question of Clinton.

Even the rigged election charge that caused the media to collapse onto the fainting couch was treated as a grave matter despite the fact that Clinton, Obama, and the media had no misgivings when Al Gore refused to recognize the election results. A recent academic study showed that more than 6% of illegal aliens voted and more than 20% of non-citizens indicated they were registered to vote in the 2008 elections. This likely affected major Congressional votes and is corruption on a grand scale.

More disturbing was the media choice to make the campaign about Donald Trump as a person rather than about issues. The discussion of many issues was thin to non-existent. Consider, for example, amnesty for illegal aliens, Obamacare, national debt, undeclared foreign wars, large numbers of adults not working, and the torturous tax code. Even the personal issues were handled in the most biased manner possible with allegations of battery by Donald Trump taken seriously and allegations that Hillary intimidated victims of Bill Clinton’s rapes and batteries ignored.   


The country’s politics is awash in corruption and criminality. The light shown on the orchestrated effort of the elites to foist Hillary Clinton on us makes this clear as day.