13 April 2016

The Case Against the Military Academies

Stephen Kershar
Eliminate the Military Academies
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
March 30, 2016

            The U.S. Military Academies are important to American military leadership. It produces 20% of military officers and in the past has produced many, if not most, of the most important commanders. Generals Ulysses Grant, John Pershing, Dwight Eisenhower, and George Patton, and Admirals Nimitz and Halsey, among others, led America’s most important wars. Given the role of the academies, it seems to be important that they produce the best products they can and part of their doing so involves admitting the best. This becomes even more important if the army has less accountability in the field than in years past, so failure to put the best people into military leadership gets magnified in terms of subpar combat leadership.

It is unclear whether the academies are worth preserving or whether the American people are benefitted by having the best and brightest go there.

            The academies are inefficient in the sense that they are a comparatively expensive way of generating officers. Writing in USA Today, Gregory Korte and Frederka Shouten note that an Air Force Academy graduate costs $487,000. Scott Beauchamp writing in The Washington Post points out that this is four times as much as a ROTC program. The same is true for the other academies. Worse, many of the students come from pricey high schools associated with the academies. Naval Academy professor Bruce Fleming points out that 20% of the students who attend Naval Academy come from the Naval Academy high school that costs roughly $50,000 per year.

Despite being so expensive, academy graduates are not better. A 2003 study did not find there was a difference in promotion rate between USNA and ROTC officers. The same study found no evidence that that officers who attended civilian colleges or any one of the other military colleges (consider, for example, the Citadel) are lesser leaders than their service-academy peers. Even if they were better officers, the military has a difficult time hanging on to them. About half of academy graduates leave the military after their obligation of 5-7 years as a junior officer.

Academy graduates do not appear to be ethically superior to graduates of ROTC programs and Officer Candidate School. About a third of the commanding officers removed in 2012 malfeasance – record numbers for Navy – were academy graduates. Academy students have been found to have involved in various scandals (consider sexual assault and cheating). Remember that as a baseline, only 20% of officers in the military are graduates of the academies.

While the admissions process is opaque, there is a concern for nepotism and corruption. In 2012, 58% of students came from a congressional or vice presidential nomination. The nominations are largely made in secret, done via an inconsistent and opaque process, and perhaps corrupt. Pretty much what one would expect of our sleazy congressmen.

More specifically, the nomination process results in unequal competitiveness (consider districts that differ in the number and quality of applicants) and the process is opaque (nominations are made largely in secret), inconsistent (there are no universal standards or ethical guidelines governing nominations, each congressional office has its own process and criteria for awarding them), and perhaps corrupt (some nominations go to children of well-connected families, friends, and campaign contributors).  There are also allegations of nepotism.

Currently, people may be appointed without a nomination if they are children of armed forces members killed or missing in action, who have died or have a 100% service-connected-disability, and children of employees who are in missing status. Also, the president may appoint children of career military personnel and winners of the Medal of Honor. This does not intuitively seem just, fair, or, even, an efficient way to improve military performance, especially compared to other compensatory means (consider, for example, money).

            By analogy, consider how the University of Iowa chooses its elite wrestlers. Iowa would never choose wrestlers based on their pedigree. If it did, the team would do extremely poorly because it moved away from merit-based assignment of positions. It is unclear why avoiding subpar wrestlers is more important than avoiding subpar officers.

In any case, on average, the best and brightest do not attend the academies. The vaunted intellectual reputation of academy graduates as equal to that of the Ivy League and its peers is inaccurate. Academy SAT scores are not elite. In one 2014 Forbes ranking, Air Force Academy was ranked 77th (1305) and ranked next to Occidental and Villanova Colleges. West Point was ranked 98th (1283) and ranked next to New College at Florida and UC-San Diego. Naval Academy was ranked 99th (1280) and ranked next to UC-San Diego and UW Madison.

According to Naval Academy’s Fleming, more than a quarter of the Naval Academy class has SAT scores below 600 and the average is lower than the nearby state school University of Maryland. These are respectable scores and the peer schools are strong ones, but still not close to the scores that characterize the Ivies and their elite peers (for example, MIT, Duke, and Stanford).

            It is thus unclear whether the academies are worth preserving and whether it is better to have the best and brightest attend them rather go elsewhere. Without market discipline, there is no clear way of knowing whether we want better, worse, or equivalent people attending the academy than do so today. This lack of knowledge undermines the case for trying to get better students attend the academy. It is not clear, then, if it would be in the country’s interest were the academy to be packed with Ivy-League-caliber students rather than the impressive, but not elite, students it currently has.


On a side note, this is true regardless of what one thinks makes one student better than a second at the academy. For example, it is independent of whether one student is better than a second in virtue of the first having more academic ability, leadership, moral character, or so on. 

30 March 2016

Easter and Atonement: The linchpin of Christianity is trouble

Stephen Kershnar
The Philosophy of Easter
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
March 29, 2016   

            Most of this paper’s readers celebrated Easter this past Sunday. Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead in 30 AD. It occurred on the third day of burial after the Romans crucified him in 30 AD. The resurrection of Jesus is the cornerstone of the Christian faith (1 Corinthians 15: 12-20). The holiday is linked to atonement theory. Atonement theory asserts that Jesus’ suffering and death explains why God forgives or pardons people for their sins. The Bible repeatedly asserts this. See, for example, 1 Peter 2:24 and 1 Peter 3:18. Let’s consider whether atonement theory is true and, also, whether its truth should matter to us.

            The philosophical issue surrounding atonement theory is why God would cause or allow Jesus to suffer horribly and die as a way to forgive ordinary people for their sins. Here I will leave aside historical theories such as ransom theory (Jesus gave his own life as a sacrifice to buy mankind from Satan) and focus on more plausible theories.

            First, consider penal substitution theory. This theory was defended by Protestant luminaries such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wesley. This theory holds that God punished Jesus, who didn’t sin, instead of punishing people who did and that this substitution justifies his forgiving our sins. The problem is that penal substitution is unjust. If a young man commits a brutal battery and rape, it is unjust for the state to punish someone else for what he did. For example, it would be wrong to punish his mother, even if she volunteers to be punished in his place.

            The best theories of punishment assert that the right to be punished is held by the victim or her agent (consider, for example, her government). A third party does not have a right to punish a wrongdoer because the wrongdoer did not wrong her. God is not the victim of most, if not all, of people’s sins. In the above example, he was not the one who was beaten and raped. Thus God has no more right to punish sinners than a random Chinese man has a right to punish an American who murdered someone in Detroit.   

            God would have a right to punish sinners who victimize others if he owned people similar to how farmers own livestock. It is a loathsome theory, though, that one person can own a second in this way. Things might get murky if the second consents to being owned, but we can ignore this technicality because many people have not consented to God owning them.   
            Worse, many instances of sins (consider, for example, lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride) do not victimize anyone and hence do not justify punishment. Even if they did justify punishment, they surely do not justify eternal torment in hell. It is incredibly harsh to impose an infinite punishment on someone for a finite wrong. This would be analogous to sending someone to prison for fifty years for stealing a candy bar (and not even a good one, just a Peppermint Patty).

            If we assume the trinity is true, then in some sense God punished himself in order to forgive or pardon others. It is hard to see how this is any different from his just forgiving or pardoning them and thus, on this account, Jesus’ suffering would be irrelevant to God’s forgiveness.

            Second, consider debt theory. Catholic luminaries St. Anselm and St. Aquinas held this view (Satisfaction Theory). This theory holds that human beings are so full of evil that they owe a debt to God that they cannot pay. Jesus’ suffering and death pays off their debt and allows them to go to heaven.

            The problem with this theory is that it is unclear why Jesus’ suffering pays off people’s debts. Compensation in law (consider, for example, damages in tort law) aims to restore a victim to as good a position as she would have been in had she not be victimized. It is unclear how Jesus’ suffering and death could compensate God in this way for humanity’s sinful ways. It is not like the payment of money or services that are ordinarily used to compensate victims.

Also, it is hard to see why God doesn’t just forgive everyone’s debt. Creditors forgive debtors all the time. Consider, for example, how often fathers forgive their children’s debts.  

            Moreover, as in the punishment case, wrongdoers do not victimize God. Rather they victimize each other. The rapist mentioned above should be made to pay compensatory damages to his victim, but not the victim’s father, sister, or aunt. Similarly, wrongdoers didn’t victimize God so they don’t owe him a debt.  
  
            Again, the doctrine of the trinity makes debt theory mysterious. It is hard to see why God would sacrifice himself to pay off someone’s debt. Again, it is also hard to see how this is any different from his just forgiving their debt and thus, on this account, Jesus’ suffering would be irrelevant to God’s forgiveness.  

            Other theories of Jesus’ sacrifice make less sense than do the punishment and debt theories. The notion that Jesus died to teach people to refrain from sin, love God, or become virtuous is strange in that this is an inefficient way to present such a message. Why not do it directly? Alternatively, why not change people’s hearts? In any case, hell or annihilation would be an appropriate response to people’s failure to learn only if this failure warranted punishment or a debt and so we return to the above theories.


            Given the joy of Easter, chock full of family, friends, church, brunch, and chocolate Easter bunnies, it seems churlish to ask whether the holiday makes sense. Still, we want our holidays to make sense or, if they don’t, we might want to keep that in the back of our mind so that we emphasize the family, friends, and laughter and deemphasize the theory leading people to get together. 

16 March 2016

Republican Civil War: The Establishment Embarrasses Itself

Stephen Kershnar
The Republican Civil War
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
March 13, 2016

The civil war in the Republican Party has begun. The establishment declared war on Donald Trump and would be at war with Ted Cruz if they didn’t fear a two-front war.

The civil war is over different visions of the country. The Republican establishment either support the status quo or think it not worth fighting over. House speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan, Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, and other “moderate” Republicans have chosen to rubber stamp Obamacare, amnesty for millions of illegal aliens, skyrocketing debt, race preferences and quotas, and an accelerating expansion of spending and taxes.

They believe that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a worthwhile expenditure of American blood and treasure ($2 trillion and 50,000 casualties) and promise more of the same. They even signed off on Obama’s recent foreign policy debacles, such as the blatantly unconstitutional war in Libya, continued involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, and treaty with Iran.

They couldn’t even defund minor but symbolically important crony capitalist programs, such as the Export-Import Bank, or Planned Parenthood. Their contempt for civil liberties as seen in their backing of the Patriot Act, inactivity on the recent attempt to muscle Apple into being an arm of the FBI, and an FBI director who wants to eliminate (end-to-end) encryption. Leaving aside their rhetoric, they stand for the status quo or, perhaps, the gradual expansion of the welfare state, erosion of civil liberties, and an interventionist foreign policy.

On the other side, there are two Republican insurgencies. Presidential candidate Donald Trump stands for a nationalist agenda. He favors an end to amnesty and to immigrants who as a group increase the risk of terrorism and who would be an economic drain as well as diminish American unity. He favors various protectionist measures in trade and mild isolationism in foreign policy, the latter seen in his bold criticism of the Iraq war. Similar to the establishment Republicans, he shows no interest in cutting back the entitlement policies (social security, Medicare, and Medicaid) that are driving the debt to dangerous levels. His policies do not focus on freedom or the Constitution. His foreign policy aims to promote Americans’ interest rather than some Wilsonian ideal (using the U.S. military to force other nations into being democracies).

Candidate Ted Cruz (my preference) is a liberty freak who alone takes the Constitution seriously and thinks that the government needs to be sharply pared back. He can be expected to push hard for cutting spending and taxes and protecting civil liberties against government intrusion. If Trump were not terrifying the establishment, it would train its guns on Cruz.

Establishment Republicans are embarrassing themselves. Mitt Romney gave a ragtag collection of charges against Trump, specifically that he made fun of another candidate’s looks, attributed a reporter’s question to her menstrual cycle, used vulgarity, bragged about his marital affairs, mocked John McCain, scapegoated Muslims and Mexican immigrants, changed his position on the Klu Klux Klan, did not release his tax returns, and so on. Romney compared Trump negatively to the “giants” who have been presidents. Only five Congressional Republicans and two governors have endorsed Trump.

Romney unleashed holy hell on Trump, yet he has had next to nothing to say about the clearly unconstitutional Obamacare and the even more obviously illegal ways in which the various mandates and rules have been delayed or eliminated. He has been similarly silent on Obama’s repeatedly telling lies to pass Obamacare, blatantly unconstitutional attempt to amnesty millions of illegal aliens, illegal Libyan war, and so on. Attacking Obama would have required he put his reputation on the line, so, of course, he ran and hid, but when given a chance to stab Trump in the back to an adoring press, he jumped at the chance.

His comparison of Trump to presidential giants is what passes for wisdom in the ruling class. Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon repeatedly showed themselves to be terrible presidents and despicable people. Other terrible presidents, but perhaps less despicable people, included such all-stars as Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Jerry Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama. John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton were also despicable people, although not terrible presidents. Trump might be a bad president, but he would most likely do a better job the above failures (with the possible exceptions of Kennedy and Clinton) and unquestionably he is a better person than bottom dwellers such as Wilson, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Clinton. Romney’s sense of giants is ignorant and silly.  

What reasonable moral code would suggest that Romney should sit scared and quiet in the corner when Obama and company tell blatant lies to pass Obamacare and institute grossly unconstitutional amnesties and wars, but spring into furious action because Trump said something mean or vulgar. Even Romney’s personal attacks lack proportion. It is more likely than not that Bill Clinton raped and assaulted multiple women (for example, Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey). Hillary Clinton took payoffs in Arkansas, headed a pay-for-play foundation, and is uncontroversially guilty of violating the law on handling American secrets when in the state department. What kind of man worries more about vulgar speech than celebrating these sleazebag criminals?

Romney’s defamatory comments about Trump on immigration depend on people not remembering his stalwart opposition to illegal aliens. As Ann Coulter and others have pointed out, as a governor and presidential candidate, Romney supported a fence on the border, E-verify to ensure that employees are legal, and allowing state police to arrest illegal aliens. He also opposed in-state tuition, driver’s licenses, and amnesty. Trump’s plans go further, but in essence build on a Romney-like approach.


When the establishment decided to give Obama everything he wanted on the budget, foreign wars, civil liberties, race preferences, and Constitution, it chose its comfort and ruling class amity over fulfilling promises it made again and again to the conservatives and libertarians who voted them into office. Once in office, they have repeatedly shown these groups the back of the hand and are those facing a well-deserved revolt. Trump and Cruz are just messengers.