Why now in Syria?

Today Obama announced that we’re going to begin military aid to the Syria rebel group Supreme Military Council. Supposedly, this is because the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on rebels and civilians. Despite the fact that we’ve repeatedly condemned Russia for seeking to aid the Syrian regime, we’re going to do the opposite and arm the opposition which has a massive group of hardline extremists that will likely turn against the US as soon as they are in the position to do so. Furthermore, there are rumors, according to the UN, that the Syrian rebellion has also used chemical weapons. This combined with the fact that 93,000 civilians have been compared to the 150 killed with the chemical weapons usage makes me think that this is a shaky argument at best. I certainly hope we don’t find ourselves arming a group that also used chemical weapons.

Before this announcement and continuing after, John McCain has and is calling for a “No Fly Zone” in Syria, while the Obama administration has declined to implement one because of Syria’s air capabilities. However, it’s been effectively confirmed that Israel has in the past bombed Syria. A no fly zone would preclude Israel from bombing Syria in anyway shape or form. In fact, when Russia wanted to enact a no Israeli fly zone, through providing anti aircraft weapons (only capable of hitting planes), the US condemned this as aiding the Syrian regime. It’s also likely that those same systems would have been able to hit the majority of US planes as well as the Israeli Air Force, so we were as much protesting anything that would have prevented our Air Force from dominating the sky above Syria.

Based on the interviews I’ve heard, I don’t think the end result in Syria is going to be a beneficial one for the US unless something magical happens. Where we arm the right people and they are the only ones we help and they automagically kick the Syrian Regime out of the country. It’s not going to happen. Even after Assad is overthrown (if he is) it’s likely that Syria will continue to be consumed by a civil war, which will likely be even more of a religious civil war than it is now. Now it’s as much ethic based as not.

On Reddit, there’s a meme that’s arguing that the reason we entered Syria now is an attempt to distract the US media from the NSA and Prism debacles. This could be on the right trail. The news is dominated by the fact that we’re supplying aid to the rebels, what the implications of these actions will be and what won’t be. I think getting involved in another conflict in any manner isn’t good for the US, especially if the side we backs fails, which it is still likely to do so. We’ve lost any moral authority we had with Russia in an argument regarding supplying weapons to either side.

I do not think that this will pull people away from the NSA issue, we’re going to keep seeing it. I’m going to keep writing about it – I just wanted to post something about the hypocrisy of the US entering the Syrian civil war. The big story for this week and next week is still the NSA and PRISM. We are going to continue seeing new developments in this area and we need to keep our eyes on it. If we don’t keep pushing this, it will become ‘ok’ through passive consent. That’s not acceptable.

The Philosopher CEO

In my group at work, we have been accused of having a group of philosophers and a group of doers. This is typically mentioned with some serious disgust. As if having a group of people thinking about how the business is run is a bad thing. I think part of it stems from the idea that this means that they aren’t doing anything productive or value added for the company. The perception is incorrect of course. The “philosophers” are actually a process improvement methodology team that provides course development, course training, mentoring for Lean Six Sigma certification, continual guidance for projects in flight and manages projects themselves. There are only two of them. That’s a tall order to be honest.

But the idea of a philosophy group really got me thinking. Would it be a bad thing to have a group that looks at the ethical, moral or sustainable behavior of the company? I lump sustainability in with the morality and ethical question, because in a lot of ways sustainability is not looking to be a social issue and is another way of looking at the ethics of recycling and energy usage. I’ve talked about morality and MBA’s specifically in my last post. Singling out the MBA crowd might not have been the fair as there is no reason why engineers couldn’t behave in unethical ways, there’s no requirement for engineers to take ethics courses.

Why does this matter? Well, we’ve seen a huge number of seemingly unethical choices coming out of companies. In some cases they may have been selected in a harmless way. For example the new MacBook Pros have a glued on battery, the choice may have been made to reduce the amount of time it takes to secure the battery. Putting a fast acting glue on the battery may have accomplished this, while screwing in the battery would take more time. This selection could have been made without the consideration of the repairability or replacability for components within the laptop. However, since this is Apple I’m talking about here, I find this unlikely. The next question would be, was this choice unethical? From a sustainability perspective it could be construed in that manner, which iFixit does do just that. The computer also lost its environmental certification by using the glue and some of the other design characteristics. This design also continues with Apple’s decisions to make it more difficult to upgrade or do anything with their product once you’ve bought. This increases the number of times you have to purchase their products and exasperates the throwaway culture of many other products.

Consumers are also starting to become more aware of the unethical behavior of companies. We’ve seen this with the recent banking scandals, we’ve seen this with the investigation into Foxconn and we’re likely to see it moving forward in other sectors. We’re starting to hear about more unethical behavior in the ag industries, in regard to their treatment of animals or in the case of Monsanto basically suing farmers when seeds of their crops land in their field. The increase in consumer awareness through the increased usage of social media and other social networking tools is going to significantly increase both information and disinformation about these topics.

It is likely that there will be an increase in the number of watch dog organizations in existence and more reliance on government agencies, like the Consumer Protection agency in the US now. The banks have argued for a long time that these regulations are unnecessary as they can regulate themselves. We do know that profit pressures can prevent ethical behavior and encourage unethical behavior. Perhaps it’s time that every organization has an Internal Affairs organization similar to what the police have. I do not believe that these organizations are perfect and can become corrupt (or have the appearance of being corrupt), but I think that they can be useful.

Penn State is going to have to set up an organization like this. I think for the University this was going to be required for them to even have a chance at ever regaining their credibility. The records for that group need to be wide open for everyone to view. I think this type of office needs to be in any publicly traded company. It will ensure greater transparency, allow watch dog groups and consumers to choose the actual ethical companies and these groups would be auditable. This could be a certification process similar to ISO9001 (a manufacturing document control quality system), where the members of the team are given ethics training in a wide range of topics including morality and then are expected to train the employees of the company, CEO included.

By creating organizations such as this, companies can greatly clarify how their behavior is ethical and moral. Once several large companies create agencies like this other companies will be shamed into doing it as well. Thus increasing the number of Philosopher CEOs out there.

MBAs, Ethics and Morals

Yesterday on Facebook I started quite the little discussion after posting a discussion about MBA education based on an article on Bloomberg. The author of the article, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Essentially the article argues that the method used to discuss ethics results in amoral education. What this is saying isn’t that they are teaching a lack of morality, it’s that they aren’t teaching the actual moral result of these choices in a way that makes it clear that one option is moral while the other is not.   Without explicitly stating which option is moral or immoral, it can create ambiguity (we know that business people hate uncertainty) and the illusion that either one of the options could be moral.

Why does this cause a problem? First, not many people actually have any education in ethics to begin with. If someone put together a list of 8 must take classes ethics would be somewhere around 100. Ethics courses aren’t easy and they make you really look at how you think about things, figure out why you think that way and try to make you change the way you think. They aren’t always successful, but ethical thinking is like critical thinking, the more exposure you have to it the more you are able to practice it. The second reason why this is a problem, is that many people going into business school may have less scruples, be willing to take advantage of people or are amoral. Not everyone is, but we know from research that business leaders tend to have personality traits of psychopaths. We also know that in games like prisoner’s dilemma business leaders act the most ruthless (same goes for economists). The only question is the direction of causality. Does business school create these types of people, does it exacerbate these personality types or do these people go into business already behaving in these manners? I don’t know the answer to that question.

While I was in the Netherlands I listened to a seminar that discussed the way that ethics is taught within the Dutch military. All new recruits must go through ethics courses and then every so many years they are required to recertify on the ethics course. The goal is to bring in new officers with a sense of ethical norms that can prevent atrocities and allow officers to do the right thing when they need to. Of course the military believes there is a fine line between creating a thinking solider and a solider that ends up in analysis paralysis because they are going through too many ethical situations in their mind. The goal of the education is to ingrain many of these ethical situations so reaction is more instinctual even for the ethical choice.

I believe that there is a similar balance that needs to be considered in business. What are the social norms for ethical behavior in many institutions? Well, I think that this really does depend on the institution and the environment that they are in. I think there are no ethical norms within the big banks, which has been played out over and over again with the sub prime, then LIBOR and now HSBC’s money laundering. Perhaps the ethics are there, it’s just considered ethical to make as much money as you can without getting caught doing something that is obviously screwing someone over. The question becomes, can a truly ethical MBA graduate come into an environment and succeed? I think that they will be able to do well compared to your average person, but they will quickly be out shined by their unethical colleagues.  These are businessmen, they understand incentives well, so they will adjust their behavior based on their incentives. This is a normal and rational thing to do.

Are there ways to instill more ethical behavior at companies? I think there are ways. Some are through legal changes, which lower the bar for what is considered a crime when it comes to fraud and unethical behavior. This would either drive the behavior more underground (likely) or change some of it. Other ways would be through forcing a cultural norm where these companies are punished through lack of investment and loss of business. This one has a coordination issue. Many people have no qualms about ethical issues that would use a service like this. Additionally, the sheer number of firms behaving unethically makes it unrealistic for a person to buy ethically made products. I wrote about this at the Urban Times, noting that Apple is being singled out when the entire industry behaves in this manner.

Ethics needs to be taught at many different levels, it encourages critical thinking and self reflection. Developing ethical leaders in all respects of business and politics should be a goal of all universities. However, ethics courses are being cut and many people just don’t see the value in them.

Religion, Morality and political stances

This morning on KUT (local NPR station) there was a local interview between the KUT host and an author of a book that discussed how religion has been playing a larger role in the public forum in the United States and that people are basing their political stances more and more on religion. I am skeptical of this for several reasons. First, the morality these stances are based on are sometimes dubious at best even within the religious context. Secondly, some of these moral stances aren’t actually based on teachings in the specific religion, but are much more cultural in origin than religious.

Let’s look at the first issue. There are many issues that we can examine to see if the validity of the moral stance. How about the death penalty. Many Christians (not all) strongly support the death penalty. This stance clearly violates one of the Ten Commandments (thou shall not kill). Supporting this type of policy is not congruent with this belief. In addition, it conflicts with the belief that all life is sacred, which is the argument against abortion. I personally don’t agree with either stand, I’m against the death penalty and pro-choice (by which I mean I support the woman’s right to choose if she wants to be pregnant or not).

I arrived at these moral stances outside of the Christian frame work. I find that life is sacred since we only have one. Ending a person’s life for whatever reason is a horrible thing. It destroys everything that they are and could be, it destroys their potential. Now some people may think that this is ok in the case of people that are beyond help, but who defines “help”? Or perhaps it’s ok to kill people that are more committing horrible crimes against other people and they can never be reformed. Well, first there’s a lot of things we need to look at as to the why they were doing what they were doing. We should investigate what changes we can do and what sort of environment we want them to be living in after the we’ve given up on them.

In terms of abortion, it’s a trickier matter than the death penalty. However, women should have control over their on bodies and when/if they ever want to have children. Sure killing a fetus is killing a possibility, but every time a person has sex there are thousands of possibilities that are destroyed by a condom or other birth control. It’s just a matter of time and why you chose to stop the pregnancy. In some case the baby can destroy the potential of the mother or could end up being a huge drain on society. These can cause larger issues than if the fetus was aborted when the woman wanted it to be aborted.

Issues of morality may not be easy, but there are also moral issues that happen to conform to a specific outlook on life. In the case of gay marriage, this is more of a cultural issue than a religious issue. The very book that proponents quote as the reason for denying this right is ignored on a routine basis (eating shellfish is a killable offense). Marriage has long been something sanctioned by the state and has a level of cultural normalcy that has moved it from the realm of religion alone. In some states it’s possible to be married through time spent living together and getting it approved by a Justice of the Peace. Marriage is a way that cements a relationship in your own mind, the mind of your community and with the state. A civil union doesn’t have the feeling of importance and smacks of differences in rights and demotes a person to a second class citizen.

There are definitely some policy stances that could easily be seen to be rooted in religious beliefs such as supporting welfare, turning the other cheek, being a pacifist and giving your money to the poor and needy. However, there are many people that are against abortion and against welfare. These wildly different stances  for a Christian smacks of a cultural belief structure driving many of these policy stances rather than their religious beliefs themselves. This doesn’t mean you aren’t a Christian or that have to be against abortion and for welfare, but it means you should be honest about the source of your morality in regard to your policy stances. You need to look inward and really investigate why you stand for something and why you’re against something. Look close enough and you may find that it’s due to your social and cultural influences rather than your religious beliefs.

Good men are hard to find

This week my grandfather, Paul Joseph Kapsar Sr., passed away. He was a good man. He was honest, caring and willing to help those in need. His service was beautiful and I’m extremely grateful I was able to come back to be part of the service. He’s had a serious impact on my life and the way I look at things, because he was honest and respected honesty. He respected hard work and was never afraid to get his hands dirty. We need more people like my grandpa. People that are reliable and that you can trust to do the right thing.

Despite all his great qualities society never rewarded him the way that it rewards the cut throat businessmen. My grandpa didn’t pass away a rich man in money, but in life. I feel that in many ways he was significantly better off than those that are willing to compromise their morals and ethics to make more money or to get reelected.

I think that we need people like my grandfather in positions of authority. Why? He was ethical and would have come up with a balanced approach to dealing with the economic crisis rather than the brutal or over coddling approach of the republicans or democrats respectively. He would not be a supporter of SOPA or of the recent changes of the NDAA which limit our freedoms. He was a vet and cherished everything that came with protecting the United States.

His passing has made me realize the pitiful state of our country’s leadership. The republican primary is a contest between who is willing to go lower. Gingrich is willing to destroy the check and balances of the Constitution. Romney doesn’t open his mouth without lying about his opponents or Obama. Perry is one of the biggest bigots on earth. The only republican willing to stand beside his ethics and moral positions is Ron Paul and his economic policies would be disastrous. Lamar Smith the guy pushing SOPA, will vote for a bill even whenever an argument pointed out how flawed the bill was, and he agreed with the argument.

Our financial sector things that they are entitled to whatever type of bonuses they are getting handed out and decry free loaders that get unemployment, when they have been given more government money than all of the American People combined. It would have been cheaper for the federal government to give money to the home owners to buy underwater houses than to save the banks.

Our country is experiencing a moral bankruptcy which seems destined to drive it into the ground. The future is made all the darker when a great man like my grandfather has passed away.

Economics, Philosophy and Science

The Occupy Wall Street movement has spawned a great deal of branch protests. It has increased our awareness of economic, educational and governance issues. We have seen a series of aggressive police actions and amazing responses from victims. Historically, universities have been a sites of unrest. Berkeley had it’s riots in the 60’s, there’s the famous Kent State shooting picture and there are many other examples. What do much of these have in common? The state has used it’s authority and power to overly aggressively clamp down on protesters. However, violent protesters can’t be accepted, but non-violent protesters cannot be met with force. It’s part of our heritage to protest the government.

However, it’s important to understand what we’re protesting and why. It was clear from the beginning of the OWS movement that most of the people didn’t really understand what they were protesting. Very broad general things like Wall Street making too much money or the fact that no one has gone to jail. I think it’s important that for protesting to be effective the leaders and a majority of the protesters need to be well educated on what it is exactly they are protesting.

In this case the protesters needed to be educated on economics and philosophy/morality. Why economics, those guys are like the bad guys man? Well, sadly, to have an actual conversation with these people you need to speak their language. You don’t have to actually accept their assumptions as true or accurate, but you need to be well educated on the topics. Additionally, if you are well educated on economics, you’ll know there are different capitalist perspectives on economics that indicate that a more equal society is a safer and happier society. Using evolutionary economics, policies can be crafted to help protect economies from crashes. In addition, being educated in slightly beyond the basic supply demand curve, it will help prevent the wool from being pulled over our eyes. This will also allow more members of our society to enter public discourse and understand and speak intelligently about the topics that impact all of us. People will actually understand what socialism and communism actually mean.

In addition to a good economic ground work, we also need to understand some basic philosophy. People are accused of moral relativism, we need to know what it actually means (morality is flexible based on the situation) and how that impacts people’s actions. We also need to know when our leaders are behaving morally, immorally and what sort of freedoms we should be giving to people. Our country is founded on the philosophical ideas of the enlightenment. The US government was founded on rights, which all people should have regardless of sex, race or whatever. This includes speech and protest. If these are within our rights, then we need to protect them from people that believe it is their right to physically assault you when you exercise your rights. Morality and ethics can also drive our legislature to define laws based on humanist principles to ensure living wages and the right to live for all people. Or at least the need to create the social mobility claim to have in our society. Decreasing costs of education reduces the initial burden after school which allows people to take more risks, which may allow them to move from one social strata to the next. These should be done for moral reasons and because education and research has been shown both neoclassical economics and evolutionary economics to be a huge driver of sustained economic growth.

We also need a strong scientific foundation, which will provide a healthy dose of skepticism for government and data published by any group on either side. It gives the tools to decide if we should accept these data or open our tool box and figure out where the flaw in the data is. Science is the driver of current economic growth. It is what allows the next big break through at the platform level. We’ve had several platforms, coal, steel, rail, and we’re currently on the silicon platform/computing platform. To develop new platforms we need to continue to drive to the frontier of science.

Our founding fathers embodied these ideals. Jefferson was a philosopher that wrote his own version of the bible. He and Franklin were both accomplished scientists. All of them believed in the rights of the people that exist not because they are given to them by the government, but because they are natural rights all people have. It is important that we acknowledge these rights and make sure we are educated in these topics to ensure an actual debate over the problems we’re facing as a society. Without being educated in the importance of these topics we’ll begin to argue based on the best sound byte and not on the content of the message.

In closing, all people need to become literate in these topics to provide the best foundation for an argument. Without being able to speak the right language, you’ll sound like whining children that’s wondering like a child lost in the woods, or out of your element if you will. With these tools, anyone can talk coherently and powerfully against the very things our own government protests in other countries.