Regarding Felicity Huffman’s Slap-On-The-Wrist

Before actress Felicity Huffman was sentenced for her participation in the rigged college admissions scandal, also known as “Varsity Blues”, the leftist website Salon had already pronounced her treatment by the justice system as racist. It said in part,

Back in 2011 Tanya McDowell was homeless and living in her van. She wanted her five-year-old son to receive a quality education, so she enrolled him in Brookside Elementary of the Norwalk School District. He was later kicked out due to a residency issue, so he transferred to Bridgeport schools.

Police investigated McDowell and charged her with fraud. A year later she pleaded guilty to first-degree larceny and conspiracy to commit first-degree larceny; for these offenses, she received a five-year sentence. Before McDowell started serving it out, she was charged with selling narcotics to an undercover police officer, an offense that killed her community support. McDowell was ultimately given 12 years, to be suspended after she served five, and followed by five years of probation; the narcotic sentence to run concurrently with a five-year sentence she had already received in the Norwalk school case. All of this story, from the over-policing of this mother to the severity of her sentence, along with everything she did, was obviously driven by poverty, which remains synonymous with “guilty” in our lopsided system of so-called justice.

On the other hand, you have a person like Felicity Huffman, who enjoys the many privileges that come with being a rich “Desperate Housewives” star…and having the resources to expose her daughter to educational advantages that McDowell may not have even been able to dream of: tutoring, unlimited books, technology, a safe learning environment, and even an SAT specialist who helps struggling kids obtain high scores. …[T]he actress was arrested in March on mail fraud and conspiracy charges as an outcome of the FBI’s Operation Varsity Blues investigation, and pleaded guilty to mail fraud, after paying $15,000 to allegedly rig her daughter’s SAT scores. Huffman is scheduled to be sentenced in Boston on Friday — for one month in prison, if the federal prosecutors’ recommendation is followed. Huffman’s attorneys have instead asked for a year’s probation, plus community service and a $20,000 fine.

Let’s begin with the fact that this is unethical and dishonest advocacy. Searching for an admittedly terrible prosecution from eight years ago  to contrast with Huffman’s case is contrived racism. The fact that the mother was later legitimately charged with selling narcotics renders the comparison a stretch at best.  In the absence of sufficient numbers of cases across the country to make a valid generalization, Salon’s assumptions are just cheap muckraking.

Stipulated: charging McDowell with larceny for trying to sneak her child into a better school district was a cruel and unethical prosecution; charging her with fraud and seeking a significant punishment was not. The idea was to discourage similar deceptions, no matter how well-intentioned they were.  That is a valid law enforcement objective, and an important one.

What Huffman’s attorneys proposed as appropriate punishment was irrelevant to Salon’s thesis. Their job is to get the actress as light a sentence as possible, and if possible, no sentence at all. We are not told what McDowell’s attorney’s argued on her behalf, because it is also irrelevant, but, I suspect, it was omitted because their recommendations were not that different from those of Huffman’s case. Continue reading

Let’s Play “Desperate, Gallant, Or Offensive!” Today’s Contestant: Actor William H. Macy

Welcome, Ethics Alarms readers! It’s time for that exciting game show, “Desperate, Gallant, Or Offensive!,” where the audience judges whether its celebrity contestants have stayed within ethical boundaries!

Today’s contestant is celebrated actor William H. Macy, not to be confused with Bill Macy, who played Bea Arthur’s long-suffering husband on “Maude.” William H is one of the most honored and respected, not to mention versatile American actors. He has won two Emmy Awards, four Screen Actors Guild Awards, and an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his memorable performance in Fargo.” Since 2011, he has played Frank Gallagher, the main character in the Showtime adaptation of the British television series “Shameless.”  Most relevant now, however, is his 22 year marriage to actress Felicity Huffman, who is about to be sentenced for her participation in the so-called “Varsity Blues” college admission scandal.

Ready to play? All right! Here is what loving husband William wrote to the judge preparing to sentence Huffman: Continue reading

Comments Of The Day: The College Admissions Bribery Scandal

This is a bit of a departure, a showcase for one of Ethics Alarms most active commenters (especially appreciated as the blog experiences boycotts, embargos, and Facebook blocking and other indignities), Michael R. The topic is the recent College Admission scandal, which has been covered here and here.

Michael, an educator, is well informed on this topic, and he shows it in three excellent Comments of the Day.  And I forgive him for never, ever, making a typo.

I.

The college scandal has many, many facets. What has caused standards to slip so low? Well, athletics obviously has a corrosive effect, with students admitted based on athletic ability instead of academic ability. The grade inflation has also greatly degraded college standards. The almost lack of education occurring in our high schools is another factor.

An overlooked factor, however, is the public higher ed systems’ oversupply of colleges. Public college policy has mainly been about votes and prestige, not actual societal need. This has resulted in a lot more colleges than the country actually needs. A typical example would be Local Community College. Well, the President of Local Community College would rather not be the laughingstock of the College President’s Club, so he petitions the state legislature to authorize his school to offer 4-year degrees. He states that his community deserves a 4-year school like (insert rival town here). This proposal is mainly decided on its political merits, not the needs of the state as a whole. It goes through, along with new funding for new facilities, new faculty, and more students for the Local State College. With all the Community Colleges becoming State Colleges, the presidents of the Regional State Colleges petition to become Regional State Universities. They point out the prestige and grant money they could get if they had graduate programs. This too, is granted based on political merit. The National Science Foundation is then pressured to remove funding from the traditional research schools and transfer it to the new State Universities amid allegations of elitism for favoring longstanding research schools with top-notch researchers over the new State Universities with no significant research results and they cave. Now, with no community colleges left, a new round of community colleges is constructed. This increases the number of seats for college students by 30% or so, but there are not more high school students graduating. This is repeated all over the country, so out-of-state students are not an option. The only reasonable option is to lower admissions standards. Once the admission standards are lowered, retention suffers and the faculty are ordered to improve retention and graduation rates. The only reasonable way to do this is to make the classes easier and the race to the bottom is on. Continue reading

Observations On “Operation Varsity Blues” [UPDATED!]

It is rare that an ethics story is the front page feature of the day, but the scandal that broke last nigh is certainly that. From the AP, on the results of the investigation code-named “Operation Varsity Blues”…

Fifty people, including Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, were charged Tuesday in a scheme in which wealthy parents allegedly bribed college coaches and other insiders to get their children into some of the nation’s most elite schools. Federal authorities called it the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department, with the parents accused of paying an estimated $25 million in bribes.

More…

At least nine athletic coaches and 33 parents, many of them prominent in law, finance or business, were among those charged. Dozens, including Huffman, were arrested by midday.

Huffman, best known for “Desperate Housewives,” is married to celebrated actor William Macy (“Fargo”). Presumably he is going to be arrested too.

The coaches worked at such schools as Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, Wake Forest, the University of Texas, the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles. A former Yale soccer coach pleaded guilty and helped build the case against others.

Yikes. You can get all the details at The Atlantic, Esquire, The Stanford Daily, Chicago Tribune, Raw Story, The Week, Justice News, The Texas Tribune, Slate, SFist, Recode, Page Six, TechCrunch, TMZ.com and Fox News.

Ethics Observations: Continue reading

Easy Ethics Quiz: Bill Nye The Science Guy’s Ambush Slapdown

On his own Reddit forum where readers are allowed to “Ask Me Anything,” Bill Nye the Science Guy, who has recently been making a pretty penny shilling for the climate change policy lobby, was made the target of this:

Hi Bill,

I have a great way you can start. Stop pretending you’re a scientist.

In science, we begin with facts. The facts show you have no formal science education beyond a Bachelors in mechanical engineering from Cornell. That’s it. Not even a Masters degree, let alone a Doctorate. You literally have no formal science education beyond an undergraduate degree. The facts also show that the whole “Science Guy” persona emerged out of a stand-up comedy routine you used to perform on local public-access TV back in the 80’s:

Good science requires valid data, so, here you go:

You’ve spent years parading around in a lab coat, even after your Disney series ended.. parading around in a way which makes most people, particularly children, think that you’re qualified to speak on matters you have no formal experience, education, or training on. For all intents and purposes, you’re a talented actor-comedian with an opinion who inserts himself into public dialogue…and that’s about it.

Good science also requires peer-review, so, here you go: Continue reading

Comment Of The Day: “The Ethics Of Responding To Inconvenient Truths: Colleges Aren’t Working…Now What?”

More thoughts on the U.S.’s college problem, from Ryan Harkins, in his latest Comment of the Day on the post, “The Ethics Of Responding To Inconvenient Truths: Colleges Aren’t Working…Now What?“:

Growing up in Casper, WY, the expectation among my peers was that after graduating high school, you either went to college our you stayed in your home community to work low-wage, service industry jobs. On very rare occasions, there was mention of going to WyoTech, if you really liked working on cars and could pay the tuition, which was quite a bit more than tuition at the University of Wyoming. I can’t say I ever heard anything promoted at my high school about apprenticeships in a craft, or any other kind of traditional skilled labor.

At the University of Wyoming, a great many people I met, a portion of which never made it past their freshman year, only went to college because it was expected, not because it was what they wanted to do or were interested in. I can understand going to college when you are searching for what you want to do with your life, and I think most people going to college either know what they want to do or want to find what they want to do at college. But for so many people that I saw, a trade school or an apprenticeship would have been worlds of improvement over drifting through campus, failing classes, drinking, partying, and essentially wasting thousands of dollars to go nowhere. Continue reading

The Ethics Of Responding To Inconvenient Truths: Colleges Aren’t Working…Now What?

From the Wall Street Journal:

Freshmen and seniors at about 200 colleges across the U.S. take a little-known test every year to measure how much better they get at learning to think. The results are discouraging.

At more than half of schools, at least a third of seniors were unable to make a cohesive argument, assess the quality of evidence in a document or interpret data in a table, The Wall Street Journal found after reviewing the latest results from dozens of public colleges and universities that gave the exam between 2013 and 2016. …At some of the most prestigious flagship universities, test results indicate the average graduate shows little or no improvement in critical thinking over four years. . . .

Some academic experts, education researchers and employers say the Journal’s findings are a sign of the failure of America’s higher-education system to arm graduates with analytical reasoning and problem-solving skills needed to thrive in a fast-changing, increasingly global job market. In addition, rising tuition, student debt and loan defaults are putting colleges and universities under pressure to prove their value.

Some?

What’s the other side saying, that the results are cooked? That critical thinking is over-rated or a sexist, racist, xenophobic construct? How can any objective individual who has followed the news, listened to activists babble incoherently on  campuses like Dartmouth, Yale, Columbia, University of Missouri and hundreds of others, been aware of higher ed apocalypse stories like this one , or notice that the overwhelming majority of college students enthusiastically supported the fact-, math-, economics-, foreign policy-, history-and Constitution- challenged candidacy of Bernie Sanders  be surprised at these findings? They aren’t even new.

The scam that is U.S. higher education poisons the American dream in too many ways to count.  50% of employers say that college graduates they hire aren’t ready for the workplace because of inadequate critical-reasoning skills.  Yet virtually every institution cites this as the prime benefit of paying it a king’s ransom for four years, with brochure proclamations like…

“The university seeks to foster in all its students lifelong habits of careful observation, critical thinking, creativity, moral reflection and articulate expression.”

and

“… University fosters intellectual inquiry and critical thinking, preparing graduates who will serve as effective, ethical leaders and engaged citizens.”

and

“The college provides students with the knowledge, critical-thinking skills and creative experience they need to navigate in a complex global environment.”

“At most schools in this country, students basically spend four years in college, and they don’t necessarily become better thinkers and problem solvers,” said Josipa Roksa, a University of Virginia sociology professor who co-wrote a book in 2011 about the CLA+ test, that littel-known test the Wall street Journal referred to. . “Employers are going to hire the best they can get, and if we don’t have that, then what is at stake in the long run is our ability to compete.”

Even the arguments used to defend college lack evidence of critical thinking. Today’s New York Times special Higher Ed section highlights this quote: Continue reading

(PSSST! Bill Nye Fans? Honorary Degrees Aren’t Real Credentials…)

bill-nye-the-science-guy

I detest  stupid debates. In college I watched a local TV debate in Boston between Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the infamous atheist, and a local Catholic wacko known as Mrs. Warren, who talked like Chico Marx, on the topic of the existence of God. I finally called into the fiasco as “Jehovah” and got through the screeners for the program, which was called “Cracker Barrel. I used a cardboard toilet paper tube to make my voice sound unworldly as I assured O’Hair that Jehovah approved of her challenging the faithful, and would not turn her into a pillar of salt. O’Hair and the host thought it was funny. Warren said she would pray for me.

The upcoming debate between TV’s “Science Guy” and Sarah Palin over climate change is a good bet to be even more stupid than that debate, and for some of the same reasons. Like that debate, there is zero chance that anybody who is silly enough to bother watching will have their minds changed by what transpires because they, like Palin and Nye, already have their minds made up and facts have little to do with their points of view. Like the “Cracker Barrel” debate, it will really be about faith, what the adversaries want to think is true, and who they prefer to believe. Do either Sarah Palin or Bill Nye know what the world’s climate will be like in 100 years? No. Can either say with certainty that any particular policy measures will or will not have a salutary effect on conditions a hundred years from now? No.

It’s a stupid debate.

Nevertheless, only Palin is being mocked for participating in it, because Sarah Palin could cure cancer and the news media would mock her. It’s ridiculous for her to presume to debate anyone about climate change, but what about the fool who thinks its worth anything to debate her, whether he “wins” or not? It’s like mocking a Labrador retriever for having the hubris to debate John Kerry on U.S. foreign policy. What’s Kerry’s excuse? Continue reading

A Chaos Theory Law, An Anomalous Case, And Charles Grodin’s Lament

I swear, I'm not trying to belittle Charles Grodin by posting this photo of him back when he earned his living with his primary talent, which was comedy. I just want you to recall who the guy is, since he and the Nation obviously would like you to forget.

I swear, I’m not trying to belittle Charles Grodin by posting this photo of him back when he earned his living with his primary talent, which was comedy. I just want you to recall who the guy is, since he and the Nation obviously would like you to think he’s somebody else.

Charles Grodin doesn’t like the felony murder rule.

The felony murder rule, which essentially holds that anyone who is proven to have been involved with a felony during which someone was killed is guilty of First Degree Murder, is one of the harsher devices in American jurisprudence. I must confess, I sort of like it, and always have. Like all laws, however, it doesn’t work perfectly all the time.

The reason I like the rule is that it acknowledges the real danger of initiating felonies, crimes that are serious and destructive. If you burn a business down to collect the insurance, for example, you should be held responsible by the law if the fire gets out of control and someone is killed. The law combines criminal and civil offenses; the felony murder rule is like a negligent crime principle. It is a law that implicitly understands Chaos Theory at a basic level: actions often have unpredictable consequences, and even if the consequences are worse than you expected or could have expected, you still are accountable for putting dangerous and perhaps deadly forces in motion. If you commit a felony, you better make damn sure you know what you are doing, because if people get killed,  you will be held to a doubly harsh standard. Better yet, don’t commit the crime. Continue reading

The Ethics Alarms List of Debate Cheats and Fallacies

fallacy

I realized it was time to post the definitive Ethics Alarms List of Debate Cheats and Fallacies after once again having to point out to an indignant commenter that calling  him a jerk based on a jerkish comment was not an ad hominem attack, and that saying idiotic things on-line carry that risk. Here, at last, is the current list, adapted from multiple sources. As with the Rationalizations List, with which this occasionally overlaps, I invite additions. Participants here should feel free to refer to the various fallacious arguments by number, and to apply critically them to my posts as well as the comments of others. Am I immune from occasionally falling into one or more of these bad debate techniques and rhetorical habits? No. The other reason I wanted to get the list up was to reinforce my own efforts to be persuasive without being manipulative.

1. Ad Hominem Attack

An ad hominem attack means that one is substituting the character or quality of an adversary’s thought for the argument the adversary is presenting. This is unfair, as well as misleading. “Your argument is invalid because you are a crook, a fool, an idiot” is an ad hominem attack. It is not an ad hominem attack to prove an argument idiotic, and conclude, on the basis of signature significance, (which requires that an  argument be so idiotic that no non-idiot would conceive such a thing and dare express it),that the one making the argument is an idiot, since only an idiot would make such an argument. Confusing the true ad hominem attack with the latter is a useful deflection by poor advocates of the fair consequence of their advocacy. Idiots can still hold valid positions, and disproving the position has nothing to do with proving they are idiots.

1 a. The Toxic Introduction.

A more subtle application of the ad hominem attack is The Toxic Introduction, where the argument of another is introduced by noting a negative quality about the individual. The effect is to undermine the argument before it has even been heard, by its association with a less than impressive advocate.

2. Butch’s Stratagem (The Straw Man)

Continue reading